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:


  •       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 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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Jerusalem life: 'Are you aware? Women should not be strolling outdoors'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today