Understanding Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity-Tamar El-Or’s “Reserved Seats”

Haim Watzman

The tent protesters who’ve shaken the complacence of the Israeli leadership these last few weeks combine, as most protest movements do, radicalism with reaction. That is, they call for sweeping changes in Israeli society and government, but they also hark back to a mythical golden time when, they believe, Israeli society was kinder and more egalitarian, and when Israel’s citizens felt stronger bonds to and responsibility for each other. In this sense, they seek not only to remake Israeli politics, but also to restructure—or renew—Israeli identity.

Amnon Illuz. On Looker. 2005
Yet Israeli identity has always been fluid and divided. A society so diverse in its ethnic origins, religious/philosophical beliefs, and political creeds could hardly be otherwise. In particular, the identity of the country’s Mizrahim—those Israelis whose roots lie in the Islamic world—has never ceased to metamorphose.

One of the best books on the complex nature of this identity to be published in Israel in recent years was Reserved Seats (Meqomot Shemurim) by Tamar El-Or, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Like the best works of anthropology, it almost reads like a novel. El-Or spent five years at the beginning of the 2000s doing field work in Pardes Katz, a Mizrahi neighborhood in Bnei Beraq, a Tel Aviv suburb. She attended classes, got to know a group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women, and sought to comprehend families in which religious practice and Jewish identity varies from negligible to ultra-Orthodox and in which ethnic Mizrahi identity alternately separates and connects women from their Ashkenazi counterparts.

I had the privilege of translating the book into English some years ago. I’d produced translations of El-Or’s two previous books, Educated and Ignorant: Ultraorthodox Jewish Women and Their World and Next Year I Will Know More: Identity and Literacy Among Young Orthodox Women in Israel. In all three books, El-Or—herself not religious but with a great talent for empathy and observation—sought to understand how religious knowledge and literacy affected women’s status in their society and their own conceptions of themselves. But when she came to study Mizrahi women, she realized that the assumption she made in her first two books, that religious identity stood independent of other identities—would not work in Pardes Katz.

Once of my jobs as a translator often is to encourage Israeli authors to cut down the size of their manuscripts. Publishers here still do not balk at putting out books of a size that most American houses would never consider. Reserved Seats is a sprawling, leisurely work in which the author shows Pardes Katz society from multiple vantage points. But when an interested publisher told El-Or that she’d be interested in bringing out the English translation, but only if it were whittled down to half its size, I told El-Or something I never told a client before and haven’t since—don’t agree, I said. It will ruin the book.

So Reserved Seats never found a publisher. But El-Or has now made the translation available on her website , where it can be read on line or downloaded. I know it’s the middle of the summer already, but if you have time, give it a try. Or recommend to your book club that, just this once, they read something longer than the usual 250 pages. I suspect you’ll get caught up, as I did, and come away with a much more nuanced view of Israeli society in the process.

El-Or is now working on a book on the cultural impact of the Israeli “biblical” sandal. I can’t wait.

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