Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Battle of the Tznius Ladies!

Mrs. Yid has been covering her hair since our marriage over a year ago. She has also pretty much stopped wearing pants and usually dresses pretty conservatively. My parents, of course, blame me for all of this and have occasionally accused me of brainwashing my wife-- despite the fact that I never told her, nor for that matter, even asked her, to do any of this. (For the curious, Mrs. Yid says that she likes scarves but under zero circumstances would she ever be interested in a sheitel, half-fall, or a pillbox hat. Frankly, she doesn't even like the idea of lady-not-kippot. On snoods: "They look like a big sock or a saggy butt-diaper on your head.")

Anyway, based on this, I feel qualified to call Mrs. Yid the tznius lady of my local community. Which, as it turns out, is quite convenient, because Garnel recently alerted me to the existence of another tznius lady, Mrs. Ella Lerman, of Chabad in Crown Heights, who has just put out an article high-fiving herself on, well, being the tznius lady. I thought it might be fun to let the two tznius ladies in my life go head-to-head and write down the carnage that follows. Here goes:
I was born in Crown Heights and I have lived here all my life. My husband and I were directed by the Rebbe to stay in Crown Heights after we were married. I have been teaching in Bais Rivkah for over 25 years and now I have a new title. I am the tznius lady. It has taken me a while to say that out loud. Let me try that again with a little more pride. I am the tznius lady. It is hard sometimes, especially when I see people crossing the street when they see me.

Me: Could this be an indication that perhaps you're doing something wrong? No?
I am nervous to be speaking to you tonight. Not only because I am talking to such a large crowd, kein ayin hara, of the Rebbe’s Shluchos, but I am also worried whether I will do justice to this topic. Will I be able to get you to feel the passion that I feel? When I go to speak to principals at our schools, my husband asks me why I am so nervous. I tell him how much is riding on getting people to see how vital tznius is. Are we up to the challenge?
Me: I'd love to know exactly what is riding on the tznius, but unfortunately she never answers.
This may surprise you, but I asked for the job of tznius lady. I told Bais Rivkah that someone needed to stand in front of their doors and tell mothers that they couldn’t enter if they were not dressed according to Jewish law, and I offered to do the job. My family was not excited about this.
Mrs Yid: What a nosey yenta!

Me: I like how she decided there was a problem, she informed the school how big an issue it was (apparently it even violated the ever-straightforward"Jewish law,") and also luckily volunteered to help them out. Now that's just convenient! Also, it sure is lucky that though she's supposedly a teacher at the school, she has enough free-time to be head tznius guard at the front entrance. Maybe they gave her a TA this year?
Many women would get angry at me. They’d yell at me and give me dirty looks (one woman even spat at me). When I was done, I’d sit in my car, shaking and sometimes crying. One woman yelled at me, “How dare you tell me what to wear?”
Me: And yet you remain totally convinced that God has ordained you to be the arbiter of what all Chabad ladies should wear. Interesting.
I answered her calmly, “I dare because I have been employed by Bais Rivkah, so this is my job. Also,” I said, looking her straight in the eye, “if your parent was being disgraced in the streets, would you sit at home and do nothing, or would you be out in the streets to bring back honor to your mother or father? Well, it is my Rebbe, my Rebbe’s community, my Eibershter and my Torah that is being disgraced. I can’t just sit at home!”
First of all, you're employed by the school to teach, not to be tznius lady. This job didn't even exist until you badgered them into creating it, so don't act like your hands are tied. If you retired tomorrow, I am fairly certain they would not be scouring frumy-Craigslist (Chaimslist?) to find a replacement. Second, I'm not sure how "going out in the streets" brings back honor to one's parents. Then again, my parents don't tend to be disgraced in the streets, so... wait, what are we talking about?

