A 2012 photo from a flyer from the Beit Shemesh store, Red Pirate, advertising children’s Purim costumes
With Purim less than one week away, if your household is anything like mine, the mad scramble for costumes and related accessories has already begun.
“What should I be this year?” is the question of the season.
What should I be this year, indeed? The concept of costumes, “dress to impress,” and feeling fake in our everyday garments is an issue that’s been on my mind lately.
When I consider my own metamorphosis from secular Jew to religious Jew, the concept of “changing my costume” was one of the major challenges.
Upon becoming frum, many men and women have to slowly adapt to the required change in dress code, although some folks take the plunge and change everything at once.
In one major way, men have to make a more immediate and obvious addition to their wardrobes in the form of a kippah or hat. I’m sure the question of which type of head covering to wear isn’t always an easy decision. Additionally, as a man gains more exposure to the different paths of Orthodox Judaism, he might choose to change the type of head covering he wears.
The same can be said for women. The mentors who guided us on our path to religious dress at the start of our journeys, might not have as much influence over us after we embark into this new world. Women sometimes find that there are many variations of acceptable styles as we become acquainted with other leaders and peers. This journey can sometimes enable us to adopt modes of dress that adhere to halacha, but feel more natural to our own sense of style.
Finding a balance between dressing with creativity, flair, and individuality, while still fitting into community standards, can be a challenge among a population where at least 85% of us wear all black to any given simcha.
Most newly religious Jews are advised to dress the part on the outside without worrying if they internalized the part on the inside. Although at first, we might feel as if we are wearing a costume, after a time we will find the truth in the old adage, “You are what you wear.” Dress as a religious Jew, people will see you as a religious Jew, and subsequently you will also see yourself as a religious Jew. Your costume will become your reality.
Of course, this disconnect and forced reconciling of outside and inside can also apply to Jews born into their religious community. Some Jews born into a particular community feel a discrepancy between how they dress on the outside and how they feel on the inside. Such conflicted people have to make hard decisions about whether or not to break with the external norms of their families and communities in order to feel like their authentic selves.
Whether a person is a baal teshuvah slowly learning to adapt and navigate between various hashkafos, or a person who was born into frum society, both will have even more of an issue with their outer mode of dress if they disagree with the culture or philosophy of the community they are representing through their uniform.
If a person’s discomfort is merely one of style (not to dismiss the severity of, say, the trials of wearing thick stockings in middle of a Miami summer), their objections might seem more superficial. However, if a person has serious philosophical differences with the community they live in, to be a walking poster board for that community is particularly galling.
I once had a friend who came from a secular Israeli family. Interestingly, it was only after coming to America that she became religious. Back home in Israel, her family and community harbored such animosity toward religious Jews that becoming religious wasn’t something that would have taken root in for her back home. I always found that ironic.
In America, my friend had the opportunity to experiment with all different modes of religious dress, including a multitude of different hair covering options. She wore hats, scarves, snoods, and sheitels interchangeably. However, when she ultimately returned to Israel, she said that she wasn’t going to wear a wig anymore.
My friend informed me that in Israel, wigs are strongly identified with being haredi. Modern orthodox women and religious Zionist women mainly wore scarves or hats – wigs were for the yeshivish haredi crowd. Although she liked wearing wigs sometimes, she didn’t want to be identified as haredi. She also didn’t want to further anger her family, who were not thrilled with her new level of observance.
I think that one of the unintended consequences of the emphasis on how we dress – judging the Jew by his/her cover – is that it is turning people off of adherence to the halachos of how we dress. These new subjective standards, which have turned into halachic requirements, confuse the basic halachos with chumros or cultural norms.
Covering every inch of hair, wearing a skirt exactly 4 inches below the knee, sporting a long beard, or wearing a black hat, implies that you belong to a certain group. If you don’t agree with, feel part of, and do not want to represent that group, you end up feeling like a faker every time you wear that costume in public.
I think it’s time for education on halacha vs. chumra in terms of how we dress. People should know that there are varying opinions about the required external appearance of religious Jews. Right now, it’s getting to be a “my way or the highway” situation.
I believe that there are many of us trying to achieve a balance where our outside reflects the person we are on the inside. It’s sad that many would rather have some people walk around uncomfortable in their own skin in order to maintain a manufactured uniform look to religious society.
Is it possible to still be a God fearing Jew while celebrating diversity and individuality in how we dress and think? If not, there will be plenty of folks who will choose the “highway” over the “my way.”