A New Year’s Resolution at the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman has a fervent wish—to see her younger sister Ashira celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Wailing Wall—the kotel. At just eighteen years-old, Hallel is one of the very public faces of Women of the Wall (WoW). For nearly a quarter of a century, the group has been advocating for women to pray as they see fit at the Wall—whether it be wearing tallitot—prayer shawls—or tefillin, or both. The founder of the group, Anat Hoffman, has consistently said that WoW’s goal is not to desegregate the Wall, but to make it a venue for all Jews.

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

In the coming new year Hallel, who lives in Jerusalem, has her work cut out for her. The Israeli government has approved a plan set forth by cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit that effectively exiles women to pray “according to their custom” only in the Robinson’s Arch area, a small 400 square-meter space near the southern end of the Wall. Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Haaretz, reports that the proposal departs from Natan Sharansky’s plan to set aside an egalitarian space at the Wall. It also snubs a court ruling, which effectively allows women to read Torah and wear tallitot and tefillin at the Wall

In the interest of full disclosure, I have loved Hallel since the moment I met her. Two years-old at the time, she was an adorable, mischievous tot with outsized glasses that matched her outsized personality. As passionate as I am about the issues attached to WoW, I am equally fascinated by how a young adult grows up to become an outspoken activist. I recently sat down with Hallel while she was visiting Newton. Upon her return to Jerusalem she will serve two years in the Israeli army. College is on the horizon as are opportunities she’ll seek out to help people in Africa.

As Hallel explains, “I’m from an activist family.” She and her family moved to Israel in 2006 from Newton where Hallel had attended the Jewish Community Day School. The family first settled on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert and then moved to Jerusalem three years later where Hallel just completed high school. Her interest in WoW was piqued.



When I heard that women were not allowed to pray their own way at Judaism’s holiest site, I decided to go and pray with WoW. That was in Adar—last March just before Purim. I fully understood what was happening to Jewish women at the Wall when I saw the violence and the cruelty fellow Jews did to one another. All of this was happening in a Jewish country because Jewish women wanted to wear a tallit.


 Hallel has clear role models for her activism. Her father Yosef Abramowitz is an advocate for global solar power through his company Energiya Global. Abramowitz’s own fight for social justice goes back to his days at Boston University when he urged the administration to divest its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He was also a student leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early ‘80s. Hallel’s mother is Rabbi Susan Silverman, who is an international advocate for adoption and has written a memoir about the spirituality of adoption. Rabbi Silverman is one of the faces of WoW, and she and Hallel were among the ten women arrested at the Wall for refusing to take off their tallitot.


The women were eventually released and Hallel got to work on brokering a solution for all women who worship at the Wall. “I knew I couldn’t see my nine year-old sister get spat on again. Nor could I allow another friend to get hit with a rock.” She took her fight to the Israeli Parliament and to the press. She wrote an open letter to Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik and a member of Israel’s cabinet, who was appointed by the prime minister to find a way for peaceful prayer at the Wall. “I am a stakeholder in your decision,” Hallel wrote to Sharansky. “In other words, I am a Jew. A Jew who prays with other women at the Kotel.”

Among Hallel’s solutions was to establish a tri-chitzah. Derived from the word mechitza or divider, Hallel suggested that,



It only seems fair to divide the Wall into three equal sections; men, mixed and women. And since there is no Jewish ritual for which men get arrested then clearly equality mandates that there should be no Jewish ritual that should land any woman in prison.

Although women have been granted the right to wear tallitot at the Wall, the future for a pluralistic Judaism there is dubious in light of the Mendelblit plan. Yet Hallel is optimistic. “We are a colorful circle among a sea of monochromatic black and white,” Hallel notes. “After the first month it was legal to wear our tallitot, two [ultra-Orthodox] seminary girls came up to me and said we really appreciate what you are doing. If I had a doubt in my mind, it was squashed. I need to keep fighting for these girls.”




Women and the Kaddish by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last month 15 narrow-minded, hard-hearted men tried to outlaw women saying the Kaddish at the Western Wall. There was so much blowback for these dubious caretakers of the kotel that they were forced to rescind their ban on women gathering to mourn their dead at Judaism’s holiest site. Additionally, last week Jerusalem’s district court ruled that it was wrong to arrest five women at the Wall last month for praying as they saw fit.

