The Empowering Skirt: What I Learned From My Mikvah Lady’s Outfit

I know a  lot of women who have anxiety about going to the mikvah. Many of them feel that they have to “put on a show” or act frummer than they are, in order to gain acceptance at the mikvah. Some women cover their hair at the mikvah when they don’t in real life. Others walk in wearing a skirt and long sleeves, so as not to arouse more questions. Some make sure to remove all their nail polish, even though they believe it is kosher to tovel.

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about such problems. The mikvah in my town is relatively open, people wear any and all outfits (I’m more surprised with the women in high heels than I am about the ones in sweatpants), and there’s really not much of an “interrogation” feeling.

That in mind, I was more than surprised when I encountered my mikvah lady leaving the mikvah. I had the last appointment of the night. When I went to tovel, she greeted me in a long skirt with pants sticking out at the bottom. I didn’t think anything of it, it was cold that night, perhaps she just wanted an extra layer of warmth under her skirt. We did our thing, and I left. I went back to the preparation room to get dressed and gather my things. As I was walking to my car, I saw her going to her car as well–wearing only the pants!

I was shocked. Not because she wears pants, but because she specifically wore a skirt over her pants in the mikvah. Apparently, she too feels that she has to dress “frummer” at the mikvah. Many, many women wear pants in our modern orthodox community, but I guess that some women might not feel comfortable with a woman in pants as their mikvah lady.

Lest you think that she’s doing this because her boss told her to, she is the boss. She is the woman who runs the mikvah, trains all the new mikvah ladies, and has been around there longer than I’ve been alive. She doesn’t have to answer to anyone, except, I guess, her clients.

It makes me think about the power that clients have in places like mikvaot. We can sit here and complain on the internet all day about the crazy rules or the rude mikvah ladies or the dirty water, but we also have to remember than we are consumers. Just as we have the power to insist that our mikvah ladies wear skirts, we also have the power to insist that they are kind, open, and welcoming. And we should utilize that power. When we are upset with something that happens in the mikvah, call and file a complaint. Write about it. Tell your friends. Soon enough, you will start to hear things like “Oh, yeah, that happened to me, too.” Well, encourage those women to complain as well. We are the consumers in this relationship, and we are the ones with the power to effect change. So let’s do it.

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Covering My Hair and Changing My Name

When I was in Israel, I remember studying the laws of hair covering with a woman who grew up in the US, moved to Israel as a teenager, and got married in Israel. She and her husband honeymooned to Italy. She told the class of how, when she arrived at the bed and breakfast in Italy, the very religious Catholic host wouldn’t let her and husband share a room, because she didn’t think they were married. They hadn’t yet changed their names, and they didn’t wear wedding rings. In an attempt to convince the host that they were, in fact, married, she pointed to her mitpachat (head scarf). “This is something that only MARRIED Jewish women wear, see.” The lady didn’t buy it. I don’t remember how, but they did eventually convince their host that they were married, and they were able to share a room.

I make a big deal out of the fact that I don’t cover my hair at work or during day to day activities, only when I’m at shul or weddings or otherwise religious activities. For me, that’s my way of letting the world know where I stand Jewishly–I follow halacha, but I’m not an extremist. I think that because I had my struggle with hair covering, other things, such as changing my name after marriage, were less important to me. Still, for most secular people, hair covering or lack thereof really means nothing. It seems, however, that a woman’s last name after marriage is much more symbolic in secular, feminist circles.

I have been reading a lot from feminists in support of women keeping their last names after marriage. From the blogs that I read, it appears that if you’re “a real feminist” and a “strong woman”, you don’t change your name. (See, for example, this article about why Emma Watson thinks Hermione Granger wouldn’t change her name to Hermione Weasley after her marriage to Ron Weasley). Well, as I’ve told you all before, I changed my name after I got married. Sure, there were (and still are) some logistical difficulties, but once I get past those, I really don’t mind that I changed my name. In fact, I WANT to have the same name as my husband and our future children. But then I read things like the Emma Watson article above, and I start to doubt my decision. Am I a bad feminist? Am I supporting a society of Patriarchy? Will people think I’m naïve and–gasp–a republican, once they find out I have a maiden name??

