This is Part 2 of Religious Fashion: a series of interviews with people who grew up in strict religious communities about clothing, sex, and how those two things sometimes overlap. If you haven’t read Part 1 you can do that here, which also includes a paragraph introduction to the series.
Part 2: Hasidic Fashion
The Hasidic dress code is one of the most extreme of all religious fashions, and often considered to be the most peculiar by outsiders. Hasidic style has evolved throughout the years, and different sects can be distinguished by subtle differences in attire. Jewish law requires women to dress with extreme modesty–they’re expected to wear loose fitting clothing, thick stockings, and to cover the collarbone, elbows, and knees. Once married, a woman should stop showing her hair in public, and begin covering her head with a wig, hat or head scarf. Some women go as far as to cut their hair off entirely.
Hasidic men traditionally wear a white shirt covered by a dark vest, dark pants, a long dark coat and a black hat. The preference for black goes back to the 18th century, when it was thought to be very gentlemanly to dress all in one dark color. For men, the beard and peyot (sidelocks) are never trimmed or shaved. (As an ex-Hasidic friend of mine once put it, “To shave your beard is to shave the grace of God off your face.”) The Hasidic look is constant all year round, which must makes summers in New York–home to the largest population of Hasidic Jews in the world–pretty darn brutal. Oh, and by the way, that whole thing about Hasidic people having sex through a hole in a sheet is actually a myth. In truth, that was an old Puritan practice that was somehow transposed to the Hasidic community, whereas Hasidic people are meant to have sex completely unclothed, in total darkness.
Lazer and Raizy (cool names) are a couple and filmmaking duo from New York, both in their 20s. They grew up in separate Hasidic communities in and around NYC, and both made the decision to leave their community at the early age of 15. They’ve been dating for two years.
Why is Hasidic dress so distinct?
Lazer: It’s about segregation. Each piece of the Hasidic wardrobe has its own traditions and reasons for being worn, but the philosophy behind the extreme outfit as a whole is that the world should see us as a group. It’s like a suit of armor, making it impossible for you to assimilate. And that, of course, includes sexual separation, too.
You’d never get away with sliding unnoticed into a bar to casually hit on a girl, basically.
Lazer: Exactly–everybody notices you. And it happens within the community, too. For example, once a woman is married she can’t show her hair in public. Some women, like my mother and sisters, cut off their hair and wear a hat, whereas others just wear a wig on top of their hair. And that in itself is another form of separation–if a woman walks down the street in a wig, you know she’s married and belongs to someone, and therefore and you can’t connect with her.
Is it true that some Hasidic women have special, sexy wigs that they wear at home for their husbands?
Lazer: Sure they do. Some women will spend 3 or 4 grand on a wig, maybe one that’s long and blonde, whatever. A friend of mine told me that a Hasidic woman came into a hair salon in Williamsburg and asked for a short, pink haircut to look like Rihanna, and afterward she went to the bathroom, put on her wig, and left. She couldn’t be seen in public like that, but her husband wanted her to look like Rihanna at home.
A friend of mine, who grew up Hasidic, told me that the pockets of a Hasidic man’s coat angle just slightly backward, ostensibly to prevent his hands from coming into contact with his penis. Have you heard of this?
Lazer: Yeah, there’s lots of stuff like this. For example, after your bar mitzvah, when you’re 13, you have to start wearing different underwear–it’s longer and more baggy, because you shouldn’t have any tight fabric around your penis, because the friction could stimulate you sexually. For the Hasidic community, everything is about protecting you from sexual thoughts, because improper actions always begin with improper thoughts.
So, because you were constantly reminded not to think about sex, did that just result in you thinking about sex all the time? It’s like saying to someone, “Don’t think about an elephant.”
Raizy: It definitely creates a sexual tension, and that tension can keep sex on the brain. Like if your principal says, “Why are you wearing this tight outfit, is it to make the men like you?”, you’re going to start evaluating your sex appeal, ya know? Did you know that in Jewish newspapers there’s no images of women at all? They’re all blurred out, even if it’s a photo of a little girl, which obviously is sending the message that a photo of a female child is too titillating to be seen, and in doing that you’re forcing people think about sex in association with the image of a kid, even if that wasn’t the intention of the person looking.
Lazer: The schools actually hire people, whenever the new textbooks arrive, to cross out all the pictures of girls in the textbooks for the boys schools, in order to eliminate temptation.
So if there’s no contact, do you end up becoming terrified of the opposite sex?
Lazer: Basically. When boys are young we go to Yeshiva, where we study the Talmud, and girls aren’t allowed. So basically from when you’re 12 until you’re 18, or really until you’re married, you don’t have any contact with girls. Like even at home my sister wouldn’t come close to me. So in Yeshiva a lot of the guys started to hook up sexually with each other, because everyone’s young and developing sexually, and the natural desire is to fool around and experiment. But for us there wasn’t even the choice of “should I pick a boy or a girl?” or “should I be gay or straight?” because at that age your only option was to be with a guy. I think most of the guys who were in Yeshiva with me fooled around, and the girls did the same thing in the girls schools. It’s basically like being in jail–it’s obvious why so much homosexuality goes on in jail, because you can’t force people to shut off their sexual desires, and so naturally people experiment with what they have available to them.Raizy covered, and Lazer and Raizy now
So did both of you have gay experiences before being with someone of the opposite sex?
Lazer: Yes, I fooled around with lots of guys before I was with a girl. It took me years to be comfortable even talking to a girl. The concept was just so foreign to me.
