The media outlets that claim to represent us are erasing us. I think it’s time we respond.
Orthodox women seem to be disappearing.
From the pages of Jewish newspapers, advertisements, and children’s books, their faces are crossed out, blurred, or removed.
This issue has been discussed over many different media platforms, people often pointing accusatory fingers at the ultra-orthodox sector. We point at this easily culpable and deceivingly homogenous community, leaving the conversations to circulate. Yet, unwittingly, this conversation pattern inhibits any meaningful change or forward motion. It’s easier to think that so long as you don’t live in those communities, you will be fine.
But then you see the removal of names from your synagogue’s announcements, the rebbetzin’s picture cropped out and not advertised. Then you notice that the honorees at your synagogue dinner are only men, women represented by their husbands. On panels, men preside, with the occasional ‘token’ woman. At funerals, the closest male relative will take the podium to speak, the daughters left behind.
And still, many within more ‘modern’ circles will continue to subscribe to publications that have made it a protocol to remove, or at the least severely limit, photographs of women. After all, there are few alternatives. Where can one find quality content, curated to suit an observant woman’s interests?
As a teenager, I remember looking at the shelves in my local Glatt kosher supermarket and wondering if there was a magazine there in which I could read about fellow religious women. What were others, in this specific, idiosyncratic community, going through? What were my fellow women thinking, creating, struggling with? I was constantly yearning to find more. My hands often reached to the mainstream magazines, and I would purchase them only to find myself unable to find content that spoke about someone like me, or to me.
I attended Orthodox institutions. You might say that I had a very “typical Orthodox education.” Yet, I don’t relate to students who attended more ‘modern’ Orthodox schools. I had a Bais Yaakov education in the walls of a school that claimed to have an inclusive hashkafah. The women who taught me what Judaism is, and what it should look like, were almost entirely haredi.
There were no women teaching a high level gemara shiur at my school. Gemara was not taught at all. There were few Modern Orthodox staff members, and the ones who came frequently left quickly. Many of my teachers lacked graduate degrees and stressed the importance of marriage and children above all else.
The issue of women — Orthodox women, from all walks of life — disappearing from the texts we consume must be confronted.This includes considering how ultra-orthodox perceptions of what is right and what is ‘frum’ permeate our more modern circles.
When the meaning of modesty collapses into women being more quiet, why should we raise our voices? Why should we call attention to ourselves — to our needs, our desires, our struggles?
We begin to allow ourselves to disappear, by self-editing too harshly. If we speak only in a hush, the softer the better.
When I recently landed a job at a law firm in Manhattan, I realized my voice was too quiet. Not in a literal sense, but in the realization that I feared speaking up because I did not want to be reprimanded. I didn’t want to be pulled to the side after class, the teacher asking where I had gotten so opinionated.
The skirts are getting longer and looser. Young women are increasingly blurred, dressed in different hues of black. Some try and eat less, hoping perhaps their problematic curves will just disappear, so they won’t be at fault when a man stares a little too long.
We simultaneously ask ourselves to keep up with these unrealistic standards, and wonder when they will end.
The Layers Project is the beginning of that ending. Here, we unearth the beautiful and sometimes messy truths behind the polished fronts we hold up to hide our bruises. Here, we feature the authentic voices of women seeking to find themselves in the texts they peruse and absorb. Here, we seek to build a community built on clear, strong voices, rather than on the murmurs of hushed tones.
We hope you will join us in this endeavor. Together, we can reappear.