Monday afternoon, and the traffic on Rabbi Akiva Street comes to a halt. Thousands of men, including several Torah sages and their entourages, advance slowly down the main Bnei Brak traffic artery in the funeral procession of the spiritual leader of the Tsanz Zmigrad Hasidic sect. Passersby watch the procession, but after it moves on, the street returns to its usual fast pace.
The Avivit Weizman boutique is hopping. It seems like nothing can distract the shoppers from the end-of-season sale - not the rabbis who did not include this "fashion house" on the new approved list and not the Bleach Underground, which recently started operating in Bnei Brak and harms women who deviate from the ultra-Orthodox dress code.
In the last week, apparently for the first time in the history of rabbinical supervision, Bnei Brak rabbis distributed a list of 30 stores with a stamp of approval, as places where ultra-Orthodox women are allowed to shop. The list was distributed to all the teachers and students at the ultra-Orthodox school system for girls, Beit Yaakov, and was plastered on poster boards across town.
The rabbis also took the opportunity to emphasize the prohibition against women and girls wearing "immodest dress." They don't mean tight-fitting shirts or pants, but long shirts, skirts and dresses the rabbis feel deviate from the permissible. No sanctions will be imposed on the "unkosher" stores, but the message is clear: The ultra-Orthodox woman should not enter.
Ezra Weizman, who manages the Avivit Weizman boutique with his wife, said representatives of the rabbis offered him supervision, but their demands were too extreme. "Had it been realistic, we might have compromised, but they excluded almost everything we sell. There was no room to negotiate," Weizman explained.
What does the stamp of approval include?
Miri, the owner of an eponymous clothing store, earned approval, but only after she removed a substantial portion of her goods from the shelves. "Anything made from jersey, spandex and denim is prohibited," she explains. The rabbis' inspectors granted her their stamp of approval after making sure all the skirts and dresses fell well below the knee, too.
However, a visit to some of the unapproved stores reveals that the rabbis' instructions didn't make much of an impression on shoppers. Weizman said he hasn't seen anything that hurt sales. "Everyone knows the truth: Those who don't buy from me will buy at the Ayalon Mall."
Modesty has always been a serious subject among the ultra-Orthodox public, but the latest holy war focuses not just on the immodesty of secular women in Haredi population concentrations, but on the Haredi women themselves.
In an ever-growing ultra-Orthodox community (in part due to immigration from Europe and North America), designer clothes are a common dream. The Bnei Brak and Jerusalem wealthy are not about to be left behind and in recent years, boutique clothing stores have sprung up in both locales. The sleeves may be the right length, but the cuts and fabrics give the conservatives the jitters.
Violence in Mea She'arim
In Jerusalem, the response went further than just the Mea She'arim poster warning against "the Parisian designer getting his nails into us," to acts of violence. A clothing store near Shabbat Square was recently set on fire, while Geula neighborhood patrols are armed with containers of bleach to damage the clothing of women who break the dress code.
It is not clear how organized the patrols are, but an elected Haredi official in Jerusalem recently complained to the police of an "atmosphere of terror in the streets." He called on the police to intervene.
Bnei Brak also has a local Bleach Underground. The desire to be fashionable exacted a price from Bnei Brak resident D.: "At the end of a day around town I discovered three large bleach stains on my new skirt," she reconstructed. "The next day I heard from friends that women with syringes and baby bottles are spraying bleach on clothing they don't like for some reason." According to D., her sin was that her "skirt was pretty, not particularly short."
Several respected rabbis weighed in on the matter last week, writing, "Recently a variety of foreign garb has spread among the women and girls; this is immodest clothing. Knitted fabrics are not appropriate for daughters of Israel." At that time, the list of dozens of approved stores was published.
Miri reports an increase in sales. "Mothers thank me for the seal of approval. In the past few years, our girls have tried to imitate secular girls. They started wearing low-waisted skirts with short-waisted sweaters. It was not modest or appropriate for our society."
"They want to turn Bnei Brak into Mea She'arim," complained one shopper in line to pay at Avivit Weizman. "I don't understand why rabbis have to intervene in everything."
D., the Bleach Underground victim who considers herself "modern ultra-Orthodox," won't be deterred from fashionable clothing. "I don't think most of the public will listen."
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