Friday, June 10, 2011

The Tzniut Project 13: "What's enough for G-d? What's enough for me?"

This is the thirteenth 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 a "Jew by Dunk" (i.e., a convert) who went through a Conservative conversion almost three years ago. I tend to lean to the more traditional side of things and consider myself "Conservadox" in thought and am becoming more so in actions. I'm a member at a Conservative shul affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

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 certainly don't think she or my grandma dressed in revealing cloths, but they also obviously weren't dressing with tzniut in mind (or maybe they were, but with a different label?). That being said, I remember my mom talking to me about our bodies being a gift from G-d and the importance of honoring that with appropriate dress and behavior. That, of course, didn't stop me from wearing some pretty scandalous outfits during my rebellious teen years -- it didn't help that lingerie as clothing was a popular trend as I entered high school ... But, Mom's words then have influenced my framework today -- sometimes it just takes a while to actually absorb the wisdom being passed on to you.

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'm engaged and will (G-d-willing) be getting married in November. My fiance is an Israeli from the FSU who grew up in a very secular household. Because we are, both in our own ways, trying to figure out what living an "observant" lifestyle looks like for us both now, and as we continue to grow in our observance, we have lots and lots and lots of conversations about this topic and others (kashrut, keeping Shabbat, etc.). He's expressed that he's pretty ok with whatever I choose is right for me, but that a sheitel is off limits. I suspect that we'll continue to have conversations and that we'll further define things as we move along.

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 work in a very casual office environment, so my dress is casual most days (jeans and knit shirts, etc.) but lately I've been putting more thought into what it might look like if I "went skirts and sleeves," so I've been trying that out every now and then. I've found that on the days that I consciously dress like I belong on the show Srugim (modest + fashionable = win), my behavior is just a wee bit more in line with my outfit. Let's just say that off-color vocab doesn't get used as much on those days ... Plus, I feel prettier and more feminine.

I definitely make an effort to wear something that is shul-appropriate (skirt to at least just below knees, a decently high neckline and shoulders covered) on Fridays so I can head straight to services or shabbat dinner with friends after work. And if I'm headed to services on Saturday morning, only my nicest skirts and shirts/sweaters make it out the door. For me, it's partially about honoring shabbat but probably just as much about making sure I'm dressed appropriately for shul and don't get funny looks. It's been a learning curve for me because some things that would fly in a church (e.g., a sleeveless dress) just aren't appropriate in a synagogue, so I err on the side of caution in both coverage and dressiness.

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?”)
I think people (including acquaintances and friends) are surprised to find out that I tend to have a more traditional viewpoint on things because I don't dress fully tznua most days. They assume that if I'm wearing flip flops, jeans, and a tank top, I'll take a more liberal view on things like women's role in the synagogue than I do.

Most of my friends were pretty surprised to find out that I'd really like to cover my hair when I'm married and have wondered how that would fit in with our community. One friend said "but that would mean you could never eat out with us!" because eating out (vegetarian) in a non-kosher restaurant with covered hair could send the wrong message. It was a point I hadn't thought about before, and I've been trying to figure it out -- it's as if I'm already anticipating judgment (expressed or not), and it's enough for me to strongly consider not covering my hair right after the wedding (I don't think either my fiance or I am ready for all kosher all the time. Yet.).

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?
I'm not sure that this question applies to me, because I don't think I've ever been considered observant (enough) by the people I would label "observant Jews" (although I'm certainly within the norms of my community).

7. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them?
I find myself in awe of the women who are able to mix modesty with fashion -- nothing too flashy of course (or too tight) -- and I'm finding myself more and more drawn to adopt "skirts (knee length) and sleeves (3/4)" full-time.

And I hate to say this, but I've gotten kind of judge-y when it comes to the opposite. Somehow I'm fine with a lack of clothes in the yoga studio or on the beach, but just keep noticing how much SKIN there is in public these days. It especially bothers me in shul to see a slightly too short skirt, and that's when the real judging begins. I try not to linger on those thoughts too long though, especially in shul where my thoughts and intentions should be directed to more important things.

8. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
Up until about two years ago, I would have only focused on the outside. Now (and probably because I'm trying to break a bad habit of using swear words too often), I focus just as much on words/actions as attire. For me, tzniut is about remembering that G-d created you and showing that you remember by your choice in words/actions/attire.

9. Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more!
Some of the others have said that observing tzniut has been a process for them, and it has/will be for me too. Right now, I'm really struggling with how much I want to adopt a more tzniut-friendly approach to dressing but get hung up questions like "can I do skirts/sleeves and still go to yoga classes where I'll be in yoga pants and a shirt?" Lots of "what's enough for G-d, what's enough for me?" In the meantime, I've been working on the words/actions part of the equation.