This Sunday, I will be participating in a conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary called “What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion“—along with, among others, FIT curator and brilliant social commentator Valerie Steele and the always incisive Jenna Weissman Joselit of George Washington University. Slated sessions will cover everything from the Bible and the concept of modesty to stereotypes and pop culture.
But the Forward’s Debra Nussbaum Cohen is very disappointed in us.
“American Jews are hungry for meaning. Those who identify as Conservative Jews want to know what that means, if it means anything at all outside of a personal level of observance and commitment. The movement is starving for leaders who can provide that,” she writes. “So why are some of the Conservative movement’s most creative and dynamic teachers, including Shuly Rubin Schwartz, Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky, David Kraemer, Stefanie Siegmund and Rabbi Francine Green Roston, talking about clothing?”
Indeed! Why should Shuly Rubin Schwartz be encouraged to think about anything other than Torah, observance, and the future of the Conservative movement? And David Kraemer clearly mustn’t be permitted to leave his office until he solves the day-school problem. How in the world could I have thought otherwise?
” ‘What to Wear?’ strikes me,” Cohen explains, “as a profound waste of time and effort, a true bitul zman.”
Ah, that’s right. Bitul zman—the phrase used by some of my Orthodox teachers to describe my interest in such obviously pointless things like Picasso and Shakespeare (and yes, Madonna). Which was a shame, really, because not only did this lead me to see these influences as in conflict with religion; I also, for many years, failed to understand that the passionate exploration of culture and society could actually enrich one’s Jewish identity. If God didn’t want us thinking about clothing, why’d He make it so fabulously technicolor?
Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.