Backseat Driver: On the front line

‘In Jerusalem’ sits in the wrong end of a mehadrin bus.

jerusalem bus cartoon 311 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
jerusalem bus cartoon 311
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Traffic in general and public transportation in particular have become a painful issue over recent years in Jerusalem. On certain days, the traffic turmoil – roadwork everywhere – can turn any simple bus ride into an exasperating experience.
But this time “Backseat Driver” will look into another aspect of the trials awaiting users of public transportation in our beloved city: We took the column’s name literally and tested out a mehadrin (gender-segregated) line. The trip was in the context of a journalistic assignment, more specifically as a translator for two foreign press representatives from France who had come all the way to the Holy City to understand – or at least to witness – what the term “mehadrin” can mean in downtown Jerusalem.
We waited for bus No. 40 from Geula to Ramot (every 20 minutes) and back. Two women waiting at the bus stop refused to answer the simple question “Are you for or against gender segregation?” In answer to the same question, an elderly man wearing a Bukharan kippa told us with a smile that “with God’s help, everything will be fine.”
One woman, who was not in traditional Orthodox attire, told us: “I don’t mind. I rarely take this line. If that’s good for them, it’s their business.”
We were eventually saved by a haredi young man who agreed to answer my foreign colleagues’ inquiries, patiently explaining that “it is out of sheer respect for our women that we sit in the front and give them the back seats in order to refrain from any offensive looks or expressions.” The foreign journalists didn’t even try to hide their sarcastic smiles.
After a relatively short time, the bus arrived. The two back doors opened automatically, but we chose to enter through the front door, partly because we had to pay the driver. He didn’t seem to care: It was a few days after the High Court had ruled that gender segregation on public buses was illegal, and clearly he was just trying to get home safely by the end of the day. Nevertheless, I asked him if I and my two colleagues could sit together in the front. He shrugged his shoulders, indicating that he couldn’t care less.
We chose a double seat in the front of the bus. While I began to explain the origins and the reasons behind this local phenomenon, I noticed that on the opposite side a haredi man who looked to be in his 30s, dressed in what I could easily recognize as hassidic garb, stared at me insistently. From time to time, he exchanged a few words with a fellow passenger on the seat next to him, also a young hassid, but didn’t stop staring at me.
I decided to stare back, but after a while I looked around too. Like in a staged play, some eight or 10 women, including two obviously non-haredim, sat in the rear. One Arab male and about 12 other men, including the two foreigners, sat in the front. Not once during the ride, along Sderot Golda Meir and inside Ramot itself, did one passenger dare to break the unwritten law: men in front, women in back. The two journalists, needless to say, were stunned.
On the way back, a haredi passenger waiting for the No. 40 assented toanswer their questions. “I agree that the bus company should providealternative lines in which there will be no gender segregation; thesecular have the right to travel as they wish,” he said. “But we have adifferent way, and nobody should intervene and dictate to us how tolive our lives.”
It is worthy to note that apart from the few bus stops on Sderot GoldaMeir, all the No. 40 stops are in or close to haredi neighborhoods and,accordingly, the large majority of passengers on this line are haredi.
Recently, Transportation Minister Israel Katz announced that he is notopposed to the segregated buses, despite the High Court ruling banningthem.