Maybe we’ve finally turned a corner and the Wall will truly be accessible to all Jews. But we still have work to do in the realm of Kaddish. I remember the night before my father’s funeral I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square—the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its pastry thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys’ club. No son, no Kaddish, unless you paid a man—yes there is still such a thing—to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. A couple of weeks ago Anat Hoffman, leader of the Women of the Wall, told an audience at Brandeis University about that latest case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination—this time at ultra-Orthodox cemeteries in Israel. A woman named Rosie was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Rosie took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. After her appearance, an invitation quickly followed to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

K. Harold Bolton

K. Harold Bolton

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashana in 2002 and I had the honor of eulogizing him. At the time, I also decided to attend a daily minyan for thirty days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. I wrote in my journal, “I’m both surprised and fulfilled that my daily recitation of the Kaddish has become a part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.”

I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with an only daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. After he died he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish. Given these circumstances, his daughter could recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her Kaddish.

Another father-daughter Kaddish story: Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and the founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote, “The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for generations of my family.”

One of my father-daughter Kaddish stories: I was visiting Rome where there are more than 900 churches. But I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish during my 11 months of formal mourning and I went to the Great Synagogue there. Armed policemen surrounded the courtyard of the synagogue, and a security guard asked my husband—not me—what business he had there. I told the young guard—who was wearing a kippah—that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed. Inside, the daily minyan was formal—like walking into a sepia photograph—with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. Ken and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish. The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.” I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish, that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? I suppose it’s the 15 men of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who tried to hijack Judaism.

Praying With the Women of the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

What passes for contraband at the Kotel—the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site—both saddens and flummoxes me. If you are a woman praying on the postage-stamp sized real estate relegated to us at the Wall, you are forbidden to wear a tallit—a traditional prayer shawl or tefillin—the leather phylacteries worn during morning prayer. If you are a woman attempting to pray at the Western Wall, you must do so quietly, unobtrusively, so that even God must cock an ear to hear your petitions.

Once a month a group of women gather together at the beginning of the new Hebrew month—Rosh Chodesh—to reclaim their rights to practice Judaism as they see fit. They are known as Women of the Wall and the most risqué thing they do is to wear religious garments that have escaped a guard’s notice or been handed off to them by men. True, these women are from the more liberal branches of Judaism. Many of them, though not all, are Americans. There’s also inevitability to these gatherings. The women pray wearing a prayer shawl or phylacteries while Israeli police officers cool their heels waiting to arrest them after the service. Arrest at the Wall, interrogation at the police station, and then dismissal of all charges. That’s the drill.

So why was this past Rosh Chodesh ushering in the month of Adar different from previous months? Two reasons. Included among the group of 200 who came for the monthly assembly were some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Wall from Jordanian control in 1967. And this time Rabbi Susan Silverman, a close friend and mentor of mine, and her daughter Hallel, were arrested at the Wall. Along with eight other women they cycled through the usual arrest, interrogation, release rotation with the caveat that they not return to the Wall for two weeks. That means that they will be back just in time for Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month during which Jews will celebrate Passover, the quintessential holiday of freedom. This irony of timing is obvious, but too tempting not to point out.

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall


The question of who is a Jew in Israel has been superseded by the dilemma of how a Jew can pray at Judaism’s holiest site. When Rabbi Silverman was arrested she told the media that her detention was tantamount to “spitting at Sinai.” Specifically, the people spitting at Sinai are the ultra-Orthodox who, with Israeli taxpayer’s money, run the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Wall, which belongs to Jews all over the world, is managed by 15 men who presumably have or had mothers

What makes this fight for the right to congregate and pray all the more poignant is that Women of the Wall is not advocating for egalitarian prayer per se. As Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman recently told the Forward, “Women of the Wall is fighting for a change in the ‘women’s section’ at the Kotel. The organization’s petition to Israel’s Supreme Court, filed six weeks ago, would dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the space.”

This is an important distinction. Women of the Wall understands that the prayer areas in front of the Wall will remain bisected for the foreseeable future. The men’s side will be boisterous and celebratory while the women silently pray. All the women are asking for is the right to wear traditional Jewish garb if they choose, as an expression of their faith.

