Why Does it Matter How We Dress?

I think I was fifteen that summer. I got all dressed up in the nicest dress I had with me. Actually I think it may have been the only dress I had with me. It was a sleeveless blue one, and I was even careful to wrap a crocheted shawl around my arms. Our counselors had told us that there was a big sign in Mea Shearim that said that we had to cover our arms when we were there.

That Saturday morning I got thrown out of the synagogue. The women in the little shul in Mea Shearim started screaming at me and calling me names in a language I didn’t understand. I found out afterwards what they were shouting at me. And, when I found out what the words meant, I realized that they had really made me feel like the low words they were shouting at me. They pushed me out of the shul and chased me away, from Judaism. It hurt a lot. I just kept thinking, “Could this be God’s world?”

Back at the youth hostel, I curled up in bed and reread the short essay on the application I had written to go on the teen tour to Israel that summer.

Application for U.S.Y. Israel Pilgrimage July-August 1971

I would love to go to Israel. Many people would love to go because of a lifelong dream they have had. When they even say the word, “Israel” something pulls strongly inside them. I respect these people greatly. I would love to feel something and believe in something as strongly as they do. I admire these people – but I don’t share in their understanding.

I feel, somehow, that Israel could help me. I want to be in the spiritual city of Jerusalem. I want to go to the land where dreams are fulfilled. I feel drawn to Israel like a magnet.

When I was in Temple, I saw an old religious man sitting in the back. He was praying with such emotion, such love, that it made my own emotionless state very evident to me. His face was filled with so many years of thought. I want to go to Israel because when I come back and say “Jerusalem” in my prayers – I will really be there – along with the old man in the back.

Then, still not ready to face the world, meaning my friends, I re-read my most recent diary entries:

July 1, 1971

i am here.

i know very strongly inside of me already that Israel and me were made for each other. after we got off the plane, the bus took us straight to jerusalem, straight to the wailing wall and the beautiful night hit me. the Bible actually came alive. it was spectacular.

I belong to this so much. It’s me. Just by being here, I feel creativity growing in me already. Touching the Wall touched something in me that is buried deeply, afraid to come out. Can I find deep within me the strength that helps that Wall to keep standing?

I can hardly believe it’s for real. The Old City looks like a fairy tale village I’ve been dreaming about for years.

july 5, 1971

The big why is hitting me in the face.

i am so spoiled.

Today we saw the memorial to the Holocaust

at Yad Va Shem.

And now we are sitting around the dining area,

complaining about the food

and our hotel rooms.

But that photo of the man with tallis and tefillin praying,

surrounded by laughing Nazi soldiers,

keeps staring at me.

How strong his prayers must have been,

With a feeling that even went beyond death,

can we still have that kind of strength?

july 16, 1971

there is still an ember glowing which i have been trying to smother. but it will just keep on glowing, probably sinking deeper and deeper into my being. is it a sacred part of me? too much for me even to speak about.

july 21, 1971

when i am praying

when i am listening and learning

i feel like myself.

The next entry, written on July 23rd, would be furiously penned. It would be about being thrown out of the first Orthodox shul I ever dared enter, the one in Mea Shearim. After that, there would be no more entries about seeking spirituality in Judaism. Not during the last two weeks of my tour in Israel, and not for years to come. My budding spirituality was replaced by cynicism. I tried to stuff my neshama down – to cushion it from further blows, but it just kept on popping up.

So I searched for spirituality elsewhere. In other religions, in expressive arts, in the vastness of science, in noble humanitarian causes, in romantic relationships with non-Jews, in all kinds of places. Places that wouldn’t judge me superficially, by how I was dressed.

And yet seven years later, after too many degrading experiences that I wish I’d never known, I finally found in Judaism, the spiritual sustenance that I was craving. Back in Israel, I found myself wandering one Shabbos morning to that same synagogue. With long sleeves and stockings, I walked in and poured myself into a prayerbook. The women, seeing my newness, helped me find the right pages. And a few invited me to their homes afterwards, to share their simple Shabbos meals.

