‘Hey you!” someone shouted at me. “Hey you! Women in the back!”
I pretended not to understand the Hebrew.
“Hey you! Women in the back!”
Looking down the length of the articulated bus, I saw a group of bewigged, bestockinged women shuffling in through the back door.
“Sorry, don’t speak Hebrew,” I said, in thick American, and plunged ahead into the amorphous jumble that constitutes an Israeli line. I was immediately surrounded by a group of six or seven black-hatted, black-suited and, for the most part, black-bearded Israeli men, all trying to push their way onto the bus. Terrified of my touch, the men scattered, then regrouped to shut me out in an effective latticework of bodies. It was a difficult time for me. These haredim had no concept of Americans or Rosa Parks, and their unusually tight cluster almost prevented me from getting on the bus. Being an American, I lacked the aggressiveness that seemed to propel Israelis forward through time and bus lines; but being Jewish, I was stubborn.
The last man elbowed his way in front of me with astonishing finesse. In a split second, I would be closed out. I reacted instantly. My hand went out and rested on his forearm. He turned, stared down at my hand on his forearm, slowly brought his eyes to my face. I looked at him innocently, inwardly brazen.
“Sliha,” I said, in an exaggerated American accent.
His face contorted into a picture of horror, and he jumped – literally jumped – back. I stepped onto the bus and the doors closed on the poor, dumbstruck haredi.
Safely along for the ride, I flashed my monthly bus pass at the driver. He was not bearded or hatted. He wasn’t even yarmulkaed. He nodded, then said to me, “Women in the back.”
“Sorry, don’t speak Hebrew,” I said, and plopped down in the front seat behind the driver.
“Driver, this is an outrage!” came a voice to my right. A black-hatted, red-bearded haredi sat on the other side of the aisle, visibly agitated and verbally agitating.
“She must go to the back of the bus!” he said in Hebrew.
The bus driver sighed.
“Miss,” he addressed me in accented English. “Miss, women must to sit in the back.”
“Why?” I asked in English.
“Because. You want to sit in front, you must to take different bus. This bus the women sits in the back of the bus.”
“I get nauseous when I sit in the back.”
“What did she say?” the red-bearded haredi asked the driver.
“What is this, noshuss?” the driver asked me.
“Sick. I will get sick if I sit in the back of the bus.”
“She gets sick if she sits in the back,” the driver explained in Hebrew to the red-bearded haredi.
“Nonsense! Women must sit in the back of the bus!”
The driver looked at me in the rearview mirror.
“Miss,” he said again in English. “Please to move to the back.”
“Nu?” said Red Beard.
“She’s getting off the bus very soon,” the driver told him.
“An outrage! A woman can’t sit with men!”
“He says it is not right for the women to sit with the men,” the driver offered me. “These men,” he nodded towards Red Beard, “don’t like to look at women. Only wives. No pretty girls like you.”
“If he doesn’t want to look at me,” I returned the offer, “he can move to the back.”
“What did she say?” asked Red Beard.
“She’s getting off the bus soon,” the driver repeated.
“This is not America,” Red Beard spat at the driver. “This is not America!”
“He says this is not America.”
“It’s not a European ghetto either.”
“What did she say?”
“Nu?” Red Beard looked expectantly at the driver. He had yet to look at me at all.
“What can I do?” the driver said to him. “She’s a stubborn American.”
“This is not America!”
“Why you make trouble?” the driver asked me.
I didn’t answer.
“Women in back. Simple. No bad. Just is. Why you make trouble?”
Since I didn’t fully understand myself, I kept silent. I could sense the muttering of the women in the back of the bus.
Red Beard began his appeal to the fellow behind him.
“She can’t do this!” he pleaded fiercely.
“Nu, what can we do?”
“Make her sit in the back, with the other women.”
“Just ignore her,” enjoined a gray-bearded haredi from a few seats behind. “Ignore her, and one of you will soon be off the bus.”
“It’s not a matter of how long,” Red Beard argued. “It’s the principal of the matter. She is doing this davka l’hach’is
, and I won’t have it!”
“If she is, as you say, doing this to intentionally
incite you, then she’s having a grand success,” the gray-bearded haredi said softly. “Calm down.”
“She thinks this is America!”
“Maybe she thinks this is Tel Aviv?” the bus driver chimed in. “Or even, God forbid, Jerusalem? It’s not everywhere in Israel that women sit in the back.”
“Well, on this bus they do,” retorted Red Beard.
“Okay. So here they do. But she’s not from here. She doesn’t know any better.”
“She knows. She’s doing this davka l’hach’is
“Tell me, brother, just looking at this girl is too much for you?” the bus driver asked.
Red Beard reddened and the driver continued. “She is dressed b’tzniut
. Trust me, I looked. Elbows, knees and neck are all covered and unaccounted for.”
“Being covered doesn’t mean you are acting b’tzniut
“Nu,” the grey-bearded haredi said softly. “She may be misguided, but she is still a bas yisrael
, a Jewish girl. She probably thinks that we are perpetrating a great injustice on our women. That sitting in the back of a bus is a sign of inferiority.” He sighed a long, heavy sigh. “She’s just a girl. She doesn’t know. What can she know of the mind of a man?”
“She’s not just a girl – she’s at least 20! Old enough to understand!”
The gray-bearded haredi just shook his head. My biggest defender. My biggest detractor.
Red Beard looked as though he was about to muster some secret inner force of the Almighty and I knew I’d done enough. I reached up to press the red button that signaled the bus driver to stop. He pulled over.
“Shalom,” I said to him.
“Shalom, troublemaker,” he said in English.
Instead of exiting through the front door, I walked toward the back of
the bus. My eyes scanned the women’s expressions, and my face reddened
under their scowls. I had been sitting in the front with their
brothers, fathers, husbands.
I alighted from the bus and found myself in a very haredi neighborhood.
I waited for the bus to drive off before crossing to the stop on
opposite side of the street. I sat down on the bench and waited for the
bus to take me back toward my neighborhood, wondering which door I
would go through when the time came.