Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Glass Mechitzah Part 1: YouTube’s View From on Higher

 View from women's balcony in trad. Ashkenazi shul.
As the first bas mitzvah (Ashkenazi not the now politicall correct Sephardi "bat") of a reform temple in the 1960s (and only one for several years following), I was quickly made aware that boys’ ritual needs trumped those of girls: when my classmate with whom I shared a birthday got the shabbos that corresponded to the date; I learned early that I had to find my own joy in the life that unfolded in front of me. Being fond of color, I was thrilled when my parasha (a month later) ended up being “Vayeshev”, Joseph’s coat of many colors, a keepsake I still treasure and hope to understand one day. All the fuss and excitement that followed kept me on course with my Jewish learning. Later, after having exhausted the balance of formal religious school, the boy (now a “man”) and I (an teenage girl) leaned Pirke Avos in a special class with the rabbi. Early into the book we read the phrase, “One should not engage in much gossip with women...” I decided this girl was not going to take it any more and stopped the lesson for good. 

It was further clear that I couldn’t wait for that joy to find me.

Since those days I have respectfully explored the Jewish world first hand to make sure that I had a sense of what is going on and, more important, and did what I could to fee; included and close to the source. My forays from women’s farbrengens with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights NY  (“Why didn’t they have a respected woman speak to us? Rabbi XYtz is a learned man.) to dropping in on the last bar mitzvah in Bulowayo Zimbabwe (What do you mean you don’t know where the women sit!) , from trying to get into a mikveh in Los Angeles (“I never said I was married.”) to Jewish feminist Tu b’Av retreats in Mendocino CA (“What happens in Mendocino, stays in Mendocino!”), I remain deeply uncomfortable with the separation of sexes by a mechitza, the physical barrier that is erected between women and men during public prayer. 

Furthermore, it became apparent only decades later, that I realized the most exciting role models in my life were the "chiefs", all male, blooming with very cool outfits, like the males of most animal species, such as the eagle feathered headdresses and war paint worn by native Americans ... and, it seems, the tribal uniforms of Chassidim whose affiliation can often be recognized by the type of hat, fedoras in black of course, or the shape of the streimel of the fur variety.

It’s not that I need to stand shoulder to shoulder with or even be surrounded by men at that time, it’s just that the ark containing the Torah is usually on their side. I know that vision is made in the brain where two images come together. My eyesight is compromised enough that it presents a partial vision of the world in front of me. But for once, I want to be in the presence of something whole. Hugely Jewish, yet intimate. Fabulous. The living presence of those iconic images of a Jew who was not engaged in housework or child rearing.

What if, I pondered, it were a glass wall?

You mean like the glass ceiling?

Enter YouTube ... 

Despite extraordinary efforts on the parts of some “extremely orthodox” (a term that is not redundant in Jewish circles, unlike slightly pregnant) community rulers to put a hex if not altogether ban the Internet and its lascivious content, women and the rest of the entire world may now see some of the sights to which we would otherwise not have been privy. 

The glass wall!

Not so fast ... In May 2012 the Citi Field baseball stadium in New Jersey was crammed literally to the brim with black-hatted, etc. Haredim men for the seven hour Asifa convocation to denounce the Internet’s ubiquitous content, if not also the connection itself. There seemed to be some disparity as to the point of concern: the additive qualities or the worldviews. (Current monitoring of North Korean news provides some frightening comparisons.)

No women were invited because no women were allowed ... because public prayer would be held. The field was de-womaned to the extreme: a sponsor’s huge billboard bearing the image of a woman on the label of the hot sauce was covered. Sure they could put women in the bleachers, but not this group. Boys to men came by every possible means of transportation, from ferries to buses from throughout the near and far world and constituted what must be the largest gathering for Yiddish language (for the most part) speeches in history --- estimates of 60,000 required 20,000 to sit in the adjoining Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium and view the proceedings via satellite feed on monitors. My favorite one is from the feed showing two ferries full of praying Chassidim en route.

