Monday, July 18, 2011

The Tzniut Project 21: "I'm a Conservative Jew who covers her head."

This is the 21st 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 origins 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 am a proud member of the Conservative Movement and affiliate at medium sized (400 family) Conservative synagogue. My husband is an employee of the congregation, and we live in walking distance of the synagogue. We are Shomer Shabbat and keep a completely kosher home. Since we live in a town with no kosher restaurants besides the JCC café, I do eat vegetarian food out at non-kosher restaurants. My husband does not, although on rare occasion in the interest of shalom bayit, he will have a cheese-less salad at a non-kosher restaurant (think anniversary dinners, etc).

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?
I did not grow up in an observantly Jewish home, so I cannot say my mother or grandmother dressed in a modestly-aware style. That said, there was always a sense of appropriate dress that was expected for me. One thing I will definitely emphasize one day when I have children is that they dress like children. Today, one thing that really bothers me about dress is how adult, sexually-charged, and inappropriate little girls’ clothing can be. Little girls do not need bikinis, spaghetti strap tank tops, or tee shirts with suggestive statements on them.

I didn’t dress modestly by tzniut standards growing up, but I was never a tank top wearer (perhaps mainly because my mother didn’t buy use clothing like that!). Since I was always one of the tallest girls in my class, short skirts were unacceptable in my family because they were REALLY short on me.

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 (happily) married for just over a year. I was never planning on covering my hair after marriage although my husband did ask me about it when we were first engaged. His words were, “I’d rather you not cover your hair, but it would be completely fine with me if you did. It’s your decision.” I appreciated his respect of that, and I’m not sure if one day I will take on that mitzvah. My husband does not have any real opinions regarding my clothing choices and has told me he likes no matter what I wear (I sure am lucky!).

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?
My style of tzniut is a modified version with which I feel very comfortable. I would say I wear skirts about 75% of the time. I went through two year-long periods in college and in my first year of marriage where I wore almost exclusively skirts reaching the knee. I do wear pants, although I do not wear tight jeans or dress pants – usually I prefer more, full trouser-style. I do wear short sleeves, however I am no longer comfortable wearing tank tops in public. I do not cover my hair.

On Shabbat and teaching religious school, I always wear skirts and sleeves at least to the elbow if not longer. I always wear a kippah in the synagogue (even if not davening or teaching) and wear a tallit at all morning services. For me, my Shabbat clothes are truly separated out from my weekday work and after work clothes. Even my style choice is slightly different – on weekdays, I wear more business professional style with pencil skirts and blazers and on Shabbat, I tend to wear more mid-calf, flowy skirts with cardigans and brighter colors. I occasionally wear hats on Shabbat to services instead of a kippah.

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?”)
Since many people from my synagogue only see me in skirts, for a while many assumed that I only wore skirts. Surprisingly, many women actually appreciated and seemed to admire this choice. Conversely, when I have worn a hat to services, I have often gained questions like, “Oh, are you frum now?” I foresee if the future that one day I will wear hats all the time in services. The answer will then be, “No, I’m a Conservative Jew who covers her head.”

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?
Yes! This is perhaps the most frustrating thing to me. For a while, when I was wearing more skirts, I felt a little bit more recognized as observant within my city’s broader Jewish community. Now, when I’ve been at our JCC in pants, I often feel like people are shocked to find out that my husband and I are Shomer Shabbat or keep kosher. It goes to show how appearances can cause assumptions. That said, the people who matter most to me (both in the liberal and Orthodox communities), recognize the strong Jewish life that I (and my husband) live. That’s what really matters.

7. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them?
When a friend of mine started covering her hair about a year into her marriage, it caused a bit of a stir at our synagogue where there were no women who did that and barely any women who wear a hat on Shabbat (most are bare-headed or wear kippot). For me, I wondered if she was becoming too immersed in the Orthodox community in which she was volunteering. Now, she has a young son and has brought him every Shabbat since he was born to our Conservative synagogue and has continued to read Torah and wear a tallit along with a tichel. I admire her for staying strong in her decision, despite what others thought.

8. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
Many things. On the surface and if I look at my earliest understanding of the term, it means the way “observant” Jews dress and behave. I see myself as an observant Jew and certainly more traditional than most members of Conservative Judaism. Today, I see tzniut as an important element that enlightens how I dress and how I behave. Certain things are kept for myself and my husband. I don’t need to put my body (or for that matter, my thoughts) all “out there” in order to put portray my personality and my character. This is perhaps the most important lesson tzniut has taught me.

9. Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more!
Thank you so much for doing this project and for including people of all segments of the Jewish community.