In Hendonistan, there’s a new message that’s been circulated via email and posted on relevant notice boards inside one particular shul (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 halakhic [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 a 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.