Last month the Spanish Marie Claire featured a spread on Hasidic women in New York. Although the article discussed the rebel phenomenon, and focused on the group of people that consider themselves ex-hasidic, or at least on their way to becoming that, it also offered a surprisingly raw and brazen take on the more hidden aspects of Hasidic life. Photographer Ana Nance bravely infiltrated the Hasidic section of Williamsburg and snapped candid, up-close shots of great moments that really speak volumes about a world few outsiders can really understand. I think the photos are fantastic, so I’ve take screenshots from the PDF file that I received and uploaded them to my blog. Unfortunately they are not as clear as I would like, but I think you can get the idea.
Also, you might think differently, but somehow I can’t see an American magazine putting out a spread such as this. It is European in the sense that it strikes a viewer as jarring; the untempered strangeness of the images, the audacious close-ups. An American magazine might already be uncertain about the implications of exposing an insular culture, and would definitely try to maintain a respectful angle. Marie Claire Espana had no such qualms. The article itself reads as a blunt, objective perspective and makes no apologies.
My good friend Emiliano Ruiz Parra translated the article into English for me, and I’ve pasted it here. Please keep in mind that although the grammar and continuity may have been jostled in translation, it is still a worthwhile read:
In the name of Yahve
In New York lives a conservative Jewish community: the Hasidic sect of Satmar. They barely speak English, and their women are obligated to shave off their hair, wear wigs and they can’t wear trousers. But some of them struggle to relate to the outside world.
por andrea aguilar fotos ana nance
It’s seven o’clock on a late autumn evening. On the corner of Broadway and Bleecker, in Soho, people hurry on their way. Young rappers, women tripping over their heels, mothers with babies and bags, managers on their way to the gym and tourists fill the sidewalk. Blogger Chasid Heretic waits at a door. He’s an ultra orthodox Hasidic Jew, part of a branch of Judaism that stems from late-XVIII Poland and spread through several countries of Eastern Europe. After the Holocaust, it took root in the United States. Not all orthodox are ultra-orthodox or all ultra-orthodox are Hasidic. But 165,000 Hasidic people live in New York and belong to different sects organized around several rabbis. They all share a language, Yiddish (a German variety of Hebrew), and a strict religious adherence, though that may vary slightly. Rules are dictated by men.
As New York as Carrie Bradshaw, Hasidic women are very far from putting on manolos. They never wear trousers or tank tops. Their skirts end at least four inches past their knees. Thick tights conceal their legs in winter and summer. Contact with men is extremely regulated from childhood. At 18 they marry and this marriage is previously arranged. After that, Hasidic women have to submit to ritual baths once a month, cut their hair, wear wigs and, many times, also a hat or a shawl. The main purpose is to emphasize modesty and to establish differences They can’t go to college. They can’t use contraceptives. TV, radio and newspapers are banned in their homes.
The meeting with the blogger was arranged via email. Shlomo wears a white shirt and pleated trousers, has a long beard and his head is covered by a black kipa. Four years ago he started blogging about his crisis of faith and his doubts about the way of life imposed upon Satmar members, the strictest Hasidic sect, ferociously anti-zionist, founded in the US by Joel Teitelbaum and set in south Williamsburg, a neighbourhood of artists in Brooklyn. He’s married with four children. He wants to abandon the Satmar community, but his wife would not follow him and he doesn’t want to lose his family. Though he doesn’t want more children: “My wife does not understand it. Children fulfill a Hasidic women’s life, and the more children, the better”. During menstruation, women are forbidden to have any physical contact with men, not even the slightest brush. When their menstrual period has concluded, women must examine themselves with a gauze. If there’s any doubt, the gauze has to be shown to the rabbi for him to decide. After this, women bathe in ‘mikves’ to purify. They have to clean themselves thoroughly for one hour. Then, another woman watches them put their head under the water, says a prayer, kisses their cheeks and declares them ‘kosher’. The hair is shaved after that.
Shlomo still belongs to the Satmar community, but sometimes attends Footsteps, an organization that helps people raised in orthodox communities to integrate to society. This evening it’s hosting a meeting on Broadway. A young woman with long brown hair, jeans and sweatshirt hops on the elevator. She may be one of many girls that wander around Soho. But the Star of David hanging around her neck means she’s attending the meeting as well. The atmosphere is cozy and sober. Some men wear Hasidic coats and long curly sideburns. Other wear jeans. Women are a minority and their clothes give no clue about their lives. Footsteps was founded by Malkie Schwartz of Hunter College, New York’s City University. She put an announcement out searching for young people that, like her, were raised within a ultra-orthodox environment, and then abandoned it to go to college. She grew up in Crown Heights, and belonged to the Lubavitch sect, the most open among Hasidic, the first to found schools and publications for women, and the only one that proselytizes, attempting to convert secular Jews to their way of life.
More than 20 students responded to Malkie’s call. Since its creation, Footsteps has helped 600 people, 35% of them women. Its purpose is to help them with the integration to the world and make easier their access to university. Fronts are diverse: from teaching English to adapting to contact with the opposite sex in the day-to-day life. Faigy Mayer found support: ‘I’m becoming stronger and just one week ago I put on jeans’. Honesty and love towards your fellow man are the values she appreciates most among those she learned: ‘Not only Hasidic women have a hard life. Boys have to study the Torah for hours and their clothing is severely controlled’, she says.