Mrs. Yid: I'm pretty sure there's a Torah value related to not embarrassing other people, no? Besides, I'm almost positive this lady was not dressing in a tank top or shorts to go to her daughter's school. Ooh! This lady's tights aren't bulletproof! Scandalous!
I received many calls regarding my new job. Most people were very supportive and even excited that we were taking a stand. Some mothers said, “Can’t you instead motivate the mothers to dress in a tzniusdik manner with speeches and workshops?”
Mrs. Yid: I will concede I am sure there are already enough stupid workshops going around. However, funnily enough, I can believe that women who are no longer in school might let their Torah-fences drop a millimeter or so. Heaven forbid grown women decide what they want to wear out in public and not be hounded by angry camp-mommies! Also, I love that in a conversation about modesty they add "dik" to every word.

Me: I'm very curious about the ratio of calls that congratulated her on "taking a stand" versus people that either told her to stop doing this and play nice, or just cursed her out for humiliating moms just trying to drop their girls off at the damn school.
I explained to them that though all that is very important, the time had come for what I call “Mehn tor nisht, mehn ken nisht, mehn muz nisht.” We should not, we cannot, we must not. It is unacceptable to dress in a non-tzniusdik manner. It is against halachah and it will not be tolerated. When you are boarding a plane, the security personnel don’t say to you, “Let me first tell you about how wonderful it is to be safe from terrorism. Then, if you feel inspired to, you can leave behind your knives and guns.”
Me: Oh good, someone's finally found a non-Hitler version of Godwin's Law. Now the frummies can play, too. Shall we call it Ella's Law or Lerman's Law?
No, these are the rules if you want to board the plane. Of course, learning about the beauty of tznius is important and we want to approach everyone with love. But the time has come to say, “These are the rules; these are the halachos.”
Mrs. Yid: As interpreted by who, what when?

Me: By her, right now. Duh. All hail mighty tznius lady!

Mrs. Yid: No one may disagree with her, ever! Because apparently she can't tell the difference between children under her domain and dress-code from adult women, who may do what they like.

Me: Only until they get within 15 feet of the school door. Then they're on Tznius Lady's turf!
It takes guts and a lot of courage to say something, but when it hurts enough you scream. My job here is to empower you to “say something.” We cannot be silent. Say something to your daughter, your neighbor, your student, yourself. Say it with love and let them see how much you are bothered by what we are doing to Lubavitch.
Mrs. Yid: She's causing people to scream, huh? Sounds very loving to me. Maybe she should carry a cattle prod and just tap people on the offending body part. That way she won't have to strain her voice.

Me: I'm just thinking of how much guts it takes to humiliate random parents under the quasi-authority of the school. Truly, you are the bravest lady in the land. Also, yes, I would love for all these women to use their guts and courage to tell you, (with love) how much they are bothered by what you are doing to Lubavitch. If only.
I spoke to a woman who teaches in one of our schools. I asked her not to wear dark- colored nail polish. She was not happy that I had called her. She said to me, “If you would just stick to the black-and-white areas we wouldn’t have such problems with tznius. It is because you pick on things that are in the grey areas, that’s why we are losing the girls.” I was almost crying. 
I said to her, “Are you telling me that from a teacher in one of the Rebbe’s mosdos I can only ask for the basic halachos of tznius? Are you telling me that the girls in school don’t deserve role models? Do they have to see their mechanchos with very long sheitlach and dark nail polish?” I ask the same of the Shluchos that I ask of the Bais Rivkah teachers, the parents of our students, and Crown Heights residents. You are our teachers, our role models. You are who we aspire to be.
Mrs. Yid: I do not think nail polish is the thing on which any society lives or dies. Also, I love how we maintain identical standards for young girls that we do for adult women. This just doesn't seem right. Their main problem is that their rules are so stupid and restrictive that their girls don't want to follow them. And the mothers and teachers clearly don't, because there are gray areas... which honestly, aren't even that gray! I don't think the tznius lady is going to win this argument.

Me: As a teacher, I have to say I am almost positive that every teacher in this school would love to toss this woman out a window. Like they don't have enough to worry about, what with trying to teach actual material to their students along with all the random brainwashing about how they're nothing more than baby machines and "not obligated" to do anything other than light candles. Now they also have to worry about not corrupting them with their slutty nails. Also, how totally unsurprising that as soon as someone contradicts tznius lady, she bursts into tears. God, I'm happy to not have her as a colleague.

