"For me, the hardest part of becoming religious was the clothing."


Location: Akiva Gur Garden, Bnei Brak

Residence: Bnei Brak

Age: 42

The encounter: I met Maya in a park in front Bnei Brak city hall, after I had walked around for more than an hour unsuccessfully approaching people. I had gone to Bnei Brak, one of the most religious cities in Israel, to try to interview ultra-orthodox Jews. When Maya learned she was the first person who had agreed to talk to me, she nodded knowingly: “People here are very closed,” she said, “They are curious about others but  afraid to talk about themselves.” She suggested that I explore the slightly more modern ultra-orthodox neighborhoods on the periphery of Bnei Brak and pointed towards the center of town, where I’d just come from: “Don’t even go there!” she warned, “They’ll ignore you!”

What are you doing here right now?
I’m on my way to city hall to inquire about my son’s school shuttle. I don’t like to complain, but they squeeze four kids on a bench meant for three. There aren’t even enough seat belts, so I don’t think it’s legal. My son is in first grade and he says he doesn’t want to go to school because he’s afraid to ride the shuttle.

What is your occupation?
I’m a homemaker.

How do you describe your religious or national identity?
I’m not fanatical. Although I’m part of the religious world, I respect both religious and secular people. I’m more open-minded than most people here. I have lived here in Bnei Brak for almost five years, but we send our daughters to a religious school in Tel Aviv that’s less strict than the schools here: the girls are sometimes allowed to wear denim skirts, and, in summer, they can wear socks instead of tights. There are people here who won’t let their children play with ours because we are considered too liberal. I understand. I respect their position.
The truth is: I didn’t grow up religious. I returned to the faith. It all started with a religious-values weekend seminar for young women that I attended when I was still in high school. It was a free event at a fancy resort, so I thought ‘why not?’ and invited along some of my girlfriends. My friends skipped the religious classes and went out dancing, but I attended a class, and that was it: I took one class, and then another and another, and gradually I became more religious.   
My husband and I first met in the army. He wasn’t religious back then. But, a few years after me, he too returned to the faith.
My parents are not religious, but they respect my choice and keep a kosher kitchen so I can eat at their house.
For me, the hardest part of becoming religious was the clothing. At first I couldn’t bring myself to wearing long skirts and covering up my hair with a scarf or a wig. But when I finally got married, I got up my courage and changed my wardrobe.
Now, when I see women dressed in tight jeans or revealing tops, I feel embarrassed for them. I find it sad that women expose themselves like that. But I also understand because I used to dress like that myself and I used to find it normal. I enjoyed showing off my body... and back then I still had something to show!

Can you tell me a bit about your family?
I have seven children: three boys and four girls. The oldest is sixteen and the youngest is four-and-a-half.

Where is your family from?
Both my parents’ families came from Iraq. My grandmother was pregnant with my mother when she arrived in Israel in 1950. My father’s family came a few years earlier. He was born here, but his older brothers were born in Iraq.
My grandparents talked a lot about Iraq when I was little, but I’m not that much into history, so I just heard their stories and forgot them.

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land?
I would like everybody to love others as much as they love themselves. It’s what I learned from my mother: that, first of all, we must love each other. Now, I see a lot of rivalry and back stabbing, even in religious society. It’s a pity. We need to learn to be positive and giving, even when it’s difficult, and even when others aren’t deserving. We must always strive for goodness.
If we have love and unity and solidarity at home, we can expect the same from the outside: from our neighbors and from the countries around us. Peace has to start at home. That’s the foundation of everything.
As for politics, I just find it disgusting! I don’t know what to vote. I’d like someone with religion in the government, and I hope the right wing will be in power because I want a Jewish state that is really Jewish, with a strong government and an emphasis on religion. The left doesn’t offer that.
I hope that whoever gets elected will act in the interest of Israel. What shall I say? I would like real peace, peace from the heart. But there are people with whom you just can’t have peace. I don’t rule out the possibility of peace with the Arabs – there are good people even among them – but I find it hard to believe it’s possible. As much as we give them, I don’t think they’ll ever be satisfied. You see what happened in Gaza: we gave them everything, but they still keep attacking us. I wish it were possible! I wish there was harmony between all the countries! If only!