The two young women knew exactly what they were looking for. Surveying the revolving clothes racks at the Geula Street market in Jerusalem, a look of disappointment changed to pleasure when one of them pointed to the wall opposite. There, displayed prominently for all to see was a handwritten cardboard sign proclaiming: "Modest bathing suits."
If the sign didn't identify them as bathing suits, one could have mistaken the garments for modest dresses. If your average swimsuit is noted for its paucity of fabric, these modest swimsuits glory in an abundance of heavy fabric, black as night - a flowing dress that drapes to below the knees. The only relief was provided by the colorful sleeves, which - in accordance with the commands of modesty - covered the elbows.
After thumbing the fabric for a while, the two women - who turned out to be sisters - asked: "Do these come in sizes?"
"Of course, it's like an ordinary garment," said the saleswoman indifferently.
"Can you wear this to go to the beach?" queried one of the sisters, revealing that this was "the first time we are going on vacation with the family."
"Of course," shrugged the saleswoman.
A woman within hearing distance intervened: "Is it comfortable to swim in this? It doesn't seem safe to me, because the water can get inside and then the skirt will balloon."
A debate ensued among the shoppers as to whether the bathing suit was too heavy and whether it was worth the asking price of NIS 150. Convinced, the sisters hastened to the cash register.
A little while later, at the Maayan Shtub store on Geula Street, one woman after another tried on the "swim dresses" and examined themselves in the mirror. They didn't like the way the Lycra fabric emphasized their body parts, and also the excess flesh that had accumulated after many childbirths.
"It's expensive, NIS 260," said one woman decisively, while another wondered: "What happens to it in the water?"
The businesslike saleswoman reassured her that "everyone is buying them and there is no problem swimming in it."
The store also offered various robes and long gowns, that ultra-Orthodox women wear on top of ordinary bathing suits for reasons of modesty. For little girls, there was a selection of bathing suits - like gym clothes with pants to the knees and short sleeves. These, too, were mostly black with a shot of color.
The store was packed, as is always the case at the start of Ben Hazmanim, the three weeks which begin the day after Tisha B'Av - the fast commemorating the destruction of both temples - and during which the men and boys take a break from their yeshivas. During this period, ultra-Orthodox families vacation at hotels and also go to the beach and the swimming pool. This is the high season for stores that sell bathing suits, especially as it's forbidden to go to the beach or pool during the three weeks prior to Tisha B'Av, as part of the mourning customs.
Aptly enough for modestly-concealed clothing, the small shop for undergarments - a veteran brand name for Jerusalemite women - is discreetly tucked away on the second floor of a building. The proprietress, Rachel Kantor, is an ultra-Orthodox woman and the fourth generation of the shop's owners. She is knowledgeable both in the secrets of underclothing and the precise rules of modesty.
"It's a trend that has taken hold strongly," she says of the swim dresses. "If at one time we sold ordinary bathing suits with a bit of a leg on them, and women would also wear a shirt or a robe on top, today it is clear that it doesn't feel right to buy anything else."
According to Kantor, this characterizes "the way everything is becoming more extreme. There is no end to this; it's like the separation on the buses. It used be - and I still remember this - that they wore ordinary bathing suits at the separate beach. Now everything has to be more modest."
"There is something sad about how the range of women's experiences in the 21st century lacks the experience of sitting on the beach and feeling it, with their hair a bit exposed to the sun and the wind," says Dr. Yofi Tirosh, a lecturer at the Tel Aviv University faculty of law, and an expert on body issues, law and gender.
"It's a kind of extreme denial of the whole bodily existence," she says. "The requirements of women - both with regard to fashion and for reasons of modesty - also include the demand to reduce the body with regard to their functional movement. The modest bathing suit is particularly heavy when it is wet and could cause sinking. In fashionable high-heeled shoes, it is impossible to walk safely. At the separate beach there isn't any male gaze but there is a kind of voluntary self-coercion. This is a reaction that takes the rules of modesty to an extreme - like anorexia takes the rules of slenderness - and in a way that even the makers of the rules hadn't intended.
"The women who wear those bathing suits aren't doing this as a challenge, but the result is a mockery of the rules," continues Tirosh. "Instead of the separate beach being a space of liberation from the limiting gaze, from the rules that restrict the body, they are getting stricter. After all, in the modest bathing suit worn at the separate beach, there isn't any functional value because no one is going to get seduced. But it does express the attempt to make modesty a part of my personality, of my body."
According to Kantor, the (relatively ) high price of the modest bathing suit is not deterring women. "Contrary to the image," she says, "in the ultra-Orthodox sector they pay a high price for quality. I see this in bras and nightgowns. They aren't going to buy four for NIS 100. And in addition to that, in this public they are accustomed to paying for superior kashrut certification."
