Sisterhood Blog

Can a Maxi Skirt Bridge Cultural Divide?

By Elissa Strauss

Mushky Notik (left) and Mimi Hecht (right) created Mimu Maxi

Together, sisters-in-law Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik run Mimu Maxi, a fashion label the creates clothes that are both modest and chic. The women, members of the Crown Heights Hasidic community, came up with idea for the company when struggling to find something stylish to wear for themselves.

Since opening two years ago, the business has found a customer based in not just other tznius women, but also Muslims and Christians who are looking for a more fashionable way to live a traditional lifestyle. Everything was moving smoothly until last week when a collaboration involving a lime-green maxi-skirt with a hijab-wearing Muslim style-blogger ignited a firestorm on their Facebook page. The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss spoke to Hecht about what happened and how fashion can be a great uniter during a time when many feel more divided than ever.

Elissa Strauss: Okay, first tell me a little bit about what you do.

Mimi Hecht: Mushky and I started designing two summers ago when, instead of bemoaning the trials and tribulations of trying to find modest, trendy pieces, we took matters into our own hands. We share a very similar aesthetic for oversized, comfortable menswear and pieces that are easy to “live in.” We don’t have an ideal customer — we just love seeing how so many women of so many backgrounds have embraced what we’re doing. If there was a “favorite” customer, it would be the ones that tell us “I started dressing modestly because of you, thank you for making it easier!”

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Why Women Are the New Gatekeepers of Modesty

By Frimet Goldberger

Getty Images // Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel

Who are the gatekeepers of the conservative religious ideal of tznius, or modesty? This question has been argued and parsed on social media and on blogs in recent years as radicalism in the ultra-Orthodox communities has taken on new and more visible forms.

A common misperception is that rabbis and male community leaders are fueling the radical surge. But are Haredi women indeed victims of a patriarchal culture that puts extreme and outsized emphasis on tznius? Are Hasidic and Yeshivish women merely oppressed by fanatical males fervently trying to control their flock of subservient women?

Yes and no.

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Keeping Track of Orthodox 'Tznius Craziness'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

tznius craziness // An ad for children’s costumes shows female faces blanked out.

Do you have the sneaking suspicion that an extreme focus on women’s and girls’ modesty has become the new normal in much of the Orthodox community? One man has gathered the evidence into an Evernote virtual notebook he titled “tznius craziness.”

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Shameful in Beit Shemesh

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

(Haaretz) — It was as frightening as any terrorist attack, recounted the young woman assaulted in broad daylight at a bus stop in Beit Shemesh last week.

But in fact, it was probably worse.

After all, one might presume that if an Israeli Jewish woman had been attacked by a Palestinian in the middle of the street, the bystanders around her would have rushed to her assistance, or at the very least, hastened to call the police. But that’s not what happened when this 25-year-old woman sitting at a bus stop with a toddler on her lap was verbally and physically assaulted by an ultra-Orthodox man last week who cursed at her and screamed that she wasn’t dressed modestly enough.

No one, she said, came to her aid or called for help, when he pulled her by her hair and threw her on the ground.

The attack was reported in the print media, but the young woman who was attacked at a bus stop in the haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet went on television this week and related the full harrowing story herself. Her face was blurred on camera, but her story was clear and detailed, and painted a troubling picture of life in Beit Shemesh only a few weeks after its ultra-Orthodox mayor was reelected. The event turned the national spotlight on Beit Shemesh once more, has reinvigorated the struggle of a group of Beit Shemesh women to fight against intimidation in their city through the legal system, and revived discussion of whether coexistence is possible in Beit Shemesh or whether the non-haredi population would be wise to either pack their bags or divide their city in two, that is attempt to formally secede from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

The woman was sitting at a bus stop with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, dressed in a skirt with her head covered, when she was accosted by a haredi man. “He put his face right in front of mine and shouted “Slut! You weaken men!” she said in her Channel 2 news interview. “I was completely frightened by him, and I screamed.”

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Requiem for a Sheitel Makher

By Frimet Goldberger

Sheitels, or wigs for Orthodox women, come in different colors and styles to match women’s preferences — they are short and neat, long and wavy, matronly and sexy. Maintaining the freshness and vibrancy of a sheitel requires a skilled sheitel makher, a wig stylist. It’s a demanding job that calls for loads of patience, talented hands and a predilection for chatting about everything — from the weather to the people you know who are currently pregnant — all while standing over someone’s head. It’s also demanding because women want to look their finest even when they cover their hair or shorn heads. The color, length and quality are all important factors in ordering a sheitel, and the sheitel makher plays a central role in this decision-making process.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: wig stylist, sheitel makher, modesty, Orthodox, Jewish, Hasidic

The Rise of Ultra-Orthodox Beauty Salons

By Elissa Strauss

According to the BBC, a quiet revolution is taking place among ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem. They have discovered the power of mascara.

