Behind the veil
By Tamar Rotem
"It's necessary to dress like the holy matriarchs. To wear a shawl, a skirt and a petticoat. Longer, looser garments. There is no end to making oneself stronger in faith. Be modest and you will receive a reward from Heaven. It is explicitly written that redemption will come only by virtue of women. Modesty is the woman's commandment and there is no rabbi who will say that it is forbidden to dress this way. On the contrary - this is how women will dress when the Messiah comes." (This quotation and others are from an interview conducted by the author with the mother accused of abusing her children, Haaretz, November 2007)
The woman at the center of the Beit Shemesh abuse scandal wraps herself in a length of black cloth, which she also clings to stubbornly in the courtroom. The covering eradicates any inkling of sexuality and conceals her face - her identity - in the name of modesty. At the same time it provides a metaphor for the screen she has put up, impermeable to any kind of rationality or feeling. Her sisters, her mother and even her children have provided testimony to the police, and the indictment filed against her at the beginning of the week discloses harsh evidence of the mother's abuse of her children and of incest between the siblings.
Through the wall of concealment emerges the murky substance of emotional and psychological neglect that is concealed by messianic-religious fervor. The veil is a motif that flows through the woman's tragic story. In recent years, while acts of incest were being performed in her home, she preached to women to cover themselves beneath their veils with more and more layers of clothing, to cover every exposed part of their body including their face and hands, on which they wear men's socks, following her example. In the fanatic circles of Beit Shemesh, the idea caught on and she became a female "rabbi." Her disciples spread the word of her righteousness.
"There is nothing worse than a married womans' hair showing. A married woman should have her head covered and not by some other hair, as women's hair catches the eye and leads a man looking at her astray. It is impudence to dress up and lead a man astray... I had the privilege to make many women cast off their wigs... I have lectured in halls in front of hundreds of women and they just tear off their wigs."
On a Wednesday evening in the summer of 2006, intrigued by the chance sighting of ultra-Orthodox women dressed like Muslim women, I knocked on the door of her home. For a considerable number of months afterward I continued to attend her lessons, which were both repelling and fascinating. Marginal religious groups are happy for any new member and the "rabbi" greeted me without question and with inviting gestures. To me, the leader of the small group of women seemed a bizarre, rather colorful type, wrapped as she was in many layers of colored cloth. As a sign of her extreme righteousness, the women told me, she would observe speech "fasts" and talk only once a week, during the lesson.
When she began to speak, her voice sounded grating to me, and chilling. I attributed this to her long periods of silence. Yet, the women's laughter and gay chatter made me ignore the feeling that presaged ill. She was a guru, a healer and a spiritual advisor all in one. Her most devoted disciples refrained from going to conventional doctors and they and their children were treated only by her.
The lesson meandered spontaneously from one topic to the next, without any logic: an exhortation about matters of modesty followed by an apocalyptic description of the punishment for licentiousness, and homeopathic instruction. One by one, the women received advice about various aches and pains, what kind of bread to eat (whole wheat), how to read a certain chapter in the Book of Psalms, and - as a bonus - a recommendation to tighten their sphincter muscles when using the toilet.
The women talked about the difficulties of carrying out the tasks of prayers. They seemed to feel hot and they sat facing electric fans. They drew encouragement from their "rabbi" and the other group members. They admire the "rabbi."
To whom have they not compared her? To Queen Esther, to Ruth the Moabite and of course to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. All the women in Jewish history came to the fore to defend the thesis that it is necessary to wear long clothing as baggy as a tent. Like Muslim women. Nothing prepared the disciples for the harrowing turn the story would take. Ever since their "rabbi" was arrested, they have been in a state of total shock.
The woman who is under arrest is 54 years old, the mother of 12 children, four of whom are under the age of 18. She was raised in a remote moshav in the South, in a national religious family. After she and her husband, who was in the air force, married, the couple's religious faith strengthened. They became ultra-Orthodox and moved to Bnei Brak. About seven years ago they moved to Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, where she began to wage a stubborn fight, in the form of lectures and assemblies, against the norm of ultra-Orthodox women wearing wigs in public.
