Monday, January 25, 2010

Black Bus

Anat Tzruya, a talented creator of documentary films, has recently released her third, which, like it's predecessors, immediately began garnering prizes. The 74-minute film tells of the repression of Haredi women, and focuses mostly on the segregated "black buses" in Bnei Brak and some areas of Jerusalem, where men sit up front and women - in back. The heroines of her film are two young women who grew up in the haredi world and left: Sarah Einhorn has a blog about the strange things that happen in the haredi world, and Shlomit, now a law student in Jerusalem, compulsively returns again and again to the neighborhood she left and photographs its denizens. (Update: Sarah Einfeld, not Einhorn, and her blog is here)

It's a compelling film,and underlines how very far away the haredis are from the world the rest of us live in, even if geographically they live amongst us.

The NIF, New Israel Fund, a left-leaning philanthropic third-sector operation which supports many of the Israel NGOs of the Left and radical Left, has set up a new program to offer succor and assistance to haredi women who suffer from discrimination. They've also got a blog, here.

The film has an English language version, and will soon set off to be screened at international venues where this sort of film is screened. I'm not aware of Haaretz having written about this yet, but it will, sooner or later. If you don't know much about Israel, or if you learn only from a certain type of information outlet with a recognizable agenda, the film will easily convince you that the haredi community is well down the slippery slope towards totally unacceptable behavior.

Earlier this week there was a screening of the film, sponsored by one of our political parties, at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University. Here's my translation of what transpired, as narrated by Naama Lerner, who was present:
[After the film] Anat Tzruya got up to speak. Her language was abusive, and she'd never use such terminology had she been talking about any other minority. She set out to draw a profile of the typical haredi woman, since the students wouldn't be likely to know any of them. After all, she spent four years studying the matter. These are women who live under severe gender repression. They are purposefully kept undeveloped and primitive. They are cut off from sources of information. They live under permanent threats of the dangers of the outside world. If any of them ever try to contact someone from the outside world she will be punished and ostracized. They are demeaningly segregated in all parts of their lives - at home, on the street, on buses, everywhere. They must have permission from their husband and a rabbi for any activity. They plead and beg to be let out of the pit into which they've been thrust, but are not allowed out and fear the repercussions if they try. Some of them called her secretly, and begged of her that she do something about the buses, which is what motivated her to dedicate four hard years with no remuneration to the matter....
So far, roughly what you'd expect. Naama's report then takes an interesting turn. She quickly raised her hand and was allowed to pose the first question from the public:
I identified myself by my full name - I've got nothing to hide, after all. I'm from a hassidic family. I studied in Beit Yaacov, the school Anat had described as the most backward of them all. I"m married to a haredi man from the Litai camp (non-hassidic haredi). We met four times, an hour each, before we got engaged. My husband is a rabbi on a haredi court. We've been married 25 years, and our sons are all haredi, and learn in haredi yeshivas. We have one granddaughter and a pregnant daughter-in-law. We don't own a television, and if a non-haredi freind hadn't told me about this film I'd never have heard of it. Having said all that, however, for all my soul searching I cannot see a single point of contact between my life and anything portrayed by Ms. Tzruya, nor can I think of a single one of the hundreds of women whom I know who would recognize themselves in any way.
From this point, most of the questions from the public went to Naama, not Anat, and Naama remained talking with some of the students long after the event was over:
Some of the questions were ridiculous, such as if my husband knew I was here and had he authorized my coming. Some were thoughtful and penetrating. After I'd explained how haredi women understand the segregated buses, I was asked if there's any way for us to forge a common language. The fact that I work in a human rights organization and have full command of its terminology and ideology had them totally discombobulated.
What can I say? I've got some serious issues with the haredi form of Judaism, perhaps all the more serious for being able to see them from a perspective rather close to their own, which I understand while not agreeing with. I've also got lots of respect for the parts of their world I find admirable. Either way, I've got a reasonable base from which to observe. I've seen the Black Buses film twice, and recognize how it manipulates its viewers.

Now think what happens when total outsiders with no tools to comprehend what's going on, barge in with their irrelevant conceptual explanations, and set themselves up as hostile anthropologists and prosecutors all rolled together. What are the odds they'll learn anything?


Sylvia said...

It is unfortunate that the New Israel Fund who have invested so heavily into the eradication of stereotyping of Gazans are busily investing today in the stereotyping of the ultra-Orthodox.
The hypocrites.