There are, of course, numerous strict restrictions on these women when it comes to their appearance. They must wear modest clothes — no elbows, no collar bones — cover their heads, and many even cut off their hair. And yet, whether it is pressure from the secular world to look a certain kind of pretty or some deep-rooted desire in women to beautify oneself, they are heading to the beauty salon.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: modesty, make-up, feminism, Orthodox, Jerusalem, Jewish

Is Fashion Advice for Female Interns Sexist?

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

In a recent post on Slate’s DoubleX, Katherine Goldstein provides tips for female summer interns on what exactly is appropriate to wear to a workplace. The advice on how to avoid looking like a “skintern” includes avoiding see-through anything, concealing undergarments and leaving the four-inch heels at home. Goldstein ends the post by telling women that by following these rules and focusing on impressing everyone with their “hard work” and “keen intellect” they will be sure to break the glass ceiling.

Was this sexist?

Sure, this is set of codes and rules that only apply to young women, or more specifically, their bodies. It told them that some parts of their bodies are considered vulgar and that wearing a pair of high platform heels might give others the wrong idea about their, well, purity. It is putting the responsibility on them to cover up, instead of on men to stop gawking. As another DoubleX contributor put it a few months ago in response to a call for longer skirts at a middle school, “If you don’t want girls judged by their hemlines, stop judging them by their hemlines.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: skinterns, sexuality, modesty, interns, feminism, Sisterhood, Jewish Women

Dressing Frum in the Summer

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

For many years we spent our summer vacation in a Sullivan County, N.Y. bungalow colony, close to several bungalow colonies catering to Haredi communities. The sight of men and women trudging along Route 17B on hot August Saturdays, dressed in long sleeves and many layers of clothing, wigs on the women and long satin coats and fur hats on the men, is unforgettable. I just couldn’t understand why someone would want to dress that way when it was so hot out.

But lest the summer heat lead any frum girl to think that she would be more comfortable wearing a top whose sleeves don’t cover her wrists, or a skirt that doesn’t cover her legs, a letter sent to parents of girls in Lakewood, N.J.’s Bnos Yaakov school will make them think twice.

The letter, which is reproduced here, warns mothers of the punishment that awaits them if they are not “kosher women” and fail to teach their daughters and sons to be modestly dressed.

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On the Right To Dress Immodestly

By Elissa Strauss

Debra,

In your recent critique of Deborah Feldman’s new book,”Unorthodox,” you point to the clothes that Feldman has been photographed in as a sign that she lacks maturity. You write:

“Whatever the truth, something about Feldman still seems very young, though she is now 25 and the mother of a nearly 6-year-old son. In photos in the [New York] Post, posing in a sequined, sleeveless mini-dress, and in pictures on the ABC News website, where she sits on a park bench, wearing high heels, tight jeans and holding a cigarette in her hand, she looks like nothing so much as a young girl posing the way she thinks grownups are supposed to. … She reminds me of 13-year-old girls I see at some bat mitzvahs, teetering around on stiletto heels and wearing minis so short they can’t safely sit down.”

I took a look at the pictures in question, and in them Feldman looks no different than many young women I see on the streets of New York and in my Facebook scroll everyday — including myself. I am talking about women in their 20s and their 30s, who don’t think twice about throwing on a pair of skinny jeans or a mini-dress on a weekend night.

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Dignified in Pants

By Elana Sztokman

istock

Just because I wear pants, it doesn’t mean I lack dignity. Or self-respect. Or even modesty.

Which is why I find pieces, like this one, suggesting that dignity for a woman means excessive body-cover, so offensive.

When rabbis or anyone else claim that women need to cover their skin, their elbows, ankles and necks for the sake of “dignity” or “self-respect” or “protecting sexuality,” what that means is that people who dress like me are not dignified. We are overly sexualized. We might as well be walking naked on the subway platform. But It is just not true.

My body is mine alone, and I project that in my clothes. Not floor-sweeping skirts, not scarves to my forehead or necklines that choke. No, I wear pants, sometimes jeans, sometimes shorts and, yes, sometimes even sleeveless tops. I wear clothes that are comfortable, that feel good, that let me move and sit on the floor or in a chair, that enable me to ride a bike or climb a tree if I so choose, that let me wear my hair in a ponytail or in a scrunchie or even just down. Ultimately my hair is mine alone, as are my elbows, my neck, my ankles and skin. Before I look in a mirror, I look inward and ask myself how I feel about my body at this moment, and I let my inner voice of self-respect guide me.