Why did I return? Only because nothing else ever fit the same deep way. Nothing else lit up my Jewish soul. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t smother that ember that just kept on glowing in darkness. And it yearned for more. A certain sacred part of me would not go away.

The insatiable longing I had for years found the infinite pleasure it was seeking.

I also found again and again the intolerance and closemindedness that can turn so many away. And we, who have returned, despite this, can try to do all that we can to work for understanding, with all those involved.

I hope that I’d never ever throw a young woman in a sleeveless dress and a crocheted shawl out of an Orthodox shul, but I don’t live in Mea Shearim.

I don’t live in the Garden of Eden, either, though.

There, before we internalized physical desires, our bodies served as the pure garments of our souls. Once we had a taste of self-gratification from the Tree of Knowledge, however, our bodies were no longer perfectly aligned with our spiritual essence. That’s when clothes became necessary, and G-d provided us with the clothes we needed. With self-refinement, our physical bodies can journey back to be in tune with our deepest spirituality.

At fifteen, I really think those women in that shul were trying to teach me this. They didn’t know how, and they sure weren’t helpful, but they tried in their own way.

And all I can do is try in my own way too.

Fragile Wings

Where was the freedom promised?

Where was the open sky?

Come on and meet the prisoner,

Who thought that she could fly.

Religious girls in summer,

Blouses buttoned high.

I’d see long skirts, with stockings,

As I would pass them by.

I’d laugh inside me, mocking,

The girls I used to see.

Those girls are missing so much.

How trapped could people be?

But how could I have known then,

Jogging through summer rain,

I strode past them, uncovered,

In years before the pain.

Those girls kept their wings hidden,

And my own wings got crushed.

Why did I jump too quickly?

Why was my childhood rushed?

Crystalline wings they treasured,

Even at that young age.

My wings, I learned, were fragile,

When I hit bars inside the cage.

My wings have long been broken.

Can they still be healed?

Those girls now fly past rainbows.

Tell me, how does it feel?

Inside, I’m thrashing lamely.

Can I get free?

Now that I see the picture –

Reversed, ironically.

Where was the freedom promised?

Where was the open sky?

Here I am. Meet the prisoner,

Who thought that she could fly.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of ten children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See at Home? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations for both women and children, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

18 comments on “Why Does it Matter How We Dress?

  1. The zealousness of the Meah Shearim community remains today, even in the 21st century of the common era. Does anyone remember the bus shelters that were burned down because they had advertisements for women’s swimsuits? While I don’t agree with how Bracha Goetz was treated, nevertheless she probably now from a vantage point of nearly forty years later understands their Kanai’us a lot better. One rav in my community, who has family connections to Satmar, said, “What if the bus shelters had a swastika? Wouldn’t people have understood the reaction of the community in that instance? Well, for these people, such immodesty means hatred of HaShem, and is met with the same opposition as the signs of Amalek.”

    I remember also a well-known story about a famous rav. A woman walked into the women’s section of his synagogue for a public lecture dressed inappropriately. The rav banged on the mechitza and said, “Will the cow who walked in with her udders showing please leave.” Now this was definitely quite blunt and very insensitive, but that particular rav was well-known for speaking his mind.

    The women of Meah Shearim, being that it was the hot summer, may have been tired of what they perceived to be the umpty-seventh American female tourist to walk into their shul immodestly dressed, despite the large signs all over their community. Remember that in the streets just to go shopping these women were confronted by immoral dress by native Israeli chiloni females for more than eight months of the year.

    I sympathize with Bracha Goetz’s pain, as she had hoped for a far better reception, and a chance to experience spirituality, as she puts it. It’s regrettable that this one negative experience set her back seven years in her personal growth.

    But dress is important, in our world and in the outside world. A woman CEO or judge does not wear a halter top and a short skirt. Dress standards are a part of frumkeit, and women have to make their life choices here as in any other part of one’s observance. As one rav put it, “Pants are a badge.” A woman who chooses to cover her hair and wear long sleeves and long skirts is making a statement about where she’s holding in frumkeit. Likewise, an Orthodox Jewish woman who leaves her hair uncovered and wears pants is making another very different statement. The acceptance or disregard of Hilchos Tzniyus (which is not entirely hemlines and sleeve lengths) is a big part of what a Jewish woman defines herself to be.