In my heart, I know these things aren’t true. But, in some ways, I feel that perhaps the reason that I cover my hair in the manner that I do is exactly why a lot of feminists keep their maiden name: A way to show the world that I am a non-conformist, and that I don’t want to do things just because I’m told to do things.

Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, and Jew in the City

I’ve hated Jew in the City ever since I saw her nauseating video about the beauty of Mikvah, and the hate was reignited again after I saw her ruin all that is wonderful about Buzzfeed with an eye-rolling, kiruv style article about Orthodox Jews.

So when I saw that she wrote something about Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s performance at the 2013 Video Music Awards, I have to be honest, I assumed it was going to be just as cliche and holier-than-thou as her other posts.

But, I have to give credit when credit is due, and I actually liked what she had to say about it.

She writes that Miley explained her song, “We Can’t Stop”, as a celebration of adulthood and maturity. The lyrics of the song are an anthem of what grown-ups can do, simply because they’re grown ups: “It’s our party we can do what we want/…Doing whatever we want/This is our house/This is our rules/And we can’t stop/We won’t stop”. But, Ms. Jew in the City explains that that’s not real maturity, in fact, it’s the essence of childishness:

“The irony in defining maturity as being able to do whatever you please is that it’s the immature kids who we find screaming that it’s their toy and they can “do what they want.” Or telling their moms and dads “you’re not the boss of me!” When considered in that light, Miley’s hyper-sexualized, know-no-boundaries song sounds a bit like a spoiled little child having a fit about how she wants what she wants!”

Allison Josephs, Jew in the City, “We Like to Party: Childishness Masquerading as Maturity”

She goes on to explain that real maturity involves boundaries and limits and knowing when to say enough is enough. I’ve written about that before, and I agree.

The article also made me think about how exciting my first year of marriage has been for me. We were no longer simply our parents’ children, we are now our own family, complete with our own family traditions. Some we’ve adopted from our parents, but some of our traditions are completely our own, and I love that. I love being able to say to my husband “I don’t like the way our parents do X, lets do Y instead”. We’re adults, and we now have both the freedom to set our own customs, and the responsibility to make sure these customs fit our needs.

As adults, we sometimes use our freedom to eat junk food for dinner and to go three weeks without cleaning our room. But, our responsible nature also tells us that these things are okay, if done with moderation. We eventually clean our rooms, and a junk food dinner is usually balanced out the next day by a healthy salad and steamed veggies dinner.

This self-responsibility is one of the best things about being a grown-up.

Edited to add:

Please watch this amazing video response to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Blurred Lines is a song about how the line of consent can be “blurry” for men. This is a feminist response, and it is wonderful.

Man and Wife on Opposite Sides

During the last 2 months, I went to three weddings. The weddings were quite different.

The first one was a wedding of two chareidi [ultra-orthodox] people, both of whom came from families that were not as observant as the couple. (The bride’s immediate family is modern orthodox while her extended family is mostly unaffiliated;  the groom’s family is mostly conservative). This wedding was held in the bride’s family’s synagoge, and was a small and intimate yet elegant affair. There was a lot of emphasis on modesty. The wedding invitation included the line “modest attire requested”. We, as female friends of the bride, had prepared some cute presentations for the couple, but were asked to present only to the bride for modesty reasons.

The other wedding I went to was vastly different. The couple was modern orthodox, and had spent the last few months working on a farm together. The wedding venue was a nature reserve. Instead of the traditional kabbalat panim, where the bride sits in a chair and is greeted by all the female guests one by one, The bride had a kallah’s tish/drum circle, located in the reserve’s historic barn. She didn’t have a hair or makeup stylist, instead electing to do everything herself. The chuppah canopy was held up on poles by four couples that the bride and groom had close relationships with (we were one of the couples). The bride gave the groom his ring publicly at the bedeken (veiling ceremony) instead of privately, after the ceremony.

