Jewish Madonna – the fascinating and controversial Brenda Turtle

I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I’m not – quote from Brenda Turtle’s tattoo

Brenda Turtle is one of the most beloved and reviled OTD (off the derech) personalities on social media. A Jewish glamour girl, she has a tremendous following on Facebook and Twitter, and uses her platform to talk about why she left the Satmar community and what her views are on life and love. Perhaps her most essential claim to fame are the scantily clad photos she posts of herself in various provocative poses, some of which involve Jewish religious objects such as tallis and tefillin.

A few days ago, Brenda was involved in a car accident, and because of her online persona and following, it hit the news. Immediately, there was the random cause/effect theory in the frum press that Brenda’s accident happened because she left the fold.  Kikar Hashabat ran the story with the subtitle, “This was a message from heaven for her.”

Again, none of us are naviim, nor can we know why bad things happen to anyone. I can only wish that Brenda and her friends involved in the accident should have a speedy refuah shelaima and know no further hurt or sorrow. From her Facebook page, Brenda is more than just an online personality, she is a daughter, a sister, and most importantly, a young mother. In essence, there is a real person behind the personality.

The only comparison I can make to the disparate reactions towards Brenda were the reactions people had towards Madonna in the 1980s and 1990s. You either see the artist behind the image or you don’t. Since I don’t actually know Brenda, I can’t address the allegations that people make against her. Some say that she is exploited and coerced by men to make her controversial photo shoots. Others say that she is under the influence of chemical substances, and more in need of help than of accolades. Some people feel that she uses her good looks to prey upon sheltered Chasidic men who drool over her under anonymous online monikers.  Others say it’s those Chasidic men who prey upon her.

What I find fascinating about Brenda is her method of rebellion. She went from the strict Satmar community of shpitzel and turban, and is now an in-your-face bombshell. She went from a highly segregated society, to spending much of her time online and offline with members of the opposite sex (at least if her social media posts are any indication). She is essentially embodying the worst fears of the ultra orthodox world – using her feminine sexuality as a weapon of control over her adoring frum fanbase.

Beautiful women throughout the ages have inspired awe and envy, both within the larger world and the Jewish world. However, it’s interesting for me to see it played out online in so blunt a fashion. It isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the community putting a pretty woman in her place. I’ve heard of young teenage girls who were “too sexy” for their skirts, too sexy for their shirts, too sexy. Innocent girls, who had the misfortune to develop too early or too robustly for their community’s comfort suddenly have “a reputation.”

Pretty women whose only crime is being more attractive than other wives are sometimes regarded with suspicion, while plainer women engaging in the same type of conversation, applying the same amount of makeup, or wearing the same style of clothing are above reproach. Sometimes a beautiful woman’s only crime is receiving more attention than her neighbor.  Is jealousy, subliminal or overt, a motivation for why some women criticize Brenda?

I do see a certain activism and artistry in some of Brenda’s most controversial photos where she is wrapped in phylacteries or draped in nothing more than a tallis. While it might not be my method of making a point, she does remind me of Madonna in her early years, where she used the shock value of combining brazen sexuality and religious symbolism to make statements about individuality, religious coercion, feminism, and breaking societal taboos.  Madonna’s banned Pepsi commercial is one such example.

There is something both heartbreaking and inspiring about Brenda. In some ways, some of her followers display their own hypocrisy by gobbling up every risqué photo while simulataneuosly criticizing her for them. Some of these same men who might feel that Brenda’s accident was divine retribution would happily pay to take her on a shopping spree or enjoy an afternoon of shomer negiah (she stipulates no hanky panky) face time. The question is who is playing who? Are men stripping Brenda of her façade or is Brenda stripping men of theirs? If both sides are playing a symbolic game of strip poker, I’d say the men have already lost their pants.

