‘A True Representation’ Of Orthodox Women
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‘A True Representation’ Of Orthodox Women

Rash of candid, stylish online magazines follow charedi magazines blotting out women’s photos.

The Layers Project Magazine’s Shira Sheps, left, and Jewish Women Talk’s Esther Lejbovitz: New faces of Orthodoxy.
The Layers Project Magazine’s Shira Sheps, left, and Jewish Women Talk’s Esther Lejbovitz: New faces of Orthodoxy.

A wardrobe organizer and personal shopper dishes on “The Truth About Tzniut” in Nashim Magazine, a new online publication for Orthodox women launched in April. “The true tzniut,” Meira E. Schneider-Atik, a guest writer for Nashim, argues about dressing modestly, “demands that you not hide completely.”

A young woman living with a disability frets about whether she’ll ever find a husband in a vulnerable profile in The Layers Project Magazine. She says that she won’t allow her disability to define her.

And over at Jewess Magazine, two Orthodox musicians promote their upcoming for-women-only performance at a Jewish music festival and lament their struggles to be taken seriously as performers.

Over the last several months, at least six online publications have launched with the aim of appealing to Jewish women, especially Orthodox women. The publications tweak the classic lifestyle magazine format with an eye toward capturing a fuller picture of observant women than is usually seen in the mainstream media, or in the charedi media. They focus on modest fashion, parenting, Judaism and Jewish identity, and mental health and wellness issues. But they also tackle hot-button issues such as materialism, drug use and the complicated feelings surrounding use of the mikvah, or ritual bath.

“People are thirsty for a true representation of themselves,” said Chava Kuchar, co-founder of Wrapt, a website based in Israel with a focus on fashion, culture and art. “What we’re creating here is a solution to a problem.”

The rise of a Jewish women’s media should come as no surprise given the growing trend in ultra-Orthodox media to exclude photographs of women. Earlier this year, an ultra-Orthodox magazine was roundly criticized for blurring a photo of a woman in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. The practice was first criticized in 2011 when a chasidic newspaper photoshopped then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of a photo in the White House situation room as President Obama and his top advisers watched a video feed of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

This picture of Hillary Clinton — sort of — appeared in a haredi Orthodox newspaper in 2016. Click on the image to read the full story behind the image. JTA

But criticism of the practice picked up steam last year. The momentum of the #MeToo movement, in which women are coming forward with stories of sexual misconduct and abuse in industries like entertainment and sports, has further amplified women’s voices in an unprecedented way that is now trickling into Jewish media.

As in the broader media industry, the internet, and social media in particular, have been the catalysts of an upheaval. Facebook groups in particular, which have been boosted by a change in the Facebook algorithm last fall, and Instagram, a favorite among young women in the Orthodox community, have been instrumental in the launching of these new publications.

“Online communities are no less important than in-person communities.”

Of course, Jewish women’s publications are not confined to the Orthodox community. Lilith, a quarterly magazine and online publication with a distinctly feminist voice, has been publishing Jewish content for women since 1976. Alma, which debuted in June 2017, targets Jewish millennial women of all denominations and affiliations. Another online outlet, jGirls Magazine, is published by and for girls ages 13-19 from across the country.

“Clearly the opportunities that social media [has fostered], and particularly the opportunity to create your own digital outlet and then market it, has been very empowering,” said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of Lilith Magazine.

Though the new sites each have a slightly different style, they share an interest in topics such as fashion, food, culture and wellness. Many of them have similar origin stories, in which the founders were inspired by a dearth of Jewish media that accurately represented their experiences as Jewish women.

The Layers Project Magazine highlights the stories of ordinary Jewish women facing tough challenges. Courtesy of The Layers Project

The majority of publications are supported by advertising or run on a volunteer basis. The Layers Project, which grew out of a photojournalism blog by Shira Lankin Sheps, highlights the stories of ordinary Jewish women facing challenges such as living with a disability, infertility or the loss of a child. (Disclosure: Jewish Week staff writer Hannah Dreyfus is a contributing editor at The Layers Project.) Jewish Women Talk, which is an outgrowth of the popular Facebook group, Jewish Women Talk About Anything, features many of the same topics regularly discussed in the Facebook group — relationships, parenting, culture and cooking.

The Brooklyn-based Valour (pronounced “velour”) Magazine, the only one of this batch of new magazines to start as a print edition, is a glossy fashion magazine that would blend in naturally with a stack of high-fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle. In a recent piece, a bewigged Orthodox woman breaks down the best looks at New York Fashion Week, offering beauty tips from French fashion for the modest but chic woman in Brooklyn or Lakewood, N.J.

The cover of Valour Magazine’s Fall 2017 issue. Via valour-magazine.com

This new wave of online Jewish media is dependent on the fact that its founders are web natives. Despite a mistrust among Orthodox communities of modern technology and media, Orthodox women, who are often the breadwinners while their husbands study Torah, usually become familiar with modern technology at work. Computers and smartphones have increasingly been making their way into Orthodox homes as they become more essential parts of modern life.

“Online communities are no less important than in-person communities,” said Molly Tolsky, editor of Alma, a site aimed at Jewish millennial women of all denominations.

As social media grew in popularity among Orthodox women, a class of Orthodox Instagram stars — fashion icons, cooking gurus and comedic personalities whose full-time work involved building follower counts and racking up sponsorships — became household names in their communities. These stars paved the way for the new class of Orthodox media outlets, which similarly use social media to find their audience. By bringing together Orthodox women from several different communities, cities and religious stripes, social media has essentially created a new audience category that is hungry for content relating to their specific experiences.

“This dichotomy of having no women in magazines but women all over social media makes the lack of representation of women in the media more clear,” said Goldie Gross. Gross is curating an exhibit for the Jewish Art Salon called “The Invisible Jew,” about the erasure of women from ultra-Orthodox publications. “Now you have all these women who can’t really find themselves in publications but are seeing each other on their feeds,” she said.

Social media has been an outlet for women’s frustration and anger more broadly this year as the #MeToo movement unfolded in hashtags, likes and shares. “Women have kind of reached a point where we’re fed up with not being heard and not being taken seriously,” said Tolsky.

“This dichotomy of having no women in magazines but women all over social media makes the lack of representation of women in the media more clear.”

What makes these women’s publications stand out from what already exists in the Orthodox world, aside from the inclusion of photos of women, is the candor with which they discuss topics that would normally be kept under wraps.

In a recent piece in Nashim Magazine, a woman confesses (albeit anonymously) about hiding her husband’s drug addiction. “He struggled with getting clean and I struggled with getting sane,” she wrote.

“We want to talk about women that are having a hard time with the mikvah, we want to talk about women that are not frum anymore and are happy that they’re not frum anymore,” said Esther Lejbovitz, editor of Jewish Women Talk. “It’s been an amazing way to get thoughts out there.”

“It’s time to get uncomfortable; it’s time to bring these things to light,” said Nashim’s founder Rochel Lazar, who is based in Baltimore. “I’ve gotten overwhelming support from the Orthodox community because people feel like it’s time.”

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