Friday, December 23, 2011

Israel's real Rosa Parks takes to the buses 

On a sunny afternoon early this week, an ultra-Orthodox woman boarded a bus in the enclave of the Gur Hasidic community in Ashdod and took a seat in the second row. The bus, Egged line 451, was headed for Jerusalem. It quickly became clear that this simple, everyday act - choosing a seat to her liking - was enough to transform her presence in the bus into a palpable challenge to the rest of the passengers. I sat down across from the woman, fearing the worst.

Not only did the woman, whose name is Yocheved Horowitz, blatantly ignore the tacit agreement among the bus' riders to adhere to the most stringent religious practices - in this case, an unwritten rule that men sit in the front and women in the back. And not only did she not conform to the seating arrangements dictated by men - that is, those in authority. This was also a woman who, judging by her appearance, seemed to come from within the community.

A young girl who boarded the bus at one of the stops in the Zayyin quarter, where the Gur compound is situated, apparently couldn't have imagined that an ultra-Orthodox woman would relate dismissively to the highest social stricture of segregation by sex. Even as she saw Horowitz heading for the second row, she whispered to her, as if trying to save her before it was too late, "Mehadrin, mehadrin" - a term usually employed in connection with food, but which in this case referred to the adherence on the bus to the strictest religious principles; the girl also gestured to her to sit in the back.

After raising her tone a bit, without succeeding in moving Horowitz from her seat, the girl finally left her alone and continued to the back of the bus, where several women were already sitting. After her, a mother and daughter who do not belong to the Hasidic public riding the bus, and who are thus not obligated to its rules, got on board. Stopping next to Horowitz, they said to her, smiling: "What, they haven't thrown you out yet?" They themselves headed toward the back.
The smiles evaporated the instant the bus began to move. "Mehadrin, mehadrin," said a bearded man sitting behind me, raising his voice. When I did not get up from my seat across from her, he continued to shout.

"Women to the back," he called out like a conductor. "To the back, to the back." He trembled with anger. A man sitting in the first row whose appearance revealed him to be a Gur Hasid, shushed him, with a finger to his lip. But the shouter paid no attention to him. "Men's area," he continued to shout. "Women to the back."

Now Horowitz turned around and said loudly and clearly: "What do you mean by 'men's area'? A geographical area?" she wondered. "What is mehadrin? Are you talking about an etrog, a lulav?" she queried, referring to two of the principal symbols used during the festival of Sukkot. "Nowhere in rabbinical law does it say that it is forbidden to sit behind a woman, not in the Shulchan Arukh and not in the Yoreh De'ah [two classical compilations of Jewish law]. What is written in the Torah and in rabbinical law is that it is forbidden to humiliate sons and daughters of Israel."
Like a deflated balloon, the man became quiet, and maintained his silence for the rest of the bus ride.


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