Politics

08.02.12

The Unorthodox Candidate: Mindy Meyer’s Sideshow Appeal

An exceptionally amateurish campaign sheds light on the complexities that confront Orthodox Jewish women stepping onto the secular stage, writes Allison Yarrow.

I may be the last remaining member of the New York City press corps who hasn’t interviewed the diva of the district, the Orthodox Elle Woods, the Magenta Yenta—Mindy Meyer, whose remarkable pink and leopard-print Web site for her New York State Senate run (slogan: “I’m Senator And I Know It”) has made her an instant Internet sensation, if something less than a viable candidate.

Meyer had agreed to come to The Daily Beast offices for a video interview after a brutal round of press interviews, where she failed to identify powerful (and Jewish) New York politician Sheldon Silver and was surprised to discover that New York had legalized gay marriage. But while handler Carrie Okay, sporting very high-heeled pink shoes and swinging bangle bracelets waited in our lobby for an hour, Meyer never arrived. Okay apologized, and we rescheduled for the next day. This time, Okay called just before the candidate was supposed to be on to cancel. A producer here mused that the 22-year-old legal intern and night-school law student with a pink blazer and Jersey Shore-worthy tan is harder to book than Bill Clinton.

Even if it’s for the wrong reasons, Meyer has made an argument for naked amateurism, as most any young political hopeful would kill for the volume of press she’s getting, even if it mostly skewers her lack of political knowledge, tweeny website and tone-deaf campaign. The woman is getting talked about.

But if the political stories about Meyer are painful—she has no evident base of support or funding and no clear path to victory against an unimpressive but reasonably well-entrenched incumbent—perhaps that’s because she’s less a political or pop culture story than a crash course on the complications of being a single young woman in the modern Orthodox world.

Video screenshot

Watch Mindy Meyer's campaign ad for New York State Senate

While several reports have called Meyer the first Orthodox woman to run for office, Susan Alter served two terms as a Councilwoman in a mostly Jewish Brooklyn district from 1983 to 1991, and ran unsuccessfully for public advocate in 1993 before retiring from politics. And in Michigan in 1990, 21-year-old Republican and avowed conservative Debbie Schlussel lost a race for a seat in the state House of Representatives by just one vote.

Schlussel, who says that some of her blog readers have sent her stories about Meyer, praises the New Yorker’s “smart marketing,” and questions the mockery of her. “People wear leopard-skin skirts and suits all the time,” said Schlussel. “Same goes for the pink. There is a thin line between what’s tasteful and what’s sleazy [and] I don’t think this girl crossed that line.”

In New York, many bloggers and thinkers have been surprised by how little blowback Meyer seems to be getting from Orthodox leaders, who so far have been conspicuously silent about her run—perhaps as a way to ensure than any concerns about her particular campaign aren’t taken as broader ones about Orthodox women entering the political sphere.

“[I’m] not surprised her photos are sexy and not serious because she still sees herself as a girl and not a woman.”

That Meyer is New York's first Orthodox female political candidate in 20 years despite the community’s growing size and political sway is largely a result of women being relegated or elevated, depending on one’s perspective, to a domestic role—expected to dress modestly, live quietly and draw little attention to themselves in the outside world. Some women won’t shake the hands of men. Others refuse to speak in gender-mixed company, be photographed, or wear a color as flashy as pink. Most put all work away from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown to observe the Jewish Sabbath.

But the main reason so few Orthodox woman run for office, observers of the observant Jewish community say, is their traditional duties to the home. More Orthodox women work outside of the home now than ever before, and in stringent Haredi communities, wives are the only breadwinners, supporting their husbands’ religious studies. But even in the more centrist or “leftist black hat” sphere, many interviewed for this story say that Meyer likely comes from a world that defines gender roles rigidly, and where the expectation is that a woman should be married by the time she leaves her teens, rather than pursuing college or political office.

