by Eleanor J. Bader
Inside insular religious communities in the U.S. women are quietly, and sometimes covertly, rolling back limitations on women’s equal participation in society, setting examples for their offspring and inspiring change at a local level.
Religiously observant women in Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities are becoming engines of small business. Their reasoning? Working for oneself allows far more flexibility than a typical nine-to-five position, making it easier to juggle religious piety with making a living.
Religious entrepreneurs push barriers and tweak tradition
And it’s not just religious women who are lured by the dream of self-employment. The Center for Women’s Business Research reports that despite economic hard times, women-owned businesses are on the rise and now comprise 40 percent of all privately held U.S. firms. This amounts to 10.1 million companies — 20 percent of them owned by women of color — employing 13 million people. Not surprisingly, most of these businesses are miniscule by corporate standards. Still, everywhere you look women hair stylists, tailors, dressmakers, daycare providers, artisans, make-up specialists, cooks and bakers are a growing part of the country’s social fabric.
But let’s get back to religious communities, specifically those of Orthodox Jewish women, where female entrepreneurship serves several functions. First, it provides women with money of their own and is a way to remain true to their belief systems while adding a needed boost to their family’s economic well being. Secondly, their work encourages people in the community to maintain cultural and religious standards — for example, selling objects used in religious rituals makes observance easier. Lastly, starting a small business gives women a way to assert power, whether to get away from an incompatible or abusive mate or to assert their clout as equal partners in a relationship. Nowhere is this clearer than among the Orthodox, from the most self-contained Chassidic areas to the more assimilated modern Orthodox enclaves.
Women Grow Independence
Rochelle Weinfeld, a Career Services Training consultant at the New York City-based Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, works with women in Brooklyn’s most religious neighborhoods. She states that when a woman works outside the home — whether by choice or because of financial need — she is encouraged to stay within the community. “This is because she will be dealing mostly with women who have a common understanding and comfort level. When they work with the secular or general community they will be dealing with men, which is not as comfortable for them given modesty concerns,” she wrote in an email.
Michelle Aaron, a modern Orthodox woman from Brooklyn — unlike the Chassidim or ultra-Orthodox, the modern Orthodox interact with the outside world, often go to college, and read secular publications — knew that she wanted out of her marriage in the late 1990s. “We had two kids, with another on the way, and were living below — way below — the poverty line,” she begins. “Finances were a massive problem. My husband was very idealistic, very religious. Materialism came second so I knew I needed to do something.”
The British-born Aaron says that when the need for money became overwhelming, she borrowed a sewing machine and set up shop in her cramped apartment. She began making snoods, a type of hair covering worn by observant Jewish women after they marry. “That’s what I was familiar with. I knew what women wanted,” she continues. “At first I made one, sold it, made another. Then I determined to make a certain number each day and wouldn’t get up until I’d done it. For the first six years that’s how I operated.”
Aaron got divorced in 2005 and now owns Uptown Girl, a business that includes a store in Brooklyn’s ultra-religious Borough Park neighborhood. She also sells her wares online, and sends snoods and pre-tied bandanas, scarves and headbands to customers all over the country — and world. A small factory, also in Brooklyn, produces the goods and Aaron presently employs 12 part-time seamstresses and salespeople.
“I can do customized fits,” Aaron boasts, “so I can make a snood tighter or looser. I can also make something to match a dress or add an embellishment,” she says, pointing to hand-sewn sequins on a black hair covering.
Despite the obvious pride that Aaron exudes, she acknowledges that starting the business was not easy. “I got several small personal loans to start Uptown Girl,” she says. This not only gave her the currency to establish the business, but also gave her the means to leave her husband. “There’s no way out of marriage for a woman who doesn’t work, who has children, and who knows that she will not get any financial help from her ex-spouse,” she says.
“Am I a feminist? No.” Aaron then pauses for what seems like an extraordinarily long time. When she resumes talking, she speaks slowly, as if weighing every word. “Maybe not officially. But when I see men whose companies are 12 times bigger than mine, I know that it’s not because they are so clever or are smarter than I am. It’s because they have wives who do the things I have to do at home in addition to running the business.”
Aaron also notes that her work ethic involves more than just the bottom line. “When I sell something I want it to be as if I’m selling to a sister as opposed to a stranger. When someone comes into the store from abroad or from outside the New York area, I always give her something for free because I know how hard it is to find snoods outside of the City. When chemo patients come in I give them wholesale prices. When Muslim women come in — it’s rare but it happens — I welcome them. I like diversity and have a lot of respect for people who are family-oriented and live by religious rules.”
