Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Bus on the Bridge

When it happened last week, I thought it was an anomaly so I let it slide. But when it happened again today I realized that I can no longer ignore it.

I have started going to Jerusalem for a new part-time job (too early to give details, but suffice to say that so far I am very happy with the work and am looking forward to seeing this turn into a long-term thing). Last Thursday and again today, I rode both the train and the bus within Jerusalem, both of which had several Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) male passengers and several women dressed in various stages of “modesty” – some with skirts above their knees, some in shirt sleeves, or in jeans/slacks – even one or two with some cleavage showing.

And then, on these local buses and trains within Jerusalem….

… (dramatic chord as per a wonderful Monty Python sketch)…

…nothing happened!

Before you object that this cannot be, I will tell you that I was shocked as well. But there you have it.

None of the Haredi men were so overcome with lust that they jumped the bones of these evil temptress women.

None of the women felt the need to brush up against, bend down in front of, or in any other way attempt to lure the poor defenseless men into abandoning their personal convictions of gender-relations.

There was no name-calling or shouting (at least not beyond the normal amount of name-calling and shouting that one expects to hear on an inner-Jerusalem bus or train), no anger, animosity or alienation (the Triple-A of Israeli society).

In short, everybody acted like decent people and nobody bothered anyone that may have been different than themselves.

If this does not strike you as odd, then clearly you have not been following the news recently from Israel. While there is a long history of tension between the Haredi community and the rest of Israel, in the past few months it has boiled over with several absolutely shocking incidents.

In Jerusalem many Haredi men have been trying to force women to sit in the backs of buses, and have verbally attacked women who have refused to do so. In certain Haredi neighborhoods the men have been working to segregate the streets so as to avoid any contact whatsoever with women. Jerusalem has also seen a “policy” in which has become forbidden to allow even pictures of women on advertisements, in newspapers, etc.

Most of the world was (rightfully) shocked and horrified when many Haredi men in Beit Shemesh (a bedroom community 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem) were yelling at, cursing, spitting on and physically attacking girls as young as 8 years old who, while religiously observant and modestly dressed, were not quite dressed to the standards that these men believed they should be (never mind the fact that these girls from religious families were not even partof teh Haredi community whose men were determining exactly how they should be dressed!).

Even the once-sacred IDF has not been immune as some rabbis have determined that their followers should not sit in military gatherings in which women sing, so they have ruled that the religious soldiers should walk out of these events. Understandably the IDF does not agree to make these events “optional” and will not allow soldiers to choose between their commanding officers and their rabbis. As a result, certain rabbinical leaders are calling on their followers to no longer serve in the IDF.

I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that in the 24 years that I have lived in Israel, and observed/experienced the tensions between the Haredi community and the rest of Israeli society, the tensions, mistrust and downright hatred has never been as prevalent as in the past few months. The resentment that the secular and National-Religious communities feel towards the Haredim feels to be at an all-time high, and the sense of attempted religious coercion from the Haredim onto the rest of Israel is stronger than ever.

Yet last Thursday when I was in Jerusalem and again this morning, I saw none of that.

This basically means one of two things. Possibly the tensions are not really as high as we have been led to believe, and the events which have been so well documented in the media have been blown out of proportion, Alternately it is possible – even likely – that while the fanatics are very real, and very loud, and not being reined in by their own leaders, there are still enough members of the Haredi community showing us that normalcy and co-existence are possible (yes, I know that we generally refer to “co-existence” as the ability of Jews and Arabs to live peacefully side-by-side, but the unfortunate irony today is that it is equally significant when discussing Jews living amongst themselves).

I am hoping and praying that we can return to the “normalcy” of what I have seen on my recent trips to Jerusalem. Peaceful co-existence within Israeli society (between Jews and Arabs as well as Jews among Jews) need not be rooted in universal agreement on religious, political and social issues, nor need it be based upon completely ignoring and avoiding one another.

Rather, it can happen when communities – and more significantly, individuals learn that respect and acceptance are not the same as agreement.

We don’t need to see eye-to-eye on issues – whether they be religious, political, social, or whatever as long as can find it in ourselves to accept and to respect the differences between us. What we especially need is a smidgen of the humility necessary to remind us that no matter how obvious the facts may seem to be, there is the outside possibility that we just might be mistaken. It’s OK if we are – it can happen to the very best of us. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in the blog Toy Store Theology, even the greatest leaders and heroes of the Bible were not above occasionally missing the proverbial mark, so if it turns out that it happens to me every now and then, I can live with that.

Tomorrow night there is a lecture taking place in my city of Modi’in, one which sounds very interesting and I wish that I was able to attend (I’m not, as it turns out). The lecture, being delivered by a rabbi, is entitled "Bridging the Gulf - Understanding the Haredi World.” One of the stated purposes of the talk is to offer a “glimpse into the Haredi world” and I am assuming by the title of the program that the idea is to enable non-Haredim to better understand Haredim and thus be more charitable in how they relate to Haredim, particularly in light of the recent tensions.

I’m all for the idea of understanding the “other” and therefore accepting without judgement our differences, but I cannot help but to wonder (knowing deep inside what the answer is) if a similar lecture ever could and ever would take place within the Haredi community. Would a Modern-Orthodox rabbi, let alone a Conservative or reform rabbi be invited and welcomed into a Haredi setting to give them a chance to understand how non-Haredim think? What about a secular Jew, or – God Forbid – a woman (even if she promises not to sing)?

Of course this would never happen. It seems that the only hope we have of “Bridging the Gap” is if the non-Haredi world makes an effort to understand and make allowances for Haredim. It’s a one-way street and seems to be leading nowhere.

The whole situation reminds me too much of an Emo Phillips stand-up comedy routine that I have always loved. His is possibly the most annoying voice I have ever heard, but his comedy is hysterically funny.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! Don’t do it!"
"Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!"
He said, “Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?"
He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
He said, "Baptist!" I said, “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
He said, “Baptist Church of God" I said, "Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"
He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!"
I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.

This joke used to be much funnier before it started to feel like Israeli society is on that bridge, with the women being banished to the back of the bus and the bus heading right over the guard rail and into the water.

Hopefully the buses and trains that I have been on so far are the ones that will drive far away from the bridge. And we can find the budget to buy more vehicles for that particular route.


  1. It never fails when I read something you have written: I learn a lot and I long for a book in which you would collect similar essays to teach the rest of us outside Israel. I promise you that if you write such a book, I will be one of the first to purchase a copy.Pat Fulton

  2. It never fails when I read something you have written: I learn a lot and I long for a book in which you would collect similar essays to teach the rest of us outside Israel. I promise you that if you write such a book, I will be one of the first to purchase a copy.Pat Fulton