Separate tables

In the ultra-Orthodox community, gender segregation in public places is slowly seeping into the home. But there is distress among some about what they see as excessive vigilance.

Haaretz, Isael/July 1, 2011

As soon as she entered the home of her relatives in Jerusalem, where she and her husband had been invited for a holiday meal, D. caught sight of the table set in the kitchen. When she turned her head, she saw the much bigger and grander table set in the living room with much finer cutlery and china. Smiling, she turned to her husband and said: "They're putting us in the kitchen." She recalls that her hostess turned white in response, "as if I had touched a raw nerve," and asked D., sounding quite amazed: "You don't mean that you actually want your husband to sit with you in the kitchen? The table [in the kitchen] is for the women."

Even before her hostess set her straight, D. suspected that the reason two dining tables were set was to separate the men from the women, not merely to provide more elbow room for the diners.

This was the first meal, notes D., at which she and her husband were forced to eat at separate tables. In the past year, mainly at holiday and Shabbat meals when there are many guests, she has, on more than one occasion, been sent off to sit together with the women at a separate table, while the men sit at the central dining table. Often, she notes, when the living room is too small for two tables, the women are assigned to the kitchen.

D., who is in her 40s, recently remarried. Her children are married and do not live with her. "I explained to my hostess that I was a newlywed and that I still wanted to sit together with my husband at the holiday dining table. But she just stared at me, as if she was scared that I would cause a big fuss. In the end, I felt sorry for her and went off to sit with the women in the kitchen."

D's husband was just as angry as she was about this forced separation. Although they belong to Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community, they strongly oppose separating men and women in public spaces, especially on buses. They consider gender-segregated buses an example of the fanaticism that is slowly spreading through their community - something very much not to their liking. And they fear that, unless measures are taken to stop it, this trend will filter down into other facets of life.

Since they do not own a car, D. and her husband make frequent use of public transportation. Sometimes they are forced to travel on one of the "mehadrin" bus lines ("strictly kosher" bus lines where women sit in the rear of the bus and the men sit up front ), for lack of better alternatives, for example, when they travel to ultra-Orthodox communities outside Jerusalem that are not well-served by Egged bus lines. On such occasions, they insist on sitting together at the front of the bus, and generally, they are left alone. By contrast, D. points out, when they are in somebody else's private home, it is hard to protest gender separation. "If you're invited to a person's house and told to sit in the kitchen, you haven't much choice in the matter," she says. "You just do what you are told. After all, you are the guest."

Halls, buses and clinics

Gender separation in schools and synagogues has always been an important facet of ultra-Orthodox life and is generally not contested. But the Hasidic members of the ultra-Orthodox community are now determined to extend gender separation to other venues in the public domain, such as banquet halls, buses, health clinics, and even some sidewalks in Jerusalem on certain days of the Jewish calendar.

Among the various Hasidic sects, the Gur Hasidim are known to be most vigilant, going so far as to keep tabs on the activities of families and couples to ensure that the rules of gender separation are not violated. Among the most devout Gur Hasidim, a married couple will never be seen walking together in the street. Instead, the husband will walk ahead and the woman will follow, a few paces behind him. Not surprisingly, when gender separation was first instituted on buses about a decade ago, it began on those lines traveling from Jerusalem to Gur Hasidic neighborhoods in Bnei Brak and Ashdod.

Hebrew University lecturer Dr. Benjamin Brown, who specializes in Jewish philosophy and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, notes: "In the Gur Hasidic community, measures are taken to ensure that there is no mutual understanding between men and women, even between husband and wife." Total gender segregation, especially among adolescents and young adults, he notes, is enforced. For this reason, a yeshiva student in the Gur community will never be present in the same house with a female guest, even if the female guest is a relation of a young woman who has just become engaged to a brother of the yeshiva student. Similarly, when they are invited to the wedding of a peer, Gur Hasid yeshiva students stay only for the ceremony and do not partake in the subsequent banquet. They also make a point of avoiding conversations even with their sisters-in-law.

According to Brown, this rigorous code of conduct is rooted in a desire to maintain what Gur Hasidim call "sanctity" in day-to-day life. It was formulated as a response to the appeal made by their legendary leader Rabbi Yisrael Alter (known as the "Beis Yisroel" ), who headed the community from the founding of the State of Israel in May 1948 until his death in 1976, that the principle of "sanctity" be formally integrated into family life. "The motive was not really the promotion of modesty," Brown explains, "because during this same period, despite the strict code of conduct, women in the Gur Hasidic community always dressed elegantly and maintained a well-groomed appearance."

Nava Wasserman, who is preparing her doctoral dissertation on Gur Hasidism at Bar-Ilan University, notes that the Beis Yisroel also favored separate tables for men and women. However, she points out, not all Gur Hasidim accept this strict code of conduct and there are no widely accepted norms in the community. Instead, each family applies the code or deviates from it, as it sees fit.

