South Jerusalem’s Swimsuit Issue

Mondays are women’s nights at the Jerusalem Pool, where I swim every day. From the hours of six to nine p.m., this South Jerusalem pool is closed to me simply because I’m a male. On Wednesday nights, women get the same treatment.

Daniel Pipes spends some of his no doubt precious time chronicling swimming pools in North America and Europe that have separate men’s and women’s hours. These pools have instituted separate sex hours to accommodate Muslims, where as in the case of the Jerusalem Pool, it’s to accommodate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews.

While I’m an Orthodox Jew and value modesty, I don’t restrict myself to separate-sex exercise. I’m often more embarrassed by what I see women (and men) wearing on the street than what I see wearing them at the pool. Modest dress is situational—a Speedo women’s racing suit would be inappropriate dress in a supermarket, but hardly immodest in the water. A string bikini is immodest in the water, too–unless you live in Tel Aviv, in which case you’d wear it grocery shopping 🙂 .

But I respect those who don’t want to see members of the opposite sex in swimwear, and I don’t have a problem with being closed out of my pool once a week. In fact, the Jerusalem Pool has much fewer restrictions on swimming hours than many other pools I’ve swum at, in this and other countries. Other pools I’ve been to not only have hours for men and women, but also separate kids’ hours, swim team, water polo, and what not.

In some of the cases Pipes reports, people were allegedly shut out of pools not just because of separate sex hours, but because they weren’t Muslim. That’s clearly unacceptable. More borderline are the cases in which the separate sex hours also require the swimming sex to dress in accordance with Muslim religious rules on modesty. While on the face of it, this may be an undue and unreasonable restriction, it might be acceptable in places with large Muslim populations.

According to hearsay—I haven’t been able to confirm it—the separate hours at the Jerusalem Pool were instituted in reaction to a ban placed on the pool by ultra-Orthodox rabbis when it first opened decades ago. The rabbis, according to this story, were not upset only by mixed swimming. The pool was also open on the Sabbath. The ban led to some political give-and-take and the current schedule was the result. Such politics is part of life in a democratic society, so I see no problem with devout Muslims lobbying their municipalities to institute separate-sex hours for them.

We should remember that mixed swimming, and modern swimsuit styles, were not always acceptable in the advanced, progressive West (remember the “bathing machines” of Victorian novels, devised to allow women to swim unobserved on British beaches). One of the problems with the modern West is that political freedom has been interpreted to delegitimize any social pressure on people regarding how the dress or behave, so long as it does not cause physical harm to any other human being. But this is not a necessary principle of democracy.

As Eve Grubin points out her amusing blog Modestly Yours, the minute anyone today objects to skimpy dress or wardrobe malfunctions, they get labeled as prudes. As she writes,

if you are disturbed by overly sexual imagery plastered in public areas then you are probably a “prude,” a word which, today, connotes that one disapproves of sex and may not even enjoy it herself.

“Don’t be embarrassed to be embarrassed!” Grubin exclaims. Indeed. Perhaps one thing we can learn from our devout Muslim fellow-citizens is to be a little more concerned about how we dress.

6 thoughts on “South Jerusalem’s Swimsuit Issue”

  1. Clothing…there is so much more to it than covering the body for comfort! Maybe in the past when there wasn’t the money to indulge and most clothing was homemade it was utilitarian, but these days it is representation almost as much as flying a flag might be.

    It isn’t uncommon for students to be prevented from wearing hats in school because of the gang association. Some schools require uniforms to be worn and I see that as a good thing to keep the young minds on the schoolwork (to the extent it is possible at all).

    But in adult society it’s a hard call. I wrote to a company a few years back that had ads depicting almost fully nude women reclining in poses along the sides of city buses. My objection was that one can’t keep children from viewing the buses as they cruise unpredictably down city streets. We owe it to parents, who have the right to raise their children as they see fit, to prevent this kind of thing, so that would be my test of a situation – are children likely to see something? Most public places allow children to be present so that would put quite a damper on things. The difficulty is in where to draw the line and who does the drawing.

    The logic could lead to enforcement of full head coverings for women, for example, as it does in some places.

    In the past, in the United States, there was far more social pressure to conform. The thought that people would disapprove if one appeared in public in certain ways would be enough to discourage it. Now, people are defiantly proclaiming individuality and the thought that there might be social disapproval is often more likely to bring on the disapproved behavior than suppress it.

    People therefore migrate to a place that suits them (pun intended) be it Tel Aviv/Jerusalem or San Francisco/Oklahoma City. This is polarizing but does allow people to live as they like to the extent that they can without resorting to oppressive laws on personal behavior.

    PS to GS: Just finished your book on the settlement movement. Thank you for a very much appreciated education on the subject.

  2. The question of having a pool open on shabbat was apparently a big deal in 1969 in connection with the pool at Hebrew University. The HU faculty Senate voted in favor of keeping it open. A number of religious professors — notably Yeshayahu Leibowitz — then resigned in protest, though Leibowitz subsequently rescinded his resignation. The story was vividly told in a series of letters reprinted in “ratziti lishol otcha, prof. leibowitz,” keter, 1999, at pages 349-357.

  3. You say it yourself, the definition of modesty is not only situational but also cultural – macro-situational, if you will. Over here in Europe string bikinis are perfectly acceptable, and if, as can be assumed, the wearer is comfortable with it then for the source of any possible embarrassment I might feel I’d first look inside myself. That’s not to say one should never feel embarrassed for any reason at all, just that for me, beauty is no such reason.

    But perhaps we can agree that it’s not in any way modesty-related what drives Mr. Pipes 😉

  4. I think that single-sex swimming and gym hours can be made to work if commonsense is used. I’m an American Christian, and I have no problem with string bikinis (as long as they’re on other people!)- but a mixed-sex gym or swimming pool can have stress raisers for women.

    A small but noisy percentage of American men regard gyms and swimming pools as their personal spots to pick out their harem. This poses a problem for less-than-gorgeous women like me (I’m moderately overweight) as we have to listen to crude remarks about our attractiveness. Friends of mine who are drop-dead gorgeous have told me that they’d really like to do their workout without having to fend off crude, obnoxious guys trying to pick them up.

    An all female environment would have distinct advantages for women- especially for those (including me) who use their workouts to unload stress, not take on additional stress.

    Also, the rules that women vs. men use in allocating space on exercise machines are different- so that, in a mixed sex gym, the women may not be able to get on the machines their fair share of the time.

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect non-Muslim women to dress in hijab swim suits during all female swim hours.

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