Masks, skirts, and garments with magical powers

Masks, skirts, and garments with magical powers

Facial masks are now ubiquitous among the Brooklyn masses. I am struck by how familiar it all feels, a throwback to my days in the Hasidic community. Everywhere I go with my black balaclava over my nose and mouth, amid masses of other zombie-like masked strangers, I am reminded of the Hasidic community’s darker side. The side that makes everyone conform. The side that convinces the public it’s better to just step in line and put on that shmata, pull down that fabric, cover that bare flesh, fix that clothing so that it’s donned just right.

You might not see the similarity if you haven’t once complied to edicts like shaving your head once a month or wearing layers of dress in the brutal city summer. People who see religious clothing as repressive often misunderstand why people comply. For instance, if you’d visit the Hasidic community and see the knee-length skirts with the kick-pleat added in or the beige tights with the lines in the back, you’d probably imagine that there is no logical reason for anyone’s wearing these uncomfortable things. You’d probably assume that the modesty rules come from power hungry rabbis or archaic law. You’d imagine that the wearers are brainwashed, forced by some nefarious heavy handed power, or are too repressed to see that they are mindless drones.

You’d probably think that you would never fall for such oppressive and arbitrary nonsense. I know this because I have asked hundreds (probably thousands) of the tourists who’ve come on my walking tour the following question: If you had been brought up in the Hasidic community, would you have left?

Oh, yes! they say. I would! The hands fly up. I wouldn’t tolerate this nonsense. No thank you on having a rabbi invade on our freedom; feh!

These answers are so interesting to me. Think about it; the number of people who actually leave the Hasidic community is negligible, but the number of my visitors who imagine they would have left is somewhere at about 80%.

Why do secular outsiders believe that they are above conformity? Mostly, it’s because they don’t understand the process. They think it’s all a miserable affair to comply and shiny joy to defy. They see a shmata on the head and say “Feh, so uncomfortable, I’d never!” Yet these same people rushed to buy a printed shmata on Etsy and embraced the discomfort as a sign of the good sacrifice when it came to the pandemic. They eagerly wrapped it around their noses and mouths. And they put it on their little wee babies whose poor sweet faces are now hidden. The mask wearers think their shmata is so different from my Hasidic shmata, but that’s because they misunderstand religious garb.

There are many important similarities that I’ll unpack here:


  1. Both types of clothing claim to make a far-fetched impact on health.

There is a poster that goes up in Hasidic Williamsburg every fall. I’ve read it to countless of my tour groups.

*Update: The posters are up again. Here is this year’s iteration:



The poster translates as:

Dear Jewish Daughter,

To dress:




is against modesty!

How many widows, orphans, how many young children have sadly recently been torn away? How many young fathers and mothers are in agony in the hospitals??

The street sign changes year in and out, but it’s usually mostly filled with “Narrow fitted clothing” in very large letters. The bit about the orphans is only the postscript on the bottom. What’s the message here? Most of the people I read it to are utterly confused.

But to Hasidim who are trained in the gaps, it’s obvious. The sign warns against dressing immodestly, with narrow fitted outfits that show too much and cause temptation. So what’s of the orphans and ill mothers and other various tragedies? It’s connected like this: If you wear immodest clothing, and thereby sin or cause men to sin, you unleash the wrath of the heavens on his people. Tragedies befall the poor victims as punishment from god for the sins of the community. So if you wore sheer panty hose yesterday and were woken by sirens because your neighbor had a stroke, well, it might be connected. Say hello to Jewish guilt.

The idea is that if you go about life just being your natural self, you are liable to cause horrible things. This is very different from wearing gloves when handling raw meat. The direct connection is not there. It’s no longer between the block of meat and you. With masks as with modesty, the claims get very convoluted. Now it’s a long list of your normal harmless behavior somehow setting off a domino effect of karma which ends in you being guilty of manslaughter of an innocent bubbe. All because you were doing something entirely banal.

  1. Both make unfalsifiable claims about the damage done by defectors.

So if your neighbor passed away last night in the hospital, and you were naughty because you didn’t wear a mask or wore NARROW FITTED CLOTHING, you killed the poor mother! You ripped her from this world in her prime! I can make these claims, and they are impossible to refute. How will you prove that you didn’t do it? We have proof that you went out dressed like that. We have proof that the neighbor died. The stuff that connects the two is on faith. You have no defense.

The media has been running articles of pure hearsay, connecting a medical crisis with the mask defiance of other family members. The articles make my eyes bugger. What? There are a great number of variables that might land one in the hospital, yet the authors pick the actions of one peripheral character and imply tremendous conclusions. Imagine if I decided all cancers are caused by jumping jacks, and if someone was diagnosed with cancer, I’d find jumping jackers and blame them. That’s about where we are at now, and it’s too bad on you all, because you can’t prove me wrong.

