Tag : modesty

July 9, 2019 by

Veiled Women on Display

Voices- Veiled Women

A woman and her daughters wearing cloaks with
veils. Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, 2015.

The veiled and shrouded woman, covered head to toe in black, her cape dragging in the wet road, could well be a medieval leper. Perhaps under her layers of clothing she carries a bell to warn the unwary. 

But no—one of the two women watching her—both in modest Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, dress—seems to be snapping this veiled woman’s picture with a cell phone. 

This photo is among the most disturbing in “Veiled Women in the Holy Land,” at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem through February 29, 2020. The show offers more questions than answers on “New Trends in Modest Dress.” 

Photos and mannequins of these Jewish “modesty women” and their Muslim sisters are on display along with their cloistered sisters—Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox nuns with ceremonial habits of up to eight layers going back to the 4th century. The cloistered nuns’ garments symbolize their chastity and spiritual marriage to Jesus Christ, but the retreat behind layers of clothing among some 100 ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem, and unknown numbers in other cities, started in the last 20 years and is less easily explained. 

The most extreme of the Jewish women, many of them newly religious, don eight layers of clothing, the number worn by the High Priest in the days of the Temple. Their trailing capes may symbolize Sarah’s tent or, even more daring, the tent of meeting Moses erected for God, whose presence was known by a pillar of smoke. 

The veil covering the face protects the wearer from temptation or evil impulses finding their way in. Reasons for wearers’ extreme modesty vary but include speeding not only their own redemption but that of the Jewish people in the next life. Is this chutzpah or madness or selfless modesty in a time of plunging necklines and skimpy skirts? 

The increased layers worn by the Muslim women seem more grounded. The exhibit suggests the return to pre-British Mandate dress with veils and long garments symbolizing a new pious defiance of secular permissiveness and life under occupation. 

At Israel-Palestine checkpoints, Israeli soldiers mistake Greek Orthodox nuns for Muslims. Elsewhere, Jewish modesty women are mistaken for Russian Orthodox nuns. While one modesty woman is quoted as saying, “You need to be willing to let go of what the eye can see,” this disquieting exhibit gives no hint of ecumenical sisterhood under the layers. 

This summer, Lili Almog, an Israeli artist based in New York, poses covered, black-veiled women in private space and out in nature. The description for “Watershed Moments,” the traveling exhibit from the 2017 Jerusalem Biennale “Watershed” (at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan through August 14), draws the connection to Islamic burqas. But what about the more extreme “Jewish modesty women” at the Israel Museum? Is Almog picking up on a defiant trend?

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The Lilith Blog

November 19, 2018 by

The Modest Fashionista Who Became Cutting Edge

As a fashion maven, I’ve noticed that in New York, many Orthodox Jewish women  favor modest, well-made clothing that just falls short of—or maybe intentionally steps aside from—chic or cutting edge.

Enter Batsheva Hay, nee Rosenberg, a self-styled fashionista who cultivated her penchant for mixing vintage with contemporary pieces to create her own unique look. Recent profiles in the New Yorker and the New York Times reveal a fascinating story: When she was in her twenties, and working as a lawyer in New York City, she met a photographer named Alexi Hay, a well known fashion photographer. Hay had recently become an Orthodox Jew, and he nurtured a growing interest in Orthodox clothing. Batsheva shared his interest and he even began photographing her wearing the covered up styles favored by the frum. 

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The Lilith Blog

July 17, 2014 by

In Wartime, a Surreal Modesty Contest

PICTURED: The #1 existential threat to Israel's safety.

PICTURED: The #1 existential threat to Israel’s safety.

Political pundits of the world, pay attention: while you’ve been trying to make sense of the bloody conflict in Israel and Gaza, an unidentified group of women in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has identified its cause—and laid out a solution.


Project EDEN (standing for, bizarrely, “Eat ice cream, while helping Defend Eretz Yisrael Now) is a local initiative with grandiose goals: inspired by “talks of the Rebbe,” the Chabad-affiliated project aims to single-handedly “influence the safety of the Yidden [Jews] in Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel]” and provide “sure-fire protection.”

So how, exactly, do these dairy-product enthusiasts plan to hold Hamas missiles at bay from faraway Brooklyn?

By policing women’s bodies, of course. 

The unidentified brain trust has begun a “Tznius [modesty] campaign for girls” – and don’t worry, it has “great prize incentives, in the merit of the safety of Israel.”


“Every girl who comes to day camp dressed in Tznius attire (i.e. clothing which keep necklines, elbows, knees and feet covered at all times) will receive an EDEN card,” according to COLLive.com, a Chabad-affiliated community news website.

