As a young woman who has lived in London’s Belz community, last week’s driving directive made me recall my own experience of learning to drive.
Not many of my friends’ mothers drove. Some Chasidic women did, but this was usually only in extenuating circumstances, for example, the mother of a wheelchair-bound classmate drove her to school and no one asked questions. I don’t think they disapproved of driving as much as they just went along with whatever they were told.
My own decision to drive came gradually. I’m not the stereotypical Chasidic girl who goes with whatever is dictated. I questioned the rules, not because I was a rebel, but because I wanted to know why I was doing what I was doing.
I got married at the age of 20 (it was arranged through our families) but divorced several months later, and went to live in an apartment. Growing up, my father had always driven us around. Now, living on my own, I found it incredibly frustrating and limiting – the only options being to walk or take public transport.
At the time, old school friends were getting married and having children. I would have liked to keep in touch with them, but knew they would never understand my lifestyle, being single again and not being busy 24/7 with family matters.
Slowly, I met new friends who were less stereotypical. Some of them drove and I began to see the advantages for myself. Finally, I took the decision to take driving lessons.
My mother comes from a strict Chasidic family, so I knew she’d be devastated and feel embarrassed in the community. But I was already divorced, so I was already stigmatised. I thought about it from a Halachic perspective and realised that there was nothing in the Torah against me driving. It was ‘just not the done thing,’ but there was no written rule as such.
When I started lessons, I told my siblings, who were very supportive. I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want to antagonise them. When I passed my test, I told my father first. He is from a more lenient background, having come to Chasidism later in life. His mother and sisters drive, so I hoped he wouldn’t take it badly. Immediately, he congratulated me and asked me which car I was going to buy.
My mother was a different matter. My younger sister was getting married at the time, and we had aunts and uncles flying in for the wedding. I was excited about driving so told them, asking them not tell my mother, as I wanted to tell her after the wedding when everything had calmed and I figured she would take it better.
But one of my uncles, who loves to stir up trouble, asked my mother why she lets her daughter drive on the highway? I stood there, waiting for the hysteria, but it never came. It seems my father had already told her, so she’d had time to digest the news.
Later, my grandmother approached me at a family simcha and asked me very loudly: “Do you drive?” I thought she was just trying to get me to admit it, but I felt no shame, so just said: “Yes, why?” She replied: “Ok, so can you take auntie Leah home? She’s elderly, so drive carefully over the humps.”
I have used my car to do many mitzvot but people still stare as I get out of the car. These days I hardly notice, I just live my life the way I want to. My community is close-knit and judgemental, but so are other Jewish communities – they just judge differently, whether it’s on your clothes or your financial situation. You just learn to look away.
I’ve heard arguments against women driving – for example that they will “get up to worse activities with more freedom,” or that there is an issue with female modesty. But a woman who drives gets much less unwanted attention from men than if she were walking on the street. And as regards to “worse activities,” if someone wants to do something, they’ll find a way.
My thoughts on the driving ban are that it, like everything else, can be misused. It has a traditional basis, but most would agree it is in no way a sin. Most unwritten rules are followed for the sake of continuity from generation to generation, and most Chasidim trust their rabbis, so they adhere to whatever they say. If not, they are free to leave.