A few months ago I was featured in a photo essay in the New York Times. Now, I had my hesitations, because I was afraid of my words being misinterpreted or manipulated to say something I don’t mean. I breathed a sigh of relief when I actually saw the article, because overall the tone was positive.
But it still left much to be desired. It’s true they didn’t misconstrue any of my words. But what they did do was carefully create a narrow box to fit me into and edit the piece to ensure that I would fit into it. Something along the lines of “Hasidic woman, works in a school and writes kids’ books.” If that’s all true — what could be wrong?
Here’s what they got wrong.
First came the title, “A Glimpse Inside the Hidden World of Hasidic Women.”
Huh? Seriously? As my friend — and professional cellist — Laura Melnicoff commented on my Facebook post when she saw the title: “Are we rare delicate birds that only a few people get to view?” Do we live hidden under a rock, and only a spy with an attache case and full disguise can be given the “rare” opportunity to meet us?
I am far from hidden. I teach, write and speak publicly regularly. I’ve flown across the country and spoken to audiences of men and women on all topics of Jewish life. My nursing baby is a frequent flyer — he has already joined me on trips to Florida, California, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Just last summer, I spoke at the Jewish Learning Institute retreat in Rhode Island to a packed audience of Jews, of all religious backgrounds. I have opened my home to secular teens interested in Judaism, as well as groups of adults coming to my neighborhood for the first time. Chabad women worldwide host meals for campus students, congregants, and sometimes total strangers. We are in constant interaction with the wider world. And yet, I’m “hidden”?
And then I saw the picture they chose. The photographer spent hours in my home, photographing my precious children and my artwork. I gave my full permission to publish a number of photos that I felt encapsulated my passion for my family and my love of art.
Yet the editor chose a photo that did not even have my face in it. To be honest, I was mortified. I felt ashamed. I get it, the photo they chose had layers, it was artsy, sure. But the implication? That Chabad women do not show their faces. You do not hear their voices. There goes that narrow box again.
There’s more. In that very same photo, there are a number of paintings on the wall — yet no mention of the fact that those paintings were my own. Instead, the caption merely states: “Sara Blau in her house in Crown Heights.”
Maybe there wasn’t enough room to mention that I direct a camp of 400 campers. Or that my job as “special projects manager” includes running weekends and conventions for 800 high students from around the world, or running a production of song, dance, and drama, for hundreds of high school students.
They found room for a short description of me, but the choice of words seemed to deliberately paint a flat, dreary, figure.
Here is the message that didn’t come across: My Hasidic lifestyle is colorful! Chabad women are multidimensional! They are powerhouses.
This weekend, approximately 2,500 Chabad women will gather at a conference in New York. They are far from hidden: They are co-directors of preschools and Chabad houses. They run programs and mentor hundreds of people. I have a sister in Florida and a sister in Arizona and sisters in law in Montreal, Toronto, and California, and even an aunt in Hong Kong … all teaching classes and engaged in meaningful outreach work, while at the same time raising families.
Chabad women are far from the shtetl-like portrayal of the New York Times. Chabad women are leaders. Modest in dress, conservative in approach? Yes. But Chabad women are raised with the knowledge that they are the foundation of the home. We women don’t live under a rock — we are the rock.
Simply give me the platform - and you’ll hear my voice. I guarantee you that I won’t come with my face covered.
Sara Blau is a mother of four beautiful children and the Extra -Curricular Director in Beth Rivkah High School. She is an author of twenty children’s books and a popular blogger on thejewishwoman.org. She lives in Crown Heights but is often traveling to lecture and run art demonstrations to varied audiences.