Women in Black

It’s the 21st century. I look around me and see more and more women in black. And it’s “religious” women-Muslims and Jews. When did black become the symbol, the sign, the signifier for piety?

When I was growing up in Toronto, there was a tradition amongst the Italian community when a wife became a widow, as a sign of mourning, she donned black clothing for-life. Black has been a symbol for mourning for as long as I can remember. Jewish people rend clothing or wear a torn black ribbon to signal there has been a death, a heart broken,  an empty place at the table. And black is the traditional garb for funerals and shivas.

I recently went to Great Wolf Lodge near Niagara Falls, Ontario with two of my children and my grandchildren. It’s a “resort” that is known for its indoor water park and lots of activities for children. I was walking up the stairway to the top of the slide when I noticed a woman in front of me wearing black; from head to toe. She had black pants with stirrups to hold the pant leg down over her ankles, a long black top with a hood to cover her hair. The outfit is made of swim-suit material designed specifically for the water.

She was Muslim. This is the swimwear she dons-for modesty. She learned this from someone. She learned that it is her responsibility to ensure that no man loses control over himself. If he does and she is raped-we all know what happens next. She goes to jail, if she’s lucky. Or she is murdered, an honour killing, because she is the cause of shame to her family. It’s all her fault because according to the narrative, men can’t control themselves or their zippers.

Wait, isn’t that the story Orthodox women are told? Isn’t that one of the reasons there is a separation between the sexes at synagogues? They might distract the men from prayer. If black bathing suits from head to toe are appropriate for Muslim women to signal their piety and discourage lascivious men, why shouldn’t ultra-Orthodox women dress the same way.  Wait, they do.

One of my daughters lives just outside Baltimore. She was with me on the stairway and told me that the swimwear we were viewing was quite common at her Jewish Community Centre. The only difference, she said, the women don’t wear a tight hood over their hair. They wear $500 wigs.

This is the head covering to show modesty, hiding their own glorious manes from men other than their husband.

It’s not just bathing suits. Bathurst Street is one of the longest roads in the Greater Toronto area beginning at Lake Ontario and going north. Over the centuries Jews have centred their communities along this street. Now, no matter the day of the week, ultra-Orthodox women are in black. Not only are Jewish women in black, Jewish men are dressed in black as well, with fur hats on Shabbos and Holy days, unlike their Muslim male counterparts who wear comfortable white robes or shorts and T shirts.

So I ask myself, what is happening to the Jews? What is this obsession with black?  Are my people looking at Muslims dressed in black and saying-well if Muslim women are wearing black as a sign of their closeness to God, we should, too? We can’t let Muslims be more pious than us. If Muslim women are covering themselves from head-to-toe to go swimming, then pious Jewish women should as well. And if Muslim women can wear robes that cover them from head-to-toe and wear a veil, shouldn’t our women cover themselves as well? I’m just waiting for the veil.

Were we not warned thousands of years ago as we made our way to Babylonia to beware of customs we take from other cultures?

Who decided that black is the colour to honour God? When did black become the signifier for justice and mercy, charity and loving-kindness, or walking humbly with God? How does the colour black announce to the world the Glory of God? Our love of God?

Black is dark and bleak. Black is death. Why are the Jews, who call themselves the torchbearers of Torah, in mourning?

We are home. After two thousand years wandering, prosecuted, persecuted, expelled and murdered, we have a home. Eretz Yisrael. Our own home. No, it’s not perfect. The world will not let us live in peace, yet, but we are home.

There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. There is a time to mourn and a time to dance?  Is this not the time to laugh and dance? If not now, when?


About the Author
Diane Weber Bederman is a multi-faith, hospital trained chaplain who lives in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto; She has a background in science and the humanities and writes about religion in the public square and mental illness on her blog: The Middle Ground:The Agora of the 21st Century. She is a regular contributor to Convivium: Faith in our Community. "
Related Topics
Related Posts