I don’t think we can stand idly by anymore in a world where a woman’s tallit is confiscated at the Kotel. We cannot stand for women being arrested because they choose to outwardly demonstrate their covenant with God. A prayer rally is being planned in New York City on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which falls on Tuesday, March 12. It’s time for Jewish women all over the world to stand in solidarity with our sisters in Israel who will risk arrest and humiliation at the Wall that morning.

It’s time for the Jews of Boston to plan a rally too. Perhaps we can commemorate Rosh Chodesh on the steps of our synagogues or temples. Or maybe it’s as simple as attending a morning minyan that day with kavanah or the intention that things must change for our daughters and the daughters of those 15 men who have hijacked the Western Wall in the name of a God who surely must disapprove of their misogyny.



Dear Sarai: A Letter to a Young Israeli Soldier

In anticipation of reviewing  a collection of linked stories coming out in September called  The People of Forever Are Not Afraid a collection focusing on three young women doing their mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces–I revisited an epistolary essay I wrote after I met Sarai, a young Israeli army officer. Sarai was mostly skeptical about peace for her country. But towards the end of our conversation I heard a glimmer of hope in her voice. Here’s the letter I dedicated to her after our encounter four years ago.

Dear Sarai,

There is a lot on your young shoulders. Twenty-one years old and you’re already an officer in the Israel Defense Forces.

Thank you for defending Israel. Thank you to your mother for sending you out into the world to do this work for the Jewish state, and for Jews everywhere. Back home in Boston descriptions of what you and your unit do sound surreal. People will shake their heads in disbelief as much as in admiration that your unit—18 and 19 year-old young women—monitors the Israel security barrier and the surrounding area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“It’s only a job for girls,” one of your charges proudly says. “Because girls can multitask better than boys.”

Girls with long, shiny ponytails—the same ponytails I see swinging up and down the soccer field when I watch Anna play. They’re eating the same junk food teenagers everywhere eat. But these teens munch on potato chips while wearing their country’s uniform and focusing on their monitors. They blink as often as the guards at Buckingham Palace. The room where they work is uncannily silent.

I wonder what your subordinates think of the American visitors cheering on one of the girls as she follows a suspicious character and then communicates with soldiers in the field to pick him up for questioning. It’s stunning to realize that the decision is hers alone on who warrants a closer look. And it’s even more stunning to know that the soldiers on the ground have only her judgment to rely on. She’s the one who guides them if they have to crawl around brush and barbed wire to capture a suspect. If things go badly, hers is the last voice a soldier hears in his earpiece.

Sarai, your charges are only four years older than my daughter. I wouldn’t blame you if you were resentful that my daughter and her friends are relatively carefree. I can understand if it bothers you that American groups observing your work sometimes relate to it as if watching a video game. Please be patient with us. The first Gulf War was beamed into our living rooms like a remote video game. But that was in 1991. You were only 3 years old and the soldiers now in your charge were babies. None of you remember being bundled into your safe rooms.

I was so sad when you said you’ve lost all hope for peace. You chide your friends for being unrealistic, even naïve about peace between Jews and Arabs. You say it’s because you’ve seen too much. I can understand why it disheartens you to see 5 and 6 year-old Palestinian children throwing rocks through the fence at your fellow soldiers.

But your hopelessness coupled with those Arab children’s burgeoning hatred are also casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I’d like to share a personal story with you. When I was a little older than you I worked for a civil rights organization where my job was to monitor right-wing extremists. You have infrared cameras and the latest communications equipment to do your job. I collected my information by reading hate rags put out by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and Holocaust revisionists. I was 25-years old and had never encountered such raw hatred. I monitored these right-wing extremists for 3 years. I knew where every Klan cell was in the United States.

After reading so much hate material day in and day out, it skewed my vision of the world. A few hate-mongers led me to believe that the United States was a country full of racists and anti-Semites. I had to pull out of that job to get my bearings again. Maybe you need to do the same after you honor your commitment to the army.

Sarai, your name tempts me into midrash. Sarai was Sarah’s name before God changed it. Perhaps this is a before moment for you. Maybe you’re more pessimistic as a younger Sarai. But I think you’ll find your optimism again. I saw a glimmer of that optimism when I asked you why witnessing the conflict up close wouldn’t want to make you work that much harder for peace.

