In Bnei Brak there is a woman who wears too much makeup. Bright red lipstick that can be seen from a distance, eyes emphasized with dark eye shadow. For years they've been gossiping about her as she walks down the street.
Her husband, on the other hand, is a disheveled type who boasts of the stringent prohibitions he takes upon himself in terms of sexual modesty. How does that work? The husband usually takes off his eyeglasses when he leaves the house, so that he won't slip up and, God forbid, look at women. So his wife paints herself without interference, and he doesn't notice.
This story is an extreme example of the paradox involved in the desire of ultra-Orthodox women to meet the norms of beauty in secular society, in spite of the instructions to practice tzniut (modesty) that are practiced in their society.
"It's true that 'Charm is deceptive and beauty is vain' takes precedence in this society. But in reality, there is no limit to the investment of ultra-Orthodox women in their appearance," says Yaffa Larrie, the owner of a Jerusalem beauty salon. "You have to remember that they are 'ordinary' women, with needs. But they have restrictions, and therefore everything with them is hinted, not emphasized."
Alongside home beauty salons, whose existence is passed along by word of mouth, in recent years many beauty salons have opened in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where they specialize in improving the "natural look." They offer all of the treatments available on the market - anti-wrinkle treatments, permanent makeup, injections that fill out one's face - "everything goes," says Larrie.
Secret exits to maintain privacy
The Ye'elat Chen beauty salon, managed by Larrie, has been operating for 24 years in Jerusalem, not far from Mea Shearim and Kikar Shabbat. The side entrance on the main street is suited to women who want to steal in without being seen. Behind the simple door a surprise awaits. A pleasant and aesthetic space divided into cubicles. Several rooms have a secret exit to the salon's backyard. They are meant for the wives of leading Hasidic rabbis, women from extremist Hasidic sects, along with several female MKs who have heard about Larrie. In other words, all those who have to maintain their privacy.
There is nobody more expert than Larrie when it comes to social sensitivities. "Sometimes a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law come to us, or a sister and her sister-in-law," says Larrie. "Neither of them knows that the other is being treated at the same time. It's not legitimate to talk about it. We understand that the name of the game is discretion."
Larrie is the "Ronit Raphael" (owner of a chain of medical-cosmetic clinics) of the ultra-Orthodox public. She is a religious woman who wears a wig, who brings the latest innovations in the field to ultra-Orthodox women. When she finished a cosmetics course she consulted with a Jerusalem kabbalist, and he advised her to offer her services to the ultra-Orthodox public.
"I was shocked," she says. "I knew that this was a public without much money, that it's not acceptable. At the time even the word 'cosmetics' could not be published in the newspaper. I didn't know what was permitted and what was forbidden." But she did as the kabbalist said. And slowly but surely women began to come. Over time she learned to distinguish among the various streams and Hasidic sects, knowing who were more open and those who were less so. She knows the limitations of each woman. This one will absolutely refuse to remove her head covering, others are not permitted to open a single button in their blouse.
In a random visit to the salon, the wife of an ultra-Orthodox former minister was spotted. But aside from the ultra-Orthodox elite, poorer women come as well. "I have women with 17 children. Someone came with a wrinkled bill in her hand and told me, 'this is what I've saved. Give me a treatment.' Some collect the change in a small envelope in the kitchen, for a treatment. I give them materials and teach them how to be their own cosmeticians. For them the annual beauty treatment is a refuge from the routine.
"Sometimes they tell me that they didn't sleep the night before because they were so excited. I'm their television, I'm a glimpse at magazines from abroad," says Larrie.
Sima Salzburg, who researched the attitude toward beauty in the extremist Toldot Aharon Hasidic community in Jerusalem, as part of her doctoral thesis at the Hebrew University, discovered that one's external appearance is of great significance even among the most extreme.
She says that cosmetic treatments are common mainly for young women. "An 18-year-old girl who is about to about to be introduced to a potential match doesn't have the time to impress her partner or his mother with her qualities, and therefore her external appearance is more important than anything else," she says. "The meeting with the designated partner is very short: from one meeting in the Hasidic sects to several meetings in more open communities."
Salzburg found that young married women in Toldot Aharon use makeup under the noses of the "supervisors," older women who are in charge of the behavior of the younger women. "They use neutral colors," she says.
Similarly, women use the wonders of cosmetics in order to bypass halakhic (religious law) prohibitions. For example, permanent makeup avoids the inner struggle of women who cannot apply makeup on Shabbat. Until now, many applied makeup in spite of the specific prohibition.
In this area there are halakhic problems, says Salzburg, because some consider searing the skin as a type of tattoo (which is strictly forbidden by halakha). "But for now it's an unsupervised arena. The rabbis are apparently avoiding a confrontation with women in an area that is so close to their hearts," she explains.
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