About three years ago she began wearing a veil. Her husband did not follow in her path, but he did not stop her either. His lawyer would later depict him as a "present absentee," and as someone who is totally under his wife's control. During the lessons, he was always in the house, behind curtains that covered the open spaces.
In the wake of her move toward religious extremism, she married off her four older children - the ones who are now being spoken about in the context of incest - to spouses from the most hermetic and extreme stream of ultra- Orthodoxy. The matches of three out of the four did not work out well, and they divorced a short while later. Members of Beit Shemesh's ultra-Orthodox community related this week that those matches had been default choices for both sides. The girls were pretty, they explained, but the family was problematic. That is why they married the girls off when they were only 17, to older men or young men with disabilities, including mental illness. Two of the children who divorced have become secular.
About half a year ago, at the wedding of one of the daughters, who married for the second time, S., a sister of the accused, saw her for the first time with a group of her disciples, who were dressed like her. "They held her arms because she wasn't managing with the veil and she wasn't able to walk," relates the sister. "They kept rearranging the cloth on her head. She simply enjoyed being served by them. From time to time, she would get up to button up the bride or to put a shawl on her."
Ticking social bomb
"For 10 years now I have been observing a speech fast. This causes prayers to be better accepted. At home they are very accustomed to this and they live with me in joy and peace. It also prevents a lot of insolence from the children. People very much admire the relationship between me and my husband and the children."
S. is several years younger than the accused. She lives in a religious locale in the center of the country, and is married with children. For more than 10 years, S. stood on the sidelines, observing her sister's gradual move toward extremism, which was accompanied by neglect of her children. She says she could not remain indifferent to this. Although she was not aware of the extent of the children's abuse - as described in the indictment - she suspected that it existed. She learned of the incest only recently, but her descriptions indicate that the whole family was a ticking social bomb.
But no one wanted to hear about it. Over the years, S. alerted the Beit Shemesh municipality that the children were not attending school, that they were not being taken care of and that they were roaming the streets neglected and hungry, but in vain. "Fourteen years ago, when I visited her home in Bnei Brak, I was already alarmed. The house was a mess, totally wrecked. I saw a little boy sitting under the table. You could see he was suffering from cerebral palsy, but he wasn't being cared for. I tried to hug the girls and they recoiled. It looked like they weren't getting any attention from their parents."
Several years later, when she realized that four of the children weren't attending school at all, she contacted the municipality. "They sent a truant officer, who handed in a comprehensive report on how the children were neglected and really weren't going to school," says S. "But they didn't enforce his recommendations. After yelling and yelling, I'd get worn out. Months later I'd start sending letters again."
Twice she spoke about the neglect on the part of the Beit Shemesh welfare authorities on the Arutz Sheva station radio. In the wake of her becoming involved, the accused cut off all contact with her sister, apart from rare meetings at family weddings.
In 2006, the other children, especially the sons, contacted their grandmother and through her, got in touch with their two aunts, S. and E. They started spending Shabbat alternately with the grandmother and the aunts and, above all, they began to talk. "They'd simply grown up and were no longer under her control," says S.
The grandmother noticed abnormal behavior, especially between one brother and one sister. According to S., the sister started doing drugs and at some point she met a man who brought her into prostitution. S. again began to sound the alarm and to write letters. In the wake of great efforts, she managed to get her 17-year-old nephew into a therapeutic yeshiva in the North, with the father's agreement. The boy began talking with the yeshiva's social worker, who later revealed the entire scandal.
The boy told his grandmother and his aunts about his visits in Beit Shemesh and how he saw the younger children roaming around hungry, neglected and filthy in the streets. S. immediately contacted the town's education and welfare departments. The head of the welfare department wrote to her that a social worker would be in touch with the family and that "we will make an effort to help the children with every means at our disposal." Additionally, a truant officer was sent, who paid a visit to each of the schools the children were enrolled in, and found that the children were attending.
