What Worries Israeli Women Now?

“Three for the price of two?” In Shuk Ramla — the bargain- basement outdoor market that comes to Jerusalem once a week — women in drab winter jackets haggle with burly vendors over kids’ sweatshirts, already marked down to 12 shekels ($3) apiece. A couple of miles away in Malcha Mall, “the biggest shopping center in the Middle East,” other women, coiffed and clothed à la mode, put down their branded shopping bags and shmooze at noodle bars and pastry shops. On busy Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv, an energetic young Histadrut (Workers’ Union) employee named Dafni hands out flyers and urges passersby to sign a petition demanding better working conditions for waitresses and waiters. On the eve of Israel’s 60th anniversary, with social gaps in the population growing by quantum leaps, Qassam rockets falling daily on towns in the Negev, and faith in government sunk to an all-time low, what are the concerns that unite these women? Or, as Lilith’s editors asked: What do Israeli women worry about?

It’s a Jewish question that calls for a Jewish answer: What don’t Israeli women worry about? How is it possible to delineate, in one neat package, the endless issues that women here confront every day? In a country where, more than almost anywhere else, the personal is the political , what leads the long list of women’s concerns? Where virtually every grandmother and schoolgirl has an opinion about everything , is it the national issues or the personal ones that most engage women’s thoughts?

Neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, neither a “typical Israeli” nor an outsider, I set out to learn what worries Israeli women, and how much they let their worries worry them. I posed the question in interviews long and short, in supermarkets and cafés, to old women and young, to feminist activists and mental health professionals and women in the street. I did an informal survey and tallied up the responses. And I discovered that the answers, like most things Jewish, are simple — and not simple.

Sixty years after its establishment, the State of Israel still considers itself, by and large, a land under siege. This is accepted as a regrettable given, an inevitable fact of Israeli life, by the vast majority of its citizens, and summed up in the single Hebrew word, hamatzav, the situation. The political situation and the military culture; the occupation and the disengagement; the rockets falling on Kiryat Shmona or Sderot and the fighting in Gaza; the shadow of the Holocaust and the sons and daughters and husbands in Zahal [Israel Defense Forces] — it’s all wrapped up in three short syllables, hamatzav. Easy to say, easy to put aside.

“In order to survive when one’s life is constantly being threatened,” explains Alyne Bat Haim, a psychotherapist in Tel Aviv, “in order to deal with constant tension and insecurity, there’s only one thing to do: deny their influence on your life.” So, I wonder, are Israeli women masters of denial and repression? Or are they highly resilient survivors? Or both?

A veter an psychotherapist believes that Israeli women live in a kind of parallel consciousness. “The worry is there all the time,” Marcia Shviro at Jerusalem’s feminist Counseling Center for Women says, “but women live here, and get on with things.”

She speaks from personal as well as professional experience: her highly-motivated son volunteered for a combat unit in the army and became an officer; her elder daughter just finished serving in Zahal, and the younger will join up soon.

“While there is fragmentary acknowledgement among women of the fears and anxieties of hamatzav,” Shviro says, “there seems to be a national defense mechanism (no pun intended) that, for the most part, succeeds in repressing them.” Hence her highschool daughter’s girlfriends, like their Western counterparts, think mostly about their looks, their diet, their rank in the class popularity ratings. Their mothers are engrossed largely in family matters: almost every woman I spoke with agreed that interpersonal relationships took utmost precedence in her life.

“Things are terrible,” a woman on a Jerusalem bus informs me. I hadn’t asked. She puts out a hand to steady the elderly woman trying to seat herself across the aisle. “They don’t plan these buses to accomodate the infirm. Did you see the news yesterday? The government, the economic situation, the stock market — the bottom’s dropping out everywhere, even in America and the Far East.” So what’s good about your life? I inquire. “My children and grandchildren, that’s it.” She pauses, then mutters without a smile, “For your soul, go to the zoo!”

