Dressing modestly and conforming to the halachic principle of tzniut may have helped protect “Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik from unwanted advances in Hollywood. But it didn’t save Yocheved Sidof, who was groped by an Orthodox business associate when she was working as a professional filmmaker.
“I was filming on the Bowery and this married man from Monsey thought it was OK to casually rub my backside as he was introducing me to his staff,” Sidof, founder and executive director of Lamplighters Yeshivah in Crown Heights, wrote in a Facebook post last weekend.
And wearing tops with long sleeves and shin-skimming skirts didn’t safeguard Rachel Caplan, a 26-year-old actor who grew up Modern Orthodox, against such advances. “Predators and perpetrators of these acts and crimes are not concerned with what a woman is wearing,” she wrote in a social media post.
Sidof, who is Lubavitch, and Caplan were not alone in their views. The New York Times op-ed penned by Bialik, who is Orthodox and something of an icon for observant women, suggesting that modest clothing could protect women from predatory behavior by men, and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, landed like a one-two punch in the Orthodox community.
After Bialik’s piece appeared late last week, a wave of responses from Orthodox women flooded social media. Story after story from tzniut-following women — many of whom put their names to their allegations — chronicled Weinstein-like sexual misconduct in the workplace, on dates, and on the street. (The hashtag MeToo campaign was launched last weekend so women could show how widespread the problem is.)
In her post, Caplan chronicled some of the “dangerous” messages she received about modesty while attending an all-girls Orthodox high school. She described the covert and frequently overt messaging as “taking the ‘What was she wearing?’ culture to the extreme.”
“I have friends dressed in skirts and long sleeves and they still opened up about being harassed in public,” she wrote. “Perpetrators can fetishize anyone and anything. Sometimes it’s even more fun for them to mess with a woman who is clearly Orthodox and modestly dressed.”
The parallels between Hollywood’s male-dominated hierarchy and the Orthodox community, which is frequently criticized for a rigid hierarchical and patriarchal structure, was not lost on many commentators. Some compared Hollywood’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy around sexual assault to the unofficial code of silence around sexuality and sexual misconduct in insular religious circles.
“Me too by seemingly pious men who, much like Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood, have free and unfettered rein over thousands of women in a tight-knit and tight-lipped community,” posted Frimet Goldberger, a freelance writer who grew up chasidic.
Others were more sympathetic to Bialik’s stance, though still with serious reservations. Rachel Benaim, a New-York based reporter who grew up Orthodox, said that while she “empathized with Bialik’s individual perspective,” her article “missed the overall experience of many women who endure some form of assault or harassment no matter what they are wearing.”
Benaim detailed her own experience of sexual assault while backpacking in Belize. After picking up some items at a local supermarket, a man came up to her, grabbed her, and said “nice” before walking away.
“I just sat down on the side of road shaking,” she said. When she called a friend for support, her friend’s first question was “Well what are you wearing?”
“I felt disappointed, let down, and guilty,” she said.
Placing blame on women for their code of dress is deeply rooted in the messages she received about modesty at the Orthodox schools Benaim attended.
Gila Manolson’s book “Outside/Inside: A Fresh Look at Tzniut,” also conveys that message, alongside an emphasis on focusing on your inner soul rather than your outward body. Manolson, a prolific Orthodox writer living in Jerusalem, who didn’t grow up religious, frequently lectures about how Orthodox Judaism changed her life. Her books — frequently handed out to Orthodox youth at day schools, seminaries, synagogues, and youth groups — tackle topics including Orthodox rules around marriage, dating, and the strict restrictions surrounding premarital male/female touch.
Speaking with NJJN, Manolson described herself as a “longtime feminist.” The caveat: “You have to deal with reality.”
She agrees that women experience sexual harassment and abuse regardless of what they’re wearing, noting that she once had a man masturbate in front of her “when I was pregnant and had a shmata [Yiddish for rag] on my head,” she said. Still, in her experience, one has “much less of a chance of that happening if you’re dressed modestly…. I’m a big believer in playing ball in the real world.”
She said that Orthodox girls being blamed for unwanted male attention is a “perversion of tzniut” and “not Orthodox Judaism.”
