The Brooklyn shopkeeper was already home for the night when her phone rang: a man who said he was from a neighborhood “modesty committee” was concerned that the mannequins in her store’s window, used to display women’s clothing, might inadvertently arouse passing men and boys.
In many neighborhoods, a store owner might shrug off such a call. But on Lee Avenue, the commercial spine of Hasidic Williamsburg, the warning carried an implied threat — comply with community standards or be shunned. It is a potent threat in a neighborhood where shadowy, sometimes self-appointed modesty squads use social and economic leverage to enforce conformity.
The owner wrestled with the request for a day or two, but decided to follow it. “We can sell it without mannequins, so we might as well do what the public wants,” the owner told the manager, who asked not to be identified because of fear of reprisals for talking.
In the close-knit world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, community members know the modesty rules as well as Wall Street bankers who show up for work in a Brooks Brothers suit. Women wear long skirts and long-sleeved, high-necked blouses on the street; men do not wear Bermuda shorts in summer. Schools prescribe the color and thickness of girls’ stockings…..
The groups have long been a part of daily life in the ultra-Orthodox communities that dot Brooklyn and other corners of the Jewish world. But they sprang into public view with the trial of Nechemya Weberman, a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn, who last week was sentenced to 103 years in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing a young girl sent to him for counseling.
Mr. Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, testified during his trial that boys and girls — though not his accuser — were regularly referred to him by a Hasidic modesty committee concerned about what it viewed as inappropriate attire and behavior.
The details were startling: a witness for Mr. Weberman’s defense, Baila Gluck, testified that masked men representing a modesty committee in the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., 50 miles northwest of New York City, broke into her bedroom about seven years ago and confiscated her cellphone.
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The American Atheists billboard controversy continues today. According to sources, the landlord of the S. 5th Street building where the billboard was scheduled to go up on Monday refused to let the workers on the premises. Now the billboard is planned to go up on the BQE tomorrow. Landloard Kenny Stier is keeping mum.
Things are getting messy though, if not downright anti-Semitic, with AA President David Silverman reportedly telling the press, “The Jews have stopped the billboard” and blaming “powerful neighborhood rabbis” for preventing the sign from going up. Silverman tweeted throughout the ordeal:
Update: The billboard finally went up mid-day on Wednesday. The New York Times has a photo. Happy Purim!
Today, the organization American Atheists unveiled the billboards that have been stirring up controversy since first announced last week. The Williamsburg sign, which features both Hebrew and English writing, is located near the Williamsburg Bridge.
To the non-religious eye, the billboard seems controversial in its message and location, but JewishPress.com sheds new light on just how offensive the sign is to the local religious community. According to the site, not only does the billboard’s unveiling coincide with the important Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins on Wednesday, but also it contains a Hebrew word that cannot be erased. This makes trashing the billboard a sin.
“The Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg have certainly not been involved in pushing a national agenda of any kind,” writes JewishPress. “Posting an intrusive and insulting billboard in the midst of their neighborhood is nothing short of an unprovoked attack.”
Meanwhile, Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists who ironically has a Jewish-sounding name, told CNN, “The objective is not to inflame but rather to advertise the atheist movement in the Muslim and Jewish community.”
Update: I’ve been having trouble finding a photo of the billboard. Turns out, it wasn’t unveiled on Monday as planned.
In another bit of culture clash, members of Williamsburg’s Hasidic Jewish community are posting fliers around Southside reminding women not to show too much skin this summer.
Following a decree from the Central Rabbinical Congress, known for enforcing strict dress codes, the Yiddish language signs instruct orthodox Jewish women to refrain from wearing tank tops, short skirts, or any clothing to tight, or too skimpy. Clothing evidently isn’t the only issue of decency and virtue taken up by the congress. According to The Brooklyn Paper:
Last month, members of a neighborhood modesty group stapled posters to lampposts warning women against talking on cellphones in public and urging them to move to the other side of the street when a man is walking on the sidewalk.”
Williamsburgers are no strangers to a few differences in cultural tradition. Over the years debates about bike lanes, billboards, rent, and woman’s rights have shown us the challenges of living in such a diverse city, and the importance of understanding and communication.
It’s no Adam Sandler, but Hasidic reggae musician, Matisyahu released a special song for this holiday season. It even includes a vague lesson in the history of the holiday in the video. On NPR’s All Things Considered today, Matisyahu described the relationship between his faith and reggae, why he loves Hanukkah so much, and played an acoustic version of the song. He also wrote a special essay in which he attempts to tackle the question, “Where is all the Hanukkah music in popular culture?” From his essay:
…the real reason Jews don’t have more Hanukkah music is that historically, American Jewish singer-songwriters were too busy making Christmas music. “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Silver Bells” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)” were all written by Jews.”
Matisyahu is playing Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday and Sunday, but it’s already sold out. Guess you’ll just have to light the menorah, fry up some latkes, and watch the video.