Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Tzniut Project 6: My Body, My Observance

This is the sixth 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.

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 grew up in a secular Israeli household. When my parents embraced religious observance, they affiliated themselves (and by extension, my siblings and me) with Chabad Lubavitch. (I was 8 or 9 at the time.) Though I have an appreciation for Lubavitch, today I consider myself “modern Orthodox.”

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?
Until I was 8 or 9, there weren’t any rules vis-à-vis dress and modesty. I have pictures of my mom riding a horse wearing cut-off jeans and a bathing-suit – wind blowing through her hair. When they became Chabad, almost overnight my jeans were thrown out, as were my short-sleeve to-shirts and short socks. They were replaced with long skirts, shirts with ¾-length or long sleeves and knee-high socks. The one exception was that I could wear sweat-pants as PJs. My mother, too, got rid of most of her wardrobe, replaced it all with long skirts and long sleeves. She also bought a bunch of tichels (kerchiefs) and a sheitel (wig). My grandmothers both passed away before I was born – but in pictures they are dressed modestly.

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 married – for 12 years now. When we got married, we had the conversation about hair-covering. The answer was that it would be left entirely up to me – even though he preferred that I cover my hair. But the bottom line was that it was my body and my observance. I decided to cover my hair from the start – because I know if I didn’t start covering my hair, I would likely never take on the observance down the road. The caveat is that I have incorporated more “heterim” than probably halachically permissible (i.e., I don’t cover my hair at home regardless of who is at my house, nor do I cover my hair outside when I’m on my own property). Same is true when I am at my parents’ or inlaws’ home. I always cover my hair when I’m in the real public domain (kids’ school, work, the mall, etc. etc. etc….) The other loophole is that I don’t cover all my hair (i.e., I will tie on a bandana or throw on a baseball cap – and whatever hangs out, hangs out). I do not own a sheitel – that’s not for halachic or hashkafic reasons – it’s more that the idea of having someone else’s hair on mine kind of grosses me out.

As for the rest of my dress – I don’t dress any differently now than I did before we got married. Again, my body, my observance. When the mood strikes me, I will wear jeans and short sleeves – and I will go mixed swimming. And it’s not a contentious issue in our home. Though again, I think he would prefer if I gave up jeans.

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?
On a typical day, I dress casual to business casual. It just depends on what’s going on at work or what’s doing that evening. For Shabbos, I will only wear a nicer skirt/dress, even if I don’t go to shul and even if I’m going for a long walk. It’s to honor the spirit of the day.

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?”)
I used to get the “why do you cover your hair but wear pants” – but that combination has now become more commonplace for women in general. I don’t believe there are contradictions in observance – it doesn’t take away from someone’s observance of Shabbat or kashrut or bikkur cholim or tzedakkah or (I can keep going) just because their elbows or knees or hair are showing – and vice versa. I think you have to meet people where they are and applaud them for what they’re doing – not criticize them for what they’re not. (And if you’re comfortable and you think they’d be receptive, encourage them to explore the possibilities of doing more.)

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’m sure that is often the case. I work for a very liberal Jewish organization and many who I have crossed paths with have preconceived notions of what it is to be/look Orthodox.

When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them?
Deal with “them” my thoughts? Or “them” the person? I guess the answer is the same: to each their own. Except for when I see small children wearing thick tights in the heat of the summer. There seems to be something incredibly unfair about that – and my feeling is that that crosses the line of what halacha requires of us.

I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
To me, modesty implies a level of humility. Tzniut implies the halachic norms (wherever you may be) that requires a woman to dress a certain way.

Also, often when I hear the word “tzniut” I think of it as a euphemism that helps keep women invisible. And so many of these women who are rendered invisible then talk about all of their inner beauty. To me, that doesn’t feel very modest either…

Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more!
Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

When I’m with more charedi/ultra-Orthodox folks, I’ve learned that people care less about what’s in my head as long as there is something on it.
Just because your sleeves reach your wrists, your hem to your ankles and your snood goes to your eyebrows, it doesn’t make you a real tzadekes.
I thought that having kids would make me reconsider my thoughts about what I wear and how I cover my hair and that I would consider a more “tzanua” style of dress. But the very acts of the labor and birthing processes have stripped away (!!!) my entire sense of personal tzniut.