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Tuesday, January 31, 2023
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I love my family. That includes my extended family, too. Even when there is substantial disagreement between us. As is the case with is my cousin, Elana Maryles Sztokman.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Elana is an unapologetic Orthodox Jewish Feminist. While I too consider myself to be a feminist, I’m sure that Elana would hardly consider me one. That’s because I disagree with her version of it. While I see equality for women as an exercise in simple fairness… and believe it to be an imperative that should be applied in every way in our daily lives, I do not see it overriding certain religious areas the way she does. We strongly disagree about that. But in a recent article by her in Tablet Magazine, I completely agree with her sentiments.

Here in her own words is what happened on a flight back to Israel after completing a book tour in the United States:

“The plane took off 20 minutes late because an ultra-Orthodox man was negotiating with passengers so as not to have to sit next to a woman–me–on the 11-hour flight…

I sat there silently for a long time, watching all this happen, witnessing all these men around me talking about me, mostly in Yiddish, but also in Hebrew and English, without looking directly at me. I sat there, torn between my desire not to make a scene and my feeling that If I don’t articulate, right here and now, how all this affects women, how this affects me, who will?

So finally I spoke out. Right before the man found a replacement to sit next to me, I said, “Can I say something?” and without looking at me, he said yes. I said, “Imagine if instead of men and women, we were talking about Jews and non-Jews. Imagine how you would feel if a bunch of non-Jews were standing around saying that they can’t sit next to you because you’re a Jew, that they are willing to sit anywhere but next to you, because their religion won’t allow it, because you are impure or different, or whatever. How would you feel? How would you ever get over that insult?”

I’m not sure whether it mattered. One young man very kindly said to me, “You don’t understand, women are holier than men.” I said, “That’s rubbish and it doesn’t excuse the insult,” and then I added that I spent 13 years in yeshiva and there’s nothing he could tell me that I haven’t already heard. Then the original man, the one who refused to sit next to me, muttered to another man as he was walking away, “She doesn’t understand.” I said, “I understand everything, and don’t talk to me as if I’m not here.” He ignored me, and all the other men turned their backs and did not respond or even look at me.

I sat down, put on my seatbelt, looked out the window and suddenly started to cry.”

This story is an outrage to me. I am as disgusted by this man’s behavior as Elana is.

There are those that would defend what this man tried to do. They would argue that in his circle interactions between men and women are completely minimized and that is all he wanted to do here. They are afraid that any such contact may generate erotic thoughts and therefore go to great lengths to avoid that.

This attitude is why there are buses in Charedi neighborhoods in Israel that have separate seating for men (in the front of the bus) and for women (in the back). That is why in some communities there are separate sidewalks for men and women (on opposite sides of the street). That is why the Chasidim of Ger insist that their wives walks several steps behind them when they are together in public. (God forbid husband and wife should be seen side by side!) That is why extremists among them will throw rocks at women they see dressed immodestly by their standards. And why they might bully or beat up women that do not measure up to those standards.

Much as I think that this Hashkafa is foolish and even counter-productive, the fact is that men who adhere to it are indoctrinated to see all women as potential sex objects. So I get where they are coming from. I suppose they have a right to try and prearrange seating on an airplane so that they are not seated next to a woman. But once they are on the plane, that right certainly does not extend to inconveniencing passengers already seated. And it certainly does not allow them to condescend and embarrass passengers that do not want to give up their own pre-arranged seats.

I recall when this happened to me a few years ago. At the time, it never occurred to me that this was even an issue. I was seated in the seat next to an aisle that I had prearranged waiting to take off. A flight attendant approached me and asked if I would mind changing seats with a man who did not want to sit next to the woman he was supposed to sit next to.

Embarrassed not to be accommodating, and not wanting to make a scene I agreed. I was moved to a seat in the middle of another aisle. Which happened to have a rather large Chasid seated next to me. That turned out to be one of the most uncomfortable flights I have ever taken. And I resented being put into that situation because of someone else’s Chumra. Especially when I think his Chumros are so counter-productive.

Why do I think that? When a society goes too far in avoiding contact with women, they end up being far more sensitive to their femininity when it happens. What is considered normal interaction with women by most of the rest of Orthodox Jewry is nevertheless seen by them potentially erotic. When someone who lives in a society where interaction between the sexes is almost non-existent; and where women are almost always seen as potential sex objects any encounter of even the most innocent nature can generate erotic thoughts. Which most certainly includes sitting next to a woman on an airplane.

I can’t really blame these people for seeing women that way. This is how they are raised. But I do blame the Hashkafa itself. This particular branch of the Charedi world is so obsessed with avoiding even the most remote contact with opposite sex – that it makes boors and even bullies out of some of its men. At least those men who are self centered and tend toward zealotry. They see no problem imposing their Hashkafic needs on others, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them.

How bad is it? Well just before Rosh Hashana it happened again when some Charedi men refused to be seated next to women on an El Al flight.

From JTA: Haredi passengers who could not switch their seats stood up immediately upon takeoff and remained in place, crowding the aisles and inconveniencing fellow passengers and flight attendants, Ynet reported.

“It was an 11-hour-long nightmare,” one of the passengers told Ynet. According to passengers, the flight crew informed them that they were under no obligation to agree to switches. But the captain also said the flight would not take off with people standing.

I doubt that there is anything that can be done to change their attitude. Which means that this kind of thing will no doubt be repeated. But I think it is important to make a public protest about it. And make clear that their way is certainly not the definitive Jewish way. And their way of getting their way is anything but Jewish.

Harry Maryles runs the blog “Emes Ve-Emunah” which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discusses Hashkafa and news events of the day–from a Centrist perspective and a philosphy of Torah U’Mada. He can be reached at [email protected]

By Harry Maryles

(Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Press)

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