A pregnant young woman dances in front of a mirror at a Jerusalem nightclub, focusing on herself. Around her, many other women dance with one another. The music lyrics are appropriate: "I am a sexy lady." Perhaps the lone dancer feels that way, but she also looks a little lost in the midst of this party for ultra-Orthodox women. On all sides, women in wigs and skirts whirl around, in couples or more, sometimes with a drink or cigarette in hand, beaming from ear to ear. The music is not reminiscent of Hasidic pop. The women seem right at home, singing loudly along with the music, shaking their booties without any feelings of guilt and without a drop of self-consciousness.
Of course, entry to men is forbidden for reasons of modesty. Rabbinical law forbids women to sing and dance in the presence of unrelated men who are not their husbands. The bouncer at the entrance is on standby to send away any men. The deejay is nowhere to be seen. Because he is a man, he is shut away in a separate room. From here he spins almost-current club music, interspersed occasionally with Mizrahi tunes (Jewish music rooted in Middle Eastern countries ), which is piped through speakers to the dancers' delight.
At these special weekly events that are enveloped in smoke and alcohol fumes, the children, husbands, stresses of earning a living, and the mortgage are all forgotten. In a high-pressure sector such as ultra-Orthodox society, bound by rabbinical and social strictures, it is possible to understand that the women - many of whom are responsible both for the home and earning the family's living - yearn for a way of letting go. The club offers them a perfect dose of escapism.
The women here are from different segments of the ultra-Orthodox community, as evidenced by the variety of their head-coverings: tight scarves in the Shas style; turbans of newly devout Breslavers; and lots of wigs. Most of the women shimmy in blonde or coal-black wigs made from real hair, indicating they are from the "Lithuanian" or even Hasidic communities. Some of the wigs are very long with waist-length tresses. The women touch their wigs a lot and fling their hair back as they dance. They are heavily made-up and wear short, tight skirts in a look that barely conforms to the rules of modesty.
For some, this is a disguise, for one night only, that they allow themselves to wear in the company of other women. The night is still young. A few shots of alcohol later and there will be women stripping off their shirts (although remaining in tank tops ). Others will pull off their scarves and take pleasure in shaking loose their abundant hair. Release is the key word here.
Last week, about 60 women danced in the small space. Usually there are twice as many. One of the veteran participants explained that most ultra-Orthodox women don't drive and they get around by public transportation. A rainy night, therefore, affects the party's success.
"We are ultra-Orthodox mothers," says M., 26, who didn't leave the dance floor throughout the evening and seemed a bit tipsy by its end. For obvious reasons, she preferred not to give her name. "Most of us are graduates of a Bais Yaakov seminary [school for girls]. Some of us are married to Torah learners. In our everyday life we don't have an opportunity to let go, to dance, to drink alcohol. Who would we drink with? Our husbands don't drink.
"Lots of ultra-Orthodox women go to fitness clubs these days and dance Zumba. I do too. But then, someone said to me, 'Come, there's a party.' I tried it and I loved it! You get an adrenaline high from a fitness class, but everyone is dancing by herself. Here it's with friends and alcohol."
Turning a blind eye
The trend for women-only parties highlights the fact that Haredi society no longer spits out those who do not entirely toe the line of religious and social norms. Indeed, it's evincing considerable readiness to turn a blind eye to such phenomena. However, there are conditions: That the revelers party far from the ultra-Orthodox public space, and outwardly maintain the accepted codes of dress and conduct.
A mixed party for married couples would be a resounding failure, says M: "My husband wouldn't come. He doesn't like this style at all." According to her, married ultra-Orthodox men would not dance with female strangers, and vice versa.
However, even though not partying in mixed company, this hedonistic style at a club is foreign to the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox society, and even strictly forbidden. It is, however, penetrating widening margins of Haredi society. Today, the society is no longer a homogeneous whole but rather has streams and sub-streams, and many hues.
The women who come to these clubs would not be defined as ultra-Orthodox by inhabitants of the hard-line Mea She'arim neighborhood in Jerusalem or by wives of Torah learners at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. In their own eyes, though, they see themselves and the households they manage as ultra-Orthodox. They are interested in belonging to this society, and many send their children to ultra-Orthodox schools, where they themselves or their husbands were educated.
