Thursday, November 09, 2006

Femme Fatale Bais Yaakov Girls

In the comments on my post on Sexy Sheitels (10/16/06), a wide variety of new issues were raised concerning the topic of “Sexy Dress and the Yeshiva Girl,” including the perennial favorite Beauty Fades, Stupidity Lasts Forever. Some commentators even claimed that the raison d'etre for many graduates of Orthodox girls High Schools is to look sexy so as to catch a suitable mate. The core complaint is that looks have become over-emphasized to the detriment of other qualities. In my consultations with female members of the Vaad (Committee) for the Preservation of Tzinius (Modest Dress) in Downtown Evanston, a number of salient counter-points were brought up.

Some argued, "Looks will get you the first date, but no more—the rest is your personality, etc. Most young women have bigger goals in life than becoming a "Barbie doll"; if not, than they have much bigger problems to deal with.” Others said to my great surprise that “the top tier girls are smart enough and determined enough to buy clothes that can be found in Elle and Vogue, and will obviously end up looking great. Such girls are going to be intelligent in many other ways as well. It might not be apparent to the yeshiva bochur, but then that’s his problem. Some of these great looking women may be very competitive, ambitious and bright. It takes a considerable amount of effort, organization and taste to look that way. They usually do well in all other endeavors. "

The view of the Vaad was that the top tier girls that are the most attractive are either from rich families or from families that aspire to marry into rich families. The mothers of the boys that these types are looking for are themselves farputzed to the max, and are looking for girls that have the knack and taste to dress fashionably. The second tier of girls cannot reach these stylistic heights. They generally come from poorer, less upwardly mobile homes, or very,very frum homes and can’t or won’t compete. They have some taste; they are bright, obsessively neat and frequently have great midos (character). Their weak point is they tend to overmatch outfits. They coordinate, and then they coordinate some more. The third tier is everybody else.’’ It is difficult for me to tell if the Vaad are trained informants and astute anthropologists or totally biased and catty. My guess is they know what they are talking about, and have some understanding of the fast track shiduchim world. I would therefore conclude that the complaints about provocative dress are masking in some instances, deeper resentments about differentials in wealth and income.

It was also suggested in the comments that there’s a difference between a chassidish/heimish elegant look and a provocative litvish bais yaakov look. In chassidic families, no matter how much is spent on looking good, they insist on a draping effect so that the woman’s body is not displayed in an exhibitionistic or provocative way, whereas in the Americanized Strict Orthodox high schools, the parents allow the young women to cross the line from elegance to a high style/ designer/ fashion magazine look that may appear somewhat provocative to the untrained eye. The Vaad agreed and scored a point for the heimish chasidish crowd. The Vaad felt that the schools in general were not to blame. ‘’As far as chinuch (education) goes -- We don't think schools are giving off the wrong idea -- they have rules/guidelines uniforms, mussar. They try to show how important modest dress is. They are trying...the problem could be they are trying too hard and cause the girls to rebel in the future -- but does this cause a higher divorce rate? We think not."

Additional observations from informants in the field are required before any firm generalizations can be drawn. I am particularly interested in ascertaining if there is a stratified shiduchim market. Is it true that shadchanim (matchmakers) favor fashionable girls over equally pretty but plainer dressed girls? How many tiers are there? Many such questions come to mind, and enquiring minds want to know. My suspicion is that the 'shiduchim crisis' as it is called is partially caused by a sort of winner take all competition. Some girls/guys in the so called first tier get as many matches as they want. Others get few or none. Much of the anguish comes from families being unaware or unwilling to accept the somewhat arbitrary segmentation of the shiduchim world. I would think shadchanim benefit from acting dumb. ('' I am doing my very best, Mrs. X…You know, it’s not so easy…call me after the Yom Tovim…'')

Wherever the exact line of appropriate behavior will eventually be drawn, enormous credit has to be given to the Orthodox community for maintaining, not only the standard of tzinuis, but even more importantly, the standard of dressing up on a regular basis, what I called in a different context, “being farputzed.” I don’t know of any other community in America where people continue to dress formally for dinner on a regular basis. Orthodox and other traditional Jews, dress up for shabbus every week. There is a tradition in America of dressing to the nines, but frequently it is not a high bourgeois sort of dress. If you go to Vegas, you can see a lot of women wearing their finest, but it frequently has a trashed out quality. The men walk around in khakis and jeans. Similarly, you can go to a Latino nightclub where the women are over the top (stilettos, halter tops, low-cut or backless shirts in the winter, glitter), but the guys are wearing jeans and gel. The bourgeois tradition lives on at opening nights at the opera, fancy dress balls, weddings, funerals and the like. If the base line is late nineteenth century aristocratic English dress of tuxedoes and gowns, Orthodox Jewry is closer to that standard than any other group in America. One might think of the black, black, black/ white shirts of Ultra Orthodoxy as the heimish version of a tuxedo.

I, myself, find the tradition of dressing up very valuable. I think the closer one gets to high bourgeois life and the farther one gets from Birkenstock socialist aesthetics, the more attractive Jewish life becomes. As I understand the situation, some Modern Orthodox believe it’s the other way around. They believe if I understand it correctly, that the tradition of high European bourgeois culture has been corrupted, especially because of the Holocaust and the horrible years that led up to it. They feel it is far better, depending on the context, to dress up for shabus and yom tov by adopting a kibbutz, open-collar, sandal look, or a suburban casual look than to emulate the stiff formality of Budapest 1910 or London 1890. Interesting disagreement. We might even have an example of a contra- Heilman situation where the Holocaust had a greater effect on MO than the charedim.


At 11:01 AM, Blogger e-kvetcher said...

The downtown Evanston Vaad? Isn't Evanston near Yehupetz?

