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'Extremism has become normalized, and it has consequences'

Seeking exposure in religious media, Orthodox women photograph themselves

As an extreme ‘modesty’ trend goes mainstream and the female form is omitted or removed from photos and ads, rights group Chochmat Nashim launches a photo bank so women can be seen

  • Chochmat Nashim co-founder Shoshana Keats Jaskol. (Courtesy)
    Chochmat Nashim co-founder Shoshana Keats Jaskol. (Courtesy)
  • Behind the scenes at a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Laura Ben David)
    Behind the scenes at a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Laura Ben David)
  • Behind the scenes at a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Laura Ben David)
    Behind the scenes at a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Laura Ben David)
  • Behind the scenes at a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Laura Ben David)
    Behind the scenes at a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Laura Ben David)
  • A Jewish Life Photo Bank stock photo of a woman playing guitar in concert. (Courtesy/ Jewish Life Photo Bank)
    A Jewish Life Photo Bank stock photo of a woman playing guitar in concert. (Courtesy/ Jewish Life Photo Bank)
  • Chana Bernstein Arnold and her husband Shmuel 'cooking' for a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Courtesy/ Jewish Life Photo Bank)
    Chana Bernstein Arnold and her husband Shmuel 'cooking' for a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Courtesy/ Jewish Life Photo Bank)
  • Miriam Marizan of Baltimore gardens during her photo shoot. (Courtesy: Jewish Life Photo Bank)
    Miriam Marizan of Baltimore gardens during her photo shoot. (Courtesy: Jewish Life Photo Bank)

NEW YORK — When Miriam Marizan spent four hours on a recent chilly morning being photographed smiling and laughing at flowers, she was sending a message: Orthodox Jewish women belong in the picture.

Yet, as important as participating in the photoshoot was to her, she felt it was even more important for her two young daughters.

“I don’t want them to grow up in a world where they have to disappear,” Marizan said. “I want them to be able to see photographs of Orthodox women and not wonder why [there are no girls and women] older than six or seven in photographs.”

The Baltimore resident is one of hundreds of Orthodox women taking part in the compilation of the Jewish Life Photo Bank. The brainchild of Chochmat Nashim, an organization advocating for Orthodox women’s rights, the project aims to build a vast digital library of stock photos depicting Orthodox women doing everyday things. Beyond the practical nature of the project, it speaks to something larger — ending the erasure of women from much of ultra-Orthodox public life.

While some streams of Orthodoxy in and out of Israel welcome photos of women dressed in culturally appropriate attire, much of the ultra-Orthodox world eschews all portrayals of women in news media, advertising and art. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel and onetime US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton haven’t been immune to the ultra-Orthodox censorship and have been infamously airbrushed out of media coverage.

“This extremist practice of erasing women has become normalized and it has real consequences,” Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, co-founder of Chochmat Nashim, said in a telephone interview from Israel. “Health clinics won’t show women’s photos. Banks and ads for laundry detergents don’t show women. Some Shabbos cookbooks won’t even show mothers and daughters. So we are starting to put women back in the picture.”

Chochmat Nashim co-founder Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll. (Courtesy)

The project, to which The Times of Israel was an early subscriber, went live several weeks ago. So far it has over 600 photographs in more than 30 categories including working, gardening, Torah learning, changing tires, reading with family, birthdays and weddings.

The idea for the photo bank grew from a 2019 post in a Facebook group, where women professionals in marketing and communications were discussing the dearth of stock images of Modern Orthodox women with their hair covered and engaged in normal, daily activities. Searches for such images tended to result in photos of Hasidic men, Muslim women, wig-wearing cancer patients, or nuns. While Modern Orthodoxy does not prohibit publishing photos of women, it seemed that few had taken the initiative to actually photograph them until now.

Miriam Marizan of Baltimore gardens during her photo shoot. (Courtesy: Jewish Life Photo Bank/ Photo by Dina Brookmyer)

“I realized to keep asking for help from Jewish leadership to change policies is a waste of time. It was time to do what needed to be done,” Keats Jaskoll said. “I’m not asking anymore. I’m doing.”

