A is a 30-year-old mother of four. In accordance with Jewish custom, she covers her hair with a hat or scarf, and wears modest clothing that doesn’t reveal her knees, shoulders or cleavage.
Today, however, she looks different.
Dressed in a lacy black negligee, her hair styled in loose waves and her eyes done up with smoky powder, she lounges on a bed in an apartment in suburban Jerusalem and gazes coyly at a photographer’s camera.
“Come closer,” the photographer, Rebecca Sigala, says to her. “Imagine the lens is your husband, and give him a smile.”
Like A – who lives in the Israeli settlement of Tekoa and asked that her name not be used – Sigala is an Orthodox Jewish woman. A native of Minneapolis who moved to Israel in 2009, she works most days as a camera assistant for her husband, who owns his own wedding photography business. But once or twice a week, Sigala gets to do the photography work she really loves – boudoir photo shoots for religious women.
In both Israel and the US, boudoir photography – the sensual, lingerie-clad genre of portraiture popular among brides and valentines – is making surprising inroads among women in the Orthodox Jewish community. That’s because, the photographers say, there is space within the sphere of religious Jewish life for a personal connection to the erotic, as long as it is handled with care.
“As observant Jews, we believe our sexuality is private and sacred,” Sigala, 26, says. “And since that part of ourselves is so holy, when we express ourselves within that realm, we can connect on a higher level – not just with ourselves, but with our husbands, and with God.”
Boudoir photography is all about suggestion. Unlike the bombastic nudity of erotic photography or the spackling of hairspray and airbrushing that comes with glamour photography, boudoir photography is soft and lush, speaking its sex in a whisper.
To outsiders, it can seem strange to see Orthodox Jewish women embracing the art. After all, Judaism’s traditional dress code is meant to avoid any power of suggestion, which is why form-fitting clothing, free-flowing hair and in some circles, even bright-colored fabrics, are shunned.
But dress codes exist for the public sphere, not the private one.
Within the context of marriage, Jewish tradition encourages women to embrace their sexuality, and to feel attractive and beautiful in front of their husbands. It’s a tenet of religious life, A says, that she wants to give more focus to.
“It’s something I want to be able to tap into. It’s about the experience I am having today, and being able to know that I’m sexy, I can lay here on the bed and feel beautiful, feel shalem,” she says, using the Hebrew word for whole, or complete.
A has purchased today’s boudoir session as an eighth anniversary gift for her husband. The photos will be presented to him in an album and remain private between the two of them. The shoot, which begins with hair and makeup by Cassy Avraham, a fellow religious woman in Jerusalem, lasts three hours.
A poses in six-inch black stilettos, a number of lacy nightdresses, and even one of her husband’s unbuttoned dress shirts. But while she thinks he will be delighted by the photos, she says she wouldn’t want anyone in her community to know about the experience. It’s simply too private.
“I don’t even wear a bathing suit at my local pool in my community,” she explains. “I wear a T-shirt. Because it’s just not something I want to share. Intimacy is something you share just with your husband.”
Chaya Eckstein, a fellow religious boudoir photographer based in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn, understands her concern.
Religious communities are small, tight-knit, and fertile grounds for gossip. Many Orthodox women view boudoir photography as a form of gross sexualization. She knows that when her four young children get older and enter religious schools, there is a good chance they will be teased over her profession.
But Eckstein loves her work, and she shrugs off the backlash. “I like to be different,” she says. “I am trying to raise my kids to have a mind of their own, as well. I want them to choose a path in life that is between them and Hashem [God], and when it comes to my photography it’s the same.”
Eckstein charges $650 for a photo shoot, which includes a lingerie consultation beforehand and a 10×10 album of images. In order to showcase her work on her website, she does a promotional shoot each year featuring non-Jewish models posed in the same manner that her religious clients would pose. Her photography work, she says, sometimes doubles as therapy sessions.
“For frum women, it can be extremely difficult to perceive themselves as beautiful. They’re always having babies, or their friends are having babies and they can’t, and they feel their bodies are somehow damaged,” she says. “But everyone is beautiful in their own way, and by the end of the shoot, they can see themselves differently.”
Sigala, who has also been on the receiving end of backlash and gossip for her work, feels the more religious her clients are, the more freeing the sessions can be.
“There are a lot of misconceptions within the religious community, and there are women who feel trapped by those misconceptions,” she says. “This can open their eyes to realizing that can be a religious, modest, beautiful daughter of Hashem and still do something like this.”