"In any event," says Wasserman, "no one wants to see the woman of the family being forced to eat in the kitchen."

But according to a Gur Hasid who asked to remain anonymous, when there are many guests for a meal and there is simply not enough space to accommodate them in the dining room or living room, the women sit in the kitchen. Whenever men and women sit separately, he notes, the men serve themselves so at least the women do not have to stand around, waiting to serve them.

About the in-laws

Over the years, the Gur Hasidim have become somewhat more flexible on this point, and in recent years, according to Brown, have opened their code of conduct to internal debate. Meanwhile, other Hasidic sects, such as Slonim and Toldot Aharon, have gradually become influenced by the Gur way of life and have begun to apply similar prohibitions in the area of marital relations. In addition, in many Hasidic families, Brown emphasizes, when guests are invited for dinner, there are always separate tables for men and women. Gender segregation often begins when the nuclear family expands, as children marry and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law are brought into the fold.

According to halakha (Jewish religious law), brothers-in-law are not relatives of the first degree. As such, they are prohibited from listening to a woman in their wife's family sing and they are not allowed to be alone with any of the female members of their wife's family. Thus, in Hasidic families, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law never sit around and engage in small talk. Instead, they keep their distance from one another.

Seating assignments

Over the past three years, A., a Hasidic woman who lives in Jerusalem, has married off three of her older children. The first time she had the newly married couples over for a holiday dinner, she recalls, "there needed to be lots of advanced planning." She knew that seats would have to be assigned ahead of time in order to avoid the possibility of brothers-in-law sitting next to sisters-in-law. So she introduced a few ground rules: "I always make sure that, after seating him beside his father, my eldest son has his children and wife sitting with him. I will then seat beside my eldest son's wife one of my daughters-in-law and she will have her husband, that is, my son, sitting beside her. He, in turn, will have another male relative sitting beside him, and beside this male relative I will seat his wife. In this way, I try not to separate any of the married couples."

A. says that she would never send the women to eat in the kitchen and that, if it's a matter of space, she simply cuts down on the number of guests. In some families, the seating arrangements are haphazard. But as the Gur Hasid who asked to remain anonymous attests, "A brother-in-law will never be seated across the table from a sister-in-law." In some families, the seating arrangements are determined by the mother, although different customs exist in different families.

As she prepared for a family dinner on one of the holidays, A. decided to find out what rules her friends and female neighbors follow. She learned that one of her closest friends often invites to holiday dinners yeshiva students who are not members of her family. On such occasions, she arranges three tables in a U-shape. Her immediate family sits at the center table, with the yeshiva-student guests seated at one of the side tables and the young female members of her own family at the other side table.

One of A.'s neighbors, a mother of 14 children, told her that she arranges one central and rather long table and places alongside it smaller tables at right angles. At each table she seats a married son or daughter together with his or her spouse and children. One of her friends told A. that recently one of the people she had invited to a Shabbat family dinner made his arrival conditional upon the strict separation of men and women. "I said to him, 'What does that mean - that I have to sit in the kitchen? Sorry, I want to be a partner at the Shabbat table,'" she related. "The guest didn't show up."

Considering all the difficulties involved in seating arrangements, A. admits that she finds it much easier to just seat all the women at one end of the table. "This kind of arrangement makes it easier for the women to talk to each other and for the men to talk to each other. Sometimes, it happens that a woman is seated between two men and that can be really awkward. It happened to me on a few occasions and then I almost strained my neck, as I tried to hear what my daughters were saying."

There is a clear division when it comes to conversation, A. says. "The men talk about Torah matters, while the women generally talk about women's issues, like children, shopping and clothes, and they also have a chance to gossip," she says. "Mind you, there are some women who do participate in the discussions about Torah matters."

D. scoffs at attempts to justify gender segregation on the grounds that men and women talk about different things. "Women are always presented as if they were brainless creatures, as if nothing interests them but children, diapers, clothes and gossip, while only the men discuss really important matters," she says. "In my opinion, if women were allowed to participate in the conversation [conducted by the men], they could also express their thoughts on politics and certainly on Torah subjects. After all, women also attend classes on sacred topics and they study Torah."

D.'s husband, Y., believes that the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, which has been influenced by Hasidic custom, is beginning to embrace the idea of gender segregation. In D.'s opinion, separate tables or seating women at the far end of the table or in the kitchen is a symptom of the oppression of women. "When the women are sent to eat in the kitchen, the young boys in the family learn to treat women with contempt," she notes.

At the same time, however, D. maintains that it is the women who are pushing for gender separation while the men are happy to just go along with it. "It's as if the men are thinking to themselves, 'At last, we have been liberated from our wives.'"

After having had the dubious pleasure of sitting at separate tables, D. and her husband say they have decided that, in the future, they will find out in advance about seating arrangements and that they will pass up any dinner invitations that entail sitting separately.

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