The Power Beneath That Sheitel

You should see my friend Rachel. All I have to do is meet her for coffee to see what’s “in” right now. I ogle the six-inch Jimmy Choos she practically jogs around town in (“They’re really comfortable!” she insists) and jot down the name of her jeweller in Brooklyn. But Rachel inspires me not because she’s the ultimate fashionista but because she is a tireless community leader. Between my three kids and my fulltime job, I’m pleased with myself if I’ve showered in the morning. Rachel, in contrast, is up before dawn to work out and then escort senior citizens on an outing by bus; attend the class play of one of her five children; host “teen scene” for the city’s Jewish youth. She can run “Torah Tots” for the toddlers in the morning and convene “Chai Club” after school. And do it all with verve and style and faith.

This sheitel-wearing powerhouse is hardly alone. Women have never held as much power in the United States government as they do now, and Orthodox Jewish women have never held as much power in the world as they do today, so I found them fascinating subjects for my book Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Rutgers U. Press, $37.95.) Ruchie Freier, the first Hasidic woman to hold public office in the U.S., is a Civil Court judge for Kings County in New York State. She founded an all-women emergency medical service. Adina Sash, the Instagram star who goes by the name “@Flatbushgirl,” uses her platform to criticize such misogynist practices as the erasing of women’s faces from Orthodox publications (#frumwomenhavefaces), encourages women to learn to code, and gives advice to her fans. Michal Zernowitski, featured on page one of the New York Times in February, is the unlikely new Labor party Knesset candidate in Israel; she wants voters to know the “new Haredim” are sick of the ultra-Orthodox establishment and of a culture that derides both the Orthodox and the Arabs. And these are only a few of the “Women of Valor” who are part of a movement that they would never call a feminist revolution in Orthodox Judaism. This movement inspired my book.

Of course, if you watch popular films featuring Haredi women (Disobedience, Félix et Meira, A Price Above Rubies), you’ll never find Rachel or Adina or Ruchie. Until they leave  their communities, which they almost always do (Free! Body and soul free!), the Haredi heroines of pop culture are all dully dressed domestic drudges whose small, miserable lives inspire pity and horror.

If you read novels, expect the same trajectories. As in the films, these women are waiting for an awakening.

The Haredi woman’s image—on film, in novels, in the media—is one of obedience. She is sent to the back of the bus, forbidden to look men in the eye, buried in layers of modest dress, banned from driving. She’s little more than a baby machine. She’s anachronistic, both in her pre-feminist ideology and her need to cling to outdated religious norms. And she’s practically invisible in our cultural lexicon. Hasidim at large are often referred to, colloquially, as “black hats,” a reference, of course, to what men—and only the men—wear. There is no question that there are many ways that Orthodox men ruling their communities do strive to keep women down—the erasure of pictures of women is only one example—and the mainstream media echo their efforts. But that’s not the whole story.

Women of Valor is a book of cultural criticism. It came from the need to see powerful women for what they really are, and not what either the men in their communities or the people outside of them imagine them to be. It came out of the realization that there exists a growing body of creative work—novels, songs, memoirs, films, blogs, paintings—within Orthodox Jewish women’s circles that negotiates norms, expectations, desires in surprisingly nuanced and sophisticated ways.

I want readers to move beyond the image of the downtrodden woman with downcast eyes and discover the full variety of possibilities. I’m not interested in puff pieces showing how wonderful it is to be an Orthodox woman, a “woman of valor.” On the contrary, the stories I analyze are fraught, complicated, showing the challenges and difficulties as well as the victories, which are sometimes small. And in an era of dangerous misogynistic men, some wearing the title of “president” and others “rabbi,” all of these victories are important.

Dr. Karen E. Skinazi lives in the U.K. and is the Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol.