Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Tzniut Project 14: A Boost to My Jewish Identity

This is the fourteenth in a multi-part series called The Tzniut Project. Women from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of observances have volunteered to anonymously answer questions that I have written about their practices, people's assumptions, and more. For more information on the project, click here. Please continue to check back with The Tzniut Project to read more stories and comment abundantly!

Note: This post is contributed by a reader. 

1. How do you affiliate Jewishly? Feel free to elaborate on the words people use to describe you and the words you use to describe yourself.
I'm hoping to convert to Orthodox Judaism as soon as I get the opportunity -- although like you, Chavi, I'm not fond of labels. I wish we could all be "just Jewish." However, Jews like to classify themselves into different categories in order to distinguish between their worldviews, so I guess I'd say I tend to lean more toward the Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist philosophy on many issues -- but I wouldn't limit myself to it a priori. I'm still learning, and God willing, have a conversion and a lifetime of Judaism to look forward to. I want to be a Torah-observant Jew -- but what kind, or 'flavour,' of Judaism will appeal to me most some years down the line, I do not know.

2. Growing up, did your mother or grandmother dress modestly in any way? Do you think modesty was something instilled in you by your family? Did you dress modestly growing up?
No -- although the women in my family have always had sort of a classic, lady-like style, and my mother never to my memory wore anything short, she did and still does wear low-cut tops. Now that I am choosing to cover up, my mother and grandmother are very alarmed by my choice of clothing and think it's very strange that somebody so young would want to dress like an "old lady." They keep telling me that if I dress like this now, by the time I reach their age I will wish to dress more provocatively and will want to feel attractive and have people look at me, but will no longer be able to afford it. We have endless arguments about this.

3. Are you married? How does your spouse feel about your choices for modest dress? Is it a dialogue or does your partner leave the mitzvah to you?
I am not, but when I do marry, I imagine I will want my husband to care about his wife dressing modestly but without trying to explicitly control what I do and don't wear.

4. What would you wear on a typical day? On Shabbos? If you dress differently on weekdays and Shabbos, why do you make this distinction and how?
I wear skirts below the knee (or at least cover the middle of my knee), and I really like long maxi skirts in summer. On top I'd typically wear a shell with some nice sleeveless shirt over it. Sometimes I also wear shirts up to a tefach [hands-breadth] above my elbow -- to be honest I'd rather not, but I guess when I do this my mother, who I still live with, feels kind of reassured that I'm wearing 'normal' clothes again. I prefer shirts to cover my collarbone, but most often have trouble finding those in shops, so I go for the next best thing -- just below the collarbone.

At the moment I don't dress much differently on Shabbos, partly because I have noone to spend it with -- although I realise that's hardly an excuse; partly because the people at my shul are very secular and don't dress any differently on Shabbos either; and partly because most days I like to dress "smartly" anyway, so there wouldn't be much of a difference.

5. What do you think other people infer from your clothing and hair covering choices? Has anyone ever said anything to you outright that expresses a judgment based on your appearance? (Ex: “You don’t cover your hair or wear skirts, so why do you keep kosher?”)
Apart from my parents, I haven't heard anyone comment on what I wear so far, although I do often get the impression people think I'm weird. At my school girls my age wear jeans, miniskirts, T-shirts and sneakers, and whenever there is a formal school event, they wear short low-cut dresses -- so I do kind of stand out. On the other hand, I've heard people over the age of 40 and 50 comment that I dress "smart" and "fancy" -- which is sweet, although I'm not sure what to make of the age group factor!

As I said, the people at my shul are secular -- so I'm the only one there who dresses modestly, apart from another woman who has recently been making an effort, too. Sometimes I find myself worrying about what they think of me -- do they think I'm trying to be "more Jewish" than them, while not actually being Jewish? I constantly have to remind myself that I do what I do for myself, and not for anybody else, so I shouldn't care what other people, Jewish or non-Jewish, think.

On the other hand, when we have Orthodox people visit our shul from elsewhere, I've noticed they automatically single me out due to the fact that I'm dressed like them, and they start talking to me -- while most of the other women in the community somehow don't speak to them, continuing to talk amongst themselves. I sometimes feel like a bridge between my community and the more religious visitors.

6. Have you ever surprised someone by dressing more or less modestly and making them rethink their stereotypes about what it means to be an observant Jew?
Not really -- on the contrary, I've had secular Jews try to badmouth Orthodoxy to me, talking in a way as if they thought I knew nothing about it, even though I was sitting in front of them in a long skirt and long sleeves on a hot summer day.

7. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them?
When I see people wearing very revealing and tight-fitting clothing, honestly, I do sometimes judge, although I know I shouldn't. I try to keep in mind that many of them are dressed like that simply due to a genuine lack of awareness of the impact of the way we dress on the way people perceive us, on the opposite gender, and ultimately, on our spiritual wellbeing. Sometimes I'm on a bus and I see a girl enter in very skimpy shorts, and then I see the way all the men look her up and down while she's paying the fare. I think it's disgusting, and in this case I pity the girl rather than judge her.

When I see people dressed more modestly than myself, I sometimes feel a little inferior, and wonder if my own standards are too lax. Where I live there are a lot of African refugees, and the Muslim women from countries like Sudan, Eritrea, etc., only ever wear floor-length skirts, and I've noticed they wear tights or socks so their feet are always completely covered too. I find this admirable considering the boiling summer climate -- and often wonder whether when they see me they judge me the way I sometimes can't help but judge the girls in tiny miniskirts -- I hope not!

8. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
First and foremost dignity and self-respect, expressed through moderation in everything -- dress, speech, overall behaviour. The way we dress and our manners should reflect who we are on the inside, our inner beauty. Observing tzniut means allowing ourselves to be valued for who we are and what we do, rather than for outward appearances. I also think it's in the interests of every woman (and man, but I feel women are more endangered in this sense) not to be objectified.

Tzniut to me also includes what I watch on telly, which websites I browse, what I do in my free time. For instance, I'd never be caught dead in a pub or nightclub -- even though most of my peers love partying, I've always felt out of place in that kind of culture, for as long as I can remember.

9. Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more!
I feel tzniut has given a boost to my Jewish identity -- even though I'm not Jewish officially. When I look different and feel different from those around me, I am reminded of why I do it -- and although at times it can be tough feeling so out of place, at the end of the day I feel proud of who I am and what I do. The constant criticism from my parents and secular society and the fact that I am able to withstand it give me strength, courage and hope that one day I will be a Jew.