In addition Gavriella Lerner’s assertion of choice followed by an admission that she does what she believes is expected of her according to halacha is a classic Orthodox non-sequitur. As in, I choose to do what I’m told.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sheitel, Gender Segregation, Modesty, Clothing

Why I Cover Up

By Gavriella Lerner

Courtesy of the author
Gavriella Lerner

There’s been a lot of talk lately about tsnius, or modesty, lately — with all of the news coming out of Israel. I recently came across this cartoon, showing a woman in a bikini and a woman in a burqa, each judging harshly how the other is dressed. The cartoon got me thinking how both sides pictured get it wrong.

As someone who covers her hair, and dresses modestly in the name of tsnuis, and who finds doing so to be empowering, I object to the perception that I am subject to male domination because I cover up. I also reject the notion that modesty is about keeping myself silent and making myself invisible, lest I somehow lead men astray.

While there is most certainly a sexual component — which is why you wont see me walking around in a bikini, and why I deplore advertisements depicting scantily clad women — it’s not all about sex. Yes, the sex drive is powerful, which is why Jewish laws and customs dictate that a man and woman who are not related cannot be alone together or have physical contact, and they set forth basic parameters of modest dress.

But the rest is about dignity.

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How 'Modesty' Turns Women Into Sex Objects

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
In certain ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods, saying thank you or owning an expensive baby carriage can be considered ‘immodest.’

William Kolbrener has a compelling new essay in the Forward about the culture of silence between men and women in his Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood. In it, he notes the deep disrespect for women and girls to which it leads, as illustrated by the arrogant way a man clucks his tongue at Kolbrener’s daughter and her friend as he waves them to the back of the bus. It is also glaringly clear in the abuse hurled by multiple men at young girls in Beit Shemesh, including Na’ama Margolese, as they have endeavored to do nothing more than walk to school.

But there is another point missing from all of the discussion of the new vigilance on modesty and the backlash against it. The extreme focus on distancing from women turns them into sexual objects. There is something perverse about the obsession with female dress of these “guardians of modest,” and I don’t mean perverse just in the sociological sense. These men are so focused on sublimating their own sexual impulses that they see women only as sexual objects, whose images and very personhood must be contained to the point of invisibility.

And it is internalized all too quickly by too many religious women.

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What 'Provocative' Justifies

By Elana Sztokman

Getty Images
Men in Beit Shemesh call for the segregation of women.

I would like to take a moment to consider provocative women. After all, those of us who are following events in Beit Shemesh have heard a lot about this subject. A woman trying to hail a taxi in Beit Shemesh and then spat upon was called “provocative” by Haredi men around her. Tanya Rosenblit, who sat in the front seat of a segregated bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, was accused of being “provocative” by those men who stopped the bus from proceeding on its route. Even 8-year-old Na’ama Margolese was accused of being “provocative.”

In my doctoral research, in which I spent three years in a state religious girls’ high school in Israel working on decoding girls’ identities, I came upon accusations of “provocative” in some telling moments.

One day, the school held a special “Tzniut Day” in which there was an assembly and special classes on the issue of “modesty.” (It was actually about girls’ clothing and I do wish that people would stop calling that “modesty,” as if there is anything remotely connected between body cover and humility before God.) The rabbi speaking to the class framed the issue around teaching the girls not to be “provocative” by, for example, revealing one’s upper arms.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tanya Rosenblit, Provocative, Modesty, Beit Shemish, Arrogant

When Sukkot Is a Festival of Sex Segregation

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Nir Keidar
Members of the Lev Tahor sect at Ben Gurion Airport.

Israel’s High Court of Justice has just ruled that there can no longer be gender segregation on public streets of the Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Shearim, according to Haaretz. Except this year, the ruling states, when a barrier of up to 26 meters long may be erected to separate the sexes during the festival of Sukkot, as it was last year.

Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria, who was recently interviewed by The Sisterhood’s Renee Ghert-Zand, and her colleague Laura Verton petitioned Israel’s High Court to require police to enforce the law, according to Haaretz. This is the last year when the segregation will be allowed, the court wrote in its decision. But of course that’s not very likely to provide a bulwark against the increasing confinement of Haredi women out of public view.

The extreme approach is quickly becoming normative and a value internalized by women in the community. That, in my opinion, is evident from what appears to be a growing number of women who are eager to comply in the name of obedience and modesty.

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Bucking Tradition in a Bikini

By Elana Sztokman

For Huda Naccache, Israel’s 2011 representative in the Miss Earth beauty pageant, wearing a bikini is important for career advancement.

The 21-year old Christian Arab from Haifa has modeling ambitions, and in order to get noticed, she posed in a bikini for the cover of the Arab Israeli women’s magazine Lilac.

This may not sound like a big deal in a world where everyone from rock stars to child television icons seems to be willing to pose nearly nude for some photo or another. But in Huda’s community, such exposure for women is still taboo.

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Introducing 'The Kittel Collection'

By Jacqueline Nicholls

The kittel is a simple white garment that is traditionally worn by a groom on his wedding day, by men on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Seder nights, and as a burial shroud. In this space, over the course of the next several months, I will use the kittel to explore the many ways that clothing is used as a metaphor for meaning and identity within Jewish tradition and literature.