The high price also derives from the bespoke quality of production. "It isn't manufactured in China but rather at small sewing shops," Kantor says. "Fifty or 60 pieces, that's all." She adds that the trend started three or four years ago as the initiative of an ultra-Orthodox seamstress, and has developed since then. "A woman in Ashdod who has a small sewing business saw there was a need - that women were wearing robes over their bathing suits. I buy from her."
Kantor also imports models from the United States: "This is developed there," she says. "Lots of ultra-Orthodox people go to mixed beaches or swimming pools because there isn't anything else, and the modest bathing suit solves the modesty problem. That way a woman doesn't need to be exposed."
Women buy it mainly because it is practical, Kantor notes. "It's more comfortable if you come with children," she says. "Instead of going to the dressing room to change, you come dressed from home, riding the bus like that." She believes that the demand will soon expand to teens and young girls. Indeed, at the beginning of the week, two little girls were spotted at a Lake Kinneret beach in miniaturized versions of the modest bathing suit.
The market is inundated with modest bathing suits, but there isn't much of a selection. There are also Jerusalemite women who sell bathing suits they have sewn at home - these are mainly imitations of the styles sold in the shops. The variety is greater online, where websites show imported models or styles by local designers. The sites appeal to religious women, not only to the ultra-Orthodox.
One website notes that the swimsuits are "with the agreement of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef." That is, these swimsuits are certified kosher by the eldest son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party.
It's possible that the inspiration for the modest bathing suit came from the modest bathing suit for Muslim women called a "burqini." This combination of burqa and bikini is a garment that covers the entire body - including long pants and a head covering that allows Muslim women not only to bathe in the sea or a pool but also to engage in sports like waterskiing. And just like the burqa, the burqini has also stirred up questions of religion and state - such as when women were prohibited from swimming at a French pool in a burqini.
The trend for modest bathing suits is also connected to the developing culture of vacationing ultra-Orthodox families. According to a woman who purchased one of the bathing suits, it is more comfortable to walk around in it at a hotel, from the room to the pool.
Up until a decade ago, the ultra-Orthodox did not customarily take vacations at all. However, according to Dr. Lee Kahaner, a lecturer at Oranim - School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement, who researches the ultra-Orthodox sector, more and more ultra-Orthodox are adopting "the Western culture," as she puts it, "of the vacation.
According to a 2007 Tourism Ministry survey that examined holiday habits among the ultra-Orthodox, about 40 percent went on vacations with lodgings, and 20 percent of all the ultra-Orthodox took vacations abroad. Among those who went on vacation, 60 percent went on a family vacation and 40 percent also took a vacation only with their spouse. Together with Prof. Yoel Mansfeld, Kahaner recently also examined the nature of ultra-Orthodox vacations. According to Kahaner, the ultra-Orthodox go on family vacations mainly during Jewish holidays, Passover, Sukkot and Ben Hazmanim. Unlike the couples vacations - when "they want to get as far away as possible from the ultra-Orthodox atmosphere and spend time in zimmerim - small vacation lodgings - with a Jacuzzi and don't worry about having a synagogue nearby - on vacations with the children, they bring the ultra-Orthodox enclave with them, mainly to the north."
"When you travel with your community, there is full observance of the rules and there is no scope for casting off the yoke," Kahaner adds. "This includes strict types of kashrut and the rabbis' agreement to the kind of vacation. There are specific requirements that answer to the rabbinical rules of modesty with respect to sitting separately in the lobby and a female lifeguard for women. They also see to it that the windows in the room do not face the pool, even when the pool is covered for reasons of modesty. People told us that after the vacation, they felt exhausted by the pressured ultra-Orthodox atmosphere."
Before Ben Hazmanim, various warnings are published concerning the threat over licentious rule-breaking, against attending musical performances (by ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs ) and the dangers to modesty. In the summer months, the temptation to exposure is greater and, therefore, as a counterreaction the growth of modesty trends increases - from stifling black shawls to modest bathing suits.
On a visit to the separate religious beach in Tel Aviv, ultra-Orthodox women were seen in a variety of coverings. Not a single one was in a bathing suit. Asked why they were covering up at a separate beach, the women replied that the closure was not hermetic and the lifeguard was a man. The beach in Tel Aviv, it emerges, is not approved by rabbis. At the Ashdod beach, for example, there is a female lifeguard and therefore the beach has won a kosher seal of approval.
At a central spot on the non-kosher beach, a jolly group of religiously-extreme Jerusalemite women did not even remove their stockings. In these circles it is actually forbidden to go to the beach at all, according to a man who belongs to the extreme factions in Jerusalem. "At the beginning of the swimming season, the educational institutions send a note to the parents and they have to sign that they don't send their daughters to the beach," he says.
"There is a very strict prohibition concerning the sea, but this is a decree that the public cannot abide by," he adds. "The father signs the note and the mother takes the daughters to the beach, ostensibly without him knowing. This is a known trick. However, there are still families in which the children don't know what the sea is."
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