Along with the women who grew up in ultra-Orthodox homes, there are also many women from secular families who have chosen to become devout. According to R., 32, a former kibbutznik who turned to religion in her teens, women like her sometimes miss parties and dancing. This is also a solution for them. R. prefers not to give her name because her daughter attends a Bais Yaakov school and she fears the girl would be expelled from the ultra-Orthodox institution if it became known that her mother dances at parties. About two years ago, she organized similar parties for religious and ultra-Orthodox women, until she had to have surgery and the parties stopped. Now she has passed the baton to a friend and she makes a point of showing up at every party.
R. says she started the parties because she saw that "the ultra-Orthodox girls need this outing. They are simply choked. Women's life isn't easy anywhere, but the ultra-Orthodox women work both at home and outside. Though this is a different generation - these aren't women who have 10 children. But as a young woman you already have several children. You don't get any rest. Everything is on you, and you spend the whole day between the pots and the diapers. You don't have any release. You don't have Saturday like the secular women do to go out and have some fun. The Sabbath is work. Toward the end of the week, you are working to get ready for the Sabbath. On the Sabbath you have company.
"These girls live under nonstop pressure," she continues. "They want to let loose but they are afraid of throwing off the yoke. This place resolves a conflict for them, because there are no men here."
R. says the release here is twofold, because "no one judges anyone else. They can come dressed however they want, dance and move however they want."
Yael Ben Shushan, the organizer of the parties, moves like a true dancer. She is a divorced woman of 32. She says she has always loved to dance but since she attended a Hasidic class at a seminary, she had to suppress her desire to dance. "Ultra-Orthodox weddings just don't do it," she smiles. At one point she left religion, but in the end she decided to live as a religious woman.
"When I went to [mixed] clubs, it gave me the strength to go on with my week," she say. "I would think about my girlfriends. It was such a shame they couldn't come. Until I decided: I am renting a place just for them."
These days there are various professional dance and folk-dance organizations open to women. However, a party with alcohol and club music is another stage in which this society is becoming more open to influences from the outside world.
A woman called Tzipi recalls feeling embarrassed at the first party. "I had never danced before," she says. "I was blocked. As a religious woman, the mother of children, I was restrained. At first I sat on the side with girlfriends. But something changed and we started to dance. We were eagerly anticipating the next party, and there we really began to let go and dance."
For Tzipi and her friends, these parties serve as a social club. Thanks to communications via Facebook, she says friendships have developed outside the club. The women talk among themselves on the phone a lot, and they go to restaurants in groups, sometimes of 40 or 50 women. They also organize groups for joint vacations with their husbands.
Energy and strength
"Sometimes I feel as though I am going back to my high school days," says Tzipi. "The routine with my children and my husband is exhausting, and it does me a bit of good to turn my head around." Her husband does not object, she says. "I put the children to sleep, I take care of them. It doesn't come at his expense. He doesn't stay with the children. He also goes out."
Tzipi describes how going out to the party has become a necessity: "Last week," she says, "a friend and I went to a third friend, and it turned out she hadn't managed to get a babysitter. We looked for one like mad. We phoned the whole world and then sat in the kitchen frustrated and depressed. The party had started and we were stuck there. Finally, a neighbor agreed to come in. We took a cab and flew over here. I'd die for my children but sometimes you need your girlfriends, if only to let loose. It gives you a lot of energy, a lot of strength. Even if I've had a bit to drink, I don't feel bad.
"I'm not one for going to [religious] lessons," Tzipi adds. "A lesson is an excellent thing that would have given me lights for living. But this releases you in a different way. What I want is to dance. May these parties multiply!"
Without men, says Tzipi, women can be themselves. For this reason, says Ben Shushan, secular women also find the place enchanting. "They can go wild, take off their shoes, come after work without makeup, simply the way they are. When there are no men, you can also be yourself," she says.
"At the [mixed] parties, I see the way women dance - they don't feel comfortable wiggling their hips, they are uneasy," she adds. "This man is a groper, that one won't leave you alone. Here they don't need to justify themselves to anyone."
Once, she relates, one of the ultra-Orthodox women stripped off her blouse. "I thought it wasn't appropriate to the place, but I still felt she had done it because she felt she didn't need to ingratiate herself to anyone. So I let her be."
Last week, as the evening hit its peak, some women climbed onto the bar to dance. A few were lying on the floor, wiped out. Ben Shushan circulated among them to make sure the drunken ones had a way of getting home.
One can't help but wonder whether they will continue to be able to keep the two planes separate: to be wild at night, and proper in the daytime. But then, just before 2:00 A.M., Hasidic songs are played. "Know from whence thou hast come and whither thou goest," says one of the women, explaining the change in atmosphere. The next morning it will be hard for them to get up to the children and the dishes, but the sweet memory will accompany them all week long. Until the next party.