Israel Museum exhibit uncovers the truth about clothing

Unrevealing clothes actually reveal much about the wearers, at the Israel Museum.

Muslim women in more contemporary attire (photo credit: SARAH SCHUMAN)
Muslim women in more contemporary attire
(photo credit: SARAH SCHUMAN)
We tend to categorize people by the way they look and behave. Do they look like us? Do we feel comfortable with them? We all fall into the pigeonholing trap at some point.
So, how would the average Yaniv or Sari off the street react if they were told there was going to be an exhibition based on women whose attire leaves almost everything to the imagination? What images does that immediately conjure up?  Most would probably think of religious Muslim women swathed in flowing multi-layered clothing with little more than the eyes visible, and sometimes not even that.
If that’s your general take on accoutrement heavily female figures walking along the high street, or a back street, or wending their way through the shuk, the Veiled Women of the Holy Land photography and video exhibition, which opens at the Israel Museum on April 16, will make you think again.
A Jewish women in Jerusalem's Mea She’arim, neighborhood, 2012. A relatively new phenomenon, the overwhelming majority of Jewish women do not choose to dress in full-length shawls (Yael Gadot)
A Jewish women in Jerusalem's Mea She’arim, neighborhood, 2012. A relatively new phenomenon, the overwhelming majority of Jewish women do not choose to dress in full-length shawls (Yael Gadot)
A few years back, when I lived on Moshav Matta near the Ella Valley, there was a larger-than-life character who ran the local grocer’s along with his brother. The man – I think his name was called Itzik – was not only more than a little on the brawny side, he was Orthodox and wore a large, white crocheted kippa. And he was dark skinned and bearded. All of which, for any eagle-eyed member of the Border Police, meant that he could just as easily be an Arab or a Jew. Poor Itzik, a delightful gentle soul, bulk notwithstanding, regularly got stopped at the roadblock south of Gilo and asked to produce his blue ID card.
Veiled Women of the Holy Land, curated by Noam Baram Ben-Yossef, put me in mind of Itzik. What, for example, would you make of the almost cartoon-like figure of someone – presumably a woman – pushing a child in a buggy along a Jerusalem street? What denomination immediately springs to mind? Covered by a  flowing black cloak and shawl, the person underneath is characterless and almost genderless. No prizes for guessing that the character in the frame is female, but her Jewishness may not be apparent to all.
There appears to be a checks and balances, contrast and complementary thread to the whole project. That also comes across, in a literal sense, in Israel Museum director Prof. Ido Bruno’s appraisal of the upcoming show.
“It is,” he notes, “the first attempt in the world to expose to the public the inner world of the modest women.”
Somehow the marriage of “exposure” and heftily swaddled religious women lends an oxymoronic air to the whole venture.
“There are numerous contradictions through this entire project,” explains Ben-Yossef. “I would say there are many paradoxes here, because it is all very complex. When you go to women who cover themselves, and try to camouflage and blur their body, and then you try to uncover their inner world, that is a great paradox.”
The curator certainly had her work cut out for her. And she put in her hours on the beat. For three years she traveled the length and breadth of the country, and met dozens of women from all the monotheistic religions to try to get them to talk about a broad range of issues, some of which were definitively prickly and highly sensitive.
“It wasn’t always easy,” Ben-Yossef notes. “We couldn’t, for example, video the interviews and, in most cases, we weren’t allowed to record what they said.” As a journalist who has taped thousands of interviews over the years and, thankfully, on only two occasions, suffered a glitch which compelled me to reconstruct the conversation in double quick time, I can appreciate the constraints those limitation placed on the work process.
ALL TOLD, the curator met 16 Jewish, 17 Muslim, 10 Druze and eight Christian women. The latter, she says, are a slightly different kettle of fish. “I didn’t delve too deeply into the Christian women, intentionally, because for them their clothing is a kind of uniform. They are women who have separated themselves from this world, the secular world. They are nuns. They encounter the world but, for them, their clothing is a type of uniform. Each item has a [religious] meaning.”
Ben-Yossef learned that the nuns relate to their outer layers as something of an integral corporeal element of their lives, even if they weren’t always fully cognizant of the reasons why they wear them. “They didn’t always remember the significance, in the texts, and they said they needed to look that up and tell me. They said their clothing is like a second skin for them, and that if they took the layers off they would feel naked.”
For Ben-Yossef, embarking on the Veiled Women venture was not exactly a trip into the unknown.
“Here, at the museum, we did a lot of research into Jewish clothing,” she observes. “We tried to understand the meaning of the clothing, and to discover the differences between the Jews and their surroundings.” That included the nuances expressed by the various communities and subgroups within the same religion. We have been addressing clothing for many years. It is part of what we do here.”
Ben-Yossef’s frequent field excursions, over the years, aw her make many forays into Mea She’arim, where she was able to discern a stylistic continuum as the outer layers of haredi women began to follow subtle underlying trends. That also comes into play in the new exhibition, which bears the telling subtitle of New Trends in Modest Dress.