She said she agreed with Bialik’s op-ed “one hundred percent” and finds it frustrating that the actress is getting so much hate directed at her for stating “something that seems so self-evident.”
On social media, however, it seemed clear that Manolson was in the minority.
“Mayim’s article left me deeply uncomfortable because it echoed the troubling sentiments of both the Ultra Orthodox and Modern Orthodox school systems I was brought up in, in which as young girls, we were constantly told to cover up, and look and act modest lest we sway men and invoke their sexual desires,” Chavie Leiber, a senior reporter at Racked, Vox’s fashion site, said in an e-mail. “Only now that I’m older (and out of that system), I can understand why this viewpoint is so problematic: It positions modesty inaccurately as a shield for aggression, and puts the blame on the victim.”
Aliza Clair, 27, a Modern Orthodox social worker mother of two living in Bergenfield, N.J., posted about her experience being groped by a stranger while out at a popular arcade with her girlfriends. At first, Clair was hesitant to write about the incident, which took place during her first week in college, because she was scared of people “minimizing what I experienced.”
“I was scared that even one person would say ‘she’s dramatizing it, she’s making it up, she’s being such a girl,’” Clair told NJJN. “Then I realized that’s exactly the problem.”
After the assault, Clair’s first instinct was to examine her outfit. “The second it happened, I said ‘What am I wearing? It must be too tight.’”
“The message that my dress causes things like this to happen was drilled into me by the community,” said Clair, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox community. “It made me immediately think that if I had been dressed more tzniusly, this would not have happened.”
Dr. Sharon Weiss Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, agreed.
“People [responding on social media] feel like dressing modestly doesn’t protect you,” said Weiss-Greenberg. “The reality is that much of this is happening in a Jewish context. Almost every woman has been affected.”
JOFA is working with the group Hevria to put together an open-space forum where people can process their feelings and discuss positive steps moving forward.
For some, their experiences in Jewish contexts — and the flawed or absent sexual education surrounding modesty, sexuality, blame, and consent — drove them out of the fold.
Caplan, whose post railing against the injustices and inadequacies of the Orthodox education system around sex rapidly generated an outpouring of support and solidarity, left the Orthodox community. Though it was a “combination of factors” that led to her flight, and she still holds the community in high regard — “I did not leave angry” — the way young women were educated about sexuality and modesty was one of the reasons she walked away.
Speaking with NJJN on the phone, the first thing she expressed was a certain sheepishness at finding herself the “posterchild” of the whirlwind #MeToo conversation. Still, her story spilled out.
“My acute awareness of my body started in high school,” she recalled. Though she grew up in a more relaxed home — her mom wore pants and did not cover her hair — it quickly became clear that a “higher” standard was expected in her new environment. “At orientation, I received a packet outlining the rules about dress code. It was all in caps with such severe language — WE WILL NOT ACCEPT — it felt like an intimidation tactic.”
She recalled wearing a loose-fitting polo shirt and floor length skirt to school to try and abide by the strict dress code. A female teacher pointed to her chest and said, “too tight.”
“I walked around school in fear of getting in trouble [for my clothing].”
The messages she received about modesty — that “tzniut was always about stopping men from getting the things they want” — continue to affect her life and functioning today, though she is no longer affiliated.
“I still hold on to a deep shame about my body. I never had a boyfriend throughout high school, and to this day I am very timid around men. I have remained in unhealthy relationships for way too long because I’m scared to say no. When more serious sexual advances have been made toward me, I have felt powerless to do anything. Sometimes, I flirt and smile and hope it stops. Or I force myself to be ‘OK’ with it.”
Though the Jewish community is by no means solely to blame for this systemic problem, she does hold Orthodox schools accountable for not providing sex education or providing male and female students with a basic understanding of consent.
“This type of education — or rather lack of education — is not just insulting. It’s dangerous. The attitude toward modesty is absolutist: either you’ve never touched a man before your wedding night or you’re an absolute slut. There’s no room for young people to find themselves in the grey.”
Though one step removed from the community in which she grew up, Caplan still hopes things can change.
“Whatever you conclude about my Jewish identity and observance, hear this: I care deeply about the survival of the Jewish people, and moreover, know that we are capable of swimming against the stream when we see injustice,” she wrote in her post. “So swim. Be the few against the many.”