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A Bump on the Head and Day-Tripping in Beit Shemesh  

Susan Reimer-Torn
December 23, 2013
by Susan Reimer-Torn Photographs by Joan Roth Iraeli womenI am settling into my seat for the long flight home from Israel when an object drops out of the sky and crashes into the top of my head. I look up to see an ultra-Orthodox guy with a beard and prayer fringes retrieving his fallen computer case and hovering over me with great concern. I’m hurting. And I’m outraged. This guy is not seated in my row or even in the immediate vicinity. It is not enough that he has come uninvited to my already crowded turf and invaded my overhead bin without consent. He has placed his bag so precariously that it causes me harm. In my world-view, there can be nothing random about missives from above rudely rapping my skull in the minutes before take-off from the Holy Land. Rather, this is another exquisitely-timed entry in the life-long saga entitled, Me and The Wrath of God (as most often represented on earth by Orthodox Jewish men); a saga bearing the subtitle: OK, So Who’s Right, Me or Them? The man’s white shirt is just starting to show sweat stain. He apologizes over and over again. All I want is for him to disappear and after a few more expressions of concern, he walks away leaving me to wonder if I could have been kinder. There are personal antecedents to this drama in my rupture with my own Orthodox upbringing and the psychic cost of my adolescent wars with my religiously militant father. I was the daughter who said no, who thought life outside the parameters of Orthodox life held a lot more promise and pizzazz, who doubted the profound truth of their worldview. I broke my father’s heart and incurred his wrath. I am the woman who never feels fully liberated from her past. During this recent trip to Israel, my first after a deliberate absence of some fifteen years, I did my best to avoid The Orthodox Male. Yet, in the final moments of my sojourn on Israeli soil, when least expected, it all “comes to a head” — my head — with its throbbing protrusion not quite numbing underneath the ice. Jerusalem, where I spent most of my time, was bustling and beguiling. Still, every one of my Jerusalemite friends, from the religiously-progressive to the secular, is in despair over the Orthodox take-over of what used to be a far more diverse city. If anything, we the liberal-minded are committed to transcending the kind of polarization that the Orthodox attitudes inevitably impose. But there is no facile rapprochement: Their intolerance of pluralism, their discrediting of our rabbis, their stubborn denial of women’s rights, their monopoly on issues of conversion, marriage and Jewish identity itself, not to mention their indulgence in cynical politics, the proliferation of West Bank settlements, and a refusal in certain quarters to share the fiscal and military burdens of the State all together make reconciliation, and even communication, out of reach. I was not consciously looking for confrontation. As it happened, I was not meant to go home without sustaining a bump on the head inflicted by one of their kind. One day, the well-known photographer Joan Roth and I hired a driver and took off for Beit Shemesh to document some of the more offensive goings-on in that embattled town nestled in the hills some twenty miles south of Jerusalem. Our goal was not so much to confront the haredi men who there conduct religious turf wars as to support the women they obsessively repress. Beit Shemesh is considered a microcosm for the urgent issues now confronting the entire nation. The haredi arrivistes are unapologetic in their strategy: Claim an urban area, have large families and make life so intolerable for non-haredi inhabitants that they gradually cede the terrain. Increasingly, women’s bodies have become the battleground of these religious turf wars. Since 2008, with the support of its haredi-aligned mayor, Moshe Abutbul, Beit Shemesh has gained infamy for its gender segregated buses and sidewalks, assaults on schoolgirls, and Abutbul’s refusal to protect them or their modern Orthodox moms. A grown man spitting on an 8-year-old girl made the front page of the New York Times in December 2011, while rocks and bags of eggs and even feces hurled at uncovered heads still deserve steady attention. Taliban WomanThis is a town disfigured by giant signs exhorting women to dress modestly. The signs go into surprising details to protect the male gaze. Beware Woman Flesh: a dress may be long but still too clinging, sleeves may be full-length, but behold that neckline. There are also signs in certain streets instructing women not to loiter or make too much noise. In all, this officially-tolerated sexism creates conditions where sympathizers with the ultra-radical Lev Tahor cult can feel at home. Their women wear full burquas and observe an injunction against speaking in public. (Yes, they are Jewish.) In the spring of 2013, the women activists of Beit Shemesh devoted themselves to a tireless, months-long campaign against the incumbent Mayor Abutbul. In an election where 33,000 people voted, their candidate, Eli Cohen, lost by some 950 votes. The women suspected fraud and their allegations of massive cheating were recently upheld by the Attorney General’s office, meaning there is, as of this writing, a real chance that Abutbul’s victory will be invalidated. The outcome in Beit Shemesh might well turn the tide in what has often appeared to be a hopeless battle against an encroaching fundamentalism. Woman ActiistOur driver pulls up to the sidewalk with its offending no-women-allowed sign. It is placed in front of a large yeshiva. Nili, who lives in Beit Shemesh, is suing the municipality to outlaw such signs. Although she has already been assaulted, Nili is brave enough to get out and pose for Joan’s camera under the sign. I decide to stay in the car with the door open, serving as a look-out for violence, unable to still my premonition about an imminent bump on the head. The car is parked only a few feet from the schoolyard whose corrugated partition only allows for peering out a few feet on the bottom. The opening is just large enough to make visible a few small boys who are maybe four or five years old. One of them locks eyes with me. We are only a few feet apart. He raises his index finger and says a single word. “Shikse?” It is more of a question than an accusation. His voice is lilting and childish. There is more curiosity in his voice than hostility. I am wondering if he has ever actually taken a good look at a modern-day woman so close up. Surely he has been thoroughly forewarned how to respond should one of us, worse than a black cat or a she-devil, cross his path. Has he already been carefully taught to beware of the responses to the masculine gaze? It takes less than a minute before seven or eight boys join him to yell out Shikse, but even they can't seem to summon the requisite hostility. Then the upper windows of the building open and angry beards appear, shouting warnings. Next, a car full of black hats pulls up and a bunch of pot-bellied haredi men get out. Certain that something will be hurled in our direction any second, I am frantically calling to Nili and Joan to get back in the car, but they can’t hear me above the din. Finally the driver gets out and hustles them back in, we wind up the windows, he steps on the gas and take off. Two glasses of wine, an aspirin, a couple of films, many hours and a disorienting nap later, it is all a big blur. It takes me a few seconds to figure out why, when I open my eyes, there is an Orthodox man stationed in front of my seat. He still wants to know if I am all right. His gaze is frank and steady, neither hostile nor invasive. I think I see in him the little boy all grown up, doing his best to be decent despite all he has been taught. I’m thinking how important it is that we ratchet down the intensity of this dispute. What if we did not see in one another an existential threat? What if we accepted one another as human? What if we learned to dialogue and even practiced the forgotten art of compromise? Why has he returned to check up on me? It was only a bump on the head. Do I make him feel guilty, the very feeling his kind have always induced in me? For all I know, I am playing a role in some personal drama of his, much as he is playing a role in mine. That makes us nearly a perfect pair. He is much in need of my forgiveness and I’m realizing how much better I will feel when I am able to grant it. Susan Reimer-Torn blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com and is the author of the upcoming memoir: Maybe Not Such a Good Girl, to be published by Blue Thread, the book imprint of Jewish Currents. She is a regular correspondent for the Jewish Week. Joan Roth is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose books include Shopping Bag Ladies of New York, Jewish Women: A World of Tradition and Change, and The Jews of Ethiopia—A People in Transition.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.