Yocheved Horowitz - Tamar Rotem - December 23, 2011
Yocheved Horowitz. Photo by Tamar Rotem
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On a sunny afternoon early this week, an ultra-Orthodox woman boarded a bus in the enclave of the Gur Hasidic community in Ashdod and took a seat in the second row. The bus, Egged line 451, was headed for Jerusalem. It quickly became clear that this simple, everyday act - choosing a seat to her liking - was enough to transform her presence in the bus into a palpable challenge to the rest of the passengers. I sat down across from the woman, fearing the worst.

Not only did the woman, whose name is Yocheved Horowitz, blatantly ignore the tacit agreement among the bus' riders to adhere to the most stringent religious practices - in this case, an unwritten rule that men sit in the front and women in the back. And not only did she not conform to the seating arrangements dictated by men - that is, those in authority. This was also a woman who, judging by her appearance, seemed to come from within the community.

A young girl who boarded the bus at one of the stops in the Zayyin quarter, where the Gur compound is situated, apparently couldn't have imagined that an ultra-Orthodox woman would relate dismissively to the highest social stricture of segregation by sex. Even as she saw Horowitz heading for the second row, she whispered to her, as if trying to save her before it was too late, "Mehadrin, mehadrin" - a term usually employed in connection with food, but which in this case referred to the adherence on the bus to the strictest religious principles; the girl also gestured to her to sit in the back.

After raising her tone a bit, without succeeding in moving Horowitz from her seat, the girl finally left her alone and continued to the back of the bus, where several women were already sitting. After her, a mother and daughter who do not belong to the Hasidic public riding the bus, and who are thus not obligated to its rules, got on board. Stopping next to Horowitz, they said to her, smiling: "What, they haven't thrown you out yet?" They themselves headed toward the back.

The smiles evaporated the instant the bus began to move. "Mehadrin, mehadrin," said a bearded man sitting behind me, raising his voice. When I did not get up from my seat across from her, he continued to shout.

"Women to the back," he called out like a conductor. "To the back, to the back." He trembled with anger. A man sitting in the first row whose appearance revealed him to be a Gur Hasid, shushed him, with a finger to his lip. But the shouter paid no attention to him. "Men's area," he continued to shout. "Women to the back."

Now Horowitz turned around and said loudly and clearly: "What do you mean by 'men's area'? A geographical area?" she wondered. "What is mehadrin? Are you talking about an etrog, a lulav?" she queried, referring to two of the principal symbols used during the festival of Sukkot. "Nowhere in rabbinical law does it say that it is forbidden to sit behind a woman, not in the Shulchan Arukh and not in the Yoreh De'ah [two classical compilations of Jewish law]. What is written in the Torah and in rabbinical law is that it is forbidden to humiliate sons and daughters of Israel."

Like a deflated balloon, the man became quiet, and maintained his silence for the rest of the bus ride.

'Men's scorn for women'

"That people tell a woman to go to the back of the bus and repeat this like a mantra - 'Women to the back' - is outrageous," explained Horowitz a few hours later. "The man who shouted at me could have said gently, courteously, that this is a segregated bus. That women and men don't sit together. But he shouted again and again, 'Women to the back.' The expression 'to the back' shows that that's the main thing. The word [back] shows how much men scorn women. It's like in South Africa when the blacks were several rungs below the whites. And it's a huge blasphemy, to behave like that. The Torah strictly forbids us from behaving like that. It's called 'villainy invoking the Torah.'

"People cite all kinds of statements from the sages, and in that way cover their wickedness and hatred for women. And that is the worst of all, because women have not studied those things. And they don't know what is correct and what isn't."

The ride we had taken earlier from Jerusalem to Ashdod, on a bus on the same line, was quieter, but it was a tense quiet. A grim-faced Belz Hasid who sat in the front row fidgeted in discomfort for a long stretch of the way. With all his might he tried to attract the attention of the other Hasidic men on the bus to the phenomenon of Horowitz sitting immediately behind him, but the men sat down several seats away from him, apparently to create a space between Horowitz and themselves, and paid him no mind.

Finally the Hasid phoned someone whom he told loudly, in Yiddish, that "women of the maskil" ["enlightened"] sort are on this bus, and there is no telling them anything." He used a disparaging epithet that is more than 100 years-old, which echoes the hatred between Hasidim and young people who left religion in the context of the Enlightenment movement in Judaism. "Meshigga tzum toit," he complained in summation - "crazy as a loon."

When Horowitz later spoke on her phone in Yiddish, he learned to his apparent surprise that this woman was not in fact one of the "enlightened."

Country in a tizzy

A week and a half ago, when a student named Tanya Rosenblit sat down in the front of a bus on that same line and male passengers called her a shiksa - an insulting term for a gentile woman - the country was in a tizzy. When the passengers refused to continue to ride, as Rosenblit reported later on her Facebook page, the driver stopped the bus and called the police. But Rosenblit did not acquiesce to the policeman's pleas to move to the back, either.