  1. “Your actions affect others, therefore, you must act-as-I-say.”

The first part of this statement, that “your actions affect others,” is fairly commonplace. Of course our actions affect others. It’s not even a faith statement. What divides tyrannical believers from the good ones is that tyrannical believers declare that their idea of interconnectedness is THE way. No other views are valid. Theirs are right and true. They are therefore entitled to enforce theirs.

“I believe that your skirt causes cancer, so you have to comply because you have no right to alternative views.” This is what’s been happening with masks too. If you are to say “I’ve read the science, there have been a lot of conflicting views on masks, and I think cloth masks are not useful, especially outside,” then you would be told you are wrong, and there would be no tolerance for your personal interpretation.

You might say “but there are things that a democratic society doesn’t tolerate, like seat belts and other driving laws!” Well, first of all, all of these laws are extensively litigated in the public sphere, and even if laws are passed, people can still agitate for their view. They can still have a different view and try to pass it as law. This is different from the overnight decree that all must accept the human natural breathing to be dangerous.

Masks are in no way comparable to the laws passed to punish drunk drivers, whose reckless actions are harmful, period. To the Guardian which concocted this most inane comparison I’d pose the question: What if a rabbi compares narrow, fitted clothing to drunk driving? How would you respond then? Would your argument still hold?

  1. In both, empathy is felt strongly for one type of sufferer. Not a bit for others.

For me, a big test for healthy thinking is if someone can disagree with another person or group and still empathize with them. Having empathy for several sides at once is the foundation of being able to accept that not everyone will interpret the world as you do.

In the case of masks or modesty, see how empathy is allocated. Only the orphans, the coronavirus victims, the neighbor who had the stroke because Jews sinned, are treated with kindness. Yet there are a lot of other sufferers. For instance, imagine the pain of being blamed for tragedies. I know people have gloated several times in my life, when they were able to say “ahh ha, see?” We see a lot of this ugly sentiment in the way that the media gloats when someone who violated the lockdown gets sick and dies. “Ha, see!” Then these same people turn around and pour out gallons of empathy for poor grandma whose life will be ripped from the world tragically soon. Notice the good guy (grandma) and the bad guy (partygoer) are flattened prototypes that are then vilified or celebrated. For all you know grandma was a psychopathic beyotch who killed six husbands and ate them for lunch, and the partygoer one day jumped into a fire and saved six babies, five dogs, and fifty cats.

Another place that there is no empathy: for those who want freedom. This is something that used to affect me strongly, because I’m not a very materialistic person, so I am quick to buy the argument that freedom is vanity. “You want to wear this stupid skirt when others are suffering. Do you have to be so vain?” Or when I stopped shaving my head and was called by a woman busybody who asked me “is it worth all the tragedies?” Now that we hear “idiots want haircuts” or “so you’ll kill granny for the bar?” it brings back a lot of memories. In the Hasidic community, freedom to dress as you please was vain and selfish and fleeting and was so not nooormal. But we always ignored the obvious contradiction: If wearing clothing the right way was so important, why wasn’t wearing clothing the wrong way? In other words, is freedom really nonsense? Can we really laugh in the face of young teens who have lost their summers and time of their precious youth and say it’s trivial? No, not if we are honest about what’s important to humanity. Not if we have empathy.

  1. Both: A lot of shaming

To me, an important indicator of a healthy society is when people can have their own views—crackpot, fringe—or just vote in a different political party without being ostracized for it. A really healthy society celebrates a diversity of views.

In a repressive world, there’s only one acceptable view. The people in positions of prestige and power caricaturize those who deviate. People who tell me they think they would have left the Hasidic community imagine themselves escaping triumphantly and to popular applause; they have no idea how brutally shamed they would feel for believing stupid things, for being vain, and for being in THAT category of losers. In the Hasidic community, dropouts are framed as bums, druggies, losers who can never stop running after the next high. In the secular world, those who don’t think locking down a population or muzzling children is cool are conspiracy theory Trumpsters who are ”anti-science.” Who would want to be part of this?

The power of shaming is tremendous. The power of belonging and prestige if you step in line is just as great. I know a lot of people who are critical of the mask mandate and say that they keep their views to themselves. They are embarrassed to admit it. They are even surprised to find themselves so pushed to the fringe. But of course they are silent! I feel for them, these newbies to dystopia. I was silent too, and I’m silent too half the time. Most of us will avoid being shamed, because we are not a quarter the hero we imagine.

Shaming creates a cycle. When people are shamed, they fall silent. Those who continue to speak up become fodder for humor. The ones that are off, funny. The other skeptics see the low regard held for the “idiot” and how isolated he is. They learn that it’s futile to express themselves. So they hide their views. Without expressing their views, they cannot develop them or explore different ideas, so their views remain raw and unformed and uncertain. The deviant opinions become very weak. The people who have doubts come to believe that they are freakish anomalies. They doubt their judgement. After all, everyone else agrees with the main opinion, right?

