I was busy listening to Let Love Rule in my bedroom in the Omaha suburbs when my mother called us for dinner and proclaimed a spiritual quest. We’d already been Reform. Then we’d become Conservative. Apparently, she announced, this was no longer enough for our family. Here, in our house, we would be Orthodox. We wouldn’t have a shul, a rabbi, a community, or friends. But we would dress the part.
“You know, we have a history of doing what’s not ‘fashionable,’” she said proudly. But really, she had a history of social arson, burning bridges at the slightest provocation. We’d lost friends and family to both of my parents’ incendiary insecurities, and my mother’s new edicts were simply the latest pyrotechnic attempt to distance herself from parents who never validated her. Becoming Orthodox in Omaha suited her craving for both virtue and rebellion.
It did not suit me at all.
Tall, overweight her whole life, and lacking any instruction on how to dress to suit her proportions, my mother welcomed a textual basis for concealing her body—and mine. She would no longer have to subject herself to the fashion industry’s (or her petite, chic mother’s) expectations of femininity. And I would have to disguise what I learned years later is called an hourglass figure.
She loved telling people, “It’s called tznius,” as if tznius—modesty—is a word anybody wants to repeat. She would quote from the Torah about Jews always dressing differently than the people of whatever land they lived in, to distinguish themselves. Bring on the shapeless jersey and oversized tunics! Every day would be a Chico’s kind of day.
My mom didn’t outright require that I wear skirts all the time, but when I didn’t, she’d comment, without looking at me, “Oh, you’re still wearing blue jeans?” Subconsciously, I understood that I had to imitate her if I wanted her to accept me. I covered myself up.
Until this proclamation, the close-knit Omaha Jewish community had felt like our loving, extended family. Now, in their desire to live an authentic Jewish life, my parents isolated me from them all. The after-school, community-based Hebrew High was deemed inadequate in its observance. I had to abandon my girlfriends in BBYO and USY to help start an NCSY chapter with a motley crew of younger kids.
Ashkenazi idioms and syntax now peppered our speech—Shabbat became Shabbos, Birkat HaMazon became bentsching (unabridged). Now my mother offered encouragement like, It should only happen. Previously, we’d kept Conservative kosher at home, (no to bacon, yes to Kraft cheese), but now we had to keep Orthodox kosher in and out, which meant restaurants we’d frequented—House of Hunan, Godfather’s Pizza, and El Dorado—were now whatever usser was. Consequently, our social time with friends and extended family diminished considerably.
In NCSY, I met kids who’d gone to yeshiva their whole lives. They had textual and Talmudic knowledge I didn’t know existed—I didn’t even know the word yeshiva. For my first NCSY convention, I wore an above-the-knee leather skirt and black pantyhose with a seam up the back. It was the early ’90s. InStyle said the look was “on trend.”
My mother outlawed my leather skirt and bought us new prayer books to use instead of Siddur Sim Shalom, with which I had once led the entire Shabbat services, before reading Torah, at my bat mitzvah. Now, I was to “use the Artscroll” to say brachos before catching the school bus (“Thank you, God, for not having made me a woman”?) and learn the full shacharis, mincha, and mayriv services that women could never lead.
After all, my mother reasoned, kol isha was really no different from the song of Calypso and the sea nymphs I was studying in The Odyssey unit in Mrs. Saunders’ honors English class. Rather than leading services, or, as she now referred to it, “putting yourself on display,” now I should give divrei Torah over cholent on Shabbos mornings to my siblings, at home.
There was a small Orthodox community, mostly Holocaust survivors, in a big, dying shul downtown, but my parents refused to move, engaging instead in a ridiculous, decade-long battle to bring that shul community to them.
The only walkable and acceptable synagogue was the Chabad House, but at 1.6 miles down a main drag, my mother and her bad knees announced, “Women are not obligated to perform time-bound mitzvahs,” so she, my sister, and I did not attend services for years. We sometimes hosted the Friday night Chabad minyan in our living room, track lights blazing until Saturday night.
I didn’t regularly attend another synagogue until I was 26 and married.
My mother said, “The rabbis say you’re supposed to build a fence around the Torah.” She built the Berlin Wall.
My mother said modest dress would help take the focus off of how we looked and help put the focus on our inner lives, our neshamas.
It did not.
I walked around the halls of public high school like I had a neon sign above my head, on display, exposed: ankle-length jean skirts, boxy tops, minimizer bras. Men’s long-sleeved T’s, full rayon skirts, sneakers. A frumpy 40-something’s wardrobe. I watched the way my friend, Jenny, wore Metallica T-shirts with the neck cut open, her purple Victoria’s Secret bra straps pretty on her olive-skinned shoulders. Her clothes made her look more like her. I looked like my mother.
