The Lysistrata Option

At dusk, she says good-bye to her children and goes to her job in the regional mikveh (ritual bath house). In this Jerusalem neighborhood, she says, "most of the families are getting more religious or are traditional. Thank God, a lot of women come."

Daylight savings time has extended every shift from sundown until 10 at night so when she comes home, the children are asleep. This is the way it has been, night after night, for 19 years. What keeps her going, as it does another 250 or so bath attendants in Jerusalem, is the sense of mission - "concern for the purity of the family of the people of Israel." Certainly not the pay.

She like hundreds of other employees of the religious councils throughout the country sometimes gets a salary and other times does not. It has been that way for five years. Even the reestablishment of the Religious Services Ministry at the beginning of 2008 has not solved the crisis. In Jerusalem, no salaries were paid for February, and who knows what will happen with March salaries. She may get NIS 4,100 at the end of this week, or not.

The plight of mikveh attendants is worse than that of other religious council employees, mostly men with the title of rabbi or of kashrut supervisor, who can do some work on the side. In some cases, the bath attendants are the sole supporters of large families.

This profession belongs to a specific religious precept, and within the religious community someone who holds the title is considered an essential worker. A strike is not a possibility. That is why the mikveh attendants are the ultimate hostages in the five-year war being waged among ministers and rabbis and officials, almost all of them men. They have to report to all of them and to their husbands as well.

The bath attendant from Jerusalem, whose husband studies half a day at a kolel (yeshiva for married men) and also works for the religious council, is drowning in numbers. "I have nine children," she says. "For the past five years, not one member of the household has had dental treatment. Our credit in the bank is constantly being stretched. Before Purim, I took coupons that had been distributed by a charity to the grocery store, and that is what we will do before Pessah as well.

"This is a tremendous embarrassment. We simply want to support ourselves, and everyone knows that we are not able to go on strike. But the Finance Ministry does not understand the importance of the purity of the family." In the mikveh, the bath attendants have "a room of their own." The air there is stifling and filled with chlorine, and there is a pool in the middle; between its walls, every few minutes, after someone has immersed herself, their cry goes out : "Kosher!"

Community workers

Here, says the bath attendant, the women talk among themselves about their plight, about their problems with their husbands. "We are community workers, but in the secular world they don't understand that. We hear from the women what goes on in their homes. Sometimes we hear stories about violence, and it has happened that we have seen bruises on their bodies. We accompany women like that to centers where they can get assistance."

Inside the ritual bath houses, but only there, the attendants dare to imagine that they, the forced laborers of the religious world, will raise the banner of rebellion. Will the men put up with that? Will the religious world fall apart? This week - for the first time - this radical call was heard outside the mikveh. It is likely to bring about only a very minor change but has ignited the imaginations of the bath attendants. Attorney Batya Kahana-Dror of Kolech (Your Voice), a religious women's organization, has called on women to declare a rebellion on behalf of the mikveh attendants. A consumers' rebellion that is aimed at the proprietors, the decision makers, the men - a Lysistrata rebellion in which no one can immerse herself in the mikveh, and that means no sex until the crisis is resolved. "Let's shake things up," Kahana-Dror wrote on Kolech's Web site. "Let's drive those who are impatiently waiting for the day of immersion [in the mikveh] crazy, those who are the complete majority on the religious councils, in the treasury, in the Religious Services Ministry, in the government and in the Knesset, the leaders and the rabbis....Let us stop - no immersing, no sexual relations."

Verbal backlash

Most bath attendants are ultra-Orthodox women whose religious backgrounds are completely different from the world of feminist Kolech. This call sounds wild.

"If there was solidarity of this type in the state of Israel, all of us would look completely different," says Aliza Wasserman, the chair of the workers' committee of the Bat Yam religious council. In the past, Wasserman and her colleagues tried to close one of the city's mikvehs to protest not being paid on time, but "then there was a verbal assault on us from the rabbis. They said that it was not possible to do such a thing, that Jewish law was Jewish law."

Is it possible that such a call would come from the women who immerse themselves, as an act of solidarity?

"In a strong public it could be a particularly intriguing idea," she says. "But God forbid that it should reach a public that is shaky. That could even lead to a state of prohibitions of "karet" [premature death]. One day, one of the women telephoned me and asked whether the mikveh was open. She heard on the news that our salaries were not being paid on time and said she was considering not coming, to actually give up immersing herself that month because she did not want to make things difficult for the bath attendants. We work with a sensitive public, on a subject that is the very basis of the people of Israel. Do you understand?

"There should be a strike by the women, but I hope it will be in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. One time, we spoke among ourselves, the bath attendants, about the idea of closing all the mikvehs in which the wives of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members immerse themselves, and those of the ultra-Orthodox mayors and the rabbis. There were women who said that the wives of public figures had cars with drivers and that they could drive to any other mikveh they wanted. We have no way of applying pressure."

Yitzhak Cohen, the minster for religious services, said in response: "The bath attendants and all the employees of the religious councils will get salaries before Pessah. The crisis is about to be resolved and by April 15, the ministry is supposed to complete its preparations of a rehabilitation program."