Would you Give up Your Seat? The New Segregation of Sexes
In advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, I bought my eight-year-old son As Good as Anybody, by Richard Michaelson, a beautiful picture book tracing the fight for justice fought by two incredible men: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The story opened with an angry young Martin growing up in the 1930’s segregated South who was not allowed to swim in a pool or drink from a water fountain or even use a public bathroom because he was black.
This was paralleled with a scared young Jewish rabbi in 1930’s Nazi-occupied Poland who could not find a job, use regular transportation, or attend university because he was a Jew.
As we cuddled on the couch and read, my son found it most troubling that a person would be asked to give up a seat on a bus because of the color of their skin.
I told him about Rosa Parks, the courageous woman who would not give up her seat to white man, and how her refusal started the year-long African-American bus boycott that eventually ended bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.
All my life, I have held this lesson that Rosa Parks gave America in the highest regard. But on a plane ride home from Israel, I forgot her lesson. I did not stand my ground.
A new kind of segregation is taking hold in certain Israeli towns where small but fanatical groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews are looking to bend and warp Halacha (Jewish law) to their benefit in order to separate Jewish women from public life. All in the name of modesty.
I’m ashamed to say that three years ago on that Continental flight bound to the U.S., I gave into the demands of one such fanatical Jew.
The plane was full and it took some time for all the passengers to go through the final security check before we finally boarded. It was a midnight flight and, after 10 days of participating in a rigorous Jewish educator program in Israel, I was tired. All I wanted was to settle into my seat (an aisle seat next to a secular man), and sleep for the better part of the 12 hour flight. My husband and kids were waiting for me on the other side.
Then, a steward came by. Standing next to him was a man dressed in 18th Century garb: white shirt, black coat, black knickers. The man sternly looked at me and let the steward do his asking. Outside of asking me for this favor, or money for tzedakah (charity), he would not regard me as a fellow Jew.
“Ma’am, I’m asking if you could give up your seat for this man for religious reasons.”
The religious reason is that this man was following this perversion of modesty codes that are stretching beyond houses of worship and are impacting every aspect of public life in parts of Israel. Women are beginning to be segregated on sidewalks. At funerals. On busses. And yes, they even want to extend their restrictions onto airplanes. Heaven forbid a man should sit next to a fully dressed woman and accidentally rub elbows.
I was told in advance by our group leader not to give in to these demands. But, in the heat of the moment, I caved.
I said, “I’m sorry, why is this my problem? It is he who has put so many restrictions upon himself.”
And the steward’s reply: “This is your problem, ma’am. If you don’t give up your seat, the plane will not take off.”
So I moved. I wound up sitting in a middle seat. In the row right in front of the bathroom so my seat wouldn’t recline all the way. Because a man wanted my seat so he could sit next to another man.
At the end of the flight, sheepishly, the man thanked me for giving up my seat.
At that point, I took a lesson from Dr. King, and Rabbi Heschel.
I told him, if he wants to practice what he learns in the Torah, he had to live in the world.