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?


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16 comments:

  1. Very inspiring. Dressing Tznius is one of my hardest nisyonos (and don't worry, I dress tzanua, just saying it's not easy for me) so every little thing I do take upon myself is a big deal. Switching from what you were used to, to what you wear now must've been huge. I'm very impressed :-).

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  2. Well, I totally understand you. I was raised in Iran. I never have any problem with dressing (since I am a guy), but there are a lot of problems with foods. Obviously, I always keep kosher (eating kosher meat ..), but there are problems with different kind of chips (bishul Goy), gummy candies and a lot of cakes and chocolates (because we were not sure of gelatin ingredient ), Tuna fish (we were not sure of the fish), any kind of ketchup, dressing sause, olives, and pickles (because of vinegar)and even cheese and at one point butter. Now, I am very happy to avoid eating all of these things (even though every kid need to eat them). My parents were always supportive. They themselves was not that machmir, but help me in any ways (fore examples, they used to eat chips with their food, but they made also fries for me, or my mom used to make cheese at home for me). B'H' they also gradually became more religious.

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  3. SiR- thanks! And good for you! For me it is easy- you get much more credit for keeping it even though it is difficult for you!

    N2- food is a big area of difficulty. That's great that you were able to avoid eating things you shouldn't eat, and also great that your parents are so supportive. That always helps a lot.

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  4. Actually, I kinda went the other way. I come from a frum home, who were originally from Boro Park. I told my mother that no way can I wear stockings every day in the summer. It's just hellish, and my father does not consider it a violation of halacha. My mother, who suffers terribly in the summer, stopped wearing them in the weekdays too.

    Where I live now, few wear stockings in the weekday, so I don't stand out.

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  5. A friend of mine related that a girl he was dating kept have to pulling her skirt so it would cover the knees. When he spoke to his (our) rebbi about it, he was told that tznius is a very hard struggle and that for many girls that extra inch is difficult to overcome.

    when i was in israel i made a decision to wear my tzitzis out which no one in my family does. My dad told me to do it bli neder because there may be a point in my life where i will have to keep it in. When i started college i tucked them in on my drive over bc its just one more thing to explain about my religion. Now that i am transitioning to the workplace i see my father was right.

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  6. First of all, great post. I agree that dressing modestly gives me a sense of Jewish pride. It helps me identify with who I really am-- and draw the attention away from my external body. I feel so in incredibly dignified wearing a skirt that covers my knees and clothing that does not scream advertisements-- rather, simple, yet elegant clothing, showing that I am the daughter of G-d.

    However, I disagree with something you mentioned in your post: "It is those types of goals [internal changes], 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." I don't think that this holds true, generally speaking. I think that a change in outward appearance is merely a manifestation of internal change. Moreover, external change arouses within a person internal change. Let me explain myself: Why would you dress more modestly if you didn't believe it had spiritual significance? You obviously went through a thought process which led you to affirm that dressing more modestly was a higher level of kedusha, and so, those internal thoughts expressed themselves through your manner of dress. But lets say you are dressing modestly just because you have to, or because of (hopefully not) societal pressure. I do believe that your manner of dress significantly influences your behavior. A girl wearing a tank top and shorts will not behave the same way a girl with a denim skirt and button down shirt will, in most situations. You just think differently, you identify yourself differently. "Hachisnoios meorreres es hapnimiyus. Again, the external arouses the internal.

    And so, I think that external and internal changes have some sort of directly proportional relationship and go hand in hand...In other words, they are not independent of each other.

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  7. Princes Lea- Very interesting, I know others who have made similar changes and I think that is important as well. Being machmir is great when it comes from a good place, but it's better to be comfortable and not spend your life hating keeping something that you don't have to keep.

    Harry-er- It used to be that long or decent length skirts were in style, even in the secular world. Today for some reason the style in the secular world is skirts that come right above the knee. Finding skirts that covered my knee used to be no problem for me, but the past few months is the first time that it has started to be quite difficult.
    Your dad made a good point- sometimes we take on extra things in our life that work for that time in our life, but then we change, or our life changes and then those extra things no longer work.

