Welcome to Johannesburg, Where Women Are Cheeseburgers

In her new blog, Allison Kaplan Sommer compares the distress call that has been sounded from women in the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa, to the exclusion of women from the public sphere in Israel.

There were some rough months for women in Israel over the past year - the pitched battles over gender segregation on buses and sidewalks, women walking on stage to accept government awards, and soldiers walking out of army ceremonies where women were singing.

I definitely had mixed feelings about the headlines these incidents grabbed around the world – ones that even got Hillary Clinton to take notice. On one hand, it was a good thing that awareness was high. Israels leaders were forced to sit up and take action because Israels image as a modern and progressive nation was damaged. Yet it felt somewhat shameful, especially to other Jewish communities around the world.

Image grab of the video released by SACRED

What in the world is going on over there? went the worried queries from friends overseas, in genuine fear that I was being drawn into some kind of Taliban existence. It felt as if the mix of religion and politics in Israel meant that we were the only women in the Jewish world coping with the way in which the rightward drift in the Orthodox community is affecting the public realm.

Well, now I see were not alone. A distress call has been sounded from women in the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. A group called South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED), formed last year, produced this compelling video in which Johannesburg women describe how they feel they are being silenced in communal ceremonies.

The video is the opening shot in a campaign protesting the fact that for the past three years, there have been no women singers at the Johannesburg Israeli Independence Day ceremony, which is meant to be an event for the entire Jewish community.

Female singers and speakers have appeared as a regular part of the ceremony, Ive been told. On the rare occasions when Orthodox men expressed a discomfort with the singing, their preference was not only respected but accommodated: they were provided with special seating that would allow them to leave easily and discreetly if they chose.

And yet, somehow, the decision was made, by someone on some level, that a better solution to accommodate religious sensitivities would be to eliminate the presence of women singers. No one has publicly taken responsibility for such a decision. It is rumored there was pressure coming from the office of the Johannesburg Chief Rabbi. While the communitys previous Chief Rabbi remained on stage when women sang at communal events, it appears that the current rabbi is not prepared to do so.

Has a message been sent directly or indirectly that the participation of Orthodox community leaders in communal events depends on whether or not women sing? It doesnt really matter. Whether it is the result of lobbying or a case of self-censorship, the shift has taken place.

I asked Charlotte Fischer, the Executive Director of SACRED about the situation. She said that women singers were excluded from Holocaust Day ceremonies as well. For Yom HaShoah, it seems less clear – women certainly used to perform, but this changed under the current Orthodox Chief Rabbi Goldsteins tenure – a few years ago he walked off stage at the Yom HaShoah event when a woman sang. Since then, women are not allowed to sing at Yom HaShoah celebrations organized by our Board of Deputies anywhere in the country, she recounted.

Again, this is problematic. In Johannesburg this year, an all-male choir sang the Partisan Song. This was a song written for all partisans – and there were plenty of female partisans. We want to make clear that we understand that Jews have different interpretations of halacha – two Jews, three opinions. In our own synagogues, we all follow our halachic customs. But on some events, secular events, like Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut, we come together as a community under the banner of our communal bodies. These bodies are meant to not be subscribing to any specific interpretation of halacha – theyre meant to be able to represent everyone. But our bodies are enforcing the most strict, fundamentalist, exclusive versions of halacha on all of us, contradicting our Constitution, our tradition in South Africa, and our rights and dignity and religious freedom as women.

The SAZF has been quoted as denying that any pressure was being put by the Orthodox community to eliminate womens voices from the ceremony.

But the attitude of at least one of communitys leaders on the issue is displayed in a comment on a post displaying where the SACRED press release and video of the protest of womens singing was posted on a South African Jewish community website. Darren Sevitz, the Executive Director of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues offered a reaction dripping with sarcasm:

Ive decided to form a group – its called SAWLTEPAONKPAAPEAEAHBTOR (South Africans Who Like To Eat Pork And Other Non Kosher Products At All Public Events And Even At Home Because Thats Our Right).

In this modern day and age of democracy and freedom to do just about anything we like, I am abhorred at being excluded from eating the foods I like at communal events. Granted – the Code of Jewish Law prohibits consumption of these items – but thats just an interpretation, and for those who choose to abide by these strictures, I say go ahead – there will be kosher food as well at these events, you are entitled to follow your own path. Or, when non-kosher food is served, you can simply leave. But why oh why should I be excluded from enjoying the foods I love, just because a small minority of closed minded charedi Taliban insist on food that meets their narrow minded interpretation. If I want a cheeseburger at the Yom Haatzmaut celebrations, it should be provided. Not making it available is a direct assault on my religious freedoms and right to choose.


If thats the level of understanding and sensitivity regarding a complex issue by a high-profile Orthodox community leader in Johannesburg, then Fischer and her group have a tough road ahead of them.

Though hers is a Diaspora community and the controversy is not entwined with government policies as it is here, Fischer sees her battle as connected to that of women in Israel - and elsewhere. We see this as part of a much broader policy of removing women from public life that is sweeping across the Jewish world. It also involves a rewriting of Jewish history - where the voice of women has always been present - and the complexity of halacha. We see whats happening to us in South Africa as deeply linked to whats happening to women in Bet Shemesh, in Modiin with the circus, and in Jerusalem with the buses.

Hopefully, the women of Johannesburg were inspired by the women in Israel who refuse to be bullied, silenced or sent to the back of the bus. And we can be heartened by them in return.