Occasionally, I’d run into Bruegger’s Bagels to get my grandmother an untoasted chocolate chip with low-fat cream cheese while she waited in her cherry red convertible, top down, Jackie O. headscarf. Sometimes I’d see cousins or old synagogue friends at a table near the window. I’d smile and hug them hello. I loved them, but we were so distant now. There they were, in shorts and T-shirts, eating sandwiches and drinking SoBe sodas, like normal suburbanites. And there I was, in my sister-wife attire, distinguished. Highly self-conscious, I talked and talked and talked, as if filling up the space around us, like a cartoon dialogue bubble, would detract from my obviously bizarre otherness, the strange silhouette I cut in a fast-food franchise.
I hated it. I hated the shapeless, oversized clothes and the ancient rules and my otherness and the distance it all created from who I’d been before—I could still see her behind me, as if back on a hill, a fresh, new teenager in tie-dye and Birksenstocks. I’d turned away from her, but she remained.
What were my choices? Refuse this change and live the sorry teenage existence my father threatened through gritted teeth, should I not do what my mother wanted? Or become the aidel maidel, literally, “a sweet girl,” my mother now expected me to twirl into, à la Cinderella’s transformation before the ball? I didn’t know what the sorry teenage existence entailed. But on the Grrrl scale, I knew I was more Lisa Loeb than Liz Phair, so I instinctively chose aidel maidel.
I requested a couple of twin sets for good measure.
When my grandmother asked, skeptically, if I liked being Orthodox, I’d parrot something my mother had said, and later my mom would hold my hand. She hugged me more, touched me more, even smiled in pictures with me. In those moments, we seemed more like a mother and daughter who belonged together, cut from the same cloth. In those moments, I felt like I was doing something right. When I dressed like this, she didn’t use that old tone. Here was acceptance. Here was A Good Relationship. Here, in imitation, was where she stored the love.
The problem was, this aidel maidel costume was bullshit. It didn’t cover up my mother’s true nature or mine. It didn’t make her gentle or sweet. It didn’t make me modest or appropriate. It was 20 years before I realized it was a way to control me—just as her 1950s parents had tried to control her, in different ways—but it was only a few years before I tore it off at, of all places, Stern College, the women’s division of Yeshiva University.
My parents had peddled our house on Leavenworth Road as refuge, Holy Land. Here, we could look and act like real Jews. Here, I was conditioned to believe I would not get a complete Jewish education unless I went to Stern. So I moved to Manhattan.
I flew alone to LaGuardia and took my first taxi to 34th Street. The yellow cab pulled up to Brookdale Hall, and when I saw the registration line wrapped around the corner, my stomach dropped.
I immediately saw what my mother wanted us to be, and I understood that we were not. I have never felt so Midwestern. Or small town. I watched them through the cab window like I was watching a movie scene.
Every girl, it seemed, wore a midi-length leather, or micro-pleat, or trumpet black skirt, fitted blouse, and sparking diamonds. Nine West booties. Chunky heels. Choker necklaces. Straightened hair. Manicures. Every girl stood in line with her mother, who looked the exact same way, but also maybe with a fur accessory. Every girl was frum and fashionable. These mothers and daughters dressed in ways that accentuated their best features. They were experts in both covering up and showing off.
I stood in line in my sneakers with my duffels from Canfields, the Army supply store in Omaha. I suddenly ached for my Birkenstocks. I should have been on a greener campus in jeans and a tie-dye T-shirt. Where was I? I mean, where was I?
In line, everything unfolded. I was mismatched. My mother and I clashed. Nothing fit. I suddenly saw my closet for what it always was: a child’s hiding place.
But because I had become an aidel maidel, I did the proper thing. I did what was expected of me. I checked in, took the elevator to my room, and stayed for three years.
I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t think I had any other choices.
They called me “an out-of-towner.” I didn’t have a lot to do with the “in-towners” since we didn’t have much in common. I didn’t want to “learn in the bait midrash” after dinner. I couldn’t shop between classes at Bloomingdale’s with my father’s credit card. I didn’t borrow their Kate Spade bags, or attend midweek shiurim, or “go home” with them to Jersey or The Five Towns on Thursday afternoons after class.
