Posted by: thedirtybaker | June 9, 2011

Ultra-Religiosity, Modest Dress, and Coercion

If this happened in Israel – especially Jerusalem – it would be completely normal and not at all noteworthy.  It wouldn’t make the news here, because people are used to Ultra-Orthodox people trying to impose their standards of religion on the whole neighborhood, up to and including signs ordering girls and women to cover up.  Imagine the Amish forcing out the “English” and requiring everyone in their vicinity (even passers through) to dress like 19th century German peasants.

Women shouldn't wear tank tops, t-shirts, or clingy dresses.

The weird part of the current Brooklyn poster is that Hasidic Jewish females don’t wear tank tops unless they wear them on top of a modest shirt.  (a 3/4 sleeve black or white shirt under a colored/ patterned skimpier shirt looks a bit weird, but very common among the ultra-Orthodox here.)  Long-sleeved t-shirts are common among the Hasidim, and completely unobjectionable.  I suspect the rabbis will be ignored on that part.  As for clingy dresses… they aren’t very popular among the most Orthodox to begin with.

My ire is drawn by this, not because the rabbis in Williamsburg, Brooklyn are objecting to women wearing certain clothes.  The poster is in Yiddish, so only Hasidim can even read it.  But I can’t stand the use of religion to coerce others, of the same religion or other religions to practice in a particular way.  I’m not being anti-religious – I’m sufficiently american that I believe that people should be able to worship whomever and however they want to worship, provided it doesn’t impinge on anyone else’s similar freedoms.  In the U.S. the ultra-Orthodox Jews lack the power (outside of a few very small communities) to force outsiders to follow their rules.  And while much of the Christian Right would like to impose their religious standards upon American society (and try to pass laws that do so), they aren’t as abusive in the States as the Ultra-Orthodox are here, probably due in part to the comparative sizes of populations and in part  to the parliamentary system in Israel.

In Israel, the Ultra-Orthodox M.O. is to move into a neighborhood, gradually at first, then increasingly, and then to pressure the secular people to move out.  Once they do so, they can block the streets to vehicles on the Sabbath (emergency vehicles excepted), and

Mea Shearim Sign (This sign and the two below come from

ostracize anyone known to break the religious law.  They can put up signs mandating what women and girls can wear in their neighborhoods.  Some merely demand modest clothing.  Others specify what that means, like this one from Mea Shearim, one of the most reactionary Jewish neighborhoods in the world.  I’m not sure what happens to women who dress inappropriately, but cars that drive through neighborhoods on the Sabbath will get things thrown at them – I’ve heard of rocks and sandwiches being thrown.

Their rabbis tell them who to vote for, so the groups vote in a bloc, deliverable to the most amenable politicians.  Some of them are anti-Zionist and don’t believe that the state of Israel should exist until the Messiah comes, but they still take welfare from the state of Israel and have an exemption from serving in the military.  They are often a swing vote in a coalition government, so the government will give in to their demands to keep the government together.  This keeps their school systems funded, in spite of not teaching practical subjects like math and modern languages to the boys – only Talmud – thereby preventing the boys from gainful employment outside of their schools.  This keeps their military exemptions active, and increases the welfare payments per child dramatically after the fifth child.

No Women on Cellphones

The more extreme rabbis have little respect for women, and the worst of these may be the Satmar Hasidim (Satmar is a sect of Hasidism, which is a type of utra-Orthodoxy.).  In this next sign, also from Williamsburg, Brooklyn (but signed by rabbis from Mea Shearim and B’nei Brak,  two of the most extreme places in Israel), the rabbis mandate that it is immodest for women to talk on cell phones in public places.  In case you’re wondering, the Yiddish for “cell phone” is “cellphone.”   This gets lumped in with “modesty,” the system that forbids women to wearing tank tops, shorts, pants, etc.  Seriously?  You want women who have up to 15 or more kids to not use their phones in public?  With that many kids, how many emergency phone calls can you get?

There’s also the matter of sex segregation.  Women and men sit separately in services.  Usually, that means that the men are in front, and there’s a women’s gallery behind and possibly above the men, probably curtained off, and women are forbidden to sing prayers aloud.  This is so that women won’t distract the men at prayer (women’s voices being so enticing).   Men’s prayers are required and women’s are not, so that women can be available for very young children on the children’s’ schedules.  They are exempted

Ladies, step to the side.

from most or all time-bound commandments.  Because women aren’t required to pray, their prayers don’t count, so they can be sidelined/ pushed to the back at services.  There are other rules that devalue women as well, but here’s a new one for me, also from Williamsburg, Brooklyn

If a woman is in a store or on a street  and a man approaches her, she is to move to the side.  There’s also a reiteration of the “No cellphones” idea.  It emphasizes that Jewish females must be protected like princesses, and that a the “true honor of a woman is inside,” i.e. that women should not hold any public role.

This is not to say that there aren’t any kind, decent people in all of these groups.  There certainly are!  But the overt coercion that the ultra-Orthodox try (and often succeed at in Israel) to impose on others just infuriates me.  They should dress and behave as they wish to do, without ordering the rest of us to dress and behave in the same way.



  1. Nice work Dirty Baker. Very well said.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: