A Disappearing Act Not to Follow
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A Disappearing Act Not to Follow

Outraged is the only word to describe my feelings upon discovering a growing phenomenon in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Women’s and girls’ photos are being eliminated from print in advertisements and newspapers. I read about this growing trend from a few Jewish news sources, but when I recently perused a magazine from a religious community in New York, I saw it with my own eyes.

The thick magazine, produced by and for the religious community, contained editorials and ads featuring stores and products that cater to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox community. After going page by page, not one of the 100+ pages showed a photo of a woman or girl. Even in an advertisement featuring toys for young children, only boys were shown playing with the toys, and in an ad for a children’s clothing store, boys were shown in the garments, while girls’ clothing was shown on a doll.

What kind of message are they sending? Are we willing to accept the message that women and girls are by their very nature immodest? Is there something inherently wrong with them? Wouldn’t this diminish their value and self-worth in a way that is counter to the teachings and narratives of the Torah?

What kind of message are they sending? Are we willing to accept the message that women and girls are by their very nature immodest? Is there something inherently wrong with them? Wouldn’t this diminish their value and self-worth in a way that is counter to the teachings and narratives of the Torah? To say that we place a high value on women is inconsistent with removing all images of them from newspapers, advertisements and public material. 

Given this growing trend, is it far-fetched to imagine a future when family photos at simchas end up excluding women? Will brides be omitted from wedding portraits? Will we have to be concerned about the family pictures that we hang in our homes, lest we offend a visitor who objects to photos of women? Will it become the norm to remove existing photos of women before a man enters a house, or relegate these photos from the regular living quarters to a private space? 

Will it become the norm to remove existing photos of women before a man enters a house, or relegate these photos from the regular living quarters to a private space? 

In addition to erasing a woman’s image, it is growing more common to use a woman’s initials rather than spell out her name, as if a string of  letters forming her name would tempt men. Such absurdities run the risk of becoming the norm. Will history be taught by referring to Golda Meir as “GM” in textbooks because her full name is controversial, sexual, deemed unholy? On Purim, will we drown out the name of Esther as well as Haman? Could there come a time when we refer to our matriarchs by their first initial, calling Sarah “sin” and Rivka “reish” or could we envision a time when chumashim will be reprinted to eliminate their names altogether? Of course not, and the mere suggestion is blasphemous. So why is it ok to use a woman’s name in the Torah but not in a newspaper in Monsey or Brooklyn or Lakewood?

I am not a Torah scholar, but I know we are taught that Rivka was kind to Eliezer when he came, thirsty, to the well, and she offered him and his camels water. This is one of the main stories of her righteousness that we are taught to emulate. If Rivka lived in Crown Heights, Borough Park or Mea Shearim today, she would not be allowed to emulate those Torah values. Whatever the equivalent of the women’s well would be on the opposite sidewalk of the men’s, or perhaps tucked away on another street altogether. And if, perhaps, the community hadn’t yet built the separate women’s well so she had to use the same as the men’s, it would not be considered tzniut to enter into a conversation with a man who wasn’t her spouse or relative. It’s tragic how far this is from living the true Torah way, by the very people who think they are the closest to it.

I care because that community is often looked upon as the standard-bearer for the Jewish world and their practices tend to trickle down. What seems radical today might become the norm tomorrow. If no one speaks up, what chance is there to stem the tide and make a change? 

Why should any of this matter to me, given that I don’t identify as ultra-Orthodox? I care because that community is often looked upon as the standard-bearer for the Jewish world and their practices tend to trickle down. What seems radical today might become the norm tomorrow. If no one speaks up, what chance is there to stem the tide and make a change? 

I don’t know if my words will reach the ears of or alter these attitudes in ultra-Orthodox communities. Rather, I hope the more people who are aware of the trend to erase girls’ and women’s images, specifically in mainstream Orthodox communities, will stand firm and embolden their leaders to not cave to the pressure that is coming around the corner. From the days of the Tanakh to modernity, we have such a beautiful history filled with narratives of women and men, filled with knowledge, morality, loving-kindness and meaning. Let our story not get distorted to the point that it is unrecognizable.

M.S. chooses to remain anonymous as an example of what it would be like to lose our women and girls into a nameless and faceless void.

 

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