Guardians of the Modest Hemline
‘Say Amen, Mummy.’ My youngest daughter is full of enthusiasm for her brachos (blessings). As every modest mother knows, training our children to say blessings before and after food is one of the pleasures of parenting. So it came as a surprise to find women acting like children at a ‘brachos party.’ Advertised as an opportunity ‘to make some brachot, eat some food, and say amen – let’s do our hishtadlut (effort) to help our fellow Jews in their time of need. All this, plus a Devar Torah at the end – all in under an hour. Make it one of the best hours you’ve spent, and turn up!’ Well – I just couldn’t resist.
This party was held in the women’s section of a Sephardi shul in Hendon, a bustling hub of London’s Orthodox life. The basic premise of these parties is that the word ‘Amen’ has some sort of kabbalistic power to bring about good things for people in trouble. Sheets of paper with various headings were on a table: zivuggim (a partner),parnassah ( livelihood) yeshua (general help) and cholim (sick people). As the women entered the room, many of them added names to these sheets – names that would be prayed for later in the evening. The list for a suitable partner was the longest – wherever I go, I can’t get away from lists of wonderful single women in their late 30s looking for a husband. Plates of cake, biscuits, fruit, vegetables, crisps and sweets were distributed on all the tables – all in preparation for the collective flurry of Amens to be recited.
A few women, with snoods askew and chapped hands, brought large buckets of dough to the party as they wanted to use this as an opportunity to publicly say the blessing of ‘hafrashat challah’ – putting aside a small amount of dough before baking bread. Then one by one, each person took a piece of cake, said the appropriate bracha and a chorus of Amen answered. We went round the room again for all the other foods, with a running commentary on the importance of our holy endeavour and a reminder to think about those who need our prayers for good health, a good job or a marriage partner.
Eventually, the rabbi of the synagogue came to visit the women and he brought along a friend. We stood in deference and only sat down after they both did. The guest speaker made a pitch for his yeshiva: for only £5 a month, he could guarantee that one of his students would study on my behalf and bring only good things for me and my family. This bargain offer was only available if I signed up on the evening and filled in my bank details to secure payment. I declined. While the attendance of the rabbi seemed to add an air of gravitas to the evening, I wondered if it was the price the women had to pay to have the shul to themselves for most of the evening. These women had transformed the synagogue space, usually reserved for formal prayer, into a space for domestic concerns and eating. In the 18th and 19th centuries women wrote ‘techinot’ – prayers for women reflecting domestic concerns – are these brachos parties a 21st century invention to claim sacred space in the synagogue as their voice cannot be heard during formal services? Are the child-women subverting the status quo right under the noses of their revered rabbis?
The rabbi’s words were troubling. He praised the women and said that by saying a bracha they were averting some terrible preordained catastrophe. Who knew women had such power? But the finale was more disconcerting: the rabbi reminded the women that even more important than saying brachot was wearing modest clothes. He chastised the women who wear beautiful sheitels (wigs) and railed against tight, short skirts. It is quite extraordinary – women have been part of the twists and turns of Jewish history for thousands of years, but in today’s world they are merely the guardians of the modest hemline.