Monday, June 27, 2011

Reflections on Tznius

I can still picture the pre-teen chubby blonde girl with glasses who looked up at me and asked curiously, "Aren't you hot wearing that?" That is probably what most Americans think when they see Orthodox Jews, particularly women, dressing in long sleeves in the summer, covering elbows and knees and even wearing tights. I remember smiling at the girl, laughing to myself at the sincere shock in her voice, and replying seriously that I was used to dressing this way and was warm, but not dying of heat. The truth is that I remember thinking the same thing when I was a little kid growing up, as I did not always dress this way: How could anyone in their right mind wear anything more than short sleeves in the summer? The funnier part is now I look at the world around me and wonder how certain people can walk around so exposed. Aren't they embarrassed to reveal so much? Every summer I think about my choice to dress in a Tznius way.

Growing up, my family emphasized the importance of modesty, but definitely not the Halachic requirements involved in keeping the laws of Tznius. Pants, short-sleeves, and even shorts were acceptable, though sleeveless shirts and mini-skirts were never part of my wardrobe. As a kid I loved the cold and hated the heat and if you had told me back then that one day I would wear long sleeves and long skirts in the summer I would have looked at you as though you were crazy. So what made me decide to start keeping Halacha? Unlike most people, and unlike the intention behind the Halachos, at first it had very little to do with modesty. The first time I began to thinking about changing the way I dressed was when I saw that my teachers dressed that way. I looked up to my teachers a lot and respected them, and they covered their elbows and only wore skirts and not pants. Why do they do that? I wondered. And why don't I do that?

For me, wearing skirts and long sleeves is about being proud to be Jewish. Guys sometimes think they have it tough since they have to wear Kippot, as it makes them stand out and screams to the world "Look at me! I am a religious Jew!" Some wear baseball caps on top to cover it up. But that is exactly the point- they do stand out. If you pass a guy with a yarmulke on the street, you know he is Jewish. We used to go places on vacation as a family and we would pass frum Jews and I'd think "Hey, fellow Jews," but they would look at me and never know that I was Jewish. Tznius for Jewish women, in addition to being about modesty, is our way of saying, "I am a religious/observant Jew," and it is is our way of identifying with each other. The same way that a Kippah represents that a Jew must keep in mind that G-d is always there above him, and it is supposed to inspire Yirat Shamayim in all actions, Tznius, for me, was a way of keeping G-d in mind always. The way people dress is their statement to the world, and I wanted the world to know that I was happy and proud to be Jewish, and specifically an Orthodox Jew. And so I started by wearing skirts.

Since wearing skirts and not pants was part of the dress code of my elementary school, the first time I wore a skirt on a Sunday, my mother looked at me confused, asked why I was wearing a skirt, and told me to go change. Being very close with my parents, I was worried this would be a source of tension, and although some use "becoming frummer" as way to rebel, I did not have that intention at all. Not knowing what to do, I changed into another skirt. By this point my mother realized what was going on, and being a Baal Teshuva, she was very understanding and told me that if I wanted to just wear skirts and not wear pants anymore, then that would be quite OK with her. It was my decision. Her words and the way she said this filled me with happiness, just knowing that she was OK with my choosing a slightly different path than hers.

I'd love to say that from that day forward I never wore pants again, but that is not what happened. Spiritual growth doesn't just happen. You try, you fall, and then you get up, and then you fall again. I went back and forth with only wearing skirts and then wearing pants again for a while. Later on in high school, once I learned more Halachot I began taking on other aspects of Tznius as well until I reached the day where keeping it was no longer difficult. My reasons for keeping Tznius soon became just as much about modesty as about Jewish pride.

I used to think that those wearing long sleeves in the summer must die of heat, but the truth is that I am indoors with air conditioning most of the time, and when I am not, that extra bit of fabric really does not make such a big difference. I got used to it pretty fast, and the heat aspect was really not a big obstacle. The bottom line is that when it's really hot outside, everyone is hot, even if you're wearing a tank top and shorts. When that girl asked me if I was hot, I smiled, knowing what I gave up, and how easy it was, and how proud I was to be Jewish.

I would just like to note that it is interesting that often when people take on new spiritual goals, they begin with the external, as was in my case. We begin on the outside becase we want to express ourselves in a way that is obvious to all, something everyone will notice so that they know we have changed internally. While external changes may seem more difficult because we face a reaction socially that we then have to deal with, sometimes it is the changes that no one sees that are the most difficult and also the more meaningful. No one will know if you take on something privately, and no one will know if you drop that goal and stop keeping it. It is those types of goals, however, which are more important than external changes such as way of dress, and I have found that they provide a bigger sense of accomplishment as well.

