A room full of rich men, entertained by young women attired in short skirts and high heels. Another room full of men dressed as Chasids, bushy-bearded and fur-hatted. There’s more to link the two than you might imagine.
The first group were at the now infamous Presidents Club dinner. Many were Jewish, including one of the organisers, David Meller. Perhaps some of the young women who waited on them were Jewish, too.
The second group of men are in the Jewish Learning Exchange’s recent “stunt promo” video. They’re waiting for a lecture to begin, only two seats are empty. Several couples come in. Each in turn see the Chasids and freeze. They dither at the door. They walk in and walk out. Their discomfort is obvious.
Eventually, one couple sit on the chairs. And, to their surprise, the Chasids break into applause and happy smiles. And then the same thing happens with other couples as the two chairs are vacated.
What’s wrong with this attempt to sell the message that “normal” Jews will be welcomed into the Orthodox world at the JLE? In a word, the women. Watch their body language. They know their presence could be alarming to these men. And think about the reality of our community. In very few circumstances would men dressed like this welcome a woman sitting among them. Some Strictly Orthodox men can’t even bear to sit next to a woman on a plane.
Jewish women in the wider Orthodox world are all too often given a clear message at a very young age that their bodies and their sexuality are toxic and dangerous to men. They are expected to cover up and stay out of sight.
Many of the men at the Presidents Club dinner treated their hostesses as commodities, to be groped and touched, part of the price of the ticket. The way that women are treated in Orthodox Judaism, one might think that, if they get too close to men, they will get the same treatment.
Of course, the dangers to Jewish women in the past did not, in the main, come from Jewish men. Rape was part of the persecution that Jews suffered, and its legacy is rarely acknowledged. But also largely ignored is the way that some Jewish men think about and act towards young women. Thankfully, Harvey Weinstein does not represent all Jewish men. But we should be educating our boys to resist any temptation to behave like him, not asking girls to conveniently disappear.
The actress and director, Natalie Portman gave a powerful speech at the Women’s March in Los Angeles last weekend. She talked about getting fan mail as a 13-year-old actress that contained rape fantasies.
She explained how that affected her, from her choice of roles to the way she dressed. “I emphasised how bookish I was and how serious I was. And I cultivated an elegant way of dressing. I built a reputation for basically being prudish, conservative, nerdy, serious, in an attempt to feel that my body was safe and that my voice would be listened to.”
Of course, her speech resonated with very many women, the ones that have joined in with the #metoo movement, telling their stories of abuse in the workplace. But, for me, this brought back memories of the way I was supposed to be as a young Jewish woman. The unspoken implication was that, otherwise, there would be serious consequences. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being bookish, serious and nerdy, if that’s what you want. Modesty is fine, too. But if you feel forced or scared into it, then you’ll either rebel, or remain repressed and unhappy.
Women should feel safe, valued and welcomed at work, in a lecture hall, in synagogue and everywhere else. That includes feeling confident and happy about their bodies, their sexuality and their voices.
And Jewish men should be able to look at women without fetishising or demeaning them, so Jewish girls need not worry that they are somehow unacceptable. For too long we’ve excused the kind of “boys will be boys” behaviour that men indulged in at the Presidents Club dinner. It’s time to grow up.