Browse Topics

View all talks

52%: At The Crossroads

Maureen KendlerFilmed at JW3 2013

I live and work in the Orthodox British Jewish community. It’s my home. And the frustrations, indignities and lack of sensitivity sometimes displayed towards the women in our community drive me crazy on a daily basis, but that is nothing to the long term dangers of ignoring and sidelining our women, who will be unable to and uninterested in making their contribution to the community’s future. Recent events in the Charedi community connected to the erasure of women in public spaces are surely unconnected to our situation… aren’t they? My JDOV talk takes a look at women in Judaism, what is happening at home and away in this area and sounds a serious warning for the Jewish community about the peril of rendering 52% of its community invisible.

Maureen Kendler is Head of Education at the London School of Jewish Studies and is a UJIA Ashdown Fellow. Her background and foreground combines teaching literature and Jewish texts. She is proud to have been involved with Limmud from the beginning.

After that somewhat enigmatic title, I feel that I really ought to start by explaining what I mean by 52%: At the Cross Roads. 52% is the percentage of women in the community – British Jewish Community- and I’d like to suggest that right now we really are at a cross roads and that is really what I would like to talk about tonight. And I’m also going to talk about Buses and Buckets and, I’m going to issue a warning. So what I’m going to do is begin with some really very extreme and very disturbing stories that have happened in Israel, over the last couple of years connected to women. And the first thing that I’m going to talk about is the bus saga. Many of you are probably very familiar with the phenomenon of segregated buses. These are buses where women are forced to sit at the back, and the interesting thing is that it isn’t actually legal to have segregated buses now and women are not supposed to be sitting at the back, but the fact is they do and this has been a law that has been impossible to enforce, because as long as there is no violence involved, it can go on and that’s alright. But I want to ask, why is it the women that have to sit out of sight at the back? I’ve never heard of a segregated bus where the men are pushed out of sight to the back. I wonder why that is? And it seems to me part of, for me, the very disturbing process of marginalisation and the pushing away of women to the back. In Haredi neighbourhoods now in Jersusalem there are some segregated pavements, there are also in certain supermarkets segregated aisles and queues and even hours for women to shop so that men do not have to see them. It is almost as though, women are being airbrushed out of the picture.

Let’s take the new, fabulous, high speed rail in Jerusalem. There are no photos or advertisements promoting the rail with women on them because the Heradi community threaten to deface and destroy any posters that have the faces of women on them. And interestingly enough, the media caved in on this and accepted the threat. Now, the airbrushing out of women in photographs throughout the history of our people is not new. So let’s go back to the beginning of the C20th and we have the great Rabbi Chofetz Chaim, now obviously this is in Poland so there aren’t many photos of him, but there is one outside his Yeshiva, his house of learning together with his students and his wife. But recently that photograph was resurrected and put into a book for fundraising for the Yeshiva, but guess what, his wife was airbrushed and cropped out of the photograph, because it was conserved immodest for the young men who were fundraising for the Yeshiva to have a picture of Chofetz Chaim’s wife. Now in 2011, here’s another iconic photograph that many of you, I think, will remember, which is of the White House staff, staring intently at a screen and this was to mark Osama Ben Laden’s capture. Amongst them is Hilary Clinton. Now when that picture was reproduced in Die Tzeitung, a Yiddish newspaper in America, the picture of Hilary Clinton was removed. Now the newspaper had to apologise, they had to offer a serious retraction because it’s illegal to tamper with White House photographs. The newspaper was extremely apologetic and they did not mean any disrespect to Hilary Clinton, but the men in their readership had to be protected from these pictures of women as it was considered immodest. And this is really an interesting idea; that the men in the orthodox community need protecting – and this is never the issue in itself, that this could be tackled – that the way to tackle it is to remove and hide the women.

Which leads us neatly to the Orot School in Bet Shemesh. Now Bet Shemesh is an area in Israel which has become extremely Heradi and there is an Orthodox school – the Orot School – for young girls aged between 6 and 12. Everybody knows the Orot school, because that is the one that the police park outside in great numbers and they need to escort the girls safely into their classrooms because there is a group of men shouting various abusive words at them as they go into school because, apparently, they are not dressed modestly enough. They will often shout ‘Zonah’, which means ‘whore’ at these young girls and the police are there, for which I’m very grateful, to protect the girls. But why aren’t the police arresting the men? I find that a question that has sorely not been addressed by the rabbinic leadership amongst us. And one Heradi member of this community, took trouble to explain to the newspapers why the girls were not sufficiently covered up, and he said they need to be covered up because, and I quote “even an eight year old draws my eyes”.

Now I said there hasn’t been much of a male response to these things, but there has been some very interesting , creative responses in Israel by women, for women. So for example the New Israel Fund started a wonderful campaign where they asked women to take head shots of themselves and stick them around in Jerusalem, with a caption and their name saying ‘I wish to be seen and heard’. And at the Orot School, the women of Bet Shemesh went in one Friday morning taking flowers for the girls and gave them to the girls and said ‘please don’t be ashamed of your bodies you are beautiful. Shabbat Shalom, have these flowers from us’, which I think is really, really lovely. I am reminded that when Golda Meir was in gov’t there was an out break of serious sexual attacks of women in the night and there was a motion in Gov’t about this and somebody got up and said, ‘women are being attacked, we must put a curfew on the women’. And Golda Meir said, ‘excuse me I think that the men are committing the rapes, why is it that the women are told to stay in in, the men should be told to stay home at night. Why is it the women have to be hidden away’?

