Inside Hasidic Modesty Patrols

Nechemya Weberman Was Leader in Feared Va'ad Hatznius

Community Pressure: Posters in Brooklyn call on Jewish women to abide by ultra-Orthodox standards of ‘modesty.’
Community Pressure: Posters in Brooklyn call on Jewish women to abide by ultra-Orthodox standards of ‘modesty.’

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published December 26, 2012.
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A book about these rulings, published in Yiddish by Mordkhe Bernshteyn in Argentina in 1955, explains that these decrees were often quite detailed. According to rules issued by the burial society of the town of Rymanow at the turn of the nineteenth century, for example, women were forbidden from wearing golden veils, pearl-studded or silver-lined kerchiefs. In addition, the dictum said, “women should not wear any fashionable dress or shoes. Even their kerchiefs should be similar to those that their mothers wore.”

Women who defied these rulings were penalized monetarily, as were the tailors that designed them, and if a tailor continued to sew fashionable clothing, he could lose his work permit, Bernshteyn writes, quoting the records of the Rymanow tailors’ guild.

The intention of those rulings had nothing to do with preventing sexual temptation, however. “They were simply worried that if Gentiles were to see how much money Jews were spending, the wealthy landowners would raise the taxes for the entire Jewish population,” Fishman explained. In fact, men, too, were warned not to dress in conspicuously lavish clothing or wear powdered wigs.

However, these rulings were issued during a time when Jews were collecting taxes for the Czarist government and hence had the power to levy fines against members of their own community, and ex-communicate or penalize them for defying the rules. Once the Czarist government took away the power of the Jews to tax their own population in 1844, the only means that community leaders had to ensure adherence to their rulings was through social pressure – a tactic which has remained effective till today, as Hasidim continue to fear being ostracized from their community or losing valuable marriage prospects as a result of so-called indecent behavior.

The strict separation of men and women is a relatively modern one, Fishman explained. In Czarist Russia, men and women used to stand together at weddings; there was no mekhitse, or partition between them. When Sh-Anski, the author of The Dybbuk, led his series of landmark ehnographic expeditions through Volhynia and Podolia in 1912–1914, he photographed cemeteries in which the graves of even the most pious couples were found side by side. Today most Hasidic men are buried separately from their wives. The Ohel (gravesite) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, for example, is not next to the grave of his wife, Chaya Mushka.


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