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Brooklyn residents respond to signs that urge them to dress modestly

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

How would you react to neighborhood signs that asked you to dress modestly?

Signs stapled to telephone poles are usually ignored by most of us (except for those featuring adorable lost kitties and puppies), but a new poster popping up all over a Brooklyn neighborhood is getting a lot of attention.

The sign, an unassuming blue and white, reads:

“Dear resident, guest, visitor, PLEASE DRESS MODESTLY. This is a Jewish neighborhood.”

Well, huh. My first question would have to be "What is 'modest' exactly?" I know how I define it — and I'm pretty conservative thanks to my religious beliefs — but I have no idea how the people posting the signs decide what is modest and what isn't. Perhaps they'd see my calf-length mom-pris (they are a thing and I am bringing them back!) and short-sleeved T-shirt and think I was a floozie. Or maybe not.

"Crown Heights is actually a pretty liberal neighborhood and the neighborhood is diverse," says resident Janet Joshenbaum. "There must be a serious controversy within the community about these signs."

Crown Heights wouldn't be the first place to try and raise the public standard of decency. Some cathedrals, churches, mosques, synagogues and even secular places like gyms and courthouses have their own dress codes. Yet those are private property. Who's to say what's appropriate on a public street?

Does one religion, even if it does make up the majority of a community, get to decide how everyone dresses? This isn't the first time this type of thing has happened in this area. In 2012 a Jewish sect posted signs with "LONG SKIRT, LONG LIFE" in both Hebrew and English. (It should be noted that no group has claimed the current signs.) 

Janet, who is Jewish, does not follow the strict dress code and says there is an understanding on both sides of the community. "I use the mikvah (ritual bath for married women) there, and show up in uncovered hair and pants, both of which are not allowed for community members, but they still welcome me because they would rather have me come to the mikvah and fulfill that commandment than not."

Many feel however that the sign unfairly targets women, an assertion Janet says isn't true. "Men wearing shorts and a sleeveless top would also be looked as outsiders and not appropriate. Many men there wear full suits in the summer, and all men wear long pants and shirts with collars."

It still rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Annie Carlin, who also lives in Brooklyn, says, "This is not cool — not only because of the not particularly veiled misogyny, but also because I don't have a problem with anyone's religion until they try to impose it on me."

In the meantime local residents have taken to message boards to protest the "Jewish neighborhood" label as exclusionary while others are protecting the posters as free speech. How do you decide how far one should go to appease their neighbors?

"Yes we can ignore the signs but their existence impinges on my ability to walk around this neighborhood and feel comfortable, which in a public, diverse space should be a given for everyone," Annie says. "I'm free to ignore stares and comments I receive when I walk around too — but it doesn't mean they don't make me uncomfortable."

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