Now what do these extreme and I hope disturbing stories have to do with you, with me with us? What does the invisibility of women have to do with our community right here, right now? Well, about 12 years ago I happened to be in New York for a weeks seminar with the UJIA. I had a wonderful, wonderful time and every morning, a group of men came back from a local synagogue in hysterics, because apparently the morning service that they had been to was just so funny because these guys in the shul were the funniest ever and they were so friendly and so welcoming and so lovely and the whole thing was just wonderful. So we were very curious about this shul and on Shabbat I happened to be there for Mincha in the afternoon and I said, ‘I’m coming in because I want to see what this place is like’. I was actually the only women there and no one said a word to me and I found my way into the women’s section for mincha, it was in complete darkness and had no heating – I will just say it was in mid February to get the sympathy vote a bit – and there was a very welcoming sign on the door saying ‘It is forbidden to speak’. So I felt really very comfortable in this dark, unheated, silent place on my own and no one said a word to me. Anyway, after Shabbat they made Havdallah nobody asked me to join them. And then as I came out I stood in the hall and all the men came streaming out and they walked past me but they also actually walked through me nobody made eye contact, nobody said a word. The F for female on my forehead was emitting strange beams. One of my colleagues leaned forward and whispered in my ear,“you have entered the Twilight Zone. You have become invisible, you are invisible to the naked eye.” And it’s really hard for me to summon up how I felt in that lovely friendliest shul in New York.

But back to what goes on here, and what I’m going to say now may seem trivial compared to the extreme stories that I have spoken about in Israel. But I would like to suggest that the gap between the stories about buses and pavements and the stories that I’m about to say that go on in Orthodox synagogues in the country, the gap isn’t as wide as you might think. So here we go, thinking about the marginalisation and invisibility of women. So last Yom Kippur, in a shul not a million miles away from here, but which will remain nameless, a Rabbi managed to finish the Musaf service a little earlier than he had planned and he said to his warden, we’ll start Mincha half an hour earlier – and this was at lunchtime when most of the women are at home with their children – and the warden said, you can’t do that there are so many people not here. And the Rabbi looked around and said ‘I don’t see anyone missing.’

The Gemara shiur advertise on a very well known Orthoodox website in London ‘Gemara Shuir – all are welcome’. But actually all were not welcome, 52% of the community were not welcome as I found out when a group of us asked if we could come. A New Members newsletter in a synagogue, ‘No one gets left out, everyone gets called up. Please make yourself known to the management’. But you see not everyone is getting called up, 52% aren’t. Now please let me make myself clear, I’m only asking for clarification for ‘men’ to make themselves welcome, I know that women aren’t going to get an Aliyah. But the idea of all being welcome puts women very much out on a limb, invisible. And there tremendous moves going on in the Lay community to involve women in the landscape much, much more. There are Chairs on synagogues, there’s going to be Trustees of the United Synagogue. But I want to ask the Rabbinic leadership, why have they not embraced the opportunities now that seem to be needed to include women in prayer services and in the body of the synagogue. I think we ignore the 52% at our peril. The educational landscape is changing, once upon a time, all men. Then for a while in a programme of speakers, a women would be asked to be on the panel or to be one speaker. And I know all about that because it was often me and it’s very lonely place you know, being a token women. The expectations are very low, in fact it’s amazing that you’re there at all. And there is that sense, I use to feel like a black person on a panel of all white speakers.

And it reminds me of a scene in the History Boys, that play by Alan Bennet, Miss Lintott, the lone female history teacher says to the boys as they are preparing for their Oxbridge interview, “ You do realise, just possibly, just possibly, one of the dons might be a woman!” At which point they roll their eyes very theatrically, and she says “What is this so embarrassing out that?” and one of them says “It’s not our fault Miss it’s just the way it is.” And she says, “Do you know what history is like for women? History is women following behind, with the bucket”. Now I don’t want to erase the bucket from history, I don’t to erase the women from History, I don’t want the men erased from history. I don’t want anyone erased from history. But I do wonder sometimes, in the Jewish Community ‘it’s not our fault miss, it’s just the way it is’. Is that the best we can do? Now it’s often said to me, if you’re fighting against these things and you don’t like it, why don’t you leave? Why don’t you leave the Orthodox community? It’s a good question, but it’s not that easy. The Orthodox community is where I am, it’s where I live, I have a stake in it, I have invested in it, it’s my home. It’s like saying when you’re in a job and you have an argument with your boss, you don’t just leave. If you have an argument with your family you don’t just walk out, you have to figure out how to make it work. So I’m not threatening to leave, much worse than that, I’m threatening to stay. So this is a warning, that the gap between the very extreme stories and stories I told about what is going on right here, right now is perhaps not as wide as we think and we are, I feel, at a very important crossroads. So 52% women of the British Jewish Community arise, you have nothing to lose but your buckets, and just possibly the men may be able to help you carry those too.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
Connect