  2. Please realize also, that this story took place before the Baal Teshuva movement became well known. These women probably did not realize that she was innocently searching for Yiddishkeit. They saw her as a curious outsider (did they even know she was American?) from the kind of background that always caused them problems and tried to wean away their children. This, of course, does not excuse them. It only puts the situation in more of a context.

  3. There is an excellent book on Tznius that encapulates the diaries of six teens on the issue. I highly recommend it for any reader-regardless of the gender.

  4. Part of tznius (modesty) is to rebuke tznius-offenders in a tzniusdik (modest) and not strident manner. An excessive spirit of kanaus (zealotry) in a community can make ordinary people react angrily or even violently to things and people when they should stop and think first.

  5. Yehuda, you’re correct in saying that the vatican guards were polite but firm. You’re also correct in pointing out the aveira to embarrass someone. I actually understand these Meah Shearim women while not condoning their behaviour. Actually the organisers of Bracha’s trip are the ones responsible here.

    Having said that, I have observed that people get offended by the signs in Meah Shearim to dress modestly or downright indignant if someone would suggest so in shul. Yet if it’s the vatican or some Hindu temple l’havdil we have a different reaction.

    This applies to all of us at every level of tznius. If you ask a woman who follows the mishna brura re sheer tights to say wear opaque ones in Meah Shearim you will most likely be greeted with a very hurt/indignant reaction. But if the Vatican requested…

    I’m just trying to take this as lesson for myself in the way I react to rebuke, mussar etc. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the Ladies in Meah Shearim are not exactly trained kiruv proffesionals, it was a knee jerk reaction. On their own level they also struggle with tznius issues.

  6. One last thing–I just realized that some people may not be familiar with my Moby-Dick reference and thus may be taking it as extra-snarky, as in “Are you familiar with this random text? Given your obvious erudition, I must assume that you are!”

    But that’s not how I meant it. Rather, the opening section of MD is titled “Extracts” and is an archive of quotations regarding whales, similar (in appearance; l’havdil) to Mr. Cohen’s list of sources. But one of the several points of the archive in MD is to lampoon pedantry (esp. pedantry at the expense of empathy).

    Just wanted to clear that up.

  7. Having said all of that, I do empathize with the Mea Shearim women. They must have felt (feel?) that their community was under constant intrusion by outsiders. This, obviously, influences the tenor of their encounter with Bracha. However, she was a young girl somewhat obviously doing her best to adhere to local norms. The whole situation was/is not ideal, unfortunately.

  8. yiddeshemama: The guards at the Vatican were, presumably, not screaming and shouting at a 15-year-old girl–they were most likely speaking firmly but calmly to an adult. (If I am incorrect in my assumption please correct me.) There is a big difference between the two–not in what was done but in how it was done.

    others: Defensive (verbal) violence is far different than offensive (verbal) violence. Thus, no hypocrisy.

    Further, when one judges that it is necessary to rebuke and do so angrily, the proper course of action is to do so, without actually feeling angry. That is what I did. As I saw it, Bracha was verbally attacked; I had been intending to write a short appreciative comment to her post but when I saw the first two comments I felt that I needed to respond to them.

    Embarrassing someone in public–no matter their age–is an aveirah. If they use their full name on a blog it is tantamount to being in public. Thus, aveirah. “Consideration and discussion” do not equal “willful misreading in order to ride one’s hobbyhorse.”

    When rebuke is needed, it is no aveirah to give it, and if this were an offline situation it would of course be best to do so in private; if someone uses their full name and thereby negates the possibility of that route, so be it–that is their choice.

    I agree that my point re. Bracha’s post may have been clearer if I had “not been so busy dishing out punishment”–fair enough–but the two points were inextricable. That is, my original point was simply to be “congrats, that was a touching and important post.” However, after reading the initial comments, my point became threefold: the original point, plus adressing those comments, plus reading the post more closely to more effectively address those comments. In other words, as I saw it, there was no need to do the close reading–its matter was fairly obvious–until the initial comments rode roughshod over the post.