The slide toward this extreme view of modesty, or shmirat einayim — “guarding one’s eyes” from seeing people or things that might tempt one, particularly men, to sin — started in more extreme religious circles, Keats Jaskoll said. Over time, it became normalized to the point that businesses and Orthodox publications started refusing to show women’s pictures.

“It goes beyond Orthodox publications. If you Google ‘Orthodox Jew’ you get pictures of Hasidic men with payot [sidelocks]. Almost every single photo is of a man; you have to scroll pretty far to find a picture of a woman,” said Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, an educator from Baltimore who has studied the issue. “And so you have the internet as a whole erasing Orthodox women.”

A Jewish Life Photo Bank stock photo of a woman playing guitar in concert. (Courtesy/ Jewish Life Photo Bank)

Klein said she recently received a fundraising circular for childhood cancer that only showed pictures of boys. Religious institutions asked women to keep their cameras off during Zoom calls, brochures replaced photos of female speakers with pictures of plants, and in Keats Jaskoll’s neighborhood in Israel flyers with women’s faces were defaced.

Yona Openden, a photoshoot coordinator for the Jewish Life Photo Bank, said opposition to photographs of women and young girls comes from a false understanding of the laws of tzniut, or modesty.

“We always say a picture speaks a thousand words. I wonder how many thousands of words disappear when women are left out,” Openden said. “I understand a personal decision not to be photographed, but that decision should not and cannot come from a false understanding of tzniut. Our faces and images are not inherently not tzniut.”

Yona Openden coordinates photo shoots for the Jewish Life Photo Bank. (Courtesy: Yona Openden)

While the women posing for the Jewish Life Photo Bank are indeed Orthodox, it appears that they aren’t coming from the ultra-Orthodox communities who need the photos most — at least, not yet.

Based in Baltimore, Openden has so far coordinated two photoshoots. There have also been photoshoots in Long Island and Riverdale, New York. In Israel, more than 200 women gathered for two events that took place in Jerusalem, one in Talpiot and the other just outside the Old City.

Women pretended to read to their children, work at computers and exercise. Some wore bridal gowns and formal wear. Some used power tools and others, like Chana Bernstein Arnold, cooked.

“There aren’t many photos that show men and women cooking together. It’s usually the woman cooking and the man is out and about. So I thought let art imitate life and bring my husband along,” Bernstein Arnold said.

The couple, who enjoy making curry in real life, spent the morning pretending to cook.

Bernstein Arnold said she did it because girls and boys, women and men, need to see Orthodox women in a variety of roles.

Chana Bernstein Arnold and her husband Shmuel ‘cooking’ for a Jewish Life Photo Bank photo shoot. (Courtesy: Jewish Life Photo Bank/ Photo by Dina Brookmyer)

“What are we teaching our daughters if they don’t see women? If we don’t show photos of girls and women, then we are showing there is no space for women. And that has unhealthy consequences for the way little boys perceive women as well,” Bernstein Arnold said.

That’s partly what led Yitzi Diskind to be photographed with his wife and two daughters in a Riverdale, Bronx, playground and synagogue.

“We both agree women shouldn’t be erased from Orthodox life. And if you are trying to find stock photo options, you will see a lot of stereotypes. The more representation the better,” he said.

A Jewish Life Photo Bank stock photo of a family eating doughnuts on Hanukkah. (Courtesy: Jewish Life Photo Bank/ Photo by Sarah Raanan)

New photographs are uploaded daily and visitors to the website can submit requests for pictures they want to see featured. Photographers and individuals can also contribute high resolution images. Images can be downloaded from the photo bank for $5 each and a full-site, one year access pass is available for a limited time for $125.

“We need a healthy representation of Orthodox family life and communal life. If we have no pictures of Orthodox women then we have no role models — and you can’t be what you can’t see,” Klein said.

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