When I still lived in Kiryas Joel, I once got this unsigned notice in the mail. It is an anonymous warning that I had been immodest. The letter is only signed “from a good friend”. What so bemused me about this letter is not that it is pretty out there – there are always people in very insular Hasidic communities who are more out of touch and obsessed with modesty and policing others. But rather, that someone had brought efficiency to the process. Now all you need to do in order to inform someone that you don’t approve of their crock-wearing is fill out a brief form and drop it in the mail. Does it work? I can’t promise results… 🙂

Here is the translation:

Dear Ms. F. Vizel,

As it is the obligation of every Jew to be responsible for the well-being of the other, therefore I need to make you aware of the following thing:

The __ (2 piece duster – dark color) __ of the: 1) dress, 2) housecoat, 3) skirt, 4) blouse, 5) socks, 6) turban, that you work last __(week)__ is not permitted according to Halacha (law) because: ____________(by every step we sadly no-nonsense saw your back. Please be careful not to trigger the public! Thank you!)

open at the neck
wasn’t properly buttoned
long robe outside of the home
red turban
spoke or laughed loudly in the street, bus, store…
the scarf or turban wasn’t properly covered
the wig was long
white sneakers (crocks)
went with “babby socks

May the efforts to behave with modesty and reserve as is fitting for a Jewish woman God will bless you with plenty of money, joy and pride from the children, health and it will bring God’s spirit in your home and the remedy of modesty will hopefully do its work to rid us of illnesses god forbid, as is written in the books, until the messiah will come, amen.

Of course the people who busy themselves with such zealous policing of others are a minority, but they wield a kind of power. Because no matter how absurd I found this letter, I also felt a rush of self loathing when I first read it…

I’ve been going through some old files to make room in the closet, and found my old folder from my eighth grade “Sewing Course”. Sewing was usually the only class that didn’t involve sitting at the desk and taking notes. I find it really interesting to contrast this “special” (as such classes would be called in my son’s public school) with my son’s sevenths grade “specials”, which are of course music, gym, French and library.

The introduction states that the goal of the course is to be able to fix clothing to make it fit better and more modest.

Our particular course was to learn the various different approaches to filling a skirt slit so as to ensure it was modest. We had to write down instructions plus mini samples.

The "Skirt Pleat Extension"
The "Kick Pleat"
The "Center Pleat"
The "Pleat Insert Slash"

I probably couldn’t pull off any of this if my life depended on it, but then again, who remembers their high school calculus either.

Here is an answer from history:[1] Paraphrased and copied (with some abbreviations) from a paper by Glenn Dynner (who was my teacher at SLC):

In 1845, Tsar Nicholas of Russia decreed a ban on traditional Jewish clothing, because “Traditional Jewish attire was now deemed clannish and visibly repugnant, while Jewish hairstyles were said to encourage the spread of the scalp infection known as koltun.”

This was the banned look:

According to the ban, “Jewish men must no longer wear silk, certain kinds of wool, Jewish-style long coats, belts, Jewish hats, yarmulkes, short Jewish-style pants, knee-high laced shoes, beards or peyos.”

The ban also outlined specific restrictions on women’s dress.

It was forcefully enforced.

Here is a specific instance from Dynner’s paper:

“An incident that caused Polish officials some concern and embarrassment occurred on a train to KrakĂłw and involved three Galician merchants […] As the train was making its way, two of the Jews, Markus and Leibel, were attracted by music coming from the dining car. Upon entering the car they encountered several uniformed railroad clerks, police, and the Police Inspector, Jaskiewicz. The police demanded to see Markus and Leibel’s passports and began to question them. Then, at Jaskiewicz’s order, they produced scissors, grabbed Markus, cut off his peyos, and stripped him of his Jewish-style shirt and jacket. Next,they grabbed Leibel and ripped off his outer clothes.

At that point, their third friend Berek entered the car. As neither Leibel nor Berek had visible peyos, the police at first only ripped off their shirts and jackets. But next they began to go for their beards, beginning with Markus.

Now, something remarkable happened: Berek began to physically defend his friend, while certain passengers and railroad clerks began to vocally protest against the behavior of the police. Finally, at the appearance of a Habsburg inspector, the police desisted. Though Inspector Jaskiewicz was to later claim that the “fanatical” Jews had “quarreled” with him, he was reprimanded and sentenced to twenty-four hours in a military prison.”

How about that!

Here is the full paper by Dynner: The Garment of Torah.

See also parts of the book Memoirs of a Grandmother for a woman’s telling of how scissors were used left and right.


[1] The Garment of Torah: Clothing Decrees and the First Gerer Rebbe

This is how I did up side-curls nice and neat.

My expertise: nine brothers, one son. Modeling for you is the kiddo, whose hair was reluctant to grow. Hence the short curl.

My son and brother (and other brother)

On an ordinary day during the morning rush: grab a plastic cup from the pantry, grab the orange juice from the fridge. Poor about a quarter cup orange juice onto the cup. Then use a bit of orange juice to wet the sidecurl, comb the wet hair over the forehead. Push a pencil under the hair closest to the head. Now start twirling the hair around the pencil towards the face. Let the kid hold the pencil in place while you do the other one. It should be just a minute before the orange juice dries and the hair is nice and crispy.

On special occasions — put a Bobby pin into the curl.

DO NOT: mistaken payos for curling ribbon:


And chup doesn’t fly either. All the hair up top. Oy.

And this. What. What is this.

Don’t even know what that is. Hollywood messes up the sidecurls far too often. It is so simple, duh!

I gave a tour of Hasidic Williamsburg to a group of Mennonites, which are similar to Amish but maybe in some ways less insular. I think. That’s how they explained it to me.

Notice me in the jacket without a pretty hand sewn dress! I look so bad. So much like a shiksa, a bad Jewish girl. But wait. They are all not even Jewish!

The similarities between Hasidim and the Amish is striking. Both groups are incredibly insular in their way of thinking and have a world view that sees change, assimilation, integration as the destruction of their people. The women also behaved a lot like my childhood friends. Everyone was very careful to say the right and proper thing. Dare I say… repressed?

The one point in the tour that everyone broke into laughter was when I asked what kind of media they are allowed to watch, and then added on an impulse that came from my experience with Hasidim: “but don’t say anything that will get you in trouble!” and they all cracked up. They knew exactly what I meant. Whatever media you are watching that is verbotten, don’t mention that — everyone here can hear! The laugh was so knowing, so familiar.

But there were big differences too. The Hasidim sounded positively metropolitan next to our group and — all took pictures of us. One Hasidic woman came over and said “Good for you, you come here. We go to you in Amishtown, you should come back and enjoy the sites back!” Her confidence was wonderful Another difference: the Hasidic men are also a lot less timid.

What I realized is that both these groups believe in holding on to their traditions despite the changing tides around them. And when you try to preserve a way of life while you’re in the very enticing America with all its flashy colors and addictive ways, then you develop many similar methods: a unique language, dress and a rejection of popular entertainment. Both these groups have done it largely successfully.