Regarding those buses, I discovered that the ones connecting the peripheries with Bnei Braq and Jerusalem are financed by monthly membership fees, not by the ride. Something like a member's club, which may very well be the case also in Bnei Braq and Jerusalem (though I don't know that). If so, That makes it a members' club and they would have the right to put red-haired people in the back if they so wish.

Lee Ratner said...

I'm not fond of the Haredi. I find that their definition of Jewishness is too limited. I'd argue that the novels of authors like Shalom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Amos Oz, and Michael Chabon are just as important to Jewish culture as Torah and Talmud. The same goes for the secular music of the Jews as being as important as religious Jewish music. The Haredi do a disfavor to the Jewish people by discounting the importance of secular Jewish culture.

I'm also not fond of them using Israel as a protector while trying hard not to give anything in return. At least most of the adamant settlers actually serve in the IDF and contribute at least partially to the Israeli economy.

Danny said...

What is your source for Naama Lerner's comments?

Yaacov said...

Her e-mail to me, Danny

Anonymous said...

@Lee Ratner:
I am not a Haredi Jew, but I find that your idea that the literature of Shalom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Amos Oz, and Michael Chabon are as important to Judaism as the Torah and Talmud to be both silly and presumptuous. The presumptuousness is, of course, in its focus on 20th century Eastern European heritage (and its Israeli and American progeny) to the exclusion of the rich earlier and Eastern traditions. Judaism has been around for a very long time and there is a lot more to it than tales of the shtetl. Moreover, the overwhelming focus of Jewish writing, and Jewish existence, for its thousands of years of history has been the relationship between the Jewish people and their God and land (and sometimes, the lack of relationship with either or both of their god and their land). The secular culture you point to is something of a historical blip, and while very interesting, including to me, it pales in significance to the religious writings. Jewish identity, such as it is , has revolved around Judaism in one form or another, rather than around a peripheral manifestation of Jewish culture.
I just got my day school tuition bill--$30,000+ per child. I can assure you that I would not be spending that because I think it is important for them to read Isaac Bashevis singer. I am ensuring that my children can read, write and speak Hebrew better than can I, but it is not so that they can read Amos Oz or Yehuda Amichai (though I will insist that they do).

All that said, I haven't a whole lot of sympathy for the Haredi culture in the U.S., and from what I can tell, it is worse in Israel.

Avigdor said...

To me, "haredi" - lumping very different people and movements together under one banner of dark backwardness - has always been a pejorative.

There are Hebrew words also for "national religious" and secular as well - perhaps Yaacov could help me out here - but they don't get any airtime in the Western media. Certainly no one puts out movies about how terrible drug abuse and STD rates are in the [insert hebrew equivalent word] "secular" culture. That's because most movie makers are from this "secular" culture, and they don't think to marginalize themselves under a quaint grouping that rapes individuality.

We never hear about the Rav Kooks or the Breslavers or the Belzers, Satmars, etc. - only "haredi", or its Western equivalent "ultra-orthodox". It's not enough that someone is "orthodox" - a German Reform Jew concept in itself - they have to be marginalized even further - ULTRA-!

I know that for many, "haredim" all look scary and forbidding in their black coats, but these are all very different movements, with unique approaches to spirituality. Their members are human beings with dreams and goals and normal problems, just like the rest of us.

This isn't a defense of "haredim"; it's reality.

zionist juice said...

what is the address of sarah einhorn's blog?

Yaacov said...

Z-J: It should have been Einfeld, not Einhorn. I've corrected, and here's the link:

Gavin said...

I have a question if you don't mind Yaacovs. If we were to go back to pre-1900 Europe (or even earlier) where would the Haredi fit in. Would they be typical Jews or would they be fairly extreme even then? I'm trying to understand their place in Jewish society, it seems much more complicated than religious versus secular.

Oh, and do they all wear the funny hat & black clothes etc, or is that an ultra ultra haredi minority group?

Regards, Gavin

Avigdor said...

Again with the "ultra-"! Maybe they're "ultra, ultra, ultra, ultra, ultra! extreme"?

Gavin, please read my comment above.

The concept of "haredi", and for that matter "orthodox", are inventions by German Reform Jews. Those black clothes and black hats you're talking about were the FASHION of the day in the late 1700s-early 1900s central Europe, worn by everyone, Jew and non-Jew.