Eight EDEN cards are redeemable for ice cream and entry in a $100 raffle—and, of course, the eternal knowledge that flashing your elbows has not caused Jews to die in the Middle East.

The group is soliciting donations to spread this project to as many summer camps as possible, lest even a single prepubescent girl in Crown Heights be unaware of the lethal power of her knees, feet, and collarbones.

It’s kind of an ingenious system, once you accept the premise that female bodies are capable of such massive destruction. (No wonder governments worldwide have such a vested interest in controlling them.) It combines ice cream and summer fun with punishing modesty standards and a veritable blitzkrieg of collective guilt.  One wonders, if this were implemented more widely, what the next Iron Dome defense system would look like: perhaps a series of opaque, but breathable, literal iron domes for females to wear from the moment of birth? (The dimpled elbows of toddler girls have long been underestimated in their potential for causing death.)

Clearly, as Israeli troops enter Gaza, modesty is needed as never before: not prayers, not kindness, not good deeds or mutual understanding, and certainly not carefully considered compromises from politicians in positions of power. The way to “help our brothers in their time of need,” apparently, is to suppress every inch of skin their sisters possess.

And then give them some ice cream.

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July 15, 2014 by

Teaching the Laws of Modesty in Jewish Schools

When I think back on my Orthodox high school Jewish education, the majority of what I can remember has to do with the laws of modesty. One year my Jewish law class spent the entire year going through a book called Hatznea Lechet (The Modest Way), a compendium of sources having to do with how women should comport themselves in order to live modest lives. The title of the book comes from the Book of Micah, where the prophet explains what God requires of the people:“only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly [or modestly] with thy God.” Modesty, the book asserts, is one of the three main pillars of Jewish life.

I have no objection to modesty as a concept. On the spectrum between pride and modesty, I certainly aim to fall much closer to modesty. The problem is that modesty as taught, particularly to Jewish girls, is not a concept of mentality and thoughtfulness, it’s about physical appearance. In addition to the hundreds of hours I spent studying texts about the evils of wearing pants, the girls at my school were subjected to seemingly endless lectures on the nuances of the school dress code. When a new principal took over in the middle of my freshman year, his first point of order when speaking to students was that he was going to crack down on girls whose skirts did not cover the entirety of their knees. He also decided that the previous rule that all girls’ sleeves had to come to at least mid-bicep was not good enough. After he took over sleeves had to go all the way to the elbow.

I rolled my eyes at the time (though, to be honest, I rolled my eyes at everything when I was 14 ) but I bought into the basic concept of modest dress as it was explained to me: by covering up and deemphasizing the physical I was allowing people to focus on my personality and “true self,” and not just my physical appearance. My physical appearance was distracting for men, and by dressing modestly I could ensure that they wouldn’t be judging me purely on what I wore or looked like —they would be able to see me for who I really was.

Even if we decide to generously set aside the rape culture that is implicit in this idea —it was my responsibility as a woman, and my rabbis’ responsibility as my authorities, to do whatever possible to minimize distractions for men, not any man’s responsibility to get ahold of himself of he found himself distracted by my apparently devastatingly sexy biceps —it ends up simply shifting the judgment one notch over. Piety, I learned, could be immediately assessed by looking at someone’s outfit. If her knees were visible, if she wore pants, if she didn’t cover her hair after marriage or did so only in a certain way—all of these things could tell me volumes about her commitment to God and Torah, not to mention whether she was a good person.

So much of what I learned in high school has, mercifully, faded or washed away completely since then. I like to think of myself as committed to God and Torah, and as a good person, but my life would probably not be recognizable as such to my high school teachers, in that I wear pants and regularly French kiss my spouse in public. One thing that has stuck with me is the habit of judging Jewish women I meet based on what they wear. When I meet a woman in my neighborhood wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I don’t assume I know anything at all about her. When I’m introduced to a woman in a skirt that goes to her knees, with a headband that may or may not be a really nice fall, I have to work hard to turn off the part of my brain that quickly attempts to calculate just how religious she really is.

I wish all that time spent on the intricacies of female dress and appearance had been spent teaching me a wider and more complex take on modesty. If I could go back to my teenage self I’d tell her to hide a Bible in her copy of Hatznea Lechet and spend those hours studying the story of King David, a man who wrestles constantly with pride and modesty, who is known for being beautiful, but is none- theless taken seriously as a leader. King David is ultimately a tragic figure, but I learned more from him and his story—when I finally studied it with a chevruta that met in a bar when I was 25 —than I ever did from Hatznea Lechet. 

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