Life & Culture

Covering up: Allison Josephs on modesty

"The only time we say a woman should put on more clothes is if she doesn't meet a certain Western beauty standard - too old, too fat."


"I always saw modesty as not even the littlest bit relevant in my house - I was given the message that, if you're young and you're skinny, you've got to show off your body."

Not the words you'd expect to hear from Allison Josephs - an Orthodox, sheitel-wearing mother of four. But Josephs wasn't always frum.

In fact, the 36-year-old from "right outside New York City", tells me that she "was raised to hate Orthodox Jews," as she begins the story that led her to found the blog Jew in the City. The blog - not to be confused with a TV show of a very similar name - has a mission statement: "breaking down stereotypes about religious Jews and offering a humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism". And Josephs' background makes her uniquely qualified to do just this.

"I was Jewish and proud to be Jewish," she says, "but I was raised to believe that Orthodox Jews were bad people. My father said: 'they're dirty, ignorant; they can't speak English'. There was a strong bias."

She concedes that, despite living an outwardly Jewish life and being well-educated (Jewishly and secularly) "there was no distinction in my mind between different levels of Orthodox Jews".

Nonetheless, by the time Josephs was 16 she had undergone an ideological - and physical - makeover.

Ostensibly this came after a rather traditional, inspiring-teacher-opens-student's-eyes moment. When she was a teenager, Josephs' parents sent her and her siblings to after-school Hebrew classes. "I'd never gotten so close to Orthodox Jews before. There was one teacher who was extremely wise - not an extremist, living in my world but once a week he kept Shabbat, and that didn't seem like a burden.

"I wasn't looking to leave the secular world, just looking for an extra layer".

Josephs had been looking for this "extra layer" for a while. When she was eight-years-old, one of her classmates was murdered by her father in a tragic murder-suicide. "My life changed forever in that moment," says Josephs, who saw her privileged and secure existence shaken. "I was confronted with the fact that death could come at any moment - I had no idea why we were even here in the first place."

Unfortunately for Josephs, her parents were unable to answer this existential question, and she suffered from insomnia and panic attacks for most of the rest of her childhood.

This idea of searching for "meaning" and finding it in religion may sound familiar. However, this story has a slightly more unexpected turn. Shortly after Josephs's move into observance, her family followed.

A highly educated, intelligent and motivated family - Josephs went to Columbia University and her sister went to Barnard - Josephs decided that she could prove to her family that they were wrong to generalise about Orthodox Judaism.

"I challenged my father. He said: 'you're being an extremist, a zealot', [so I said to him] 'learn what I learn and once you've educated yourself you will be able to argue with me'."

So, at 50 years-old, her father began to learn - and became more religious.

This was Josephs' first experience of educating people about Orthodox Judaism. Although she doesn't credit it as an inspirational moment for her, there are some definite similarities with the story she tells about the genesis of Jew in the City.

In 2005, when she was 25 and had just had her second child (Josephs and her husband met on the first day of university, where she was studying philosophy and he read law, but "waited three years" before getting married, in order to finish their Ivy League education), she saw an unusual request on Craigslist.

A Spanish journalist was visiting Brooklyn, where Josephs lives, "and suddenly she was seeing all the Orthodox Jews around, which she'd never seen before." Here, Josephs makes the wry aside: "because they kicked us out of their country - what do they expect?"

The journalist posted on the message board, asking if an Orthodox Jewish woman would grant her an interview - and Josephs responded. "From the moment she stepped into our apartment and she saw our funky furniture and mustard-coloured walls I could see the stereotypes just melting away," says Josephs. "She expected to find frumpy and close-minded and I was the exact opposite of all those things."

A light-bulb also went on for Josephs. "After she left, I said to my husband: 'We are doing the worst job of PR.' [Non-Orthodox Jews] only see the worst of us, the extreme examples, and of course every stereotype is based on some truth - let's be honest about that, but people don't realise that there's so much more nuance and so much more to the story. So I said to my husband what we need to do is start a worldwide Orthodox image makeover campaign."

