On Avenue M in Midwood, Brooklyn, the sidewalks bustle with Orthodox Jewish women in wigs and ankle-length skirts, while bearded men in long black coats and broad-brimmed hats walk to synagogue.
Nestled among the other shops on the busy thoroughfare - a kosher fish market, a Judaica bookshop and a bagel store - sits Lavender Lace, an intimate apparel boutique known for expensive, imported brands like La Perla and Valentino. In a boudoirlike setting, complete with a crystal chandelier, conservatively dressed Orthodox customers finger frilly bras and matching panties.
Squeals of embarrassment could be heard one day recently from a curtained dressing room, where an 18-year-old Orthodox bride-to-be slipped into a sheer white negligee and feathered bedroom slippers, part of her wedding trousseau.
“I’ve never been exposed to anything like this,” she said. “Your whole life, you’re expected to cover everything, and then all of a sudden, the wedding’s over and nothing’s covered. I’ve never even held my fiance’s hand.”
Like most traditional women in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities - including parts of Flatbush, Midwood, Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights - the blushing bride has been raised according to Halakah, or Jewish law. She attended an all-girls school, never wore pants, concealed her knees, elbows and collarbone, and met her future husband through a matchmaker. Once married, she will also cover her hair with a wig.
But despite an ascetic life and modest outerwear, it is not uncommon for Orthodox women to enjoy sexy undergarments. Across the heart of Orthodox Brooklyn, there are at least four well-known shops selling the kind of racy lingerie found at Lavender Lace. Their owners say business is brisk.
Jewish law places no restrictions on alluring underwear, and, indeed, it may be interpreted as condoning it, rabbis and other religious experts say.
“There are many religions that perceive the body and soul in conflict,” said Avi Weiss, an assistant professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University and a rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx. “For these beliefs, the pathway to spirituality is through a rejection of the body. Judaism sees it very differently. The pathway to spirituality is not a rejection of the physical but a sanctification of it.”
“The use of lingerie would be appropriate within marriage in the attempt to intensify mutually satisfying, permissible pleasures,” Weiss added.
At Fantasy Boutique, an upscale store in a largely Hasidic section of Borough Park, the Romanian-born owner said, “Cinderella-type lingerie, exquisite, lacy bras and panties - not kinky, Frederick’s of Hollywood-type stuff - is popular with about 50 percent of my clientele, who are mostly Orthodox.”
She spoke on condition that she not be named, as did nearly all of the people interviewed for this article, citing religious codes of modesty in public behavior. Traditional Orthodox Jews, which include the Hasidim, rarely discuss sexual matters with outsiders.
Because Borough Park is more conservative than Midwood, Fantasy Boutique’s stock of flimsy French and Italian designs, as well as Donna Karan Intimates, is tucked away in boxes at the back of the store, never displayed in the window. That would be “an offensive thing to men on the street,” the owner said. “Whoever knows I carry La Perla or Lou comes here,” he added. “It’s all word of mouth.”
Although it seems paradoxical that deeply religious, ultramodestly dressed women may also wear sexy lingerie, the Torah sanctions, and even exhorts, a wife to look attractive to her husband, making frilly underwear acceptable so long as its display is confined to the conjugal bedroom, Orthodox women said.
“A husband should be with his wife - God intended it and lingerie enhances that,” said a Hasidic mother of seven, browsing through Christian Dior nightgowns at the Borough Park basement store.
Another woman from the neighborhood, a mother of four, recalled that on her first date with her future husband she ate pistachio ice cream. “After we were married,” said the woman, 44, “I bought a Victoria’s Secret Miracle Bra and matching thong in a pistachio green color made of Venetian lace. Now when I wear it, it brings my husband and me back to that ‘first date’ feeling.”
Owners of the lingerie stores say that their customers’ choice of when to wear the underthings varies widely, according to personal preference. Some wear lingerie only in the bedroom, some when dressing up for a bar mitzvah or dinner out, and some wear it under office clothes.
“I personally believe a woman should be dressed very feminine and sexy underneath her clothes,” said the owner of the basement boutique. “You don’t just change at night into a different person.”
Not all traditional Orthodox Jews buy lingerie, any more than the majority of non-Orthodox women do. “Although lingerie is allowed within the marital context, not all Orthodox women wear it,” said a rabbi in Manhattan, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “There are those who are more ascetic and feel it is unnecessary.”
Both customers and religious experts suggested that the seeming paradox between conservative outerwear and provocative underthings is related to Judaism’s teachings about sexuality; namely, that sex for pleasure within a Jewish marriage is not a taboo, but encouraged. And lingerie can be a way to keep the marital spark alive.
“Jewish law codifies two aspects of the sexual relationship between husband and wife,” Weiss said. “One is procreation, the other is onah, which includes a husband’s responsibility to sexually satisfy his wife. This is a mitzva, or commandment, separate from procreation.
“Although contemporary culture now emphasizes the wife’s sexual satisfaction, the idea of onah is built into the Halakic system, which goes back thousands of years,” he said.
Judaism considers it a mitzva - a commandment and a good deed - to make love Friday night, the Sabbath, or Shabbat, which commemorates God’s creation of the world. “One of the deepest expressions of holiness is when a husband and wife come together as one on Shabbat,” Weiss said.