Community, Choice, and Identity: The Politics of Wearing Skirts

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Posted on March 25th, 2014 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Intra-Faith, Social Issues
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Women praying in the Western Wall tunnels, by David Shankbone

The package arrived on a cold Friday afternoon, a nondescript bundle shoved into my mailbox. The unremarkable packaging and unglamorous delivery method disguised the tightly packed questions, doubts, and implications contained inside—all in the form of a long black skirt.

I had told myself I wanted a long black skirt for a variety of practical reasons. It would match everything. It was comfortable. It would be warmer, during the endless New England winter, than my shorter skirts. All of these things were true. Yet none of them told the whole story.

In Orthodox and some Conservative Jewish communities, a woman is bound by the laws of tznius, commonly understood as modesty. These laws include the requirements to cover one’s knees, elbows, and collarbone (up to the neck). Married women must cover their hair, which some choose to do with a sheitel (wig), while others use a tichel (scarf), or a snood (similar to a loose knit hat).

These requirements serve as a powerful marker of women who are “in” and “out” of the observant Jewish community. (Men are similarly bound by tznius, but I would argue that it is not wearing long sleeves and pants that demarcate observant Jewish men from non-observant Jews or non-Jews, but rather, it is the choice to wear a kippa) Tznius clothing, while covering skin, reveals much about the wearer’s identity. Walking around Brookline, MA or the Upper West Side in New York, I know I can wish these women “Shabbat Shalom,” or ask where the nearest kosher restaurant is. We share a secret language, a shared identity, that is signaled by a long skirt, a high collar, a head scarf.

In some ways, I want desperately to bear this badge of Jewish identity for the whole world, or at least the Jewish community, to see. I consider myself knowledgeable about Jewish practice, fairly observant of its precepts, and actively involved in local synagogue life. I would happily reply “Shabbat Shalom” to anyone who first said it to me, and I could easily direct you to nearby kosher eateries. Though many people assumed that I was Jewish even before I converted (due to a variety of reasons including my mane of curly brown hair), now that I am officially a member of the tribe (three years and counting) I wish that more people could see how integral being Jewish is to my sense of self. The choice to wear a long black skirt could serve as my small signal to others that here was a fellow Jew, here was one who was also “in” the community.

In some ways, it would be completely reasonable for me to wear a long black skirt. I am a fairly observant Jewish woman, and if modest dress is supposed to accompany modest behavior, I can do that—or at least I can try. Yet such a skirt carries additional implications that do not represent me honestly. I do eat in non-kosher restaurants. My observance of Shabbat is not nearly as stringent as others’. My view of the Torah contains a healthy dose of academic skepticism. In many ways, I am not what you would expect to get if you encountered a Jewish woman in tznius clothing. Perhaps it is not fair to represent myself as one. Or perhaps it is enough that I am striving to improve myself, one mitzvah (commandment) at a time.

The question becomes, then, must our outer selves always perfectly align with our inner selves? In a way, aren’t we all performing certain aspects of our identities? Scholars have written extensively about the performativity of gender. A woman may dress in a “feminine” manner even if some aspects of her personality are considered “masculine.” Men may dress in drag for an actual performance, but such costumes reveal little about their biological sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. There are countless examples of the fact that the ways in which we present ourselves to the world challenge and conflict with the ways we see ourselves. Perhaps religious identity is just another performance we can play with, in long skirts, in short shorts, or in anything in between.

Image used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.

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4 Responses to “Community, Choice, and Identity: The Politics of Wearing Skirts”

  1. Barbara Linder says:

    I loved reading your article. It is so much of what I always think about. I remember growing up in my home and having my father ask why I was wearing slacks on the sabbath. I loved your last sentence “Perhaps religious identity is just another performance we can play with…..” Perhaps one day we can talk about this subject.

  2. Sarah Fein says:

    Thanks Barbara! I would love to talk more about this issue with you.

  3. Sari,

    I LOVED this article. Would love to converse further about it. You bring up several really important issues that I feel all people (men and women) struggle with from time to time.

    Keep up the great work,

    Jennifer

  4. Sarah Fein says:

    Thanks Jennifer! It has been pleasantly surprising to me how strongly this issue resonated with so many people. I’m glad we’re getting to have these sorts of conversations.

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Sarah Fein is a PhD student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Her work focuses on the role of women and gender in the Hebrew Bible and its later interpretation.


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