Saturday 18 July 2009

Hendonistan - where the women are to blame....

In Hendonistan, there's a new message that's been circulated via email and posted on relevant notice boards inside one particular shul [synagogue] (although by the time you read this, I understand the notice will have been taken down). In a paean to Mea Shearim typography, the black and red banner in this popular Orthodox London shul requests that girls and women maintain proper halachic [according to Jewish law] standards of dress in shul. They are to refrain from 'low necklines, see-through and short-sleeve tops and short skirts.' And finally, there is the classic plea 'Please help us to preserve the Kedushat Beit Haknesset.' [sanctity of the synagogue]. Yes, all that holiness resting on the errant elbow of Hendon housewife.
In Hendonistan, formerly known as Hendon, large numbers of Muslim women wearing their jilbab and hijab share the streets with young Orthodox women in their swirling denim skirts that sweep the ground. 'At least,' think all the women in sheitels and long sleeves, 'we don't have to cover up ourselves like THEM. We're so NORMAL.' Yes, it's perfectly normal, as some rabbis have cited, to blame the tragedies of the world on the immodest dress of women. The case of the three yeshiva students in a Japanese jail for allegedly smuggling some drugs is a recent example that highlights this worldview.
In the May 1st edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times, there is an advertisement written in the name of Mrs. Goldstein, the mother of one of the boys in jail. Distressed by her son's situation, she explained that Harav Hatzadik Rabbi Yakov Meir Schechter was asked what could be done for the young men. "The tzaddik's answer was precise. A hisorrerus [awakening] - in tznius [modesty] will surely be a big z'chus for the yeshua [salvation]." The advertisement continues with emotional blackmail; "The commitment of righteous women to improve in any area of Tznius carries more weight than all efforts combined. Your contribution in the form of a personal undertaking can be the deciding factor in their fate. Who can remain idle at this time?" There is also a small outlined box for you to fill in "I, so and so, daughter of so and so, hereby, bli neder (without making a promise) undertake ... upgrade my tznius performance by ..." Three blank lines are left for you to fill in before sending the note to Mrs Goldstein in Monsey, New York. Conveniently, a few suggestions are offered in addition to the usual hem length advice:
Refrain from brisk walking as a form of exercise
Refrain from eating/drinking in public areas, especially where men are present
Shoes/heels/fitted with a rubber sole
Learning hilchos tznius (the laws of tzniut) daily.
What is a woman meant to make of this? Holding women's actions accountable for the fate of these young men serves to abrogate the personal responsibility of those who committed the crime. How is a man meant to respond? Is he really meant to believe that his mother/wife/daughter/sister is the harbinger of all bad tidings pending her fashion sense? Has thousands of years of Jewish history and our complex relationship with the Divine been reduced to a schmutter [piece of cloth]?
In Hendonistan, there is no shortage of rabbis and teachers willing to instruct women how to dress appropriately. Treating the women like children who need to be reprimanded is foolish - their only sin is perhaps too much disposable income with which to buy the latest fashions. While some women simply scoff at this modesty policing, many teenage girls are having a visceral reaction to the way that some lessons in school are hijacked to remind them of the importance of modesty. Critical and condescending teachers are not going to save the Jewish people.
However, if you are concerned about your wardrobe, there are some solutions for a modesty makeover. Try Sleevies - a sleeve extension with an elastic band at the upper arm that you pop underneath the original short sleeve. You can transform your whole wardrobe with this simple device that creates a ¾ sleeve on every top. For suspect necklines, wear a TeeNeck which is a "shirt supplement designed to wear with a lower cut top." Or if you're nifty with a needle, a new book by Rifka Glazer is all you'll need. Seams and Souls: A Dressing, Altering and Sewing Guide for the Modest Woman published by Feldheim (who else?) claims to be a 'a comprehensive guide to sewing and shopping for clothing that conforms to the proper standard of tznius. It will help you decide which clothing to buy and which to avoid or discard because they cannot be altered to meet halachic standards, plus it offers many creative solutions for tznius problems." There is a wide range of creative tips and techniques for tznius solutions for sewers at all levels and over 250 modest, easy-to-follow diagrams for altering the most problematic parts of garments.
In Hendonistan, I am afraid that sewing up the seam will lead to sewing up the soul.


  1. I was that letter from the imprisoned boy's mother. Is it me, or was that list quite clearly written for women who are already doing everything the law requires? I've never seen ANYTHING telling Jewish women to wear rubber soles on their shoes. (That actually is a requirement for modest Muslim women.)

  2. I believe that all the restrictions that you mentioned are actually demanded of women who live in some Muslim countries. Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind -- and I am being serious here, not sarcastic.

  3. Hi Modesty

    Someone sent me your blog today so I read it for the first time. Very enagaging and great writing. You address some really important stuff. I left Hendon 25 years ago and it seems to have got worse.
    But - Important issues, particularly women's issues, in the frum world will not improve until women are prepared to put their names to their opinions. There are frum women here in Israel fighting hypocrisy, loss of perspective, repression, lack of learning, and shallow attitudes to shidduchim who have put their name to their fight, something you have not done. I wonder why? Would reputations or relationships be damaged?
    I am not trying to be mean here. It is just that your anonymity underlines the entire problem, more poignantly than anything you write.
    Have you ever attended Kolech women's conference in Israel? I think you would enjoy it. More hats, sheitels and Talmud there than you could possibly imagine. No women's desk diaries either.
    Katie Green
    Bet Shemesh

  4. I just remembered: I learned long ago that the type of thinking that is characterized in Mrs. Goldstein's letter -- that one can, or should, or must, perform a specific activity in order to influence a totally unrelated situation -- has a name. It is called magical thinking, and it is nothing new.

    Here is another example, also related to the unhealthy emphasis (dare I say obsession) with modesty that plagues our community. Approximately ten years ago, I was a guest at the home of a teacher in an ultra-religious school in Jerusalem. On a table in her living room was a booklet decrying the current sorry state of modesty among Jewish women and asserting that women could decrease the incidence of bus bombings by dressing more modestly. When I picked up the booklet to take a closer look, my hostess said: You don't want to look at that. It will drive you crazy. Out of politeness, I did not ask her the questions that immediately arose in my mind: If you truly feel that way about the booklet, then why is it on prominent display in your living room? Or do you actually subscribe to this damaging, guilt-producing and false way of thinking?

    From what I have seen, heard and read, the problem of holding women responsible for situations that they never caused and have nothing to do with has been going on for many, many years. How sad that it persists, and that so many of us continue to fall for it.

  5. Simiar thinking is common in some Islamic Societies: If woman lost her husband to combat, she only have herself to blame as she did not pray enough to save his life (or health).