On the East Side, clustered around the Providence Hebrew Day School, on Elmgrove Avenue, is an enclave of Orthodox Jews. I live near there, and when I walk to the store or take my children to the playground, I often see the members of this community, the men wearing stiff black hats, the women with their hair covered and long skirts concealing their legs. When I pass them on foot, I say, “Hello,” but often they don’t meet my eye. Sometimes I put an extra effort into greeting them, to see if they’ll respond to me. Over time I began to notice something that I didn’t like: when they didn’t engage with me I would get angry. And when I saw the women, with their bodies encased in clothing and their many children trailing them, I would think how oppressed they must be. I’d get angry about that, too.
When I began making portraits of Providence people, I decided to try to include someone from this community. I contacted the Hebrew school’s rabbi, and, after a series of phone calls, emails, meetings – and even a letter of reference – he asked me to write a short description of my work, which he said he would distribute within the community. Slowly, there followed a wave of openings; I, with my camera, began to be invited in.
I was invited to a morning prayer service, to a winter Purim parade, to a community-wide fundraiser. At one banquet a young woman approached me and said, “You must be the person who wants to meet us.” We chatted, and I asked if I could speak with her again, at her home. When I later got to her house, as arranged, she told me that she’d called the rabbi – twice – to make sure it was okay to let me in. Thinking of the women who didn’t say “Hello” to me on the playground, I asked her why she’d been so wary. She said that all four of her grandparents had been in the Holocaust, and that that colored the way one looked out on the world. This stopped me cold.
During the weeks that followed, I photographed many people in the Orthodox community, including students at the Hebrew school and an elderly rabbi who had taken in two non-Jewish homeless men, saying, “The Talmud doesn’t talk about love for fellow Jew – it talks about love for all God’s children.” But I remained most interested in the women.
For many of the women, the idea of being photographed conflicts with the law of modesty. This topic launched numerous conversations, in kitchens and on front steps, as the women explained to me that the law of modesty led to a kind of freedom: from the world of appearances, from the outside culture’s obsession with women’s bodies, from the gaze of men other than their husbands. Many refused to be photographed, especially if their names were to have been used and their pictures seen widely. But then I met Marina.
Marina was born in Russia and raised as a non-Orthodox Jew, but as an adult she had converted to Orthodoxy. She is now a professional in the financial sector, in Providence. She acknowledged that the law of modesty is complicated, and that in some Orthodox communities it is indeed used to subjugate women. But as someone who has chosen this spiritual path – and written two books on it – she has come to revel in the liberation that the law enables. “True beauty must stem from one’s deeds, speech, and thought, and it radiates from the inside out,” she has written. She described a culture that I know well: one that worships youth and beauty, in which adolescent girls, consumed with anxiety about their looks, often fall prey to eating disorders. Marina said that within the bounds of modesty there is room to concentrate on one’s inner virtues, to see oneself as completely human, regardless of how one’s body, social standing, or material wealth conforms to society’s standards. And she referred to the Orthodox community as a source of support, within which the outside culture’s superficial rules are irrelevant.
When I first met Marina she’d been wearing a snood, a crocheted covering of her head. When I returned to make her portrait, she was wearing a wig. It brushed her shoulders and framed her face in thick bangs. When we stepped outside to make the picture, the late-evening sunlight glinted off the auburn strands.
Back in the house, since we were just two women alone, I asked Marina if she would show me her hair. She said, “No.” She asked if I would get naked in front of a stranger, even if that stranger was another woman. I said, “Probably not.” She said that it was the same thing; my modesty was akin to hers. “It’s private,” she said.
This past weekend, a group of Orthodox women and children were at the neighborhood playground. I have a plot at the adjacent vegetable garden, and while I was working there my T-shirt and pants had gotten muddy. I spotted some of the women I recognized, and I was tempted to say “Hello” to them. But I was self-conscious about my appearance, and didn’t want to intrude. I noticed, though, that nowadays I feel differently about them.