Food for thought: Have you ever made any religious decisions to change how you dress or to wear or not wear specific articles of clothing? What was your reason for making this change? How has it impacted your life?


Sunday, June 19, 2011

You Are Beautiful

My dear friend,
You are beautiful.
You didn’t see the way
That guy who passed you
Turned his head
To look at you
But I did.
I saw him glance back
To take an extra look
At you
You’re beautiful.

Don’t walk that way,
Slouched over,
Head down,
Eyes glancing nervously
Afraid of the world
Jumping at the slightest movement.
Walk proud with confidence
Because you have so much to be confident about.
And you’re not fat, so stop asking me if you are.
No, you’re not a size 0 or a size 2
But you are not fat
And you don’t need to be either of those sizes
To be beautiful.

So don’t let that guy
Who you thought was perfect
Who didn’t want to date you
Get to you.
He doesn’t know what he is missing
His saying no to you
Is his loss.
He doesn’t know how smart and wonderful and caring you are
What a loyal, dedicated friend you are.
If he would’ve asked me, I would’ve told him.

I would have told him how beautiful you are
But more importantly
How kind and sweet you are
How practical and thoughtful and determined you are
How you have the kind of smile that can brighten a room
How much fun it is just to be with you
How you make everyone around you laugh
If he knew all that,
He would not have rejected you.

Maybe he said no to dating you because
He was intimidated by how beautiful and smart you are
Or because he was blind and couldn’t see how wonderful you are
But he did not reject you
Because you are inadequate
Nor because you’re not good enough
Nor because you aren’t beautiful enough.
If he can’t recognize
What an amazing person you are
Then I don’t think that
He is good enough for you anyway.
Don’t let rejection get you down.

Because you, my friend,
Are beautiful.
You are beautiful on the outside
And you are beautiful on the inside
And nothing that anyone else says
Or does or thinks
Can take away
Your inherent value and worth
As an amazing human being.
Oh, my friend,
Please know,
You are beautiful.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Funny line of the week

This week , while I was in an elevator, a guy and a girl walked in laughing. After listening to their loud conversation for 2 seconds, it became apparent that the guy was sharing the story of his disaster of an experience speed dating from the night before. As they got out of the elevator he concluded, “As they say: (insert dramatic pause which made me wonder, "what *do* they say??") The goods are odd, but the odds are good.”

Wishing you all a Good Shabbos/ Shabbat Shalom!


Monday, June 6, 2011

Shavuos: Thoughts on Accepting the Torah

When we are little kids, we kind of just do what our parents and teachers tell us to do, but once we get older we start to think about things more. For many of us who grew up FFB (Frum from birth) keeping Torah seems natural, as though “Of course I will keep Torah, what else would I do?” But the truth is that keeping Torah is a choice, and even when it is not a choice, how we choose to keep Torah is a choice.

We love to hear stories of Baalei Teshuva (BTs), because it inspires us that someone who didn’t keep Torah would change their life around to keep Torah, but really all of us should have our own story. Perhaps it is not as dramatic, and perhaps not as big of a visible change, but we all should change. I suppose the fact that I grew up with parents who are BTs and mostly non-religious relatives, and having various interactions with non-Jews as a child made me question earlier since I saw that there was an alternative to leading an Orthodox Jewish life. I remember asking my father as a child how we know that Judaism is correct, since after all, our Christian neighbors believed that their religion was correct. The funny thing is that I don’t remember his answer at all, but I remember thinking that he answered my question. It retrospect, I wonder what he said that hit the spot.

My personal acceptance of Torah began as I became a teenager, when I started to think about whether G-d exists or not. It continued when I decided I believed in G-d, and that I believed in Judaism, but I looked around and saw so many different flavors of Judaism and wondered why my family did certain things or didn’t do other things that other Jews did. Accepting Torah for me was the choice to be passionate about Torah and Mitzvot. Yes, I grew up keeping Shabbos, but did I grow up loving Shabbos? No, unfortunately I did not. My parents love Shabbos, but I as I kid I sometimes felt that it was a day that was about all of the things that I couldn’t do. Yes, I sat in shul, and flipped through the pages of the siddur, moving my lips, “davening.” But was I talking to G-d?

For those who did not grow up religious, Shavuos is a day to say once again to Hashem, “Look what I took on for you. I am accepting your Torah even though I did not grow up this way.” But for those of us who grew up keeping Mitzvot, it is a chance to say, “Hashem, I accept your Torah. Even though I am used to keeping Mitzvot out of habit, I am not just keeping Torah because my parents told me to. I accept Torah on myself.”

