'Modesty' is eroding innocence

By Angela Epstein, July 30, 2012

The party was in full swing. In the hot, damp atmosphere steaming from pendulous hips and sweaty gyrations, clammy bodies were heaped on top of each other like a pile of freshly cooked blintzes.

And, all the while, the relentless throb of melodically challenged chart-toppers boomed over the speakers.

Would you be happy to let your child be a part of all this?

Probably not - if the venue was a gloomy night-club where dark corners concealed guilty and possibly illegal secrets. But the scene described here actually took place at a girls-only "street dance" party to mark my daughter's eighth birthday - held, by the way, on a Sunday afternoon in the cheerful surroundings of our sunlit playroom. The only things being passed around surreptitiously were packets of Swizzles.

A completely innocent way to celebrate a little girl's birthday, you might think. Yet when invitations were dispatched, the idea was met with some resistance, as questions were raised about whether it was "appropriate" for frum Jewish girls to celebrate in this way. Indeed, some of the invitees didn't show up - one theory, according to my daughter, being that we would be playing "non-Jewish" pop music. It made me wonder if we should have spun a few Elkie Brooks discs instead.

The fright wig has been reborn as a glossy mane

The party still went ahead and the girls who did come were thrilled to try out poptastic routines and gymnastics under the careful tutelage of a charming young (and Jewish) dance teacher.

But discussions concerning what constitutes fitting entertainment for eight-year-olds once again shine a light on the lumbering hypocrisy and self-righteousness that can prevail when it comes to that old chestnut of "appropriate behaviour for a religious girl".

It's much worse here in Manchester, Britain's holiest Jewish city (even the Rabbonim arbitrarily acknowledge this - as did ITV's recent exposé, Strictly Kosher). Not only is the Charedi community growing exponentially, but the numbers of Ba'alei Teshuvot - or the nouveau observant - are expanding, triggering a shift from centre-left to the more intolerant right.

I have no problem with people acquiring religion and respect anyone's interpretation of Judaism. After all, I'm shomer Shabbat myself. But the danger is allowing an ethos to flourish that takes an uncompromising view of modesty and external influences - even when it comes to something as blameless as an all-girls birthday party.

For in the process we find increasingly stringent lines of demarcation between what is innocent and what is genuinely inappropriate. As one parent, who admittedly sent her daughter to the party, told me: "This is probably the last year you can get away with this." Why? Is bopping away to the likes of JLS wholly (or holy) unacceptable when a Jewish girl hits nine ?

Of course, this is made even more irritating by the confusing standards already set by some religious women, in the name of so-called modesty.

Take the sheitl. Once merely a fright wig, a birds' nest that couldn't possibly be confused with anything other than false hair, today's wigs have been reborn as long manes of caramel highlights and glossy, "because-I'm-orth-it" styles.

For those of us wrestling with perpetual bad hair days, these women look stunning. And why not? It's a contemporary and fashionable twist on the halachah of ensuring a woman's hair is only exposed to her husband. But, often, the by-product is that it makes the wearer even more attractive. It's a mixed message, one that makes no sense.

So where does the axe fall when embracing or keeping out the modern world. If gorgeous curtains of false hair are acceptable then where is the harm in a dance party for little girls. Will a blast of the tunes of One Direction really pollute a child?

My daughter has a lovely mix of friends, from girls whose mothers wear trousers to those whose fathers who have learnt in yeshivah. But their common denominator is childhood. Making normal youthful pastimes the subject of adult religious debate is what truly chips away at innocence. Now that's what I call inappropriate.

Angela Epstein is a freelance journalist

Last updated: 12:45pm, July 30 2012