    As we have seen, there are sometimes dangers involved in using one’s full name online. I prefer not to expose myself to unnecessary dangers. Call that “cowardice” if you will; I call it common sense (and a bit of halacha). I think that the tone of Mr. Coleman’s last sentence bears me out here.

    Finally, to reiterate: defensive (verbal) violence is not the same thing as offensive (verbal) violence. The Meah Shearim women’s offensive (verbal) violence is a far different thing than a (hypothetical) shout in return, “Hey! Quit screaming at this young girl–what is wrong with you?!” When people speak of hypocrisy, civility, viciousness, et al., they are forgetting that basic distinction that nullifies their critiques. If that were not the case, I might see some validity to the point re. anonymous commenting but since it is, I don’t.

    Lest we get distracted: the original post was about a young girl who craved a return to Judaism and Torah, several older women who frightened and nauseated her away from those, and her great strength in coming back. A brief, worthwhile story to tell and to read; thanks, Bracha, for posting it.

  9. Discussions about specific hot Jewish topics all have a long history, so we tend (not always consciously) to read elements of the history into a new article or comment we read. That can either inform our understanding of the item at hand or make us miss its own real point.

  10. Yehuda, you are right about at least part of what you say. In the light of day my response really does read as pedantic, and maybe also some of the many other adjectives you used too. Thanks for keeping me honest. I think I knew this when I posted it last night and I was too lazy and in love with my verbal gymnastics to fix it.

    Now, labeling things is not an argument pro or con, so calling something “strong” or “brave” (which the writing is) doesn’t really demonstrate that it is. But as I said, you might be right about the qualities of my comment, at least; and I think you’re onto something about the original post, too, that perhaps I did in fact miss. Perhaps you would have made your point more clear if you were not so busy dishing out punishment to the rest of us.

    What I don’t agree with is your comment that “the responses commit the same aveirah as did the woman in Mea Shearim circa 1971, thereby risking again alienating the writer!” That’s a preposterous assertion. Bracha is a grown woman now, and is submitting her thoughts for consideration and discussion. She is not the naif and prospective BT she was at 15.

    Furthermore, I can’t see anything in these comments, including mine — even if the tone left a little (or a lot) to be desired — that could possibly constitute any aveira, much the less the ones you list. Since you only asserted that aveiros were committed instead of demonstrating it (pedantic again, I know, sorry), I can’t address any argument you’ve made, but I’m left to merely asserting, “Nuh-uh.”

    And now, the other thing. I’ll say it once again: I stand behind what I say and take personal responsibility for it by signing my name. People who pipe in anonymously and, even if with some merit, viciously have already conceded half of any moral leverage they may think they have by virtue of their lack of accountability.

    So notwithstanding the virtue of your observations, Yehuda, you have demonstrated two serious faults here — hypocrisy, as PL notes; and what we pedants call “cowardice.” The “right” to anonymous commenting here is well established, but in my view it extends no further than the commenter’s level of civility. If you’re going to call people names, you’d better be prepared to supply your own.

  11. Yiddishemama (#5),

    You accurately point out that the Vatican and Meah Shearim both have rules about dress. However, I wonder if the reaction to those who violated the code was actually the same. Did the Vatican Guards act abusively or professionally?

    I am more likely to correct a mistake in “norm compliance” and make a return visit to an institution or a community if I am advised of the violation in a courteous manner.

    Perhaps a central synagogue or cultural institution in Meah Shearim can offer “cover-ups.” The visitor is spared embarrassment and can experience the warmth and traditions of praying in the community without having to make a return trip.

  12. Yehuda,

    As you throw mud (haughty, sanctimonious mud?) on the other posters, it behooves you to recognize that your comment exemplifies the very characteristics you reference. Sad.

