Harassed On The Streets Of Crown Heights

How does one balance the modern elements of New York City life with the Orthodox Chassidic communities that dwell within it?

I thought I’d finally figured it out last December, until this happened.

It was Friday night, exactly one year ago. I was walking home from Shabbat dinner in my soon-to-be neighborhood Crown Heights. After several years in Manhattan, fleeing the community I’d grown up in, I finally felt like maybe I could make Crown Heights work. I was sure this was the place I wanted to be, the perfect fusion of hipster and Hasid, sacred and profane, traditional and modern.

I was walking when I saw them. A group of teenagers, seventeen or eighteen, clad in black hats and white shirts, untucked after hours of Friday drinking that begins with classic Shabbos “Bein” pregame, continues into dinner, and ends at a late night farbrengen – often a Shalom Zachor or similar event, open to men, certainly not women.

They approached, and I heard it: their voices, snickering and nudging one another. “Shabbbessss…. Tzneeeeyusss,” the ringleader called out, and the others echoed.

I was bewildered. I knew this catcall, it was common in other communities – Williamsburg, maybe, or Meah Shearim in Jerusalem – where young, misguided Yeshivah students call out people driving cars on Shabbat, or women dressed immodestly. But I’d just come from Shabbat dinner, so I was certainly tznius, and I was walking with not even a key in my pocket.

Why the catcalls?

I wasn’t having any of it. These kids can’t just do that, not in my new neighborhood, the one I’m so certain gets the mix of religious and irreligious, the one that would be welcoming to unaffiliated Jewish hipsters and embrace them with the same Chabad warmth and love I’d been taught to espouse all my life.

These were Chabad kids, my kids. They were friends with my brothers, for sure. They weren’t the kind of kids who yelled like that, it couldn’t be. They were the future leaders of outreach, the ones who would be open and welcoming to strangers in their midst. This couldn’t be the worst I heard from their mouths.

I didn’t want to be that person who decides all Yeshivah boys are evil, so I gave them a chance to redeem themselves. Also, I cared.

“Don’t ever, ever speak to anybody that way,” I said, keeping my voice loud but even. I knew the trick with men, products of the Jewish patriarchy. Never give off emotion, they’ll just discredit you anyway.

They heard my accent. They were Australian too.

“Oooh… Australian?”

And like that, they were off. The insults began, and despite the many times I’ve told and retold this tale, I’ll never get the words precise.

Like a witness on the stand stumbling over her tale of abuse, that moment exists in a state of panic and shock where some details stand out in technicolor while others are mere broad strokes. The whirl of voices, the tone of utter disgust and disrespect, the words “shut up” and “slut” and some very choice French mixed in with my high-pitched indignant voice wavering as I attempted to evenly reply and reason with these boys, refusing to stand down and just ignore as I’d done so many years prior – it all exists in one big pensieve of the mind with no differentiators as far as time.

I looked around, saw the streets, and they weren’t empty.

We were on a busy corner and it was close to 1am on a Friday night. Still early, for Crown Heights. Like Moses before he killed the Egyptian, I looked both ways, and there was no man.

Except this time, there were men aplenty – but no man with the true testicular meaning of manliness, who stood up to these childish hooligans and spoke out against their antics.

I was shaking in fury, but I couldn’t let it go.

“The police are right there on the corner,” I warned them, but the abuse continued.

As I increased in anger, the jeers exacerbated to my very feminine essence.

“Bitch is on her period,” they yelled, still in the Australian accent that was to me at once familiar but foreign, revealing the ugliest depths of boys who could’ve been my little brothers.

These boys are Australian, was all I could think.

For all I know, I changed their diapers.

And now here we are, on a street corner, and they are yelling at me like a gang of frat boys passing a sorority.

I watched them pass by, and continued to watch, trembling in the unseasonably warm night, as they passed a larger group of men on the opposite corner. I was sure someone would take them aside, censure them for their words, but nothing. I contemplated running past them to the next corner and bringing the police on board, but I didn’t. I stood on the corner and watched until finally they moved, continuing to yell at me all the way.

Traumatized, I climbed into bed, shaken and determined to push it out of my head, not to think about the wider implications. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I wanted to cry and weep and sleep, and think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow’s another day.

