Saving Space for Religious Awakening

Growing up in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood, Dr. Tamar Elor, whose parents are Polish, had Yemenite neighbors, the Katavis. Their families were so close, Elor recalls, that all of the children felt as though they basically had two mothers, one Yemenite and one Polish. The children of both families attended the Tichon Hadash high school. Zohar Katavi was a leader. He and Elor (whose last name at the time was Fraiman) were close friends. When Katavi was 18, he had a girlfriend whom Elor described as "a white girl, the kind who had 'Ashkenazi' written on her forehead." The girlfriend's mother vetoed the relationship.

After the army, Katavi moved to California to work as an accountant and married a blond gentile. On one of his visits to Israel, as they waited together outside a hospital room where Katavi's mother was dying, Elor said to him: "You know I often think about that bitch, and how she affected your life. I can't help thinking that you ran away from here because of her. But not really because of her. She wasn't anything to write home about, after all, but because things like that can happen here."

Reserved seats

Elor, 50, an anthropologist and senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's department of sociology and anthropology cites this story at the end of her new book on Middle Eastern women in Bnei Brak's Pardes Katz neighborhood who are mit-hazkot (strengthening their religious observance). The study can perhaps be seen as closing a circle of sorts. Elor set out this time to investigate women from the weakest and most marginalized sectors, whose chances of progressing in the society are slim indeed. "They are women, they are poor and they are of Middle Eastern origin, going back three generations," says Elor who chose to entitle her book "Mekomot Shmurim" ("Reserved Seats.")

"Many of the men and women I met," she explains, "proceed based on the knowledge that the religious community is saving seats for them until they arrive. They come to hear lectures by Rabbi Daniel Zer, the rabbi who draws people back to religion, week after week, or once every two weeks or once a month and they don't really become observant. Their religious observance is growing stronger. Strengthening one's religious observance is not the same as becoming observant. The woman whose religious observance intensifies looks at her sisters and her neighbors who became religious and says to herself, maybe one day I'll do that. Why not, if it works out. There is something comforting in having someone save you a place in the normative community, in a good community - that someone wants you, in a world where perhaps no one else wants you."

So the message is that you can return to religion whenever you feel like it?

"Still those who have already made the move count more. Whoever hasn't yet made the move sometimes has an exaggerated admiration for the religious women. You can hear women saying 'Good for her. She became stronger, unbelievably. Me? Maybe, perhaps one day."

You write that Rabbi Zer's comments seem to say that these women have two choices, either to be a freha (an airhead) or go back to being religious.

"This is my criticism of Rabbi Zer. Most of these people live an honest life amid the poverty and difficulties, but this image hovers over them like a black cloud. He uses the most superficial and cruelest stereotypes there are. He describes the life of the secular person of Middle Eastern origin and says that if you don't become religious, the only thing that will interest you will be hitting on girls and making barbecues and the only thing that will interest the women is clothing and shopping. You are superficial and vain. If you are not religious, you are arsim (thugs) and frehot (airheads). Either you are a freha, or the wife of a yeshiva student. I wanted to call the book 'Neither a saint nor a freha,' but then I thought that was too strong and sensationalist."

Elor's first book, "Maskilot U'vorot" ("Intelligent and Ignorant") was about ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi women who acquire an education but then hear incessant preaching that they should stay at home and remain ignorant. In her new book, Elor describes Rabbi Zer as encouraging local residents to enroll their children in ultra-Orthodox schools and telling them that if they do so, they will transform thorns into diamonds, and if they send their children to state schools, they will turn diamonds into thorns.

Why do they agree to enroll their children in ultra-Orthodox schools?

"Once they scornfully called it chocolate milk and a roll. But it's a lot more than chocolate milk and a roll. They parents have a feeling that they are sending their child to a place that wants him and courts him. He will be at home there and not a guest. In areas where the streets are frightening, an ultra-Orthodox school ensures that he will be far away from the street and in a place that cares for him."

Doesn't the fact that you had to conduct your research from the women's gallery upset you?

"It doesn't upset me. Sometimes, it bothers me, because I would like to hear the rabbi's lectures from up close. Sometimes it makes things a lot easier for me. What is fun is that I'm with the girls and I don't have to listen to all of the men's issues."

