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March 22, 2016 8:41 am

The New York Times’ Obsession With Female Jewish Modesty

avatar by Ira Stoll

An Orthodox Jewish woman wearing a head-covering for modesty. Photo: Wikipedia.

An Orthodox Jewish woman wearing a head-covering for modesty. Photo: Wikipedia.

Is the New York Times obsessed with tznius — Jewish modesty?

It sure looks like it. How else to explain the paper’s decision to devote column inches to a feature on a clothing store in Borough Park, Brooklyn, catering to Orthodox-Jewish women who dress modestly.

“Junee and other stores like it have seen their sales rise in recent years because of a flood of new products designed to make modesty and fashion compatible,” the Times claims. The newspaper doesn’t provide any actual numbers on revenues to back this up, however. Nor does it explain how it knows that the increased sales are the result of “new products,” rather than, say, a population boom or increased disposable income among religiously observant Jews.

Throughout, the article erroneously assumes that Jewish women who dress this way are “Hasidic,” a term the Times also uses to describe the Borough Park neighborhood overall. The paper doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews of other sects in the haredi category might dress this way, or shop at any of the three stores mentioned. Nor does it quote the owners of any of them — just a woman it identifies as a “clerk.” Would the Times write about one of its big department store advertisers quoting only a clerk?

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This article is only the latest in a series of Times pieces that examine the habits of Orthodox Jewish women in New York City from a detached, almost anthropological, perspective, as if the paper’s correspondent were explaining the rituals of some obscure tribe on a South Pacific Island.

A Times article in October 2014 profiled the “creative force” behind a website focusing on modest styles for Orthodox women. Another Times article, in April 2015, focused on a Brooklyn yoga studio catering to Lubavitchers, where instructors aimed at “complementing tznius with positive body image talk.”

The articles are never written as if the person reading them might be an Orthodox Jewish woman. On the contrary, they assume the reader is some secular person who needs the peculiarities of Jewish customs explained.

Why any of it rises to the level of news for the New York Times is a mystery to me. But if the paper is going to decide this is news, the least it can do is cover it accurately and respectfully, rather than in a sloppy or less-than-authoritative way, which winds up gawking at the subjects of the articles, as opposed to genuinely seeking to understand where they are coming from.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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