I have a confession to make-I have not watched one episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I do not follow the lives of anyone in the family. However, I found it fascinating to see that on an ultra-Orthodox website Kim Kardashian’s photo was removed from a picture of her, Kanye and Mayor Nir Barkat of Jerusalem. Not only was her picture removed but it was replaced by an enlarged receipt from a different restaurant! Why was this done? Because Kim Kardashian is considered a “pornographic symbol” in the Orthodox world. Not only that, but the article went on to indicate that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, German Chanceller Angela Merkel and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had all had their pictures removed from ultra-Orthodox publications.
I find this both amusing and sad, for a number of reasons. First, Kanye is no Pat Boone, yet the Ultra-Orthodox site decided to keep him in the picture. This demonstrates for me one of the big inequalities in the ultra-Orthodox world: western female celebrities are seen as sex symbols to be excised while no such thing is done regarding male celebrities. Females are routinely cut out of ultra-Orthodox publications, yet I know of no example of a male being cut out. In addition, what good does it do to pretend that Kardashian was not present? Would there be more legitimacy to Barkat meeting with Kanye West alone? Should all women be cut out of publications by virtue of their being a woman?
Two images from my year in Israel (2008-09) instantly came back to me upon seeing this article. One was the Jerusalem mayoral election that fall, when Barkat narrowly won his first election over the ultra-Orthodox candidate Meir Porush. My classmates and I were thinking what would happen if Porush would get elected? Would all buses in Jerusalem have a mehitza (separation between men and women)? Would a law be passed forbidding anyone to drive on Shabbat? Instead Barkat, a secularist, was elected and remains mayor.
The other image that came to mind was taking a Sherut (communal taxi) back from Netanya to Jerusalem after the first night of Passover. After I got on with a female friend, the driver stopped in an ultra-Orthodox part of Netanya. One of the women outside the Sherut signalled to my friend to move to the back of the Sherut. When she did not do so, she was called a chutzpanit (a woman demonstrating shameless audacity) because she didnt respect their customs. It felt to me like a Rosa Parks moment, and I was proud of my friend for not moving.
Since then I have heard of an El Al plane from New York to Israel being delayed because a woman would not sit next to a man she was not married to. There is a prohibition in the ultra-Orthodox world of touching someone of the opposite sex who is not a member of one’s family. While I respect the ultra-Orthodox view on modest (tzniut), if I was in that situation I would likely not move as well.
There needs to be limits in place. Sitting next to someone of the opposite sex or accidentally touching him/her is not the same as having “forbidden sexual relations” with him/her. I am afraid that so many fences around the law have been put up here that we have lost sight of what the law is. In addition, I worry about the “forbidden fruit” mentality-that banning pictures of women or any contact with women whatsoever for men does one of two things: it either makes women something to be feared and shied away from or it increases one’s intrigue and desire for the opposite sex so intensely that it makes it more likely for “forbidden sexual relations” to occur.
I welcome all thoughts and feedback. Let me just say that I do respect the ultra-Orthodox view on modesty-as long as their view does not infringe on the rights of others who see things differently. Unfortunately I see the latter occurring more and more.