This is the second in the Women's Edition of a series called The Tzniut Project 2.0. For the Women's Edition, 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! For the Men's Edition, pop over here.
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. If you feel comfortable letting the audience know the city/region where you live, please include that, too.
I “label” myself as Traditional Egalitarian. I tend to affiliate within the Conservative movement, but prefer to use "Traditional Egal" as my label more than one movement’s name. I live an area where most of my friends prefer to label themselves based on how they align versus a particular movement.
To me, traditional egalitarian means that I follow numerous Torah laws (kashrut, I am shomer Shabbat [guard Shabbat -- no tv, computer, use of money, etc]), but I also live in the modern world and believe that women can have an equal role in Judaism. So I wear a tallit at shul (services) and read Torah on a regular basis and think women can be rabbis, however I do not put on tefillin or wear a kippah daily like some women in my circle.
One reason I love my community of friends is that we each have our own way of affiliating and each have our own set of practices, but we really respect that and make each other comfortable.
2. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
To me, tzniut means presenting oneself in a way that shows respect to yourself and others. This doesn’t just mean in how you dress, but how you speak and act and go about your life is also folded into tzniut.
3. Growing up, did your mother or grandmother (or any other female role models in your life) dress modestly in any way? Do you think modesty was something instilled in you by your family? Did you dress modestly growing up?
I grew up with a mother who expected that we dress in a way that showed respect to our bodies and community. My mom and Bubbe wore pants/shorts/short sleeves/bathing suits. But as my mom would say, “It’s not how long your wear it, it’s how you wear it long.” So while some may say we did not dress modestly, for wearing pants/shorts/short sleeves, I do think we were modest dressers: no showing our stomachs, no short shorts, no super tight clothes, no low neck lines.
My mom also taught me context for how you dress. I once asked why I could wear a tankini at the pool, which showed my stomach, but if my shirt rode up reaching for something she would tell me I needed to pull it down, her response: “The beach is a place where it’s normal for that, you don’t show your midriff in the cereal aisle." There was many a disagreement in dressing rooms and if I bent over, even at home, and some skin showed from my shirt riding up I was told, “Shirt down, pants up!”
Sure, I rolled my eyes, but my mom taught me to respect myself in how I dress and that has for sure carried over into my adult life.
4. 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 married, but when I look for a partner, I am looking for someone who respects how I define modesty and who also shows a sense of modesty for himself and for me.
5. What do you wear on a typical day? On Shabbat? If you dress differently on weekdays and Shabbat, why do you make this distinction and how?
I teach at a modern Orthodox school, where all girls and women are required to wear knee-length (or longer) skirts and dresses. Having grown up going to a school that also required such dress, this is not hard to follow and it’s quite normal to put a skirt on each day. So, Monday through Friday, I wear skirts (and in winter I layer with leggings to keep warm); I love the knit skirts from Old Navy or the Gap since they make it easy to sit on the floor with my students. We can wear short sleeves shirts, and I tend to layer a tank top under skirts to keep my neck/chest line modest (my personal choice vs school dress code).
For Shabbat, when I go to shul, I have different skirts and tops. These are fancier and make me feel different from my weekly wardrobe and allow me to show kavod (honor) to Shabbat. Some of my shul skirts may fall above my knee. For me, I don’t see this as immodest, as it’s how I wear it (mind you it’s an inch above my knee), and I still feel respectable and appropriate. Sometimes I wear a nice dress to shul, since I don’t wear them to teach. For Shabbat, my goal is to dress up more then Monday to Friday so show the importance of the special day.
On non-school days and non-shul days, I do wear jeans when out and about. I do not feel comfortable in skinny jeans, since they are too form fitting. Often I am home on the couch in yoga pants or the like. I never leave the house (aside for the gym) in yoga pants, as I do not feel modest in such tight clothes (I am ok with it at the gym, since it’s the proper place for that attire). I live in the community in which my school is located and do see students sometimes. I am ok with them seeing me in jeans, since many of my girls and their moms also wear pants (it’s a modern Orthodox community).
6. What do you think other people (Jewish and non-Jewish) 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?”)
When I am out and about after work, people in my area may infer I am Orthodox (skirt with leggings in a frigid Northeast winter usually is a sign of being observant Jewishly). On a weekend when I go out in jeans, I just blend into the crowd. And blending in, to me, means I am being modest, by not drawing attention to myself. If I run into the kosher market to get some meat or a kosher restaurant for a bite with friends, I am ok in pants since there are so many types of Jews in Boston and some women wear pants but still keep kosher, etc.
7. 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?
I don’t think so. At least not in a way that I have ever noticed.
8. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them? Is there any particular aspect of tzniut that you see other people observing or practicing that you struggle with?
I was raised in a house that did teach me to accept everyone and their practices and not judge one person because they do something differently then me. I think the beauty of modern Judaism is that there are so many ways for people to observe the laws in ways that keep them engaged. Granted, I personally cannot imagine covering my arms down to my wrists all the time, or only wearing floor length skirts, or even covering my hair when I get married. But, that is how some people feel close to Hashem and I respect their choices to do so just as I hope the respect my level of tzniut as it is how I feel close to Hashem.