“Hey, lady!” yelled the bus driver. He was loud but friendly. “You forgot your Psalms booklet.”
It was a typical weekday afternoon in Tel Aviv, Israel’s secular metropolis, and the Route 322 bus is picking up its first passengers as it gets going to Ashdod.
On this particular 322, the driver, a jolly middle-aged man with a mop of gray hair and a distinctly non-Haredi yarmulke balanced on top, has come up with an innovation: When you pay your fare, you receive a ticket in one hand and in the other a booklet with a passage from the biblical Book of Psalms.
Each passenger’s booklet contains a different passage and the idea is that if all the booklets are in use at the same time, passengers together will recite the entire Book of Psalms, which would be seen as a religious achievement. This trip, the driver hopes, is to be a spiritual journey in the literal sense.
The 322 is the only autobus mehadrin running to and from Tel Aviv. The phrase autobus mehadrin, a new addition to the Israeli lexicon in the last decade, literally means beautified bus. It refers to a route that meets Haredi standards of modesty: Men sit at the front and women at the back.
Critics say that these routes — around 60 in number — are anything but beautiful. They claim that the segregation they practice is religious coercion at its worst because if non-haredim refuse to comply with the separation of the sexes, violence sometimes results.