I Was an Invisible Woman

The formerly Hasidic writer used to be covered from head to toe when she went out in public. Then she uncovered her true self.
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I used to be a covered woman. I know what it’s like to be invisible. When I first read about ISIS taking over a whole area of Iraq, I searched without much success for news coverage that even mentioned half the population who now can’t show an inch of skin, go out of their houses, work, drive, or go to school. I worry that the media leaving them invisible speaks of a larger disinterest, a shrug, a yawn, whenever women at home are bled in any way of the freedom to just be.

Ghostly veiled women follow me—moon faces encircled in cloth, floating eyes. I see them when I pass covered women in my city. I try to tell myself that my own past was different, but I know what it is to be a woman in a fundamentalist world. I know what it’s like when only men can speak in public, or when you have to cultivate a demure façade just to get by, or how to raise daughters when their few female role models are models of self-sacrifice. I know what it means to retreat indoors and try to establish your only domain.

***  

I had dragged girlfriend Anne to a local synagogue to see them that day in 1972. Now the Hasidim—Jewish ultra-orthodox in untrimmed beards, yarmulkes, and black suits—were singing and dancing their ecstatic all-male dance. I could almost sense the feeling of their damp white shirts, the smell of their sweat.

I was 16, and Anne and I were just a couple of Jewish children of 1960s liberals flirting with religion, probably to annoy our parents. But we didn’t want our parents’ benign conflicted Judaism. We wanted something pure, hopeful.

One of the dancing men kissed another. At the sidelines, two women in wigs and long clothes were whispering, each into the ear of the other, warm breath inside a cupped hand, a soft hand on a soft shoulder. That homoerotic buzz in such gender-divided communities—looking back, I know that was part of the attraction.

Two days later, a local Hasidic family called and invited me to their home. Thus began their overtures offering enticing wisdom, sumptuous free meals, and promises of the sublime. I was soon introduced to Jewish Law, which dictates every detail of daily life, even on which side to lie down when going to sleep and exactly how to tie your shoes. A life in the Law looked to me like prayer in motion. Living poetry. I submitted myself with a sense of wonder.

In no time my voice disappeared into an ancient unison choir that sang only one tune.

***  

I often marvel at the wonderful messy cacophony of our heterogeneous American society. The great beauty of it all is that the only criterion for participation is simply to be yourself. And to speak. Aloud.

Two years later, I entered an arranged marriage to a bearded man I barely knew and joined a Hasidic community. I lived for 30 years among the Hasidim. Both men and women were squelched in our homogeneous world—the women, more so.

We were told “modesty” was the way of royalty, a reason to carry ourselves with pride. In the same breath we were taught to keep ourselves thoroughly covered because by definition women were attractive to an unseemly degree. I always thought that an odd compliment. But I don’t think we had the term “objectify” in our vocabularies.

Birth control was forbidden: I had seven children, and fell in love with them. The kids were a place where my spontaneous love was legitimate, my outlet for creativity and honest conversation, and a rare source of respect I had to earn but could also rightfully demand. Babies, cooking, household management, teaching children to live within the Law, filled my days so that it seemed my insular indoor life was a necessity, not a requirement.

I only looked in the mirror after I had put on the scarf or wig, so that I just saw who I was supposed to be. The dreamy teen with unmanageable hair and signature saddle oxfords disappeared.

I never thought I was invisible, but everyone else in the world, with their colorful varied lives and contentions, faded away. “Normal” people became like cardboard cutouts in muted colors somewhere on the other side of a divide, even when I passed them in public. I didn’t imagine their voices either, as if religious teachings were on a recording set loud enough to drown out all those plans and hopes and doubts. Including my own.

We scoffed at people “out there” who dismissed us with stereotypes as being submissive, being erased by our men and our Law, even though we had to keep ourselves covered, and quiet in public, even though we hid behind a partition in the synagogue. We felt we mattered, because the Hasidim venerate modest women as models of (that word again) self-sacrifice. Young Hasidic women felt noble and adored at their elaborate weddings and threw themselves, with devotion, into raising big families. And we believed our men were generally respectful. When more-religious men glanced at us and then quickly looked away, and minimized conversation with us, we didn’t take it personally. We felt he was simply obeying our loving parental Law.

Besides, inside my busy house, with the kids, I ruled. Everyone had to work together and I made sure of it. Which is why, I suppose, Hasidic men often don’t consider Hasidic women as invisible or silent, either—at least not those who grew up with a dominant present mother. Few of the men note the inside/outside disconnect. I felt quite visible, in my own domain.

