Ophelia: Beis Ya’akov innocent or foul-mouthed wanton?

It seems to me that there’s a burgeoning extremism spreading into more and more communities – separate concerts for men and women, separate youth movements, separate lives.

The scene: A multi-cultural food fair in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The crime: ‘Mixed’ background music piped from a kosher Jewish stall; i.e. women’s voices mingling with men’s over the airwaves.
The punishment: The Boys in Black Brigade swooped in to the rescue, cut the electricity to stop the offensive filth, and dumped the contents of dirty diapers over the food of the blasphemers, thereby sanctifying the Almighty, blessed be His Name.
THE PROBLEM: Nearly forty years ago, when I was a student at the Hebrew University, the English Department was housed in Givat Ram. I can’t recall exact details of my studies; I think we congregated in the Lauder building near the lawns, and I remember floury pitot from the cafeteria, and coffee served in Styrofoam cups. But one thing jumps out of those wonderful introductory lectures to English literature: the day when two firstyear students flounced out of Shakespeare I, grumbling vociferously that they hadn’t come to Jerusalem to study pornography.
They were religious young women; one, at nineteen, already wore the head covering of a married matron, the other the ubiquitous under-the-knee denim skirt favored by the modest.
What had so offended their delicate sensibilities was Shakespeare’s sonnet CXXIX – “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”
“Spirit” was Elizabethan slang for the ejaculate, and our professor dissected the poem, explaining how it was an excoriation of sex. It’s a graphic sonnet, number one hundred and twenty-nine, with its description of sexual congress as “perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.” The words are mimetic; the oohs and ahhs of the epithets imitating the sounds of love, and the plosive consonants adding to the fun. I was mesmerized by this first-time encounter with the power of words; the flouncers were appalled.
Over the years I have taught Sonnet CXXIX many times; and many a times and oft religious students have upped and outed from my class. Now I know that the kids from my class of ’75 (one of whom went on to have nine children of her own), would never arm themselves with a dirty diaper and unfurl it over a table of (kosher) food. Nor would my nice newly-religious college student who reluctantly tore himself from the Shakespeare class once or twice, and then cracked and stayed to watch the balcony scene. He would never contemplate condoning such behavior; I am certain that he, along with all decent religious English Lit students would decry the mere notion that black-coated hooligans could dare to foul the sanctity of Jerusalem with smelly pampers.
But here’s the rub: There is, in my opinion, a growing connection between stomping out of class when Shakespearian slang offends, and some pretty weird stuff. Let me explain.
A MONTH or so ago, in the crazy run-up to Pessah, I was taken to task not for the stringency of my kashrut, but over some scurrilous Shakespeare. My interlocutor was from a population known as hardalim, a new word for me. Nearly 40 years in the country and, until recently, the only hardal I knew was yellow, usually from Dijon, and came in a bottle. This appellation has nothing to do with mustard – it’s an amalgamation of haredi and dati leumi (national religious) ... go figure. It seems as if the old secular-religious divide in Israel is passé; new distinctions embrace finer nuances. Hardalim go to the army and work; their men are not obliged to have beards, but their women cover their hair and never wear jeans. Oh, and mentioning sex in mixed company, even Romeo and Juliet’s balcony blast, is beyond the pale.
In a bucolic neighborhood in the center of the country, someone from a hardal community had read my novel, For the Love of God and Virgins. The book is about the unfair media spin against Israel in the foreign press, and William Shakespeare is the king of spin. I discuss, in the book, how facts are not facts until they are broadcast on prime time TV: audiences abroad hear about a massacre in Jenin and they believe it; the late-night retraction is missed or ignored. Goldstone says IDF soldiers kill civilians intentionally and that becomes gospel; by the time he changes his mind, the minds of millions are set in stone.
My reader proclaimed that she had loved my book. But there was just one little thing. She hoped I wouldn’t be offended, but, please, could I consider writing an “expunged” version, one that she could show to her 19-year-old daughter, her mother and her 92-year-old gran. If I could just knock out a “cleaner” novel for a more religious readership, I would sell more copies.
I was flummoxed.
“What would you like me to expunge?” I inquired.
“The explicit sex,” she explained.
Thus my confusion: There is no explicit sex in my book.
“It’s the Shakespeare,” she clarified.
“You explain that for Elizabethans the word ‘nothing’ meant anything to do with sex. You point out that Ophelia was flirting with Hamlet; when she says ‘nothing’ to him their banter goes from bad to worse.”