Last year, on the final day of school, a Friday, I was proctoring the 12th graders who were taking their last test. I saw one of my students with the buttons of her shirt open quite low. I knew I had to say something. She is a good student, the daughter of Shluchim, a really nice girl. I started to give myself excuses. “I don’t want to embarrass her. I will speak to her when she comes up to the desk to hand in her test paper.” 
Well, when she put her test in the envelope I didn’t say a word. After all, there were other girls at the desk and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. 
That Friday night, I dreamt that I saw this student walking in the street with pants on. On Shabbos day, after a Pirkei Avos shiur, I told my friends what had happened and what I learned from it all. I didn’t speak to the girl, not only because I didn’t want to embarrass her, but because I didn’t want to appear not cool. I knew that the girl liked me and I didn’t want her to think of me as an annoying, nagging teacher. 
When we don’t speak up it is because we want to appear hip and cool, G-d forbid.

Mrs. Yid: Nobody thinks she is hip or cool. Ever.

Me: I wanted to do something but I didn't because I'm a weenie and had a vague feeling I shouldn't be a jerk to someone in public! And then, later, I had a dream! And then after that, rather than doing the thing I thought I should do in the first place that actually required me to follow my judgmental convictions, I blabbed about my student behind her back to my friends! Aren't I the best role model ever?

I have asked women who struggle with keeping the halachos of tznius to come to my house dressed in a tzniusdik manner. I have refused to patronize stores in Crown Heights where the saleswomen are dressed in a not-tzniusdik manner... I have decided that it is cool to stick up for your principles!

Mrs. Yid: Fine, you're entitled to shop wherever you want to, though I'm not sure what you're going to wear if the stores in Crown Heights aren't tzniusdik enough for you... I suppose you can shop at some Islamic stores, though you may not enjoy that.

Me: I'm in favor of anything that limits this woman's contact with other people. Boycott everyone, I say! Quick, boycott the school! That will teach all those kids an important lesson!
I often wonder, how did the environmentalists make it so cool to go green? Recycling isn’t glamorous and using cloth diapers can’t be fun. Then I realized, they got celebrities on board and made it popular. The Shluchos are our celebrities. You are creative, devoted and so talented. If you decide to dedicate yourselves to bringing back the pride and dignity to our women and girls, and to restoring the glorious, shining name of Chabad, it will happen.
First, I'm not sure that's how the environmental movement got people to go green. Second, I like that the best role model you can think of for your tznius crusade isn't some authentic Torah-true sage or movement (mussar, maybe?) but those goyishe, earth-worshipping hippy pagan types with their godless Hollywood celebrities. Why do you even know about celebrities? Did someone show you a TV? Are you a BT, Mrs. Ella Lerman, if that is your real name? How do we know you weren't born Eileen, or G-d forbid, Erica?
This is a call to action. It is time to take a stand. When people tell me the terrible things they are seeing in our communities, I tell them, “Don’t tell me the horror stories. Tell me what you are doing about it!” We need to be bold and brave. It requires strength and mesirus nefesh. This is not the battle hymn of the tiger mom, this is the battle cry of the Yiddishe Mamme.
Mrs. Yid: The Battle Whine, maybe.

Me: Again with the Pop Culture! Who let you read the Wall Street JournalDoesn't sound very tznius to me. Does your rebbe know about this?
I am asking the over 1500 women in this room to stand up. If each one of us makes a decision to dress according to the law and to commit to living a tzniusdik lifestyle, the world will look very different tomorrow.
Mrs. Yid: Right, because if we decide to dress according to the law, we can agree to a few general principles on what needs to be covered. Instead, we have to go according to the guidelines established by random rebbes and Tznius Queens. If everyone made up their own tznius people probably would be happier, though they'd also dress less tznius-- if we take this lady's ideas to their logical conclusion everyone should be walking around wearing a bedsheet, like Charlie Brown in that Halloween episode.
Pictured: The two Tznius Ladies. And the Rock of our Salvation, why not.