She’s a textbook example from the website of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, which states that 9% of Israel’s population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorders — more than triple the percentage in the USA. Here, merely riding the bus can be a traumatic experience. The folks at ICTP delicately advise the public how to cope with stressful situations and increase resilience. If you’re stressed out, they recommend, devote time to relationships, acquire knowledge about the situation, talk about your feelings, use your sense of humor, and help others in need.

If that doesn’t help, you can turn to ERAN, the Association for Emotional First Aid. Of the nine crisis-intervention organizations listed on the Psychotrauma website, ERAN is the most accessible: volunteers staff their hotlines 24/7, promising a willing ear and a professional referral elsewhere if necessary. Itzhak Gilat, the psychologist who heads ERAN’s research department, was the only man I polled. Of the 12,000 or so phone calls ERAN fields each month, he said, 60% were from women. ERAN’s online help site attracts an even higher rate (70%) of females, most of whom, not surprisingly, are in the 12 – 30 age bracket. ERAN’s largest group of callers — between 40 – 45% — complain of problems in communication and/or relationships: they feel isolated, conflicted, or lacking in their dealings with family or friends. This complements the results of my informal survey, where women repeatedly emphasized the importance of their personal relationships.

Though not one woman in my survey — not even the young mother whose husband was murdered by terrorists a year ago — complained of depression, women admit it more openly in the total anonymity of ERAN’s hotline, website or online chat with a trained counselor. About 6% of ERAN’s callers were depressed — the same percentage as those with anxiety issues — and the proportion of women among them, according to Itzhak Gilat, is far greater than men. This, he hypothesizes, might be because Israeli women don’t have the same freedom for self-realization as men do. Or, he adds, “perhaps it’s connected to biological causes, to hormones…”

Feminists are more likely to explain it in terms of powerlessness. “Most of the time,” says Marcia Shviro, “you manage to repress your fears and anxieties. But you pay a price for it: a heightened sense of helplessness, of being unable to change things.” With children in the army, she says, it’s even worse: “You feel that you’ve lost control over your kid’s welfare.” The younger women she sees at CCW, those without children, “don’t express fear about hamatzav. They’re more concerned with their own identities, with work and the future.”

Maia, the daughter of a high-powered businesswoman and a career diplomat, epitomizes those younger women. About to complete an elite BA program at Hebrew University combining philosophy, economics, and international relations, she looks forward to starting her MA at the London School of Economics next fall and plans to return to Israel thereafter as an environmental policy-maker. But her finely shaped brow wrinkles when she contemplates the future, both her own and her country’s.

“Israel has no long-term policy planning,” Maia observes. However sterling her credentials, she knows that the likeliest place she’ll be able to find work is a “green” nonprofit organization, where the pay will be miniscule compared to Western standards. Many of her university friends, especially those who’ve never lived abroad, feel strangled in Israel by the lack of professional and financial opportunities, compounded “for those who are more political” by hamatzav. Making money — lots of it — has become a serious Israeli measure of success and happiness. “Not in my circles,” Maia quickly adds. “But in Tel Aviv, your status depends on your standard of living. Jerusalem is still a lot less materialistic, and my friends and I tend to look for happiness elsewhere. But making it financially in this country is very hard.”

A Jerusalem mother illustrates what most women are up against. With three kids, she resisted the cellphone syndrome for as long as possible — until one of her youngsters informed an aunt that his friends had stopped calling him. “Teens’ whole way of life is about cellphones,” the mother realized belatedly. “With three kids, that means an extra 600 shekels a month out of the budget. But what can you do? You want your kids to fit in.”

At a café in the heart of materialistic Tel Aviv, Alyne Bat Haim offers a psychological take on Israelis’ galloping need for possessions. “I’d guess that most of my clients — relatively sophisticated Tel Avivis — don’t really believe that we’ll ever have peace,” she says, “but they live as though we will. So they suffer side effects from their lack of belief, like emphasizing things that ostensibly give you security. Well-to-do parents, for instance, make sure to provide an apartment for each kid. You can say, ‘That’s so Jewish!’ but it’s basically part of their fantasy of permanence and stability. As long as you have a flat, nothing will happen to you…”

