• February 1, 2008

Unveiled: the Israeli women in ‘burkas’

Unveiled: the Israeli women in ‘burkas’

Modesty among some strictly Orthodox women can now mean wearing 10 skirts and seven robes. By Michal Levertov in Tel Aviv

A new ultra-modest fashion among some strictly Orthodox Israelis, in which women wear several layers of skirts, robes, scarves and veils and avoid talking to men other than their husbands, is creating a storm of controversy among the country’s religious communities.

The unofficial leader of the trend, often practised in defiance of husbands and in the face of rabbinical reluctance, is Bruria Keren, who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, an strictly Orthodox neighbourhood south-west of Jerusalem.

In a rare interview, Mrs Keren recently told the Ma’ariv newspaper: “The Holy Mothers and the women of Jerusalem used to wrap their bodies and to hide their faces. It is even written in the Torah that Tamar did not see the face of Judah since she was covered.

“The Torah does not change. The body should be concealed so its shape won’t be seen. The face and the body-shape of a woman might be an obstacle to men. The more layers of clothes, the women’s modesty is higher regarded.”

Rebbetzin Keren, a mother-of-ten and a practitioner of alternative medicine, devotes much of her time to silence and prayer, but is also a charismatic preacher to her growing flock.

Her outfit consists of 10 thick skirts, seven long robes, five kerchiefs knotted at the chin, three knotted at the back of the head, and her face hidden behind a knitted linen veil.

The whole costume is covered head-to-toe by several thin shawls. According to Maariv, Rebbetzin Keren’s community consists of about 50 followers in Beit Shemesh, 70 in Jerusalem, and dozens more in Safed and in the Orthodox settlements of Beitar Illit and Elad.

But such extreme devotion does not appeal to the Orthodox establishment, in spite of its own support for tzniut, or modesty.

According to the Ha’aretz newspaper, the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem forced a couple to a divorce — even though the husband appealed for a matrimonial reconciliation — because the woman was totally covered by a veil. They also awarded custody to the husband, in spite of his wife’s complaints of violence, and issued a warrant for a psychiatric examination for her.

One of Mrs Keren’s closest disciples, a convert to Judaism known only as Anne, told Ma’ariv she hopes “that men will demand that their wives would wear the robes and the veil. That in a few years all the men in the Orthodox public would discover the sweetness of the clothes’ layers and the modesty that is behind the veil.”

The women apparently do not feel any solidarity with their Muslim counterparts.

Another follower interviewed by the newspaper, Miriam, 32, said: “People are asking: ‘Who is it? A Muslim? An Arab?’ But there are people in the Orthodox public who insult us, and that hurts us most. Only an Orthodox person knows what an insult it is for a woman to be told that she’s a Christian or an Arab.”

Professor Tamar Elor, a scholar of Charedi society at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, told the JC that there was a strong element of feminine defiance in the phenomenon.

“The decision over the modesty issue, and obsessive discussion about the body, was all in the hands of the rabbis.

“And here, the women took over it and brought it to the edge, just like a former trend in which women gave birth to more children than their spouse wanted.

“It’s as if they say, ‘If that’s my expertise — I’ll excel at it’. Thus, they move the power to their own hands”.