Even though you were stunned by the question, I saw an older, wiser Sarai briefly emerge. “I never thought about it this way,” you said. “I need some time before I can answer you.”

While you are thinking my dear Sarai, I want to leave you with a saying from the Talmud. “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.”

I know that your duties as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces wear on your soul. Remember that you don’t need to solve every problem you encounter. But please marshal your strength, your experience—and yes—your optimism to work for peace.

The Highs and Lows of Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret

It’s no wonder that when Etgar Keret’s name is mentioned, the literary adjectives abound. Post-modern, fabulist, surrealist, subversive. But first and foremost, Keret loves all things Hebrew and Israeli. His ardor was in evidence at a recent appearance at Brookline Booksmith where he discussed his new book, “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.”

“My parents never read books to me; they made up stories,” Keret said to the standing-room-only crowd. “Reading from a book is what a lazy parent would do.”

Keret’s parents, survivors of the Holocaust, presented an unconventional range of subjects in their bedtime stories. His mother’s tales were fantasies populated with unicorns and fairies and witches. His father’s stories were about drunks and prostitutes – stories that Keret noted were full of “love and warmth and compassion. They were very moral stories.”

‘My stories are much smarter than I am. They are like a dream, which is why it’s difficult to take ownership of them.’
The genesis of the elder Keret’s narratives reflected his peripatetic post-Holocaust experiences. Having been refused entry into Israel after the war, he returned to Europe to acquire arms for the Irgun – Israel’s underground resistance – on the black market. He did business with the Mafia in Sicily by day, and slept in parks at night. His new business associates noticed that he was homeless and offered him an empty room in one of their bordellos.

Keret told his audience “that the people with whom my father associated – mobsters, prostitutes – didn’t care that he was Jewish. He taught me to see a person’s character, not his position. I think that’s why my characters live on society’s margins.”

To that end, Keret’s work remains firmly outside the conventions of literature, and his process is idiosyncratic. “My stories are much smarter than I am,” he said. “They are like a dream, which is why it’s difficult to take ownership of them.”

Keret rarely works from a single idea or has a chronological plot in mind. Rather, he tugs at a thread or explores an image. “It’s all about tone. And the voice is very important. Writing for me is like surfing. I stand on the board, anticipating the next wave, and when it comes I try not to fall off.”

Keret revels in the fact that he writes in a language that was used only for prayer and Torah study for more than 2,000 years, but then updated virtually overnight. This linguistic upheaval, he said, “tells the contemporary story of the country. We needed words to catch up with 2,000 years of social development. So we imported them from other languages, derived them from the Biblical Hebrew or had to make them up. This makes the Hebrew language wild, anachronistic – a combination that is very fundamental to Israeli society.”

Keret told an anecdote from a recent trip to Korea to illustrate Hebrew as a frozen language “microwaved for modern usage.” In trying to explain Israeli society to Koreans, he told them that Jerusalem suspends public transportation on the Sabbath in accordance with Biblical law. His puzzled audience asked if Israel was like Iran? Keret countered that Israel is so liberal that a transgendered singer represented the country in an international contest. Completely confused, the Koreans asked him if Israel was like San Francisco? Keret responded that the answers to both their questions was yes, explaining that Israeli society is distinguished by both religious conservatism and social openness.

He noted that the Hebrew language also reflected these conflicting impulses of old and new – in its use of formal and colloquial speech:

“Hebrew is not exclusively a high-register language. You need to keep switching between registers to move through eras and capture the energy of the country. In my work, I move up and down in sentences, which initially confused my translator. Occasionally a translator calls to ask which register – up or down? I tell him in Hebrew it’s both.” Keret’s written version of colloquial Hebrew is central to his literary identity. During his recent teaching appointment at Wesleyan University, he was confounded when his workshop students talked about skill and craft:

“Engineers build bridges – they craft something. Pilots land planes – they have skill. I’m not a writer by skill. I can’t write ordinary things like birthday cards or a note to my neighbor. My passions overtake my abilities. I think that’s why my stories are so short.”

