JTA — As soon as the unusual advertisement began circulating in Orthodox Jewish WhatsApp groups on Sunday, so did the debate: Could modesty toes actually be real?
Appealing to Orthodox women who want to look great but conform to their communities’ standards for conservative dress, the ad peddles “high quality” and “durable” silicone toes that buyers can slip on over their own, allowing them to wear sandals without having their own feet be seen.
“Do you want to be fashionable but also tzniuysdyig?” the ad says, using a Yiddish form of the word for modest. “Do you want to look stylish but would never c’v [God forbid] wear open toes [sic] shoes?”
The ad resembled many real ones that circulate in the haredi Orthodox marketplace, where orders often must be placed by phone or in person because internet use is frowned upon and small-batch innovations that facilitate religious observance hit shelves frequently. But it also smacked of satire at a time when some Orthodox Jewish women are trying to push back against norms that dictate their attire, police their accessories and keep their faces out of some Orthodox publications.
Speculation about whether the mysterious ad is real or a prank — and what each might mean for Orthodox communities — has occupied a segment of the Orthodox world this week. Many are calling the product “toe sheitels” for the similar role they play to sheitels, or the wigs some married Orthodox women wear to cover their own hair in keeping with Jewish tradition.
“Some think it is real. Some think it is a joke,” Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, a longtime activist in Orthodox feminism, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the toe sheitels. “I think it is a joke. But I think the fact that so many think that it isn’t is a problem — the fact that it is plausible.”
The ad listed a phone number with an area code in New York’s Hudson Valley area for placing orders. Multiple calls this week by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency starting on Monday went straight to voicemail — perhaps one indicator of the business’s seriousness.
At least one person appears to have gotten through. In a widely circulated video taken Monday morning, a man holds back laughter during a seven-minute call with the person who answered the phone, who identifies herself as Chana. The caller probes the company’s offerings, learning that the toe coverings can be customized in different skin tones for Ashkenazi and Sephardi clients. They can also come with nail polish in shades named after Orthodox schools.
Buyers who want bunions or moles to make their fake toes more realistic have that option as long as they’re willing to pay for it, the caller is told.
“You know sometimes when a woman gets a sheitel and they sprinkle fake dandruff in the sheitel?” Gvuras Chana says. “So it’s like that.”
The conversation hits on several contemporary controversies in Orthodox communities. Orders can take some time because the fake-toe supply chain from China was interrupted by “the fake disease COVID,” the sales rep says, alluding to medical misinformation that has been rife in the Orthodox world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The color named after Yeshiva University could change, she says, if the Supreme Court allows it to reject what she calls “the gay club,” referring to the LGBTQ student group that has been battling the Modern Orthodox flagship university for the right to operate. (On Wednesday, the court said the school would have to allow the club while pursuing a legal effort to bar it.)
And after telling the caller that people who pay for expensive vacations over Passover can likely afford the new product, Chana offers an explicit critique of the competitive displays of wealth that are characteristic of some Orthodox communities.
“It’s not supposed to be another measurement of how much money you have and how fancy you can be,” she says. “Although, we’re afraid that it might get to that.”
The call was authentic, the caller’s wife posted on Facebook, adding that the couple was not connected to the company or the prank, whichever it was. Others who could fit the profile of a toe-sheitel fabulist also said they were not involved, both publicly and to JTA, which contacted half a dozen women suggested as likely suspects because of their feminist activism or history of Orthodox parody videos.
The tradition of covering one’s hair after marriage is rooted firmly in Jewish law, known as halacha, and Orthodox women who are pushing for greater women’s leadership generally do not oppose it. Toes are not subject to specific laws, but there is a general commandment to dress modestly, as well as countless examples of rabbinic decrees and community norms expanding the bounds of what is considered modest.
But in parts of the Orthodox world, there are disputes about the use of human-hair wigs, which can cost up to $3,000 and require salon care, with some arguing that an expensive and realistic wig defeats the purpose of wearing a hair covering for modesty purposes. Some Orthodox women will instead choose to cover their hair with a scarf or hat. The existence of designer wigs can also put financial pressure on women who feel compelled to blend in with the other women in their community.
The toe sheitels can be understood as a commentary of some of those dynamics. But the images in the ad offer little illumination about whether the service is real. Prosthetic toes like the ones in the ad are used by people with foot injuries or congenital conditions and people who have had toes amputated due to complications from diabetes; they can be found easily with a quick Google search. The fake toes in the ad also resemble those used by nail technicians to practice nail art.
Other replicas of body parts have been produced for observant Jews in the past, though for different reasons. In 2015, an Israeli barber came out with a kippah made of synthetic hair so men could meet the requirement to cover their heads without immediately outing them as religious Jews.
Chochmat Nashim, an organization whose name means “the wisdom of women” and aims to include women in Orthodox decision-making, said online that it had not created the ad. The group has been focused this week on a new cookbook released by ArtScroll, an Orthodox publisher, in which women are represented by photographs of ingredients, not themselves. Many Orthodox publications do not show women, citing modesty reasons, a practice that Chochmat Nashim and others argue erases women from their own communities.
Chochmat Nashim said the toe sheitel ad and the response to it had raised an important question.
“What happens when we are so far gone that you can’t tell the difference between reality and satire?” the group wrote in an Instagram post. One commenter said she would have been sure it was satire — except that she had personally heard a rabbi say that women’s toes should stay covered.
“For the record, it is satire,” Chochmat Nashim added later, without explaining its knowledge. “The question is how do we ensure that it always will be? How do we push back the sexualization of everything female and the warping of Judaism that we see now, which let’s face it, isn’t too far off from this?”
By midweek, parodies of what might or might not have been a parody began to pile up, including ads for fake breasts as well as T-shirts depicting breasts, designed to allow modest toplessness, and for plastic “collar concealers” meant to allow strapless tops without revealing too much collarbone. (Shells, or thin partial shirts covering the collar and shoulders under clothing that reveals those areas, are already sold in Orthodox communities.)
The email address listed for the company selling collar concealers yielded an immediate and enthusiastic response to an inquiry.
“The collarbone concealer company is not related to the prosthetic toe company,” the address responded. “We are just bringing out the same concept of trying to be modest … while being able to wear your favorite dress (or shirt). … We are both trying to bring the ultimate redemption.”
Another email followed moments later saying what the toe sheitel company had not: “This whole thing was supposed to be a joke between a few friends,” the not-company said, “since we were all laughing at the toe one!”