And so, shaming suffocates the intellectual life of a society. There is only one way of thinking, and that’s all you’ll learn about. It’s a cognitive anesthetic.

  1. Both: Appeal to authority

Of course, this is the basic ingredient to every dogmatic stew: the appeal to authority. It’s been especially heartbreaking to me to find myself in this place again, where I am told that a layman is not entitled to an interpretation. Whatever happened to being critical of the words of the power hungry, often corrupt, often biased people on top?

When I was Hasidic, if I was to say “I don’t see how our friend’s illness is caused by the red polka dots in my blouse,” I would have been told I didn’t understand. Only many years later did I discover the goldene amerika, where anyone was invited to critically examine what leaders said. It’s hard to believe people are now being told to just follow the science, as if the science leads us about on a long Hasidic belt.

  1. Both: Force

When authority, shaming, guilt tripping, and unfalsifiable claims fail, there is forced compliance. Force doesn’t mean guns and gulags. Force means that you are made to comply, often with the threat that you will be barred access to specific things if you don’t comply. You don’t wear the right blouses that hide your collar bone? Fine, but don’t expect for your kids to be accepted into the religious schools, or to be allowed entry into synagogues. You don’t put a piece of fabric around half your face? Fine, but you can’t expect to be allowed entry into the grocery store, the deli, the train, and the two other places that are open.

There is a whole class of people who are citizen volunteers for the enforcement. Ah, the snitches! Terrible people on the whole who make me shudder. These are the women who approach you at a wedding and tell you that your outfit is too tight and is “causing the public to sin.” These are the women who take a picture of you in the street because you are maskless (happened to me). The other day my son, who is 14, got kicked out of the dog park by a busybody. She stood there with a little group of agitated do-gooders and reprimanded him for putting everyone at risk and told him to leave right away. He left, of course. He’s 14. All I could think was “Mrs. Barzesky from my childhood was reincarnated as a hipster with a pink top. This surreal dream just keeps getting stranger.”

  1. Both: Most of the population don’t mind

On the whole, when dissent is suppressed and punished, most people accept the official line. People want to live life and busy themselves with family, community, work, life events, Netflix and chill, and twitter. A majority just don’t think about the imposition. Many believe what they’re told; that’ll be that. If you believe in it then it makes sense to act on your belief. Some people love it; they get a thrill from undemocratic control measures, the snitches and virtue signalers and piety queens (yuck!). Then there are the people for whom the official reason doesn’t “click,” but they rationalize it in a way that does click. For instance with the masks, some people don’t believe it helps mitigate the virus, but rationalize that it’s necessary to make others feel safe. (I used to be a big rationalizer of Hasidic customs, because it made it all bearable). Then there are the people who think it’s nonsense but who don’t buy into it but also don’t see why they should make a fuss.

All of these people would just obey rules. The rules become a background part of their lives. It’s not a big deal. They might live in a culture of fear but they are not feeling its effects. They shrug. Meh.

They are protected from the consequences, and in turn they protect the status quo. But if they ever find themselves in the out-group, they find out how traumatic intolerance is.

  1. Both: Tiny expressions of individuality

When everyone complies because of the many ways they are compelled to, little bits of personality start to come through in new ways. Say, how you wear the garment and what you do with it itself becomes important. As with modesty trends, so with masks. If you wear the mask with your nose out or not, on your chin or from one ear, a cute vintage one or a disposable haphazard one, one you wear to take the trash to the chute inside your apartment building or one you pull on outside of the grocery with a sigh…

This is the part that I love to people-watch. Small acts of piety or rebellion or carelessness or fashion. I see in it that humans are never an army of zombies. I’ll keep believing in us.


Probably. You’d comply with masks or with modesty if the above process makes you.

Most people don’t rebel. They think they would. They don’t realize how much there is to lose by rebellion and how much to gain by just nodding and getting along. They don’t recognize the warm and fuzzy feeling of being part of the in-group. They don’t realize when this leads them to become zealots, because they think zealots are miserable monsters that resemble nothing of the real thing.

Zealotry is the good feeling of being right, righteous, and respected. It’s hard to resist it and even harder to fight those who become it. In a repressive environment, we pick our tiny comforts over our higher needs of tolerance, freedom, diversity, acceptance, a voice.

I don’t rebel. I wear a mask and try not to mind all the bugged eyes popping out of the paranoid faces. I try not to freak out with the overnight change to a city that looks like some dystopian fantasy. I don’t want to invite the wrath of the intolerant. I want to pick my battles, I tell myself. But it’s never lost on me that totalitarian demands are not just a piece of clothing, not just a moral sacrifice. This is societal ill health with far reaching consequences on the human spirit.

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