As for his start in writing, Keret said, “I think I was a writer long before I realized I was a writer.” He began composing stories during his army service to cope with a friend’s suicide. At Hebrew University, he wrote well into the night and was repeatedly late for morning classes. Threatened with the loss of his scholarship, Keret showed his advisor those nocturnal stories as proof that his extracurricular activities were intellectual. He not only salvaged his university career, he also established his literary reputation. A few years later, that same professor edited and published Keret’s first collection of short stories.

And thus his advice to aspiring writers: Wake up late.

A Heroine for Mother’s Day: Bunny Shapero

I met Beatrice Shapero, known universally as Bunny, 10 years ago in a preview class for Me’ah. Me’ah is an adult learning program that, in a hundred hours of classroom time, begins with Biblical history and continues through the founding of the State of Israel. It’s a two-year course of study. But if Bunny was up for it, what excuse could I possibly have not to enroll.

As it turns out, Bunny was the coolest octogenarian any of us had ever met. In fact, she was cool, period. She was also an incredible role model. Me’ah was just one of the stops on her journey of learning and becoming. Bunny came to Me’ah already primed for Jewish learning. A decade before, she had become an adult bat mitzvah and before that, well, she did a million things for the community. She was the young woman who sold bonds door-to door for the newly-created Jewish State in 1948. Rae Gann was the captain of her team, and for 12 years running Bunny sold the largest number of bonds in the group. Israel was so new, and Bunny never promised people that they would get a return on their money. But that was beside the point. Bunny loved Israel, and Israel needed the funds.

Bunny Shapero/Jim Weber Photography

Bunny also loves her synagogue. She’s been a member of Temple Emanuel in Newton for more than 50 years. During that time, she’s been the heart and soul of Sisterhood and the temple’s branch of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism. No one comes close to selling Bunny’s quota of Torah Fund cards. She’s not sure how many she’s sold over the years, but at the last Torah Fund brunch she was close to moving 500 of those cards for the Jewish Theological Seminary. Bunny may not call herself a feminist, but that’s what she is. Her daughter, Susan, was the first girl at Temple Emanuel to have a bat mitzvah on a Saturday. Susan is a twin, and Bunny insisted that Susan and her brother, Martin, celebrate their b’nei mitzvah together. “They studied the same material, why shouldn’t they get the same recognition?” she reasoned. The ritual committee agreed and consented to the Saturday morning ceremony. Was Susan’s bat mitzvah in 1959 an exception? Yes. But it set an early and important precedent.

Bunny is a natural at setting precedents. This year, at 88, she is the oldest participant in the annual walkathon for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). There have been nine walk-a-thons in Boston, and Bunny has walked the three-mile course at each one of them. A founding member of the Boston chapter, Bunny is committed to NAMI because she is devoted to Martin, who had his first schizophrenic breakdown at the age of 15.

“Mental illness is low on the totem pole when it comes to any kind of funding,” Bunny said. “That’s why I got so heavily involved in fundraising for NAMI the past few years.” As of Monday, Bunny had raised close to $10,000 for the organization – and that’s for this year alone.

She’s passionate about erasing the stigma of mental illness, ensuring research on schizophrenia and reducing homelessness among the severely mentally ill. “At the time Martin was diagnosed there was no awareness of the disease. People in the profession blamed the mothers,” she said. “Martin is 66 now, and sometimes I think [society at large] still blames the mother. But mental illness is all over the country, and no one knows exactly what goes wrong with the wiring in the brain.”

Bunny is also dedicated to bringing mental illness out into the open – to have the necessary conversations to give patients and their families hope. The mother of four, she remembers the veils of shame and secrecy that isolated families with a mentally ill child. Martin’s three siblings rarely invited friends to the house for fear he might have an outburst. “It was a silent illness. We didn’t talk about it. I’m so grateful for the support circles and the Family-to-Family programs that NAMI runs.”

Family members with a mentally ill relative staff NAMI’s Family-to- Family program. These volunteers are trained to provide information on everything from medication to day programs. Family-to-Family serves as a resource for the latest research and as an information clearinghouse for caretakers dealing with a loved one’s relapse.

Bunny has helped Martin through his own relapses. Like many people diagnosed with schizophrenia, he has often stopped taking his medication when he felt better. Bunny observes that he underestimates the role that medication plays when he begins to improve. “Medication is tough,” Bunny said. “A lot of it has been trial and error for Martin, and sometimes he feels like a guinea pig. But mental illness is like any other chronic disease. If you have a heart condition or diabetes, you need your medication in the same way.”

