When Women Can't Even Say Thank You

Stifling Modesty Code Prevents Everyday Acts of Civility

No Contact Allowed: Ultra-Orthodox Israeli women are taught to avoid all contact with men, even if it involves something as simple as saying, ‘Thank you.’
getty images
No Contact Allowed: Ultra-Orthodox Israeli women are taught to avoid all contact with men, even if it involves something as simple as saying, ‘Thank you.’

By William Kolbrener

Published January 11, 2012, issue of January 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Not long ago, on my way down three flights of stairs from the improvised nursery school where I used to take my youngest son every morning, I saw a woman struggling with several shopping bags filled with groceries. I asked her if she needed help, and when she nodded — though somewhat reluctantly — I carried the bags back up the three flights to her apartment. I tell this story not because I am vying for my neighborhood ‘Tzadik of the Month’ award, but because as I was going back down the steps the second time, I realized that something was missing: She did not say thank you.

I am sure this woman, whom I had never met and only rarely see, has excellent manners. But she refrained from acknowledging the small favor I did for her — nothing so little as to raise her eyes to mine — because in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem where I live, men do not talk to women, and women certainly not to men, not even to say thank you. It is because, as seminary girls will tell you (they hear it all day as a mantra), “It is not tznius!” meaning that this behavior is considered immodest.

Read Debra Nussbaum-Cohen on How Modesty Turns Women Into Sex Objects in The Sisterhood blog.

Amid the polemical rhetoric that has taken over what has now become a full-fledged culture war about gender discrimination on Israel’s public buses, there is another, quieter story. To be sure, the attack on Tanya Rosenblit for not ceding her place on a gender-separated bus is appalling, and the general encroachment of religious values into the public sphere is an alarming development, but beyond the proclamations, the more everyday story — an equally disturbing one — has not been fully told.

That story includes that of the woman on the stairwell. She was certainly grateful. But since she is so concerned about the public perception that both men and women may have of her, she acts in a manner that she knows — she must — to be wrong. Better to be perceived to be impolite than immodest. A few grateful words, even the wrong gesture, might be negatively construed by someone watching, betraying the fear that someone must be watching, and all the time.

Common sense civility in the public sphere has yielded to the establishing and policing of boundaries. My 16-year-old daughter, naturally modest — not just tznius in the sociological sense — told me that when a man got on a local Jerusalem bus, finding her and a friend sitting in the men’s section (the very language sounds like it belongs in the private sphere of a synagogue and not on a public bus), he pointed at them. He clicked his tongue a few times, then, with a waive of his hand, signaled them to the back of the bus.

The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, affirms, “All of our women are important,” including, without doubt, my 16-year-old and her friend, yet that was certainly not reflected in the peremptory and entitled arrogance she met on the bus. True, some complain these days that the old language of chivalry objectifies women; but that chivalrous behavior is to be preferred to the dismissive treatment of women as objects who should move at the behest and slightest gesture — even approach — of a man. Without even taking into account the extreme behavior of harassment, assaults and public sphere violence, this is the other question that comes to mind: What happened to the respect for women for which Jewish men have been known for centuries?

But the answer is simple: Chivalry is dead in some parts of the Jewish world.

Walking in the neighborhood where I live, I used to, in my ignorance, greet on the street women whom I know. After all, I thought to myself, I am friends with their husbands, have watched their children grow up with mine and have sat in their homes for Sabbath afternoon meals. But most of the women — I have learned over the years, to modify my behavior — will not return my greeting. At first I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I still talk to my 16-year-old daughter’s friends. They look at me sometimes with surprise, or perhaps amusement. “He’s an American,” they probably say to one another. “He does not understand.” And the truth is, I do not understand. I am waiting to see at what age they will also stop talking to me.

As Freud underlines, relationships between men and women are always fraught, but the ultra-Orthodox treatment of the public sphere renders every gesture potentially and dangerously sexual. A sign, for a recent example, went up in many neighborhoods, forbidding the purchase of expensive foreign-made baby carriages, deemed possibly too enticing for some men to resist, their intrigued gazes in the end resting on the woman pushing them along. In a paradoxical and surprising way, ultra-Orthodox Jews — who mostly dismiss Freud’s thought — are more Freudian than Freud himself. As a result of this hyper-consciousness, they create a repressive culture of silence.

I do not want my girls constantly policing themselves, nor do I want to be surrounded by men who, in autocratic and arbitrary fashion, justify their discriminatory attitudes. I do want women, including my four daughters, to participate in the public sphere — without fear.

Chivalry may be dead, but our women are important. I want to hear — and I don’t think I am the only one — what they have to say.

William Kolbrener, professor of English literature at Bar-Ilan University, is the author of, most recently,“Open Minded Torah, of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love” (Continuum, 2011).”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.