Yiddish signs tell women to "move to the side"
If we are to judge what is Jewish by what Jews do (or don't do), we might conclude this week that Jews apparently welcome the New Year with apples, honey, and signs about where women should stand. I say this quite literally because these particular signs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, not only forget to extend traditional well wishes for the New Year, but apparently instead waste precious space by redirecting the body movements of Jewish women walking in public on city streets. The blog Failed Messiah translates these signs — recently affixed to city trees — as, "Precious Jewish Daughter: Please move to the side when a man approaches!"
If America has culture wars, Jews apparently have tsnies (modesty) wars popping up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a place that today is known for its recent hipster and arts community as well as for its much longer association with religious Jewish life. Unlike the "bike wars" in which the voiced danger had to do with bike-riders' attire (in theory not gendered), or the ensuing fracas of changing an official photo of a [female] Secretary of State, these signs are explicitly directed at those who read Yiddish and therefore are presumably bound by what appear to be an attempt to anonymously enforce stricter community norms. While Failed Messiah seems pretty good here at rendering a translation, what struck me was how the Yiddish was unfailingly polite and almost homey in its invocation of appropriate behavior. I'd translate it sort of literally as: "Dear Jewish Women (Jewish daughters is usually understood as a polite formulation for women), Please move aside (to the side), when a man is coming opposite, across, facing you, (or more simply put) approaches."
The directionality and placement authorized in these signs is a displacement of women from public life, the life of the street and of the city itself. The Yiddish makes clear that the man is approaching in a direct vector; the woman, in reaction, should move laterally aside. These tsnies wars put the female body into focus as marked with attraction by simply being seen publicly; the male body has freedom of movement and an implied, dangerous but not controlled, gaze. The solution: the female must disappear from visibility.
Last I heard, New York was a public city with streets and citizens welcome to use public places (and funding them through tax dollars). So my reaction to this is to publicly wear a T-Shirt, purchasable in the Lower East Side, simply emblazoned with the slogan: The City is Mine. It wasn't designed with this particular problem in mind, but it works just fine. Think of it as a message to other women walking in New York or elsewhere.
This move out of public sight (which is being re-defined as male) has all the hallmarks of anonymous authority invoking tradition as if were always able to control and appropriate public space. These signs represent an attempt to self-consciously re-articulate tradition in new ways for new purposes: imagine Eastern Europe's shtetlch without the visible presence of Jewish women handln (negotiating) in markets. Ironically in suggesting that a stark reminder is necessary, the signs hint that there are women who in moving about on their own business, are NOT moving aside at every street junction.
Perhaps there is another connection here: what might be called a spillover from the Meah Shearimization of Jewish urban life. Unlike Israel, which claims to be a Jewish state (whatever that may mean), last I heard New York City was not claiming that status. Living Jewishly is a negotiated art that necessarily touches on any Jewish community's internal and external relations. I'm sure that no one in Williamsburg enjoys being the subject of news reportage on this or related topics. Atonement is Jewishly understood to be both communal and individual. So perhaps one way to start this new year on the right note is to respond to a communal transgression with grace and humor: how about putting up a sign saying "Precious Sons: Learn to Start the New Year Respectfully by Publicly Warmly Greeting All."