Monday, September 12, 2011

Rosa Parksenstein has arrived...

There wasn't much I could really do after learning of my father’s death on a Shabbos (Sabbath) 14 years ago; he died in New York and we lived in Chicago.  I wandered aimlessly through our apartment, to the front steps, back and forth, and then back and forth some more, all day long. During one of my "stare into space on the stoop" sessions, I saw what seemed to be the world's largest and slowest caterpillar.  That little thing chugged away, centimeter by centimeter and I thought that at some point, it would probably turn into a really large, and hopefully beautiful butterfly.  Since that day, I've associated butterflies with my father.  I'm not sure when I made the connection, but there is something very special, comforting, and real to me about them.  Today I saw two butterflies and I haven't seen many in Israel thus far. I’ve experienced my fair share of infuriatingly persistent buzzing flies, but not butterflies. I’ve also never in my entire life experienced the kind of traumatic morning I did today.  I've suffered through trauma, but this, this was beyond belief.  And if I allow myself to relive it, it proves to be as traumatic and unbelievable now as it was then.  I suppose the first of the two butterflies I saw today was my father's way of saying, "I'm right here and I have your back."  

We live in Beit Shemesh, an area that is populated by both Dati-Leumi (religious-national) and Chareidi ("ultra orthodox") Jews.  Within the Charedi group of  not so merry men and women, is a belief that the genders should be separated whenever they can be- during food shopping, eating pizza, or riding a public bus.  I'd heard and read about "Mehadrin" buses (loosely translated as the ‘best of the best’) and told myself that I would never take one. One might think that description refers to the bus' navigational system or road handling,  but it doesn’t.  Some how, someone came up with this nutty idea to have women sit in the back of the bus and men in front, for the purposes of modesty.  I don't know whether to laugh or throw up because it's simply unreal.  But I learned first hand today that it is very real. And if you know me, and for what its worth, I talk how I type, you know that I don't "do"  disrespect, prejudice, or inhumane behavior very well at all. 

My husband and I had no clue that the bus we boarded this morning was a "mehadrin" bus.  Bus segregation for the record, is entirely ILLEGAL in Israel, but still practiced by some… my luck! As I scanned the front of the bus for an available spot after paying my fare, a seated gentleman in Charedi garb told my husband that I had to go to the back of the bus. My answer was simple: NO. He told us it was a Mehadrin bus, as if that would make me skip to my 'rightful' place in the back, but his statement was quickly met with, "Lo bishvili (Not for me)!" A woman sitting in the back of the bus threw in her two shekels and INSISTED loudly, and eventually up close and personally while yelling at me in front of the other straphangers, that I move to the back out of "kavod (respect)." She told me, "This isn't the US... [you]can't just do what [you] want," and then proceeded to call me "chiloni (secular)." Understand that in Israel, being called 'chiloni' is the equivalent of telling someone they're not even Jewish. 

But these folks were messing with the wrong Jewish lady. I stood my ground and told her that she could be a slave but that I choose not to be.  I continued to sit in the front of the bus for the very brief period of time we were even on the dang thing, and maintained my not-so-subtle stance: the back of the bus my foot! It was, indeed, my "Rosa Parksenstein" moment, but I made it very clear to myself and the others on the bus, that I will, frankly, be damned if anyone's going to tell me where I can sit or treat me like a second class citizen. There was no way on this planet that I was going to be made to feel like anything OTHER THAN a proud Jewish woman. I had my kubaton in hand in case things got physical, as I wasn't convinced they wouldn't.  Proud I am, stupid I'm not.

After exiting the bus, kubaton in hand and religious litany in ear, the tears started to flow  from a visceral place deep inside.  I cover my hair, I wear skirts, I wear sleeved shirts, and maintain that my most important jobs in this world are that of being a mother and wife.  I know where it’s "at" and I know that public embarrassment and shame are not.  When someone asked me why I was crying, a woman who was dressed much like me, she asked if I was told to move to the back because of how I'm dressed.  I told her it wasn't because of my dress, but because I have a uterus.  I learned, once again,  just how important it is to stand up for what I am.  Moments earlier I was able to calm myself briefly by acknowledging that this was just a test.  Of what you ask?  Perhaps, of seeing how much I believe the phrase, "Don't judge Judaism by its Jews."  Perhaps, of seeing how much insanity I'll put up with before I say, "we are OUTTA here!" 