Those "funny hats" you're talking about are more often than not Italian Borsalinos, between $200-500 each, created by Italian hat designers, not "extreme" Jews.

What makes one Jew more "extreme" than another? The head of neurology at the largest, most prestigious Children's hospital in the Midwest attends my Chabad shul - and he wears those "funny hat & black clothes" you're talking about. The head of the VA Hospital in my city is also a hassidic Jew. Two of my hassidic friends are in medical school, two are in law school, three are teachers in a public school, one is a captain in the US Army, my "orthodox" brother is working on a PhD in Electrical Engineering... the list goes on and on. None of them have threatened anyone with beheading, or tried to bring down an airplane.

Think about where you're getting this notion of what is "extreme", and why this distinction was created, and by whom.

Gavin said...

Don't take offence Victor, I've still got a lot to learn. When Haredi are mentioned I immediately picture the men with full beards, braided hair, black clothes & hats that look three sizes too small. I'd label them extreme because that's not the way most Jews of today dress. The clothing is totally impractical for a hot climate, so clearly religion takes a higher priority for those people than utilitarianism.

The existence of the label itself suggested to me a cult within Judasim rather than a mainstream, and I'd assumed that Haredi were to Judaism what Quakers were to Christianity. But then I can be completely wrong too, which is why I ask.

Btw those hats do look funny.... I can never figure out how they stay on.

Cheers, Gavin.

Lee Ratner said...

I'd disagree with Victor's history a little but he is essentially spot on. Jews in Eastern Europe mainly wore kaftans during the 18th and early 19th century. As I understood, Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855) of Russia decreed that Jews must wear modern clothing in an attempt to get them to stop being Jewish. A lot of Jews had problems with this because they believed that Jews needed to dress differently from non-Jews. Eventually, a compromise was reached where Jews could wear out of fashion Christian clothing and based the standard uniform on 18th century Polish gentry clothing.

I'd argue that the origin of the Haredi are different to. After Jewish emancipation, Jews had to think of a way that they could be Jewish in world that no longer applied the discriminatory laws against the Jews. Reform Jews advocated abandoning a lot of what made Jews distinctively Jewish, although they did not put in those terms. Orthodox Jews believed Jews could still follow Halacha and participate in they goyish world. Haredi Jews were Orthodox Jews who argued that modernity and Judaism were incompatible and that Jews should act like a ghetto exists even if it no longer exists.

Lee Ratner said...

I admit that I over stated my point. Obviously, the Torah and Talmud are the foundation of Jewish culture and identity. However, I really think that a lot of the Haredi err by focusing exclusively on focusing so much on the religious aspects of Jewishness at the expense of the ethnic-secular aspects of Jewishness which are extremely important.

david brumer said...

Your post is much appreciated and points to misapprehensions and inaccurate assumptions that are too often made in these matters.
Your last paragraph says it all.
As co-chair of Seattle's Jewish film festival, I keep a keen eye out for these kinds of prejudices.
I'll pass on to my committee members as cautionary tale.
Have you seen "Eyes Wide Open?"
Depicts affair between two men in ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. Curious to get feedback from those with direct experience in Haredi world. From outside, seemed like a reasonable portrayal.
Yours in Seattle,

Sylvia said...

Good post. Indeed painting dozens of groups who don't always approve of each other and even are in constant conflicts with each other with one dark brush is infuriating.

You seem to be angered by the term "ultra-orthodox". In Israel, where Orthodox Judaism is mainstream grassroots and sometimes just inherited, the term "Orthodox" applies not only to the practicing,but also to the mildly practicing and even the not particularly religious Jews like myself. Hence the necessity of a term to differentiate between the "Orthodox" and those who follow a strict Orthodox practice without compromise.The Rabbinate is Orthodox although the Chief Rabbi is ultra-Orthodox.
To me, "ultra" doesn't mean extreme, but rather "strict and uncompromising".

Personally, my encounters with the "Haredi" have been extremely positive. Here in the poverty and rocket-stricken Northern Negev,they are the ones who lend a helping hand even with modest means.

But the question deriving from the article that should really preoccupy us is why the No-Israel Fund, a one-issue organization, is funding the demonization of certain segments of Israeli society.

Yaacov said...

Gavin -

I know I haven't responded yet to your question, tho others already have. I'll try to get to it next week.


Gavin said...

