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A Modesty Proposal

New York City’s half-baked inquisition.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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In recent years, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg has acquired a reputation as one of America’s most progressive hipster outposts. In addition to the waves of Manhattan refugees who have relocated here, the area gets no shortage of visitors. Most of the visitors, however, don’t venture down Lee Avenue—main street for the Satmar Hasidic Jewish enclave. 


A few of Williamsburg’s Hasidim


At first glance, it appears as if nothing has changed on Lee Avenue in at least 50 years. According to Allan Nadler, the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University, “no other post-Holocaust community has more faithfully and effectively preserved its old religious and cultural traditions and folkways, to say nothing of the Yiddish language.” Certainly, it’s hard to miss the ubiquitous black hats and distinctively modest attire of the Orthodox Jews strolling by. It’s a drastic contrast to the sartorially outrageous trendsters nearby.

Differing opinions about what you think is appropriate to wear might seem an unlikely source of legal trouble, but in contemporary New York, no one is left unscathed by the left-wing municipal bureaucracy. Herman San-ders’s father founded Sander’s Kosher Bakery on Lee Avenue in 1959. San-ders hadn’t even heard of the New York City Commission on Human Rights prior to being accused by it of violating the city’s discrimination laws and threatened with thousands of dollars in fines. Sander’s Kosher Bakery is one of seven Hasidic businesses in Williamsburg accused by the city of religious and gender discrimination. Their alleged crime? Posting a dress code in their storefront windows. 

The offending signs read “Dress Code For Store. No Shorts, No Barefoot, No Sleeveless, No Low Cut Neckline” with the message repeated in Spanish. According to Sanders, he doesn’t even know who put the sign there—a not implausible suggestion considering storefront windows up and down the street serve as informal community bulletin boards and are populated with flyers. But as an observ-ant Jew who values modesty, Sanders admits he doesn’t disagree with the message, either. 

“It didn’t offend me. And I don’t think it would offend the customers,” he told me. It was only after the New York Post wrote a characteristically cheeky item about the signs—“Brooklyn has lost its right to bare arms”—that the city’s human rights commission came calling. Specifically, the stores were accused of violating Section 8-107(4)(1) of the Administrative Code of New York, which disallows stores from denying service to customers based on “actual or perceived age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, disability, marital status, partnership status, sexual orientation or alienage or citizenship status.” 

There’s one major problem with the city’s claim that the stores violated New York’s antidiscrimination law. Since the signs first appeared in July 2012, the New York human rights commission has produced a flurry of documents and held administrative hearings about the matter. Not once has the commission presented evidence or complaints that anyone was denied service as a result of the signs. Sanders insists every customer was served. “[The signs] didn’t help, actually. People still came in with shorts,” he shrugs. 

Moreover, the human rights commission has never claimed that there’s anything wrong with private establishments imposing a dress code. The Four Seasons and courtrooms in New York enforce similar dress codes. The human rights commission’s stated objection to these particular dress code signs was an affront to logic and religious freedom. Last summer, the commission argued before an administrative judge that the dress code signs in the Williamsburg stores may be similar to dress codes at establishments elsewhere in the city. But because the signs were in Hasidic stores, they should be viewed as an attempt to force Orthodox Jewish beliefs on others. In other words, the commission argued that dress codes are permissible as a matter of taste or decorum, but not acceptable if they are an expression of religious conviction. 

The administrative judge dismissed this line of reasoning from the commission out-of-hand, but gave the agency another chance to make its case. The judge essentially told the commission that the only way to prove the signs were discriminatory was to demonstrate that they were an attempt to use “code words” to keep those outside the tight-knit Jewish community from patronizing the stores. So the city returned to the drawing board, and ordered up a survey designed to show that the broader Brooklyn community found the signs offensive and discriminatory.

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