I’m a young woman who visibly wears tzitzit. The public nature of my observance of this mitzvah means that when I leave my home, I become public property to many; in the same way that people feel free to comment on the bodies of or even touch pregnant women, people with noticeable tattoos or piercings, and, as has been written about extensively, black women’s hair, when I wear tzitzit in public, my deviant body — at least for those who recognize my fringes — suspends normal expectations of courtesy and privacy. I’m often approached in inappropriate contexts, and even have had my tzitzit grabbed.
Is there any context in which it is ever appropriate for an older man to approach a young woman and inquire about what she’s wearing under her shirt? (Let’s put aside, for the moment, that male teachers and administrators at Orthodox day schools DO police girls’ clothing, as has most recently been brought to light by a senior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.) Yes, my fringes are visible, but the violation of my privacy I face on a regular basis about my tallit katan is appalling. The typical interaction of “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” followed by an awkward fidgeting and mumble about my tzitzit as the asker realizes that they hadn’t actually formulated a question is always unpleasant for me as an introvert, and irritating in its assumption that my unusual garment means I am open for conversation in otherwise rude contexts. (See: the Israeli police officer who interrupted a date to ask.) Curious women are one thing; while I’m often disturbed to be questioned by strangers in public, part of the reason I wear my tzitzit visible is so that the image of a woman in tzitzit will become normalized — when I first began to consider tzitzit, the one image of a woman I’d seen in tzitzit at a partnership minyan flashed again and again in my brain and strengthened my resolve. Even when strange women approach me and ask if I’m wearing standard “boy tzitzit” or a garment made specifically for women, I’ll answer; this question about what is in some ways my underwear gives me a chance to share my views on the mitzvah with more women, and to share with them the resource that is Netzitzot.
Men, however, take a different tone when they want to know about my tzitzit. Even if the interaction begins typically (“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”), it always escalates to a confrontational tone, if not one of outright hostility. I’m consistently shocked by the way men — never peers, always older and better-educated due to their age — feel entitled to confront and debate me. It is as if my tzitzit suspend all of the courtesy, privacy, and in some cases the basic feeling of safety I should be entitled to in any interaction.
Sometimes, the way men use my tzitzit as an opportunity for harassment is obvious – my deviant body provides an opening for creepiness. On a recent evening on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, I was walking alone when I was approached by a man in a black velvet kippah and scruffy beard. He began (in Hebrew) with the usual: “Can I ask you a question?” I nodded unenthusiastically, and he said “are you wearing tzitzit?” “Yes,” I responded. “Are you a man or a woman?” (His use of the feminine “you” in Hebrew made it clear that he was not really confused about my gender.) “Woman,” I said curtly, and moved to walk away. The man then picked up one of my fringes and kissed it – in the process, brushing his hand along my leg. At that point, I began to walk away in earnest. “Wait!” he said, “I want to talk to you more!” “No,” I told him, and began to cross the street. “But I really want to talk to you!” “NO,” I said, and walked away as fast as I could. Later in the evening, I was subjected to a drunken pun from another man about “tzitzit” and “tzitzim” (the Israeli equivalent of “tits”).
Not all interactions I have with men about my tzitzit are as immediately recognizable as creepy. A few months ago, on a summer program for students in or recently graduated from high school, I was sitting in a common area in a college Hillel, studying my Torah reading for Shabbat afternoon. A male peer from the program, who was sitting opposite me, asked a casual question about my beliefs, with an apology if he had disturbed me and an assurance that I wasn’t obligated to answer if I was busy or uncomfortable with the question. I happily engaged in debate with him, but a graduate student sitting nearby soon interjected. Having not been party to any of the previous conversations I’d had over the course of the program during which I’d explained my conception of ritual obligation, the man began to assail me with a series of rapid-fire questions that assumed a familiarity with philosophy that I, as a then-seventeen-year-old with no particular extracurricular interest in the discipline who had for obvious reasons never taken Philosophy 101, lacked. Feeling attacked and uncomfortable, I answered as best I could, then cut him off and left the room to continue learning my leyning.
I sat down in an armchair immediately outside of the room, curled up with my tikkun. I could hear the man still talking to my peers about me. After about ten minutes of productive practicing, a middle-aged man (whom I had apparently not noticed enter the room behind me and join the still-raging debate about my personal practice) walked up to wear I was sitting, and looked me up and down.
“Are you the girl — oh, you are the one with tzitzit!” (It should be noted that because of the way I was curled in the chair and the way he was looking at me, this comment was made with his eyes directed at my ass.)
I nodded and returned to my tikkun, trying to learn one of the final pesukim. The grey-haired professorial-type, ignoring this obvious cue, plunked himself down in the armchair opposite me.
“Do you wear tzitzit to be like your brothers?”
“I don’t have brothers,” I said curtly, returning my focus to Parashat Pinchas.
“Do you want to be a brother?”
I gaped at him.
“No, it’s okay, you can talk to me about it,” he said, “I’m a psychotherapist.”
I gaped at him some more, angry but too thrown off-balance to think of a response. After an unrelated comment about some organization he ran, the man simply picked himself up and walked away. I sat there, confused, upset, and still two pesukim short of having memorized my leyning.
While I did learn the aliyah in time, this encounter (which, it bears mention, also smacked of transphobia) was simply a more extreme example of the ageist, sexist, entitlement unfamiliar men feel to engage with young women through the veneer of a discussion about ideology. Men should never feel like they can aggressively and confrontationally engage with young women about their beliefs or their outfits, and when they do, their differences in education — what high school student will feel comfortable debating halakha with a rabbi or philosophy with a PhD candidate? — are used as a tactic to silence and overwhelm.
The entitlement of older men to comment on the religious beliefs and experiences of young women came to a head a few months ago in an appalling way. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an Orthodox congregational rabbi and blogger, somehow dug up a piece published by Eden Farber on the New York Jewish Week’s teen writing site Fresh Ink for Teens about her discomfort as a girl attending an Orthodox shul. (Full disclosure: Eden is a close friend of mine and long-time chavruta.) Rabbi Pruzanksy viciously attacked the article and Eden personally — ignoring that at the time of its publication, the writer was fifteen years old. His article deserves a full and angry rebuttal, but the following is a representative quote: “Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.”
In addition to the personal offense I take at comments like “We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine,” there is a deeper attitude of not only condescension, but what for me as a young woman sets off alarm bells of what can only be called creepiness. Why is a middle-aged male rabbi trawling teen sites for two-year-old articles to rebut?
Rabbi Pruzansky’s behavior echoes that of the man who asked me if I wished I was a boy. There is no respect for boundaries, for age dynamics, for differences in education; this disregard of boundaries easily becomes or blurs into outright sexual harassment. When older men appear to treat teenage girls as partners for debate, this is not an expression of respect. This is the most unequivocal display of sexism and entitlement.
Simply because we exist — sometimes, as in the case of my tzitzit, very visibly — and express and act on our beliefs, we are not philosophical cases to ponder or peers to attack (and, obviously, are not merely sexualized bodies). We are articulate, well-read, and confident in our knowledge and practice. We are often happy to publicly and privately speak about the things we believe in, and to risk criticism online and in person for this. This does not make us public property. We are young women. Those who act as if they do not see this factor are those who are most aware of it.