Monday, October 24, 2016

An ultra-Orthodox paradox

Israeli Judaism is divided in four main branches: secular (Hilonim), traditional (Masortim), Zionist-Orthodox (modern-orthodox, Datiim) and ultra-Orthodox (Haredim). A new Pew Research Center survey finds that nearly all Israeli Jews self-identify with one of four subgroups.

The Haredi branch is known to have quite extreme policies and beliefs when it comes to women. In Beit Shemesh, a city in which roughly half of the residents is Haredi and the other half is more moderate, a number of conflicts and violent clashes have arisen in the recent years, as the Haredi population keeps growing. 

For example, protests erupted in 2011 after a group of ultra-Orthodox men spat on an 8-year-old girl and called her a whore as she walked to school in her uniform (Huffington Post). She and the other girls and women who were cursed, spat on, threatened or beaten was not "dressed modestly" enough in the Haredi group's opinion. Other similar events occurred in relation with gender segregation on public buses, which is required by ultra-Orthodox Judaism but is supposed to be strictly voluntary, as the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled. As a result to these acts ofoppression, women in the area are becoming increasingly feminist

Moreover, this previous blog post describes well what it means to be a woman in Jerusalem, as it discusses the relationship between tradition and discrimination.

However, discrimination against Haredi women surprisingly does not exist in one area. That area is Israel's Haredi literary world. Indeed, some 80 percent of the community's writers are women, as Haaretz reports. Of course, rabbis still engage in censorship. When a word or topic is problematic, the novel is published in two versions - one fit for Haredi readers and one for the secular ones. This happened with a book on pregnancy, which is sold in a "for married women only" section of Haredi bookstores, because pregnancy is 
a word whose usage is avoided in public, for reasons of modesty (Haaretz).
One can only wonder about the reasons ultra-Orthodox female authors are so prolific in Israel. The prominent authors interviewed in the Haaretz article, Sarah Fechter and Mali Avraham, have very unique and interesting views. Fechter said:
 The men sit and study. A writer is ‘formed’ around the age of 20, and at that age the men are studying and don’t have time for fiction. There aren’t many 20-year-old men who write. 
After all, maybe reasons behind this phenomenon do not matter that much, although it is interesting to hypothesize. Some of these female authors are really famous and, in my opinion, their work is probably beneficial to the Haredi community. It gives women a voice, a chance to be heard and to connect - with other women and men, secular or not, through literature.


Kyle Kate Dudley said...


This post floored me. What an important topic!

I have often thought about the ultra-Orthodox treatment of women, having lived in Crown Heights Brooklyn (which has a large Orthodox population) for a few years. I was always dismayed in particular by the wig-wearing Tzniut practice in my Crown Heights days. I don't know why this particular form of modesty bothered me so much, but I have a feeling it had something to do with the lengths that women would have to go to commit to a wig. I suppose Orthodox men also have several commitments they make with their outward appearance.

However, I have never fully wrapped my head around the severity of the Orthodox practices in Israel and I was so upset when I read about what was happening in the town of Beit Shemesh (in your Huffington Post article).

I did like that your post ended on the upswing however, and I loved the Haaretz article about the literary empowerment that many women have. I think that's brilliant! It led me to look up similar happenings in Brooklyn, where I found the Orthodox Women's EMT Corps:

Both the literary work of women in Israel and the EMT Corps above seem to be forging a path between the modesty requirements of their culture and their need to have more agency and control of their own lives and experiences. This is an incredibly important first step.

Very informative! Thank you!

Earnest Femingway said...


I appreciate your willingness to dive into the intersection of gender and religion. In a typically Christian-normative culture like the U.S., I typically associate religion with opposition to true gender equality. Reading your discussion of the Haredi literary world shows how my frame of mind is problematic. Also, it shows an example of this phenomenon we saw in half the Sky and Winter's Bone; that is, women navigating male dominated spaced and finding their own power and success. Disrupting the foundation of a culture is not easily done and not instantaneous; yet rather than remain complacent, women continually find a way to flourish with what opportunities exist.

Joan Maya said...


Thank you so much for writing on this issue! After reading your blog post I realized how little I knew about the Haredi practices and the issues that women in their community face. I had never heard of the Tzniut practice of wig wearing (brought up by Kyle Kate) which I find extremely interesting.

The blog made me think of an old This American Life episode ( which talks about agunah, which is a women in Orthodox Jewish culture whose husband refuses to get a divorce. Without the husband agreeing, a woman can be chained to their husband for years. It is another really interesting look into the issues that women face in Orthodox Jewish communities, but also looks at how the community is trying to support the women that find themselves in these situations.

Josie Zimmermann said...


This is so interesting! Your post made me think of 19th Century English female authors. I've heard that Jane Austen's prolific writing is attributed to the fact that she didn't have a lot of opportunities to do anything outside of the house. Same with the Bronte sisters and George Eliot. When intelligent women are stuck with few resources, writing and poetry seem to be popular outlets. What makes the Orthodox female authors you talked about is the prolificacy. You've inspired me to look into it further.

Flamingo said...

Thank you all for your great comments, links and interesting inputs! :)