One cannot overlook the fact that Tamar Elor conducts all of her anthropological studies in her own backyard, close to her home. She conducted her first study in the Hassidic neighborhood of Kiryat Harim Levine in North Tel Aviv's Neve Sharett area, walking distance from her home. Her second study focused on students at Bar-Ilan University's Midrasha (advanced Torah study program) for women, that is, national religious women who were receiving a higher education as well as engaging in advanced Torah study. And her third study discussed the women of Bnei Brak's Pardes Katz neighborhood, which is - without traffic - just five to ten minutes away.

Does the 'close to home' nature of your anthropological work stem from the limitations of a working mother?

"Not only. Israelis in general don't do a lot of research away from home. There is no education here encouraging going outside and there is no requirement, as in many universities around the world, to do field work far from home, and there also aren't any foundations to help you do that. For an American or a British student, it's practically a given. Another reason is that Israel is perceived as a microcosm of the world. Why travel to Africa if there are Ethiopians and Yemenites and so many North Africans here? And here there is the kibbutz, which researchers from all over the world have come here to see, and there are Arabs and Bedouins whom anthropology always tended to make exotic."

Like a Zulu tribe

After Elor published "Maskilot U'vorot," one of the women from Kiryat Harim Levine wrote her a long letter in which she asked, "So what are we, your Zulu tribe?" Elor maintained a dialogue with her and the woman was convinced that these things should be published "because the research is devoid of hatred and it enables secular people to see us differently." Elor justifies her study on the ultra-Orthodox by saying that they are "part of the society, involved in the politics of everyday life and serve in the Knesset and the government, television and the Rabbinic courts" - in other words, they have a large impact on the life of the nation. "They cannot enjoy the protection of a double standard," she adds.

Some ultra-Orthodox seem offended at the prospect of being the subject of an anthropological study.

"Rightly so." Since her own research, Elor says "many studies have been written about the ultra-Orthodox, about those who stop being religious and those who return to religion, and about mikvehs (ritual baths) and ultra-Orthodox men. Ultra-Orthodox men really have become a little bit like the American Indians," she says. "For the most part they don't know about these studies, but the ones you do meet certainly seem to feel 'what are we, your Zulu tribe?'"

Is it just a feeling or are they really our anthropologists' Zulu tribe?

"Among other things. They are not alone. There are a few other Zulus. There are the Ethiopians; there are the Russians. There are the alienated youths."

Who researches the anthropology of Ashkenazim, and especially Ashkenazi men?

"Of course, that's the question that arises: Who studies Ashkenazi men? The answer is that until now, sociologists researched Ashkenazi men, and not anthropologists. Today this kind of research is starting to appear. I advise students conducting studies on high-tech companies. There is the study that Oriah Shahar did 20 years ago on decision-making at the Haaretz news desk. It was very pioneering, the idea that you have to aim toward the strong white [man] that determines the agenda, rather than black or marginalized [people]. Of course for these people, it's a lot easier to say no and not let you in, and they do indeed often say no. I have a student who tried to write a master's thesis on ethnography at a law firm. He wasn't able to. The only ones who would let him was the Public Defender's Office."

So it seems that the Ashkenazi elite enjoys a double standard.

"The Ashkenazi elite is revealed mainly through the media. Media exposure is a lot more dangerous and is much more powerful than the anthropological research. The only way to study the ultra-Orthodox is via anthropological research."

"If you want a prophecy of doom for the future of anthropology," says Elor, "I have a feeling that it is in the research method, which won't be able to last the way it is now. In most universities in the United States there are already ethics committees that require the written consent of the interviewees. Things are starting to move in that direction here as well."

According to Elor, more and more groups are becoming aware of their rights today and therefore their willingness to let ethnographers conduct research is gradually decreasing. Even when such consent is given, there is always concern that "one day a doctoral student will come to work and he will be told 'enough, the door is closed, we get the point' and rightly so. It's logical."

Political correctness is killing anthropology?

"In many respects, yes."

It doesn't cause you to refrain from making criticisms?

"As far as I'm concerned, there is no ethnographic research that was not conducted out of empathy. Working with people has to be done out of empathy. It doesn't contradict making criticism. I think that my three books contain critiques of the women being studied and the social forces that manage their lives."