It’s Just Not True That Hasidic Women Choose Not to Drive

After efforts to justify Belz ban on London mothers driving kids to school, the author of a memoir about leaving Hasidic world questions ‘damning and pernicious lie’ that Hasidim accept restrictions of their own free will.

Shulem Deen i
Shulem Deen
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Hasidic family
Hasidic familyCredit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Shulem Deen i
Shulem Deen

Sixteen years ago, as a 24-year-old Hasidic man, I brought home my first car for an inaugural family drive. My then-wife Gitty, a pious Hasidic woman, went straight to the back seat.

This was standard practice for women in New Square, New York, home of the Skverer Hasidic sect, to which we belonged. After a time, however, I came to reject the Hasidic worldview, and I began to urge Gitty (not her real name) to take her rightful place beside me in the front. She demurred. "I feel more comfortable in the back," she said.

Eventually, she gave in, more for marital harmony, I suspect, than anything else. Some years later, though, after I was expelled from our community for not conforming to its beliefs, our family was forced to move with me to a different neighborhood. No longer part of the Skverer community, I suggested to my wife that she might now want to learn to drive herself.

She refused to even consider it.

"For me," Gitty said, "driving is like walking down the street in a tank top." When I argued that she had internalized the sexist attitudes of our former community, she bristled with indignation. "This is my choice," she said. Despite our move, Gitty still insisted on keeping the old rules, and I was forced to accept that it was indeed her own choice.

If only choice were so readily available to all Hasidic women. Or men, for that matter.

Earlier this month, the Belz Hasidic community in Britain was excoriated in the international press for a new rule within its schools: children whose mothers drove cars would be expelled from school. The media hoopla left me amused; bans on women driving – like many practices within this profoundly male-dominated society – have long existed across large sections of the Hasidic community, and the rule within the Belz school was probably only the formalization of a longstanding custom.

But there was nothing amusing when Chaya Spitz, a Hasidic woman from the Belz sect in London, wrote an article in London’s Jewish Chronicle in which she justified the practice, claiming there is "no coercion" within her community, and that all who wish are free to leave "without stigma."

This is the oft-repeated lie – the damning and pernicious lie that Hasidic men and women choose to live the lives they do, and are accepting of its oppressive restrictions of their own free will.

Here's the unholy trifecta at the root of Hasidic society: depriving young people of secular education, arranging teenage marriages, and putting on the pressure to breed early and often. Thus, lifelong structures of dependency are created, and societal and familial support become crucial for basic subsistence. Thus, Hasidic communities – and other ultra-Orthodox groups that share their separatist ethos – consciously and deliberately deprive their members of choice, and even of the knowledge that choice exists.

Leaving the community is, for most Hasidim, simply inconceivable. Childbearing at a young age means that financial pressures are immediate and relentless. Lack of education or marketable skills means few economic opportunities outside the Hasidic world. For most Hasidim, employment is gained through the tight-knit community's support network; employability is appraised by reputation rather than formal credentials.

No coercion? What an absurd claim, when for most there isn’t ever any other option.

Furthermore, not only are Hasidic adults handicapped by their upbringing and environment, but their communities exact severe costs on those who do decide to leave, shunning and shaming them in overt and covert ways.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people across the Hasidic world who reject Hasidic beliefs, but live in fear of being discovered and penalized by their society, according to a report in Aeon Magazine published earlier this year. One man cited in the article felt "forced to stay under wraps lest his boss fire him, his wife divorce him, and his children get thrown out of school."

Having left the insular Hasidic community in which I was raised, I know all of this firsthand. Those who decide to leave are brave and foolish and desperate and heroic all at once. Some of us knew the costs and undertook the process anyway. Some of us found out only later, when our families disavowed us, when we realized how hard it was to get a job without a college degree, when our former communities came together to raise tens of thousands of dollars to cynically argue in the secular courts that it is in the best interest of our religious children to have no relationships with the non-religious parent.

It is fear, therefore, not choice, that keeps Hasidim within – and this is where the Belz story is most instructive.

After confining its members to the only lifestyle available to them, Hasidic communities can then effectively use their institutions as tools of social engineering. From New York to London to Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox schools ban Internet access from homes, forbid students from visiting public libraries, regulate the clothing habits of mothers and daughters, judge the reputability of a father's choice of synagogue and make sure his attendance is satisfactory.

Not long ago, a friend of mine from the Satmar community of Williamsburg had his children expelled from school because he had non-religious friends over for a Purim party. Another friend was banned from his sect's synagogues after being outed as the author of a blog in which he questioned Hasidic doctrines.

When one’s life revolves around a particular community and its schools and synagogues, expulsion is equivalent to social – and sometimes economic – exile. Punishing adults through their children, shaming them, cutting them off from their friends, letting them know that their families have been judged, is the method of choice for Hasidic authorities. This is devious, and widespread.

This is what the Belz ban on female drivers tells us. Much has been made of the sexism inherent in the ban, but the male chauvinism of the Hasidic world is hardly news. What it does show us is the way in which the Hasidic worldview and lifestyle is perpetuated, with tiers of defenses against outside intrusions and influences, and the formidable barriers created against defections.

My friend Leah Vincent, who has also left the ultra-Orthodox world and written a memoir about it called "Cut Me Loose," has formulated the principle succinctly: "A community has no right to impose unique and oppressive restrictions, if members have no real choice to opt out."

In Gitty’s case, my ex-wife was right. We were no longer part of our former community, and so the choice was entirely hers. Sometimes practices and behaviors that some see as sexist, like donning the hijab, taking part in post-menstruation rituals or wearing tendon-deforming high-heels, are embraced by others as meaningful or even empowering. That’s their choice.

The majority of Hasidim, however, are deprived of such choices, and Chaya Spitz’s arguments to the contrary are blatantly dishonest. We, as a freedom-loving society, should offer her claims no credence.

Shulem Deen is the author of "All Who Go Do Not Return," a memoir about growing up in, and leaving, the Hasidic world. His articles have appeared in The New Republic, Salon and The Forward. Follow him @shdeen.

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