Me: Am I the only one unconvinced that 1500 women committing to not wearing dark nail polish is not going to make the world all that different?
So, this is our challenge. When you finish reading this article, what will you do about the terrible chilul Hashem which we are seeing in our neighborhoods? Are you going to say, “Enough, from now on I will make sure that my skirt is covering my knees when I sit, walk and climb the stairs”? Will you be careful with necklines that fall too low and clothes that are too tight? Do we really want to cheapen our beautiful, Torah way of life for a few inches?
Mrs. Yid: You know what would keep knees covered regardless of what you're doing? Pants.
It is time for us to ask our boys’ and girls’ schools to set high and true standards for their students, teachers and parents. Many people do not have a Rav or a mashpia to guide them, but everyone sends their kids to school and they respect the school’s rules. We must demand from anyone who has authority: principals, camp directors, heads of organizations, etc., not to quietly accept and tolerate behavior that goes against halachah.
Mrs. Yid: People don't respect the school's rules! They tolerate the school's rules! Also, if she got her way on skirts, she'd move on to criticizing girls' nail polish for being the wrong shade of tan.
Many people will be reading this article. Will you be the one who will sigh and say, “This is terrible,” and then do nothing? Or will you decide that you can make a difference and take action right away? Our children need us to protect and guard our Yiddishe, chassidishe lifestyle, for them and their children. May we be matzliach and may we have, in abundance, true nachas from our children and grandchildren.
Me: Is "none of the above" an option? Why not?

Mrs. Yid: This is terrible. But I think I like our solution of making fun of her better.

Me: I'm just amazed that this women comes from a shaliach family and yet seems totally unaware of the fact that many shluchim have learned that the best way to motivate people to take on halacha is to not badger or guilt trip them into doing it. I wonder if this is part of the "Crown Heights bubble" I've heard people speak of, how Crown Heights as ground zero of Chabad operates on its own different wavelength and, to a degree, philosophy than the rest of the movement. Anyway, it's rather sad on a number of levels. Also, let's hope none of her granddaughters decide to put on nail polish, or god forbid, go off the derech. They'll probably be nagged to death.


MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

First of all, in a larger context, how different is this from a Chabad shaliach coming to a small town, volunteering to caretake the local mikveh and then changing it to Chabad standards despite the community's lack of interest in such a change? This is part of their philosophy.
Secondly, I think the best thing this article has done is give me a chance to exercise self-restraint. After seeing her picture I was tempted to post something about how she approaches all-u-can-eat buffets with the same intensity as she approaches tznius but... damn! Blew it!

Antigonos said...

She is a phenomenon I encounter occasionally. I frankly just ignore her and her kind.There is a sort of contest going on here, similar to the "Mommy Olympics" [you breastfed to one year? I breastfed until 5 years! Cloth diapers? I KNIT my child's diapers from organic cotton! Etcetera].

I think she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. I'd like to take her to Kibbutz Lavi, a religious kibbutz where I lived for 6 months and she'd probably have a heart attack. Women can wear slacks when working; many married women only cover their hair in shul. The only restrictions are really no short shorts, and no bikinis or halter tops. Some women dress conservatively, some less so. It's a personal choice, within limits.

But this, you see, is the difference between modern Orthodoxy and haredi -- in this case, also hassidishe -- Yidden. Any kind of nonconformity is perceived as very threatening. I remember a question in the Jewish Observer [haredi magazine] about whether a Bet Yaakov girl could wear sunglasses, and the reply was no, it was the thin edge of being "immodest". What the writer really meant was "expressing individuality". It's sad. When one knows the historical origins of Hassidism this fear of joining the world in any meaningful way becomes more understandable; absolute uniformity became a weapon against the temptations of the Haskalah.
But you'd think they might have outgrown it by now.

As a matter of fact, there is an interesting post on Hirhurim: Torah Musings today which deals with an aspect of "correct behavior for women". See:

G*3 said...

This is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Well done!

> if we take this lady's ideas to their logical conclusion everyone should be walking around wearing a bedsheet

A burka. Yeah, the point of tznius in right-wing communities seems to be that women should be as unnoticeable as possible. As you probably know, some women in Israel have taken it to its logical conclusion and started wearing burkas in imitation of their Muslim neighbors.

The back of the hill said...

First time I've ever seen defenestration mentioned in the context of tzenua ("tzniusdikkeit").

All hail the mighty tzniut nut!

