Modesty — tzniut, to call it by its Hebrew name — is a spiritual value by which all Jews are supposed to guide themselves (although it is a value that generally the Orthodox world stresses more than liberal Jews do).
Modesty — tznius, to call it by its more down-home Yiddish name — is a practical regulation that governs what Orthodox women wear, and how they present themselves physically in the world.
The Jewish Art Salon has put together an exhibit called “The Invisible Jew,” in which 38 artists from around the country, the continent, Israel, and the world examine, as the long subtitle tells us, “the lack of representation of women in Orthodox media, the circumstances that allowed it, its consequences, and related issues.”
The exhibit will be in Red Bank (see box), but two of those 38 artists, Miriam Stern and Joel Silverstein, are from Bergen County.
“I’ve been doing work around this issue since the early 1990s,” Ms. Stern said. She lives in Teaneck, grew up Orthodox, and dislikes labels but now belongs to both an Orthodox and a Conservative shul — and is married to an Orthodox rabbi, Dr. Michael Chernick, so her credentials are unassailable. “The first show that I had was at Yeshiva University, and it was about wigs and covering the body (and I give YU credit for exhibiting it).” But Ms. Stern makes clear that her work is not about passing judgment on the way modesty is defined or enforced — or about anything else, for that matter. “I just ask questions,” she said. “I don’t ever say that this is wrong or stupid. That is not at all the point. The point is to think about what it means to be modest.
“Is it just about the length of your sleeve, or does it have other layers of meaning?”
Ms. Sterns remembers a piece that she did in the mid-90s. It shows Drew Barrymore “sitting in a very provocative way, with her legs stretched out. On the other side of the painting, it showed her sitting in the same way, but with her legs covered up by a long skirt.
“The name of the piece was ‘Double Exposure.’ The question was whether she was modest. In my opinion, she isn’t modest in either.” Even in the side where she’s wearing a long skirt, “she still is sitting there with her legs spread,” Ms. Stern said.
“It’s about who you are and how you present yourself,” she continued. “It is not just how many inches below the elbow your sleeve is.
“A big part of that exhibit was about married women covering their hair, about the choice between a wig as opposed to a kerchief or a hat,” she said.
In 2015, the artist Jim Shaw put up an exhibition in Mass MOCA, the contemporary art museum in North Adams. “It had nothing to do with tzniut, or with women, but he used crazy wigs,” Ms. Stern said. “They were outrageous. I took photos of the wigs, and then I revisited the idea of using these crazy, crazy wigs, and then I realized that I should revisit the part about clothing also.”
The wigs’ flamboyant fabulousness inspired Ms. Stern. She looked at the divide between the outrageousness of pop stars and the behavior expected of Orthodox women. So she found photographs of some famous (and famously scantily dressed) singers, actors, and other celebrities. She made a piece called “Tznius Police”; in that work, “I used a marker to mark out which parts of their bodies shouldn’t be seen,” she said.
“Your attitude, the truth about who you are,” is the thing that other people can see the most clearly. There are women, powerful women, whose power can come through to observers no matter what they wear.”
Look, for example, at the series about Beyoncé. If you were to cut out Beyoncé” — that is, cut out the figure in Ms. Stern’s artwork, paper doll-style — “and put on the modest clothes” — paper-doll Beyonce’s Miriam Stern-created clothing — “I don’t think that she’d be in any way anyone other than Beyoncé. It’s the way she’s standing, and the way she just is.
“It’s about the superficiality of judging clothes,” she said.
“If you think that modesty is a value that should be elevated, both for Jews and for non-Jews, it is important to think not only about the items of clothing you are wearing but how you carry yourself and how you present yourself to the world.
“I think that true modesty doesn’t demand that you walk around hunched over, trying not to be seen,” she added. “And modesty also affects speech. Modesty is a big thing. It’s so much more than the length of a skirt or a neckline. That’s just one small aspect of modesty and it should be individually decided.
“My point is that we should not just look at someone’s outside, and judge them that way. It’s like the old cliché — don’t judge a book by its cover — but the cover also is important. But it’s only one small aspect of the book.
“It’s a very fine line, modesty,” she added. “I really want people to ask the question about what these rules — it’s not Jewish law, but rules — really mean? What are they really trying to do?
“In my 1995 show, I covered a woman from her neck to the floor in a skintight dress. She is all covered up, but is that modest?”
Joel Silverstein of Mahwah is represented in the exhibit by a painting of Tamar, the young twice-widowed woman who had to seduce her father-in-law and risk death for harlotry to be able to claim the honor that rightfully should have been hers. “It’s a favorite painting of mine for a number of reasons,” Mr. Silverstein said. First, it’s because the model for that piece was his wife, Julie Seidman.
Secondly, and perhaps more relevantly for everyone who is related neither to Mr. Silverstein nor to his wife, Mr. Silverstein loves the painting for the insights it has given him into various parts of the Jewish community.
“To Orthodox Jews, Tamar is a heroine,” he said. “Through having sex with Judah, our ancestor, she became the ancestor of David and Isaiah and Jeremiah and the future messiah. She has all that locked down. And she is a heroine because through her will alone, she pinned down the rules.”
But for secular Jews, he continued, “she is a victim, like a child bride in India. She did the best she could under the circumstances. She played her hand well,” and she got God to give her a child, but still she’d remain a victim. It’s good that she got to have an heir, but it is a mark of shame that she had to do that, and that she had to get pregnant to prove her value as a person.
What does Mr. Silverstein think? “I feel like I have a shul of my own,” he said, because he thinks parts of both arguments about Tamar are right. “On the one hand, I do believe that it is special to be the ancestor of David and the Messiah. On the other hand, then you have to sleep with your father-in-law.”
Who: The Jewish Art Salon, which includes artists Miriam Stern of Teaneck and Joel Silverstein of Mahwah
What: Offers an exhibit, “The Invisible Jew”
Where: Detour Galley, 24 Clay St.,
When: The exhibit runs from June 24 to July 12; the opening reception is June 24 from 3 to 5 p.m. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 to 5, by appointment. Call (732) 704-3115.