Wearing a sleek black dress topped with a taupe bolero and long stiletto-heeled boots, Nathalie Benhaim cuts an elegant figure. For her, Orthodox Judaism’s rules of modesty have never been synonymous with austerity.
“I’m always made up and have my hair done, I never let myself go. It’s important for me and for my husband,” explains this mother-of-four who has just opened a bakery in Jerusalem.
The Benhaims describe themselves as religiously observant and are part of Israel’s growing religious Zionist movement who, unlike the ultra-Orthodox, are active members of society and often play a leading role in many Israeli institutions.
They are also prominent in government under the leadership of cabinet minister Naftali Bennett, head of the hardline right-wing Jewish Home party.
Mixing as they do with the secular population often sparks heated debate over the interpretation of halacha, the Jewish code of law which governs, among other things, how women should behave and dress.
Earlier this year, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the strictest leaders of religious Zionism, issued an updated dress code for women, banning them from wearing red or other bright colours, prohibiting any transparent fabrics — and ordering them to wear opaque tights. He even specified what thickness — 40 denier.
But this extreme reading of Jewish law has sparked widespread condemnation, even within the movement itself where interest in women’s fashion is rapidly growing, with an ever-growing number of shops and specialist designers entering the field.
“Just a few years ago, religious Zionist fashion was all hippy chic and baba-cool. But recently a real national religious style has developed,” explains Vered Gilboa, who runs a boutique in the centre of Jerusalem.
“Now it’s more vintage, chiffons and lace. But there are many different trends and designers. Zionist religious women are more and more interested in fashion, like women in the rest of Israeli society,” she adds.
Such is the surge in interest that the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design — the most popular in Israel, which has produced names such as Lanvin creator Alber Elbaz — recently launched a fashion course aimed at these very women.
Dress codes for women within the Orthodox Jewish world hardly lend themselves to the creativity of designers: low necks are banned, dresses and skirts must cover the knees and sleeves must reach to the elbow.
But according to Nathalie Haiks, a mother-of-five, it is possible to be stylish while staying faithful to Jewish law. Her secret: basic skirts and t-shirts of the accepted length.
“After you’ve done that, you can wear whatever you want from whatever shop,” says the 48-year-old, a personal assistant at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We cannot live in a bubble even if we have to respect the rules. The Torah does not compel women to look dreary. We are forbidden to attract attention, that’s all. Halacha does not give a single, definitive interpretation,” she says.
“It has become more and more open since I arrived in Israel,” says Haiks, who has been in the country for 25 years.
Leah Sheklar, a settler in her 50s living just north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, has combined her interest in Jewish spirituality with her taste for clothes and organises a weekly workshop for women at a Jerusalem café.
In a side room, she has set up a mirror where the women are invited to stand and show others how they have put together an outfit. Standing in front of the mirror and looking at themselves also encourages women to think more about their own identity.
“The question of clothing comes up far too often in terms of what is banned. Those who are prohibiting are actually obsessed, not by the Torah, but by that thing which they never mention — sex,” explains Sheklar, wearing a black dress with a brooch, an elegant beret covering her head.
“I am trying to see how to live freely in the world while respecting the rules. In my workshop, we speak about clothes as a means of self-discovery,” she says.
“Many religious Zionist women are following the trend in society as a whole to become more and more individualistic, they want to be happy, to live their femininity and their identity while at the same time living harmoniously with the religious world,” she adds.