I've had my mettle tested before and I don't give up easily.  My passion in what I believe in is both my strongest and weakest suits. But today it was the best weapon I had. I know who I am and that being a Jewish woman is something I am extremely proud of.  For crying out loud, my kids are Jewish because of ME.   I've no intentions of hiding from someone who finds the scent of my estrogen too strong.   I will not hide behind my femininity nor, use it destructively. Ironically, I actually LIKE covering my hair (it's like dress-up for grown ups) and clothing myself in a way that speaks to my integrity.  One might've thought I was dressed like a... or not dressed at all from the reactions I received today.  I even find it a bit amazing that the woman yelling at me was upset enough to enter (cue the Star Wars music) "The Verboten Spot" just to give me a piece of her mind- one that she clearly needs to keep to herself. Perhaps passion is her yin-yang, too.

I cried from what seemed like the depths of my soul. The assault hurt in a way that I still can't entirely explain but feel in the pit of my stomach, core of my being, and fabric of my soul.  In my opinion at least, I’m one of the most respectful people I know; its part of who I am personally, religiously, and professionally.  So to not be given the same due, particularly by a hair covering, skirt wearing, Jewish woman, boggles my mind.  Our Torah contains stories about women who led the way, navigated uncharted territory, and still made it home for dinner. Women who dressed modestly but were alluring when they needed to be. Women who stood by their men and stood up for themselves.  See, I don't want to be as innovative as much as be like them.

I don't want to fight, I don't want to argue, and I don't want to contribute to the divisiveness that is trying to consume us.  I don't want to be part of the reason, as my 10 year old so poignantly said, we'll have another Tisha B'Av.  I felt undeniably vindicated after sharing this tale with my 16 year old daughter when she said "Good for you!" To me, that means I'm doing something right.  It means that my daughter has self respect and like her Mom, won't take these things lying down, or forcefully seated in the back of a bus.  I take solace in having done what I feel was the absolute right thing to do, as well as from the butterfly that flew past and then perched itself near me as I cried. 


  1. Enjoyed reading your story and as you, am indignant at the treatment you had to undergo. The fact that you stood up to them tells me you are a very strong woman who definitely knows right from wrong. YOU ROCK!!!

  2. Kol hakavod, Rachel!

    I am so proud to read of someone who has only recently come on Aliyah and is already making such a positive difference. The chareidi community works with the bullying method, they use it to maintain discipline within their ranks and they use it to subjugate others to follow their ever increasing, ever more outrageous new chumrot. Any concession to an individual or communal bully only fuels the bully to up the ante. The only proper and effective response to a bully is to stand firm and, if necessary, use force (I love the detail about having the kubotan in hand!). Had the Dati community in Beit Shemesh not actively responded (finally!) to the chareidi hooligans, the girls' school would have become yet another chareidi madrassa. I hope to see more individual and collective resistance to the shenanigans of a coterie of bullies.

  3. Kol HaKavod! As a Jewish man, I thank you.

  4. Wow, this post made me feel terribly proud of you - and I don't even know you. I like to think I would have done exactly what you did, at least I would have wanted to. As Mr. Anonymous before me said, Thank you! Thank you for having the strength of character to stand up to this 'narishkeit'. It's a slippery-slope that we are going down and we need more people like you, who won't just take the path of least resistance, to allow sanity to reign supreme.

  5. I am grateful that your day was accompanied by two butterflies with such significance to you. Think of them also as the angels that stood on either side of Lot to protect him from the men he had once believed were friends and neighbors.

    You did a very Jewish thing today in refusing to "do" disrespect. "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Ex 23:2). Sometimes to be a Jew we must sit exactly where we are and stay there, even when it upsets our fellow Jews.

    I'd also add very Israeli. You are clearly nobody's friar-it. Mazel tov on your Aliah!

    May blessings and healing follow you for all the damage this moment caused and may pride remain and light your way.

  6. Anyone who embarrasses another person, intentionally, without remorse, is not an observant Jew. Period.

    On a policy level, private bus companies can provide whatever kind of service they want. The High Court erred in denying enforcement of a company policy.

    If you don't like the fact that a bus company has chosen to designate certain lines as gender seperate, let them know about it. Boycott the bus company if you want. Just showing up on the bus and refusing to follow the company's rules doesn't accomplish anything.

    I'm glad you don't "judge Judaism by its Jews", especially since the Jews who accosted you are obviously not practicing Judaism.

