One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, after we had returned from our Passover getaway in Orlando, we had a family weigh-in in the master bedroom of our rented ranch. After all the matzos and steak and gooey potato starch and almond meal based cookies we consumed, the digital scale was guaranteed to be unpleasantly surprised. No, I will not divulge the very personal and mortifyingly high number that appeared on the little screen when it was my turn, but I will say that I immediately dusted off the pitiful juicer tucked away in the kitchen and made a resolution to work out at least five days a week.
Growing up, physical fitness was understood to be a nuisance — one does it out of desperation to drop a few pounds and the remnants of Shavuot’s cheese kreplach — not necessarily motivated by physical health and fitness. There were no gym classes in the Satmar school I attended and no facilities where people pick things up and put them back down. If you wanted to lose weight, you walked briskly (running is considered immodest) up and down Forest and Acres Roads, flapping your hands in rhythmic motion while yapping away with your walking partner.
I remember the first time I joined a once-a-week all-women’s fitness class in a neighbor’s basement. (Hasidic men rarely exercise.) These classes were fairly common in Kiryas Joel, but only a select few women attended and it only happened once or twice a week. I was a teenager struggling with my weight and the overabundance of irresistible food and delicacies that are so central to Hasidic and Jewish culture. The instructor was a shiksa, a non-Jewish woman (a term I used then, not now) named Lisa or Jen or Katie — not that her name mattered to us. She would demonstrate squats and ab crunches in her Lululemons while we tznius Satmar girls sweated through our bulletproof stockings, skirts and long shirts. I didn’t necessarily feel restricted by these rules, but perhaps a little envious of the instructor for not having a God who cared what she wore to her fitness classes. It was a sacrifice alright, but one that I enjoyed immensely.
Fast forward a few years, I was a new mother struggling to drop the 80 pounds I gained in pregnancy gorging on chocolate cake and copious amount of pretzels — two food items guaranteed to stave off my morning sickness. On the last weigh-in by my German family obstetrician — who happened to have delivered both my husband and me — I came in at a whopping 225. The doctor gave me a half-hearted scolding for something that was clearly out of my control (hello, morning sickness) before positioning the stirrups and pulling on the gloves. When little Bundle of Joy arrived and only took eight pounds and three ounces with him, I was faced with the reality of a big, unhealthy frame and no morning sickness to justify it.
Hasidic women have an average of six to 10 children, and upwards of 13 for my mother’s generation. As any woman who has given birth will know, pregnancies take a toll on your body, and unless you’re one of the lucky few who inherited enviable genes, you will face an uphill battle to shed those pesky pounds. Working out is almost a necessity for women who birth children — and, dare I argue, for anyone alive. However, with no gyms in the community and few options for physical activity other than running yourself bored on a treadmill at home, how is a woman to work out?
After I purchased a few Tae Bo DVDs and started worshipping Billy Blanks and his six pack religiously, a new kosher gym opened in the local health center, equipped with a roomful of treadmills and stationary bikes and some weights. Fitness classes were also offered several days a week, and flocks of terry turbans and black knit skirts would fill the big room — including me. These Hasidic women were novices to strength training, yet many of them became pros in no time, doing push-ups in their Palm stockings (the Satmar brand) and skirts.
It didn’t take long for the Va’ad Hatznius — the notorious modesty police controlling all aspects of life in Kiryas Joel — to close the gym. Women, myself included, joined classes in private homes taught by non-Jewish instructors.
Three days a week, I would walk 20 minutes, baby stroller in tow, to one of these classes — tights, turban, long-sleeved shirt and all. There were no men in these classes, yet everyone dressed in the same tznius fashion as they did outside the fitness room. Wearing leggings was unthinkable. A friend of mine who recently instructed fitness classes in Kiryas Joel, and whose name is not Jen or Katie but something VERY Jewish, said: “I was given a list of rules to follow [allegedly from the Va’ad]: Jewish music, they had me wear a short skirt over my leggings, and long sleeves. But most women were horrified when I suggested they wear leggings.”
These days I run 24 miles a week outdoors and lift weights and put them back down in the local JCC. The skirt has been replaced by Lululemon knock-offs. Physical fitness is an integral part of life for me, and it saddens me to think that in some places, women have limited options for it. But feeling good and looking good is infectious, and even with restrictions in place, women cannot be stopped.