Saturday, January 11, 2014

Defaming Modernity in Chaya Lester's "Urban Turban"

Guest Post by Kelly Smith Milotay
    Yesterday my Facebook feed was full of people posting about this video made by Chaya Lester, a self-described Kabbalistic Feminist.

     Ms. Lester looks like every speaker you ever want to hear. Her beautiful smile is engaging and she has the gift of making you think she's talking directly to you. Her headwrap is stylish and adds to her exoticism. You get the impression that her energy is magnetic and that you would want her as your best friend if you met her in person. I'm sure she's as charming in person as she is on video. 

     The content of her video was somewhat less charming. Clearly aimed at an audience of potential baalei teshuva (BTs) - those who become Orthodox after having been brought up secular or in a different strand of Judaism -  as she states in her intro "We host Birthright students by the dozen!,"
she seems to hope to change the minds of her viewers with her spoken word poetry about her "Urban Turban."

You can listen to her performance on the video and read more about it on The Times of Israel's site.

Here is the text of the poem:

Urban Turban

I cover my head in protest
to Miley Cyrus
and a culture that
blinds us
to the true beauty of
a woman’s sense of dignity.
Where decades of hard-won progress
is undone by a single
- a fatal twist
in what it truly means to be a feminist.
These are the many strands
of my stand against
a society possessed by a quest
for ‘sexiness’.
Where 12-year-old girls
try to fill the holes
in their souls
with high heels, halter-tops
& rhinestone-studded hose.
I throw my hat
into the ring
to state the obvious
that female empowerment
is found within.
Judge me not by the color of my skin
and how much of it
I uncover
to win
your attention.
Judge me rather by the content of my character
- not the contours
of my figure.
For on this cotton
is written
a Manifesto of a Kabbalistic-feminist.
I enfold the mystic
into this fabric’s every twist.
This covering
comes to express the sacred covenant
of marriage.
While all the while
marriage in the modern world
is but a crumbling institution
a house without beams
where our children suffer
for our indiscretions
divorces & indecencies.
Please, don’t get me wrong
I am not a prude
not a preacher
not a governess
but a mother
and a lover
who takes her sexuality seriously
- mystically -
for I have tasted ultimate Oneness
through the two-ness
known as marriage…
And like a treasured swaddled infant
this two-ness thrives best in containment
covering, commitment.
So, yes, please, let’s talk about femininity
about what it really means to be a feminist
a woman, a wife,
a mother, a builder
because when it comes to self-expression, my sister,
- I got that one covered. ~
Chaya Lester*

Sluttiness of Secular Society?
     Ms. Lester sets up Miley Cyrus as the representative of "a society possessed by a quest for 'sexiness'". Certainly she is correct that much of the Western media is focused on sexuality - sex sells, after all, to people of all races and religions. But does the media's over-emphasis on sex mean that the majority of society is on the same "quest for sexiness"? The answer is 'no'. Most of the women I see in my day-to-day life are not obsessed with sexiness. They merely want to look and feel good in what they wear. Sometimes you see more skin, sometimes you see less. I have yet to run into any of my secular friends (Jewish or not) dressed in pleather shorts, twerking their way down the street, as Ms. Lester seems to think we all do. At a relatively busy mall this evening, every single man, woman, and child I saw was dressed in a completely normal way. No one was trying to attract more attention than usual. It is simply not true that the majority of people in the world are consumed with being sexy all the time while women and men in the Orthodox world shun such displays.
Modern Marriage as Shambles?
     Next she links her "Urban Turban" to the sanctity of her marriage. She implies that her head-covering keeps her marriage sacred and that "marriage in the modern world is but a crumbling institution...where our children suffer for our indiscretions, divorces, and indecencies." Again, this does not at all speak to my experience. Some of my secular friends are married. A few are divorced. I'm fortunate to not know any suffering children. Do people within secular marriages sometimes cheat on each other? Do they sometimes divorce? Sure. Happens in the Orthodox world as well. Over all, Ms. Lester's assertion that secular marriage is a cesspool of lies when compared with her own marriage (sanctified by her head-covering) and marriages within the Orthodox world in general falls flat when we look at real people in the real world. I wonder if Ms. Lester has a subscription to People Magazine. It would help to explain her hyperbolic beliefs about the modern, secular society. 