  13. At some point everybody has failed to anticipate the formal or informal dress code for a place or an occasion, resulting in embarrassment or worse. This is a painful lesson learned, just as in the instance reported in this article, but the lesson is not that we or the people with the dress code are bad. Rather, we need to know what the expectations for our dress are, so we can fit in better next time if we want to live or move among the same people again.

  14. When I was a little girl my family was visiting Vatican City. We and many others were denied entry into the vatican due to our lack of dress (or lack thereof). Noone was upset, rules are rules & we were dressed in an offensive way to those in charge. Sure the adults were disappointed but upset?angry? No way!
    The reaction of those ladies in Meah Shearim was no different, except they had no guards. It was not the right way to act etc but should not upset anyone any more that the vatican L’havdil turning you away.
    We returned the next day (not 7 years later) properly clad. The permissibility of going there is not for this discussion..

  15. Bracha’s post is powerful and important. The title may not fit the post precisely–it seems to me that the post is more about ahavat Yisrael, the proper way to offer mussar, hachnasat orchim, et al.–but so what? That’s a simple oversight.

    And that application essay–wow. That is one strong piece of writing. She wrote that when she was FIFTEEN YEARS OLD, people. If only my 18-year-old students could write like that.

    Further, Bracha obviously concurs with the idea that how we dress does indeed matter; this is evident from the last three prose paragraphs, plus the poem.

    Finally, the title of the post may in fact not be an oversight–rather, it could be read as, “Why Does It Matter How We Dress? Well, I’ll Tell You.” PaRDeS, people!

    So why the sanctimonious, condescending, pedantic responses? One reason is that the responders seem not to have read the post carefully and/or decided to focus on the disonnect between the title and the post rather than on the post, and another is that they seized on it as an opportunity for some grandstanding and preening.

    Moreover, not only was Bracha’s piece more thoughtful, better written, and more important than either of the responses, the responses commit the same aveirah as did the woman in Mea Shearim circa 1971, thereby risking again alienating the writer!

    Mr. Cohen: We’re all suitably impressed by your archive. Job well done. Are you familiar with the frontmatter of Moby-Dick? I venture to say that you should be.

    Mr. Coleman: Oddly enough, haughtiness is even less dignified than denim.

    Bracha: A great job; a brave job. Chazak u’baruch!

  16. I think we can all relate to the emotional reaction conveyed by this post, but it does not really constitute an argument on the question posed. As Mr. Cohen points out, there are mandatory and fundamental issues implicated by how we dress, a topic that I also addressed here, in a somewhat more emotional vein as well, a while ago.

    This is not to say that it does not also matter, and probably, after all, it matters more, how we treat other people. Bracha’s guesses as to how to go about meeting the modesty standards of Meah Shearim turned out to be way wrong. No one there had any way of knowing how much thought she had put into her efforts. But assuming that her recollection, as recorded contemporaneously, was factually accurate, it does sound as if she was treated brutally and in a way that is hard to justify.

    But the question posed in the title isn’t really about that, is it?

    It’s hardly ever very useful, at least for purposes of truly wrestling with an issue, to juxtapose a question or premise deserving of intellectual treatment with a solely emotional reaction. But there is much to learn from this post.

    The fact is, it is helpful for us to open ourselves up to what a person of good faith experiences and feels when she has an experience such as this, which appears to have been traumatic. Putting ourselves in her shoes can only be good for us as Jews and can be a component in thinking about any number of choices we make, or help us guide other people who are at crossroads or even those who are the would-be Bracha-chasers.

    And the real moral of the story here is what Bracha ultimately decides, despite her hurt and the fact that she still does not have an answer to the question in the title, or perhaps to a somewhat more nuanced one not addressed by Mr. Cohen’s myriad sources. She is back. She is here, because it is, to her, the only here there is.

    Bracha’s clearly is a poetic soul. You can’t drape just any shmatta on such a thing. But she is an accomplished writer, too. Maybe she will throw something on and come back and engage with the serious questions she’s raised in this post in a more focused way?

