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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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
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.
I have this pet peeve about women sending emails from their husbands’ email accounts. Although this was probably more of a common phenomenon towards the beginning of the e-mail era, I still get emails like this, and it drives me crazy.
The hiding of women behind men is not as uncommon as we would perhaps like to believe. I remember getting a sales call a few months ago from a carpet-cleaning agency in which the saleswoman (!) said to me, “Would you like to go ask your husband if it’s okay?” Or like the time I got really angry at our mortgage bank for calling me up to tell me that they have a present for my husband’s 40th birthday. How exciting, I said to them — and what about me? I had turned 40 just two months earlier. This clerk went searching around her papers and said she’s sorry, that only my husband’s information is listed in the computer. I signed the mortgage papers, too, I tried to tell her. But there I was, deleted as an entity by someone punching information into a machine. All these situations are the same, really: It’s all about women’s invisibility.
I thought about this amid this week’s brouhaha over Der Tzitung’s notorious erasure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the iconic photo of the national security team getting an update on the bin Laden raid.
I actually spent the past hour playing sheitel-macher — combing out a long, blond wig, much the way Tali Farkash described in the article that sparked this blog-debate. See my post here and Rabbi Broyde’s response here I was doing it for my 7-year old daughter because tomorrow is “wig day” in school. No, they are not training the girls to be good married women. It’s just Purim.
It’s quite funny, really. The wig is a fantastic tool for playing with identity, for stepping out of social norms and boundaries and stretching one’s reality and liberation. People use Purim to be who they are not “normally” allowed to be — v’nahafoch hu — and it is great fun. If society allowed us to play dress-up a little more, we might be a jollier people. But now that my daughter is finished giggling about her costume and gone to bed, I have returned here to this very serious debate about whether wigs somehow make women more religious. It’s so funny that it makes me want to cry.
Michael J. Broyde opens his piece with an assertion that I am “mistaken in [my] critique of the wigs that many married Orthodox women choose to wear” — not that he disagrees with me, mind you, rather that I am simply wrong. Rabbi Broyde then goes on to offer several assertions I believe do nothing to rebut my basic argument. In fact, he perfectly demonstrates what I was trying to say.
There’s a young Orthodox woman named Dina Mann whose hilarious new YouTube video has gone viral. In it, she impersonates a mamish chasidishe woman who takes a trip to Miami and is surprised at the pool when men arrive. You can watch Mann’s video here.
For those who want to fully appreciate the Miami trip video but aren’t conversant in Yiddish, here’s a version of “Chaye Surie’s” video with English subtitles. One question though: Is liquor really called “Bronfman,” as in the Seagrams family?
And, since frum women making spoof videos appears to be a burgeoning cottage industry, here’s a response to Dina’s Miami trip video by “Danielle.” She impersonates a rebbetzin who takes issue with the idea that “Chaye Surie” would even be so un-tzniusdik as to go swimming — or discuss the color of the flowers on the black shoes she bought for her trip.
Just when you thought the policing of Haredi women’s appearance couldn’t get more extreme — it does. According to Ynet, a kosher certificate for women’s fashions now exists. An ultra-Orthodox body called “the Committee for the Sanctity of the Camp” has begun supervising clothing stores offering such heckshers in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Geula.
Here’s how it works: The merchandise of various stores is inspected for sufficient modesty by female inspectors armed with such rabbinical standards as making sure skirts are not too short or necklines too low. Afterwards, the names of those with the official stamp of approval are published in ultra-Orthodox publications, and women urged to buy there. Presumably, those retailers that do not measure up will run the risk of protests, boycotts or worse.
An advertisement taken out for the Committee states that stores that do not sell sufficiently modest clothing are “damaging our camp’s modesty” and “experience shows that there is no other way to defeat this horrible breach other than having rabbis supervise the clothes’ kashrut.”
Modest Western clothing, of course, is not enough for the small but growing cult-like group of Jewish women concentrated in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem who insist on completely draping their bodies in clothing burqa-style.
Jewish women’s head covering is once again in the news, a heated topic among rabbinic men who are obviously not afraid of a little invective when it comes to women’s bodies.
The latest item is an incendiary letter by a Canadian Haredi rabbi named Shlomo Miller. Miller was responding to a scholarly article by Rabbi Michael Broyde in the journal “Tradition” that demonstrates that head covering is not a commandment written in stone, as it were, but “merely” a rabbinic prohibition that evolved over generations and therefore has room for interpretation and flexibility.
Miller, in response, said of Broyde’s article that “all the lengthy diatribe therein is nothingness and an evil spirit,” and proceeded to compare him to “Acher,” a notorious heretic in Jewish history. So much for reasoned debate.
Broyde’s article was actually written more than a year ago, making Miller’s reaction a bit late in coming. Nevertheless, whether because Miller is a religious celebrity or because his language was so harsh, it seems that Miller’s letter is buzzing the Orthodox Jewish blogosphere.