The Modesty Wars by Judy Bolton-Fasman


Dear Chaya Mushka:

I read that your name is the most popular one among young Lubavitch women. It’s the name of the late Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the fabled Lubavitcher Rebbe. Anywhere you turn in a Bais Yaakov seminary there’s a Chaya Mushka.

I admire the Lubavitch movement for many reasons, not least of which is that my children will soon set off into this great big world. Who knows if they’ll go hiking in Peru, ashram hopping in India or honeymooning in New Zealand? What I do know is that there is likely to be a Chabad outpost nearby to help them be Jews when they most need it. Even a post-modern, skeptical Jew like me can’t help but admire your movement’s dedication and organization. You’re like MasterCard, for heaven’s sake; you’re everywhere I need you to be.

In that spirit, your sisters in Israel – and anywhere else there is oppression of Jewish women – need you, Chaya Mushka. It isn’t just that they’re relegated to the back of a public bus in Israel or even New York. They are the victims of a so-called modesty movement.

Scene from “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women.
We all know that modesty is crucial to an observant woman. Skirt hems and sleeve lengths must cover most of her body. I try not to be judgmental. I know that sometimes we get into situations that are not of our making. Sometimes these dilemmas are as suffocating as a locked trunk. Not many of us are Houdinis, so we do the best we can to survive. But this time, we must speak out.

I’m not asking the Chaya Mushkas of the world to desegregate the public bus lines in Israel singlehandedly. I want you to do something much more long term. I want you to tell your sons that obsessing about a woman’s modesty is, in fact, wantonly sexualizing her.

And if you can manage to see one film this year, watch “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women. Better yet, view it with your sons and daughters. The film, which centers on two young women who have left their haredi communities, will probably make you uncomfortable. But I sense you’ll recognize a bit of yourselves in Sara Einfeld and Shulamit Weintraub. They fled their Gur Hasidic families. I realize your world is more expansive than that of the Gurs. Yes, you follow strict guidelines in dress, behavior and food. But you are educated women, the dream progeny of Sara Schnerir, a seamstress who lived in the late 19th century and founded the Bais Yaakov seminaries.

Equality is a slippery word between us. You think you’re exempt from certain commandments because motherhood is a higher calling. I think that’s a convenient excuse to exclude you from Jewish ritual. But let’s leave equality out of our discussion for the moment and talk about human dignity. You may not completely empathize with Sara and Shulamit as you watch “Black Bus.” But Sara writes a popular blog in Israel called “The Hole in the Sheet” that’s a window into your sisters’ lives in haredi communities. At one point, Sara interviews a former Hasid who tells her that he was taught to be disgusted by women. Not only would he avert his eyes when he saw a woman on the street, he would order women old enough to be his grandmother to wear a scarf over their wigs when they entered the synagogue.

Shulamit takes pictures on the busiest street in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. The women react to her camera as if she’s pointed a gun at them. No one wants to talk. No one wants to be seen. One woman hides behind the stroller she’s pushing. Off camera she tells Shulamit that she rarely leaves her home, and when she’s in public she tries to use side streets.

Chaya Mushka, you have more authority than I do to tell these men that this is not the Torah of their fathers or their mothers.

I want to leave you with two thoughts. The first is about a siddur from 1471, which replaces the traditional prayer recited by women – “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for creating me according to Your will” – with this: “Blessed Are You Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for You have made me a woman and not a man.” Clearly, this is a response to the prayer said by observant Jewish men: “Blessed are You for not creating me a woman.” Maybe a woman commissioned this medieval Italian prayer book, I don’t know. But I think the degree to which women have been recently degraded is strictly the depraved interpretation of a few cruel and insecure contemporary haredim.

The second is a picture I recently saw in The Jerusalem Report. Someone caught haredi girls frolicking in a public fountain in Jerusalem. Despite their teachers’ warnings to stop, the girls continued playing. The picture captures the pure joy of simply being a young woman.

Remember that image of your younger sisters when you refuse to step to the back of the bus.

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