Brenda Rosenberg, who goes by the online moniker “Brenda Turtle,” is a social media celebrity with thousands of followers. She posts photos of herself in suggestive poses, often repurposing religious paraphernalia like tefillin (phylacteries) or a tallis (prayer shawl) for the added shock value, since no Hasidic and few Orthodox women utilize those items. Many of Brenda’s fans are Hasidic men hiding behind fake virtual profiles. So when Brenda was in a tragic car accident with a few friends last week, some of her followers, operating from covert locations where the Internet is banned and where God is a swift and predictable punisher, said she deserved it. Hashem wants you back on His good side, they beseeched her.
What ensued was a mini social media firestorm, with Internet denizens arguing for and against her shtick. Some suggested she is deeply disturbed, while others said that she is young and naïve and is being taken advantage of by repulsive and perverse Hasidic men. Others, still, insisted that she is a Jewish Madonna, a misunderstood artist.
Whether the images of Brenda in religious wear are offensive and her selfies mildly or wildly titillating are moot points as far as I’m concerned. What’s more interesting are the conversations about sexuality in cyberspace, especially the sexuality of Hasidim who leave the fold. If you wish to understand Brenda, the controversy surrounding her online persona and what drives the repressed men who pine over her, you must understand how Hasidic girls typically see themselves and their sexuality, and how that evolves over the years when they learn of their sexual power.
In light of all this, I took to my own Facebook page — where, unfortunately, the most scintillating photos you’ll find are of my sinful chocolate babkas — and asked my fellow Hasidic and ex-Hasidic friends to describe their ideas of female sexuality and how they evolved over the years. Most of the commenters shared my own experience growing up in upstate New York’s Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel. There, the concept of sexuality was non-existent, and the female body was seen as a source of shame and guilt. Women were indoctrinated with the radical rules of tznius, or modesty. We felt shame at our bodies — shame that they even existed in all their curvaceousness and therefore needed to be covered up fully, and guilt that they were source of so many sins committed by men on planet Earth. Women — not men — were responsible for men’s impure thoughts about us, not that we had a clue what those thoughts might be. As one of my friends, a Hasidic woman, wrote on my Facebook thread: “the shame Chasidic girls are raised with leave scars that are extremely hard to overcome later on.”
(It is important to note that not all Hasidic sects are alike. Some women from different Hasidic sects suggested on my Facebook thread that they had formed a better, healthier understanding of their bodies growing up than my Satmar peers and I did.)
Some of the comments were upsetting, others were hilarious, but all suggested — with impressive candor — some form of sexual repression as part of the Hasidic childhood experience.
“The subject of tznius was actually very important to me as I became older (high school) and realized how it’s tied with sexuality,” one friend, Hannah, wrote. “In a way it was very empowering to realize the effect women can have, and made me want to be more tzanua [modest] since I wanted to ‘protect’ my kedusha [holiness], and ‘save’ the power of sexuality within my marriage when the time came. As I matured, I realized how f–ked up that is. The enormous guilt and responsibility for thoughts and actions of other people we have no control over. And the hyper tznius just causes hypersexualization and becomes a vicious cycle.”
The “hypersexualization,” as my friend describes it, is something I grapple with to this day. When interacting with men, I cannot differentiate between friendly chit-chat and flirtatious advances because I was taught to see my body a bastion of sexuality. I still find myself baffled by some of the normal, everyday interactions with the opposite sex, and I often come across as rude by ignoring friendly strangers whom I believe have ulterior motives. It is frustrating, to say the least.
“While I know that for many women modesty was a way to feel that their bodies are powerful,” Frieda wrote, “the message that I internalized was that my body was disgusting; especially female parts. It’s the way I’d feel about seeing, say, inside my body. I knew the anatomy needed to be there but it was freaky and I didn’t want to look at it. To deal with it, I completely disconnected from my body. I never looked at myself naked and just tried to pretend all of that stuff wasn’t there. I walked the streets with my jumpy gait and thought about a million things but my female body was a non-issue. Eradicated by modesty.”
Then there is the concept of love — it is intrinsically tied to sexuality, and a word young Hasidic girls only hear in statements meant to derogate the behavior of goyim (non-Jews) smooching in the mall. Of course, parents love their children and children love their parents. But the word “love” is almost never uttered, it’s simply not a concept that applies to adult relationships. Hasidic couples never show physical affection, especially not publicly, and often not even in the privacy of their own homes.
“My little sister, who got married at 17, told me that goyim give in to their tayves (desires) when they kiss their children. Love is for goyim,” another friend wrote. It’s important to note that her sister’s comment may be extreme, but they represent the logical extension of an extremist mentality.
It’s no surprise, then, that sex within Hasidic culture is considered utilitarian, especially for women who are tasked with conceiving babies without any mind to experiencing real sexual pleasure. The teachers who instruct young brides about the birds and the bees are often themselves unaware of the pleasure the female body is capable of feeling, or at least unwilling to immodestly spill the secret. A sex therapist with many Hasidic clients recently told me that many of her clients, some with several children already, are completely unaware of their own anatomy, the concept of an orgasm and how to achieve it.
Thus, this is what happens with nearly every woman in the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities: She, who is unaware of her own anatomy and sexuality, who was taught all her life that her body is a source of shame and guilt, that it can lead men astray, is placed in one room with a strange man on her wedding night, having never before interacted with the opposite sex in a meaningful way, and is summarily instructed to have sex and to carry on for the rest of her life.
I don’t often make sweeping generalizations, and despite what some of my critics claim, I try to present Hasidim in a fair light. Bu raising generations of young girls (and boys, but that is for another time and post) so clueless and ignorant about their own, inherent sexuality, and then throwing them into an active sex life is simply deplorable.
So when it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation, plus zero sex ed, plus extreme and outsized emphasis on tznius with no regard to why that is all necessary, breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality.
Brenda may be an anomaly among the Hasidic and ex-Hasidic women. But whether you believe Brenda is Madonna or a naive and disturbed soul, she, like many of my friends, experienced sexual repression. I can only hope that she is controlling her message and not being controlled by it.