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In Jerusalem, Drawing Back A Curtain On Ultra-Orthodox Misogyny

For years, Tzaphira Stern Assala kept the curtains of her Jerusalem dance studio closed to avoid offending the neighborhood’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Not anymore. Fed up with Ultra-Orthodox efforts to keep women out of public life, the studio is suddenly giv

Street poster of Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with Orthodox pedestrian
Street poster of Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with Orthodox pedestrian
Anja Rillcke

JERUSALEM -- Gorgeous women staring out from advertisements are a common sight in many big cities. Jerusalem isn't one of them. Ultra-Orthodox minorities rip posters up, intimidate ad agencies, even frown on the idea of females dancing. As the number of Ultra-Orthodox Jews rises, so too does the pressure Israeli women feel. Some courageous women, however, have decided to push back.

Tzaphira Stern Assal is one of them. Assal operates the Kolben Dance Company studios in Jerusalem's Nachlaot sector. For three years, she kept her studio's curtains closed during rehearsals so as not to upset the neighborhood's Ultra-Orthodox Jews. A few weeks ago, however, she decided she'd finally had enough. In a bold bid for more tolerance, she quite literally drew back the curtains on the dance troupe, meaning anybody walking by could look in and see the company's rehearsals.

Assal is one of many liberal Israelis who are saying enough is enough when it comes to the Haredim, or "God-fearing ones," whose numbers are growing, and appear bent on banning women from public life in Jerusalem. Considered to be Judaism's most conservative group, Haredim follow an extremely rigid religious code. Dancing or singing women offend their code of modesty. They believe separation of the sexes is mandatory.

Especially in Jerusalem, Haredim members are increasingly closing themselves off from modern society. "It's almost like a ghetto," is the way liberal rabbi Uri Ayalon puts it. "It's mainly the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who disapprove of the way of living in modern Israel," he says. "Out of fear of being marginalized by an increasingly western-oriented society, they're becoming more and more radicalized."

Haredim have made a particular point of going after street posters, including those belonging to the Kolben Dance Company. "Our posters were constantly torn and vandalized. Out of fear of more destruction, we finally settled on depicting only a ballet shoe," says Stern Assal.

But now that the curtains are left open on the space where the dancers rehearse, they are disturbed daily. Strangers hit against the windows and try and intimidate them, says Stern Assal. Although courageous, she says she is afraid: "It's just a question of time before they smash the windows in." Four or five volunteers show up every day to try and prevent that from happening.

"Stop the nonsense, this is 2011"

Across Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem, people are pushing back against Ultra-Conservative Jews. On the initiative of Rabbi Ayalon, six female activists started a campaign via Facebook called "Uncensored" in early November that has brought images of women back onto Jerusalem streets.

Idit Karni, one of the women who posed for the posters, says she is committed to raising awareness of the attempt to shut women out of public life. "Many people don't realize what's going on. It wasn't until Rabbi Ayalon explained it to me that I understood why there are fewer and fewer images of women in Jerusalem's streets."

A working mother, she had herself photographed with her two eldest daughters. "The point is not to be provocative. We're just saying: Stop the nonsense. This is 2011, and this is Israel's capital. In a pluralistic Jerusalem, it should be possible to feature women on posters, listen to them sing, or sit with them on the bus. If that's not what you want, nobody's forcing you. But it should be allowed."

Karni thinks that ad agencies reacted with a disproportionate submissiveness to the vandalism of posters. "We're letting a minority dictate what goes on in this city. And it has to end."

Dance studio director Tzaphira Stern Assal was also photographed for the campaign. To her, the absence of images of women in public spaces threatens democracy. "When posters featuring images of women are forbidden, just imagine what that means for female candidates during an election," she says.

Her fears are not unfounded. While Ultra-Orthodox Jews presently make up between 8-10% of the Israeli population, their numbers are expected to double in the next 20 years, according to Bank of Israel estimates. In Jerusalem, every third resident is Ultra-Orthodox. In view of high birth rates among the group – families have on average seven children – more worldly Jews are worried. Some families move away to Beit HaKerem, one of the last primarily secular areas in west Jerusalem, the Israeli paper Haaretz reports. Others flee the climate of intolerance by moving to liberal Tel Aviv.

For women like Tzaphira Stern Assal and Idit Karni, moving away is not an alternative. They are determined not to let the city be overrun by religious orthodoxy.

Read the original article in German

Photo – Adam Jones, Ph.D.

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