When a 5-year-old boy calls a grown woman a ‘prietzeh’

My younger son once had a girlfriend who almost never spoke in public. She would sit through one Friday night meal after another at our house (where the conversation was always lively and loud) opening her lips only to insert a mouthful of food.

We liked her and didn’t think her silence was an act of hostility, but we were curious. When asked, she said—in a voice so low she could barely be heard—that there was already enough talk in the world and that she had no interest in adding to it.
I could use a similar explanation for my recent silence on the blog, but that would just be an excuse. One of my New Year’s resolutions (my only one, so far, and one I’m adopting a few days early) is to resume writing for my blog.

For the past few months the Israeli media have been filled with news reports, editorials, and op-eds about the exclusion of women in Israel. Recently, there was a hubbub because Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where women sang. The supposed prohibition on men listening to a woman’s voice comes from talmudic discussion that includes the statement, “A woman’s voice is nakedness [or vagina, depending on your interpretation of the Hebrew].” (For a relatively liberal interpretation of the prohibition see a responsum by Rabbi David Bigman).

The media have also reported an incident in which a nonreligious woman refused to move to the back of the bus on one of the so-called mehadrin (super-kosher) sex-segregated routes of the government-subsidized Egged bus company, and a similar incident in which an ultra-Orthodox woman refused to move.
The latest flurry, which brought protestors last night to the streets of Beit Shemesh (a town about 25 miles west of Jerusalem), involved an eight-year-old girl Orthodox girl who was spat upon on her way to school by an ultra-Orthodox man who claimed she was not dressed modestly enough.

None of these issues is new. The mehadrin buses have been running for years, and they continue to operate despite a ruling by the High Court of Justice. Tension in Beit Shemesh between ultra-Orthodox and less religious and secular residents has been high for years; in the past there have been flare-ups, for example, over the sale of nonkosher meat.

And for many decades signs have hung on houses lining the main streets of Mea She’arim—an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem—adjuring Jewish women to dress modestly. Nearly 20 years ago I had to be in Mea She’arim on business and wore a dress (my only one) that came down below my knees and had sleeves down to the elbow; but it was pink, a color not frequently seen in those parts. A little boy who could not have been more than five years old ran by and yelled “Prietzeh” (whore) at me.

There are many explanations for the current festival. One is that it is convenient to have a rallying cry that cuts across political lines, so that we can forget the discrimination against various groups in Israel (including labor migrants who are usually designated by a name that suggests they are idol worshipers). Another is that politicians, especially the prime minister, are delighted to be able to be seen leaping to the defense of the beleaguered half of the population. And yet another is that by having a clear culprit (ultra-orthodox Jews—some of whom are distancing themselves from the extremist 1% they say are responsible for the trouble) we can go on ignoring the discrimination against women at every level of Israeli society (and on this see the incisive op-ed by Merav Michaeli).

Despite our Declaration of Independence that promises to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex, and despite our laws, including a progressive one on sexual harassment, we still live in a patriarchal society. Compared with European countries (with which we like to compare ourselves), we have miserably poor representation of women in our Knesset. Women earn lower wages than men for equal work. Men decide which sections of the Israel Defense Forces women will be allowed to participate in. And on and on.
In response to the Orthodox pots that like to call the ultra-Orthodox kettles black (as in Beit Shemesh), I say that the moment the piety (and honor) of a family, clan, or community inheres in the modesty and chastity of women (as it still does in Judaism and Islam and did in Christianity in the past), it is but a tiny step to spitting on, or stoning, women who do not conform to the rules made by men.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

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12 Responses to “When a 5-year-old boy calls a grown woman a ‘prietzeh’”

  1. David Says:

    What a tricky subject this is.

    The religious men in Jerusalem would have a fit if they saw the way some women in Britain dress on the street.

    However, there are standards in Britain, too.

    So, in Britain it is illegal for a woman to walk down the street naked because she is likely to cause a breach of the peace contrary to the Justices of the Peace Act, 1361.

    But if women walked about naked and no-one behaved other than they would if the women were not there, then no offence would be caused because no peace would be breached.

    To look at it another way, there is no law that prohibits a woman walking down the street holding an apple in her hand.

    That is because experience has shown that this has no affect on people and so there is no peace that will be breached.

    There are specific obscenity and indecency laws in Britain, but walking naked down the street is neither indecent nor obscene unless there is a deliberate sexual element to the behaviour.

    So the bottom line is that there are standards in Britain and there are places – such as on a public street – where it is permissible to ‘force’ a woman under threat of criminal prosecution, to ‘cover up’.

    And obviously, societies vary in their moral attitudes and in their laws, and they also change over time.

