The table is set with an elaborate silver candelabra and a kiddush cup. A mother, father and children gather around, all dressed in their Shabbat best. They try to act natural, engaging in the rituals of a typical Shabbat meal as the photographers shoot away.
Once the photographers have what they need, it’s time to move on to the next location – a shopping mall across the street. This time, only female volunteers are invited. The photographers follow these Orthodox women into clothing stores, where they pretend to be shopping, and into cafés, where they sip tall drinks and appear to be relaxing. From the mall they head to the street, where the cameras capture them walking, wheeling carriages and doing other ordinary, everyday things.
These are not professional models, however. Rather, they are volunteers who have come to participate, on a scorching August day, in a special project aimed at fighting the growing censorship of women in Orthodox Jewish society.
Pushing back against those who have erased their images from newspapers, magazines, advertisements, catalogs and billboards, they are creating their own stockpile of photographs of Orthodox women and girls, hoping to provide the world with what they describe as a more accurate depiction of Jewish life.
“The Orthodox world erases us and the secular world fetishizes us,” says Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, an Orthodox, feminist activist who is the driving force behind the new Jewish Life Photo Bank project. “We’re normalizing the idea of seeing normal Orthodox women in everyday life,” she explains.
This is the second in a series of photo shoots planned for the project, which comes under the wings of Chochmat Nashim, an Israeli organization co-founded by Keats Jaskoll that promotes women’s rights in the Orthodox community.
A week earlier, the shoot was held at a Jerusalem gym, where the women volunteers – modestly dressed, of course – were photographed participating in yoga and martial arts classes. The next shoot is scheduled to be held in an office building, where the theme will be Orthodox women at work.
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“The idea is to collect thousands of photos of Orthodox women just living their lives and, in this way, tell their stories,” says Keats Jaskoll. “As I see it, it’s the beginning of the pushback against those who would rather erase us,” the 46-year-old mother of five adds.
Chochmat Nashim is also planning photo shoots of Orthodox women in the United States, with two already scheduled for New York and Baltimore. Once the photo database is created, it will be hosted on the organization’s website, where a small fee will be charged for downloads.
The photo bank idea came to her, she says, when a friend contacted her a few months back, asking if Keats Jaskoll knew where she might be able to get some stock photos depicting Orthodox Jewish life that included women and girls for a client of hers.
“I did a search, and there was hardly anything available online,” she recounts. “If you do a search for Jewish life on [stock images website] Shutterstock, for example, almost all the photos are of men and boys.”
That came as no big surprise to her, considering recent trends in Orthodox society. “But it wasn’t always like this,” says Keats Jaskoll, who lives in Beit Shemesh and grew up in Lakewood, New Jersey.
“If you look back at old newspapers, magazines and other publications distributed in the Orthodox and even ultra-Orthodox world, up until about 20 years ago, you would definitely find photographs of women in them, both in Israel and abroad.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific factor behind the change, she says, other than the need to appeal to the more extreme elements in Orthodox society – what she terms “the lowest common denominator” – when it comes to publishing and advertising.
Indeed, in cities like Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, with large ultra-Orthodox populations, it is almost inevitable these days that billboards containing images of women will end up being defaced. In newspapers that serve the ultra-Orthodox community, it is par for the course that the faces of female politicians, when they appear in group photos, are blurred or photoshopped out.
While many Israelis were outraged, they were not surprised several years ago when Ikea published a furniture catalog designated for the ultra-Orthodox community that contained only photographs of men and boys.
The fear factor
A few dozen models, photographers, videographers and makeup artists have responded to the call for volunteers for the latest photo shoot. That doesn’t include the American relatives of one of the organizers, who made their luxury, three-story apartment in David’s Village (just across from the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City) available for the Shabbat table scenes.
In terms of level of religious observance, these volunteers run the gamut from the more lenient “dati leumi” (religious Zionist, aka Modern Orthodox) to the more stringent “chardali” (hard-line religious Zionist, or yeshivish). In compliance with Orthodox modesty rules, they all have their hair, knees and elbows covered.
Conspicuously absent in the crowd, however, are those women who would seem to suffer most from erasure and censorship in Israeli society: the ultra-Orthodox.
“It’s not that Haredi women don’t support us,” says Keats Jaskoll. “It’s just that they’re afraid if they’re involved in a project like this, their kids could be kicked out of school.”
Like almost all the other project volunteers, Racheli Fuld and Rachel Holzer are immigrants from English-speaking countries. Describing what their modeling assignment required, Holzer says: “We went shopping, learned some Chumash, attended a birthday party, had a heart-to-heart talk, and then had some ice cream. And we did it all in front of the cameras.”
Originally from Cleveland, Holzer, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom, says that even though she doesn’t identify as a feminist, she is “very disturbed” by the growing censorship of women in the religious world. “It even affects the ability of women to make a living, because they can’t advertise themselves,” she notes.
Fuld, originally from Los Angeles but now, like Holzer, living in Beit Shemesh, says she believes there is something “fundamentally wrong” with the demands within the more extreme factions of Orthodoxy that in the interest of upholding standards of modesty, images of women not be published – even though there is no prohibition per se against this practice in halakha (Jewish law). “Judaism has so much to teach the world. But this sort of behavior, by sexualizing women and girls, distorts Judaism and brings shame to Orthodoxy.”
Sarah Seymour, who hails from Britain, is a midwife from the West Bank settlement of Kochav Hashahar. Equipped with a stethoscope and rebozo scarf (a clothing item traditionally used to aid in pregnancy and delivery), she is getting her makeup done before posing for some photos in which she plans to demonstrate her skills (another woman has volunteered to serve as her patient, and there is a large bed situated right behind them).
“It was really important for me that photos of Orthodox women in caring roles be made available to the public,” she says.
Her makeup artist is Hadassa Kahn, 21, from Beit Shemesh, whose mother is also one of the models volunteering for today’s shoot. “She asked me if I could do her makeup, and I ended doing makeup for another dozen women,” she says. “It’s a great cause – showing normal Orthodox women doing normal stuff – so I was happy to be involved.”
Michal Moore, a 21-year-old student from the West Bank settlement of Neveh Daniel, is using the modeling opportunity to practice for real life. She will be getting married in a month’s time and this is as good a time as any, she says, to get used to wearing a scarf around her head, while posing as a married woman going out shopping and wheeling a stroller.
Was it difficult engaging in so much outdoor activity on one of the hottest days of the year? “Well, some of the other volunteers, who were photographed for winter scenes, were actually asked to put on fur coats,” she responds. “So, I guess you could say I got off easy.”