This was offensive to my reader and she didn’t accept my interpretation. Her Ophelia was a chaste, innocent Beis Ya’akov seminary girl, and the cruder variant had ruined the play for her. She did not want to inflict this travesty on her family. And, what’s more, as I was informed later, the sexual proclivities of Shakespeare’s characters was not a suitable subject for debate in mixed company; I had erred in introducing the topic where men were present.
ONLY HOURS later, as I was falling asleep, did my answer come to me. Are Beis Ya’akov daughters, and their moms/grannies allowed to read the Bible? The venerable King David in bed with a virgin? Noah uncovered and incest between Amnon and Tamar? Judah and his daughter- in-law? King Solomon and his concubines? And so on and so forth. What exactly, for example, was Ruth doing at Boaz’s feet ... is that not a little too explicit for comfort? Should there be an “expunged version” put out, one suitable for women and kids? And one more little thing: Can the Torah be discussed in mixed company, or is it insufficiently pure? “Forget it,” advised a woman with whom I work, and whose kids have become hardal. “There are extremists in every walk of life; she’s not representative.”
“Forget it,” suggested a good friend, who is FFB (Frum from birth). “It’s not that we are prudes. It’s just that discussing sexual slang in the early modern period, in mixed company, is the first step on a slippery slope.”
Apparently, according to the more religious mindset, talk of “impure” topics across the gender line leads to the sorry state in the secular world where sex is meaningless and some mothers worry if their daughters are still virgins at the age of twelve. Yes! That’s why, according to her, in some secular bubbles, “many, if not most” non-religious Israeli pre-teens have sexual partners (to their mothers’ relief). Talking about immodest subjects in the living room is a direct cause.
To me there is something very wrong here, and very frightening. Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that hysterical puritanicalism leads to chucking dirty diapers at people who offend you. Nor do I think that all the devout are dogmatic; on the contrary, I value much that religion has to offer to the individual, and to the state.
But somehow a climate of craziness is creeping into the mainstream, in the guise of purity – no mention of sex in mixed company first, and then no mixing at all.
In certain segments of the population I believe that nursery schools are now gender separated, adding to the brouhaha over separate seating on buses, separate sidewalks, separate supermarkets in case, G-d forbid, a male arm brushes up against a female hip as he reaches for the milk.
Where is this written? And how are we letting it happen? If I could believe, for even a nano-second, that this exaggerated purity led to less gender violence, more genuine love, better family values and deeper respect for women – okay. But does it? The ultra- Orthodox often have gaily flapping laundry spread over their cramped balconies in Mea She’arim; it’s harder to find facts and figures on spousal abuse. I would hazard a guess that in societies that permit discussions on double entendres in Shakespeare the figures of violence against women are no higher than in homes where all mention of sex is banished when husbands and wives are present.
Can this obsession over purity possibly lead to a climate in the country where a group of haredi heavies, incensed at the sound of women singing along with men on the sound-system of a kosher restaurant in Jerusalem’s Old City, cut the cables to the amplifier and poured excreta over the plates? “They’re a tiny minority,” is always the cry, “a tiny, crazy minority who don’t represent anyone except themselves.”
I’m not so sure.
I think that in some genteel living rooms all over the country sparks are being lit for a most unusual way of life ... where life can’t be lived in mixed company.
RECENTLY A New York Hassidic newspaper, Der Zeitung, expunged US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the iconic White House photo of President Barack Obama and his team watching the Pakistan raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in progress. Where she sits was a blank space; a female staffer was also excised. Down the line this bizarreness must surely translate, must mutate into something more sinister: bombing transgressors of gender separation with loaded nappies, for example, or setting their garbage cans on fire.
It seems to me that there’s a burgeoning extremism spreading into more and more communities – separate concerts for men and women, separate youth movements, separate lives. Can this be what G-d had in mind when he charged us to be a light unto the nations? The question remains: Can women be present at a davar Torah, say, at a Shabbat cholent lunch, when the question of Dina’s unsuitable dalliance is raised? Can Song of Songs be studied when both mom and dad are around? Or is talking about this part of the Torah together the first step on a slippery slope to perdition? It’s an interesting thought.
The writer is a lecturer in English Literature at Beit Berl and also at IDC. She just published her first novel called For the Love of God and Virgins.