Please Put the Women Back In

by | in Opinion

I am an artist. Dealing with images is my stock and trade, and I know their value.

That is why when I see the glaring omission of female images from many Jewish publications and dinner advertisements, my heart sinks. I worry that we are following in the chukkat hagoyim of the most radical in the Muslim world and sacrificing something incredibly valuable: images of our righteous women.

The exclusion of female images is a completely unprecedented phenomenon in Jewish history. Indeed, there is a long history of Judaic art portraying women: Esther is illuminated in magnificent megillot; Yehudit is a common motif sculpted on old menorot and in ancient haggadot, women are pictured sitting around the Seder table.

In our own generation, images of Rebbetzin Sima Feinstein appear in a book about her husband, Rav Moshe (Brooklyn, 1986) and a photo of Rebbetzin Itta Ettil Kamenetsky standing next to her husband Rav Yaakov in their family sukkah was published without question (Rav Yaakov [Brooklyn, 1993]).

There is simply no Jewish tradition for this new exclusion.

Why do we suddenly think that women are inherently inappropriate to be seen by men, even if they are dressed modestly? If that is true, let’s break out the burkas! After all, if women can’t be seen on a flat printed page, how can they possibly be seen in provocative flesh and blood at the grocery store? The premise that we need to protect men from possibly seeing a modestly dressed woman is on its face ridiculous and an insult to our husbands and sons; they are not so fragile.

The eradication of female images is a completely unprecedented phenomenon in Jewish History.

Some suggest that it’s just easier this way. The halachot of women’s tzeniut vary so much from community to community with regard to issues such as hair covering, sleeve and skirt length, et cetera, that it is better to just throw all women off the pages and not deal with it. Or so the prevailing attitude goes.

True, tzeniut is complicated. Life is complicated. In fact, words themselves are complicated. There are numerous rules pertaining to lashon hara and their halachot have filled many books. Perhaps we need to throw all the words out of magazines too. After all, lashon hara is a d’Oraita, a Biblical prohibition equated with murder. It’s arguably an even more serious issue than sleeve length.

To be sure, blank pages in a magazine would be a hard product to sell. Fortunately, Jewish publications have come up with a creative solution: editing. Jewish newspaper editors use their judgment to eliminate lashon hara and publish appropriate content. I am confident they can do the same with regard to images of women instead of showing them such disrespect.

Yes, erasing our women is not just ridiculous and unnecessary—it is downright disrespectful. Blurring out someone’s name and image has always been a symbol of abhorrence. That is what we do to Haman on Purim. Now we are choosing to do that to our mothers, wives and daughters.

So what’s the big deal? It’s just narishkeit—who cares?

Our children care. The female images they are exposed to begin with Disney princesses and end with underfed, barely-clothed fashion models. No matter how we insulate our children, these images creep in. Their message is clear: superficial, immodest beauty is the most valued asset a woman has. We must respond to this assault on what it means to be an ishah chashuvah (dignified woman) with powerful images of our own.

Showing our Torah-observant heroines to our daughters and sons emphasizes our values. The paragons of chesed who give of themselves, the rebbetzins who have led Bais Yaakovs, the women who are building their own batei ne’eman b’Yisrael—these are the women we need images of for our children to see and know we value. Why are we surrendering the battlefield of images to the secular world so that our children only get to see printed images of immodestly dressed women? Our blank spaces have no chance of competing with their powerful images.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Please use those thousands of words to tell and show our sons and daughters what a true bat Yisrael looks like. Please put the women back in.

Ann Koffsky is the author/ illustrator of more than 25 books for Jewish children. She is also the art teacher at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. All of her books have images of women. See her work at www.annkoffsky.com.

To listen to an interview with Ann Koffsky, please visit http://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/where-have-all-women-gone-ann-koffsky-stephen-savitsky/.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2012.

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