Strictly Ortho­dox Very fem­i­nist

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - ANTHEA GERRIE

PNINA PFEUFFER is Charedi, but about as dif­fer­ent from the stereo­type as you can imag­ine. We are at a Jerusalem ho­tel where she is or­gan­is­ing a demon­stra­tion, and the na­tion­al­ists in her sights prob­a­bly have no idea that this plac­ard-wav­ing left­winger in a short skirt and fit­ted top is even frum, let alone that she aims to be the first Charedi woman to hold po­lit­i­cal of­fice in Is­rael.

“I wouldn’t want to be prime min­is­ter, but I’d like to be for­eign min­is­ter, and the first step is to get elected to Jerusalem city coun­cil,” ex­plains this bold and am­bi­tious woman whose tum­ble of curls and ten­dency to gig­gle make her seem younger than her 38 years. “I’d be the first Charedi woman to rep­re­sent any mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Is­rael, so I’m lead­ing the women in my com- mu­nity into pol­i­tics.”

Pfeuffer was born in Is­rael to de­vout but worldly Amer­i­can par­ents: “We have rab­bis in our fam­ily but books and the­atre were al­ways part of our lives, my mother went to univer­sity and worked as a speech ther­a­pist, and ex­pec­ta­tions for me were to marry, have chil­dren and a ca­reer.”

She re­mem­bers want­ing to have in­flu­ence since she was a lit­tle girl, de­spite feel­ing a sense of sep­a­ra­tion on ac­count of her gen­der. “I al­ways wanted to change things I didn’t think were right, like the fact that the level of my re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion and my po­si­tion in so­ci­ety were bound to be dif­fer­ent be­cause I was fe­male.”

We first met dur­ing Mekudeshet, Jerusalem’s mind-ex­pand­ing cul­ture fes­ti­val, where her home was the sec­ond stop on a mag­i­cal mys­tery tour in­tro­duc­ing visi­tors to Jerusamelites who con­found stereo­types. She ex­plained to the group that her home dou­bles as a place to study.

“The group meets ev­ery Wed­nes­day evening whether I am there or not, be­cause the To­rah says it’s im­por­tant to set a fixed time and place for study,” she tells me when we re­con­vene at the ho­tel.

“We have a young male teacher be­cause there are no women learned enough to lead us; we don’t get to study Tal­mud at school. He chose to lead us be­cause he feels it’s im­por­tant women should be able to achieve the same level of re­li­gious un­der­stand­ing as they do in their sec­u­lar pur­suits.

“There are about 10 of us in the group and I would love to have more, but it’s very hard to get more women to join be­cause of the back­lash from hus­bands and broth­ers as well as time con­straints for women who work as well as look after their chil­dren.”

Pfeuffer’s fa­ther is cer­tainly not among the dis­ap­provers — he bought books for the group when it started up nearly two years ago, and in­scribed them with a ded­i­ca­tion.

Pfeuffer em­braces tra­di­tional re­li­gious be­liefs, even if they ban women from join­ing the rab­binate. She in­sists her garb on demon­stra­tion day com­plies with Charedi rules for mod­esty: “My knees and el­bows are cov­ered, as they’re sup­posed to be,” she says, tug­ging at hem and sleeves. “In fact the top would not be tight if I hadn’t gained weight, and I wanted to wear some­thing I could pull a T-shirt with slo­gans over once the demon­stra­tion gets un­der way.”

Pol­i­tics are her pas­sion. She has a mas­ter’s de­gree in or­gan­i­sa­tional be­hav­iour and works for Darkanu, a group cam­paign­ing for a two-state so­lu­tion, but keep­ing a kosher home and rais­ing two daugh­ters who go to a re­li­gious school as she did, is her pri­or­ity. She says her divorce, after nearly 10 years of mar­riage, was not down to her ac­tivism, and she con­tin­ues to wear a sheitl; she hopes one day to re­marry and be­lieves Charedi so­ci­ety in Jerusalem now ac­cepts high-fly­ing work­ing wives.

“In Is­rael it’s im­pos­si­ble to live on one salary, and nearly 80 per cent of Charedi women work. Most are in low-pay­ing jobs — they’re taken ad­van­tage of — but an in­creas­ing num­ber are go­ing into higher ed­u­ca­tion and have be­come doc­tors, lawyers, IT ex­ec­u­tives. Their hus­bands in­creas­ingly help at home, bring­ing the chil­dren from kinder­garten, tak­ing them to the doc­tor or den­tist and feed­ing them lunch, es­pe­cially if they’re not work­ing them­selves.

“But although Charedi women get a bet­ter sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion than the men and many be­come bread­win­ners, it’s still their role to be the mom as well as work, while it’s the male hi­er­ar­chy—the re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers — who make the de­ci­sions.”

It’s a sit­u­a­tion she hopes will have changed by the time her daugh­ters, now 13 and 11, grow up, even if she doesn’t suc­ceed in get­ting elected to of­fice. “I’d like them to go to univer­sity, have op­tions and make all their own choices without hav­ing to leave the Charedi world.”

Pnina Pfeuffer flies the flag for her be­liefs

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