After the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the treatment of Rosenblit in a cabinet meeting, and she was even invited to meet with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who expressed shock, although he knows this is not a new situation. Rosenblit also received praise from at least two prominent female politicians, Culture and Sports Miniser Limor Livnat and opposition leader Kadima MK Tzipi Livni, and was anointed the standard-bearer of the struggle against ultra-Orthodox extremism.

With all due respect to Rosenblit, her move in no way compares to the stand taken by the ultra-Orthodox Horowitz. For the latter, a public protest with her name and picture appearing in the newspaper is something of a suicidal act, in which she risks being shunned and boycotted by her own community. It is she who is our real Rosa Parks, the black, American civil rights activist who in 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, risked her life by refusing to obey a bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus.

This is not the first time Horowitz has been shouted at and cursed at on the gender-segregated bus. Once she was even threatened with a beating. "I have something to lose but I am not afraid," she says, "because I tell the truth. And if anyone accuses me of blasphemy, I say to him: On the contrary, I am 'sanctifying the Holy Name' [an expression that in Hebrew can be a synonym for martyrdom]. I've done this so people won't say the Torah commands the scorning and humiliation of women."

The idea of the segregated bus lines originated in the Hasidic community - specifically, in the ultra-Orthodox compound in Ashdod. About 20 years ago a shared-taxi service operated between Jerusalem and Ashdod, whose main customers were large numbers of Gur Hasidim. When the men among them refused to sit next to women, the company began operating taxis for men only and for women only. Later private bus lines began offering similar services in ultra-Orthodox areas and when the public Egged bus company feared the trend would spread, it too began to offer segregated lines for the ultra-Orthodox.

This past January, the High Court of Justice, in a ruling written by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, ruled that compulsory segregation is illegal, but left an opening for a bus' passengers to choose segregation if they so desire. Currently there are about 40 segregated Egged bus lines, both local and intercity, on which gender separation is enforced. To date, however, no one from within the ultra-Orthodox community has dared to say openly that the separation is a symptom of increasing extremism and that sending women to the back is discriminatory and humiliating. Mehadrin buses do not operate in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods where the majority is non-Hasidic or "Lithuanian" - places like Bayit Vegan and Har Nof in Jerusalem or the ultra-Orthodox town of Modi'in Ilit.

'What's so awful?'

Although there are elements in the ultra-Orthodox community who do not take a positive view of the segregation, the segregated lines have won the tacit agreement of the ultra-Orthodox community in general and its leaders; this includes leaders of the Lithuanian community although it doesn't implement the segregation policy. Although in the wake of the Rosenblit incident, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger issued a condemnation of the practice, the ultra-Orthodox do not consider him a spiritual authority. In general, ultra-Orthodox women have never protested against the necessity of sitting at the back of the bus. When they are asked, many of them even declare their unreserved support for the separation.

Leah Shilitz, who until not long ago lived in the Ashdod Hasidic neighborhood, says she favors segregation, although she considers herself an "open ultra-Orthodox woman."

"When I was in my teens I rode the bus to the seminary every day and had very unpleasant experiences. As a mother, I am less worried when there is separation." Shilitz believes that anyone who chooses to board these buses has to respect the rules there, "because there is an alternative: regular bus lines. And you're already boarding the bus, what's so awful about taking a few steps to the back?"

"We aren't talking about walking distance," scoffs Horowitz in response, later on.

As we alighted from the bus in Kiryat Gur, in Ashdod, around us swarmed teenage girls who had just emerged from their single-sex school. "We're talking about an idea, a concept. About the fact that women are not marionettes. They have a body, a soul, a spirit. They have feelings. And a man is supposed to respect a woman more than his own body. The Rambam says something that is the basis of all peace in the home: 'He should honor her more than his own body, and love her like his own body,'" says Horowitz.

She says she is especially concerned about the influence of gender segregation on young boys. "They are taught that they are lords who sit in the front. And they learn from this that it is possible to relate to women as though they are garbage. But where have they themselves come from? Didn't women give birth to them? I come from a Beit Yaakov [ultra-Orthodox girls schooling network] education. But I have other insights, and in particular I can't stand injustice."

And she adds: "I became a feminist when I witnessed the oppression of women."

Horowitz is a tall woman of 51 with comely features. Her personality combines a rare openness with stricter observance of rabbinical law than many "regular" ultra-Orthodox people. In ultra-Orthodox society, which is accustomed to labeling and cataloging people according to their social and religious affiliation and pedigree, most probably they would attribute her difference to the fact that she is European-born.

Horowitz was born in France, the daughter of a devout ultra-Orthodox family. Her father was a French-born rabbi; her mother was a teacher at an ultra-Orthodox seminary for girls in England. She grew up in a small ultra-Orthodox bubble of a few families that gathered around the yeshiva which her father headed in a small town some 60 kilometers from Paris. It was a Lithuanian yeshiva established in the Novardok tradition, known for its strictness. But the community's girls studied in a relatively lenient atmosphere.

