Rosh Hodesh Adar.
Sometimes I go to great lengths for the sake of the Cross-currents blog…. Last week I rode the length and breadth of the Land of Israel on the mehadrin buses in order to provide readers with a state-of-the-art summary of the controversial Egged bus lines.
I spent a few hours updating myself on the gender-separate seating. If you have been reading the media reports, you would have suggested I go in full battle gear, perchance I would be accosted by the 300-pound haredi who resembled a Sumo wrestler and commanded Naomi Ragen to move to the back, as she recounts in her interview on National Public Radio. Go to the NPR website and seach for “Jerusalem’s Rosa Parks Fights Modesty Patrols.” You can listen to and/or read the report. Listening is great because you can hear the derision in the speakers’ voices. I am so used to the haredi sector getting short shrift and unequal time that I don’t even mind that the anti-mehadrin side got most of the report, while my pro-mehadrin viewpoint was drastically abridged.
In contrast, the JTA (Jewish Telegraph Agency) was meticulously evenhanded. They had pro and con opeds. Phyllis Snyder, viewing things from her American perch, had written a blistering attack on the Israeli mehadrin buses. But the JTA held up publishing it until they had an oped of equal length defending the buses (by yours truly). They published them simultaneously on their website currently. Go to the JTA website . In the Mid East section you’ll find my “In defense of separate but equal” and Phyllis Snyder’s “Women Don’t belong at back of bus.”
One thing I regret is that in the JTA oped they had to cut, due to word count limits, a passage I quoted from a Naomi Ragen novel. Naomi is acutely aware of the problem of putting temptation in front of someone, so I am surprised she underestimates the attraction women sometimes present to men. This is the passage that was cut:
Naomi Ragen understands well the insensitivity of tempting others. She illustrates this in her novel Jephte’s Daughter. In a powerful passage reflecting Ragen’s keen insight she depicts Isaac, a father with a streak of cruelty towards his small son. “Once, when the child had finished eating meat and therefore would have to wait six hours before milk, Isaac deliberately took out ice cream and filled up the bowl, piling scoop after scoop. The child began to whimper as the father deliberately ate spoonful after spoonful, breathing in the tantalizing aroma of chocolate and strawberry. The child began to weep in earnest, and reached up, trying to stick his fingers into the bowl. ‘You have just eaten meat. You can’t have ice cream.’ His eyes twinkled with sadistic amusement as the child threw himself on the floor, hysterical with the denial.”
The BBC also is running a program about the issue titled “Israeli Bus Protests”. Go to the BBC and search for that title on Feb.12. (It is also one sided, interviewing Naomi and Mark Weiss,and omitting Jonathan Rosenblum).
What I found riding the buses last week was not a battlefront, but a group of quiet, amiable, easy-going passengers. The live-and-let-live was evident. One haredi man got on with his little son in tow and went to sit in the last row of the women’s section. No one batted an eyelash. I was the only one who noticed, and I realized that only single seats were available in the front men’s section, so he didn’t want to disturb anyone there and sat in the back. A young, newly married couple sat in the middle section, where husband-and-wife couples often sit. From time to time a woman got on and for one reason or another sat in the front. No one noticed (except for your researcher). This seems to be typical. There are the exceptional cases where haredim are boorish and there should be zero tolerance for that. It is good that Naomi and Miriam Shear are speaking up about the exceptional cases. But I didn’t encounter any in my small sample.
Several women said that the hasidic passengers are more particular about this issue than the Litvishe ones. All the women I interviewed liked the privacy in the women’s section. They were incredulous when I told them that sitting in the back is degrading in American eyes. My Israeli sample found it elevating and respectful, and they explained they were happy to help their menfolk keep to a stricter standard. I could criticize them for not knowing American history and having never heard of Rosa Parks, but I can’t criticize them for wanting to distance themselves from American permissiveness and public eroticism.
The most helpful interview was with a haredi owner/driver of a private separate-seating service that has been running between some cities for 25 years. Egged (the Goliath in the piece) has ruthlessly taken over and gobbled up many of the tiny private haredi lines (the Davids). The person whom I interviewed resisted a takeover, but most small bus lines can’t. Example – telephone the number 048666970, Kehilas Kodesh Haifa-Tahburat Hamehadrin. It is the formerly private Haifa bus company with lines to Bene Brak, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. You will hear a voice giving the bus schedule and explaining that if you take this line you are requested to sit separately and dress appropriately. Egged took over these private lines but doesn’t label the buses or explain the separate seating on their website or on the phone. So part of the blame for misunderstandings lies with Egged. They intentionally don’t label the buses, probably for legal reasons. But now with Supreme Court petition by Naomi Ragen, the Reform IRAC, and others pending, they may have to label the buses for legal reasons, in order not to mislead clueless passengers. That would be a benefit from the Bagatz.
The haredi owner of the private line that resisted the takeover said that he makes sure that pregnant women can sit in the front. During the wedding season when women get on perfumed and beautifully attired it is distracting, especially for young yeshiva students. He pointed out the truly great rabbis who have ridden with him couldn’t care less. They are immersed in their gemaras during the ride. But not all Jews are on that high spiritual level, and for them separation is helpful.
I heard two versions of the arrangement on the Ashdod-Bene Brak mehadrin line. The women enter and leave from the back, and punch their own tickets. One informant said the women are strict about being sure to punch. Another said that many women are not punctilious, and some take free rides. If the latter is true, it is a terrible hillul haShem. An informed source said that this arrangement of self-ticket punching will not be profitable because of the missing fares and will have to stop. This is a shande.
A decade ago under the rubric of multiculturalism private bus lines catering to the religious sector sprung up as an answer to rampant public permissiveness. Egged put them out of business, took them over, and problems began. Now the haredim are taking the rap for Egged’s rapaciousness. But the bottom line is that if haredim want the mehadrin lines to continue, then their behavior will have to be above reproach and always be as tolerant as I found my sample was last week.