Tag Archives: New Square

New Square – 21st century shtetl?

7 Aug

Here is a photo-story of a little drive through New Square, in upstate New York.

New Square is a village where ultra-orthodox Skver hasidim make up 100% of the population.

I had been really curious to visit New Square ever since last year when I discovered (and blogged) that women in New Square are not allowed to drive (it being considered immodest, à la Saudi Arabia, for women to get behind the wheel).

The community is a strictly run theocracy, imposing stringent rules of modesty and conduct on all inhabitants. Presiding over the village is the Skver Rebbe, the Grand Rabbi David Twersky, who maintains overall control. Conformity is strongly encouraged, dissent is strongly discouraged.

(In recent times, one dissenter saw the wrath of the community fall on him, when his house was burned down – read here for more details)

When you enter the village (it only has one entrance, so it’s easy to keep track of all comings and goings), there’s a sign up requesting all women to dress modestly.

It is also (in)famous for dividing each side of the street into women-only and men-only pavements/sidewalks.

So here are some pics to give a little taste into life in New Square.

NB: I did feel a bit like a ‘colonial anthropologist’ spying on ‘natives’ going about their business, but curiosity got the better of me… (I did, however, generally avoid taking pictures of any inhabitants).

1) Sign at entrance to the village reminding people of modesty requirements of the locale:

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2) Sign on tree – in pink (of course) – written in Yiddish reminding all passers-by that only WOMEN may walk on this side of the street:

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3) Sign on tree – in blue of course – written in Yiddish reminding all passers-by that only MEN may walk on this side of the street:

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4) Very cute children playing outside their house. One thing you notice in New Square is that very young children seem  free to wander around at liberty in front of their houses and in the street – is this unheard of in 21st century America?

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5) The turreted epicentre of New Square – the central synagogue where the Skver Rebbe holds court.

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6) Gleaming Refuah health centre just outside entrance to the village. Women and men have separate waiting rooms in the centre, and in the women’s waiting room, reading material is limited to copies of orthodox women’s magazines, while the reading fare in the men’s includes copies of the Gemarah (Talmud) and Mishnah (holy books that only men may study – women are not granted access to these).

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Muslims and Jews united in…banning women from driving

6 Jun

Still mulling over my previous post about Jewish women not being allowed to drive in two hasidic communities in upstate New York, I decided to look to the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia for inspiration, they having “successfully” upheld a nationwide ban on women driving for the last 20 years.

I found out that the official ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia came about in 1990 in the aftermath of an audacious protest by a group of prominent Saudi women:

That was the day when 49 Saudi women from affluent families, grouped in 15 cars, took hold of the steering wheels in a silent protest for women’s rights. They drove on the streets of Riyadh until the local and religious police spotted them. Putting a stop to the audacity of these women proved a lot easier for the authorities than explaining what, exactly, they had done wrong.                  (source: Fahad Faruqui, guardian.co.uk)

What’s interesting to see is the wording of the ban:

The government announcement, carried on Saudi television, said that the ban on women driving was for “preserving sanctities and to prevent portents of evil, because it has been juridically proven that reasons for woman’s degeneration or for exposing her to temptation should be prevented.” (quoted in same article)

I smell a rat. Unlikely as it may sound, I’m starting to suspect strongly that the Jewish clerical leaders of New Square and Monroe in up-state New York are in cahoots with the Saudi Muslim clergy with the express aim of keeping their womenfolk down. A dubious kind of inter-faith unity. This prohibition on women driving is all to do with my Jewish and Muslim brothers’ joint fixation on the need to protect their sisters from slipping down that infamous slippery slope that leads straight to a life of harlotry and degeneration.