Deborah Feldman found a way out of the restrictive Satmar sect through literature. Her early escapes to a public library, a prohibited place for Hasidic people, were her first rebellious actions. The second one was to enroll clandestinely in the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College, where she got a scholarship. One year ago she signed a contract to write her memoirs (‘Unorthodox: The scandalous rejection of my Hasidic roots), to be published by Simon and Schuster in 2012. As soon as she got the advance, she left her husband, taking with her her four year-old boy. Since then she lives in the Upper East Side. ‘This place is full of memories, but I would never live here again’, she says seated in the Blackbird, one of the most popular cafes in the modern section of Williamsburg. Vintage chairs and tables bring her memories of her grandfather’s office, she says. He was one of the Holocaust survivors who founded the Satmar sect in Brooklyn. ‘The rules they set were harder to follow than the European ones. They decided married women must shave off their hair and put on wigs in order to prevent temptation of showing a lock: the purpose was to make sure you always look like a Jew and prevent you from trying to mix’, she says. Deborah has long brown hair: she wears dark jeans, shirt, jackets and boots. She is interested in fashion, but miniskirts, necklines and makeup don’t drive her crazy. ‘Satmar was re-founded to be self-sufficient, impenetrable”, she explains. Satmar members keep their distance from the gentiles that surround them, strolling through the parks and streets of Brooklyn. But they don’t hesitate to confront their neighbours, the newly arrived hipsters of Williamsburg, when they attempt, for instance, to have a bikeway done. Satmar protests against women on bikes got many headlines last spring.
Deborah’s grandparents had eleven children, her father among them, a person with mental disability. It was hard to get him married, and this made it harder for his siblings to get married too. Eventually he married an English woman that came from a less rigorous orthodox environment. After Deborah’s birth, she became depressed and fled. Deborah remembers the black Honda she left the community in. The girl was raised by her grandparents, respected members of the community. ‘I lived with the stigma of being the child of scandal’ she remembers. During her childhood she dreamed of her mother living a free and happy life. Some years later she recognized her mother’s voice in a documentary, ‘Trembling before God’, about the intolerance that the gay community endures under orthodox groups. Deborah found out that her mother was gay and lived on her own. She visited her, and they have resumed contact currently. A Hasidic adage says that to get a couple together is harder than splitting the Red Sea. Matchmakers have a tough job. There’s no set price, but it’s better to be generous with them: 2,000 dollars is the usual fee for each marriage. Matchmakers look for candidates whose religious habits match as much as possible with those of the girl’s family. The first encounter is between the potential bride and the potential groom’s mother. Deborah met her future mother-in-law at the frozen food section of a Kosher market on Division Street. Even though day and time are previously arranged, the appointment must seem casual and there’s no serious talk. Then she met her future husband two days before becoming engaged. They threw an engagement party and gave each other a ring and a watch through intermediaries. A plate was broken and the agreement was signed by the rabbis. ‘It’s even harder to break off an engagement than the marriage itself’, Deborah says. That day she wore an 800 dollar-dress. She was then an English teacher in the school she had studied in as a child. Commonly, women work as teachers or administrative assistants during the first years of marriage, in order to let the men keep on studying the holy Scriptures, such as they did in the Yeshiva. These schools are the main place for socialization for men. Also synagogues are largely forbidden to Satmar women. They cannot study the Torah either. Organization of weddings, birthdays, births and Jewish festivities are their task, as well as raising their many children, and taking care of domestic duties. Infertility is a tragedy for Hasidic women, so fertility treatments are wholly accepted. Anthropologist Ayala Fader spent three years with Hasidic women of Boro Park, a slightly less rigorous community where different sects coexist, the Bobover sect being the biggest. Descending from of European Jews, Ayala wishes to be accepted, but it turned out to be harder than expected. In her book Mitzvah Girls, she describes Hasidic women as active and faithful, convinced that their way of life is the only one that makes sense. ‘If you manage to be accepted you enjoy a meaningful life’, she says. Fader portraits them as shrewd New Yorkers who don’t hesitate to teach their children to push through the crowds at Macy’s. They control contact between the community and the outside world but they can shop in Manhattan. The women speak English better than the men, raise the next generation and set the rules of participating in or rejecting American culture. ‘They think gentiles lack moral force to control their desires. Freedom is regarded as childish and immoral because it does not lead to a disciplined life’, she writes. Deborah spent her first year of marriage with no sexual relations. She consulted specialists, but it was a hypnotist who solved the problem. After her son’s birth, she went on studying. She told her husband she was attending administrative courses. Then she started a blog, Hasidic Feminist, that got an overwhelming response. She’s still committed to a feminist cause and has a critical outlook toward gentile world. Because not everything is rosy, she says: ‘Men are macho on the outside too. The Hasidic just don’t pretend that they are not’, she says, and asks herself, ‘female independence? In the secular world women are under an immense pressure to be beautiful and get married’.