‘When Western women stop being objectified, they can criticise us.’ Orthodox Jewish women fight back
Ilana Freedman, photographed at home in west London
When news broke of women being banned from driving, the position of females in ultra-orthodox Jewish society came under scrutiny. We go inside a closed world
By Sally Howard
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.
‘Why do we need women rabbis? Women can talk to their male rabbis. These are silly, insulting women’
These models, in which women shoulder the twin burdens of housework and household income, are derided by outsiders for their construction of women as, in the Jewish social scientist Nurit Stadler’s words, “polluted providers”. Although there are no reliable figures for the UK, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics indicates that 69 per cent of Haredi women are in paid work, but only 44.5 per cent of Haredi men.
Freedman sees her coming to Haredism as a moment of emancipation. Raised in a secular Jewish family in north London by a liberal mother, who instilled in her “a relaxed attitude to dress and sexual intimacy”, she traces her decision to become more observant to an incident in a nightclub while she was at university in Manchester.
“A man I’d never met slapped me on the bottom,” Freeman recalls. “I was livid. I thought, ‘When did this supposed feminist revolution happen that someone thought it was OK to do that?’ For a long time, I’d felt that goyish [non-Jewish] culture had become over-sexualised and Western women objectified. I looked at Judaism and I didn’t see that.”
At 22 Freedman began withdrawing from secular life. She gave away her TV, switched from jeans to long skirts and sleeves and – when her strictly kosher lifestyle became incompatible with that of her friends and family – moved in with a group of fellow ultra-orthodox women.
Freedman met her “empathetic and gentle” husband when he was lecturing at an orthodox Jewish conference. “In my earlier guise, I might have pursued him,” she says. “Instead, I held back and let him come to the realisation that we’d be perfect together.”
Like most modern Haredi women, Freedman works: as a teacher at an orthodox Jewish seminary (theological school) and as a marital advisor to those in her husband’s congregation who are preparing for shidduch, a form of arranged introduction that typically takes place when a couple are in their late teens.
Freedman teaches young newly-weds that Haredi marriage makes its highest demands of the husband. “In Oral Law [the legal commentary on the Torah] the husband has three obligations: to feed his wife, to provide a roof over her head and to sexually satisfy her,” Freedman says.
“The rules are specific: a woman can demand sex at least twice a week when she is not niddah [menstruating]. Otherwise there are grounds for a wife to ask her husband for divorce.” A man cannot demand sex from his wife.
Ruth Stein is a 29-year-old working mother of eight from Stamford Hill who asked for her name to be changed due to her family’s standing in the local community. She describes Taharat Ha-Mishpachah, the law forbidding sex between a man and menstruating woman, as “something beautiful and impossible to explain to anyone from the outside”.
“When the wife is niddah, the couple get a chance to work on their friendship because the physical side is not there,” she adds. “It’s like a monthly renewal.” At 19 Stein married an Israeli man selected for her by her extended family.
“Of course, it was weird at first, because he was a stranger,” she says. “But we had all the excitement of the lovey-dovey, getting-to-know-you thing on our honeymoon. Not like in the West, where there’s no mystique.”
A pillar of Haredi life that is spoken of fondly, often reverently, during my meetings with British Haredi women is chesed, or kindness and giving. The British community is supported by a network of voluntary societies, or gemach, who make it their business to ensure that community members have everything from flat-pack boxes for house moves to volunteers for visits with hospitalised relations.
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