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No, you can’t have your cake and eat it too

sexual harrassmentOy veh! Did you hear about the female Mashpia who was accused of hanky panky at Jerusalem’s Yeshivas Rabbeinu Moshiach? This sad excuse for a tzanua engaged in regular yichud with bachorim entrusted to her by their parents who are far away in Chutz La’Aretz! Rachmuna litzlon! No you didn’t hear? That would never happen because yeshivas don’t hire women to work in direct contact with their boys? Baruch Hashem!

Of course, how could I have thought such a thing! Yeshivas would never engage in such impropriety as to hire women! My apologies to the nonexistent female Mashpia! Now remind me, what is the excuse for seminaries hiring men?

Sorry, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  You can’t indoctrinate women with the idea that men are animals who can’t control their sexual urges and then paint them as holy bastions of indifference and self control when they have the title “Rabbi” tacked in front of their names. It doesn’t work that way. What applies to one applies to all.

As such, just because a man happens to have semicha –

  1. No, he may not seclude himself in a closed room with female students or congregants.
  2. No, he may not put himself in a position where he is bosom buddies with vulnerable young women far from home and craving the security of an older mentor they can trust.
  3. No, he may not flirt and call it charisma.
  4. No, he may not invite or accept girls flirting with him and claim ignorance of their behavior or intentions.
  5. No, he may not invite girls to sleep over at his home on Shabbos and Yom Tov – even when his wife is sleeping in the next room over.
  6. No, he may not act as a dorm monitor.
  7. No, he may not grill girls about their experience with boys or personal discussions related to sex in any way shape or form.
  8. No, he may not confide his marital troubles to the females under his charge.
  9. No he may not justify yichud or negiah as the only solution to helping out an “at risk” girl.
  10. No he may not enjoy parents’ tuition dollars in exchange for molesting their daughters.

No, men can’t have it both ways. If, as women are repeatedly told, we can’t comprehend the level of perversion and depravity that men are constantly struggling against, than men can’t feign innocence when they are called out on their bad behavior. At the end of the day, rabbis are only men, and should be held to the same standards of behavior as every other man.

Men lay down the law

With the evolution of Yoatzots – female halachic advisers to other women regarding the laws of family purity – one might think that these advisers would have the authority to poskin on niddah shailas. There are those Yoatzots who go even further in their training to become “niddah nurses” or “bodeket taharah” who are trained to do gynecological speculum exams to determine if the source of a woman’s bleeding is from the uterus or from a wound, thus more accurately determining if the woman is a niddah or not.

However, even with the advancement of highly trained female experts in the area of niddah, none of the women currently acting as advisers serve as poseks, or a final authority on a woman’s status, nor is that their goal. Rather, their role is to act as an intermediary between a woman and a rabbi.

The role of an intermediary is essential, as many women don’t view their rabbi in the same vein as a doctor, despite exhortations from kallah teachers that a rabbi functions in the same manner. Many women are reluctant to expose personal information such as details about their intimate life and bodily functions to a man they have heretofore known only from a professional distance.

Often, this professional distance between women and their rabbis is protected by an anonymous system of shaila envelopes. Basically, a woman can put a bedika cloth (white square inspection cloth), her underwear with the questionable stain, or the cut-out crotch of suspicious underwear into a sealed envelope (unmarked but for a phone number) and pop it into the rabbi’s mailbox. If she doesn’t mind being identified, she might ring the door bell and hand the envelope to the rabbi’s wife, but she risks the door being answered by the rabbi himself or his children. Some women send their husbands to the rabbi with the envelope, but many men are just as embarrassed as their wives by the task.

Essentially, the more anonymous the process, the higher the comfort level is for most women. This desire for anonymity can limit the flow (forgive the pun) of information the rabbi is given about the shaila in front of him. Questions such as what day the woman is at in her cycle, if she is post-partum, if she had a recent medical procedure, etc. can all help determine the status of the shaila.

While follow-up questions via telephone can help clear up some of those answers, a more in depth conversation could prove more enlightening and help a woman remain tahor or hasten becoming tahor. Female Yoatzots help to more comfortably facilitate those conversations, as they relay those details to a rabbi for women who aren’t comfortable doing so themselves.