Since no Orthodox woman has run for office in New York since Meyer was an small child, the appeal of a female Jewish candidate to Orthodox Jewish voters is untested. Brooklyn’s 21st District, where Meyer is running, covers parts of Jewish Midwood and Borough Park, along with a greater number of Caribbean- and African-American voters clustered in Flatbush and East Flatbush.

In an email, Meyer contends that her “Republican and Conservative views are in line with the views of the Orthodox community,” which she said would “support me in my pursuit of becoming a senator whilst still staying true to my values.”

But members of the modern Orthodox intelligentsia haven’t been impressed. Blogger Heshy Fried--who pokes at his religious Orthodox world as it slouches toward modernity on his blog, Frum Satire--says his contemporaries are embarrassed by what they consider to be a mockery and a misrepresentation of who they are and what they’re about. He called her campaign “outrageous. She sounds like a teenager. We have people who are bright.”

“There are some idiots who think this is good because it ‘proves’ that orthodox women do have jobs,” he wrote on his blog, “but in reality it makes them look like idiots.”

Allison Josephs, who blogs about Orthodox women professionals at Jew In The City, which aims to spreadthe message that Orthodox Jews can be funny, approachable, educated, pro-women and open-minded,” says it’s Meyer’s glib approach to public service that irks her brethren.

“There are those who don’t think basing a campaign on ‘Legally Blonde’ is a reason to be taken seriously. But it speaks to the style of the campaign, not to the fact that she’s a woman,” said Josephs, who adds that many Orthodox Jews are “proud that one of their own is running and will support her based on that.”

A community manager for a venture capital website, Shana Carp, who was raised modern Orthodox, surmises Meyer wouldn’t be doing this if she were married but rather would be “tied to her home.”

Carp blames what she sees as Meyer’s childishness on the insular upbringing of the Orthodox. “You could be 50 and be called a girl if you’re not married with a kid,” she said. “[I’m] not surprised her photos are sexy and not serious because she still sees herself as a girl and not a woman.” Carp says at 22, Mindy is on the “older edge” for getting married, and that for women like her, there isn’t a clear path to what they should do with themselves.

But some Orthodox women say they’re happy to see a young, attractive woman chasing a dream and making a name for herself in the secular world. Chaya Polonsky, who runs a clothing business with her sister that sells fashionable, religiously appropriate clothes to Orthodox women, praised Meyer for “being who she is as opposed to throwing her heritage out the window.”

Mayim Bialik, the Emmy-nominated actress and Orthodox Jew currently in “The Big Bang Theory” and perhaps best known as the title character on Blossom, says she’s often challenged to do her job in a Hollywood community where “women shake hands and hug frequently.” She will shake hands with men (and has held the hands of male costars) but is reluctant to hug. “I make it brief,” she told me. She doesn’t wear pants outside of her house, though she knows a role may one day require it, and she has worked on Jewish holidays before.

“I’ve had people tell me I should walk away from my career,” she said. “When young religious people ask, ‘can I be a Hollywood actress like you?’ My answer is generally, ‘not really.’” Bialik admits to not following the gobs of Meyer news but adds, “any time an observant woman puts herself out there as a professional, it is good for Orthodox Community.”

Carp, on the other hand, says Meyer’s outsized sense of herself may spring from being raised in a community that “pulls back in its engagement in the world around it.”

“You don’t understand how other people think. You end up with this weird group think. It takes time to figure out what others are thinking because you’ve only been around people your entire life who are just like you,” said Carp, who no longer considers herself Orthodox.

“I can tell you one thing, I have no experience in corruption,” Meyers says on her Web site. “This is how politics has to change. There is always corruption, but I have the intention to follow my values and ensure that none of what happens in my district is corrupt.”

Her supporters and detractors can perhaps agree that Mindy Meyer has much to learn.

“Just because she doesn’t know those things doesn’t mean you can’t learn them,” said Schlussel. “It doesn’t mean she isn’t good on the issues and that she won’t work hard.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that Meyer was the first female Orthodox candidate for office in New York City.