Each person is unique and each person has to accept Torah in their own unique way. We say in Shema “Bichol Miodecha,” that we love Hashem with everything that we personally consider “Miod” “Very” – the things that are most dear to us. I accept Torah and Mitzvot upon myself, because Hashem created me and that is what He created me to do and asks from me to do. But I also accept Torah because I love doing Mitzvot and I love the Torah.

Wishing everyone a meaningful and spiritually uplifting Shavuos and a Chag Sameach/ Gut Yuntif!


Friday, June 3, 2011

Why I love the Israel Day Parade

This Sunday, June 5, the Salute to Israel Parade will take place, which was recently renamed the Celebrate Israel Parade and for some reason is known by most people as the "Israel(i?) Day Parade." The Parade takes place every year on Fifth Avenue in NYC. There are so many reasons that I look forward to the parade each year. The obvious reason is that it is so heartwarming to see so many Jews walking down Fifth Avenue to show their love and support for Israel. But it is more than that. The parade is not only a chance to show pride in Israel, but is a chance to show pride in our Judaism. I love the feeling of unity that exists when different Jews from different places with different beliefs gather together for one thing that we all believe in. We take a day to throw our differences aside and gather together marching on a busy street in a busy city in a non-Jewish country with smiles on our faces sending the message, "I am proud to be a Jew!"

As much as I had fun marching in the parade for many years, watching the parade is possibly even more fun. It is fascinating to see the different schools, shuls, and organizations, many of which I had no idea even existed, with their different t-shirt designs and their interesting bands, musicians, dancers, banners, and floats. I love the kids who smile those big smiles as they hear the crowd cheering them on.

The only other time that I have been in a place- indoors or outdoors- with so many other Jews, is at rallies. But this time, instead of rallying together, we celebrate together. In the parade, we celebrate being able to live in and visit our homeland. We show our support for Israel. And despite our differences we gather together and shout to the world, "We are proud to be Jews!"

For those of you who cannot make it to the parade, you can watch the parade here live on Sunday, June 5 from 12pm-2pm.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Summer tastes like peach Snapple, ice coffee, and cold Coca Cola with one thousand ice cubes. It sounds like waves rushing up against the sand and the cheers of school aged children who shout as though they have been set free. Summer smells like sunscreen, the dust from air conditioners, and like the music of an ice cream truck. It begins with the cheesecake of Shavuos and ends with the honey on Rosh Hashana. Summer feels like the warm sun beating down like a fire and a cool breeze that provides relief.

Summer feels like a break, an escape, a change. The end of one thing and the beginning of another. A time to move on. But it is not only in the summer that things change. Life is full of changes, and the start of each season is just a reminder. Change can be exciting or nerve-wracking, or both. Sometimes change sneaks up on when you don't expect it, suddenly coming at you like a baseball flying 90 miles an hour. You see it coming seconds before you have to react and figure out what to do with it and how to adapt. Sometimes you cause the change yourself. You make a choice, a decision, to step off the path you've been going down and veer slightly in a different direction. In those cases you'd think you'd be much more prepared. I mean, you have had time to think about what to do when it comes. You should be prepared. So why is it just as hard?

We, human beings, get used to things so quickly. We don’t like to change. My favorite example is how the seat you choose on the first day of class is the one you will sit in the rest of the year. The second day of class some people will move around, but that is your only chance, because on the second day of class most people will sit in the exact same spot they sat in the first day of class. So you had better watch out because you might be taking someone’s spot.

Change brings risk. What if things are not as good when they change? Maybe things are bad now, but at least we are in comfortable, safe territory. Why travel into the unknown? It is a wonder that we ever change. But yet, despite our unwillingness, we can awaken the spirit of change within ourselves. Our hope that things will be better carries us through. Our sense of adventure and our desire for something new and fresh takes over us.

At some point we all thought this unusually cold and snowy NY winter would never end, but spring briefly visited, and now it is so hot that a person can begin longing for those bitter cold days. Or at least for the spring. But we have to hold on to every minute of it because soon enough the leaves will slowly turn those pleasant autumn colors, and the next season will sneak up on us before we know it.

As I taste the flavor of my iced coffee and feel the heat on my skin, I take a deep breath and think about where my life is going and where I want it to go. I think about the choices I have and the changes ahead. And I pray for the clarity to pick the right path and the strength to make the changes that I should make, and the courage to face all of changes in my life- the good ones, the not as good ones, and the small ones, the ones I hope for, the ones that happen suddenly, and the ones for which I have long been prepared.