Haredi man on Ashdod beach 03/09/10 Alex Levac
On the beach in Ashdod. Male Haredi dress is thought to embody an element of holiness. Photo by Alex Levac
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When she moved into the Sha'arei Hesed neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem a few weeks ago, something in the appearance of the young ultra-Orthodox woman captured people's attention. In the middle of a hot summer's day, she wore a shawl over her clothes. Her confident gait and the defiant smile on her lips seemed to reflect a contempt for the scorching heat.

The shawl, really a sort of jacket without sleeves, was draped over an ordinary Haredi outfit: dark socks; long, dark blue skirt; and long-sleeved shirt, buttoned up to the neck. Not long ago, announcements were plastered around the area stipulating the proper dress code, as determined by the head of the Haredi world's most extreme wing, Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss. The announcements encouraged women to don these shawls. And indeed a growing number of ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem, although as yet not outside the most extreme branches, have taken to wrapping the garment over their clothes as a means - no more and no less - of ostensibly hastening the coming of the Messiah.

Nobody in these ultra-Orthodox circles dares to openly initiate a discussion about the discomfort of wearing additional, long clothes in the scorching summer heat, although that does not mean that rabbis are unaware that this is an onerous burden. However, the publicity surrounding the wearing of the shawl serves, in an indirect way, as a counterpart to the criticism leveled in the Haredi community against another item of modest clothing: the "veil." The veil is a dark garment covering the clothes from the ankle to the head, which was adopted a few years ago by a group of women from Beit Shemesh. The leader of the group, Bruria Keren, known as "Mother Taliban," was convicted of abusing her children and sentenced to four years in prison. But the negative reputation she acquired did not stop followers in her group from continuing to wear the veil.

Yet the dress code Keren tried to enforce was not accepted by the wider ultra-Orthodox public, probably due to its similarity to Muslim women's fashions. In contrast to the veil, the shawl has developed a more positive reputation. In any event, both the small circle of veil wearers, and the wider group of shawl users, reflect the same trend: growing extremism when it comes to women's modesty in the Haredi community.

It is no accident that it is the women themselves who are spearheading the extremist trend in this regard, behind which is the desire to conceal the female body and thus not constitute a temptation to men. Though the idea of concealing the body is not an injunction that can be found in the Torah, the concept is deeply rooted in religious tradition - and, of course, not only in Judaism.

"In patriarchal societies, such as Christian and Muslim ones, the woman, the way she behaves and dresses, and her external appearance, are believed to embody satanic powers," says Menachem Friedman, an authority on Haredi society, and an emeritus professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University. "The possibility of committing the sin of adultery is not so far away. Within this perception is the idea that the burden of preventing sin rests with the woman, not the man."

The Talmud devotes much discussion to women's ability to throw men, even religious sages, off guard. Modesty is viewed as the "remedy" to the female body's powers of seduction. However, widespread attention to dress codes in Haredi society started centuries after the compilation of the Talmud. Indeed, the Haredi dress familiar to us today dates from the fashions prevalent in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, among Jews and non-Jews alike. These styles became rooted in ultra-Orthodox society particularly when waves of modernity and secularity began to shake up the Jewish world.

"As a result of modernization, there was a trend [in nonreligious society] toward changing the style of dress: Jackets were shortened, sleeves were removed, the head and hair became visible," Friedman explains. "As Jews began to adopt these new styles, the more extreme circles branded the trends wanton and depraved, and reacted. That is how a 'counter-trend' of wearing long, dark clothing came about."

Today, when rabbinical authorities speak of the need to return to "traditional" dress, they are usually referring to styles prevailing many years ago in Eastern Europe and the villages of the Carpathian Mountains.

Sociologist Dr. Sima Zalcberg, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has researched Hasidim in 19th-century Jerusalem, says that women from the community would walk about with some form of covering over their clothing (such as a scarf on their shoulders ). Hasidic men, for their part, maintained in Palestine the fashion of wearing the heavy, multilayered clothing that helped them keep warm in the freezing Eastern European winters. The shtreimel, the long black coat and vest, and other garments characterized this "imported" form of dress. In some circles today, men still wear the old-style striped robe on the Sabbath that was called the Jerusalem kaftan more than a century ago, and some Hasidic men still wear thick socks up to the knees.

In Lithuanian-stream yeshivas, the approach to modernization was less strict, Friedman points out. In pictures of late-19th and early 20th-century Jerusalem, beardless yeshiva scholars are seen wearing straw hats - a habit that was decried by the more rigorous Hasidic "guardians of the faith."

Symbol of piety

In contemporary Haredi circles, adapting one's dress to scorching-hot Israeli summers is simply not on the agenda.

"The truth is it is simply not easy or comfortable to obey religious strictures," says Friedman. "There is thus no room for reflection about such things as dress style."

Many ultra-Orthodox claim that that the heavy clothing actually helps them cope better with the heat. Some see the uncomfortable dress as a symbol of their piety and self-sacrifice.

"Among ourselves there are some complaints about the heat and the requirement of dressing this way in the summer," says S., a Haredi man from Bnei Brak. S. calls himself a modern man; in his home, he explains, he wears shorts and a T-shirt. Out on the street, he and others in his circle wear the usual garb but look for permissible ways to beat the heat; many fold their jackets over their arms. Students from Lithuanian yeshivas have a habit of throwing their jackets over their shoulders.

"A jacket in the summer is only for tzvilim," says S., using Haredi slang for untra-Orthodox faithful who never stray from the straight and narrow.

K., a Hasid who sports the traditional dress of his community, says he copes with the summer heat by taking many showers and frequently changing his shirt. As is sometimes quite evident, Haredi men do not use deodorant.

Male dress in ultra-Orthodox society is thought to embody a certain element of holiness, as it is supposed to resemble what priests wore in antiquity, at the Temple, while modesty is a norm that is more relevant and applicable to women.

"In Haredi society, there is perpetual tension between the social monitoring of modesty rules and the natural, human desire to ease the restrictions," Friedman explains. "The more restrictive [life] becomes, the greater the desire for openness."

Therefore, in the hot summer months, religious authorities sense a heightened need to ensure that certain dress codes are maintained. In seminars for young women in Haredi communities, there is constant preaching about not unfastening any buttons or rolling up sleeves. Students who ignore the rules are disciplined.

Recently brochures advocating modesty have been distributed in Bnei Brak mailboxes. One of them, called "The Road to Happiness," describes women who were ostensibly saved from road accidents and various diseases and disorders - thanks to the fact that they chose to wear extra, modest layers of clothing.