The third one was held in a large, all-in-one wedding hall in Brooklyn. These wedding halls are known for being all inclusive, all you do is pick the date, and tell them how many people you expect, and then they take care of everything from orchestrating the ceremony to planning the menu. This particular hall had rules that any wedding in that hall must have separate seating for men and women, both at the ceremony and the meal.

Despite their differences, the weddings were, in many ways, very similar. All were orthodox weddings, so all featured no touching between the bride and groom until after the ceremony. All featured separate dancing for men and women. All had kosher food.

Another thing that both weddings featured was separate seating for men and women at the ceremony.

According to halacha, there is absolutely nothing wrong with men and women sitting next to each other while watching the ceremony. Orthodox synagogues feature separate seating for prayers, but that restriction is limited to times of prayer and places that regularly serve as places of prayer. Therefore, an impromptu minyan in an individual’s home does not require a separation. Furthermore, a non-prayer function in a synagoge, such as a lecture or a wedding, does not require separate seating. While there are brachot that are said during a wedding, this does not fall into the same category as prayer and therefore does not require separation.

Before the first two weddings, I chatted about the details with each bride. I asked each of them what amount of separation there would be. The first wedding’s bride told me that the ceremony would be separate, but the meal would be together, although there would still be a partition for the dancing. She said she would probably have preferred to have the the meal separate too, but their families wouldn’t hear of it. The second wedding’s bride told me that everyone would be sitting together at the wedding, because she didn’t feel there was any reason to split the seating. The third wedding was dictated by the wedding hall rules.

A funny thing happened at the second wedding. Although the bride had specifically instructed her friends that seating was mixed, most of the other guests just assumed it was separate, and chose to sit separately. The few friends who were sitting on the “wrong” side were forced to give up their seats to members of the opposite sex, and to find other seating on the “correct” side. All this took place while the bride and groom were in the back, when they entered, they were completely surprised to find all the men on one side of the isle while all the women were on the other.

THIS angered me more than anything else. I respect a couple’s right to choose to conduct their wedding in whichever way they see fit. If they want separate everything, fine, I don’t love it, but I’ll respect it. BUT, the fact that the assumption is now that seating should be separate is problematic.

Since I’ve been married, I’ve had the occasion to go to more than one wedding where the only person I knew there was my husband. It’s quite un-fun to sit amongst a pile of women not knowing anyone, and without having my husband as a buffer to introduce me to the few women that he happens to. “Oh”, you say. “That’s not a big deal. The ceremony is only half a hour, 45 minutes at most. You have the whole rest of the wedding to spend with your husband and your male friends”. Wrong. As evidenced by this third wedding, separate seating at meals is becoming increasingly popular as well. “Oh”, you say. “Thats just a small minority of ultra-orthodox extremists. In your modern orthodox circles, you probably won’t have to deal with it too much”. Wrong again. Separate seating at ceremonies used to be unheard of, something practiced only by the most stringent. Now, apparently, it’s the assumption.Rather than posting signs to inform guests of separate seating, couples who wish to ensure that their friends are able to sit with the people that they choose are forced to put signs up indicating the wedding is mixed seating. My prediction is that if things keep going the way they are, in five years the standard will be that people will be sitting separately at the meals, too. This is something that the Modern Orthodox community shouldn’t take lightly, we should fight it at every opportunity we have. If we don’t, we let the Brooklyn wedding mills win.

Covering My Hair and Figuring Out What’s Right For ME

This past weekend, I went to visit some old friends from high school. I met up with these two women, both of whom are married and pregnant, for dinner. The discussion turned to schools. Where, one wondered, was the other planning on sending her as of yet unborn child to school? A new school had recently opened up in their community, and they discussed whether or not that school would be appropriate for their children.

“I don’t know”, one said. “On one hand, the philosophy of the school sounds like our own philosophy. But the group of people that started the school are just, well, different, from us”.

“Different how?” I asked.

“Well, you know, they wear those shaitals [wigs] that show a significant part of their hair!” 

“Yeah”, the other said. “They shouldn’t even be called shaitals, they should be called ‘extensions'”.