Strawmen and Deceptive Kiruv
     In her poem, Ms. Lester created two strawmen - secular society as sex-obsessed and the dismal state of modern marriage. Secular society as compromised is a common refrain in the kiruv community. Peddling Orthodoxy is easier on these false terms, especially on university campuses where students are away from home. They do see their peers as somewhat sex-obsessed in certain environments. It's harder for them to accurately make comparisons to the real world that exists away from their campuses. I would argue that American college students aren't quite as sex-obsessed as they are portrayed both in the media and by kiruv professionals. Still, college students are susceptible to the false message that secular society is a den of iniquity. 

     There is beauty in Jewish tradition. It has evolved along diverse pathways as modern Jews have tried to understand how their spiritual ancestors reached out to God in search of meaning. Orthodoxy is not the only authentic way of being a Jew. If someone chooses to remain or become Orthodox, they should do so because it has meaning for them - not because they've been coerced using unethical tactics and outright lies.

*Lester, Chaya. Urban Turban. from "Hair -- Got It Covered." The Times of Israel. January 8, 2014.
Kelly Smith Milotay is a mother, a writer, an educator, and a free-thinker who is interested in sustainability in all facets of life. Despite having four children and several chickens, her house has reached epic proportions of unattainable spotlessness. Coffee helps.


  1. I have news for Ms. Lester, I am a secular Jew who never twerked or fell apart under the influence of Miley Cyrus, Brittney Spears, Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Beatles or Elvis Presley. They are all entertainers who, well, entertain! There is nothing as interesting as that which is forbidden, a lesson that Ms. Lester is sure to discover when her own children start hiding People Magazine under their mattresses. Why stifle information? Fear that her children may discover alternatives to OJ? Could OJ not be quite what she claims it is?

  2. One of the comments pointed out that whether or not one covers her hair is a personal decision and shouldn't be a form of one-upsmanship (my phrase, not hers) so I don't see covering one's hair as proof of anything or a remedy for anything. I agree with her comment. OTOH, I didn't get that the writer was doing kiruv just because she hosts Birthright visitors--lots of us in Jerusalem host them without any hidden agenda. It's a mitzvah to have guests for Shabbat, after all. There is a movement in Baka now to host non-Jews for Shabbat who come on tours of Jerusalem--it's a people-to-people interaction, and not aimed at converting gentiles to Judaism.

    However, I think she has a point about Miley Cyrus. Having raised three step-daughters who grew up on MTV and their mother's mantra that "being sexy" and "getting a man" was important, they -- and their circles of friends -- were very much involved in a portion of secular teen-age society that was indeed obsessed with sex and being seen as sexy and sexuality. Miley Cyrus is just the latest avatar for this sub-section of society; in my stepdaughters' days it was Madonna. You're familiar with Madonna's stage play? Well, one of my stepdaughters was kicked off a sports team after "performing" like Madonna at an after-game party where she masturbated in front of her peers "like Madonna" -- the pity of it was that she didn't understand what all the uproar was about.

    I agree that not everyone is under the influence of Miley-Cyrus-Madonna etc. There are well-loved well-grounded, well-parented sensible young Jewish women out there who would laugh at the idea of being influenced by this kind of performer. But, I know personally and professionally that there are also a tremendous number of young women from broken homes, or abusive homes, or unloving homes who do get a social message that they are not worthwhile unless they are 'sexy' --and so her message that modesty has value, and self-respect is more important than a tits-and-ass parade, should not be denigrated.

    1. Thanks for posting, Sarah.

      I agree, there are definitely people out there who are very concerned with looking sexy. My personal experience, however living in different countries and in different parts of North America, tells me that these aren't the majority, however.

  3. "So, yes, please, let’s talk about femininity
    about what it really means to be a feminist
    a woman, a wife,
    a mother, a builder...."

    Sure, we can talk about feminism and what it means to be a feminist.
    Let's talk about equal pay for equal work. Let's talk about women being able to walk down the street and not be harassed for wearing clothing that certain communities deem untznius. Let's talk about women who are blamed when men cannot control their urges, instead of ignoring the real problem--the fact that these men were not taught how to properly interact with the opposite sex. Let's talk about slut-shaming. Let's talk about whole communities believing that tragedies that occur are the direct result of too-short hemlines, exposed collar bones, and more than a tefach of hair showing from beneath their snoods. Let's talk about women making the personal choice to cover their hair if they want to, without feeling any community pressure to do so.
    Ms. Lester, "who takes her sexuality seriously- mystically -" may claim not to be a preacher, but she's certainly trying to impart the idea that sexuality should be contained and saved for marriage. That may work for her, and I hope it continues to work for her. But that doesn't mean that it has to, or should, or will, or does work for others.
    "So, yes, please, let’s talk about femininity
    about what it really means to be a feminist
    a woman, a wife,
    a mother, a builder--"
    Yes, let's. But let's also remember that this is her personal definition of feminism, and let's hope that this poem doesn't get co-opted by kiruv organizations and misused.