I didn’t have a lot of friends in college, but mine were the frum Freaks and Geeks, and I held onto them with both hands. My first friend, Rose, was an artist who’d gone to Bais Yaakov her whole life, and whose community thought she was crazy for going somewhere as liberal as Stern College. We were both Odd Girls Out—our backgrounds opposite, but our stories mirror images. My second friend, Mordechai, from Yeshiva College, was expected to become a talmid chacham, and was aching to come out of the closet.
We all maintained our frumkeit, continuing to keep strict kosher and observe Shabbos and yuntif and tznius. But Rose wore velvet and silk. Mordechai bought a secret sequined gown. We went to Barrow Street and Broadway, the Harlem Ballet and Avery Fisher Hall. We people-watched at Sheep’s Meadow and on the Brooklyn Bridge. I looked the same, but, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was learning how to escape.
One day, in my final year at Stern, during Rabbi Saul Berman’s Jewish Law and the Environment class, I glanced out the window. Across Lexington, I saw an elderly woman in a floral housecoat cleaning her floor-to-ceiling windows between the vertical blinds.
She was one of those New York characters, hair askew, yelling to someone, or no one, on the other side of the room. She held the blinds aside, sloshed a rag into a bucket, and smeared the suds across the panes. I watched her squeegee the glass, mesmerized. Slosh, smear, squeegee.
Rabbi Berman drew connections between halachas, weaving together an argument that the Torah does, in fact, require us to take care of our environment in a sustainable and ethical way.
Slosh, smear, squeegee.
I envisioned this old lady, dying in her bed one day, maybe one day soon, unconcerned with what she might have worn on a random Tuesday in her ninth decade. And here I was, wrapped in layers of fabric, cloaked, bound by rules I never wanted to follow and expectations I didn’t care about meeting just to try to be the daughter my mother would love. But I didn’t want to be this person. I wasn’t this person—which might mean I wasn’t a person my mother could love. I was uninterested in religion, socially savvy, and desperate to be an artist. I was almost 21, for God’s sake. I wanted to clean my own damn windows.
I did what my mother taught me to do: I asked the rabbi for advice. He was a brilliant teacher, and I trusted his perspective. He said, “There is halachic precedent for modesty that involves pants.” We talked for a long time. I cried and cried. He didn’t tell me what to do. That wasn’t his style.
I exited his office still confused and not completely resolved, but I kicked west on 34th and was carried into Macy’s at Herald Square, a store my grandmother loved, as if by divine spirit. I bought a pair of baggy Levi’s, just like the ones T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chili were wearing. And just like that, there I was in the fitting room mirror. I felt my self inside those clothes. Here were the contours of my presence. I turned onto the streets of Manhattan, unraveling the aidel maidel, unspooling myself from my mother. I began the slow, deliberate work of refashioning myself.
I discovered What Not To Wear and watched it like a distance-learning course. Stacy London was the wardrobe rebbe of my dreams—a New Yorker, who took shit from no one. She talked about proportion, fit, and joy, something I had no idea belonged in an outfit, much less my life. I took notes and carried them with me to the Gap. I developed a style: simple, flattering, understated. I’d had enough standing out for one lifetime.
In grad school, in Boston, I fell in love with Ken, an Irish-Catholic boy, who—because the world is hilarious—wanted to convert to Orthodox Judaism. We ditched an unwelcoming Young Israel and spent Shabbat mornings together in bed. After his Orthodox conversion, we got married and moved to Chicago, where we joined a super-lefty Open Orthodox shul, and I made the best friends of my life there—dancers, musicians, painters, filmmakers—who were also struggling to find a place for themselves after similarly odd, shameful, and sometimes traumatic Jewish upbringings. If not for Ken’s desire to belong, I probably would have foregone observance completely and missed out on finding these true, forever people. My chosen family.
I teach college now, so my wardrobe is pretty identifiably academic: dark jeans, a cardigan, Birkenstocks. No hat or tichel for me. I don’t look frum—I look like Liz Lemon. We eat vegetarian out. I mostly keep Shabbat, but if I start to feel trapped, I’ll give myself a Blue Moon Shabbat, a once-in-a-while, every-now-and-again, anything-goes weekend with Mordechai, who still lives in Manhattan, so I can loosen the corset a little and breathe.
My mother hasn’t spoken to me in almost 10 years. It took me too long to realize the clothes were just a cover. I’m not who she wants me to be—silent, compliant, self-abnegating, like she was for her demanding parents. I just can’t bring myself to cover myself up in order to be loved. I came out of the closet, so to speak, and my mother cut me off. So much for her aidel maidel schtick. So much for mine.
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Nicole Cox is a writer and teacher in the Washington, D.C., area.