In August 2007, S. complained to the Welfare Ministry's appeals committee that the Beit Shemesh municipality had not involved any agency that could examine the mother's ability to parent and care for her children. The director of the Welfare Ministry's Jerusalem district responded: "Because of the right to privacy, we will not be able to continue to share information about the treatment of that family." It should be noted that nothing at all was done.
The father of the accused died on the same day the mentally disabled son was found wandering outside the home, hungry and dizzy, after he had spent the entire night outside the house, crying, while his mother refused to let him in. S. believes there is a connection between this incident and her father's death. She says the root of the abnormal behavior should be sought in their nuclear family (eight siblings - five sisters and three brothers). "Our father used to beat us all. My mother was a weak woman who did not manage to protect us." Of her sister she says: "All these years she has been looking for love. She fantasizes about greatness. She tried to become an outstanding homeopath and it didn't work. Then she became a saint."
|'Her day has come' |
"It is very difficult for me, all this. Not to leave the house. Not to talk. To cover myself up. But all those years I was guided from Heaven. And anyway I always hated leaving the house... I am not a female rabbi. They decided to call me a 'rabbi,' and no matter how much I explain to them that I am not a rabbi, it doesn't help. I always pray that people will not honor me and will not say that I am a saint, because that isn't true at all."
At court and in jail, the accused is mostly wrapped in total darkness, spending most of the time under the blanket that covers her. She is neither eating nor drinking, because of her vegan diet, which the jail has a hard time accommodating. But she is not cut off. She speaks freely with her lawyer, Vered Birger from the Public Defender's Office. Birger relates that at their very first meeting the woman gave her a detailed lecture on the subject of modesty. But Birger says she respects her. "I came in a skirt that stops above the knee. She asked me to change it. I didn't wear it again when I went to see her."
Does she feel that her client is manipulating her? "I respect her beliefs," Birger replies. But the accused does stipulate conditions through the veil. During interrogations, she refused to speak if a male investigator was present. On Tuesday she did not speak in the District Court, in the presence of the male judge.
"She enjoys being in control," says her sister S. "Why do they believe her? After all, she is continuing to deceive and it's impossible to deceive people all of the time. Her day has come," she continues. "And I hope for her sake that they will help her and give her treatment."
None of the women from the veiled circle came to see their leader at court. "The lying media are out to get us, the women with the cloth," T., one of her most fervent disciples, told me. "I am afraid that they will attack me. In the street, too, they are pointing at us. But are we going to stop going outside? Let them hide. I walk down the street with a wonderful feeling of who I am. And I have chosen to dress this way not only because of our rabbi."
This week she came to the courthouse to sign bail for the accused and collected small donations from fans of the "rabbi," amounting to NIS 20,000 - an astronomical sum for predominantly poor people. She has also offered to host the "rabbi" under house arrest in her home. However, the group's leading spokeswoman has refrained from taking such a step. In fact, a conversation with her seems to indicate that she is dissociating herself from the "rabbi," even though, like T., she has denied the charges against the accused.
Dr. David Green, a clinical psychologist from the Green Institute for Advanced Psychology, in Tel Aviv, and an expert on cults, believes the arrest and the charges will not break up the group. Another and larger wave of women will join what he calls a cult. "We are becoming stronger in our faith," says T. She tells of modesty assemblies in Beit Shemesh, Acre and Ramle. "Everything in this world is a disguise; you should know that," she tells me at the end of a conversation, during which she condemned the media, the police and the court. "Just as some people disguise themselves as police and judges, we have chosen to disguise ourselves as the holy matriarchs and to cover ourselves. Behind the mask hides a saintly woman. In the war of Gog and Magog everyone will ask her forgiveness. And she will forgive."