Recently, a daughter furiously WhatsApped our La Familia: “Now a bunch of datiyim are davening (bloody loudly) in Dizengoff. Women shunted to back. I resent them!”
The text popped up while I was at the supermarket; I looked in vain for a chair in which to sink and think. Fifty years ago, when I made aliyah, the sight of a kippah-wearing bus driver sent me into paroxysms of joy. I’d have happily joined a “Hatikvah moment” street Shacharit. I’d have written home, ecstatically, to my still-stuck-in-exile family, on a blue aerogram that I folded and licked: “Israel is a miracle, and there’s a minyan in the street!!!!”
A different daughter, decades ago, implored us to light Shabbat candles and bless the kids, wine, hands and bread before her Scouts friends arrived; she didn’t want them to think we were religious. My husband, who grew up in an observant home in London, and I, unobservant but totally traditional, were shattered. We gathered our girls and discussed the Marranos, the raison d’etre of a Jewish state, the privilege of living here, free to practice our rituals.
Today, I am not so sure of anything. With the passing years, I barely go to shul, force myself to fast on Yom Kippur, change less and less kitchenware for Passover. I sadly admit that if I find myself in Bnei Brak or parts of Jerusalem, surrounded by black-hatted men and covered-up women, fraternal love is not my first emotion.
What has gone wrong? Why are committed Jews, those for whom our traditions were blood-beatingly entrenched and revered, now resenting our own religion? Why are we so alienated from the loudly praying? Why do we instinctively worry that they’re sanctimonious thugs?
Rabbi David Stav, a leading Religious Zionist rabbi, claims it’s his community’s fault; that, chillingly, it’s his bloc, including Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who frighten many Israelis – “and rightfully so.” He blames gung-ho insistence on the “judicial reforms.” But I think it goes much deeper.
When politics and religion and money mix, the resultant toxic mess turns the sane secular utterly off everything. And today the religious are firmly in power, with billions of the budget going to their education and welfare, while the rest of us deal with budget cuts. Never mind that it’s largely our side’s tax money that is paying for their pleasure. The sane secular are just sick of army evasion, the haredim’s endless subsidized studying, the way they erase women and ignore the environment. But they have multitudinous children, and we do not. Many of us fear a black, bleak future.
Fearing a black, bleak future for Israel due to haredim
SHOSHANNA KEATS JASKOLL, a gorgeous mother of five who has the loveliest shoes in her hometown of Beit Shemesh, refuses to despair.
“I grew up in America hearing the stories of my survivor grandparents,” she explains. “Thankfully, I don’t have to fight Nazis, like they did. But I am also fighting for my people, and I’m not about to give up.”
Keats Jaskoll, 48, who has made aliyah three times, has now been living here for 16 years. The bucolic, hilly area of Beit Shemesh looks tranquil and pretty; according to Keats Jaskoll, a lovely Anglophone community calls it home. “But there’s a growing and threatening haredi extremism at work here,” she cautions, “and it’s not about religion. It’s not even about women, though women obviously suffer. It’s all about control.”
It might not be all about women, but women are in the line of fire. Haredi hooligans spit at young girls for baring their elbows; they throw dirty diapers and stinking fish into schools they don’t deem strict enough; they pelt youngsters en route to Bnei Akiva meetings, who walk through their turf on Shabbat, and enforce “modest” rules of dress. This does not sit well with Keats Jaskoll.
“About 12 years ago I noticed women were disappearing from adverts and billboards. Then our daughters, who were under 10 at the time, were ordered to the back of the bus. And at the same time, my husband’s aunt was being denied a divorce by the beit din [rabbinical court]. It was just all too much,” she says.
Keats Jaskoll is a writer. At that time she, together with her sisters, was running a successful business writing pitches and grant proposals for NGOs and hi-tech firms. She sat down and fired off “The Hijacking of Judaism: Victims and Consequences,” which began: “I have seen little girls spat on and called whore. I have been spat on and called a whore myself.” The blog went viral in hours, and Keats Jaskoll was on a roll.
“Some readers dismissed me as an antisemite,” says the Orthodox mother of five; “others asked me for advice to deal with similar issues in their towns.”
Keats Jaskoll, with six other women, formed Chochmat Nashim (Wisdom of Women) to deal with religious dramas in a reasonable way. They’ve challenged the disruption of the Women of the Wall (so far unsuccessfully), got a Crosscurrents.com editor to change his stance on female advisers to brides, and brought religious madness into the mainstream of public awareness through podcasts and opinion pieces and projects.
Then a haredi woman from Bnei Brak contacted them for urgent help. The ultra-Orthodox, incredibly, were withholding information about breast cancer on the grounds that it’s immodest to talk about body parts. Women weren’t screening. Without early detection, too many young haredi women were dying preventable deaths.
“We figured out a way to put the info on posters,” smiles Keats Jaskoll, “and we pasted them up just before Shabbat so nobody could tear them down. Rabbis came on board; many lives have been saved.”
Today, Wisdom of Women is a donor-funded NGO with three main objectives: raising awareness about religious extremism; countering the erasure of women in the public space; and helping agunot (women chained to their marriages) to get divorces. Ratemybeitdin.com is a site it set up to help women research transparency, respect, fees, duration of cases, etc., in various rabbinical courts. Jewishlifephotos.com is a bank of scenes from Orthodox life that includes shots of women and girls.
Keats Jaskoll believes that Israel is at a crossroads: Either the path of anger and dogmatism will lead to destruction or we’ll learn, of necessity, to accept and work with the other.
“The only thing that can tear the Jewish people apart,” she concludes, “is the Jewish people.”
While she is convinced that sanity will prevail and things will improve, I am far from certain. The haredim are being fruitful and multiplying much faster than we are, and they control the purse strings. Last month, B-Pharm stuck purple labels over women’s faces on hair-coloring products. It’s a chillingly slippery slope.
So far, I’m still fighting against resenting the sight of davening Jews in Tel Aviv. But I’m not sure that I am winning.
God help us all.
The writer lectures at Reichman University. Peledpam@gmail.com