In certain parts of Israel like Ramat Beit Shemesh or in certain magazines like Ami or Mishpacha, you could be forgiven for believing that once girls turn six, they simply disappear from the world, never to return. That’s because these neighborhoods and magazines do not show pictures of girls or women for modesty reasons.
One woman has vowed to change this. Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, an Orthodox Jewish feminist, founded Chochmat Nashim (The Wisdom of Women), an NGO that aims to highlight what it calls “damaging extremist trends” that are plaguing the Jewish world.
“In the past 15 to 20 years, haredi men have succeeded in erasing Jewish women and girls from visual representation in Orthodox families.”Shoshana Keats-Jaskoll
“In the past 15 to 20 years, haredi men have succeeded in erasing Jewish women and girls from visual representation in Orthodox families,” Keats-Jaskoll told The Jerusalem Report. “In Shabbat books, men are singing ‘Eshet Chayil’ (A Woman of Valor, which a husband usually sings to his wife at the Friday night dinner table) to one another. In math books, there are no girls at all.
“This was once an insular and extreme practice,” she continues. “But it has now become mainstream and the norm. Most of it is about money. If I want to sell more magazines and get into the most [number of] households I can; I need to make it as ‘sanitized’ as possible.”
She calls it an “immodest obsession” and says there have been numerous cases of haredim burning any magazine or torching bus stops that had ads with pictures of women. Keats-Jaskoll says she has discussed the issue, with many senior haredi rabbis agreeing with her that there is no reason according to Jewish law not to show photos of women but saying they don’t control the streets and if they speak out, they will be delegitimized.
So she came up with the idea of a Jewish Life Photo Bank to represent women in Jewish life in a positive way. The photos show women and girls at work, at home, and celebrating Jewish holidays. They have done photo shoots in Israel, New York, Baltimore and Paris among other places.
“If you Google ‘Jewish women,’ you’ll see either Women of the Wall [the group that fights for women to be able to read the Torah at the Western Wall] or a random hassidic wedding in Brooklyn,” she says. Today, the photo bank has 2,000 pictures of Jewish women across the religious spectrum.
The photographers, like the models, are all volunteers.
“Religious life in general, not just Jewish, is moving so far to the Right, and extremism has become the norm in so many areas of the world,” says Laura Ben-David, a professional photographer who has taken many of the images for the photo bank. “This is not the Judaism that I know or love. I feel a need to fight it and to fix it to make it better.”
Ben-David, who is also a board member of Chochmat Nashim, says that women all over the world have wanted to be part of the photo bank. She says that in Paris, she photographed one woman who was divorced so she couldn’t show her kids’ faces, but she so wanted them to be part of it that she asked Ben-David to photograph them from the back. Her mother is also one of the models.
Rachel Book, an adviser to the board of Chochmat Nashim who lives in the US, says the organization has raised awareness throughout the Jewish world of the damage that erasing women from public Jewish life has done.
“It has a negative effect from a financial and health perspective, and also how the next generation of women see themselves,” she explains.
For example, rates of breast cancer are higher among haredi women, as they are not always encouraged to get mammogram screening.
She says that the Jewish Life Photo Bank shows healthy Jewish families and the array of Jews in the world today.
“We showcase Jewish people with disabilities, Jews of color, and Jews with different levels of religiosity,” she elaborates. “We equip people with the vocabulary to take a stand and make a change.” ■