    If Charedi men and Charedi women want to sit in separate areas (and many of them genuinely do), I don't have an issue with it. Let them practice their religion, whatever that is.

  7. Kol hacavod!
    @ Adam: Rachel did not mention the name of the bus company so you have no way of knowing if it was a private bus or a public franchisee. Companies who have a contract with the State to provide service in a particular area must obey the laws of the State.

  8. Welcome to the segregated bus battle. It's been going on for a really long time. So sorry you experienced this.

  9. Shoshana,

    Every company must obey the laws of the State, public or private. It's not entirely clear that private bus lines can legally enforce separate seating either.

    Egged, Superbus, etc. want to provide these services for the Charedi population, because if they don't, the Charedim will rely on private van service whenever possible, to avoid mixed seating. The bus companies don't want to lose the revenue generated by a huge chunk of the bus-riding populace.

    By the way, why is it always non-Charedi women trying to sit in the men's section that is viewed as "courageous", "Rosa Parks", "pioneering" etc. If I went to sit in the women's section of that bus, would I be equally cheered by the same people?

  10. Rachel, you are awesome. End of story. As a Jewish man in the United States who sees Israel's rather vocal (and sometimes violent) Orthodox Jewish population, I've got to say, knowing that Jewish women have a spirit that will say "no" to institutional, gender-based slavery is exciting on an indescribable level.

  11. Pardon my French but Rachel, you ****ing rule. The people who harassed you are LOSERS in my book and if that makes ME a bad Jew for saying that, I can live with it. How dare they. Kol hakavod, and mazal tov on your aliyah. Let me, let all of us, know if you need anything.

  12. I'm humbled and a little freaked out!!! So help me G-D, our whole goal that day was to get to Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph so we could rent a car. I REALLY appreciate all this support, probably more than you know. What an interesting ride this whole Aliyah thing is proving itself to be, huh? ;-)

  13. I am confused... just like you dont enjoy these people meddling with your community why do you go into THEIR territory? If you noticed right away it was mehadrin you should have immediately got off the bus or at least at the next stop. Otherwise you shouldn't mind them imposing their values where you live.

  14. I wasn't in their territory. I was on a public sidewalk prepared to take a bus. Mehadrin buses are 1000% illegal no matter where you take them. I've taken the bus from the very same stop before with nary a problem. I did not, actually, notice it was a Mehadrin bus- I noticed it was the 11.

  15. "He told us it was a Mehadrin bus, as if that would make me skip to my 'rightful' place in the back, but his statement was quickly met with, "Lo bishvili (Not for me)!"
    Why didn't you immediately get off the bus after that? Why continue to make a ruckus and put yourself in danger? If these people want to live their lives like that then so be it... just like you want to live your life without their disruptions! (p.s. also from chicago and just trying to understand... not endorsing their actions!!)

  16. I understand... :) I was adamant, yes, that I wasn't moving to the back based on principle. Look, if I had a knife to my throat, G-D forbid, I would've marched myself to the back. The whole notion of women "having to" be in the back because we're alluring or tempting or whatever, flies in the face of Judaism, modesty, and decency, however defined. It's not about pride as in, "I'll show YOU!" It's about knowledge of the fact that I'd done nothing wrong and that I subscribe to a Higher Authority who regards me far better than the 2 people who summed me up, lock stock and barrel!

  17. This comment goes out to DB:

    I'm also from Chicago, and I know right from wrong. There is so much wrong with everything you said, not to mention the accusatory tone you have taken with an innocent person riding a bus - which offends me almost as much as those who yelled at her. Shame on you.

    Firstly, I want to let it be known that I lived across the street from Rachel for 7 years - and she is one of the nicest, most outgoing and caring people I know.

    Pardon me, but your feeble attempt to courageously "understand" their actions - excuses them. You also have the ultimate chutzpah to blame the victim here in accusing her of "continuing to make a ruckus." and demanding that she get off.

    A little fact for you as well - the court ruling on the Mehadrin busses recently made it very clear that the segregation could NOT be enforced by anyone through any means or INTIMIDATION. So the only thing to understand here is that a bunch of people
    a) broke the law
    b) behaved like animals
    c) created a huge chillul Hashem
    To which I say GREAT JOB! Thanks for delaying the Geulah even more!

    Maybe we can all just be a little more tolerant and a little nicer towards our fellow man. No one ever became more religious after being segregated, yelled at, berated or humilated in public.

