While Orthodox girls obsess about skirt length and hosiery choices, are we overlooking Judaism’s most important lessons about modesty?
A friend asked me to serve as a match-reference—that is, to attest to the virtues of a prospective bride—for her older (Torah-learned, black-hat-wearing) brother. My friend, apparently, had discovered, through other references, that the young woman in question did not always wear appropriate hosiery.
“I’m just confused,” she told me. “Because I thought you even specifically mentioned that you thought she wears tights, and I would just be surprised if she didn’t wear some sort of socks or tights, based on the level of piety that I heard about her.”
“I must admit,” I said, “I don’t spend much time looking at ankles. I tend to look people in the eye.” Then, sensing my friend’s dissatisfaction with my answer, I added: “But I’m pretty sure she wears some sort of socks.”
I then proceeded to dissuade the match—solely for the sake of the prospective bride, whose résumé had clearly been analyzed for hours over a kitchen table by the mother and sister of the scholarly yet clueless bachelor.
Welcome to a culture that no one outside will ever understand—that of the yeshiva girl. It’s an insular, narrow space, where the outside world is demonized en masse; where religion becomes a competition in which everything is tallied up, right against wrong, and every additional stringency that is taken on instantly earns communal admiration. (One of my few relatively modern teachers in high school dubbed this “Orthodox Compulsive Disorder.”)
When choosing to be Orthodox, I sought authenticity and reason, passionate spirituality, closeness with God and with history. I love my religion, traditions, law, community, the small politics, the debates over the Shabbat table about the heights of the mechitzah in shul. But the widespread neuroticism, the vehement zeal: This is something new. This isn’t the brand of Orthodoxy that I embraced and emulated growing up, and it’s not the religion for which my parents defied our Russian family’s avowed secularism.
I don’t want to be that girl: the aspiring writer who has broken free of the tightly knit Orthodox community or school system and then proceeds to write about her love-hate relationship with said background. Because the truth is, I’m not that girl who’s broken away. I pray daily, recite benedictions before and after food, study Torah (but not Talmud). I still feel uncomfortable reading Aramaic texts traditionally limited to men. Friday afternoons find me running around the house, covering bathroom lights with special Shabbat covers, choosing tablecloths, filling the hot-water urn. And if it matters, which I suppose it does these days, I dress the part, too, despite being taught otherwise by secular grandparents: I wear modest skirts that reach my knees, sleeves that cover my elbows, and I refrain from any physical contact with males.
But I also wear stilettos. I also study Tennyson, Nabokov, and Joyce; I read the New York Times avidly, attend film screenings and art galleries. In the past few years, after leaving the comforts of my high school, where everything had been carefully dictated and prescribed, I’ve been trying to balance Torah u-Madda, religious studies with science or secular studies.
So much so have I entered the world of Torah u-Madda that I’d almost completely forgotten about the world I left behind. It took a conversation about hosiery to remind me why I am where I am today.
My friend’s query about that prospective bride’s tights floods my mind, for a half-second, with memories of the all-girls Orthodox high school we attended together. Kind teachers encouraging us to understand that our long sleeves might be a bit too tight. Running past teachers down the stairwell before they noticed that I wasn’t wearing tights in my ballerina flats. While my friend had gone on to seminary in Israel and chosen to be more stringent, I had chosen to go to Yeshiva University, bastion of modern Orthodoxy. To the outsider, the two seem indiscernibly similar, but to the insider in the Orthodox Jewish community, the two worlds couldn’t be more different.
My younger sisters, who still attend that all-girls high school, have been alluding to problems with particular teachers in vague text messages and sighing phone calls. When I came home one weekend, we went to a local coffee shop to discuss their issues in depth. One sister began to cry as told me how her rabbi had told the class that one who transgresses the boundaries of forbidden physical contact, even in the most casual and unaffectionate of manners, a mere handshake, is considered adulterous and thus is deserving of death, according to biblical law. “That just makes me want to go to the Gap and buy a pair of skinny jeans,” she told me, pulling her denim skirt to cover her knees as she sat down.
Another teacher announced proudly that the walls of her house have never seen her hair, just like the righteous mothers of the Talmud. “I sleep with my head covered, girls. Always.”
Yet another teacher brought in an article from the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha. The story followed a Jew in 1950s Soviet Russia who expressed an interest in studying Judaism but never did so because of the danger involved. The teacher explained: “Girls, what do we learn from this? That this man clearly sinned! One should always follow through with one’s intentions!”
My sister tried to argue; as the daughter of Soviet immigrants, she grew up with an understanding of what it meant to be Jewish in the USSR. “He was risking his life—” my sister began. The teacher dismissed her: “Yes, but one must risk one’s life for the sake of Torah.”
Although Rabbi Helga Newmark survived the horrors of the Holocaust, a childhood slight—from Anne Frank—stayed with her for the rest of her life