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?