Sunday, July 11, 2010

Life's a Beach

So as many of you know from my very public and detailed Facebook updates about my travels for the past month and a half, I am now back in Jerusalem after a lovely four weeks on the East Coast seeing lots of friends and family, and a fun week in Brussels visiting my friend Schutz from Brandeis. Orientation for HUC-JIR's Year in Israel program starts tomorrow evening, and I have been holding on to vacation like a kid in the last week of August - which of course meant a trip to the beach in Tel Aviv today.

Danny Sanderson - HaGalshan
יום בהיר של שמש
אין שום עננים
אני וכל החברה
אל הים נוסעים
לקחנו את האוטו
הבנות כבר שם

(It's a clear, sunny day/there are no clouds/me and all my peeps/are going to the beach/we take the car/the girls are already there)

This is often my inner soundtrack whenever I go to the beach in Israel - it's completely offbase for what the soundtrack actually is in Israel, but is completely the image I had of the beach as a kid at camp. Today, however, not only were "the girls already there," but there were ONLY girls (and women) there.  I went with two Brandeis friends who are in Israel for the summer to the single sex beach in Tel Aviv. On Sundays/Tuesdays/Thursdays, it's only open to women, and on Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays, it's only open for men. I learned from one of my friends, who is here in Israel doing research for her dissertation on the Israeli municipal laws surrounding these beaches, that every city that has a beach, needs to have a sex separated area.

This particular beach was fascinating. It's surrounded by a high wall, although you approach it from the street above, so the wall seems kind of pointless. Except for the lack of men, the beach was not strikingly different from any of the beaches further south in Tel Aviv. I was most struck by the wide variety of beachwear - from itsy bitsy teeny tiny bikinis, to normal bikinis, bikini tops with shorts, one pieces, one pieces with white dresses over them (which once they are white, are pretty pointless as a modest cover-up), to women who were in the water in full-on street clothes. And with any of those combinations, there was a possibility of a head covering (some married Jewish women cover their hair, in a variety of ways, particularly within the Orthodox community).

This beach raises a lot of interesting questions for me - many of which we discussed while we lay out (probably with not quite enough sunscreen, at least on my end). Is there a straight line from separate sex beaches to separate sex bus lines (which have been a big issue in Israel and Jerusalem in the past year)? In my mind, I don't think so. I think these beaches enable those who act out values of modesty in their life with a particular set of actions to go to the beach, and swim, and get sunburnt. It's also very much a minority - it's a small beach, one which I didn't even know existed, nor did most of my non-Orthodox friends who I've talked to since. It's the kind of place that if you don't GO, you just not aware of it at all.

I think it's all interesting from the standpoint of creating women's only space within the public domain (although clearly 3 days a week, it is also men's only space, space that is already plentiful in Israel's plentiful domain). Being there reminded me of this article from The New York Times, about a women's only park in Afghanistan, particularly the description of how women take off their usual modest clothing once they are away from male gaze. This then leads me to the question of what specifically is driving the need for these beaches? Is it the desire to protect women from male gaze (and vice versa on men's days) to enable them to wear bathing suits? Or is it to create a space where people can go to the beach without being exposed to other people's perceived immodesty? One friend raised that this was just a nicer environment to bring your kids to splash around in the water.

I had a thought as I was wading into the (very warm!) Mediterranean for a swim, that with women's days and men's days, there really is no space for someone who doesn't fit into the gender binary, just as in a prayer space with a mechitza, or in a public space that only has male and female labeled bathrooms. But then I checked myself and remembered the miles of other beaches that don't use gender to separate either time or space.

I'd love to hear what any of you think about this - whether you've been in similar spaces, have thoughts about the genderedness or the religiosity of it...

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