Living in New York City means getting used to street harassment. In the past few years, my name has been Baby, Sexy, Bitch, and Hey You, Why Don’t You Smile? I’ve learned when to give the finger and when to hide. My friend Jen Dziura, a life coaching columnist, advises women that the best way to counter street harassment is to walk calmly up to the whistler or catcaller in question and politely let him know that he needs to learn how to speak to women in a respectful way.
It’s because of her that I finally said something to the Hasidic men who harass me in my neighborhood.
I live in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. More specifically, I live on Broadway, which divides a mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican community from a Satmar Hasidic one. My Spanish is better than my Yiddish. When I want a bagel, I choose a Dominican bodega over a Satmar shop, since the men will accept money straight from my hand and the women don’t cluck at my sleeveless shirts. In the past, when I got a catcall or leer from a Hasidic man, I rolled my eyes and kept walking. But after a series of incidents where members of the Satmar community threatened women who rode their bikes through the neighborhood and even repainted bike lanes without permission, I decided that living-and-letting-live was overrated.
The first time I said something, he was a young guy, possibly in his late teens, standing about a block away from me. He looked past my Star of David pendant straight down to my breasts. “They’re nice,” he said loudly.
“Excuse me?” I walked right up to him.
“THEY’RE NICE,” he shouted, pointing at my chest, as if the problem had merely been a failure to hear.
“Are you married?” I asked him. His face went bloodless. He scurried away like an animal who had been caught making a mess.
The next time I got bolder. When a middle-aged man whistled at me from the front door of a yeshiva, I marched up to him and said, “How many daughters do you have?” He didn’t answer, but he didn’t whistle again.
Since then, I’ve tried to find specifically Jewish ways to address street harassment. “The Torah says a virtuous woman’s price is above rubies!” I once yelled back, although he probably didn’t consider me virtuous what with my ankles sticking out all sluttily. “Would you do that to Dvora? To Sarah? To Rachel?” I asked, not realizing that these men probably would have thought Rachel was a hottie. There is one move I still haven’t been bold enough to try yet, though: walking up to a dude, calmly touching his shoulder, and then announcing that I am menstruating.
I’m not sure if my one-woman campaign against Satmar street harassment has made any impact on their community or on the way that they think about women. Most of the men simply run away from me or act like they suddenly have an important text message to look at, but a few have told me that I should be flattered by any attention from a man. I informed one of them that my Jewish boyfriend spoke to me in a much more respectful manner and treats me like a person instead of walking cleavage, but that didn’t seem to go anywhere.
Street harassment is, sadly, a fact of life in many urban areas. There are entire websites and smartphone apps (like the excellent Hollaback NYC) devoted to helping women take down harassers. But why was it specifically Satmar street harassment that finally inspired me to stop grinning and bearing it? It was something about the fact that it was coming from inside my own community. Being able to use Judaism and Jewish language against these men and force them to examine their behaviors was something I couldn’t do with other kinds of harassers. The phone call, you see, was coming from inside the house.
Summer will be over soon, and I’ll be trading in short skirts and dresses for long pants and thick stockings. As it gets colder, fewer men will be huddled in front of buildings or strolling up and down the block. It’s possible that these men will remember me and know to avoid the uppity girl who yells at them when they’re just trying to pay her a compliment. It’s also possible that I haven’t affected them at all, and that attempts to shut them down using Torah bounced off of them like light particles. Either way, I think it’s been a little quieter on my block lately.