    1. lets talk about how many women are rabbis, leaders, or judges in ms. lester's community. lets talk about how many are on shul boards and school boards. lets talk about how many have an opportunity to become doctors or lawyers if they choose. how many can go to college and become and engineer or a business executive. lets talk about how many women are bogged down in the home with 6+ children becasue birth control is lokoed down upon.

      feminist my butt

  4. When I first moved into an eruv, I used to feel a sort of a deep nostalgic yearning when I would pass all the Orthodox women walking to and from shul. And then I lived here for a bit and saw how unhappy the whole enterprise was and felt the shunning that comes when you wear unsanctioned colors and shorter hem lengths and worst sin of all--brightly colored tights. It seems even early elementary school age girls aren't too young for a little black dress. Today when I drove by a group of Orthodox-wannabe women as they trailed behind the local kiruv rabbi, I felt only pity. Keep writing. dgb

    1. I remember being one of those women. Thanks for your input.

  5. She is not being honest. She covers her hair because it is the minhag/halacha. Fifty years ago she would not have covered her hair.


    1. I thought it a bit disingenuous, also, to portray hair-covering as a feminist "choice". When it comes down to it, she believes she's obligated to it so it kind of muddies the free-will aspect...

    2. Here's what troubles me.
      She is, according to her beliefs, halachically obligated to cover her hair. I respect that and I completely support her right to do so. However, she feels the need to justify (and again, I'm just interpreting her poem--MA in English, can't help it,) covering her hair as a feminist choice. In fact, the only choice she has, within her community and belief system, is how to cover her hair. So, like KSM and Tuvia have said, this "feminism" is disingenuous to us. But maybe this is how Ms. Lester justifies it to herself.
      I want to note that I don't feel that Ms. Lester shouldn't cover her hair--but that she should also feel that the choice is there to uncover her hair if she so chooses. For some reason, I doubt she'd be able to justify not covering as easily, and I doubt she'd get a positive reception if she did.

    3. One of the criticisms that I've heard of kiruv efforts, from within Orthodox circles, is that so many touchy-feely explanations/justifications for mitzvot are offered that people can lose sight of the fact that you do a mitzvah because it's commanded. I've heard both Rabbi Benji Hecht and Rivkah Slonim say that we need to acknowledge that some mitzvot, like mikvah, won't always feel wonderful for everyone and magically make every marriage amazing, and that if it's not always wonderful, that doesn't make the obligation disappear.
      OTOH, Chaya - once known as Cary - is a BT. She CHOSE this lifestyle. She could go to her family and friends in Tennessee with hair uncovered, and experience nothing more unpleasant than the embarrassment of admitting that she went through a phase that has passed. Her website shows a varied background of clinical psychology and Oxford doctoral studies and delving into Judaism and Kabbalah and performance art. In short, she wasn't coerced into doing what she's doing, and she seems like the sort of person who thought deeply about her beliefs and forged a unique trail. [I've never met her, and am just going by what I see online.] So, HER experience with hair covering will be very different from someone who is FFB, or even someone who joined a community where everyone follows the same mold.

  6. Here's the question - is she primarily explaining why SHE covers her hair, or is she advocating this as something that others must do because they will otherwise be immodest and have bad marriages?

    It's not that clear. She starts off by saying that others ask her about why she covers. I can see her doing this as a response to those questions. I've seen Muslim women, for example, doing the same thing, as well as anyone who is religiously observant and wants to dispel misconceptions or stereotypes.

    It says that she's co-director with her husband of the Shalev Center. That doesn't seem to be a typical kiruv center. Instead, it seems to be a project to fuse Judaism and counselling, so it's not aimed exclusively at the non-Orthodox. I don't know anything about this particular center apart from its website, but I do like the idea of someone not just painting a happy image as part of a sales job, but of them also doing some inreach and bringing some of that mixed with secular stuff idealism to the Orthodox world.

    Using Miley Cyrus as an example is a pet peeve of mine. She's one person. Period. It's just a bad dance move, get over it. Celebrities are like toddlers - if you don't reward the behavior with attention, it will go away, but giving attention will get you more of the same.

    OTOH, in a 3 minute video poem, I suppose that it's a quick reference to the notion of women being objectified.

