Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
Brooklyn, New York, United States
June 01
Freelance writer, editor, and first citizen of Judy's World.

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DECEMBER 27, 2011 8:00AM

Solving the ultra-Orthodox/secular divide: A modest proposal

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 Jerusalem streets

If you live in Brooklyn and ride a bicycle, no issue has pushed more buttons and started more arguments over the past two years than the conflict between the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the rest of us regarding bike lanes through Williamsburg. Hasidic leaders have been complaining that bicyclists represent “a safety and religious hazard,” the religious part of it coming from their claim that (female) bicyclists are “hotties” who “ride in shorts and skirts.” (I’m not sure how “hot” I am, but as far as the shorts and skirts are concerned, I’m guilty as charged.)

In 2009, Mayor Bloomberg sandblasted the bike lanes off Bedford Avenue, apparently in order to appease the Hasidic community at election time, only for local bicyclists to repaint them soon afterwards. Last year the conflict started turning violent, and a sort of Hasidim vs. hipster Cold War has prevailed on our streets ever since.

But this is as nothing compared to the situation in Jerusalem. There the Haredim aren’t worried about just hipsters but rather about half of humanity: as usual, it’s the female half. Haredi tradition demands a strict separation of the sexes, particularly between unmarried men and women. Interestingly enough, it isthe women who are supposed to keep their distance.

Men-only market

A "men only" market in Mea Shearim, 1990s 

Over the last couple of years, so-called kosher buses have tried to keep women in the back seats (I wrote about the issue in my blog back in March, 2010). While the seating regulations have proven nearly impossible to enforce, local Haredi men have gone further, stripping advertising posters that feature comely, lightly dressed women from the walls of the city. Buses and streetcars display no images of women at all.

In parts of Jerusalem, women are not to be seen or heard. Haredim would like all women to be banished from the airwaves. And it isn’t just the Haredim these days. Some religious soldiers refuse to listen to women’s choirs at celebrations. At a Simchat Torah celebration in October, male soldiers insisted on setting up room dividers to avoid catching a glimpse of their female comrades dancing nearby. If it was up to many of them, women would be excluded from the IDF altogether.

The desire to see women “barefoot and pregnant” at home and invisible everywhere else is not just a preference for many, it is an obsession. On Monday morning, violence broke out in the ultra-Orthodox Nahala Vemenuha neighborhood of Jerusalem when police showed up to remove an illegal sign on Hazon Ish Street that called on men and women to use different sidewalks. A group of Haredi men converged around the policemen, dancing and chanting “Nazis!” at them.


Naama Margolese


Na'ama Margolese is an 8-year-old American
immigrant who has become the poster child
for feminists after being spat at by Haredim
extremists on her way to school every morning.

Now on the Internet, the invocation of “Godwin’s Law,” whereby sooner or later the words “Hitler” or “Nazi” will inevitably appear in every online forum thread, supposedly means the end of a debate. But in Israel these days it’s how debates get started. Later yesterday a crew from the TV station Channel 10 came under attack by Haredim as it tried to film a report about education in Jerusalem. Shortly afterward, another TV crew was hit by eggs when it tried filming the sign. The police faced off with around 300 screaming ultra-Orthodox men who threw rocks at them and set dumpsters ablaze. This evening, the city is bracing for a demonstration by up to 10,000 feminist activists from all over Israel in the Haredi town of Beit Shemesh outside Jerusalem. Things could get very interesting, very fast.

So is Israel going “sharia”? Wait, you might be thinking. Aren’t actions like these merely the work of backward religious fanatics, a mere tenth of the population, who will eventually grow out of it as they interact with the modern world? And aren’t the vast majority of Israelis still as progressive as ever? That may be wishful thinking. Feminist activists like Anat Hoffman (who actually carried a Torah role to the Western Wall in the summer of 2010 in order to pray there with other women, thus violating religious tradition) and Rachel Azaria, herself an Orthodox Jew, point out that, due to the high birthrate in the ultra-Orthodox community, one out of every four children starting school in Israel these days comes from a Haredi family. This means that in ten years or so Nahala Vemenuha could be everywhere.

Lev Tahor

Women of the Lev Tahor sect are increasingly "going Taliban" 

My own take on this story is that if Israel really wants to go “Taliban,” maybe they should just go all out and be done with it. Recently an Israeli friend of mine sent me a story from the Vos Iz Neias website (that’s Yiddish for “what’s new?”) about a Bratslav Hasidic pilgrimage to Uman in the Ukraine, the gravesite of the great Hasidic Rebbe Nachman. 18,000 Hasidim travelled to the gravesite over Rosh Hashanah last year.

Most of the pilgrims flew on regularly scheduled flights from Ben Gurion Airport, which, from the Bratslav Hasadic point of view, was asking for trouble. They were under strict instructions to paste pieces of cardboard over those little TV screens attached to the seats in front of them so as not to be corrupted by any in-flight movies. But what about all the other “forbidden sights” a pious Hasid could encounter inside the airport itself?

Well, how many options are really open to them, other than evacuating and whitewashing the entire airport? A simple veil does the trick. As a leaflet supplied to the pilgrims advises, “In any cloth shop, ask for a thin lycra cloth 70 cm wide (blue, brown or black ) costing about 20 NIS. It needs to be about 1.5 meters long ... which is necessary so it will sit well and not flow in the wind.”