Raizy: My first experiences were with girls. It would happen when my friend’s and I were hanging out at each other’s houses, or when a bunch of girls would get together over a long Shabbat, because literally there’s nothing for you to do except sit around with a bunch of girls the whole time. Sometimes girls would hook up on the staircase to the roof at our school. But since I left I’ve basically only been with men, aside from a couple makeouts. Girls weren’t really for me. When I was 14 I had my first boyfriend, which wasn’t allowed so I was always sort of a troublemaker–I always thought differently and was really curious. I told my whole class about sex when I was 8.
You’re together in a heterosexual relationship now. Do you think you’re younger experiences made you more sexually fluid, or was it ever confusing?
Lazer: Well, that’s the thing–when you finally start hanging out with girls, you’ve had so many experiences with guys that you don’t even know what you are anymore, and it definitely leaves you feeling really confused. I know a lot of Hasidic married men who are still very attracted to guys because of the experiences they had in Yeshiva, because those sexual experiences were really fun, and it felt secretive and exciting and dangerous, whereas with your wife everything is so controlled and premeditated–for example there are strict laws about what days you are allowed to have sex, or even touch your spouse, based around the woman’s menstrual cycle–and because of that it never feels as exciting as back when you were young. So maybe it’s less that they’re attracted to men, and more that they’re attracted to the mindset they were in during those first sexual experiences. I remember, there was one guy in school–I don’t know if I would call him my boyfriend, but he was a boy I hung around with a lot at the time–and he had the keys to all the little closets at school where they kept the books, so we would sneak in and hook up between the bookshelves, and that was really exciting. And that’s why married men still crave it–they want something sexy and exciting and free.
How “bad” is homosexual behavior considered to be in the Hasidic community?
Lazer: Well, for a guy, cumming in itself is a sin, and penetrative sex with a man is not allowed, but fooling around is fine. And girls getting with girls is never mentioned in the Torah as being bad.
You mentioned that there are laws about when you can and can’t have sex. Are there also laws about what you can do–like banned sex positions or something?
Raizy: There are varied ideas about what is and isn’t allowed sexually, and it was even agued about in the Talmud. Like there’s one crazy statement in the Talmud that says if you give oral sex it will make your children blind. Another commentator suggested you should have sex very quickly, like the devil is pushing you.
Up until 20 or so years ago, if you were a religious person, your general views on sexuality wouldn’t have been too far off from the views of society at large. But now that’s we live in such a hyper sexualized society, the strictly religious stand out even more. How does that weigh within the Hasidic community?
Lazer: I would say that the community definitely has to put up a stronger fight now. You hipsters coming into our community is definitely fucking everything up, because young kids can’t even walk outside of their house in their own neighborhoods, because there’s girls walking around in all sorts of skimpy outfits.
Raizy: I see some people in the community getting a little bit more lenient, too. Like they’re starting to get more fashionable, and try to learn about trends. If you’re a Hasidic woman, there’s not a specific type of shirt or skirt you have to wear–as long as your clothes cover the right parts of your body, you’re ok. So a lot of women will go to really expensive stores, like Bloomingdales, and buy designer dresses, and then go to the Hasidic tailor to make it kosher–they make the sleeves longer, extend the length, etc.
Do some girls want to look sexy?
Raizy: Definitely. They just make sure they follow the rules, but that they look hot within those boundaries, and of course you can cover your elbows and your neck and still look sexy. But then there’s other people who make sure they don’t look provocative in any way. We’re taught that the Torah says it’s the woman’s job to make sure a man doesn’t look at you. Basically, the worst thing you could do in your life is to make a man cum, so if you end up walking down the street terrified that a man might look at you and get turned on, and then go home and cum thinking about you.
Raizy: In Israel, there’s a group of women who started covering their whole face, with just a piece of lace around their eyes to see, and they wear a giant black cape, so they basically look like Muslim women. I have an aunt who does this, and we went to dinner recently and I said to her, “Do you really think men don’t look at you because you’re dressed like that? You look like an alien–everyone is looking at you!” And she goes, “Yeah, but when they look at you they go mhaw!, and when they look at me go ugh!” And that’s what makes her happy.
Do Hasidic girls ever wear sexy lingerie under their clothes?
Lazer: When I met her she still dressed very Hasidic, and then when she undressed her underwear would say “kiss my ass” in rhinestones. When she was naked she looked like some LA girl, and when she was dressed she looks like your perfect pious Jew.
Do you think that within the community the religious clothing ever becomes fetishized?
Lazer: Totally. There’s a lot of men in the community who only want a Hasidic woman. Bring them the sexiest woman on Earth, and they don’t want her unless she’s wearing a spiuzel [head scarf]. They want their woman to speak Yiddish during sex. And some men start having fantasies about married Hasidic women too–it’s sexy because it’s not allowed.
I imagine it must feel like a drastic change to stop wearing your religious dress once you leave the community.
Lazer: Leaving is a long process, with many steps, and losing the clothing is usually the last step. You can change the way you think, you can stop keeping Shabbat, but as long as you’re still wearing the clothing, you feel like you belong to the group. It’s a hard step to make because you’re really saying, “I’m different now,” and It makes it hard to go home to your family.
Raizy: Usually, the first rules people break have to do with sex. When I was 14 I first “broke the rules” by hooking up with a guy, but at that time I never imagined that I would later stop keeping Shabbat. Even if you believe in your religion and want to be part of the group, sexual desire is just something so natural, and it feels like only a matter of time before you give in.