It wasn’t until later the next afternoon that the magnitude hit me. I bumped into old family friend from Australia – mother of many, teacher of boys – dropped by, and I almost cried in relief.

“Miri, I need to tell you this story, maybe you can help,” I begged, and despite wanting to push it out of my head, I retold it to the best of my ability. “Surely you have some ideas of what I can do about this. I mean, what can I DO?”

I wasn’t just hurt and scared anymore, now I was angry. These boys – these boys! – they’re sitting in class with my brothers every day. They’re guests at our Shabbos table. I’ve babysat them, I’ve changed their diapers.

And one day, they will marry my sisters or cousins or little girls who I’ve also known, and this deep, dark secret of complete male disrespect towards the feminine was going to manifest in all kinds of horrible ways – verbal, emotional, physical abuse, and that wasn’t half of it.

This happened for a reason, and I was going to do something about it.

Punish the kids involved? Sure, if they learn a lesson from it. But that would just result in a backlash, an indignance, some rug-sweeping from the Yeshiva system that can’t deal with more public relations drama.

I wanted to create, not destroy; to be productive and constructive, not harmful; and for that, I needed a delicate approach.

How can we train the boys of our future to see women as not just their mothers and sisters, to be respected; or their future wives and girlfriends, to be ogled, wooed and eventually, ignored – but as human beings in their own right?

I knew that the words used were typical at football games – hell, I had plenty of male Aussie friends, I knew the cavalier attitude to the c word – but this was different. It wasn’t just foul language.

It was a foul attitude, a complete and utter disregard to the humanity of the person receiving the message; a total expression of fear and ignorance regarding the human soul at the other end. It was dark, it was ugly, and it was very, very present among the boys I know.

I asked the women what to do, and the response shouldn’t have surprised me, but for some reason it did.

“Boys will be boys,” the ladies of the community sighed, after expressing shock and disappointment. “There isn’t really much you can do. The Yeshivahs would kick them out, and then where would that leave them? They’ll be on the streets, that’ll be the end. It will just exacerbate the issue.”

“Can we not educate?” I cried. “Teach the boys what women are? Help them understand that women are not to be reviled, to be feared, as the symbol of all that is forbidden to a red-blooded yeshivah boy – but instead, admired, respected, honored and treasured?”

I’ve grown up in the Orthodox world. I know about the modesty laws that define male and female gender relations, the segregation at social events, the secrecy of interactions on the street, the laws of modesty in clothing and manner. At girls’ schools, we’re taught about keeping covered because the Glory of the King’s Daughter is Within, that the woman’s body is to be preciously treasured. The dark side of that, for another article, is that this comes with extraordinary shame and guilt.

And on the male side? Being banned from seeing, speaking or looking at women until it’s time to date and get married doesn’t stop anybody from doing so. Yeshivah boys are exposed to girls in daily life, because it’s 2015 and they walk up the street and attend clandestine parties and go to Shabbos dinners. But they’re also fed a message of fear and trepidation, by the powers who remind them of the laws.

Be careful, stay away. They’re here to steal you from your focus, to entrap your mind, to tempt you with elbows and loud voices.

I wanted to show them that everybody is a human, including a woman, and that emotional reactions and monthly cycles should never be mentioned in the same sentence. Can we not remove some of the mystery around the feminine to try and separate the Madonna-whore distinction prevalent in the Yeshivah world?

You try getting an education program like that in Yeshivah, everyone shrugged, and I was left on my own, to try and track them down, to consider whether taking further action was going to be helpful or worsen the situation. I did manage to find out who they were, and was offered through an intermediary that the boys be given a chance to apologize. I didn’t take it. I was doubtful, I started to wonder whether it was my pride that was hurt – and thus seeking an apology – or whether I’d asked for it by answering back.

Like any female victim, I fell into doubt. Maybe I’d encouraged it, somehow. After all, I shouldn’t have answered them back. I was living in the East Village, had my share of catcalls. But a “Hey sweetie!” “God bless you!” was harassment, but not disrespect.

Like a victim, I closed my mouth. I refused to speak, even though I knew that just like the college campus rape crisis, it was only going to get worse. These boys – maybe these specific ones, maybe others – would move on, continue to study in the Chabad system, date girls I knew, sweet talk them, marry them – and then five or six years later, maybe, on a late Friday night after one too many lchaims, the abuse would erupt.

