I was disappointed in myself as I walked the other, slightly longer, route home. I don’t usually walk this way. I like to walk through the barely cobbled alleyways, noticing the Jerusalem stone and the rickety, uneven steps. Sha’arei Chesed is usually beautiful. The walk through the neighborhood is more interesting, more alive, than this way home.
But that morning, walking the usual route to the shuk, moments after passing the fruit and vegetable spot I shop at when I only want a lemon or a few tomatoes, a man stopped us. “Please don’t walk this way—people are davening in the shul, turn up this street.” He stared at my exposed legs. It was hot out this spring morning, and I was ready to embrace the sun’s warmth.
He pointed to my right, to the street he wanted me to turn up instead of passing by the shul. I quickly turned from him and took a step in the direction in which he instructed me to walk. I am often overly polite, sometimes apologizing when I did nothing wrong, or obeying a request without fully processing it first in my head. It wasn’t very Israeli of me—being this polite.
Noticing my instinctive reaction, I quickly corrected myself and turned to face him again. I told him, “Excuse me, this is a city and I live here just like you do.” My block is where Sha’arei Chesed and Rechavia border one another; the two intertwine, creating a rich array of Jewish affiliations. I have loosely affiliated neighbors, more traditionally observant ones, some who firmly adhere to Jewish law and others who are in the midst of constructing their Jewish identities. On the end of the block is a Chabad shul and a sushi restaurant. Yet the block is also divided. On Shabbat one half is gated off from cars, while the other is not. Still, overall, the block is Jewishly diverse.
“It’s disrespectful of you to tell me not to walk here,” I added. I’m not doing anything wrong by walking in shorts. He listened, but firmly repeated that we shouldn’t walk past the shul.
I gave up and walked the other way.
When I returned back home after my errands at the shuk, I again made the detour and walked the longer route. I felt nervous someone would snap at me.
My friend from the fruit and vegetable store waved to me, then crossed the street to say hello. After I told him about my experience he responded, “It is a religious neighborhood, you should be respectful,” a comment I often hear regarding this issue. I told him that this is a city, and that I’m not asking anyone to look at my legs. “Well,” he sighed, “there are signs that say to dress modestly.”
I never used to feel intimidated by these signs; in general, I was comfortable walking through the neighborhood in whatever I was wearing. I noticed they were there, but they did not seem to reflect the majority opinion of the community. And in fact, until this time, no one in the neighborhood had ever asked me—told me—not to walk by.
I want to respect my neighbors. And I want to believe in human kindness and I want to go through my days feeling like I can live like I want to live and let others do the same. I think of myself as a generally respectful person but there are limits to what I do to respect others. I will not walk into a neighborhood shul dressed in a way that is not in accordance with the norms and practices of the community. But I do expect, in turn, to be respected, at the very least not to be confronted, while I walk down the street.
The thing is, this man’s eyes were kind. They were not yelling at me, and they did not even seem so angry. He seemed overall genuine. I believe he truly felt that my legs were distracting the men in the shul. I was able to understand that his comment probably did not stem from anger.
A total outsider might find it absurd that someone would comment on the way I dress and have the nerve to tell me to walk somewhere else, especially in a city. An insider would likely understand where the man comes from and might even think it unreasonable and disrespectful that I would walk down the street from my house in shorts.
I think I have a sense of both perspectives—I understand where the man’s request stemmed from; after all, he lives in an ultra-orthodox community that has specific beliefs about gender roles and generally abides to strict interpretations of Jewish law. But while I try to respect their life choices, I do not agree with them, specifically with their allocation of gender roles that, to my mind, subjugates women. I do not tolerate imposing one’s values on others that do not identify as part of the community or choose to take those values upon themselves.
And that is why I was confused by my response. I’m still trying to wrap my head around why, when I walked through my door, I broke down in tears.
Maybe some, like the man from the store, will say, just be respectful, it’s only a two minute longer walk. But, for me, it is about the principle of the matter. One of the things I dislike most is not having my freedom—feeling trapped or closed in. I am a city girl, born and raised, for most of my life, in New York—Manhattan, to be exact. There is something liberating about walking in the city. I can act however I like and no one cares. I am free. Sometimes it’s lonely, but it’s so alive. When I chose to live in Jerusalem, I chose to live in a city. I do not ask people to comment on how I look or what I wear. This is the way I like to walk to the shuk, never mind that it is the shortest way, and I shouldn’t need to justify it to anyone.
Even though I replied to him somewhat stubbornly, I obeyed his “request” and walked the other route. My compliance makes me think of the difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, of being both an insider and an outsider of a culture—of how to understand some of the idiosyncrasies and beliefs within a culture yet still be able to remain an outsider and object.
I am a woman in a world that has staunchly skewed perceptions and expectations of what women should and should not do in order to meet society’s expectations, largely constructed by men. I think what terrified me when I walked into my house and broke down is that deep down I had—perhaps—internalized these absurd expectations. I hadn’t acted in a way that acknowledged that one can be a respectful person and yet say no, and continue on one’s way. Was it just my Americaness that at first replied so politely and obediently or was it because I had, in a subtle way, internalized the expectations of what it means to be a woman? By remaining obedient I essentially affirmed the ludicrous beliefs and expectations of women to be respectful and unassuming. I’m even sure the man didn’t possibly think I would say no to him. I acted as expected, simultaneously betraying my egalitarian values.
This is not only about me. Nor is it only about women. It is about people—the way we treat others and the way we respond to the way others treat us. The way I reacted points to the prevalent inequality in our society. Feminism has come a long way externally. But how far has it actually come inside us?
Externally we think and act a certain way, but subconsciously we have internalized the way that society looks at us. In a study conducted by Jennifer R. Steele and Nalini Ambady in 2006, female college students were asked whether they preferred math or arts. Some of the participants were gender primed, meaning that before the test they were asked to indicate their sex and answer a range of other questions. Others were not gender primed. The results demonstrated that, overall, the participants that were gender primed preferred arts to math, while those who were not gender primed did not express this preference.
When someone stops me and stares at my legs, I am reminded that I am a woman and that women are looked at in a certain way. While I disagree with the ways that women are put down by others in society, it worries me that a part of me has internalized and enabled this. My hope is that all of us—not only women—pay closer attention not only to how we treat others, but also to how we react to the way we are treated. By noticing and acknowledging the ways in which we internalize gendered expectations, we can transform the way we respond to others and create more room for genuine and permanent changes in our society.