The first such piece examines the ways that so much of the traditional Jewish modesty (tzniut) literature transmits the message that a woman’s body is something shameful and something that must be locked away — while, at the same time, grotestquely sexualizing the female form.

View a video about the project below:

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Keeping Young Women Hidden — at the Expense of Their Bodies

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Despite my earlier post, it now appears that Rabbi Yizhak Silberstein did support the idea that a girl whose mother refused to buy her “religious clothes” should cut her legs in order to force the mother’s hand. An apparent recording of the rabbi’s discussion of this topic surfaced on the Internet today, in which he says that girl deserves the “highest praise” for sanctifying God’s name with her absolute dedication to Torah.

Contrary to the original publication in Ynet, Rabbi Silberstein did not receive the question from the girl about cutting her legs, but merely offered his opinion on the case, which was originally brought to Rabbi Eliezer Sorodskin, the leader of an organization called Lev La’Ahim, whose stated mission is to help secular Israelis become religious. (The organization is most recently renowned for bloating registration at Haredi educational institutions, as reported in Haaretz ). The conversation took place at a conference of Lev La’Ahim held in May in Bnei Brak.

Sorodskin talked about the girl in positively ebullient terms. She apparently loves being religious but her secular mother refuses to buy her “religious clothes” — i.e., long skirts. The girl’s willingness to cut her legs in order to preserve the sanctity of her female body, according to both Sorodskin and Silberstein, is a model of self-sacrifice for the sake of Torah, an act worthy of emulation.

I don’t know if these rabbis even realize how un-Jewish this entire discussion is.

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Did a Rabbi Permit Self-Mutilation To Promote 'Modesty'?

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Ynet has a troubling story about a high-profile rabbi in Israel who gave advice to a young woman to cut her own legs in order to stay religious. The story, if it’s true, conflates male religious authority, extreme body cover and self-mutilation, and brings the discussions of the female body in Judaism to a whole new low. The problem is that this story may not be true, in which case instead of highlighting sexism in Orthodox Judaism, the story becomes an example of journalists’ sometimes overzealousness in their desire to attack religion by pretending to care about women. Especially given the recent history of media attitudes towards France’s burqa ban, the actions of certain journalists are no less troubling than those of religious leaders controlling the female body.

According to the article, written by a young Jerusalem journalist, Ari Galahar, for Yediot Ahranot’s Hebrew news site, Rabbi Yizhak Silberstein was asked to respond to a strange query from a young woman who was accepted to a religious academy despite her family’s non-religiousness. The young woman, struggling with the academy’s strict dress code of long skirts, long sleeves, and covered collarbones because her secular parents were supposedly pressuring her to dress in a more revealing way, asked Silberstein whether she could cut her legs, so that her parents would agree that she must wear a long skirt in order to cover the bruises. The rabbi reportedly responded, “She is permitted to cut herself in order to dress modestly, and thus to escape all sin.” He reportedly added that “the blood from the bruise will redeem all of Israel like the blood of the ritual sacrifices.”

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Can't Find Your Knees? Try the Tznius Ruler

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

As we prepare to welcome this Fourth of July,
in case you are wondering if your hem is too high,

No need to fret, maidel,
no need to worry.

We have a helpful new tool
from Lakewood’s Jewiest Jews.

It’s a “Tznius Ruler,” with measuring markers,
designed just to help us modest girls be tznius-ier.

Because if our skirts don’t meet below-knee expectations,
outraged haredim may send expectorations.

Without this flowery ruler, isn’t it true,
I wouldn’t know where my knees are. Would you?

Tip of the tichel: Shmarya Rosenberg

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The Semiotics of Skirts and Swimsuits

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

swimoutlet.com

In Tablet magazine, Dvora Meyers recently wrote a brief meditation on her conflicted history with skirts and some of their Jewish cultural connotations.

I enjoy reading the semiotics of skirts, a fun game to play where I live, which is close to Crown Heights and equidistant from Williamsburg and Borough Park. Young women from Crown Heights wearing form-fitting, knee-length denim skirts and leggings underneath while they jog or bike to and from Prospect Park is a common sight. In communities where the subtleties of a woman’s choice of clothing are scrutinized for indications of how frum she is, the difference between a knee-length, close-fitting denim skirt with a slit and a baggy, to-the-floor denim skirt telegraphs at least something of her personal values.

Reading Dvora’s piece reminded me of the odd sight of orthodox Muslim women swimming in full burqua in the warm water springs at Sahne one hot summer day when we were last in Israel on vacation. But “burqinis” seem to be a growing fashion even here in America. When I recently went to a favorite swimming supply website to buy goggles, I was surprised to see a new, “modest swimwear” category right next to the usual Speedo and Tyr tank suits.

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