Jerusalem life: 'Are you aware? Women should not be strolling outdoors'

Flyers cast off a balcony during a large funeral gathering in Jerusalem give this reporter a crash course in modesty, at least by one fringe group's standards.

Nir Elias/Reuters
Jewish people, including women, read holy Jewish books outside the cemetery during the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-religious Shas political party, in Jerusalem October 7, 2013.
Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Dozens of flyers like this one were thrown over a busy street during the funeral procession for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem's Geula neighborhood this week.

People often ask me what it’s like to be a female reporter in the Middle East, expressing concern about the rise of sexual harassment on Cairo’s street or extremist attitudes toward women.

Overall it’s fine, I tell them.

But this week I had an interesting experience in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula, where 850,000 people – 1 in 8 Israelis – gathered for the funeral procession of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, widely seen as one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation.

As I was interviewing a secular Jewish man off to the side of a street, a flurry of flyers rained down from a balcony above us.

“ARE YOU AWARE?” the flyer asked, one side printed in English and the other in Hebrew. “Separating oneself and maintaining distance between men and women is the basis for tznius [modesty],” it said, referencing a passage from Shulchan Aruch, a 16th century compilation that Rabbi Yosef and others have held up as the basis of all Jewish rabbinical law.

But few today would endorse the conclusions that followed this statement on the flyer:

“Thus:

  •       When men are in the street, a woman should go off to the side.
  •       A woman should not raise her voice whe[n] men are around.
  •       Women should not be strolling outdoors when men are frequenting the streets”

Such societal demands, together with occasional incidents of “immodestly” dressed women being scolded or stoned, are seen by many as the work of fringe groups who are becoming increasingly vocal as more ultra-Orthodox women expand the sphere of their lives – including jobs at hi-tech firms such as Intel.

It was ironic to me that I was showered with these pamphlets while standing quietly by a dumpster, apart from the crowds, rather than when my husband and I were fighting our way through a mass of humanity in Geula’s main street, which required not only brushing up against ultra-Orthodox men with top hats and swinging side curls but at times being tightly sandwiched between them.

But Jewish life seems full of such contradictions, at least to an outsider like me, and even religious Jews themselves can’t agree on exactly how to implement the value of modesty in the hustle and bustle of modern life. Here’s an excerpt of a debate I found on theyeshivaworld.com about the potential perils of mingling with seminary girls in Geula during the school year, an influx that is resented by more than a few yeshiva guys:

Yummy Cupcake: when i was in sem[inary] (very recently), walking through geula any day me[a]nt bumping into men sometimes. and yes, i am a very frum [devout/observant] … girl, and so are all my friends, and you know what, we didn't make a big deal out of it b/c we knew geula was c[r]owded and we don't own the streets, and there is not really anything you can do about it. just keep walking!

Stuck: What do you mean by “bumping”?

Yummy Cupcake: i mean literally- bumping into them. swiping as you pass by each other. and then continuing on as if nothing happened- because in reality, it's the norm there.

Stuck: That doesn’t sound too kosher.

Sam2: Stuck: Just because it doesn't sound Kosher to you doesn't mean it isn't. Rav Moshe and the Tzitz Eliezer both have famous T'shuvos pointing out that it's Muttar [acceptable] to sit next to women on a bus and be squeezed into a subway train with them….

To solve such problems during the autumn holiday of Sukkot, when the narrow streets of nearby Mea Shearim are jam-packed, rabbis have decreed that men should walk on one side of the street and women on the other. But for the rest of the year, and the rest of Jerusalem, it seems this bumpy coexistence will continue – and so will the debate about how best to express the modesty required of religious Jews.

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