The day after the walk-a-thon is Lilac Sunday at the Arboretum. It’s also Mother’s Day, and Bunny and Martin plan to spend the afternoon together at one of their favorite places among the flowers.

The Modesty Wars by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dear Chaya Mushka:

I read that your name is the most popular one among young Lubavitch women. It’s the name of the late Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the fabled Lubavitcher Rebbe. Anywhere you turn in a Bais Yaakov seminary there’s a Chaya Mushka.

I admire the Lubavitch movement for many reasons, not least of which is that my children will soon set off into this great big world. Who knows if they’ll go hiking in Peru, ashram hopping in India or honeymooning in New Zealand? What I do know is that there is likely to be a Chabad outpost nearby to help them be Jews when they most need it. Even a post-modern, skeptical Jew like me can’t help but admire your movement’s dedication and organization. You’re like MasterCard, for heaven’s sake; you’re everywhere I need you to be.

In that spirit, your sisters in Israel – and anywhere else there is oppression of Jewish women – need you, Chaya Mushka. It isn’t just that they’re relegated to the back of a public bus in Israel or even New York. They are the victims of a so-called modesty movement.

Scene from “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women.
We all know that modesty is crucial to an observant woman. Skirt hems and sleeve lengths must cover most of her body. I try not to be judgmental. I know that sometimes we get into situations that are not of our making. Sometimes these dilemmas are as suffocating as a locked trunk. Not many of us are Houdinis, so we do the best we can to survive. But this time, we must speak out.

I’m not asking the Chaya Mushkas of the world to desegregate the public bus lines in Israel singlehandedly. I want you to do something much more long term. I want you to tell your sons that obsessing about a woman’s modesty is, in fact, wantonly sexualizing her.

And if you can manage to see one film this year, watch “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women. Better yet, view it with your sons and daughters. The film, which centers on two young women who have left their haredi communities, will probably make you uncomfortable. But I sense you’ll recognize a bit of yourselves in Sara Einfeld and Shulamit Weintraub. They fled their Gur Hasidic families. I realize your world is more expansive than that of the Gurs. Yes, you follow strict guidelines in dress, behavior and food. But you are educated women, the dream progeny of Sara Schnerir, a seamstress who lived in the late 19th century and founded the Bais Yaakov seminaries.

Equality is a slippery word between us. You think you’re exempt from certain commandments because motherhood is a higher calling. I think that’s a convenient excuse to exclude you from Jewish ritual. But let’s leave equality out of our discussion for the moment and talk about human dignity. You may not completely empathize with Sara and Shulamit as you watch “Black Bus.” But Sara writes a popular blog in Israel called “The Hole in the Sheet” that’s a window into your sisters’ lives in haredi communities. At one point, Sara interviews a former Hasid who tells her that he was taught to be disgusted by women. Not only would he avert his eyes when he saw a woman on the street, he would order women old enough to be his grandmother to wear a scarf over their wigs when they entered the synagogue.

Shulamit takes pictures on the busiest street in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. The women react to her camera as if she’s pointed a gun at them. No one wants to talk. No one wants to be seen. One woman hides behind the stroller she’s pushing. Off camera she tells Shulamit that she rarely leaves her home, and when she’s in public she tries to use side streets.

Chaya Mushka, you have more authority than I do to tell these men that this is not the Torah of their fathers or their mothers.

I want to leave you with two thoughts. The first is about a siddur from 1471, which replaces the traditional prayer recited by women – “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for creating me according to Your will” – with this: “Blessed Are You Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for You have made me a woman and not a man.” Clearly, this is a response to the prayer said by observant Jewish men: “Blessed are You for not creating me a woman.” Maybe a woman commissioned this medieval Italian prayer book, I don’t know. But I think the degree to which women have been recently degraded is strictly the depraved interpretation of a few cruel and insecure contemporary haredim.

The second is a picture I recently saw in The Jerusalem Report. Someone caught haredi girls frolicking in a public fountain in Jerusalem. Despite their teachers’ warnings to stop, the girls continued playing. The picture captures the pure joy of simply being a young woman.

Remember that image of your younger sisters when you refuse to step to the back of the bus.