There are many interesting details about the experience that have been reported (check “asifa” on YouTube and watch the endless hours of speeches, prayers and other images (smartphones!!!) but none as courageously captured than that for a high – tech blog,, by Adrianne Jeffries who, in true “Yentl” fashion bound herself up, added some convincing peyos to a borrowed hat and suit and snuck into the mix. Brava! Brava! 

Many cult-ish groups seek to restrict / protect their members’ from distraction by “outside” influences for their own good. In this day forward (one opinion) of the Internet, the notion, much less reality, that there is life beyond the eruv, another physical barrier that defines a community’s neighborhood as an extended “house”, seems to be impossible to secure. It would be like telling someone never, ever, to look up at the stars. I remember the time when “surfaced” from a trip to the depth of the Grand Canyon and was sharing the beauty with a native American woman who worked the cafeteria steam table. She quietly remarked that according to her tradition, people were even forbidden to look into it, as it is the center of creation! Can they rely on their adherents not to stray? These Haredim are trying, with various blocks to sites and even matchmakers who are instructed to check if the potential spouse comes from a family with internet connection.

We still can view here the official satellite feed and available, later, to families (women) at home via closed circuit ... and “not on any website”, according to the chair of the event. One can easily see people taking photos / videos? with smart phones ... irresistible!
Certainly there are Jews who forbid the taking of photographs of themselves, but there are clearly many who wish to share, even if its just with each other, the celebrations, mitzvahs and presentations of their learned rebbes. Case in point are the many YouTube postings of wedding mitzvah-tanzes of various Chassidic communities around the Great New York Metro area.

Bobov Rebbe's Version
For example, at this writing there are 342,719 views of the
Satmar Rebbe Aron Teitelbaum’s mitzvah-tanz (3:08 minutes). The wedding took place in Monroe NY in 2006 and the video is professionally produced. In it the lone woman, in a bridal gown, is tethered to the elder man, who is decked out in his gold brocade caftan, white stockings and a streimel (mink fur hat). They are tethered together by his 100' white gartel (cloth that he wears around his waist on Shabbos and holy days to distinguish the upper and lower parts of the body) and are “dancing” in a tent the size of an airplane hanger. All around him thousands of black and white clothed males of all ages are singing and clapping along with piped in music, and swaying like a "wave" done in sports stadia. There are many, many other videos from Bobovs and Lubavitch, from holidays and special teachings, like this inter-denominational presentation by Lubabitcher bochurem who entertained at the Satmar rebbe’s tish (teach-in) juggling and acrobatics on the tish (literally, table).

Wish I had been there ... My relatives would have poo-poo'd it. I think that one of my great grandfathers was kicked out of the house because he studied too much and didn't work to support his six (or seven) children. We were modern even then.

Of course YouTube is also making great Jewish learning opportunities available to us. For example, the 12th Siyum HaShas of Daf HaYomi made by Agudath Yisroel that took place in MetLife Stadium on August 2012 is a seven hour delight that begins with a great statement about life long learning. (For a quick jump to the music and dancing, click here.)

The historic visits of rebbes to their contemporaries, such as The Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to the Beltzer Rebbe, or the procession in Boro Park of the sifrei Torahs from their old stiebel to a new one is sweet. The most poignant one I have seen – and had my heart broken each time -- is the Horowitz Brothers singing “Av Harachamim” in the crematoria at Auschwitz.

Since this is the season of redemption, I definitely recommend the posts about and from Women of the Wall, the pluralistic group of women in Israel (now supported around the world) who are demonstrating their right to pray aloud, with tefilin, talis and sefer Torah scrolls on the women’s “side” of the Western Wall. To achieve social, legal and religious equality at this important site will be a major achievement that, no doubt, will be available for view on YouTube. My article about them may be found here. See "The Glass Mechitzah Part 2: Which Side Are You On?"

With all due respect – to those who find the Charedim at best out of date – and those who are trying to maintain focus while the world has literally opened up without filter -- I love the internet and especially YouTube for a glimpse beyond every-day abilities. I am happy to see the 2009 posting of the Abudaya (Uganda) shirat hayam weekday services at the Moses Synagogue at Nabugoye where men and women are “simply” separated by nothing but an aisle. (You can hear the woman's (far right) voice.) There are too many here to mention, so go and explore by yourself.