The past few years have brought an incredible amount of representation of Jewish women outside the meek, funny, curly-haired side character or La Belle Juive. Wonder Woman is arguably the most prominent example, with actress Gal Gadot (the Israeli grandchild of Shoah survivors) playing the world-saving superhero, a massive stride for Jewish women’s representation.
Meanwhile, religious women are left with our only representations being empty characters disenchanted with Judaism. Unorthodox, My Unorthodox Life, and One of Us have all been released by Netflix in the past few years. Religious women are left asking: where is our Wonder Woman? When will we get representation which doesn’t paint us as helpless damsels in distress, but individuals capable of making the decision to wake up every day and continue to live a religious life?
Netflix understands that observant Jewish women are an easy target. We are a demographic which only constitutes about 1.5 million people globally according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. There is a presumption that modest means quiet, that we will take what is handed to us, that we take up so little space, which makes those outside of our community feel enabled to dramatize our struggles for public consumption without repercussion. I am frustrated with the narrative that has been created which relies on women leaving religious life to finally be free. They are missing a key element: freedom means choice. There are still over a million women who feel that their liberation lies in dressing themselves in a long skirt and davening to HaShem every day, and we are also capable of saving the world.
I am reminded of a phenomenon which my close friends and I have witnessed quite a bit in our time in the Jewish activist-sphere: the intersection of antisemitism and misogyny is one which constantly places Jewish women, especially those of us who speak up about social issues, in the heaviest line of fire. Jewish women are consistently doxxed, face unwanted advances from men, and sent threats of graphic (and often sexual) violence. The intersection of our identities as women, religious people, and Jews, creates a perfect storm of the ideal target: three minority identities whose oppression lies in the idea that we are passive, quiet, and easy to walk all over.
Upon examining the inherent nature of the way which religious Jewish women are uniquely targeted because of those three intersecting identities, one quickly realizes that constantly portraying us as brainwashed individuals who are only “liberated” once we are free from the clutches of Orthodoxy is not only diminishing our capacity as individual women, but also furthers the agenda of antisemites whose most visible target is religious Jews.
Of course there are stories to be told of women who have found liberation outside religious life, but leaving out the narratives of all the women who have found comfort, joy, and love in religious communities reveals an underlying agenda. The producers of shows like Unorthodox are not oblivious to this: services like Netflix refuse to back down on this narrow narrative of Orthodoxy as something which women are being forced into and must leave in order to somehow become whole, preying on both antisemitic and misogynistic tropes to attract viewers.
The portrayal of Orthodox Jewish men as greedy, power-hungry, with a need to control those around them coupled with the bias that women are naturally quiet, meek, and unable to stand up for ourselves, especially women who choose to live a religious life, creates a close minded narrative that women’s liberation is a singular track: leave the historically “feminine” behind. This is not a new phenomenon: during iconic feminist author Betty Friedan’s 1997 speech in Washington, DC, she warned women against assuming the masculine “as it has historically oppressed us.” This speech highlights the shortcomings of early feminists in their striving for liberation: most notably, that there was no place for housewives and mothers in the ideal “new age.” Friedan states, “We may now glimpse into the new human possibilities when women and men are finally free to be themselves […] and to define the terms and measures of success, failure, joy, triumph, power, and the common good, together.” The liberation of women should not rely on giving in to one idea of how women may advance; it lies in the individual advancement of what makes every woman feel empowered and safe, which in turn will provide collective liberation for all women.
I have talked extensively with those close to me about the freedom which I have found in Orthodoxy, as a young woman who has survived sexual assault and taken on the mitzvos of tznius (modesty) and shomer negiah (the prohibition of touch with the opposite gender outside of one’s family and spouse). Giving women the language to demand consent before being seen, touched, and being heard for their soul, not their body, is incredibly near and dear to my heart. Shomer Negiah especially, the idea that HaShem has given language in His Torah which allows for women to create a safe, empowering environment for themselves, resounds in my soul.
I am not the only one. In the words of one of my closest friends, Hila Oz, a content creator for Aish HaTorah and fellow Ba’al Teshuva, “I would love to see a show which portrays the liberation from expectations of men, whether that be through women being pressured into showing parts of their bodies they do not want to, or the way which many women have felt that they’ve been put into situations in which they did not have the language to say no because of fear of hurting a man’s feelings or, worst case scenario, ending up being murdered… feeling like they owe men something. Shomer Negiah liberates us from that. I would love to see the narrative being flipped on its head where we can realize, ‘oh, the secular world actually can harm women a lot, and Orthodox Judaism gives us the language for this beautiful liberation for ourselves.’”
So I am asking: when will religious women be shown with our unique ability to save the world? When will we see a Wonder Woman in a skirt below her knees, or a heroine with the autonomy to decide on her own what empowers her? When will services like Netflix finally abandon this archaic, single-track idea that women are only free once they leave Orthodoxy, and begin to embrace that embracing a 2,000 year old culture of joy, empowerment, and love can be just as liberating as choosing another path?
I hope, for the sake of young girls who want to live lives like me, to see her soon.