    Ultimately, both covering and not covering are acts that can have very different intentions, depending on the woman. It makes a difference if it's an act that's chosen vs. coerced. One woman may expose hair in defiance of laws or societal pressure. Another may do it to look sexy. Another may do it because a certain look is expected at her workplace. Another may do it because it's comfortable. Still another may do it with no intention whatsoever, simply because it's just what she's always done. Same thing with covering - it can be a symbol of oppression for one woman, and a powerful counter-cultural act for another.

  7. She's a psychotherapist. I wonder if she sees a desire not to be frum as mental illness.

  8. Ive been reading this blog for a few months now and thoroughly enjoy it.

    Rebecca - I've been thinking of something that I want to ask you (It's not particularly related to this post): What would you think and/or feel if you knew that an Orthodox Jew was praying to G-d to bring a non-Orthodox Jew to become a Ba'al Teshuva (i.e. to become Orthodox)?

    Keep on writing!

  9. Aron,
    Thanks for the compliment and thanks for the question.
    As part of a growing community of people who have left orthodoxy, I've certainly heard about people praying for people to return to orthodoxy. And I've certainly heard of people praying for those who aren't even orthodox. It would be awkward to know that a friend or relative was praying for me to change my religious ways, but if we accept that personal prayer should remain personal, then it shouldn't be a problem. As long as that prayer doesn't suddenly involve accosting the subject and forcing him/her into religious observance, then it is fine. It is my personal opinion that you can pray all you want, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen, or that it should happen. (I'm still waiting for that pony I used to pray for.)
    Years ago, when I was an orthodox BT, I was told to pray for my parents so that they would see the light and become orthodox. I didn't. At the time, I felt that this action was ridiculous. I like my parents the way they are and I felt that imposing my then-lifestyle on them was more than inappropriate.
    I do think that it's in bad taste to tell someone who isn't orthodox, "hey, I'm praying for you to become orthodox!" And certainly, if someone I knew in real life told me this, I'd most likely be somewhat offended. We don't all share the same exact value system and what is important to the person praying may not be important at all to the person about whom the prayer is intended. I would probably even try explaining to this person, gracefully if possible, why those particular prayers are offensive to me. However, that would only work if I was told that he/she was praying for me and the opportunity for that conversation presented itself.

  10. May I answer that question too, Aron? If I learned that someone was praying for me to become orthodox it would lower my opinion of that person. It would indicate that the person doing the praying does not think I am good enough the way I am. If someone prays for me to be different it is a put down. It's insulting. I don't think much of people whose stated (or not) goal is to change me. In this area I lump well meaning Jews with fundamentalist terrorist recruiters. They share the goal of wanting to change my world view.

    1. Thank you both for your responses. I was trying to get a better understanding of your opinion - i.e. Is it the reason(s) behind the kiruv or is it the tactics and methods used in kiruv that you don't think are appropriate. If you say the former, than you would, seemingly, think that even praying for a person to become Orthodox (even without that person's knowledge) is innappropriate. If the latter, than you shouldn't really mind someone praying. Thank you.


    2. I can no longer distinguish my Orthodox Jewish friends from my Christian fundamentalist neighbors. When they pray for me to accept Jesus (as opposed to say, get well), I'm completely put off--even though I understand that this is a perfectly normal part of their religion. Ditto my Orthodox friends. I am a nonorthodox Jew by choice.

      So, Aron, how would you feel if the Christians prayed for your conversion? Or if Jews who weren't orthodox prayed for you to be not orthodox?

      People are entitled to their private prayers but when they start letting you know that they're praying for you to change, it's just another way of saying the way you are isn't good enough. And that's just offensive in my opinion. dgb

    3. Hi dgb,

      I have 2 feelings about this - on the one hand I hear where you are coming from because I believe that everyone should accept me the way I am. However on the other hand, I am confident with my religious observance and, truth-be-told, it wouldn't at all bother me if another person would pray for me to convert to his religion or other sect of Judaism. (I am not sure why you assumed - rather, how you figured out - that I am indeed orthodox).

      That being said, as far as I am concerned, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to tell another person that I am praying for him/her to become orthodox. I feel that that is obnoxious. Praying for all Jews to do Teshuva (repentance) is actually part of the Shemonei Esrei (the prayer said 3 times a day by Orthodox Jews). Granted it is in a general sense, but I actually do have in mind specific people sometimes. So I am not sure how you would feel about that...


      P.s. I am not sure if I needed to translate the Hebrew for you, but even if you did not need it, it might be helpful for others reading.

