The New Haredi Woman

Businesswoman Tzippi Rothlevy is part of a vanguard of Haredi women challenging traditional social roles.

She does not criticize her own paper's conduct. Yated Ne'eman, the sternest of the Haredi publications, and the one that sets the extreme conservative tone within the Haredi community, will not publish as much as a single word without permission from the Rabbinic Board (Spiritual Committee). Rothlevy, daughter of the head of the Spiritual Committee, Rabbi Natan Zuchovsky, grew up with a good dose of uncompromising Lithuanian conservatism, and identifies completely with her paper's educational ideals.

"Yated Ne'eman cannot allow itself to educate towards Sabbath observance, and [at the same time] carry advertising from clients who violate the Sabbath," she explains. But what is to be done if she cannot suppress her businesswoman's drive? A year ago, she says, "when the Haredi boycott against the cellphone companies over 'kosher phones' began, it was at the height of advertising by those companies in the Haredi sector. We lost millions of shekels. It was very hard for me, but you accept it, because you understand that it is a struggle of the great sages of our generation. I honestly believe that the cellphone is wide open, and through it you can get to dangerous content. After all, business people don't plan their battles with my business plan for the year open before them."

The current struggle against El Al, which has united the entire Haredi community, should have given her some satisfaction, but she is still suffering. Before the campaign began, she saw in her mind's eye El Al sponsorship of the Passover holiday supplement. Just before the holiday, she relates, she received an SMS greeting on her cellphone from El Al's chief executive, Haim Romano, saying: "Happy holiday from the client who is unable to advertise with you."

She is proud of her personal connections with company directors, but she scrupulously avoids getting involved in ideological battles and decisions that have financial ramifications. That is the territory of those above her: "I don't even know the details," she says self-effacingly. But the facade of the "little woman" hardly suits Rothlevy, a woman who races to work in her four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle. It is a kind of role-playing demanded by the reality of a powerful ultra-Orthodox woman in a world in which the traditional gender roles are jealously guarded.

Rothlevy operates at a vital business and economics crossroads. The fundamentally puritanical Yated Ne'eman is regarded as the conservative standard in Haredi society. Even though it has been upgraded of late, with the addition of supplements and pages in color, it is first and foremost the mouthpiece of the Lithuanian community, headed by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. It is a community that preaches for modesty and against materialism and the pleasures of this world. Hence, if the Spritual Committee approves a product, and it is advertised in Yated Ne'eman, the advertiser has in effect breached the dam and is on the highroad to the entire ultra-Orthodox community - a community with considerable buying power.

Whether because of her family pedigree or appreciation for what she does, or both, Rothlevy's status in the Haredi community seems unassailable. When her son got married a month ago, the hundreds of guests included ultra-Orthodox advertising executives and clients from major firms. "Tzippi Rothlevy is a brand-name," says one Haredi businessman. "She has become a new type of businesswoman on her own merits. She has influence with the Spiritual Committee, and non-religious people turn to her about all kinds of matters, because she has access in the ultra-Orthodox community."

In her light-colored cropped wig, dark blue business suit with large gold buttons and a heavy silver-handled briefcase at her side, the tall, 42-year-old Rothlevy is the very image of a businesswoman. The item that undoubtedly attracts most attention is the green mannish tie she is wearing. This is the way Rothlevy always dresses for work: a dark business suit, a white masculine shirt and a tie - a style that has become her trademark.

She will not divulge the number of ties she owns: many dozens, she says. Most of them were purchased abroad. This green one, for example, is Tommy Hilfiger and was bought in the United States, along with the leather briefcase, the suit and the perfume ("Chic" by Carolina Herrera).

Even in a society that hallows a high birthrate, her very Israeli family of only three children does not cause her any embarrassment. (She explains it, without distress, as a medical issue.) Her two sons study at the leading yeshivas (seminaries) of the non-Hasidic stream - Ateret Yisrael and Hevron - keeping up the scholarly tradition, at least for now.

She grew up and was educated in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Five years ago, she and her family moved to a home in a leafy Petah Tikva neighborhood, in which ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox families live side by side. It is hard to describe the psychological upheaval involved in moving from the crowded, almost ghetto-like town to the great Israeli dream of a house with a red-tiled roof and a patch of lawn.

