The Post-Tznius Purge

Some time ago, I was at a wedding in Israel. I ran into a woman I knew from years before, and we started talking about life and religion. She mentioned, “I hope this outfit is modest enough for this wedding. I had such a hard time finding something to wear to this wedding because I threw out all my tznius clothing after I stopped being Orthodox.” She was wearing a stylish black dress with thin straps at the top and that hit a little above her knees. She looked beautiful, but definitely was outside the norm for an Orthodox wedding, where most people wore sleeves that, if they didn’t hit the elbow, they almost did.

She wore a dress not unlike this one.

Orthodox women have a way to “tziusfy” just about every piece of non-tznius clothing. For example, on the dress above, one could easily throw on a cardigan over the sleeves and call it a day. (There are varying levels of tznius. Some women wouldn’t feel comfortable showing as much clavicle as this dress shows, they’d probably put a black or white shirt underneath the dress).

When she made the comment to me, I reassured her “You look great. No one here cares what you wear anyway.” It was true. The wedding was mostly liberal Modern Orthodox Jews who like to pride themselves on how open-minded they are, even if their own practices might be somewhat different. Still, I couldn’t help but think, “You didn’t keep one black cardigan?” That’s not one of those pieces that scream “ORTHODOX”. It’s a piece that most women, tznius or not, keep in their closets because it’s good to wear to work, good for when the weather gets chilly, and can dress up pretty much any outfit. It was a staple among my [mostly non-Jewish] female co-workers.

Sometimes, people who aren’t used to dressing according to tznius rules don’t think about putting pieces together in the way that tznius dressers have to do. They might see the dress above and never even consider wearing a cardigan with it, because cardigans only go with pencil skirts, silly. But this woman, my friend, was different. She grew up lubavitch, went through a litvish-chareidi phase in high school, a modern orthodox phase in college, and then stopped being religious all together sometime after college. She knows the drill. She knows all about shells and cardigans and various ways to turn a scarf into sleeves.

But here’s the thing. Just because she no longer dresses that way doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have the pieces in her closet to do so if she felt the need.

On facebook recently, a girl I know posted that she was getting rid of all her “super-frum clothing from high school”. (She’s about to graduate college now).

I don’t understand this trend. Maybe it’s because I’m a pack rat and have a hard time getting rid of anything, but I find that if it still fits and is in good condition, there’s usually a way to wear it.

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“Sleevies”, cotton sleeves to wear on your elbows under a short sleeve shirt to give the appearance of layering, are one of the few items I was willing to throw out after high school.

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These days, I definitely don’t dress the way I did ten years ago. Ten years ago, I made sure that every time I left my house, my elbows, knees, and collarbone were covered. I only wore skirts. I thought I was “modern” because I didn’t wear tights all the time. Today, I dress modestly, but I’m of the opinion that modesty is in comparison with the society in which one lives. I pretty much cover my knees, but I wear pants. When I exercise, I wear shorts. At the beach, I wear shorts and a tee shirt. In general, I don’t have a cut-off for how short I’ll allow my sleeves to be, but I’ve been known to wear cap-sleeves occasionally. I don’t care if my collarbone shows, but I don’t show any cleavage.

Still, I own my share of cardigans and longer-length skirts, because sometimes I go places where it is appropriate to wear such things. I don’t do the long-sleeve white tee shirt under a short sleeve tee shirt thing anymore, but I sometimes wear those white long sleeve tees with a pair of jeans and a funky necklace. Half of my closet consists of cardigans and other types of layering pieces, because layering is the greatest thing ever. If I had to, I could find a great outfit in my closet to wear to a secular cocktail party or to a chassidic wedding.

The point is, it’s not what you have, it’s how you wear it.

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.

Oh dad.

I’ve posted in the past about my slightly contentious relationship with my father, but now that I’m planning a wedding (That’s right, we’re engaged! That’s why I haven’t been posting nearly as frequently as I’d like), the issues between us are coming out in full force.

The most recent, and harshest, conversation I had with him went, basically, like this:

Me: So, we were thinking that we’d like my cousin [female, in a conservative rabbinical school] to read the ketubah.

Mom: Well, you’d have to ask the rabbi about that one, but if the rabbi says it’s okay, I guess it’s okay.

Dad: No it’s not. I would be very offended if a woman read the ketubah. I don’t care what the rabbi says, it’s offensive to me.

Me: I’m sorry you feel that way, however, I personally feel offended when I am told that as a woman, I have to be excluded from many aspects of Judaism, so where there are places to legitimately and halachikly include women, I think that is ideal.

Dad: Well, I don’t. You can do what you want at your wedding, but just know that you are being incredibly disrespectful to me if you do this, and not only that, but if you do this, I will walk out of the wedding, if I attend at all, because this greatly offends me.

I have been crying for the past two days because of this conversation. My father told me that he would consider not attending his own daughters wedding because he disagreed with her religious practice. Let me put this in perspective. My father does not attend intermarriage weddings, but he does attend weddings between two Jews that take place in conservative synagogues, reform synagogues, and no synagogues. He attends weddings which take place on Saturday evening, even if it means staying in a hotel over shabbat and walking to the wedding because the wedding started before Shabbat was over. He attends weddings where he can’t eat any of the food because it is not Kosher. And yet, he would still consider not attending his own daughter’s wedding because she wanted to have a woman read the ketuba, a practice which, by the way, has no halachic significance whatsoever and to which R’ Hershel Shachter famously allowed women to do by noting that “even a monkey could read the ketubah”.

If a woman didn’t read the ketuba at our wedding, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. For that matter, I don’t know that many women that would be able to or feel comfortable reading the ketubah (it’s hard!). I don’t know if this rabbinic student would even want to do it. BUT, now that my dad made such statements to me, I want to press the issue. I want him to know how much his words make a difference, and the impact that he has on me. I also want him to know how much I DO value having a relationship with him, and how much having him at my wedding means to me, and how much it SHOULD mean to him (although I really feel like even having the discussion is silly, because of the fact that up until this point, he was schepping nachas at the fact that I was getting married, and he absolutely LOVES my fiance).

I know that in the end, my father would never actually walk out of or not attend my wedding over this issue. However, I want him to know that when he says stuff like that, even in jest, it hurts. Not only that, but it cheapens the value of his statements. My fiance doesn’t really understand when I tell him that half the time that my father speaks, he’s just talking nonsense and doesn’t really mean what he says. In fact, my fiance thinks that, if anything, it is me that doesn’t take my father’s statements seriously enough. But it’s not true. It’s statements like these that make me realize that either my father REALLY doesn’t value me, or he just doesn’t know the power that his words have. And personally, maybe this is just hopeful thinking, but I’d like to think it is the latter.