“I’m leaving completely heartbroken. I thought I was going to live in Beit Shemesh forever.”
Those are the only words that Hadassah Margolese was willing to say on the record as she sadly packed her belongings in boxes preparing to move out of the city of Beit Shemesh. She left on Tuesday.
Margolese and her daughter Na’ama became the symbols of the struggle against extremist ultra-Orthodox coercion when they were featured on a television broadcast in 2011, after men who objected to the presence of Na’ama’s school near their neighborhood screamed, spit and threw objects at the schoolgirls, whose long sleeved shirts and long skirts they deemed immodest.
The program, which showed Na’ama clinging to her mother’s leg, afraid to go to school, triggered a public outcry. In the ensuing years, Hadassah has periodically taken advantage of her high profile to speak out, part of the vanguard of national religious Beit Shemesh residents who were determined to stand their ground and refuse to allow Mayor Moshe Aboutboul, a member of the Shas party, to transform Beit Shemesh into a haredi city.
Margolese has spoken out and written about incidents that disturbed her, including an instance in which little girls' faces were blurred out on Purim-themed flyers that were distributed in her neighborhood.
With that history, when I heard Margolese was leaving Beit Shemesh, I assumed that it was because she had her fill of Haredi extremism, and was tired of holding the fort against ultra-Orthodox forces. It seemed peculiar, however, that she would do it now, just as the Beit Shemesh election campaign was heating up and there was hope for creating real change by unseating Mayor Aboutboul and replacing him with someone who would take Beit Shemesh in a more positive direction.
So I was surprised to learn, from a source close to Margolese, that her decision to leave primarily stemmed from a feeling of being attacked, not by the ultra-Orthodox extremists – but by members of her own national religious “knitted kippa” community. This past May, after an upsetting experience at the mikveh, she wrote an op-ed piece in the Hebrew-language newspaper Ma’ariv describing how she left the ritual immersion weeping, and feeling “pained and humiliated.”
She described how the on-duty female mikveh attendant, known as a "balanit," insisted she was wearing eye makeup even though she knew she had scrubbed it off. The balanit stood her ground and so did Margolese, as she described in the piece: “For some reason the balanit felt it was her job to watch me before and after my immersion, without turning around. Looking at me the whole time.
“I was nervous; I just wanted to end the humiliating ritual and go home. I didn’t tell her to turn around even though she had no reason to stand there and stare at me. But if she would refuse to let me immerse, I’d just have to find another mikveh where I could find myself in exactly the same position. So I kept quiet,” Margolese wrote, declaring that she deserved privacy and “did not need a babysitter” in the mikveh.
Her goal, she said, was to help focus on the issue of making the mikveh experience public and meaningful.
The behavior of mikveh attendants has been a hot topic among modern Orthodox women in recent months, culminating in a petition submitted by the Itim advocacy organization to the Religious Services Ministry declaring that the ‘interrogation’ of women by mikveh attendants violate women’s dignity and right to privacy, and detailing the multiple complaints they have received on the subject.
The question under debate is the extent of the attendant’s responsibility – whether she is to play a minimal role in assisting women when requested and maintaining the facility. Itim has received complaints from women like Margolese who feel violated when they are forced to stand naked – or wrapped in a towel – and answer questions that ranged from inquiries about their of birth control, to how thoroughly they cleaned their bodies in preparation for immersion, or be denied them immersion because of a body piercing.
Mikvot are used primarily by Orthodox women who observe family purity laws, and immerse themselves following their menstrual cycle before they resume marital relations with their husbands. Some attendants, presumably instructed by their superiors, are extremely pro-active in "helping" the women determine whether they are ritually pure enough to immerse.
The Itim organization contends that women should not have to sacrifice their privacy for the privilege of immersing in a mikveh, and asks that the Ministry instruct the attendants to better respect this value.
After Margolese’s piece was published in Ma’ariv, she posted the article on her Facebook page and so did her husband. While she had experienced hostile confrontations coming from outside her community regarding feminist issues such as Orot Banot and Women of the Wall, she was deeply thrown by the angry comments from those she considers friends and members of her community regarding her writing on the mikveh.
The source close to Margolese said that hostile comments were posted both on her and her husband’s Facebook page, accusing her of lying about her experience, exposing the community to public shaming (even though the piece did not mention the city or the specific mikveh) and calling the balanit “twisted” for staring at her, as well as other “name-calling.” She was surprised that after the national religious community had criticized the haredim for trying to cover up what needed changing and refusing to speak out, but when she spoke out in an effort to change something in their community, she was accused of airing dirty laundry, painting the mikveh experience as negative, and giving ammunition to anti-religious political groups.
Although those who were supportive in Beit Shemesh outnumbered her detractors, and her rabbi expressed explicit support, Margolese was deeply upset by the anger directed at her, and rarely left the house since the incident, the source said.
She doesn’t see her move as a retreat, but an attempt do what is best for herself and her family by seeking “peace of mind” elsewhere, according to the source. Na’ama, she said, is very happy to make the move.
by Allison Kaplan Sommer