However, when it comes to making the final call on a niddah shaila, even those pioneer women who have studied, certified, and taken it upon themselves to become instructors in hilchos niddah agree that a man should be the ultimate authority on determining a woman’s status.  In the end, it’s a rabbi who must assess our discharges and confer a halachic state of tumah or tahara.

While many women today have female bosses, physicians, and teachers, in the orthodox world, females are taught that ultimate leadership rests with the men. I recall one such comment made by a woman on a post I wrote critiquing the installation of an all-male board for our local mikvah association –

“…men are less emotional and would probably think more logically and differently them a woman. i’m all pro male judges/leaders. I’m super petrified of potentially hormonal irrational females. and yes, i’m female myself.

A similar sentiment is seen here in in this book excerpt from The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh by Varda Polak-Sahm. The excerpt gives an example of the dismissal of a balanit/mikvah lady’s determination that a post cosmetic surgery patient can’t immerse until her stitches are removed:balanitThis passage made me see things in a slightly different way regarding the debate between women and intrusive mikvah ladies.  While I am just as against unjustified intrusion as the next woman, I can’t help but wonder if the same battles would be fought if mikvahs were staffed by male rabbis.  After all, I myself submitted to the ultimate mikvah intrusion by rabbis when I was a young woman and felt powerless to say a word.  I’m not saying it would be better to suffer indignities in silence, but I’m merely making an observation that women are far quicker to speak out against female authority than male authority.

Mikvah ladies are the closest things we have to female halachic poseks, as they are on the front lines determining whether a woman can or can’t immerse.  Look at all the trouble and resentment that can be caused by even that little bit of authority!  As women, aren’t we also guilty of being critical of feminine religious authority simply by virtue of gender?  Do we, as Jewish women, perpetuate the dis-empowerment of fellow Jewish women as religious leaders?

Leaving on a jet plane

elalAfter yet another bout of adolescent friction with my oldest son, I joked, “That’s it! You have four weeks to move out of the house!”

My youngest son looked at me, and said, “You can’t kick your child out of your house!” and I told him, “Watch me!”

My oldest son merely rolled his eyes, because he’s scheduled to leave for Israel at the end of August to learn in yeshiva for the next year. Apparently, we forgot to spell out these plans for our youngest son (oops!), and when I explained my joke to him, he looked at me wide eyed and said, “He can’t go to Israel! That’s where all the bombs are!”

Funny, because that’s exactly what I have been thinking for the past month.

I’ve been chided about my fears considering that I live in the murder capital of the United States. However, what the news doesn’t tell you is that the majority of murders happening in Chicago are the result of gang warfare on the south and west sides of the city. Those of us living in neighborhoods outside of typical gang territories aren’t likely to get caught in the crossfire – and being a “member of the tribe” doesn’t constitute belonging to a rival gang in these parts. Not so in Israel.

It seems it’s a badge of honor to visit Israel or send children under the Iron Dome during this time of active conflict. Most people I’ve talked to downplay the danger to average Israeli citizens, even though we read about the daily red alerts sending people scrambling into their mamad (bomb shelter).

Whenever my family and I have planned a trip to Israel, the possibility of violent unrest always loomed in the background. When my husband and I visited around the end of the second intifada in early 2005, restaurant and store owners, obviously hurt by the decrease in tourism due to the violence, rolled out the red carpet for “the brave American tourists” who came to patronize their businesses despite perceived safety risks. Handwritten signs stuck to store windows beckoned tourists inside so that shopkeepers could show their gratitude for our patronage through special discounts and personal assistance.

My feelings as a mother sending her son to a faraway country currently in the middle of a war (Operation Protective Edge, a more fitting name for a disposable razor, than a military operation) is different than my feelings when I went to Israel with my family. In some ways, I would be less nervous if we were all going, than I am with my 17 year old son traveling alone and unfamiliar with what safety precautions to observe in Israel’s volatile atmosphere.