  17. (continued from previous message)

    “These photos of gedolim (world-class Torah luminaries) in their younger days should not be missed. They range from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, and contain several dimensions of surprise. Some of the subjects are smart, rakish dressers. Some are members of a Zionist organization operating within a great Lithuanian yeshiva. Some display an informality rarely seen later in life. Many are clean-shaven.”

    SOURCE: Gedolim Cards: The Uncensored Set by Yitzchok Adlerstein 2006 March 31

  18. The title of this discussion is: Why Does it Matter How We Dress? May these quotes from Torah sources help answer that question:

    Tanach / Bible, Devarim/Deuteronomy, Parshat Ki Tetze, chapter 22, verse 5:
    Male clothing may not be on a woman, and female clothing may not be on a man, because all those who do these things are an abomination to HASHEM your G_d.

    Tanach / Bible, Devarim/Deuteronomy, Parshat Ki Tetze, chapter 22, verse 11:
    Do not wear a mixture of threads, wool and flax together.

    Tanach / Bible, Devarim/Deuteronomy, Parshat Ki Tetze, chapter 22, verse 12
    Make yourself pendant threads on four corners if your garment that you cover with.

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, page 114A:
    Rabbi Yochanan taught: Any Torah scholar with a spot on his garment deserves death.

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shevuot, page 31A:
    From where is it derived that: If two litigants come for judgment, one dressed in rags and the other wearing an excellent garment worth 100 maneh, we tell the well-dressed one: Either dress like him or dress him like you?
    The Torah teaches: DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM FALSEHOOD (Shemot 23:7). When they [the litigants] would come before Rava bar Rav Huna [for judgment], he said to them: Remove your fancy shoes, and then come down to judgment.

    Rashi on Vayikra, Parshat Tzav, chapter 6, verse 4:
    It is Derech Eretz that he when he takes out the ashes, he should avoid dirtying the clothes that he normally uses to perform the Temple service. Clothes in which he cooked the pot for his master, he should not wear to pour the goblet for his master.

    Rashi on Vayikra, Parshat Emor, chapter 23, verse 35:
    Sanctify it [the Sukkot holiday] with fine clothing and with prayer.
    Sanctify other holidays [Yamim Tovim] with: food, drink, fine clothing and prayer.

    Rashi on Esther, chapter 4, verse 2:
    It is not proper conduct [Derech Eretz] to enter the Gate of the King dressed in sackcloth.

    Rambam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 11, paragraph 1:
    We may not follow the customs of non-Jews or imitate their clothing or hair.

    Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, Shaarei Teshuvah, Shaar 1, Paragraph 29:
    He [the Baal Teshuvah] must not occupy himself with beautiful garments or ornaments…
    MICROBIOGRAPHY: Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona died in Toledo, Spain, in 1263 CE.
    NOTE: Check with your Rabbi to see if this applies today and to you.

    Orchot Tzaddikim, Shaar HaGaavah, (1st chapter of the book, page 35):
    Wear plain clothing, neither expensive or gaudy attire that everyone stares at nor the clothing of a pauper that causes shame to the wearer, bur plain and pleasant and clean garments, the poor man according to what he can afford and the rich man according to what he can afford. It is forbidden to wear stained or soiled garments.
    They should not be torn, and they should not be styled in the way of the arrogant.

    Kav HaYashar, Chapter 82:
    Imitating the fashions of the Gentiles… they provoke the jealousy and hatred of the Gentiles. They look at us and notice that Jewish women appear better dressed than the Gentile noble women.
    MINIHISTORY: written by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover and published in 1705

    Kav HaYashar, Chapter 82:
    It is appropriate for us to wear black to show our grief over the length of the exile and the destruction of the Temple and the suffering of our fellow Jews.

    SOURCE: Gedolim Cards: The Uncensored Set by Yitzchok Adlerstein 2006 March 31

    Charles Darwin, the inventor of the Theory of Evolution, who lived from 1809 to 1882 of the Common Era, wore an all-black hat and all-white beard.
    SOURCE: Photograph on page 131 of the 11/28/2005 edition of New York magazine, in an advertisement sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History.

    I offer many more Torah quotes about this topic and other Torah topics at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

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