***  

One day I boarded an airplane and found myself sitting next to a nun. I had been schooled to quietly disdain other religions, particularly Christianity, but in spite of myself I was drawn to her. She, too, carried a well-thumbed pocket-size prayer book. She, too, had felt the drug-like pull of religious life. She also knew how one could come to love ancient texts that seem to have captured God’s voice from long ago. I sat down, gratefully—and then didn’t say a word the whole flight. I was actually afraid.

I picture us now and then, two women on a plane, me in my wig and long clothes, her in a blue dress and matching scarf, both of us disconnected from the microcosm of society around us, and both willing to feel responsible, by covering ourselves, for the obscure desires of men we didn’t ever really get to know. I imagine us both too in love with structure and assertions of the sublime, unaware of how much that had weakened us.

In communities like hers and like mine, women often don’t dare confide in one another. But sometimes I wonder, what if the plane had gone into distress? Then would we have understood how important it was to speak, and listen?

Did her skin also ache for touch in a way nothing in her world could satisfy? Did she also set aside dreams, like the erotic lesbian dreams that used to pepper my fitful nights?

***  

We used to push the men to recite their long daily prayers and spend time studying holy texts. This earned us their admiration—and also helped us to mildly shame them. Religiosity was subversive power.

The paradox is that our religion gave us the only way we knew to express our connection to God—so our most self-defining, most public expression was in a language of self-erasure. Covering. Silence. Whispered prayer. Humble work indoors. Our rabbi often said that for a woman, changing a diaper was the holiest of prayers.

I remember this when I read about the years-long controversy over France forbidding the veil, or Turkey, where I recently saw many young fashionable women in secular areas of Istanbul going about in niqab head coverings. Clothing is self-expression. Sure it’s ironic, but the veil is the language they have.

I believe the women who fight the hardest for the veil probably cannot begin to imagine the creativity, the audacity, the impossible courage before tradition and the men who uphold it, to come up with their own, new, language about God.

So we obeyed the Law to make a statement that we were good, valid, devoted. Then we dominated our children and laughed among ourselves.

*** 

How is it that I am here years later living with my Susan, defiant of the dictates of any religion, in an average middle-aged life? Go to work. Meet friends in a restaurant. Putter in the garden. Walk the dog.

You could say it had to do with the erotic dreams or that ache in my skin, or exhaustion from a “life of the spirit” so utterly physical for women. But I was well trained and would have continued like so many others.

I left when I felt invisible. One Sabbath day I looked in the mirror and said the word “lesbian” out loud. Then I retreated to the synagogue among the women with their quiet camaraderie and whispered prayers. But it gave me no comfort. I remember how I looked around and silently told them, “You think I am one of you, sisters, but if you could see me, you’d turn away. You’d pretend I wasn’t there.”

In that space where women’s voices are muted, I could not say out loud a defiant simple “I am.”

*** 

Slowly, I made friends on the outside and learned what happens when you can be spontaneous. In such real conversation, I found my own thoughts and came to know them better. I felt genuine. Seen. But the Hasidic costume I had continued to wear like skin led others to make assumptions about me that weren’t so true anymore. I craved a new kind of anonymity, one like a closed book among many, but with an appealing cover that said, if you want to know more about me, engage, ask.

How I remember the day I took off the wig with trembling hands and stepped outside into a breeze that felt, on my bare scalp, like first rain.

***

I was recently on a New York street and of course noted the scattering of covered woman among the passing thousands, in scarf, veil, hijab, bonnet, wig. One was Hasidic, in long sleeves and closed neckline and stockings in July, with a little hat on top of her wig. I was in jeans and a black T-shirt, my graying hair windblown.

Now those women discomfit me in the same way I’m sure they can discomfit others. They represent denial of battles hard fought—for birth control, abortion, equality in any public forum, to dress how we want without being objectified, or just to be heard. Women rejecting those things are a puzzle because this is a free country, so they must at some level choose to live like that, right?

But covered women are my madeleine. I see one and my past comes back. Each can only use the language she’s received. Each is a real person with hopes and losses—even if she is also a reminder of what we can lose.   

I’m the colorless cardboard cutout now. Which is why I look her in the eye, direct and real, and smile a smile as genuine and warm as I can muster. I say “Hello.”

I wish I could speak to every one of these women. I would say, “You are proof enough of God.” I would say, “You do have a voice. You can write. You can vote. You can whisper to your children.” I would say, “Look at yourself uncovered in the mirror and don’t forget what you look like.”

“I see you. What do you wish you could do? What, or whom, would you love?”

 

Photo credit: Flickr user johnwilliamsphd

 

Leah Lax has published award-winning short fiction, prose poetry, essays in anthologies and magazines, a major opera (with NPR broadcast), and a forthcoming memoir entitled UNCOVERED.
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Leah Lax