    Rachel - I am pained to hear you had to endure such a treatment. I am hopeful that you will continue to stand your ground and not give in to this "mehadrin bus" stupidity. Be careful though at the same time...

    We miss you guys!

  18. Thank you, "Rosa!"

  19. was this an egged bus or a private mehadrin bus. If it was Egged you are well within your rights and you did the right thing, if it was a private bus, they can set the rule, and you should have listened

  20. It was a public bus. Not an Egged bus, but it was public...

  21. Hey 2931... you just blew me away. I'm misty eyed and miss you guys too. Aw man, and now I'm crying. I made it a whole 24 hours without doing that too! Love to you guys!!!!

  22. I am an ex-liberal (read Conservative) Jew, and I can't help feeling so impressed by your story, impressed in a negative way. Does the word respect, as you wrote in your text kavod, for other Jews' customs mean nothing to you at all? I would be ashamed if I were you.

  23. Kol Hakavod! I hope your acclimation to Israel is an easy one and that you continue to stand up for what you believe in!

  24. Hey Anonymous... You're not me, so no need to feel much of anything. I am me and I'm not ashamed. I can however agree to disagree so as to protect and spare both yours and my kavod. Shabbat Shalom...

  25. to the ex-liberal - a legitimate "custom" is davening nusach ashkenaz or sefard - or sitting for kiddush Friday night or waiting 6 hours after a shwarma. Why? Because these things are rooted in halacha and dont negatively impact anyone else.

    A "mehadrin" bus is a new "shtick", and has nothing to do with halacha, and therefore doesnt fall under this category. So a "custom" it is NOT.
    R' Moshe Feinstein ruled it muttar to travel on a "mixed" bus. Case Closed.

    You want separate seating? Buy a car or start your own PRIVATE bus company - Ill be sure to take a taxi. Dont foist your chumrohs on me.

    This is what a lot of the "frummer than thou" just dont get. When they continually conflate Chumrohs/stringencies with legitimate Torah based Halachos.

  26. I didn't post a comment to raise any kind of storm. I only think that tolerance must be shown on both sides. Some words in the text were not very dignifying: "not so merry Charedi..." (who are we to judge anyone? Do you really include ALL Charedim in this category? Isn't that prejudice?). "These folks were messing with...", are "we" talking about fellow Jews? Did "those folks" wrong you? Forgive them, but please don't ridicule them with improper adjectives. Shabbat Shalom l'kulam!

  27. To West: Who said it is "asur" to travel on mixed buses???

  28. As your daughter said, "Good for you!"

  29. Oy, I'm so tired, but I'll answer with this... "not so merry Charedi..." (who are we to judge anyone? Do you really include ALL Charedim in this category? Isn't that prejudice?...
    Good L-rd, no! I don't think every single person who is or feels or identifies as "Charedi" is a sterotype. I do however know from my clinical experience that those who act the way the two people on the bus did have mood issues. I didn't say disorders, I said issues. When you're happy with yourself, you don't need to seek out others to embarrass!

    "These folks were messing with..." These folks that were messing with me. are "we" talking about fellow Jews? Did "those folks" wrong you?
    One folk (the man) + another folk (the woman)= these folks.

    Forgive them, but please don't ridicule them with improper adjectives.... I forgive their ignorance, their need to do what they did and no, I'm not ridiculing them. I'm standing up for myself and will as I need to.

    And with that, I bid all adieu.... night!

  30. Rachel, I apologize, I just wanted to make my point, i.e., say why I was kind of negatively impressed by what I read. No bad feelings, just an exchange of opinions. Behatzlachah and...despite the differences of opinion, kol hakavod for standing up for who you are and believe.
    Good night and Shanah Tovah.

  31. I am VERY impressed by that! Thank you for closing as you did. It takes a big person to do that and I applaud you. OK, now if we could get everybody to be respectful we'd REALLY be in business!

  32. As they say, well behaved women don't make history.

  33. Welcome to Bet Shemesh. We need gals like you!
    Good luck with your aliyah. The first year is the hardest.

  34. mazel tov a true yiddshe moma

    ben gershon

  35. I like what you did, but I don't like that you couch it in outrage that they would treat YOU, dressed as YOU dress, living as YOU live, that way. If I got on that bus, I should also be treated well, though I do not cover my hair, I do not wear dresses, and I rarely wear sleeved shirts in Jerusalem in September.