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We lived in the midwest when our daughter went to a Bais Yaakov, graduating in the late 90's. They dressed nicely, but no high fashion. Are we talking here about something new, or about a basically New York phenomenon?

Our son, now learning in Lakewood and dealing with shidduch opportunities, is looking specifically for good midos + nonflashy attire.

I think he and many others who want to go on to Kollel life realize that there won't be enough money to accommodate champagne tastes.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

e-kvetcher...Comparing Evanston to Yehupitz is a new low point in the history of this blog. I am consulting with other members of the Vaad for an appropriate response.

anonymous...As a resident of Chicago you know that the charedi world, and elsewhere in Jewish life as well, is organized as a pyramid with some very wealthy Jews and influential rabbis acting as an oligarchy in terms of power and influence. There are strata of this elitist group, even in Chicago, but certainly in NY and LA that lead jet set affluent lives. When I am in a jocular mood and joking around I refer to them as the Schottenstein 100. The numbers are considerably larger. I believe what I wrote is an important factor in the life of European Orthodoxy, Antwerp, London, Zurich, Paris, etc. My own feelings are best described in my post 'Four Talmudists...'.

At 5:45 PM, Blogger Walker Stubbes said...

What the hell? This is almost written in English.

At 7:00 PM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Very interesting comments on clothing culture in various Orthodox communities. I personally think that the informal trend in MO is due more to Israel and Zionism than to the "fall of European Culture" in the Holocaust. That, and probably being more 'in touch' with the majority culture, which has been trending casualwards for the past half-century or so.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Harry Maryles said...

Disclaimer: My wife is a real knock-out! I was very lucky that way.

But in my view looks are fleeting and irrelevant. There is a much more important thing to look for in a woman. Can she cook?

As we all know "The way to a man's heart, is through his stomach". The great Gadol Rav Eliezer Mann Shach understood that.

He once hosted a group of seminary girls who came to be inspired in their learning. He sat down at the dining room table with them and his wife brought out a plate of cookies. He had one and asked the young women there to partake. They did. After a few moments of chewing, he asked them, “How do you like these cookies?” “They're good, aren't they?” “My wife baked them. Do you know how to bake cookies like that?” And then he walked out of the room.

Wise man... Rav Shach was!

This approach as to what to look for in a woman was immortalized by the late great philosopher James McCleese (aka: Jimmy Soul) and friends (aka: dudes):

"If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life...
Never make a pretty women your wife...
Go for my personal point of view...
Get an ugly girl to marry you”

Dude 1:say man
Dude 2:hey man
Dude 1: I saw your wife the other day
Dude 2: Yeah
Dude 1: Yeah and Shes Ugly
Dude 2: Yeah shes Ugly but she sure can cook baby.
Dude 1: Yeah

At 1:00 PM, Blogger lawrence kaplan said...

Evaston: Great analysis! I agree with Steg, though, re the reasons for the informal trend in MO.

Harry: I'm surprised at you To be sure, cooking is important, but Rav Schach's treatment of the young woman, assuming the story is true, was condescending and insulting. Rather than leaving he could have continued by saying,"Now let's learn." Are you really Harry?

At 2:23 PM, Blogger Harry Maryles said...

Are you really Harry

Yes, I am.

It was a joke. I do not really feel that way, but I couldn't resist referencing that old song. Do you really think I consider knowing how to cook to be the most important asset to look for in a woman?

As for the Rav Shach story, I doubt that it's even true, but it is a widely circulated legend. And I agree that it is very condescending.

At 2:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In NIRC it is known that a certain Rebbetzin tends to favor the girls who are pretty -- and push them up the list. Although it is not so much on her accord -- but rather she is looking out for the guy...

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

I liked the presentation of this issue. Had me in stitches.

Have to disagree with the Va'ad though on the issue of the first date. Good T&A will get many a frum girl well past the first date - oftentimes all the way down the aisle. Men will be men, and many grads of today's Beis Yaakov "lite" type of yeshivish schools (especially from the middle to upper tier) have no idea of any goals in life - or what life is about. If they are "successful" it is because they inherited a bit of money and were "successful" in not squandering too much of it - that's all. So they go all "farputzed" all the way to the wedding with some guy who really doesn't know what he wants out of life either (besides T&A - which is normal for a 17-22 year old). At the first crises - a sick child, a parent dying, the family business going bankrupt et al - boom!! there goes the marriage.

I tend to agree with the Vaad that more of the problem is attributable to the homes than to the schools. As my mother said about mys sisters " the school was good, the teachers were good and had values, it's the other kids that were accepted into the school that influenced them badly". Could be - but schools should be i a place to make some type of demands on parents. Urbanization hasn't been good for the Jews. This is why the heimische/chassidishe have some advantage - they have rules; bend them and you're out of the community, period.

I agree with your analysis about dressing up. Again, this idea is stronger in HC wolrd than in modern litvish. even the Satmar fish monger will come to kaballat shabbat dressed to the nines in a pressed bekishe. the kollel noch-shlepper in Lakowood will come dressed - like a nochshlepper.

Agree with Steg on the MO issue - it's the inluence of Israeli (read: hot, dry Mediteranean) culture. Theer's no way we'll wear wool suits - let alone fur hats. I've seen shabbat jelabiyehs here and there amongst some ashkenazim, but it's rare.

At 2:47 AM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

Hot off the press - The Litvak crackdown on Femme Fatales

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Gandalin said...

"I think the closer one gets to high bourgeois life and the farther one gets from Birkenstock socialist aesthetics, the more attractive Jewish life becomes."

Not only Jewish life.

It should be an obligation to present an appealing presentation to the world. After all, it is the tzelem Eloikim that you are parading around.


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