Israel's Religious Zionist Kids Growing Up in a World Where Females Are Taboo

Cleansing texts and other media of women is a relatively new development among religious Zionists, and the phenomenon is of particular significance given the fact that these religious viewers are, in practice, a captive audience.

Think Goofus and Gallant, but with yarmulkes.

"Asi & Tuvia" is a Hebrew-language kids show that follows two age-old archetypes - Asi, the responsible child, and Tuvia, the wild one. The show, broadcast online on a channel run by the religious Zionist outreach organization Machon Meir, is becoming increasingly popular among young dati leumi viewers — and it isn't hard to tell why.

In a recent episode broadcast just before Shavuot, Asi and Tuvia visit a vineyard and hold a lengthy discussion about whether to plant vines in their backyard. A man with a long beard rides up on his tractor, and explains to the two that it takes a lot of work to grow grapes. With no soundtrack and no real editing to speak of, and long shots of kids engaged in activities such as planting gardens, going on archaeological digs and flying planes, the show seems like a blast from the past, from the days when Israel had just one TV station.

“We create somewhat naïve programs, similar to those of other times," says Asi Tzobel, who in addition to co-starring on the show is also the content manager for Arutz Meir Kids. "In terms of the pace, production standards, screenwriting and acting, we try to keep up with other programs out there. However, we don’t make programs solely for entertainment purposes.”

Though it would seem such programming could only be possible in a niche program for religious children, the show is actually pretty relatable, even for a secular audience. The language is contemporary; each episode is pleasant and entertaining. It's only when watching a whole batch of episodes in a row that one notices something startling: None of them feature a single girl or a woman.

Arutz Meir caters specifically to families from the religious Zionist sector, a population which has moved more and more in recent years toward gender-segregation and the exclusion of women (both of which are already common among the stricter, ultra-Orthodox communities). Public singing by women, even by 4-year-old girls, is no longer permissible, let alone on-screen. In fact, any mention of women has been removed from many of the schoolbooks used in religious schools.

Needless to say, many of the religious programs on the Internet are devoid of women, as are plays and DVDs. "I know someone who initiated a nice cultural project involving DVDs for children – he didn’t do very well”, says Shmuel Shatach, chairman of Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah, a nonprofit organization that combats the move toward extremism and exclusion of women in the Orthodox sector. “Singing by girls does not take place anymore in schools and kindergartens belonging to the religious Zionist stream. If it’s missing in the educational system, it’s nonexistent.”

The absence of women has become especially prominent in illustrated Jewish texts, such as the Passover Hagaddah and the Megillat Esther for Purim. “It’s absurd that there are now Hagaddah books in which it looks as if only men left Egypt,” says Rachel Azaria, a Jerusalem councilwoman who represents the Yerushalmim Party and is one of the leading figures in the struggle against gender-segregation and the exclusion of women.

“Our religious Zionist kindergarten had a Passover Hagaddah in which Pharaoh’s daughter is pulling Moses out of the water. Only her hand could be seen; her face was hidden behind bushes," says Azaria. "And this is the lenient version of such books. They only show women with their heads lowered or facing away. What is of concern here is the question of what part women play in the Jewish story. It says that everyone left Egypt, but the pictures show only men around the seder table. This presents a distorted world.”

Cleansing texts and other media of women is a relatively new development among religious Zionists, and the phenomenon is of particular significance given the fact that these religious viewers are, in practice, a captive audience. This is particularly true in religious schools, where textbooks conspicuously leave out images of women.

In these books, Azaria says, sentences such as “'Mother is cooking in the kitchen' – in itself a gender issue – has no picture to accompany the text. But when it comes to describing the father going to work, the picture is there.”

What's more, many religious households consider reading an important and valued activity, and so on Sabbath children regularly turn to books. That makes the reality portrayed in books especially impactful when it comes to shaping religious children's worldview, notes Azaria.

Art imitates life

Meanwhile, as boys and girls become segregated in print, so too are they becoming segregated in the real world – namely, in schools. “Separate schools and exclusion of women are two phenomena that feed on each other – it's the chicken and the egg," says Shatach. "Since a boy grows up isolated, without the other gender, one cannot create an environment that might shatter [his worldview]. Just like one cannot show these boys popular old documentaries that describe the theory of evolution, one also cannot show them women, since they have no girls in their schools.”

Shatach adds that because these program aren't in English (with the occasional exception), young religious viewers aren't exposed to English the way their peers in the general population are. Given the fact that religious schools typically don’t go to great lengths to teach students English, Shatach says, these kids' options later in life become limited, particularly when it comes to their education and careers.

“Many men from the religious Zionist camp now prefer to study in men's-only colleges, choosing teaching as a profession. They then return to the same schools, where most of the teachers are from the same community. This cyclical system only leads to further cultural isolation and extremism," Shatach says.

Girls' schools, meanwhile, don't allow men to enter, not even fathers wishing to attend the ceremonies in which their daughters receive their first siddurs upon starting school. “The insult is twofold, since the implication is that these men will lust after 6-year old girls in first grade," says Shatach.

 Azaria recalls a time when girls and boys in Israel mingled freely. “This was particularly striking on Jerusalem Day, a highlight of the Bnei Akiva youth movement’s activities. The boys would come from different yeshivas across the country for Shabbat, and everyone would meet at the Western Wall at the end of the day. It was very exciting to meet the boys. Today, each gender follows its own path.”

A reaction to secular TV

Tzobel, of "Asi and Tuvia," defends the demand to exclude women from religious TV as "a reaction to the secular world."

"The Orthodox person looks at secular culture and sees a breakdown, a real catastrophe," says Tzobel, a father of three and a graduate of the religious film school Ma'ale. "I’m more liberal myself, but I can sympathize with these sentiments.”

But why not show girls and women in modest attire? Why should they be completely left out, and how does this address the supposed breakdown in society?

Tzobel acknowledges that total segregation may be extreme. “In navigation there is a term called 'deliberate deviation.' You aim slightly off-target in order to find the right path.” he says. “What is happening in the other [secular] camp offers no real alternative. So we try to follow a safe path, knowing that we can make adjustments later, as is happening now with the advent of a [religious] cable channel.”

Tzobel adds it's important to “keep things in perspective” with regard to the decision not to feature women on the show.

“Kids know the world not through ‘Asi & Tuvia,’" he says. "At school they might have female homeroom teachers and principals, so watching ‘Asi & Tuvia’ for an hour a day shouldn't cause them any great harm."

Instead, Tzobel insists the criticism should be directed instead at mainstream children’s TV – for example, the way women are represented in the program "Pyjamas."

“There is a group of men, and in the episode I watched the only woman on the show enters the room and the men ask her to bend over. They all do so together while the men peek down her shirt. The rest is left up to the child’s imagination," he says. "I don’t think this is healthy. The religious Zionist camp thinks that if these are the choices, they would rather opt for what we have to offer.”

“The issue of girls and women on our shows is a legitimate one, which we are looking into," Tzobel says. "We have a lot of room for improvement. The main thing is to find the correct balance. We’re trying, and when we find it perhaps not only the religious public but the entire population will have an alternative choice.” 

Arutz Meir Kids