Well now that we’ve got that one sorted, here’s what I’d like to say to my Jewish brothers: You could do well to draw inspiration from the Saudis as to the intricacies of the ban. Think outside the box. Use your imagination. Don’t forget there are many kinds of vehicles you can ban women from driving other than the obvious automobile:

Saudi driving ban on women extends to golf carts

While we’re at it, I’d like to throw in my own suggestion too: I would argue that it would be wise to ban women from pushing shopping trolleys too. After all trolleys have four wheels and move licentiously fast. Plus they can lead women straight past inappropriate sections of a supermarket (e.g. where they sell immodest clothing, non-kosher food etc). No doubt there’s potential for a great deal of temptation and immorality in this the action of trolley-pushing. It would certainly be infinitely preferable for men to do any shopping that involved the use of this four-wheeled vehicle.

Well maybe I’m being a bit unfair. I confess that I’ve omitted to mention that the article I quoted above does read that the Saudis are now seriously considering lifting the ban on women drivers. So come on Satmar and New Square, surely if the Saudis are considering lifting the ban, you can too? What’s the worst that can happen? Your wives will drive to their places of work? To pick up your children from school? To run their errands? How bad can it really get?

What, didn’t you know Jewish women aren’t allowed to drive?

31 May

Mitzva no. 614 of the Torah (negative commandment)

  1. It is forbidden for a Jewish woman to drive a car for behold, it is stated that it is immodest for a Jewish woman to show herself in public in the driving seat of a four-wheeled motorized vehicle.
  2. If she is married, she may travel as a passenger in her husband’s car. However, she may not sit next to him in the front for this is deemed immodest. Instead, she must travel in the back seat (whether or not there are any other passengers in the car).
  3. A woman may travel in her father’s car, but only in the back seat.
  4. If a woman needs to get from Point A to Point B, she may take a taxi, where she should sit in the back seat. However our sages do not deem it problematic if the taxi driver is a male, whether Jewish or not.

Puzzled? Yes, so was I when I first heard that women in two hasidic (ultra-orthodox) communities in upstate New York are forbidden from driving cars.

At first I thought I must have misheard. What, are you trying to tell me that there are women in 21st-Century, post-feminist American society who live in such closeted, fettered communities where their ‘modesty’ is called into question in such a dramatic way that they aren’t even allowed to drive a car, I asked in a state of near panic?

Yes indeed is the answer. In both Monroe, where a large Satmar community lives, and New Square, home to the Squarer hasidim (who famously have separate sides of the street for members of each sex to walk on), women are not permitted to drive.

I found this out through a frum relative of mine (let’s call her Tania) who is secretly teaching a wayward Satmar colleague of hers how to drive. She tells me that her colleague (let’s call her Suri) has slowly been coming to the mind-blowing realization that you can be a frum, halachic Jewish woman like Tania and also drive a car.

Let’s make things very clear: Suri still wants to lead an orthodox Jewish life. She covers her hair (but does not shave it) as halacha requires, she keeps Shabbat and kosher, she keeps all the laws of family purity, etc etc. Yet, as an apparently intelligent young woman, she’s realized that her community has extended Torah prohibition into the realm of pure societal customs and restrictions. And it is against these customs that she is now secretly waging her own personal war.

Indeed, it is the spurious conflation of these societal prohibitions or taboos – often involving dubious ways of repressing women in the name of modesty (women not driving, women having to shave their hair when they get married) – with real halachic prohibitions (such as not keeping Shabbat or kosher) that is the problem here. The women – and men – in these communities are not even taught the difference between real Torah prohibitions and community-specific interdictions. Thus, they grow into adulthood fully believing that if a woman learns to drive a car, she’s well-nigh breaking a Torah commandment.

So when you ask me what bothers me in this whole sorry story, it’s not just the feminist in me that protests (although believe you me, she’s raging mad), it’s also the Jew/person of religion in me that cries out against this insidious and entirely disingenuous slide within the orthodox Jewish world – and invariably in other faith communities too – that is allowing community leaders to create ever-more dazzling structures of power, control and prohibition under the guise of religious leadership.

Oh and a final word on Suri which really made me sink into despair. Apparently the hairband she’s been wearing on her sheitel (wig) which is two inches wide, as opposed to the standard community practice of four inches, is really rubbing people up the wrong way. Her mother reportedly called her up and asked her, in all seriousness: “Where have I gone wrong with you?”

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