    Tikva4eva- you are right. The internal and the external are intertwined and not completely separate from each other. Our outer behavior often influences our internal thoughts, not just vica versa. I guess the point I was trying to make is that often we focus on the external changes that other people have made (example: "Wow, look at him, he/she totally flipped out, now he/she is wearing ____") instead of judging people by what is on the inside. Externals are important, but who a person is on the inside matters more.

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  8. First of all, kudos to you Stern Grad for making a change. Change is rarely easy, and even for people whose families are already religious, it's still an amazing and life-changing decision.

    I'm the only one who keeps halachot of tzniut in my family (both immediate and far relatives). I definitely stick out in such crowds (especially at family simchas/weddings, when I'm the ONLY female who's not wearing a sleeveless dress)

    My Parents have accepting it for a long time already, and my Mom often looks out for shell shirts or stockings on sale. She thinks I look way more classy than my siblings who wear mini skirts and tight shirts.
    In general, when a girl dresses in skirts and clothing that is befitting of a Bat Melech, she looks put together and classy. Not to toot my own horn, but I often get compliments on my mode of dress.

    I get a lot of questions and LOVE when people ask me.
    "Can you wear denim?"
    "Do you have to shave your hair after you get married?"
    "What kind of dresses can you wear?"
    "Do you always have to wear stockings?"

    I've also gotten the "aren't you sweating in that?" question. Truth be told, I'm not. We're living in 2011. There's AC almost everywhere - in the car, on the subways, in the office, at home, etc. In fact, I'm often FREEZING in the summer.
    Aside from that, your body temperature adapts to how you dress throughout the year. The Bedouin wear heavy coats during the year, and therefore, their heavy clothes don't bother them in the summer. On the contrary - it cools off their bodies in blazing weather!
    I don't feel any warmer than I used to feel in short sleeves and pants. Summer is summer. If it's hot outside, then it's going to be hot regardless of what you're wearing! (Unless you're wearing something like wool or sweater material.)

    The "best" moments are when I'm hanging out at home, fully covered, enjoying the cool and "na'im" air. And all of the sudden I hear my sister (who, mind you, is not quite dressed during the summer) complain "it's so hot in here!!!"

    "Kol K'vod Bat Melech Penima"

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  9. Sefardi Gal- I also love when people ask me questions, and like you, I find that I am often freezing in the summer because of the air conditioners- how do women in sleeveless survive inside when it is so cold?

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  10. I always wondered how they arent freezing!? Especially in the winter when they wear shorts and flip flops. Especiallly in college, I saw everyone wearing pj's and flip flops, or sweatshirts and shorts- in the dead of winter. It happens. I just shake my head in wonder and keep going.

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  11. SternGrad and aminspiration - perhaps it's one of life's mysteries :P
    on a side note, ever wonder how women are much colder than men in the summer? Men tend to put the AC super, super high (well,low.) Iceicles can form.
    I used to bring a winter sweater/jacket to work because my boss refused to function unless the office resembled the north pole.

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  12. I love your article. May it be an inspiration to other women and girls who want to dress modestly and taking it step by step. Learning about the laws of modesty and its origins is a very important step and I wish more educated Jewish women who keep tzniut will find out why they are keeping it as well. It should validate their convictions as we the JEwish people are also called the People of the Book. Na'aseh v'nishma. First we do, and then we go learn why we do it.

    Kol HaKavod for your effort in presenting modesty in a very positive light, unlike others out there who denigrate modesty despite being frum.

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  14. Fantastic post! I appreciate the intent and grace behind your choices in the summer. I am slowly working myself towards a much more modest form of dress than I was raised to use. I am struggling in the 100+ Texas heat with my choices. An autoimmune disease that I have adds to the overly hot and sweaty results of my clothing.

    Any tips for keeping it cool while keeping it covered?

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