While buying apartments for their children is a major concern for the middle- and upper-class woman, simply feeding the kids is a problem for a shockingly high number of others. Tal Tamir, editor of the Israel Women’s Network (IWN) compendium, Women of Israel 2006, quotes the statistics: 20% of Israel’s children live in poverty, many of them Arabs or ultra-religious Jews. As in other countries, there are proportionally more poor women in Israel than men. The prevalence of poverty is blatantly evident in Beit Shemesh, once considered a dead-end town off the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Originally populated by low-income Sephardim, Beit Shemesh has been revived in recent years by a large influx of very Orthodox immigrants from the affluent West, who live for the most part in a totally new and separate neighborhood dubbed “Beit Shemesh Heights.” Even here, however, both in the cul-de-sacs lined with elegant, redtiled villas and particularly in the blocks surrounding them, with their concentrations of anonymous five or six-story apartment buildings, one can hear a surfeit of financial woes.

Aviva, a social worker who emigrated not long ago from London, found a job with a charity, founded and funded privately to help needy residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh. The only social workers on duty in the area, she and her tzedakah team fill the gaps not covered by government services. Aviva’s clientele covers the gamut of local society, from second-generation welfare mothers to new immigrants whose dreams — and savings — got wiped out by Israeli realities.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people are living on bread and marg,” Aviva frowns. “A truck filled with fresh fruit and vegetables parks near this prosperous-looking neighborhood every Friday. Anyone can come and just take what they need.” Many of those who take, she says, are the working poor: on a minimum wage of about NIS20 ($5) an hour, even a man who works 12 or 16 hours daily, as some do, can’t afford to feed and clothe four or six children — a relatively small family among Israel’s ultra-religious communities. There are also significant numbers of men who do not work for a living at all; with their wives’ consent and approval, they prefer full-time Torah study at a kollel (yeshiva for married men), a “job” which grants them higher status in the community along with monthly stipends of about NIS 2000.

“Many of their wives are embarassed to come for help,” Aviva notes. Evie Sekel, a resident of a similar religious neighborhood in Jerusalem, points out that Torah-observant men are duty-bound to support their families, and communities like Har Nof or Beit Shemesh can usually provide them with positions as teachers or religious functionaries. Nevertheless, wives often choose to work themselves rather than asking their husbands to give up their learning. Without higher education or career qualifications, the majority of these women resort to minimum-wage jobs as nursery school assistants, a no-win position if they also have to pay for child care. The more ambitious manage to get training as hairdressers or cosmeticians and open their own salons — a competitive but potentially lucrative field in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where young women must be attractive to nab a good shiddukh (arranged marriage), and older ones — like most other Israeli women — are vitally interested in maintaining their looks no matter how many children they have.

Whether it’s Beit Shemesh or Tel Aviv, of course, there are other factors conspiring against women’s financial security. Israeli women on almost every level have difficulty perceiving themselves as full-scale earners in the workforce, or demanding pay equal to their male colleagues’ despite the law that mandates it. “Even when women claim they’re not getting their due,” says IWN’s Tal Tamir, “it’s hard to prove. On the record they may get the same salaries, but men get hidden perks that add up: cars, insurance, cellphones, easy loans.” College women are far more likely to study the humanities rather than science or technology, fields with higher earning potential. And the high percentage of women — currently more than men — getting Ph.D.s doesn’t help their social or financial status, because in Israel as elsewhere, a jump in the number of women in any field means a decrease in the pay scale, no matter what the law decrees. Maia, for example, the ambitious and self-confident B.A. student, is well aware of the fact that, as an Israeli mother and wife, she won’t bring in a salary commensurate with her skills and training, “unless I marry someone who’s willing to stay home with the kids so I can be the primary wage-earner — and that’s not likely if I marry an Israeli.” Though Maia may be able to resolve the issue by wedding her British boyfriend, most Israeli women have to deal with the men on the home front as both spouses and bosses.

“Living in such a macho society where every man who’s been in the army is God,” says Ilana Gild, a community social worker employed by the Counseling Center for Women, “women who aren’t emotionally strong aren’t capable of demanding anything for themselves.” Whether she’s looking at a new coat or a new career, such a woman hardly thinks twice before her subconscious whispers, “Look at what he does. Look at what you do. You don’t deserve it.” The Israeli woman, concludes Gild, has been socialized to put her own self and needs aside “because the nations’s needs always come first.”