Fast-forward two years and Jew in the City was founded. "I wasn't exactly sure what I was founding, I just knew that something needed to change and so I got on to YouTube."

YouTube? Yes, another slightly unexpected twist in this very modern, religious epiphany story.

Josephs explains that Jew in the City is a website with information about being a woman, Judaism, how to live an Orthodox life in the secular world, news about their campaigns and videos, because "a million people can tweet and blog but high-quality video production, that's something that can set you apart."

She says that she uses her videos - she is the star of most of them - to show "the world that we exist in; balanced, open-minded, educated, empowered Orthodox women are a thing."

Which brings us back to the question of modesty, and Josephs' latest campaign: The Skin Gap, the premise of which focuses on society's differing approach to modesty for men and women. "The only time we say a woman should put on more clothes is if she doesn't meet a certain Western beauty standard - too old, too fat."

I ask for her views on the French burkini ban which sparked outrage around the world. What does she think of this attempt by French legislators to reinforce the values that her Skin Gap campaign is challenging?

"Every person should get to decide without pressure how to dress," she says. "Many people, rightfully, were horrified at the images of a policeman with a gun forcing a woman to take off her clothes, but what about the more subtle, possibly more sinister pressures women face every day to take their clothes off?"

She is quick to point out that her promotion of the Skin Gap issue is not an attempt to corral young women into covering up.

"If we truly believe in freedom, women should be seeing images in the media and in ads with as much fabric as men are afforded. What they do from there should be up to them."

The Skin Gap video (sub-title: The Most Pervasive Gender Inequality You've Never Heard Of) shows a man and woman getting ready for a night out. As the man comes down the stairs in a crop-top and short shorts, his girlfriend leers "looking good" and he later gets what Josephs calls "the up-down" from women he passes in the street. Men aren't subjected to this superficial evaluation says Josephs and women shouldn't be either, but "it's very difficult to get the message out there."

As a self-described feminist, and mother of two daughters aged 11 and 13, Josephs finds this "insidious.

"There's only a [short] window, and after that the world is ready to replace you. Then there's a whole category of women who never meet those standards to begin with," she laments. She says she sees her daughters struggle with clothes and the images they see in magazines and on TV in a way that her sons do not.

But it is important for Josephs to stress that she does not feel this way because she is part of an Orthodox community, known for its promotion of modest clothing for women. "In my community, women wear what they want. I choose to dress modestly [out of] conviction, but if I wanted to go outside tomorrow in a bikini I could, and no one would say anything."

Another issue for Josephs is the way society makes women solely responsible not only for the way they're expected to look, but also the reactions they get when they look that way.

While women responded positively to the Skin Gap campaign - remarking, however, that most shops don't offer options with more coverage - Josephs received a few troubling responses from men, such as: "I hope this campaign never catches on - my life will be a lot more boring."

"Men in Jewish law have a responsibility to watch where their eyes go," says Josephs, again dispelling the myth that Orthodox Judaism subjugates women. "We definitely see it as a partnership."

Supported by donors, volunteers and corporate sponsors, who are drawn to Josephs' spin on Orthodoxy as a hip life-style choice, Jew in the City continues to grow from the YouTube channel it was 10 years ago.

And it's not limited to America either, the website recently honoured Baroness Ros Altmann, the former Tory pensions minister, as one of Jew in the City's "Orthodox Jewish All-Stars". Josephs says these videos "shatter the misconception that Orthodox Jews are only bearded, hatted men. [They] are not only working, but working at the top of their field."

In the past few years, Josephs has increased the scope of her work by launching Project Makom, which in a sense works in the opposite direction to Jew in the City but with a similar end goal, showing "former and questioning Charedi Jews how to be religious in the secular world."

"There are many different ways to be Orthodox," she says, "and every community has its plusses and minuses." But, like the "31 flavours of Baskin Robbins," she adds, recalling an advertisement for the American ice cream chain, "there really are 31 flavours of Jew."

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