Rise of the 'secret' ultra-Orthodox Jewish beauty salons

On a street in central Jerusalem dozens of bearded young men stand immersed in study and prayer, their noses buried in holy books

Here, on the cusp of the most religious Jewish neighbourhood in the city, residents live an ultra-Orthodox way of life, with strict rules on dress and appearance.

Women in this community tend to wear long skirts and shirts with long sleeves and high necklines. After they get married, they cover their heads with scarves, hats or wigs.

But behind closed doors, a quiet revolution is taking place. It may look cosmetic but it is changing many women's lives.

One of a number of places helping drive the growing trend - and one of the first - is a store called Yeelat Chen.

On the outside it is just another in a row of unremarkable shops to be found on Strauss Street - but inside, it is a beauty salon for ultra-Orthodox women.

It is the result of a growing desire among some ultra-Orthodox women to meet the standards of beauty in the secular society that surrounds them - without compromising the religious requirement for modesty.

"It's true that a lot of limitations and restrictions take precedence in this society. But in reality, there is no limit to the investment ultra-Orthodox women make in their appearance," says Yaffa Larrie, the 58-year-old owner of the salon.

Gender restrictions

The ultra-Orthodox community, which constitutes about a third of Jerusalem's Jewish population, is known for its stringent observance of Jewish religious law, or halacha.

Its members are strongly committed to preserving tradition, often by remaining separate and distinct from Israel's secular majority.

Many of them demand male-female segregation in public places; are intolerant of exposure of the female body; censor photographs of women in their publications and advertisements; and believe that men should not listen to female singers as this may arouse lustful thoughts.

The beauty salon is only a few minutes away from Mea Shearim, a neighbourhood that has entrance signs asking individuals to "Respect the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle"'.

Complex needs

Mrs Larrie founded Yeelat Chen (meaning Graceful Woman) 30 years ago, and is one of the pioneers of beauty treatments targeting ultra-Orthodox women.

After completing her training as a make-up artist, she consulted with a Jerusalem rabbi who advised her to open a salon for ultra-Orthodox women, saying that this community needed her more than any other part of the market.

"I was shocked when he told me that," she recalls. "At that time even the word 'cosmetics' could not be used as it was considered to be immodest.

"I knew that this was an economically weak community, with so many limitations and restrictions over make-up. I didn't know how they would even accept the idea of a beauty salon, and I was under a lot stress."

Over the years Mrs Larrie has learned to understand the needs of the complex ultra-Orthodox community. She even installed a special back door entrance that is hidden from the street, as some customers who follow the requirements for modesty do not want to be seen visiting the salon.

"Because of the biblical restrictions that these women have," says Mrs Larrie, "everything needs to be hinted and not emphasised.

"For instance, these women would always go for natural colours and therefore we'd specialise in improving their natural look. The religious women would also invest in three kinds of make-up: inconspicuous colours for the outside world, another kind for around the house, and the prettiest and boldest kind for her husband's eyes only."

Religious ruling

One of the biggest problems her customers faced was that they could not apply make-up on Shabbat - the Jewish holy day of rest - and on religious holidays, since it is prohibited by halacha.

At the same time, these women are expected to look their best for their husband.

"For many years I've had customers who told me that they would bypass the law by applying make-up even though it was prohibited… or they would sleep on their backs, trying not to move the entire night so that their make-up would not be ruined and they won't wake up eyebrow-less the next day."

The inner struggle of her customers inspired Mrs Larrie to seek permission from the senior Rabbi Ovadia Yossef to use a type of permanent make-up, which women can apply on Friday and that lasts through the Shabbat.

Rabbi Yossef eventually gave the religious ruling that approved the use of permanent make-up, arguing that it does not count as a tattoo, which is prohibited under Jewish law.

One of the women who has benefited from the permanent make-up is customer Sara Hirschhorn, who says she used to feel like a "pale face".

"For many years I didn't use make up on Shabbat and when I discovered the Shabbat make-up, it really made a huge difference," she said. "It's great that now you can use make up on Shabbat and you don't have to be violating a commandment."

Mrs Larrie believes that her clients are starting to play a more influential and important role in their community.

"I see an enormous change in the position of women in the ultra-Orthodox society, from when I first opened the salon up until now. More religious women are entering the workforce and work in a wide range of jobs. The cosmetics industry is a microcosm for that," she said.

"When I first opened, I was the first one in the market for ultra-Orthodox women, but now you see more women who are working in that field and people are becoming more aware of it. On my street alone, there are now between six to eight make-up artists. That's a step in the right direction."