My apprehension seems silly compared to what Israeli parents cope with on a regular basis; sending their children directly into the line of fire as they enter the IDF. Still, my anxiety grows as each day brings an escalation to the current conflict and both sides seem intent on not backing down. I try to remember all the reasons we chose to send our son to beis medrash in Eretz Yisroel, when there are many fine institutions for post high school Torah learning right here in the United States. In fact, he could have continued on to the beis medrash program in his own alma mater, as many of his classmates chose to do.

My son asked a shaila of a local posek, “Is it assur to go to Israel due the current military situation?” He was told that it all depends on the state of mind of the person going. It isn’t assur to go to Israel, especially since his purpose for going is to learn Torah, which offers protection in and of itself. However, if the current state of affairs will cause a high level of anxiety, than it is assur for that person to go to Israel. Unfortunately, the psak mentioned nothing about the level of his mother’s anxiety.

Pantyhose Warriors

edenPhoto from collive.com

Operation Protective Edge is being fought on two fronts – we have the IDF on the battlefield and the talmidei chachamim in the beis medrash. Now we have a third battalion coming in to reinforce Israel’s defense – the Pantyhose Warriors of Crown Heights. This initiative is called Project Eden.

PROJECT EDEN has a three-pronged effect: Firstly, it involves KIDS, Tinokos Shel Bais Rabban, our guarantors whom we turn to in times of trouble (think: 22 thousand children in the times of Mordechai and Esther). It’s all about ACHDUS – One nation, united, wherever we may be, giving of ourselves to help Israel. Thirdly, it’s about TZNIUS- our sure-fire protection.

HERE’S HOW IT WORKS:

Starting Sunday, 22 Tammuz (July 20) until Monday, 8 Av (August 4), Every girl who comes to day camp dressed in Tznius attire (i.e. clothing which keep necklines, elbows, knees and feet covered at all times) will receive an EDEN card. Eight such cards entitle a girl to a free ice cream at Sweet Expressions or the Ice Cream truck. All cards will be entered into a raffle for a $100 gift certificate at Sweet Expressions or Hamafitz Judaica.

What I find especially cruel is that girls aren’t even allowed to eat ice cream in public anymore (or maybe this Lakewood phenomenon hasn’t hit Crown Heights yet?)!

To me this is another example of random cause and effect that some people love to attribute to tznius observance or lack thereof.  For example, this flyer exhorts people to pray that manufacturers of pritzus clothing change their styles to tzniusdig designs.  Apparently pritzus clothing causes the flu, cancer, and off the derech children.

fluPhoto from Tznius Craziness

Another flyer tells us that dressing modestly protects us from illness and pain.  One poor woman found this out the hard way when she developed a malignant tumor from wearing a partially covered sheitel (a fall?).  Fortunately, she took the advice of her rav and began wearing a sheitel that fully covered her hair and the tumor went away.

sheitePhoto from Tznius Craziness

Lest we think that only tznius dress is the focus and not behavior, we have this flyer which tells women that if they refrain from talking on their cell phones in public, their sacrifice will merit a refuah for a beloved rabbi.

cellPhoto from Tznius Craziness

Judging from the comments on the article, people are thrilled with this new campaign involving dressing girls more modestly.  The only complaint one person had is that the little girl on the flyer isn’t so tzniusdige with her long loose hair.  Also, this effort shouldn’t be reserved only for the children; mothers should embark on a similar campaign.

I have no problems with teaching girls about tznius, but to burden them with the concept that by dressing modestly they can alter the course of a volatile and deadly war?  That borders on cruelty.  If Israel decides to send ground troops into Gaza and soldiers and civilians are injured or worse, God forbid, it won’t be because little Malky’s socks were too short or Shira’s elbows poked out from under her sleeves as she hung from the monkey bars.

As parents it’s our responsibility to teach our girls about modesty, self-respect, and respect for others.  However, it’s also our job to protect them from psychological damage.  Imagine a poor girl who has family in Israel, and who may have lost a relative to terrorism.  What level of responsibility will she feel if it’s been drilled into her head that her clothing choices can affect the outcome of a war, or worse, war casualties?