Rosa Doherty

Don’t think Charedi women are meek or mild, they’re the ultimate multitaskers

Rosa Doherty says it is wrong to assume the life of a Charedi woman is oppressive, passive and restricted to the home

February 07, 2019 11:37

It is easy as a secular Jew to look in on the Charedi community with a sort of superior scorn. Our way of life is better, more civilised. They are a community that is primitive, prohibited from going outside their protective bubble — you might think.

This is not helped by the fact that, by and large, as a community they are extremely cautious of outside interaction.

I’m often asked by non-Jews to provide an insight into the strictly Orthodox community’s “strange” way of life. The truth is, before working for the JC, I knew as little about Charedim as the inquisitors themselves.

“Why do the men look through me when I’m walking in the street?” one friend asked. She’s lived in the heart of Stamford Hill for more than three years, and regularly feels stunned that her neighbours consistently ignore her existence.

Five years at the JC and I know more than I did about the strictly Orthodox community. Like any group it has its problems but it is only through interacting with Charedim that I have learned that things are not always as they seem.

This is particularly true when it comes to the role of women. It is easy as a 21st century feminist to assume the life of a Charedi woman must be oppressive, passive and restricted to the home.

The truth is, many of the Charedi women I have met don’t just prepare Shabbat for a family of nine. They do so having worked to provide financial security for their family, whilst the husband studies, and goes to shul to pray.

Rather than a cosseted and protected housewife, Charedi women are the ultimate multi taskers. In contrast, it is Charedi men who have it easy. Not only do they not have to worry about the logistics of childcare, while making sure the kugel is on, and the table is set, they don’t have to worry about paid employment either.

Perhaps this extraordinary work ethic is why Charedi girls’ schools do significantly better than their male counterparts?

Menorah High in Barnet was again the top Jewish school for progress to GCSE at number six in England, one better than last year, according to Department for Education statistics updated from provisional figures three months ago.

Another Charedi girls’ school, Beis Yaakov in Salford, was close behind at 15 and a third, Yesodey Hatorah in Hackney, was at 21.

It is easy when you’re not familiar with a particular way of life to make assumptions about it. Misrepresentations of religious people and communities are everywhere. In books, on television, film, even in the news.

Netflix’s new show, Shtisel, does something to challenge that. The Israeli soap about a Charedi family living in Jerusalem, is unlike anything you might have seen on TV. The show manages to tell the story of a community most people know nothing about and they do it in the most humanistic way. It is not a “through the looking glass” type show.

The characters’ lives might be different from ours and they look different — but they experience the same emotions as anyone would in life, be it grief, love, longing, or inner turmoil.

Just this week I sat alone and interviewed a Charedi rabbi, something that some depictions in the media might have you believe would never happen without a chaperone or two present. He would not have known if I was single or married and nor did he care. Interestingly, throughout our conversation I noticed that the restrictions he talked about were not on the women in his life, but on himself.

It is easy to assume Charedi women are meek, mild or silent members of our community but a recent trip to Israel confirmed for me the exact opposite. The religious women I met were experts in their field, they had travelled all over the world to talk about their work.

Their stories were not too dissimilar to the busy lives of any other working women. And yet they manage it within the confines of a religion that inevitably restricts them in a way non-religious women would not be.

As we sat around a café table at the end of the working week, laughing about the things that had gone wrong for them, talking about family and getting giddily excited about dessert, the topic turned to feminism and I realised something.

Not only did I feel inspired and tired just listening to them but these were not women repressed by religious doctrine, they were bold, intelligent, worldly, and most importantly happy in the role they play.

I asked one woman: “Are you not exhausted? Don’t you want your husband to help?” She replied: “At home I am treated like a queen, I do not get out of bed in the morning without a chocolate and a cup of tea.” The person bringing these treats is, of course, her husband.

Without a doubt the Charedi community structure teaches women to be wives and mothers but they are also being taught to be leaders without whom the fabric of their communities would collapse.

Rosa Doherty is the JC’s Social Affairs Correspondent


February 07, 2019 11:37

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