"We studied everything. Alongside sacred studies and lessons about modesty we studied French and mathematics. History. All around was open nature and forest. It was a wonderful childhood and my girlfriends and I were like sisters," she reminisces.

When she was 13 her beloved father died, and her family immigrated to Israel. She was sent to the Rabbi Wolf seminary in Bnei Brak, but did not acclimate to the society of the Israeli girls there. After a year, she transferred to the Beit Yaakov seminary in Manchester.

Horowitz: "We mainly had Jewish studies: Torah, Prophets, morality, worldview and prayer. We loved it, because we had wonderful teachers. There were girls from Denmark, Russia, Belgium, France and of course England, and I tutored some of them because they had come from homes where they hadn't done Jewish studies.

"We were taught mostly by rabbis, and the director was a Gur Hasid. They instilled in us the idea that a woman has to be subordinate to a man and be a good wife. This was strong brainwashing, and it had an influence on me."

Horowitz married at the age of 17, in an arranged match with a boy from the extreme wing of Neturei Karta - an extreme Hasidic sect known for its opposition to Zionism. She has four children, all of whom were educated at Yiddish-speaking institutions. About a decade ago, she and her husband divorced, and she subsequently remarried.

Over the years Horowitz has worked as a lactation counselor for the women of Mea She'arim. She dismisses those who say that seating women in the rear of bus is designed to make it easier for them to nurse modestly: "Anyone who is nursing [already] knows to go to the back. She does this quietly. But I don't think that women tend to nurse on the bus. Usually there are screaming babies on a bus. In any case, that isn't a reason to put the women in the back like sheep and cattle. You have to rely on women's intelligence and their common sense."

Making do with little

We are at the gate of the Gur seminary in Ashdod, in the heart of the Hasidic compound, on the heels of the girls. From inside the building come the sounds of a well-known march and drumming. The neighborhood was founded in 1978 by the Rabbi Simcha Bunim, the father of the current rebbe of Gur. Bunim wanted to send the young married yeshiva students outside of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, where the apartments are cheaper, out of an ideology of learning to make do with little. Some people say he also wanted his disciples to live in mixed cities.

"He wasn't afraid of outside influences," says a Gur Hasid who prefers to remain anonymous.

During the years that followed, however, all of ultra-Orthodox society went through a process of barricading itself into sectors and of separation. Today the complex in Ashdod is the largest concentration of Gur Hasidim in the country, numbering thousands of families. It looks like a small city and is totally cut off Ashdod.

"The man is the spiritual 'boss' in the home," says Horowitz, in reply to my question about why women accept segregation as something taken for granted. "Men who don't respect women - [which is] not all of them, of course - tend to use all kinds of sayings from the sages to shut their mouths. In general, women have become accustomed to seeing themselves as creatures without an opinion, because the man knows everything. They don't believe in themselves. And apart from that, it's against the rules of modesty [for women] to 'unite' against rules made by the men. If they do, they will be called derogatory names: spoiled, impertinent, rebellious.

"In ultra-Orthodox society, it's customary to think that woman are not worthy of being leaders," explains Horowitz, raising her voice as we peek in through the door to the seminary, where we hear the march playing. A wedding march, apparently.

"But it's a fact," she goes on, referring to the Bible, "that Judith did a brave deed when she went out on Hanukkah to the military camp to kill the Syrian general Holofernes and saved the Jewish people. And Deborah was a judge. It wasn't customary for women to hold public positions then. So why did these women become leaders? Because there wasn't anyone else of stature. In Deborah's case, it never occurred to the wise men to choose a man as a judge in her place simply because he was a man. Also on the issue of separation, it can be said that if there isn't anyone else who will protest, then I am protesting."

Inside the school the girls are rehearsing for the Hanukkah party. They march in lines, in their school uniforms, waving British flags to the music. A woman graciously invites us to the party, the following day.

There is something pleasant in the atmosphere at the seminary. Many years ago I studied at a Gur seminary. The director would stand at the gate every morning. Anyone who was dressed in accordance with the rules of modesty was let in and anyone who was dressed in a way he didn't like was sent home.

I wonder aloud what price ultra-Orthodox girls pay for the constant discussion of their clothing and their adherence to strict dress codes. Horowitz, who is dressed like they are, doesn't see modesty as being restrictive. But, she adds, the ideas that attribute spiritual authority to men and belittle women are a product of the education of girls in the ultra-Orthodox sector.

"I am acting because I can't stand to see other women humiliated," she says before we part. "They have been educated to exist with their eyes closed and I say that where there isn't a man, try to be a woman," smiling, as she paraphrases Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers ). "I don't, heaven forbid, have any interest in provocation. But I hope that what happened today will happen every day. At first, one woman will sit in the front of the bus and then a second one will join her and then a third will come. That gradually everything will return to normal, and that people will learn to relate to women."

As she alights from the bus in Jerusalem, a tall and noble figure, it is already getting dark.