And I knew that just like the rape crisis, if we all remain silent, if there’s no education to prevent it, it will only get worse.

It took me a year, but the silent time is done. I may have missed the chance for an apology from them, but that’s okay. I feel it within. It’s time for the education to begin, and it begins here.

It’s taken me a long time to write about this, because, as this website is named, I wanted to create – Beriah – not destroy.

If this was about saying my piece, venting my anger about what happened and tarring every yeshiva boy with the same brush, I would’ve written it long ago, and for an outlet more noisy than Hevria, one less targeted to a specific community.

But I write this to those within. To the boys, to their sisters, their mothers, their aunts, their future wives and daughters.

These boys admitted shortly after that they were wrong. They knew, but they’d been caught up in the excitement, the rabble rousing of it all. And I have compassion on them for that reason, for the exposure and education they’ve had that hasn’t given them a proper outlet for what is normal teenage frustration with the desire to reach out to the “other” in gender; for a culture that teaches them objectification.

As we learn modesty laws in the religious world, we are taught that we are so much better off than “them” – the secular world, where women’s bodies are objectified in the media and Hollywood. That Holywood sexualizes the woman while the holy Torah laws protect the inner sanctity of the female body.

“Kol Kevudah Bat Melech Penimah” – The Glory of the King’s daughter is within, it says in Psalms. Children are taught to protect inner modesty yet with a set of laws that don’t give a sense of the glory and greatness.

Yet by making the body forbidden and forgotten, by ignoring this glory of God within, it’s easy for it to turn on its head – what originates highest, falls lowest. And so a woman’s monthly cycle becomes an object of derision on a street corner.

Labelling the female as the one to be feared, the purveyor of all sexual desire and teenage angst, allows the ugliness to rear its head at the object herself. The objectified female of pop culture happens in the world of Halachic observance, because sexualisation isn’t just about dressing a woman in a bikini and using her to sell a car – it’s also labelling her elbows as the source of all distraction and converting these elbows into a fearful, ugly, reviled object, rather than respecting the power within.

Instilling fear into an object rather than working to eradicate the inner fear itself won’t move us into a positive space, of healthful relationships between sheltered women and men. That abuse in our community has a source, and that there’s a place to begin.

We can’t solve the problem all at once. The structure hasn’t been set up for that.

There are too many young boys leaving home, too many hormonal teens in dormitories with no females in their immediate vicinity, no moms to tell them what’s right or wrong or sisters gently teasing them beyond an occasional Shabbat visit.

Too many Rabbis instilling fear of the feminine into the male mind, reminding them that women aren’t part of our world, until it’s the magic time of marriage when the door opens and all is permitted, and the reconciliation of masculine and feminine happens overnight – even though the fences were built years earlier and take a while to break down.

Without a middle ground, a place to see females as intelligent, equally capable human beings albeit with different and indeed titillating anatomy, women remain squarely in the Madonna/whore roles; as mothers and sisters, or the alternative – seductresses, sl**ts, female dogs excreting bodily fluids at their time of the moon.

The idea of Yeshivahs adopting an education program sounds ludicrous to all who I pitch it to, and most try to remind me that this is just about being a mentch, and not drinking too much mashke (booze), and remembering that boys can be real idiots when they’re shikker (drunk).

But then I remember my little sisters, and I think that there’s no way I can leave this alone without trying something, anything, to educate the boys of ultra Orthodox communities for a better future.

So I’m writing today, on a public forum, in front of a community that remains within the general vicinity of the Orthodox world, to remind everybody about the peril that is destroying gender relations from within.  

To remind everyone who has a teenage boy in their life to please, talk to them, engage them, remind them that we’re more than their chaste, innocent sisters and we’re more than their vicious, mysterious tempters.

Mothers, talk to your sons. Sisters, speak with your brothers.

And teachers, Rebbis, mashpiim and mashgichim – remember that fear is a state of mind, not an object. Teach your students to respect and honor the female presence, to honor the container that holds her power, the ability to reproduce and create.

The mystery is to be revered, not feared.

It begins, within.