Hasidim are not known for their affinity for social media, so it came as a surprise to see photographs of the 32-year old Hasidic Jew, Satmar Hasid Yoel Weisshaus, appear in a series of American Apparel ads posted on the photo-blogging site, Tumblr.
In two photographs, Weisshaus' body is stretched out across the white sheets of a bed while he leans on an elbow to prop up his head. In the first, he holds his shtreimel (a traditional Hasidic fur hat) on the bed and bends his left knee, and in the second, he leans his head on his right hand while he grabs his hip with the other hand. Another photograph captures him sitting with legs akimbo on a small wooden stool while he rests his hands on his upper thighs. In each image, Weisshaus gazes playfully at the camera.
Yet the journalists covering the photo series have all insisted that the images are notsexualized.
“Scroll past images of showering models in mesh bodysuits and bare-faced girls in just-long-enough hoodies on American Apparel’s Tumblr,” Nina Strochlic writes for theDaily Beast, “and you’ll find a surprising sight: a playful model sporting—along with classic menswear—perfectly curled earlocks, a chest-length beard, and a large, round fur cap.” The Daily Mail and Haaretz both contrast American Apparel’s typical “scantily clad young women" with the Weisshaus series. The Forward claims a departure from “wannabe porn stars” and calls Weisshaus “the most unorthodox American Apparel model ever.” (See References below.)
Why, when a Hasidic man lies on a bed like a pinup-girl, are journalists committed to the idea that these images aren’t sexual?
First, there is some substance to the journalists’ contrasts between American Apparel’s reputation and these photographs. American Apparel is no stranger to media coverage of its notoriously sexualized ads or the sexual harassment lawsuits brought against its CEO, Dov Charney, and the images of Weishauss are surely less overtly sexual than those in many past ads.
Second, Weisshaus is a heterosexual man wearing long sleeves and long pants. The media seems to assume that when clothing covers the body, the image isn't sexual. But an image need not be explicit to have sexual reference. While it’s true that scantily clad bodies often signify sexuality, fully covered bodies may do the same. Women’s and gay men’s bodies are the bodies most often coded as sexual in American media, and Weisshaus is neither a woman nor a gay man; still, if a fully-clad woman were lying down on a bed in the same pose as Weisshaus, would we miss the sexual undertones?
Two distinctive cultural ideas about Hasidim also contribute to the resistance of reporters to see sexuality. First, as observant Jews who wear clothes reminiscent of their Eastern European ancestors, Hasidic men are recognizable and prominent icons of traditional Judaism. Second, Hasidim ostensibly avoid the internet and social media, and live in relatively insulated communities, which prize modesty and strictly defined gender and family roles.
Some critics of Hasidism—as well as other stringent religious groups—argue that Hasidic culture is so restrictive and oppressive that its practitioners have repressed nearly all sexuality. This view assumes that Hasidic culture has no space for the sexualized bodies of heterosexual men.
A particularly nasty version of the "repression" interpretation has surfaced in response to Hasidic sexual abuse scandals. In ways that recall the sexual-abuse scandals involving Catholic priests, critics of the Hasidic community have suggested that the combination of sexual restriction and community insularity has facilitated the ability of adult men in positions of power to molest boys and girls.
Another image of Hasidim, however, runs directly counter to this negative depiction. Many people, especially non-Orthodox Jews, have ceded the task of being devout and of representing religious Judaism to the haredim (Hasidim and other strictly observant Jews). In Israel, for instance, Orthodox Judaism has a monopoly on religious law and Haredi hold a place of privilege: men and women are not required to serve in the military so that the men may continue to study traditional religious texts and so that the women may marry and raise children.
Israel’s nostalgia for “real” Judaism, of course, has its detractors, but the phenomenon exists in the United States too. Every year, dozens of celebrities appear onscreen in the fundraising telethon hosted by the American Hasidic organization, Chabad. During the telethon, hundreds of Jews pledge money despite having little or no connection to the Hasidic world (Chabad raised more than $3 million in 2013).
When the Hasidim are seen as the ideal representatives of pious Judaism, sexualized public images do not fit in the picture. American Apparel’s last photograph of Weishauss may show him sitting on a stool, but it’s no novelty to place Hasidim on a pedestal.
American Apparel on Tumblr. Accessed September 26, 2013.http://americanapparel.tumblr.com/post/59839399273/meet-yoel-weisshaus-yoel-a-chasidish-jew-who.
Strochlic, Nina. "Meet Yoel Weisshaus, the Hasidic Face of American Apparel." Daily Beast, August 5, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2013.http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/05/meet-yoel-weisshaus-the-hasidic-face-of-american-apparel.html.
Whitelocks, Sadie. "Bringing style to the Jewish new year! American Apparel debuts Hasidic male model to coincide with religious holiday." Daily Mail, September 4, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2411491/American-Apparel-debuts-Hasidic-male-model-Jewish-new-year-Rosh-Hashanah.html#ixzz2eVhoZxKo.
JTA. “The Hasidic Face of American Apparel.” Haaretz, September 6, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2013. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.545563.
Cohen, Debra Nussbaum. “American (Hasidic) Apparel.” The Jewish Daily Forward, September 8, 2013. September 29, 2013. http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/183570/american-hasidic-apparel/.
Torok, Ryan. “Chabad Telethon Raises $3M.” Jewish Journal, August 28, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2013.http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/chabad_telethon_raises_3m.
Image Credit: American Apparel / Tumblr
Author, Sarah Imoff, (Ph.D. 2010, U Chicago) is Assistant Profesor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University - Bloomington. Her research focuses on Amerian Jewish gender and sexuality.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.