Street poster: blaming illness on immodesty

Street poster: blaming illness on immodesty

Here is a street poster that, for many years now—predating the Covid-era—made a very powerful impression on me. It crops up in Hasidic Williamsburg during every high holiday season and then again in the fall. The poster changes, but the core message remains always the same. This is the poster that was up in the fall of 2020. We had a slightly different one this spring of 2021.

Here is a crude text translation.

Dear Jewish Daughter,

To dress in SHORT, FITTED, STRIKING clothing is against modesty! And it causes others to sin!

How many widows, orphans are there? And how many young children have, sadly, recently perished? How many young fathers and mothers are in agony in the hospitals?

You of course don’t want a part in that! It is in your hands!

Notice how this sign goes from demanding that women not dress in provocative clothing to weeping for the sick and grieving relatives. When I’ve translated this poster to my tour guests, they often had a hard time understanding the connection. What do widows and orphans have to do with a skirt too narrow?

But of course, these two concepts are very powerfully linked in Hasidic minds through its dogma, which goes like this: If a woman dresses immodestly and causes a man to lust for her, or worse yet, to sin by spilling seed, then this woman has caused the man to sin. And while the man will be punished for his lust, she will carry the blame for inducing him to temptation. And further, punishment by God for such sins of sexual appetite is meted out to the entire community. One might say the retribution is socialized. So if someone in the community is diagnosed with cancer or dies in a terrible accident, then it might be God’s vengeance on an improperly clothed individual.

This is all very dark and represents the most negative, punitive, and traumatizing elements of Satmar Hasidic fundamentalism. It is something the public internalizes deeply, so it is then normal to respond to terrible news by looking for such tenuous “causes.” Not only is blame attributed to others, but also to oneself. If someone suffers a terrible diagnosis or loss, or even general hardship, they’ll normally soul-search to try to find how they sinned. And it is the custom to then make a commitment to do one additional act of piety. For instance, during the March 2020 weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, many women changed their head coverings to more pious headgear.

Hasidic head coverings for married women carry an enormous amount of social symbolism. They are worn (usually) over a shaven head, and the styles range from stylish bob-wigs-with-Jackie-Kennedy-hats to much less flattering scarves tied around the head. The “class” of head covering one wears signifies a great amount of information about the woman’s family’s level of religiosity, and a particular type of look is usually adapted for life. The best comparison would be to masks: Just as it’s obvious that two masks are more “Covid careful” than one, so Hasidic women’s headdresses signal where they stand in the hierarchy of piety. So when during the Covid Panic women adapted a more conservative costume, the change they made was profound with many implications. They sacrificed certain privileges of modernity and fashion and changed the family’s marriage prospects. One former classmate told me that she sacrificed her vanity and changed her head covering to a simple shpitzle scarf because she had no choice, her father-in-law was on a ventilator. Her contribution to his recovery (which took many months) was to improve her modesty. This would be an offering to God so as to compel Him, as if in negotiations, to issue a ruling of mercy upon this poor sick man.

So Hasidim understand the implications of the modesty poster: That women who give in to their desire to show off cause terrible illness and suffering. Those who don’t cover up properly are too “selfish” to care about the harrowing consequences.

Not everyone will believe this. This poster is certainly the work of the zealots in the community. But the message permeates. And it’s a powerful mechanism of social control. It creates guilt and blame for ordinary actions, like putting on an outfit or not putting on a piece of protective clothing. It makes leaps that are not scientific but are fanatical—that garments have magical powers to cause illness or health. And that fashion choices can be blamed for the ill-health of the community.

I always felt this framing of guilt to be quite dangerous, even when I was a naive member of the community. It seemed terribly cruel to blame people for illness and crisis, especially for actions that they’d done long ago or that were hardly connected to the illness. During a personal tragedy, I heard back that people were dredging up the memories of all the years I’d been “ring leading” trouble in class, and from this saying, “See, it comes around!” A kind of karma that laypeople can chart. And just as this terrible finger-wagging at those struck by life’s unlucky chances bothered me greatly then, it bothers me greatly now.

I keep coming back to this poster in relation to Covid-19, which likewise has taken on the same system of blaming innocent experiences of life—a social gathering, a natural-born-face, a group of kids in the park, a body not jabbed—for terrible death and illness. As with Hasidic zealots, there is no arguing with the Covid faithful who point fingers. For them, it is enough that two events happened: one of sin and one of illness. They have an a priori formula of life, and it goes like this: Sin + illness = sin-caused-illness. And anything that happens, they fit into this formula.

I keep returning to this poster because it reflects so clearly how powerful this mechanism of social control is. Unlike the coronavirus dogma of blame, I have a degree of distance from this world. I can more fully feel the absurdity, the injustice, the terrible trauma to young minds that learn that ordinary actions are responsible for extraordinary suffering. I feel such intense sadness that this model should be replicated on a societal scale. I do wish we would recognize the folly when we see it in other cultures or in times past. But alas, such is faith. It relies not on knowledge but on an emotional grip that is very hard to undo.

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