‘For Women and Girls Only’: new book explores Haredi women artists and performers

Author Jessica Roda charts a trend in which Haredi women's art and creativity has transcended schools and summer camps

Haredi singer Devorah Schwartz, at a Passover concert in Israel, 2022. Credit: Chaim Tuito, courtesy of Devorah Schwartz

Mar 5, 2024 3:00 PM


Women filming a movie on the streets of Borough Park. Williamsburg moms learning dance moves inspired by modern jazz, Zumba, and mambo. A Hasidic woman from Flatbush singing songs by Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston on Instagram.

Just a decade ago, these scenes would have been hard to come by, according to scholar Jessica Roda. Her new book, “For Women and Girls Only: Reshaping Jewish Orthodoxy Through the Arts in the Digital Age,” published today, charts a trend in the Haredi world in which women’s creativity has transcended the world of schools and summer camps to become a thriving professional industry of its own. It also sheds light on how Haredi female artists relate to feminism and rabbinic authority, and the increasingly fuzzy boundary between people who are part of the community and those who have drifted away — or gone “off the derech.”

Roda, who grew up in a secular environment in French Guiana in South America, became personally interested in Haredi life in 2015 when the deaths of two loved ones pushed her to explore her religiosity. Living in Montreal at the time, she joined a group that was dedicated to supporting people who’d left the community. She also taught anthropology to Haredi women. She started interviewing artists who’d left the community, and from there, met people who were still part of it, in both Montreal and New York City. 

Credit: NYU Press

Despite not being Orthodox herself, Roda immersed herself in this world, attending Shabbat meals, taking a dance lesson in Williamsburg, and even acting in a film by Brooklyn director Malky Weingarten. In the film, the cast and crew “was only women,” Roda said in an interview with Shtetl. And she found it humorous “that Hollywood is advocating for women’s visibility and right — while here, in Borough Park, we are making movies with only women on the team and on the screen.”

Indeed, Roda did not just observe her subjects, but joined their world and even tried to mirror it. “I decided to adapt the same strategies used by these women in their efforts at self-promotion,” Roda writes in the book. In a world where men are not supposed to listen to women sing or watch them perform, Roda’s choice to expand these women’s visibility also comes with a note to her audience that these works are “for women and girls only,” thereby “shifting the responsibility to men, who can choose whether it is appropriate to view or listen to the content.” 

Author Jessica Roda

Roda’s book chronicles a recent historical development. It used to be that Haredi female singing and dancing was mostly relegated to the world of girls’ schools and summer camps. Now, it’s become a viable career option. Roda attributes this cultural development to several factors: the advent of a Haredi content and entertainment industry, social media, and an increasing cultural emphasis on self-care and government programs that fund it. 

One of the most interesting things the book explores is female artists’ complex relationships to, and in some cases blatant disregard for, rabbinic authority. Roda says that many female artists do not consult rabbis about their work, out of fear that the rabbis would order their events to be canceled, as some rabbis have done. When the artists do consult rabbis, they purposely choose “liberal” ones who they think will approve of actions they already plan to take. “I am my own rabbi!” one female dance teacher told Roda. “If one day I need a rabbi to give me a hekhsher,” she said, referring to rabbinic approval, “I will find the proper rabbi.” 

And despite many attempts by rabbis to ban or discourage people from using the internet and social media, including, most recently, a massive rally in Newark in 2022 targeted toward women, many Haredi women still use Instagram or other parts of the internet. A Haredi filmmaker Roda spoke to “[blushed] furiously” when she “confessed" — after having insisted repeatedly that she did not have access to the internet — that in one room of her house, she actually did use the internet.

As Roda shows, cultural norms often take a back seat to the popularity of the person who is breaking them — and the popularity of that person’s cause. For example, when Weingarten, the Brooklyn filmmaker, got an invitation from a non-Jewish YouTube celebrity to appear in a video about Hasidic Judaism, Weingarten hesitated, but ultimately said yes. “Weingarten can take such risks as a filmmaker and public spokesperson certainly because of her position as a celebrity,” Roda writes. The same logic applies to women’s arts as a whole: as a male artist interviewed for the book put it, rabbis “won’t be able to stop this growth. It is already very popular.”

The book also shines a light on the blurry boundaries between people who are part of the community and those who have left. Malky Goldman, for example, is an actor who grew up in a Hasidic community in Jerusalem and performs for mixed audiences. Performing the role of a prostitute in a play in Manhattan, Goldman “traded her everyday clothes for a hot pink romper with a black corset,” Roda writes. But that’s not the only time when the actor code-switches: several nights a week, the author writes, Goldman “leaves her apartment in a black dress covering her elbows, knees, and collarbones, thick stockings, flat shoes, and a tikhel covering her hair” to give art classes to Haredi women and girls at her parents’ home at the outskirts of Borough Park — a big change from her on-stage garb.

Allowing girls to attend classes with instructors who have questionable religious credentials used to be a no-no. Now, Roda says, it’s often allowed… kind of. As with the issue of asking for rabbinical approval, learning to paint from someone with a foot in the secular world is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation, Roda says.

Where the book falters is in its failure to sufficiently examine how Haredi female artists, including those who claim to reject feminism, nonetheless benefit from over a century of feminist activism. In this, Roda allows feminism — which gave American women the right to vote or own a credit card — to continue to be treated like a big bad wolf.

Roda does point out that some of her subjects’ arguments against feminism match those of many modern-day feminists, who believe, for example, that freedom and modest dress aren’t mutually exclusive. Roda also points out that one of her subjects rejects the term “feminism” but simultaneously prizes “girl power.”

Furthermore, the entire idea for which the book is named — that women can shift the responsibility for following modesty rules onto men — calls to mind earlier cultural conversations led by secular feminists, such as the argument that women who are sexually assaulted should not be blamed because of how they dress. As Haredi singer Devorah Schwartz told Roda in 2020 after making her Youtube music videos public, “For the ones saying that I am making men sin, this is their problem, not mine.”  

Nonetheless, Roda says she doesn’t believe that beliefs like Schwartz’s reflect an assimilation of feminist ideas, but an argument Haredi women came by independently of Western feminism. That’s a hard claim to support, though, as a lot of what Haredi women told Roda sounds an awful lot like feminism, even if they don’t say so.  

Read more in Shtetl:

‘The Shidduch Crisis’: New film explores one Haredi woman’s dating struggles

Hasidic-born actors star in new Yiddish play about a former Hasid turned Christian missionary