Now that’s a brilliant solution, worthy of Jonathan Swift himself. So here’s my modest proposal to end the religious standoff in Jerusalem – and in Williamsburg too, for that matter - now that everybody just minding their own business like responsible adults is somehow no longer an option: Burkas for men, self-determination for women. That way everyone will be happy, right?

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It makes me ill to hear about the anti-women stances of orthodox religious fanatics, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. Unfortunately, as you point out, secular people have one or two kids, but the true believers have 12. If that keeps up, we'll all be wearing burkas soon.
Exactly. I guess I'd better start getting measured for mine.
Turn-about is fair play. And why are ortho Jews and Muslims at loggerheads again? They sound exactly the same to me. (Tho the ortho Jews don't actually stone people, do they?)

It's very sad.
I am a secular Jew devoted to the study of the sacred texts. I study w all kinds of Jews. I find the misogyny of the ultra-orthodox no less vile than the misogyny in some sects of reactionary Islam or Christianity.

It sullies us all, religious and secular.

As an atheist I can only see it as strange distortions of rigid minds. But I imagine my opinion is worthless in the matter.
Your opinion is always cherished!

Well, the Orthos were stoning the police all right. As for stoning women, they don't actually do it any more, but it's still on the books, or THE book, a.k.a. the Bible.
Scary stuff.

Burkas for men, self-determination for women.

I like that answer. I'd be curious to see the results if roles were reversed and women ran things for a while.
God, this is disturbing stuff. I am "half Jewish." I don't feel at all comfortable with this. I thought about "converting" but backed away...I know that there are significant differences, though, between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. I would be, obviously, Reform. i don't know what to think about Kabbalah.
I like your answer. ~r
In addition to being intolerant of woman they’re also abusive of their children apparently. This is a major part of the long term reason for the problems with woman and many other extreme beliefs. They begin their indoctrination at a very young age before children learn to think for themselves, as indicated in the following quote from Nospank.net:

The fundamentalists’ contempt for women finds endorsement in Talmudic references to the beating of women, and the use of women as sexual objects. A particularly telling Scriptural passage quoted by Israel Shahak (ex-chairman of the Israeli League for Human Rights) is: ‘A woman is a sack full of excrement’. No wonder that for the male devotee, a daily morning prayer must include blessing God for not making him a woman. This abhorrence of the feminine is reminiscent of fundamentalist Islam, and for that matter all radical and joyless patriarchies that shun pleasure, freedom and progress.

The families of the ultra-Orthodox are extremely patriarchal domains, where education of children is dominated by the grandfather and women ‘know their place’. The reverence toward male power translates naturally to the glamorizing of rabbis, some of whom are attributed to have magical powers.

The children of the ultra-Orthodox are entrapped in religious schools where ‘secular’ subjects such as mathematics, science and literature are eclipsed, and where they are forced daily to cram religious Scriptures for hours on end. Girls are believed not to need education, and are forbidden from many subjects. The head of the yeshiva (scriptural school) has absolute authority. He arranges marriages for the students – in direct violation of international human rights conventions. Students are barred from the outside world and are forbidden contact with ‘unbelievers’. Once they reach 16 years of age, they are indoctrinated with scriptural texts for 12 to 14 hours a day. Each day contains tedious study of every minutiae of horrible punishments meted out by God, to those who have the temerity to break their old-fashioned and draconian rules. The souls of ultra-Orthodox children are imprisoned, their normal childhood impulses are asphyxiated under a daily rehearsal of God’s vengeful wrath - with disastrous psychological consequences. source: “FUNDAMENTALISM: A War Against Children” By Robin Grille

This problem isn’t limited to the Haredi, as you and others have indicated they have a lot in common with the Taliban including the abuse of children. This is also a big problem here in the US and there is a bill currently before the congress to address the issue. I hope you don’t mind taking a closer look at it when you have the time and if you agree sending an E-mail to your congressman recommending passage; I have written a little more about it in Stop child abuse in schools pass H.R. 3027!! and included sources with more extensive details. This could reduce the amount of “fundamentalism” (I actually consider it pseudo-fundamentalism since they get the basics wrong.) that is taught to children both here and in Israel which apparently has done more to reduce corporal punishment is schools than the US although the Haredi apparently still object.
The more different people think they are in their ideologies, the more the same they are - especially in backward and ignorant ones.

as to Kabbalah:

@ Patrick, et.al.

---of course, aside from the fake, new-age so-called "kabbalah centers", actual Kaballah is NOT a branch of Judaism.

It's an incredibly rigorous study and no rabbi w any cred suggests that anyone study it prior to at least 20 years studying Talmud,(not merely Torah, but Talmud) and then only with a person steeped in the study of (genuine) Kabbalah.
"A group of Haredi men converged around the policemen, dancing and chanting “Nazis!” at them." What they simply capable of understanding, it it is they themselves who are acting like "Nazis"!
Fundamentalists whether Muslim, Christian or Jew are all dangers to modern society. They are all equally incapable of understanding that they are simply WRONG!
Thanks for fleshing out some of the snippets I've been seeing on the news lately Judy. Religious fanaticism is pretty awful wherever it crops up. My irresponsible side finds the Hasidic/Talaban parallel delicious, but it's terrible for the women who wind up oppressed by such regimes, a fact that Christopher Hitchens often pointed out.
Thanks. Whether Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, fundamentalism always seems to follow pretty much the same pattern and is virtually always targeted at women's self-determination.