ONE OF the more fascinating aspects of the show – and the exhibition is replete with captivating visual and textual material – is the way some hozrot bitshuvah (newly religious women) set themselves apart from their surroundings. Quite a few of the Jewish women in the exhibition are hozrot bitshuvah, and some of the images feature women who are completely obscured by flowing black material, from head to toe.
There’s an old adage that newcomers to a religion, the new kids on the block, have to constantly prove they are up to it, and maintain a more stringent religious lifestyle than those born into the fold. The featured hozrot bitshuvah do that, big time. Then again, however hard they may try to be holier than holy, by and large the neophytes will never be fully accepted as bona fide religious Jews. That patently comes across in one picture, by Yael Gadot, which shows a fully clad amorphous figure walking down a street, which appears to be in Mea She’arim, while two female veterans of the ultra-Orthodox community look on with disdain. One is even taking a photo of the “interloper.”
The exhibition notes explain that “the shawl trails along the ground, to replicate the cloth of the mishkan (Tabernacle) which trailed after the Tent of Meeting in the [Sinai] Desert. In this way the women symbolizes the presence of the shechinah (divine spirit).” The element of suspicion, even derision, of the established haredi community towards the newly religious also appears in another work by Gadot, in which a young haredi boy looks back at the passing black-clad figure with a mixture of astonishment and abhorrence.
“These women feel they are responsible for bringing about the redemption,” Ben-Yossef says. “They have to make all this effort, to sort of pay a penance, in order to bring the Messiah.”
BACK TO my tale about Itzik from Moshav Matta, one of the overriding sentiments of the exhibition, that incorporates such seemingly diverse faiths, is the aesthetic similarities between them. “That is what led me to do the exhibition,” says Ben Yossef. “I would leave Mea She’arim, walk over to Damascus Gate, and there is a point at the end of Haneviim Street when you suddenly stop and look, and everyone looks the same, especially from behind. You wonder, hang on a moment, is she Muslim, Christian, or Jewish? They are all heavily covered, and often in black.”
The New Trends in Modest Dress is also central to the exhibition core. One might not think of religious people, regardless of their chosen faith, as being open to permutations or trends in their attire. After all, doesn’t the choice to don such fundamentally uncontemporary attire stem from a basic wish to set oneself aside from every day – secular – life? In fact, it seems there is a fashion element to the way religious women keep their bodily attributes to themselves when out in public.
“Prayer costumes came to Israel in the ‘90s,” Ben-Yossef explains. “They came from Mecca. As people began to become more religious, more did the pilgrimage to Mecca and it became a meeting place, a sort of melting pot, where people saw the chador from Iran, the carsaf jilbab from Turkey or the gilbab from Egypt, and so on. The social media began back then, and religious women could see what other religious women were wearing. It spread through the Western world too, and this attire became a sort of symbol of identity for Muslims.” It seems the general direction of inspiration was westward. “People generally took their influence from the east,” Ben-Yossef adds.”
The curator did her homework before going out to meet the women behind the none-too-revealing exterior. “I spent a couple of years plowing through the Internet, looking for good pictures, and to learn from them what was out there.” That sounds more than a little contradictory. Ben-Yossef was, in essence, trying to get a handle on what makes these religious women tick, inside, by looking at their outside.
SOMETIMES THE curator found the traditional cover up difficult to penetrate, and even daunting. “I would sit with a woman without being able to see anything of here, sometimes not even her eyes. That was difficult for me.”
Lack of physical and even personal transparency notwithstanding, Ben-Yossef tried to tie up as many loose ends as she could and, indeed, found common denominators between her Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze subjects.
“I asked generic questions. It was very important for me that they give me details of the various garments they wore, the significance of each item, and how they felt the first time they put the clothing on.”
The answers to the latter were mixed.
“Some said they felt elation and inner tranquility. Others said they felt suffocated and the layers were very heavy to begin with.”
The layers of garments may keep the women physically apart but, on occasion, they are still exposed to highly unpleasant social interaction.
“Some of the Jewish women told me people spat at them,” says Ben-Yossef. “That is really disgusting.”
Behind the stern, opaque, exterior some of the hidden religious women have developed a healthy sense of humor.
“The women feel they have to atone for the original sin, when Eve tempted Adam with the apple in the Garden of Eden,” Ben-Yossef explains. “The women atone for that by wearing modest clothing. They say men don’t have to wear such modest clothing because they atone by learning Torah. A few of the women told me they once put out a pamphlet, which they distributed between them, and they played around with a sort of simulation whereby the genders were switched around. They fantasized that all the men stayed at home, and learned Torah and reached exalted spiritual places, and the women could then go out and about and wouldn’t have to wear veils and all the rest because the men would be at home,” the curator laughs.
On a more serious note, Ben-Yossef would like museum visitors to come away from the exhibition with a more balanced, less judgmental view of the world and the people around us. “If we can look at things in an unadulterated way, if only for a minute, I think that will make the exhibition a success. If we can accept similarities and differences, and embrace them, we will be in a much better place.”
Veiled Women of the Holy Land – New Trends in Modest Dress closes on February 29, 2020.
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