How Orthodox women moved on in 20 years

Under My Hat -— How Orthodox Women are Shaping the Future of Judasim, Sally Berkovic, Ktav, £21.95


It is a little over 20 years since Sally Berkovic first published Under My Hat. Confronting the challenges faced by contemporary women seeking to live an Orthodox life, she wrote it with the future of her young daughters in mind. Now that her daughters are young women, the new edition of the book looks at what has changed and what remains to be resolved.

She was not the first to write about Orthodox feminism, but she was a pioneer, particularly in Britain. Twenty years ago we lagged behind America and Israel in addressing the constraints on women’s education, ritual participation and communal leadership. Today we lag even further behind.

But there has been some progress, such that she can say she is no longer seeking a solution to a problem; recognising instead that the tension between Orthodoxy and modernity is an essential ingredient in her religious commitment.

The new edition of Under My Hat includes a reprint of the original book; reading it shows just how different things are today. But it is the new introductory essay, almost one third of the original in length, which makes the book worthy of renewed attention.

The introduction addresses five critical areas that continue to shape Orthodox feminism and charts the progress in each. Apart from education, leadership and ritual, they include the role of religious women in public life and the “Modesty Wars”: “the unabashed obsession with a woman’s body, her hair, dress and demeanour” that in the last 20 years “has unleashed a travesty of power”.

Despite addressing challenging issues, Under My Hat is an optimistic book. The trajectory of evolution for modern Orthodoxy has always been painfully cautious. Sally Berkovic shows that when tradition, knowledge and commitment walk hand in hand, progress is nothing to fear.

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