Thanks Yaacov. It's tricky now. As an outsider I'm comfortable with the view of a small minority wanting to hang onto the old days. It's convenient, they make a good scapegoat for when bad things happen in Israel. Judging by the comments here it's also not a fair assessment of the people labelled as Haredi. If I assumed that 'haredi' were a smaller subset of ultra-orthodoxy then it's a safe bet that many others have the same erroneous view of them being a kind of extremist fringe element. To be honest I should have simply asked "what actually are Haredi?" rather than make flippant remarks about hats so I do apologise if my bantering style offended anyone.

Having said that I think Israel does need it's scapegoats. You have your extremists like every country and it's dangerous to portray them in a light that makes them appear mainstream. That would just get used against you.

Regards, Gavin

Avigdor said...


I wasn't taking offense, but expressing frustration at how seamlessly certain segments of Jewish society have been marginalized and ostracized, particularly to the outside world.

Every point you mentioned - the full beards, braided hair, black clothes and hats, etc. - have a purpose. In a tradition as layered the Jewish faith, even the order in which you put on and lace shoes is a point of law reflecting spiritual elements. From the time an observant Jew wakes in the morning to the time they sleep, they are engaged in a difficult process of self-introspection and self-refinement.

You know those Buddhist monks who wear the red robes and meditate up in the mountains, sequestered from interferences of the modern world? How about the nuns and priests who lock themselves up in monasteries for decades, taking vows of chastity and silence? Various cultures have different approaches to spirituality, but most accept that the spiritual and physical worlds don't mix - this is why they separate from one, to approach the other.

The Jewish faith has its own approach, and its own set of instructions for attaining spirituality. A Jew is expected to live and work in the world, the physical world, while pursuing spiritual matters. How is a Jew to do so? There is a comprehensive set of laws that explain precisely how. In addition, there is a culture and tradition that, while not law, per se, reflects the customs, ethics and social structure of a community.

For example, it is not a point of law that one should wear black clothes. However, we know from Jewish sources that black clothes, which you refer to as marks of extremism, in Jewish tradition reflect humility and modesty. So, a Jew doesn't have to wear black clothes. But, if you spend your life contemplating and training yourself to be more spiritually sensitive, then wearing black clothes is a not a radical concept.

Wearing black clothes doesn't make one humble and modest - everyone has the same human drives, not all of which are positive - but doing so reflects the outcome the person wishes to achieve. Then, it is merely a matter of working on oneself until your "insides reflect your outsides". Merely!

Avigdor said...

The entire purpose of hassidic philosophy - hassidic Jews comprise the bulk of what is termed "haredi" in Israel - is to be, well... hassidic. A "hassid" is a pious, humble, spiritually sensitive person. A hassid goes beyond the letter of the law, beyond the minimum required of them. They are no different than the Budhist monks - which I'm guessing no "enlightened" Western intellectual would call an "extremist fringe element" - except that in addition to seeking spirituality, they live, interact and engage with the problems of this physical world.

This is not at all an issue of hanging on to the "old days". We're not discussing a backward tribalism that stubbornly refuses modernity. Observant Jewish communities are incredibly vibrant, socially, culturally, philosophically and demographically. Of course, as every community, they have problems, but treating them as "radical extremists" is utterly unwarranted. "Haredi" Jews are not the past; they're a big part of the Jewish future, not simply in Israel, but globally.

Due to the way in which the Israeli State was created and the nature of Israeli politics, pockets of observant Jewish communities in Israel are far less integrated into the economic and social fabric of the country than they could be. In no other place in the world - and such Jewish communities exist on every continent - will you find a situation where Jewish men engage in religious study, for decades, without meaningful employment. The thing is, if you only knew what kind of study ethic and intelligence many of these men develop... they could be brilliant mathematicians, engineers, doctors... but as the State meets their basic survival needs, they have no incentive to attain a secular education necessary for employment.

That, however, is a matter for the Israelis to deal with as a society.

Gavin said...

Victor thanks for the words there, it helps. Yaacov said he'd post some words on it later so I'll leave commenting until then as I'd like to hear others views on it as well. I will note that we're not looking at the definition of extremism the same way here. Extremism in this context is when one's religious or ideological beliefs lead one to treat one's fellow man in a negative and/or harmful manner. It's not their faith or personal character that's at issue here, it's how they relate to others so the comparison with monks isn't a valid one. What we do behind closed doors is no-one's business but our own, how we behave in public is everyone's business.

Regards, Gavin

Anonymous said...

Ben Dror Yemini in Hebrew: