Sunday, June 21, 2015

‘When Western women stop being objectified, they can criticise us.’ Orthodox Jewish women fight back 

The Hebrew phrase “chillul hashem” translates as bringing shame upon one’s community in the eyes of the outside world. It can be invoked by anything from double-parking to failure to observe the complicated latticework of laws that circumscribe orthodox Jewish life, dictating everything from hairstyles to behaviour.

These days chillul hashem is as likely to spark a trending hashtag. Recently, a leaked letter sent by school leaders in the north London Belz sect condemned mothers for their “immodesty” in driving their children to school. Social media was inflamed, while women’s groups drew comparisons with Saudi Arabia.

A few months earlier, a scandal was ignited when an Instagram post of a street sign from a Hackney Torah procession went viral. It read, in English and Yiddish: “Women should please walk along this side of the road only.”

“It was boring,” says Ilana Freedman of the furore, sitting in the flat she shares with her rabbi husband and four young sons, above a west London synagogue. “That sign was intended to make our women feel comfortable,”she says. “But it became part of that tired narrative about Haredi [ultra-orthodox Jewish] women being oppressed.”

Freedman’s pet hate is Western feminists’ reading of an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman’s lot as, “All about wigs, menstrual rites and being downtrodden,” she says. “Belz rabbis themselves don’t drive. But it’s easy to wheel out that tired old story about Haredi women being oppressed.”

Freedman – who migrated from traditional to ultra-orthodox Judaism – is a biology teacher and has written online about issues facing Jewish women. She is “a Facebook-hip Haredi woman”, as she puts it. “A sign our world is changing, I suppose.”

It is a troubled time for women in Britain’s more than 40,000-strong (and growing) Haredi community, and not just because of a rise in anti-semitic attacks. Their lives of strict observance are being assailed as never before, by the pressures of caring for large families in an era of benefit cuts; by rising house prices in the community’s north London enclave of Stamford Hill; and by the emergence in Israelof a reformist brand of “orthofeminism” that is questioning the doctrinal basis for traditional Haredi gender roles.

Haredi – literally “one who trembles before God” – is an umbrella term for the most strictly observant among the modern Jewry. In Britain Haredi communities range from the largely Hasidic, or Jewish mystic, Haredi Jews of Stamford Hill, to Lithuanian diasporic groups in Golders Green and Gateshead, and other communities in Edgware and Salford.

Shared by these groups is a fundamentalist interpretation of the Torah, a physical separation of the genders in certain situations and strictly defined roles for men and women that prescribe an ideal of male religious scholarship and female worldly service.


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