    4. I know that your reply was intended for dgb but I just wanted to thank you for this line:

      "That being said, as far as I am concerned, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to tell another person that I am praying for him/her to become orthodox. I feel that that is obnoxious."

      I agree. Tactfulness is a good thing.

    5. I don't think it would be appropriate for me to tell another person that I am praying for him/her to become orthodox. I feel that that is obnoxious.

      But would you pray for someone to become Orthodox, with or without telling him/her?

  11. She does NOT cover because it's mystical, "feminine" or to be holy, she does it because for her it's halacha... Nothing wrong with that, and I will defend her right do so.... However, it is deceitful to say she does this for whatever warm feeling it gives her. She does it because she has to. Her kids won't be accepted if she didn't. People wouldn't eat her food. People in her community would look down on her... etc

    1. See my comment above. She's a BT, which means that she didn't HAVE to do anything and willingly took on observing halacha. You would only know what motivated her to do so by asking her.

    2. Becoming religious was voluntary for her. However, now that's she's married, has kids and lives in her community the voluntary part is long gone!! Try wearing jeans, tanktop and hair down and watch what will happen!

  12. Law mom - assuming that BT's practice religion willingly is fantastical thinking. BT's are led into religion step by step, a little bit at a time, until they are in over their heads and have no way out. They have little idea what the kiruv rabbi on their campus who used to do really cool things has in mind for their future. Once relationships are damaged or broken with their families and friends and BT's-in-training are on their way to Israel & marriages to other BT's, there is nothing optional about halachac practice.

  13. You or someone you love may have had a very negative experience. I don't think it's fair, though, to project that onto someone else without knowing all the details of her own background or asking her directly.

    Here's a review that I found on Ha'aretz (not exactly a Haredi source!) of her one-woman show:

    I also discovered that we know one family in common. Small world.

    Bat Ayin is very artsy and hippie-dippie religious, with a mix of groups like Breslov and Chabad.

    I'm not naive and I do realize that there are some BTs who wonder "what did I sign up for?" and have regrets but find it harder to go back once they are married. I know some. They blog, but they don't do shows like this or run a place like the Shalev Center, and I know 2 who are quite insistent that they weren't ignorant and made their choices deliberately.

    Without any evidence to the contrary, I'm not willing to assume that a highly educated, grown woman who is clearly speaking for herself about her spiritual journey and beliefs is incapable of independent thought. That would be totally patronizing.

    1. I think that for some, it really has to do with the type of community one is in, and whether or not they feel coerced. Even within the same sect, many can have very different experiences, and see something such as hair-covering as a positive, rather than a drawback.
      In Ms. Lester's case, she's happy to cover, and she feels empowered, and from my own experiences as a former BT, I recall that initial sense of empowerment. I also recall later feeling resentful and coerced, until ultimately giving it up completely.
      I wonder if the problem here isn't that a woman covers, or that she feels empowered by doing so, but that because this act becomes the measure of one's observance in most orthodox communities, it ceases to be viewed as a choice once taken on in most places excluding the more liberal Modern Orthodox communities.

  14. I don't think it's OK to trick people into becoming frum, then if it doesn't work out or they have regrets, to write them off as "less" than someone who runs the Shalev Center. And for the record, Patty Hearst was pretty adamant about not being brainwashed too.

    1. 1. Where did I ever say that tricking someone was okay?

      I'm saying that unless you know this woman or have more details about her specific background than I do, you have no basis to say that she's been tricked or coerced into anything.

      2. Where did I ever say that someone who has regrets is "less" than someone who runs the Shalev Center?

      I know some bright people who had regrets, and they aren't "less" than anybody. My point about the Shalev Center was simply that someone with regrets or feeling coerced is unlikely to be co-founding a center for Jewish personal growth.

    2. My basis for saying she's tricked or coerced is from my knowledge of kiruv. That is what kiruv does - it tricks and coerces, whether you acknowledge that fact or not. You did not say that someone with regrets is "less" than someone who runs the Shalev Center, you implied it in your tone.

  15. Wow. How can you argue against anyone seeking to help jews become more jewish?! Do you not understand what Judaism is? you are more confused than Mylie Cyrus.

    1. Insults and a condescending tone don't earn you any respect around these parts. If you have a constructive comment to make, feel free. But if you can only be anonymous and insulting, you're in the wrong place.

    2. I am Jewish and have no desire to become "more" Jewish. Do you not understand what common decency is?

  16. Hi,
    My name is Alex and I just had a quick question about your blog. Please email me back at your earliest convenience!

    1. Alex,
      Feel free to contact me stopkiruvnow (at) gmail.


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