The implications can be far more extreme for the girlfriends and wives of men who are abusive.

When a woman’s soldier husband abuses her, how can she divorce him, how can she feel she has the right to complain, when he’s just come back from combat duty in Lebanon or Gaza?

These concerns are echoing more frequently in therapy sessions throughout the country — particularly since the launch last year of “In Treatment,” (B’Tipul) a wildly successful Israeli TV series that has removed much of the stigma still attached to psychotherapy. The upscale Israeli women in Alyne Bat Haim’s practice rarely present their worries about hamatzav in the therapy room, unlike the overseas students she treats, who often express their fears. Among her Israeli clients, Alyne senses a general lack of security and hope and a growing concern with violence and corruption. “When life is so uncertain, what value do values have?” she asks rhetorically. “There are no worthwhile role models today, and there’s certainly no expectation that anyone in government would provide such a model.”

That might explain why Israeli women, in ever-growing numbers, are seeking inspiration and solace elsewhere. Ofira Gordon, a 50-year-old wife, mother, and “image consultant” in Tel Aviv, represents a new breed of professional helpers in Israel, the “coaches” who, with unrelenting enthusiasm, guide both women and men to one sort of success or another. With her services often subsidized by companies encouraging their employees to attain advanced training and “self-growth,” Ofira’s clients comes from a wide socio-economic range. “Women always think of their families first,” she confirms, “no matter where they’re coming from. Only when the kids are grown and gone do women wake up and start thinking about their own needs.” Not surprisingly, this phenomenon is more visible among middle-class women, but it’s also percolating down the social scale. Women with less income, and religious ones especially, are more likely to put off taking care of themselves; there’s always someone else — children, husbands, elderly parents — who comes first. “But when I try to encourage them to do more for themselves,” Ofira Gordon says, “these women also start to get it. ‘I walk an hour every day,’ a yemenite grandma tells me proudly. That’s a start!”

A helper of another sort, “Reb Ruth” Kagan, unabashedly caters to a well-heeled crowd in Jerusalem’s trendy Baka and German Colony neighborhoods. Her monthly musical Friday night services plus potluck Shabbat dinner draw an eclectic mix of young and old, hilonim (secular Israelis) and Orthodox, Muslims and Christians. Starting out informally a year or two ago, these events recently outgrew her living room and spilled into the basement of a local synagogue. Kagan, from an Orthodox Israeli family with rabbinic antecedents, got her North American, New Age-oriented ordination from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Today, she calls herself a spiritual counselor and follows a “female model of leadership,” avoiding the guru complex that, she feels, has been the downfall of many male spiritual leaders — or their followers. It is in her practice and preaching, perhaps, that one sees the essence of what Israeli women refer to as “spirituality” in their lives.

“I’m trying to create a space where people can commit to the Divine,” Reb Ruth declares.

The people who come to her, she says, are not concerned about being hungry but worry about those who are. They work, she says, for social consciousness, for the environment, for dialogue with the Other. Does hamatzav bother her and her followers?

“I’m a warrior, not a worrier,” she laughs. “Instead of worrying about my kids, I delight in them. Instead of worrying about Arabs, I get together and collaborate with them in the sacred space I’m trying to build. It takes my worry level down, creates a sense of intimacy. Will it change the world? I don’t know — but it’s fun trying.”

Reb Ruth is obviously on to something. Call it repressed or call it resilient: in a place where virtually everyone is a survivor, where fear permeates the subconscious and fun is almost a foreign word — it is, most of all, the heroic attempt to not worry, to find ways to push aside one’s innermost concerns and find the mental space simply to be present for other human beings, that unites Israeli women today. And it is in the daily presence of others, in the joy and strength of their family and social relationships, that Israeli women find the power to fully live their lives in good times and bad.

Barbara Gingold, an American-born photojournalist and garden designer, has lived and worked in Jerusalem for more than three decades.