Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Tzniut Project 22: Part of a Chain

This is the 22nd 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 do not like denominations or boxes. I identify as a Jewish woman who is doing her best to live a halachicly observant life in 2011. If you asked my friends and family you would hear the following descriptors though: Conservative, Conservadox, Traditional, Orthoprax, Modern Orthodox, Orthodox, or just simply frum.

For your box placing ease, here is what I can briefly share. I am shomer Shabbat, shomer Kashrut, observe taharat hamishpaca, wear skirts and sleeves and cover my hair at all times in the presence of anyone other than my husband or parents (I don’t have kids yet, don’t know what I’ll do then!). I also believe in learning with a critical eye and the need to question and understand our religious obligations. I am comfortable davening with or without a mechitza, but I will always respond aloud and will sing along aloud as well. Oh, and I only wear stockings in the winter (for warmth) and live in open-toed shoes all summer long.

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 religious, so although my mother and grandmother both dressed modestly, it was not a religious choice, but rather just a personal one. They were comfortable with themselves, but also dressed in a way which was always appropriate for any setting. I on the other hand, did not. Everything I wore was too short, too low, or too big. I had no sense of dressing in a way which honored my body. However, opting into modest dressing (a la tzniut) as an adult makes it a conscious and continual choice that I am proud of now.

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 indeed married. My husband appreciates that I dress modestly, however he respects that is my choice. If I were to decide to wear pants again, he would be fine with it. Lucky for him, he also knows that I fully believe in this mitzvah and will not take backward steps in its observance.

The only thing he has a vocal opinion on is not wearing a sheitel, and 95% of the time I agree with him about that.

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 past my knees and sleeves over my elbows, and something on my head. On a typical day, it is an a-line or jean skirt with a shell and a cute cardigan/wrapigan/blazer or a cute top over a long sleeve shell with a coordinated head covering. Over Shabbat it is similar, only the skirt and hat selection is specifically different. When I began only wearing skirts, I knew I had to somehow make Shabbat clothing special. So I have weekday skirts and Shabbat skirts (and hats) and they are separate in my closet. Oh, and always with fun accessories and shoes – tzniut does not mean boring!

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?”)
The bulk of the judgment I receive comes from people who can’t understand that just because something looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck – it isn’t always a duck. (And by duck, I mean a certain kind of Jew.)

However, the one that affects me more profoundly is that when I made the shift to dressing tzniut, it was difficult for many people in my life to handle, largely because I was known for wearing low slung jeans and tank tops. How was it possible to choose to wear shirts with sleeves to the elbow all the time, and later to only wear skirts past the knee and a neckline close to the collar bone? Clearly it was being forced upon me! How shocked they were to learn I had really come to think about how I dress in a different way. I found it empowering to take control of my body and how I presented it to the world in a positive way, and I make the choice every day when I get dressed. It has been years now, and I still have friends and family members who cannot accept that this is my choice, let alone one that I am happy with and intend to opt into every day of my life.

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?
All the time! I do not live in a city or community where tzniut is common. I know very few women who wear skirts and sleeves, fewer who always cover their hair, and even fewer who do not wear sheitels. So being someone who does all that, but is also an educated career woman who is engaged in the broader (read: secular) Jewish community – often makes people stop and think. It is a proud moment for me whenever I can make someone rethink their stereotypes, and gain a broader sense of all the different types of religious Jews out there.

7. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them?
I believe that it is a journey and I am always happy to see people on the path. I do not think I have room to judge anyone, as I would not want to be judged by others.

My favorite thing about seeing someone out and about who observes tzniut differently, is when we can look at each other and know we are sisters on the journey, and give each other a knowing nod or smile. My friends who do not dress tzniut don’t understand those moments, but I do. It makes my heart happy.

8. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
Tzniut tends to be most commonly translated about modesty in reference to clothing. I think defining it down on this level does an injustice to tzniut and people who uphold the ideal of modesty. Personally, I believe that the most important component of tzniut is how we carry ourselves, not how we dress ourselves. Holding your head high with confidence, without boasting. Being a good person and friend, without advertising that you feel you are such. Lending a hand when needed, without making a big show about how helpful you are. That is the inner-modesty which is so much more valuable in today’s society. While how we dress should reflect the person we are on the inside, should a woman’s skirt length be more important than living a modest life?

9. Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more!
In the end of my copy of Naomi Ragan’s Sotah, she writes a bit about a conference she was at where she spoke on the topic of women’s rights in Judaism, entitled “A Letter to My Sisters.” When I read the following response she had to an attendee who asked how a modern woman in the free world would “choose to wear the chains imposed on [her] by religion and the narrow minded, backward men who are religious leaders,” it resonated with me. This is what Ms. Ragen had to say to this woman:
I am a part of a chain that reaches back for thousands of years. There is a great joy in knowing who you are, and where you come from; in cherishing and preserving those cultural and religious treasures which are your heritage and which make you unique. Why should I allow these men to push me out, deny me that place? No, I prefer to fight them, to make them live up to the goodness and justice of the authentic religion that belongs to me, not just to them. I prefer to have them thrown out, rather than for me to leave.
This response captures my sentiment on embracing modest dress more eloquently than I could have realized.