Ironically, I was sitting there wearing a hat that left a significant portion of my hair uncovered.

Apparently, it wasn’t the amount of hair showing that was a problem for them, rather, it was how they chose to cover their hair.

They basically explained to me that these shaitals went along with a lifestyle where women made sure to dress up every time they leave their houses, even just to go around the corner to the market. They would never walk outside without makeup, and more often than not sport high heels and fitted clothing. They only wear skirts, but their skirts are rather tight and don’t even attempt to reach their knees. Their husbands wear black hats, but mostly just to blend in. And of course, the women always wear these insane shaitals. For my friends, the problem with the shaitals was that they were representative of a lifestyle which valued beauty over brains.

I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being scorned, right in front of my nose. Perhaps it is due to the feeling that many people have, including by not limited to, Orthodox Jewish Women. This feeling is: “I’ve made a decision that’s right for me, so while I may say that I’m liberal and support anybody doing whatever they want, I inwardly feel a little bit like those people that made a decision different from my decision made the wrong decision. Afterall, since this decision is right for me, it should be right for most people.”

My own practice regarding hair covering came after much thought and deliberation.

I only cover my hair in situations in which it is socially expected. Essentially, this comes down to shul and visits to ultra-orthodox communities. I’ve learned the halachot–I know that hair covering is, essentially, dependent on minhag hamakom [the customs of the place]. The rabbis lament how, over the years, Jewish women have forsaken the mitzvah of covering their hair, but now that uncovered hair is a commonplace occurrence, it is no longer halachikcally required. The discussion is more nuanced than that and there are certainly a plethora of rabbis that would disagree with what I’ve just said, but suffice it to say that not only has my reasoning has been developed by studying the sources, it’s also rabbinically sanctioned.

My decision to not cover my hair in most situations started with my decision not to cover my hair at work. I really don’t think that scarves and hats are suitable for a professional environment. Sure, there is a Muslim woman that works in my office who covers her hair and neck with fancy scarves and nobody bats an eyelash. There are a couple of men who wear kippahs. I’m pretty sure that there is a woman who wears a shaital, but I’m not a hundred percent sure it isn’t natural hair. Still, I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me. I not a permanent employee there yet, and I certainly don’t want to be viewed as a religious fanatic when the time comes for them to evaluate my employment applications.

I also really hate wearing wigs. Not only are they heavy and uncomfortable, they make your natural hair look worse. The wig makes your hair flat and messy, plus, years of prolonged hair covering mean that your hair doesn’t get much, if any, exposure to the sun, resulting in thin, dull hair for women still in their mid-twenties. Since it’s not halachikally required, and I had all these reasons why I didn’t want to, I chose not to cover my hair at work.

Once I made that decision, the following decision to only cover my hair at shul and places I’m expected to made a lot of sense for me. Why wear a head covering to the grocery store on Sunday if I didn’t wear one to the grocery store on Wednesday afternoon during my lunch break?

Sometimes I end up wearing head coverings in situations that I didn’t expect to. I often cover my hair on shabbat even I don’t go to shul, because that feels more like a shabbat outfit. I wore one at the funeral I attended a few months ago. I wore one at the sheva brachot meal I attended two weeks ago, but not the one I attended a month ago. I debate constantly with myself whether a particular situation is hair covering appropriate. And that is what’s right for me. 

Still, I hope that when I talk to friends that fully cover their hair, or friends that never ever cover their hair, they don’t get the impression that I think they made the wrong decisions. I don’t. I fully support them. I made the decision that was right for me, but that is all. I know my friends mentioned above don’t really think less of me because of how I cover my hair, but sometimes it feels like they do, even when they’re “just” talking about other people. I dislike it, and I hope that I don’t give off the same impressions.

Morbid Weight Perceptions

A new study found that about a quarter of overweight women viewed themselves as “normal weight”, while 16% of average weight women felt that they were overweight. According to this article, “[the] survey found that 30 percent of adult Americans in the “overweight” class believed they were actually normal size, while 70 percent of those classified as obese felt they were simply overweight. Among the heaviest group, the morbidly obese, 39 percent considered themselves merely overweight”

Sounds a little surprising to me, with all the messages about body weight in the media and eating disorders, I would have assumed that more women would have viewed themselves as heavier, but ok. It’s actually kind of nice, that women are not worrying about their weight.

