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How Dressing Modestly Changed My Life

Before I began my formal conversion to Judaism, when I was a wee reporter who covered various stories in the very religious neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, a Hasidic subject gently suggested that when I attend her organization’s meetings, I dress to fit in. By this, I knew she meant that I dress according to the rules of tznius [modesty], and cover my elbows, collarbone, and knees. Some might have found such guidance irritating, but I wasn’t offended at all. I was thrilled. It felt a bit like going undercover in a culture I had always admired from afar. And, if I’m honest with myself, I also thought covering up would allow me to ignore, if not overcome, any lingering body shame.

When I exited the 55th Street subway station wearing a gray knee-length skirt and high-necked black and gray striped T-shirt, I was able to imagine myself as a character, a person who walked humbly and thought of G-d often. Now, here I am, three years later, a religious Jew, while less observant than many of the people I met in Borough Park, but nonetheless, committed to my faith.

This might seem like a trivial stop on the way to an identity, but to me, it was transformative. Dressing as a religious woman gave me a chance to try on the persona, and I found, that to some extent, the persona fit. (Though I should note there’s variation among Orthodox Jews as to how they observe tznius — some groups wear short sleeves, and others wear stockings year-round). Even so, I’m not sure I’m the best person to teach others about tzniut, which often refers to women’s clothing, but can also mean general humility or proper conduct between genders. I’ve only been learning Jewish culture and belief for a few years, after all, whereas many people have been steeped in the tradition their whole lives.

Some Orthodox Jewish fashionistas have made careers revolving around modest clothing. There’s style blogger Adi Heyman, for example, or the designers behind Mimu Maxi, who produce a line of modest clothing from their home base in Crown Heights, Brooklyn — which, to my knowledge, is the world’s largest community of hipsids (that’s a portmanteau for “hipster” and “Hasid”— you heard it here first.) These women have taken rightful advantage of the increased popularity of modest fashion, and have managed to become style icons for all women, secular or otherwise. They, better than I, can speak to the power of modesty.

But, I don’t relish in telling others what to do, and Judaism is against proselytizing, which works out well for me. Still, there are certain pieces of Jewish wisdom that I plan to harp on in the book I often fantasize about writing: Hasidism for Everyone. One laudable tenet of Hasidism is the primacy of the action over the feeling or intention behind it. At Mount Sinai, when receiving the Torah, the Jews responded, “We will do and we will understand.” The teaching is that because when they first said they would do, it meant they were taking on the obligation, before the understanding.

There are two types of ways to do without understanding: the first is to do something you’ve been told is good that you know you’ll never understand (in a Jewish context, that might mean not wearing garments that contain both linen and wool, which makes no apparent sense). The second is to do something you know you can comprehend, but you just aren’t feeling it yet. An easy example of this is charity. Sometimes you don’t want to give five dollars to a cause. You want those five dollars for a PBR and a bag of chips, or you’re worried that you’re more motivated by the ego boost of doing good than the actual charity itself.

Hasidism says: stop fretting, and do it anyway, because the recipient of the charity cares not a whit for your internal struggles. Do the good thing, and eventually, the feelings will come. It’s kind of a precursor to the well-known 12-step maxim, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”


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