Two cars are parked outside the Rothlevy home, hers and her husband's. He teaches at a religious college for boys in Kfar Sava, part of the Haredi Zionist "Noam" network. How distant all this is from the closed, ascetic world of her childhood. Her father is a rabbi in the non-Hasidic stream, close to Rabbi Elyashiv, and her mother a teacher in the Beit Ya'akov religious girls' school network. They made do with very little, she says. "What I saw at home was my father studying all day in a room where all the walls were covered in books," she says.

Rothlevy is undoubtedly a groundbreaker, but do not dare call her a revolutionary. When she began to move up in an unfamiliar world, one step at a time, rubbing shoulders with secular society, most of her women friends were teachers. She was something of a phenomenon.

For ultra-Orthodox women just 10 years younger than Rothlevy, and for her 15-year-old daughter, the world already offers interesting career options other than teaching, like hi-tech, law, interior design and social work. Like Rothlevy, they no longer need to justify trying to make a career for themselves.

"These women are not on the margins," says sociologist Prof. Tamar Elor. "The Lithuanian community used to dictate rigidly uniform behavior: the yeshiva boys would continue their religious studies, and the women became teachers. Their educational system still tells the same old story, but the aspirations of the ultra-Orthodox woman are changing. Young girls are hearing different stories and seeing different lifestyles."

According to Elor, the change is dramatic, some of it due to greater economic well-being and the fact that educational tracks for learning a profession are more open to women. "The fact that a woman drives, that she can leaf through a secular newspaper, that she can get on the Internet with the excuse that she needs it for her work - it alters the woman and her life. Through her lifestyle she effects change, insofar as she 'permits herself' things, and thereby redefines the limits of the permissible and the forbidden. It could bring about a change in the size of the family, but it's not a second revolutionary 'Enlightenment,' and there will certainly not be a mass abandonment of religious life. The changes are subtle, while maintaining the framework."

Like all the girls of the Beit Ya'akov schools, Tzippi Rothlevy studied teaching, but never considered making a career of it. "It didn't suit me," she said. After her marriage at age 21, she worked as director of Batya, the youth movement of the Lithuanian community. The girls were educated to be ideal wives: a mother and a provider, married to a yeshiva student.

But then Yated Ne'eman was founded. Since her father was a member of the Spiritual Committee, she was approached to be a secretary at the paper. "There was another job offer, from the Bnei Brak municipality, to be the director of extra-curricular classes (hugim), but my father said 'you won't get far there,'" she tells. "He took into consideration that I would have to support a family in the future; but he also knew that I'm sociable, and that you cannot suppress talent."

She was diligent and full of ambition. "I grabbed any work I could. If I could work a few extra hours on the switchboard in the evenings, I'd do it. If they needed someone to relieve other workers, I'd be there. Fortunately, I had a supportive husband who encouraged my advancement."

And advance she did, almost in a vacuum, trusting her natural instincts alone. There were no Haredi advertising agencies at th e time, and no Haredi press in color. "I would walk around Bnei Brak with my children. If I stopped to buy shoes, I would speak with the salesperson and suggest that he advertise in our newspaper. In my amateurish way, that's how I began to bring in ads. I brought in about a dozen clients. One day, my boss said to me: 'From now on, you're not doing bank deposits or answering the telephone. From now on you're dealing only with sales.' It was a real crisis. I was stunned. I was only 25, and suddenly I had to be the one that made decisions. I paged through the supplements of Yedioth Aharonot and Maariv, thinking about which advertisements we could use, and how we could adapt them. I worked by instinct."

One day she gathered enough nerve to approach advertising executive David Fogel with a proposal for cooperation with Yated Ne'eman. "I wrote to him in my own handwriting. Then as now I believed in the Haredi sector, in its buying power - children's products, food. I believed in the newspaper, but above all I wanted to succeed." No one stood over her or was concerned about her spiritual strength for even a moment, she says.

Elor says that in every feminist revolution, the first generation of trailblazers is characterized by the confidence they were given by a father or a husband, and by social stability. Perhaps for that reason, she says, one should not expect daring feminist messages. The messages are always double ("I am totally a mother"; "I am the perfect wife"); and similarly, the ultra-Orthodox groundbreakers always say that they admire women with 10 children and a husband who spends his time in study.

Like Rothlevy, they get up early in the morning to cook. The goal of being the perfect housewife and ideal mother does not go away. And even if the woman has a lot of household help, or, as with Rothlevy, the children have grown, she will always feel that alongside the career satisfaction, she has sacrificed something essential. "I look at my sisters who teach and I envy them," says Rothlevy. "They have a serenity I miss."