What’s worrisome to me is the way that particular article presented the results. The tone was one of concern, that it is not healthy for women to underestimate their weight classification. The article states succinctly, “The problem, according to study lead author Mahbubur Rahman, is the ‘fattening of America,’ meaning that for some women, being overweight has become the norm.”

Yes, the fattening of America indeed.

Take a look at those numbers again. Most of the women weren’t saying they were underweight or ideal weight when they weren’t, they were simply using the wrong term. Is it really that much of a problem if an obese woman thinks she is over weight rather than obese? Or for a “morbidly obese” woman to think of herself as merely obese? (The term “morbidly obese” is of course itself a loaded term that many women, understandably, would want to avoid).

And look at the terms used in the article. The ideal weight range was classified as “normal size”. If, as the author suggests, there has been a “fattening of America”, than perhaps these women weren’t misrepresenting themselves at all, they were simply looking around them and noticing that they do, indeed, look like every one else around them.

The authors, both of the study and of the article, seem to think that it is a terrible thing that women think they are in a lower weight range than they are. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s time for women to take a positive outlook on their bodies, and if it means telling themselves that they are overweight when really they are obese, I’ll take that.

Women and the Back of The Bus

I guess I like to debate.

With every single roomate I’ve had, I’ve grown closer with them through debating life, religion, philosophy, and other essentials–like which purse goes with which necklace.

Today’s debate revolved around the minute inconveniences in life, and whether or not they are “a big deal”. Some examples that were brought up:

-Religious schools which ask their female students not to “put up or take their hair down” during class, because those are sensual acts which might arouse the male teachers (there are no male students in the particular school in question)

-Women being asked/required to sit in the back of some religiously operated bus lines.

-Women being asked to walk on a separate sidewalk from men.

Each of these things, in and of themselves, isn’t really a major inconvenience to women’s lives. My roommate argued that she didn’t really care whether these policies were imposed against her, because it doesn’t really cause her any harm to comply with them.

Sure, the seats in the back may not be as nice as the seats in the front, sure, it’s not to hard to just step outside of the classroom if you want to adjust your hair, sure, the sidewalk on the other side of the street will still get you to where you need to go, but these are not the problems with these policies. Taken as a whole, the policies represent a blatant bias against women.

Now, some parts of halacha are biased against women, I’ll give you that. Women can’t file for jewish divorce, women can’t count as part of the requisite 10 men of a formal prayer group, women can’t lead some parts of the davening service…Depending on interpretation, the list can go on and on.

But these things in question have no basis in halacha. Nowhere are women prevented from walking down the same street with men, traveling in the same part of the car as men, or adjusting their hair in public (except in the view of those which require married women’s hair to be covered in public, which still, of course, only applies to MARRIED women!).

Accepting these requirements, and even encouraging other girls and women to follow them represents an acceptance of the discrimination against women that runs much deeper than halacha.

I know of many people that feel that halachic observance encourages a discriminatory mindset, and are therefore not orthodox (many are very observant egalitarian Jews). My response has been that no, there are plenty of jews that eschew discrimination against women, yet follow halacha because they believe in the greater good of following a set code of values (divinely given or not).

I believe these comments undermine my previous response. The fact that people, modern, worldly, people, can accept these forms of discriminations as “no big inconvenience” shows that they are completely removed from the idea of gender discrimination. Today it may be hair tying and bus seating, tomorrow it may be schools and workplaces (Oh, wait. That was 40 years ago and is still being settled). I believe that it is a commitment to anti-women halachic practices which encourages this behavior.

And this is what scares me the most, because I too engage in some of these anti-women halachic practices. I don’t count myself in the prayer group, I refuse to lead services, I dress modestly. Will I become one of the seperate seaters? Will I encourage women not to tie their hair infront of men? Will I become one of them?