By Ann D. Koffsky
In 2012, the 5TJT was ahead of its time. It published an article of mine, titled “Please Put the Women Back In,” which covered the issue of women’s faces disappearing from Jewish media. Last week, the 5TJT revisited the issue with an eloquent and thoughtful piece by Alexandra Fleksher, titled “Faces of Frumkeit.”
So, it’s been five years. With the kids coming home from camp, and Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, it seems like a perfect time to reflect: How is our community doing on this issue? Here are my personal observations.
Inside The Community
Then: When I wrote the piece back in 2012, my article was informative. Many people—most of my friends—had no idea it was happening. I understood why—it’s hard to see something invisible. When something is left out, how would you know? So most people were pretty clueless about the whole thing.
Now: It is so common that everyone knows what Alexandra is talking about. It’s now a mainstream, widespread policy that affects magazines, dinner invitations, fliers, advertisements, brochures, Chinese auction circulars, and even bulletin boards at shuls.
Outside The Community
Then: The larger world didn’t know about it.
Now: It’s very much out there. We have had a string of public scandals because of this new policy: Hillary Clinton Photoshopped out of the situation room, Andrea Merkel Photoshopped from the Charlie Hebdo rally, Ikea failing to include women in its catalogue . . . the list is long. And it has not exactly been favorable coverage.
Then: When people did see this policy, they laughed. How silly! How ridiculous—those crazy extremists, there they go again. Tut, tut!
Now: When people see this policy, there is a split reaction. Some people think, mistakenly, that it has always been this way, and it’s based on halachah and da’as Torah. (It’s not. See Alexandra’s article.) Some people are apathetic and couldn’t care less. But there is a third, growing segment of stockings-clad, sheitel-wearing, frum women who are highly concerned. Even angry. How terrible, they say. Is this really who we are?
Then: With some rare exceptions, no one was talking about it. I was lighting my hair on fire to bring attention to it, but I was just one lone crazy lady. (Or at least I felt that way. It’s possible there were other lone crazy ladies out there, too.) Certainly no rabbis were talking about it.
Now: Everyone is talking about it. Across the spectrum, articles, discussions, and blog posts are appearing on the left (JOFA), the right (R’ Dovid Lichtenstein’s Headlines show), the middle (Zev Brenner covered the issue just last week), and everywhere in between. Pieces have appeared in Cross Currents, the Forward, Hevria, the Times of Israel, the Jewish Press, the Daily News (great emoji, Flatbush Girl! Google this if you don’t get the reference.), and even the New York Times blog . . . and it’s not slowing down. This issue has hit critical mass.
Social media is talking about it. There are at least four new Instagram accounts that have formed within the last several months directly dealing with the issue: Women of Valor, The Layers Project, FrumWomenHaveFaces, and Like a Boss Melech. And on Facebook, the group Put the Women Back In Frum Media! is up to 400+ members and rising.
The rabbanim are talking about it. R’ Dovid Cohen, shlita, R’ Ilan Feldman, R’ Yitzchak Adlerstein, R’ Gil Student, and R’ Yoel Schoenfeld, to name just a few, have all made statements about this policy.
Where Are We Now?
Based on the above observations, I have to sadly concede that on this issue, we’ve gotten worse. A fringe policy—one that every rav with whom I have spoken has agreed is not halachic—has infiltrated our larger community and managed to convince many of our brothers, sisters, and children into thinking that a woman dressed tzniusdik is actually not tznius.
However, we have gotten better. The silver lining is that many frum, dedicated people from within our community are starting to fight back. And these are not crazy, fire-haired people—these are Bais Yaakov graduates, rebbetzins, and mothers. These are awesome women; I’d watch out for them.
In five years, when Alexandra or I or another women who is willing to light her hair (or sheitel) on fire comes along, what will she be writing?
That’s entirely up to us. As I see it, we have two choices.
(1) We can bow to this cultural trend, and let it wash over our community and solidify as the norm. We can say, look, this is the way it is, what can we do? It’s impossible to change.
If you choose this option, I recommend you invest in a stylish burka company—you will likely see good financial returns.
No, I am not joking. (Well, maybe a little). But the logical jump is ridiculously simple: If I can’t be seen in a magazine, some women might say, how could I possibly be seen in flesh and blood? The number of burka ladies in Israel is not insignificant, and bears this out as a possibility.
And before you say, “But that could never happen here,” let’s remember that my grandmother could never have imagined this picture policy happening either.
We have to face the facts. The trend is towards more and more <ahem> “tznius.” In some places, even women’s names are starting to be censored from publications. Lady Finger cookies have been renamed and are now called Baby Fingers, because the word “lady” was deemed provocative! Are you sure burkas aren’t next?
(2) We can band together, and say, No, not in our town. We will not adopt this chukas ha’goyim, misogynistic, not-halachic, harmful, damaging policy.
- We will restore our mesorah to what it was and what it should be.
- We will object when our mothers, sisters, wives, and friends are honored and yet also excluded from the dinner brochure.
- We will make a call to an organization that has erased women’s pictures and inform them politely that, unfortunately, they will not be getting a donation from us this year because of their choice.
- We will write a letter to a publication that implements this policy, and ask them to reconsider; we will write a letter to a publication that has not bowed to community pressure and thank them for their courage.
- Most importantly, we will make a point of always staying in the picture ourselves. If we are honored, or placing an ad for our business, or even if an article is being written about the bake sale that we worked on, we will ask (and even demand!) to have our photo included. Not out of gaavah or to make a fuss, but because someday, long from now, we will be someone’s ancestor. And just as our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were there for us, and gave us their legacy along with their photos to hang in our dining rooms, we will give that over to our grandchildren as well.
If we do all this, then I am sure in five years we will still be in the picture.
And, even more importantly, so will our great-grandchildren. v
Ann D. Koffsky is the art director for Behrman House Publishers and the author/illustrator of more than 30 books for Jewish children. Her newest book is Judah Maccabee Goes to the Doctor. All of her books include pictures of tzniusdik women and girls.
Note: The article “Please Put the Women Back In” was originally published in Jewish Action magazine in August 2012, and then reprinted by the 5TJT.