  36. Roselle, please know that I agree with you 1000%. I emphasized my dress only to show that folks who wear skirts and sleeves are equally considered "not good enough" for others' standards. Were you on the bus, I'd hope that you'd also not move to the back. And if we were on the bus together, I'd have your back, no matter what you were wearing! No one deserves to be humiliated or attacked. I'm grateful you stopped by and shared your thoughts. May this be a year of peace and normalcy! Shanah Tova...

  37. I am sure that many people may have said the same thing or similar or totally opposite- Either way, I can not bring myself to read through all the comments. I understand the feeling of trying to fight the years-old battles of religious segregation- I did it when I was a teenager. Nowadays I have learned different.

    There are different options of buses in Israel and you can choose to go on the non-chareidi buses. Once you step into their territory you should, as a decent person, abide by their rules. No one told you to believe in them but they seem to like being segregated. The fact that you grew up in America where they fought segregation many years ago doesn't mean that you can bring your beliefs over to a different country and impose it on them. I agree, the segregation is odd and unconventional and unfair to the women. The men, if anything, should be sitting in the back. The women should not have to pay, get out and walk to the back. Especially because they generally come with a stack of children. Either way it does not matter what you or I believe. When you go to the neighborhoods of chassidim and they have a simchat beit ha'shoeva and the men and women are on different sides, is it so hard to just obey for a few minutes. You think that your little rant or disagreement to their rules will make a dent in their lives? That is a silly and slightly immature belief.

    They have been living here for many more years that any of us. They have different lifestyles and their relgious restrictions seem to work for them. Do I think that it saves them from problems? No, they should probably be sitting them together so there is not as much sexual tension. But it doesn't matter. Let them believe what they believe and you do different. Adam had said it well.

    For the women or men who embarrass you in public and say things that should never be said, I apologize on their behalf. No one should ever treat a fellow Jew with such hatred and G-d takes care of reward and punishment. Don't be like them and fight. Just blend in where it matters and stay away. Believe in what you believe and treat your fellow Jew properly even if it hurts.

    I know you finished with segregation many years ago but you moved into a country that still has no problem with it. They were here first and they have their neighborhoods that you are never forced to join. We can't keep starting fights. Sinaat chinam- whether with reason or not, is still hatred.

    Don't be a hater and don't ruin what they have. Do different and do better. It wont help to be the Rosa P. of this place. You said "I don't want to fight, I don't want to argue, and I don't want to contribute to the divisiveness that is trying to consume us." Just stay away and take the other buses and don't fight them. If you do, you are just doing everything you said you don't want to do.

    This place takes getting use to. No one said it's easy. And sometimes it really hurts. And other times you will never agree or even understand.

  38. Dear thelogofiles.

    How do you think hurtful segregation ever changes? By people keeping silent as you suggest?

    Resisting and critiquing wrong is not hating. In many cases it is the opposite of hate. When we refuse to speak up about wrong, it festers within us. That festering creates pain and that pain often expresses itself as hate. Righteous anger on the other hand allows us to let go of pain and replace it with a recognition of justice. Instead of hating, we are able to work towards constructive change.

    By your argument Moses should have never said anything to Pharoah because it would interfere with Pharoah's chosen way of life to let go of his slaves. After all slavery was part of the Egyptian way of life and how dare anyone be a hater and take it from Pharoah?

    Nor should we try to prevent a Haredi man spitting at a little girl in his belief that his actions are supported by halachah, the leadership of his rabbis, and his own natural sexual instincts as a healthy man. He was merely acting to protect his life style.

    For that matter, the original Rosa Parks should not have protested either. Nor should any Jew not subject to segregation joined in the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march as did Abraham Joshua Heschel. At the time they protested segregation was not only the custom of the south, it was the law in certain states and jurisdictions.

    Rachel has the law in her favor which gives her even stronger ground than the US civil rights activists.

    Furthermore those who attacked her are not a separate society. They receive services and benefits from the state like any other Israeli citizen: defense, roads, police services, buses, hospitals, etc. Yet these particular individuals disrespected the laws of the state from which they benefit and were abusive to another human being. That is both a moral and a civil wrong.

    Furthermore, Haredim consider themselves Jews. Rachel does too, as do I and I presume most of the commentators here. On the basis of our common Jewishness Rachel also has a right to comment and protest. She, as much as they, is responsible for setting forth a vision of what ahavat Israel and ahavat Torah really mean.