Rabbis to Williamsburg women: Don’t wear that tank top!

Rabbis to Williamsburg women: Don’t wear that tank top!
Photo by Aaron Short

Williamsburg has a new voice for women’s fashion — Hasidic rabbis.

A spate of Yiddish posters calling on Orthodox Jewish women to avoid wearing “tank tops,” T-shirts and “clingy dresses” were papered all over South Williamsburg this week as temperatures climbed into the 90s.

And the women are heeding the admonishion.

“It could be 105 degrees out — you’ll never see any of my body,” said a Williamsburg woman, Sara Stern. “Our way of life is beautiful — very discreet.”

The tank top ban is the latest edict from the Central Rabbinical Congress, a council of rabbis known for enforcing strict moral codes on Hasidic women.

Last month, members of a neighborhood modesty group stapled posters to lampposts warning women against talking on cellphones in public and urging them to move to the other side of the street when a man is walking on the sidewalk. These campaigns were first noted by the Orthodox watchdog blog, Failed Messiah.

And three years ago, community leaders succeeded in taking down a racy billboard for the TV show, “90210” that featured swimsuit-clad actors.

The Council’s edicts appear to be having an effect.

At a parade on Sunday, this woman demonstrated the Hasidic ideal.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Several Williamsburg residents said that the posters’ message primarily detours young women from buying revealing blouses, shirts, and tops available in Manhattan department stores.

“A very small percentage of women wear this kind of clothing and even if they are they’re wearing them over long-sleeve shirts,” said a proprietor of Englander Dry Goods on Lee Avenue.

The neighborhood’s strict Orthodox women typically wear below-the-knee skirts, shirts whose sleeves go well past the elbow, and blouses that cover up the neck. No, it’s not exactly a burka, but put it this way: There is very little risk of sunburn on even the brightest summer days.

Stern said that the traditional dress is part of a thousand-year tradition of modesty among the Hasidic people — though there are a few “bad apples,” who flock to the latest trends.

But Williamsburg bicycle maven Baruch Herzfeld argues that modesty groups are intimidating Hasidic women throughout the neighborhood.

“They don’t want women smiling on the street and they want women to be uncomfortable,” said Herzfeld. “These men think they are doing God’s work, but they are fanatics — everyone in Williamsburg hates them.”

The clothing warning is just the latest example of the ongoing clash between Hasidic traditions and modern American culture. Last month, for example, an Orthodox newspaper erased Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the iconic White House “situation room” photo from the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing.

The newspaper said it had to remove the woman from the historic shot because it would have been immodest to publish a picture of a woman.

Many women enjoy wearing tank tops, even if rabbis in South Williamsburg do not approve.