These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Three Women of Jerusalem

Posted on October 25, 2013 by Naomi Bilmes

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(Read it on my blog)

A Haredi, a kibbutznik, and a Muslim walk into a bar.


Mashiach comes!!

Well, I don’t know what would actually happen; I never actually saw the three of them in the same room at the same time. And now for some context:

This Tuesday, I went on a tiyul with Pardes entitled “A Tale of Three Cities” (yes, I am aware of the hackneyed literary reference). A group of about 15 Pardes students spent the day in and around Abu Gosh, an Arab city known for its tourism and its hummus. We spoke with three women throughout the day: an Israeli-born Haredi, a secular kibbutznik from Long Island, and a religious Muslim from England. We met them all on their home turfs, hopping on and off a mini-bus in Tel Stone, Kibbutz Ma’alei Hamishah, and Ein Rafa, respectively (all are in Jerusalem’s surrounding area; none are in the West Bank). The day was long and draining; I won’t describe it all. Instead, I’ve decided to share a few memorable moments and comments from each of our encounters.

(I took copious notes during our three conversations because everyone knows that to be a good writer you must first be a good note-taker. That being said, the following vignettes are not written exactly as they happened; rather, I tried to accurately express the general sentiments of these women while inserting direct quotations from our dialogue.)

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A 28-year-old Haredi woman sits with a one-year-old child on her lap. Her hair is harshly covered, as is the rest of her body. Eyeliner, mascara, blush and lipstick radiate off of her young face, and whenever she speaks about Hashem or her husband, she positively glows. On a daily basis, she says, she works with troubled girls who have fallen off of the right path. Currently, a once-abused teenage girl is staying in her home, and others come regularly to deal with drug problems or pregnancy. She shows them all that is good about Judaism, and leads them back to the right path. She is an informal social-worker and a mother of four (all under the age of eight).

“What do your children learn in school?” we ask.
Humash, Nach, commentators, Hebrew, and, once her boys are old enough, Talmud.
“Do they learn secular subjects, too, like science and math?”
Yes, for about two hours every afternoon.
“What does ‘Haredi’ mean?”
To tremble before Hashem…to do what is right…As Jews, we should try to do what we can from what we know…I don’t think I’m better than you, but we should both try to do what is right.
“What do you hope for your children?” I want my sons to be able to sit and learn.
“And what do you want for your daughters?” To marry someone who sits and learns. If a man can’t sit and learn, or it doesn’t suit him, then he should do what is best for him, even if he wants to go to the army…but hopefully my son will be a normal child and he’ll be able to sit and learn.
“I know modesty is heavily emphasized in your community, but you’re wearing makeup…?” I don’t see it as a contradiction. Modest doesn’t have to mean ugly. I like looking nice. And I wear it more around my husband than anywhere else.
“Why live in Israel?” Jewish education is better here. And the land is holy. There is too much gashmiyus [material reality] in America, you know what I mean? Once you get done shopping there is nothing to do.
“Do you have any questions for us?” I know that you study gemara…I would not want to study gemara, it’s not a good activity for me, I would do better to spend my time learning a new recipe…Oh, yes, I have a question for you, even though I know the answer: How do you feel about close relationships with men before marriage? Aren’t they dangerous?

And on to the next woman.

Maalei Hamishah has a beautiful greenhouse full of its botanical specialty – orchids

At about 60 years old, with blondish-gray waves and torn overalls, she is the kibbutz. Her three sons grew up in the Children’s House, sleeping, eating and playing with the other kids, leaving both of their parents free to work. She first taught kibbutz children English, then seized her dream and learned how to take care of the cows. For her, it’s all about nature. The kibbutz does not observe shabbat, kashrut, or the holidays, but “the holidays are based around the harvest,” she says. “The holidays follow nature. And that’s my religion.” 

Why not keep kosher? we asked. “It’s just not for me. I found a lifestyle that works for me and I’m going to stick with it… When I was in college, I was dating this religious boy and he was enamored with me. On one of our dates, he asked, ‘Are you sure you won’t go kosher?’ ‘No,’ I said. And that was the end of that. He wasn’t good enough for me to change my whole lifestyle.”

The kibbutz isn’t what it used to be. It’s privatized now, and salary is based on occupation, not on family need, like it used to be. “I used to milk the cows. A good friend of mine managed the hotel spa. I had three kids; she had one. I got more than she did, because I had the need. Now, cows won’t give me enough to live on. Now, I manage the spa.”

“We’re located in an amazing place,” she says. “Look over there – that’s the security fence. On the other side of the fence is Palestine. Look that way – there’s Tel Stone, Abu Gosh, and a Christian monastery. Only a secular kibbutz could exist peacefully in this place…There has to be a Palestinian state one day. If there is not a Palestinian state, we will not have peace.”

Peace? Maybe.

And now on to Ein Rafa. The first thing we did was visit a mosque (this is acceptable for Jews because there are no idols in mosques). All of us girls had to don long skirts and hijabs before entering; the men had to do nothing extra. Everyone was giggling and taking pictures, but I could not not laugh. This is how their women must dress? What did it mean that I was dressing as one of them? One of the teachers who was with us asked me, “What if the Haredi woman had made us dress like her?” I couldn’t answer.

Someone snagged a photo of me up in the gallery

There are 800 people in Ein Rafa, all descended from four patriarchs. Most of us speak Arabic and Hebrew (children start learning Hebrew in the second grade)…I grew up in England. When I was in university, I studied botanical gardening here in Israel. I met a Muslim man, and we kept in touch when I went back to England. I started exploring Islam, and it seemed right for me (I’d grown up pretty secular)…Islam was a path that opened up for me, and I chose to take it. I converted; I came back here and we got married.
The conversion process? It’s very simple. You say two phrases in front of God accepting Allah and Mohammed and you’re done. It’s really about the lifestyle that you take upon yourself afterwards. But I had to convert; in Israel, you must be a Muslim to marry another Muslim…a Muslim woman is not allowed to spend time alone with a man until they are married. First you sign a marriage contract. Then you date. If it doesn’t work out, you get divorced. If it does work out, you have a wedding and then buy a house together.

The mosque in Ein Rafa

Challenges for a Muslim living in Israel? There are two main obstacles. One: the education system separates Muslims and Jews from day one. It’s very hard to get a good education for my children. I want them to be in a Muslim environment, but I also want them to learn Hebrew and English, and get a secular education…right now they are in an Arab school in East Jerusalem. Two: our exemption from the Israeli army. On the one hand, it makes sense, because it’s very hard for a Muslim to fight against his own people. But on the other hand, it leaves us with a deficit in our relationship to the state…we don’t feel connected to it in the same way; we are excluded.

…Did you know that most of our religion is simply tradition? It doesn’t reflect the purpose of Islam, which is to submit to God. Religion is really between you and God. And Islam is not synonymous with patriarchal Arab culture. They overlap, but Islam actually favors equality when it comes to women…

What is my hope for the future? Well, you should just know that most of the Palestinians don’t want war, they just want a normal life. They want the freedom to go to religious sites, to travel the country with no problem…And I hope that my son will be able to fight in the IDF. And do it proudly.

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