Accommodating Obstacles to the 21st Century
At the same time, Aaron concedes that Uptown Girl has hit a few snags in its 11-year existence. “We put our snoods on plastic heads and at one point the heads in the window were uncovered. A Chassidic boy came in and objected, saying that it was immodest. In addition, when we put ads in some of the ultra-Orthodox newspapers or magazines they won’t run pictures of women, even if they’re totally covered, since they don’t want men looking at them. Using the Internet raises other issues since the Chassidim and ultra-Orthodox Yeshivish community aren’t sure if the Web is a good thing and some authorities completely ban it.”
Developing ads to publicize the business requires constant creativity, Aaron continues, since she does not want to offend potential customers or create problems for herself. Does she see it as a double standard that women can look at men, but men cannot look at women? Aaron sidesteps these questions, but another Orthodox woman, a professional who works for a Jewish agency, spoke on condition of anonymity.
“No. It’s not a double standard,” she says. “Traditionally, in Judaism, nothing is more sacred than the bond between husband and wife. Because men are naturally more sexual, they are required to avoid looking at women who are dressed immodestly because it might bring them to think inappropriate thoughts.”
Another woman goes even further, explaining that the standards are a tribute to female strength. “The rabbis elevate women,” she says, “since they’re known to be on a higher plain.” Despite the legend of Eve, she continues, everyone recognizes that women are more restrained and less easily tempted than men.
Feminists, of course, bristle at these ideas, and members of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations eschew such essentialist thinking. For the Orthodox and Chassidic communities, however, gender roles and rules are ironclad and businesses catering to modesty–much of it with a high fashion bent–are burgeoning. Do a Google search of “modest clothing for women” and dozens of entries pop up: in addition to Uptown Girl, you’ll find belowtheknee.com; challahandhats.com; junees.com; modestworld.com; savvysheitels.com; and tznius.com.
Some Feminist Rumblings Are Being Heard
In the late 1990s a group calling itself the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance formed with the express purpose of expanding women’s roles within a Halachic, or religiously legal, framework. Under their auspices, all-female Talmudic study groups have formed, and women have assumed leadership roles within Jewish philanthropic and service organizations.
What’s more, outside of Orthodoxy, a host of less-observant, but still religious entrepreneurs has begun to push barriers and tweak tradition. New Jersey artist Deborah Ugoretz is a Conservative Jew who creates a wide range of exquisite ritual objects, from hand-lettered marriage contracts, called ketubot, to Torah coverings, stained glass windows, and eternal lights. “A ketubah is not a religious document. It’s a legal document so there is no prohibition against women creating them,” she says. Nonetheless, she has penned several for same-sex couples, something that is condemned in Orthodox circles. Ugoretz says that she does this work under the radar and does not advertise, preferring word of mouth to other publicity. By working quietly, she says, she is expanding how texts, prayers, and traditions are understood.
This expansion, however slow, is evident in all but the most religious strands of Judaism. Women are studying Torah and religious texts; devising new rituals and creating ritual objects to mark significant events; and are demanding that men share responsibility for children and household maintenance.
Julia Frankston-Morris, a modern-Orthodox law graduate, sees these shifts as a reflection of present-day realities. “It seems to me that it is too difficult to survive on a single income in today’s world, with housing costs, private school tuitions, summer camp costs and a million other expenses. It just doesn’t seem doable with one income. Men and women [in my community] now need to get an education and it is expected that the woman will work once she graduates.”
That said, many tell me — it is always as if they are confiding something that cannot be said aloud — that the acceptable range of female occupations is extremely narrow. Teaching, nursing, occupational therapy, social work, physical therapy and speech therapy are accepted as stable moneymakers, they say. And if someone is drawn to another vocation? Matchmakers, who are relied upon to introduce potential partners to one another, may deem her unmarriageable, they whisper.
On the other hand, despite the risk, a tiny number of women are moving beyond the limits of sanctioned behavior. A year ago, Sara Hurwitz became the first Orthodox woman Mahara’t, or Torah teacher/legal authority. Although Hurwitz can officiate at weddings and funerals and can offer pastoral counseling, the authorities have prohibited her from being called Rabbi. Some see this as discriminatory — she did, after all, receive the same training as male classmates. Others, however, see it as a necessary concession to tradition. Regardless, when Orthodox girls see Hurwitz in action, they see an authoritative and powerful religious leader.
For Hurwitz, that’s enough and she is thrilled that every time she opens her mouth, people hear something that was previously unimaginable.
Isn’t that one way for change to happen, with one person, then another, forcing barriers to topple over?
Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer, teacher, and activist. She writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The L Magazine, RHRealitycheck.org, and other progressive and feminist publications
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