woman on a mehadrin bus_311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I’ve been freedom-riding the No. 418 “Mehadrin” bus between Ramat Beit Shemesh
and Jerusalem for a few weeks, and here’s what’s been happening to me: nothing.
I get on, pay my fare, sit down in the front of the bus, and then – that’s
I haven’t encountered one instance of physical violence, verbal
threats or otherwise obnoxious harassment. There has been an occasional
“Mehadrin!” muttered quietly by some men, but they gave up quickly when I
ignored them. One man told me I was supposed to move to the back, as per the
custom, but when I asked him if he could read the sign which states that riders
can sit wherever they choose, he said, “I’m just telling you that this is the
custom, you can do whatever you want.”
One bearded, black-coated man
announced that women should move to the back, and when a secular-looking,
jeans-wearing woman challenged him by asking if that was the law, he said, “No,
but I am requesting that you do it.” We women stayed in our seats and didn’t
hear another word from him or anyone else.
Once a man asked the bus
driver to tell the women to move to the back, which I thought was a nice touch,
as I don’t think it is modest for a man to begin a conversation with a random
woman on a bus, even to discuss seating arrangements. For the record, the driver
said in response: “I don’t know anything about this.”
On the 417, the
non-segregated bus which essentially covers the same route as the 418, the
passengers are almost all ultra-Orthodox. It is accepted practice that if two
sets of seats are each half-occupied, with one man at each window seat, women
riders will not sit down next to a man, but will instead politely ask one man to
move next to the other man to free up seats for women (or vice-versa, with a
male rider asking a female rider to move).
In almost all cases, when a
man and woman are sitting next to each other, they appear to be married
(although nobody asks to see their ketubah
, or marriage contract). There
are fewer screaming babies on the regular bus because families sit together and
a man can hold his baby instead of forcing his wife to juggle an infant and a
Most of the men on the 417 study, work on their laptops or chat
with the men sitting next to them during the ride. I have yet to see any
inappropriateness borne of the mixed-sex environment. Everyone on the 417 bus
has been exceedingly polite and modest. What behaviors are so offensive that a
segregated bus is needed to save passengers from sin?
I AM offended that a
public bus would discriminate against women, when there is no reason, ruling, or
precedent for the practice in Jewish or secular law. I respect the men who avoid
sitting down right next to me, to prevent accidental touching, but I do not
understand why my mere presence in a nearby seat bothers a man. He has
the option of closing his eyes or looking away, just as he may do when he walks
on a sidewalk or goes to the bank. Actually, on a bus it is fairly easy
to keep your eyes on a holy book.
For the record, I am a descendent of a
Hassidic family and value the modesty practiced in the private lives of many
communities in Jerusalem and Ramat Beit Shemesh. I’m an Orthodox Jew and I dress
accordingly, in a skirt that covers my knees and a shirt that covers my elbows
and collarbone and a kerchief that covers all my hair. The reports of violence
and intimidation against women who are exercising their legal right to sit in
the front of the bus horrified me, and that is what prompted me to become a
Relegating women to the back of the bus, burka-wearing,
and the disappearance of images of women and even young girls from newspapers
are things that can quickly become customary in a community that treasures
traditions. This is why we must speak up and make it clear that these things
were not part of the Judaism of our grandparents.
Since there is a lack
of data on how many women sit in the front on “segregated” buses without facing
any antagonism, we have no way of determining whether the reported violence is
typical or atypical.
While I would rather not hear any grumbling or
helpful suggestions when I choose a seat on a bus, I can’t say I have faced any
unpleasantness at all, so I conclude that the violent episodes were very rare,
and do not represent the reactions of the vast majority of men who choose to
ride on a “segregated” bus. Hilary Clinton can now focus on women’s rights in
Saudi Arabia; we are doing just fine here! The writer is an educational
psychologist and teaches at Efrata College, Jerusalem.