    Women sit bare breasted on the beaches of San Tropez and the parks of Copenhagen today where they would not have been able to do so one hundred years ago. Women wore bouffant hair-dos and pencil skirts on the streets of Kabul in the 1980s and cannot do so now.

    The rabbis say that women and men should be modest: They should not flirt and they should not lust after people that are forbidden to them.

    But for men in Jerusalem to establish a fence of propriety around themselves by forcing women to move away simply because they are women – properly dressed and of good standing – seems wrong.

    Is it because of a fear of being tainted with a desire to flirt or lust? If so then the men should look to themselves.

    Is it because they fear the women will flirt?

    Either way it imputes onto these women traits that no-one should be suggesting that they have – that they would flirt or be responsive to lust with men that are forbidden to them.

    • estherhecht Says:

      I have always thought that men should take responsibility for their own lustful thoughts, instead of forcing women to bear that responsibility by covering almost every part of their bodies. I think this is congruent with current rulings in rape cases; the fact that a woman was wearing a short skirt is not a mitigating circumstance. If a man is excited (or distracted from his prayers) by the sight of any woman sitting in front of him on a bus or walking down the street, let him keep his eyes fixed firmly on the ground. Most people manage to walk down the street or sit on a bus and encounter other people dressed in a variety of ways without this leading to mayhem.

  2. Tamara Colloff-Bennett Says:

    How very sad indeed for Israel and all who live there that a country which began as a beacon for social democracy is now the home to such absurd, fundamentalist behavior & prejudice.

    And I’m very sorry for you, Esther, that you had to endure being called a ‘prietzeh’ (i.e., whore) for wearing pink – how completely ridiculous and outrageously insulting!

    Where is God and religion in all of this, such fanaticism makes my blood boil – because I see God and one’s religious observance of whatever stripe one chooses to be of such a different composition than this.

    A great commentary, Esther – many thanks…

    • estherhecht Says:

      Tamara,
      I think I was called a “prietzeh” because I was perceived as being an outsider, the “other,” just as we label labor migrants as something akin to “idol worshipers” to mark them as the “other.” I doubt that any five-year-old has much understanding of what a whore is but could be very sensitive to a mode of dress that is unfamiliar.
      Just today one of the newspapers reported that an ultra-Orthodox man called an ultra-Orthodox woman a whore (he probably said “prietzeh”) because she would not move to the back of the bus. The child I encountered was undoubtedly just echoing what he had heard his elders say. And that is what is so shocking to me. How can anyone who purports to be religious bring up a child with no derech eretz (respect and consideration for others)?

      • Tamara Colloff-Bennett Says:

        Esther,

        Yes, I see what you mean with how the five-year-old was using the word – and isn’t that all the more horrible that he was spouting this because this means that he is not welcoming to others outside of his group – and I see that the root of all prejudice.

        How disgusting what the ultra-Orthodox man said to the ultra-Orthodox woman as you just noted.

        Isn’t this sexist behavior also conveniently using religion to hide behind?

        What truly religious person would ever stoop to such vile labeling, which links in precisely with your comment about bringing up a child with no ‘derech eretz’.

        I’m reminded of the lyrics of the song called “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific, which I’ve just looked up on line to paste here:

        You’ve got to be taught
        To hate and fear,
        You’ve got to be taught
        From year to year,
        It’s got to be drummed
        In your dear little ear
        You’ve got to be carefully taught.

        You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
        Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
        And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
        You’ve got to be carefully taught.

        You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
        Before you are six or seven or eight,
        To hate all the people your relatives hate,
        You’ve got to be carefully taught!

        Granted, we are talking about hatred due to people not sharing one’s religious observance – but I think it all stems from the same extreme intolerance.

        Thanks very much again for including this important issue in your blog, Esther.

  3. Rosette Strubel Says:

    It is very disturbing to read this article. All I can say is keep writing and informing us of what is going on. Is there anything I can do to be of any help?
    Rosette

  4. Iris Chayet Says:

    Hi Esther,
    What a wonderful, concrete informative article. It’s sad that women have to turn themselves inside out, upside down, obey, and fight for recognition of equality. Here in the states, the abortion issue goes on and on forcing women to be the ants under the heel of a stomping shoe. That is but one example.
    Blessings of good health, healing light, laughter and joyous occasions for this new year and many years to come to you and the family.
    Love,
    Iris

  5. Judy Labensohn Says:

    Welcome back to the blogosphere, Esther. There’s certainly enough going on to keep you busy for a few more years.

  6. Leslie Martin Says:

    Brilliantly written, Esther. I keep up on the news in Israel (including the snow of which you informed us), and your story captures so much so succinctly. Todah rabah.
    Leslie

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