Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

I came across the following passage in 1812: War With America. It’s an excerpt from an eyewitness account written by a man who lived in Halifax, Canada at the time.

“The upper streets were full of brothels; grog-shops and dancing houses were to be seen in almost every part of town.” In the area around Brunswick Street, “nearly all the buildings were occupied as brothels for the soldiers and sailors. The streets of this part of town presented continually the disgusting sight of abandoned females of the lowest class in a state of drunkenness, bare-headed, without shoes, and in the most filthy and abominable condition.”

Firstly, this account flies in the face of the modern-society-is-becoming-increasingly-degenerate myth. Not that that particular myth is at all difficult to debunk, but the above passage is a concise description of an entire town sunken in debauchery. Not even Las Vegas fits the above description today.

Secondly, and far more interesting, is that the writer notes the bare-headedness of the prostitutes. This could be understood in one of two ways. The first, and the way I think he meant it, is as a description of how disheveled these women were. In a society where it was customary for everyone to wear hats or bonnets outside, the lack of a head-covering is a sign of slovenliness almost as serious as being filthy.

The second way it can be understood is as a moral failing. He is describing women “of the lowest class,” prostitutes who are habitually drunk and so brazen as to go about bare-headed and barefoot.

Suppose, instead of merely being part of a memoir, this passage made its way into a text believed to be an eternal guide to the proper way to live. Would it be more likely to be interpreted the first way, or in the second way? If the latter, it would likely lead to a religious requirement for head-coverings. Say, you wouldn’t happen to know of a real-life instance of a similar scenario…

On another note, for a few years now I’ve been doing handyman work to supplement my income from my near-nonexistent career as a psychologist. Since I moved six months ago I haven’t bothered to get licensed in this state, figuring that the extremely slim chance of getting a job in my field doesn’t justify the expense and trouble, and have been focusing on the handyman business instead. Incidentally, I make more money per hour patching drywall and hanging blinds than I would as a school psychologist. Go figure.

Anyway, I was working last night in a young kollel family’s home. When I arrived, Mrs. X requested that I leave the door open because her husband wasn’t home yet. I was once that yeshivish too, and I understand how seriously yichud is taken in the yeshivish world, but:

1. She was expecting her husband to come home from night seder any minute, and told me so. Given that he could have walked in at any time, halachically, there was no reason the leave the door open. Even locking it wouldn’t be a problem, because her husband has a key.

2. The implication that I might jump her if the door were closed is mildly insulting. Now she’d never met me before, so perhaps it can be argued she has no reason to trust me, but that is itself the problem. Intentionally or not, halachos like yichud breed distrust between the sexes and help perpetuate the women = succubae/ men = satyrs stereotypes.