The Erasure of Jewish Women

Separate but equal would be an improvement.

There is an ongoing, pervasive habit of erasing women and girls from magazines, advertisements, catalogs (see the ridiculous example set by Ikea), newspapers, billboards, etc. Either we are replaced by men and boys (sometimes causing awkward scenarios within their community), we are symbolized by dolls (literally), or we are erased from existence – flakes of our identity blowing away in the wind. All in the name of the Orthodox Jewish community’s definition of “modesty.”

This has been spoken about so many times, and yet, somehow, it still remains an issue.

For those who are unfamiliar, the concept of “modesty” is usually associated with women dressing appropriately – collarbone, elbows, knees, ‘bulletproof’ tights – but the truth is that Jewish modesty is much more than ankle-length skirts or exposed knees; it also applies to behavior. And lest they forget – it also applies to men.

I’m no rabbi, I’m not versed in the laws of Torah, and I don’t have a degree in Psychology (though I have a warped interest in that field). I’m a feminist in the traditional sense of the word, I’m a mother of two boys and a girl, a writer, a lawyer, and an artist. I attended a Chabad shul my whole life (though I’m not Chabad), wear pants, short sleeves, and love the holidays. I don’t cover my hair all the time. I do keep the “big three” commandments, but really, none of this is relevant because the principle remains the same.

We are all human.

Some sects of Orthodox Judaism (not all) have been warping the way they view ‘the fairer sex.’ It’s not recent. Years ago, Chareidi papers refused to publish photos of women even if they covered their hair. They edited images of well-known women into young men in Knesset photos. Recently, even Smurfette’s blue, cartoon head was on the chopping block when she was deleted from a movie poster in a Chareidi city.

The effect of this erasure of women is monumental. It is affecting everyone — men, women, boys, and girls — because you cannot learn to respect someone when they are denied their very existence.

Little girls are now growing up thinking they have to hide themselves, their shape, their pride in being a woman. They are growing up, seeking an identity, searching for themselves, and are surrounded by nothing but men and boys. They are educated, by their own society, that they need to disappear, be quiet and meek, to be invisible.

The lack of representation of women is insidious and dangerous; it has the potential to make people (both Jewish and not) misunderstand and hate Judaism and poisons all those involved.

As children mature, they desperately seek representation of themselves in books, magazines, and on any printed surface. Little girls don’t find much. So they, and women, who are not limited to Jewish books gorge themselves on secular ones — books where the women are strong, brave, confident, able to achieve anything. It makes these readers, especially the young, impressionable ones, question whether they, too, are a strong, powerful woman or whether they are Jewish. As such, some women feel forced to leave their community to find that happiness, to fulfill their spiritual aspirations, to find who they are as human being, as Women.

Oddly enough, this erasure of women also alters how we are perceived. Because we are essentially ‘forbidden,’ we become sexualized, five year-olds and blue cartoons included, reductio ad absurdum. It’s a vicious cycle; new, heavier restrictions and burdens are then hoisted upon the women, who are already carrying the ungodly weight and responsibilities of modesty, respect be damned. Skirt lengths become longer, colors become darker, shoulders become more stooped.

Erasure from life takes away our voices, permits men to view us as inhumane, subtly sexual creatures, and ‘less than.’ Essentially eliminating the female gender eliminates the healthy progression of social maturity; boys are increasingly likely to become fundamentally socially immature and disrespectful of others as they grow rather than becoming moral, honest, fair, and cognitively and intellectually mature men, husbands, and fathers.

Many men currently feel the right to enforce and ensure our humility and obedience; at times, they even resort to modesty patrols and violence, both inside and outside the home. It severely limits our human rights, our identity, and the pleasure and pride we should experience as Jewish women, even if we choose to ‘only’ be Jewish mothers.

Erasure of women restricts our abilities to achieve more. We can be partners in a law firm, scientists, managers, CEOs, astronauts, Headmasters of schools, and Members of Knesset, but invisible girls don’t know this and are never given choices. Erasure of women erases equality of the mind, and thus, our very existence.

The aggressive deletion of half the population is damaging men, too. It is reiterated, repeated, and restated that men are the better half – after all, they are the only ones good enough to be pictured in print. Men are entitled to sit at the front of the bus with stickers on bus stops ‘enforcing’ it. Little boys are superior, “more equal,” and entitled because of their gender. In these communities, future generations learn that Judaism is sexism, and now it seems that even our government is afraid to stand up to this immodest and immoral stance.

These sexist policies and belief systems are both disgusting and anti-Jewish. Judaism is not man-centric; quite the opposite. It is believed that ‘in the merit of women we were let out of Egypt’ (we did not participate in the sin of the golden calf). We have a “certain unshakable attachment to and deep faith in G-d…” and there is an “innate superior trait that all Jewish women in all ages possess.” Thank you, Lubavitcher Rebbe. There is even a special feminine description of G-d, the Shekhinah, though literally translated as “dwelling,” it refers to the highest of six types of holy fire, the ‘settled’ side of the Creator, righteous judgement, and personal need.

What this comes down to is this: The feminine cannot be ignored or eliminated from Judaism without losing Judaism and G-d itself.

Some women are speaking out (apparently they got the memo, crumpled it up, and passionately threw it in the holy fire). But we need more. Whether you are frum, secular, or, like me, reject labels, SPEAK UP. Be a strong, brave, passionate, and loud Jewish woman. Contact your MK, volunteer in a political party, write to advertisers and magazines. Be modest, yet firm. Write an article. Post photos. Share them. It may be that the insulated communities don’t see our support, but it should be there nonetheless. The rest of the country, and the government, will see that we are combating the erasure – we are all women. We are all humans. We deserve to been seen, heard, and live.

NO. #iwillnotdisappear

[A kind thank you to Merri Ukraincik, #frumwomenhavefaces, who started the online campaign (check it out) and the other women who contributed to this piece.]

About the Author
Talya Woolf is a four-year Olah, an American-licensed attorney, handgun instructor, amateur photographer, and artist. She is politically conservative, Modern Orthodox, and ardent Zionist. She enjoys spending time with family, friends, running, photography, and reading about highly contagious diseases and WWII.
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