Underneath our clothes, we are all quite naked. Someone should do something!

Anonymous said...

Oh come on, friar yid. you jump into a culture which just like your own is full of assumptions which are perfectly intelligable to all who are part of it and you judge it according to your own assumptions. Mrs Lerman was speaking to chabad shluchos about the crown heights community- she was not talking to the world at large- and she would never demand of outsiders to adhere to the rules that are expected of the community- unlike you who expects a chabad born, chabad bred, hassidic woman to see life in your narrow minded- American mainstream way. the hareidi community is a community that may seem extreme to you, but they benefit from longer lasting marriages and less disloyalty than any other- thanks perhaps to tzniyus. i know ella lerman personally- she is a beloved teacher and friend- she is not a narrow minded judgmental person and her tzniyus stand is clearly something difficult she is doing to combat a problem of the lowering of standards in her community which dismays all community leaders and which she has volunteered to do something about. besides that she is fun and cool and why shouldn't she know about the environmentalists and the wall street journal- she is not as narrow minded as you are, understanding only the norms of her own culture.

Friar Yid said...

Hi Anony number 5,

you jump into a culture which just like your own is full of assumptions... you judge it according to your own assumptions.

Yes, that's what people tend to do. If Mrs. Lerman wants to not be judged according to other's assumptions, she should explain herself better.

Mrs Lerman was speaking to chabad shluchos about the crown heights community- she was not talking to the world at large- and she would never demand of outsiders to adhere to the rules that are expected of the community

I didn't say she was going around yelling at outsiders. I did criticize her for taking on the task-- unasked-- of policing people within her community who are more than capable of deciding for themselves what is tzniut. And she bragged about badgering parents, teachers and students in the community. This woman is a teacher. Instead of concentrating on leading by example or, god forbid, trusting her students, she instead shows them that the only reasonable way to deal with a "threat" (or a difference) is to bother them to death, and if she's confronted about it, she brings up absurd comparisons to airline security. There are better ways to make her point.

unlike you who expects a chabad born, chabad bred, hassidic woman to see life in your narrow minded- American mainstream way

Yeah, if only we could all be as open-minded as the woman who criticizes teachers for their nail polish. Ah well, it's good to have goals.

the hareidi community is a community that may seem extreme to you, but they benefit from longer lasting marriages and less disloyalty than any other- thanks perhaps to tzniyus.

I would rather have a strong marriage built on principles such as commitment, self-control and mutual respect than OCD. I believe good marriages stem from good people/matches, Haredi and otherwise. Tzniut alone will not keep a bad marriage together. And not all marriages that last are necessarily good marriages, incidentally.

she is not a narrow minded judgmental person and her tzniyus stand is clearly something difficult

Kudos to her for taking a stand for something that's important to her. However from her description of her methods, she sounds as if she's being obnoxious about it. I could be wrong; after all, I live in California, not Crown Heights. I'll be honest, I'm having trouble relating to the tzniut policewoman.

Mrs. Lerman is entitled to her personal standards. When she puts herself in the position of policing other people's fashion choices (particularly grown adults), things become much trickier. Take the teacher example. What makes Mrs. Lerman's opinion about nail polish more valid than the other teacher's? Why is that teacher not given the respect and trust to make a reasonable decision about her own body?

besides that she is fun and cool and why shouldn't she know about the environmentalists and the wall street journal- she is not as narrow minded as you are, understanding only the norms of her own culture.

I'm glad to know that when Mrs. Lerman isn't shaming parents for dressing like tramps or having nightmares about students wearing pants she is fun and cool (which is interesting because she specifically says she doesn't want to be cool- you should probably let her know about this).

There's a difference between knowing about other cultures and accepting them. Haredi society proudly believes in being "narrow-minded," by rejecting many aspects of modern society in favor of retaining its own culture- filtered internet and limited media being one of the most obvious examples. Mrs. Lerman understands some norms of secular culture and clearly rejects them. I understand some of the norms of Haredi culture and do the same. What's the difference?

I have nothing against Mrs. Lerman personally-- I don't know her. However I have very little respect for the behavior she's describing here. If you have a cause then start a blog, don't force it on everyone around you.