The Sunday Seven: Episode 18

— 1 —

This week, I went shopping for a dress to wear to my sister’s graduation in Texas later this month. I found a lovely teal frock at a shop near the city center, but I soon discovered the problem of trying to buy a short-sleeved dress in a tzniut shop. That is, the shop and its clothes follow Jewish modesty commandments for women. Which means that they won’t sell you a short-sleeved dress without trying really hard to convince you to buy a long-sleeved collarbone-covering undershirt for it. It also means they don’t sell women’s pants at all.

I really have to commend the saleslady’s guts for tilting at this particular windmill with me, since her English was shaky, my Hebrew is practically nonexistent, and I was wearing pants, I had my hair down, I had on large earrings and I had my elbows showing, so I was obviously not frum, even if I was Jewish. I finally ended the discussion with a “No, thank you, I appreciate it, but I’m Christian and we don’t have those rules.” That seemed to work. Now excuse me while I leave town with my non-kosher dress!

— 2 —

I may go back for the undershirt another day, though, because I feel that, now that the weather is warming up, now that the jackets are off and my elbows and collarbone are showing more often than not, that I’m getting a lot of unwanted attention in public, mostly from sneering bubbes (grannies). I also wore a wool beret for most of the winter that covered my hair enough to avoid attention, and now that the blonde hair is out, it’s impossible to lay low.

The other problem is that not covering your hair in Israel is akin to not wearing a wedding ring in the U.S.– it presents a woman as available, even if she’s not. Except it’s much more noticeable than a wedding ring. The attention, while flattering, can be quite annoying. Even now I occasionally cover my hair just to get some peace and quiet in public.

But I’m not sure how I feel about beginning to dress according to Jewish law simply because of outside pressure. It feels almost more disrespectful, as though I’m impersonating a Jew. I am aware of a number of Catholic women (in the U.S.) who dress according to nearly Jewish standards of modesty and find it quite freeing and meaningful. (Conversely, most local Christian women in the Holy Land, I have found, almost exclusively wear pants, perhaps to distance themselves from the other ethnic groups.) I, however, have not heard the particular call toward a Jewish style of modest dress and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of how a nicely tailored pantsuit is considered less modest than a skirt that might blow up in the wind or show the shape of your bare legs when backlit. (By the way, find solutions to these problems here and here.) I’m also really afraid I’ll show my undies when I sit down if I don’t cross my legs just right. But those personal issues aside, I just don’t understand how a curve-hugging pencil skirt can be considered modest as long as it’s knee-length. Or how jeans are the devil in denim. Or how you could ever hope to get on the floor to play with the kids if you’re always in a skirt. All my life, I have lived in a number of different communities in U.S. states with widely varying politics, manners and social climates, but, in all of them, the women wore pants and shorts and showed their elbows, shoulders and collarbones and no one thought anything of it. I suppose the alternative to buying a tzniut undershirt would be to buy a shirt like this (and wear it with a cross necklace like this girl):

And if it weren’t for the bad grammar, I just might.

— 3 —

You may also be as surprised as I was by these tzniut swimsuits (swim-tzniuts?), the Jewish answer to a burkini. Yes, people wear that to the beach. I guess there are just some things you can’t learn until it warms up in Israel.

— 4 —

Although this issue of modesty seems to be a peculiarly female affair, or at least much more understated among the males of the Jewish community, Rodolfo has had his own particular interesting recurring experience in terms of getting repeatedly mistaken for a secular Jew and being expected to act a certain way. Every Friday in the shuk (the open-air market), there are observant haredis (ultra-Orthodox Jews) who try to convince secular Jews to pray the tefillin with them. This is a very interesting Jewish prayer custom for men that consists of wrapping their heads and forearms with small leather boxes attached to long leather straps in a literal response to the commandment to bind the word of God on one’s hands and forehead (see Deuteronomy 6). The leather boxes contain a scroll bearing the shema from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Since Rodolfo looks vaguely Jewish, he is almost always stopped and asked to pray the tefillin. In fact, this week at the market, he was asked three times on different occasions… by the same haredi! He has successfully learned the Hebrew phrase, “No, thank you. Happy Sabbath!” and he says it repeatedly, smiling gracefully, every single time they ask him. Now I just need to learn the Hebrew for, “Thank you for noticing my elbows. I appreciate your concern, but I am a Christian and we don’t have any rules against showing our arms. Have a nice day!”

— 5 —

You may have also seen one of these before. It’s called a mezuzah, and it contains the same scroll as the tefillin boxes. There is one affixed to literally every Jewish doorway in Israel. This is another literal response to the same commandment from Deuteronomy, which goes on to say that the shema should also be written on “the doorposts of your house and on the gates.” It’s interesting that even secular Jews seem to take this commandment to heart. Literally every doorway, between rooms, outside restaurants, even the doors leading to the balcony, have a mezuzah in any Jewish building. There is even a huge mezuzah at the arrivals gate at Ben Gurion airport! Our apartment even has a number of them, which is interesting, since our landlord is quite secular and he’s the one who put them there.

— 6 —

Looking up at the rest of this post, I’m laughing at how many Hebrew and Yiddish words I’ve used. When I was first reading online (in English) about life in Jerusalem a few months ago, it felt like when I was first learning Spanish. About every six words, there was a word I didn’t recognize that represented some Jewish concept with no exact translation into English. Now I’m using those words myself. In fact, I found myself using the word “meshuggah,” which is Yiddish for “crazy,” or “nuts,” the other day. Where the heck did that come from? I really surprised myself with that one, because we don’t actually even interact with Yiddish speakers on a regular basis here. Most of the people we know here are Hebrew speakers. And yes, there is a marked difference, even with uniquely Jewish concepts. I wrote about that in one of my very first posts.

You may not know it, but as a speaker of English, you probably know a number of Yiddish words already, and I don’t jut mean the obvious ones, like “kosher,” “yarmulke,” or “bagel.” What about “klutz?” “Bupkis?” “Shtick?” “Glitch?” “Nosh?” “Tchotchke?” “Shpiel?” “Tush?” …Or a number of names for parts of the male anatomy that I will not repeat here? For more Yiddish words you probably already know (even if you don’t already know they’re Yiddish), view this list.

— 7 —

For those of you looking for a food post, here is a cool site, the Israel page at Food by Country. I haven’t tried making any of these recipes yet (except the “fresh oranges” one, but that’s kind of cheating, since it’s basically “cut up an orange and serve”), but I highly recommend trying the blintzes (Jewish crepes–that was what I had for dinner last Thanksgiving!) and the shakshuka/shakshooka (Eggs and tomatoes–one of Rodolfo’s new favorite dishes!).

Have a wonderful week!

(PS. Visit Conversion Diary for a list of other blogs with Quick Takes.)

4 Comments

Filed under Beauty and Fashion, Culture Shock, Quick Takes, Shopping at the Shuk, What's Cookin'?

4 responses to “The Sunday Seven: Episode 18

  1. Trish

    Great to hear of your life in Jerusalem! I miss it so much. Reading your posts bring back memories for me as well. Bless you and your husband. I hope to return someday. I found Israel to be so beautiful and the people were ever so gracious. A time I will never forget. Have a blessed week!

    • Jessa

      Thank you so much for your comments, Trish! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! I’m sure that, for us as well, our time here will be something that will remain with us for the rest of our lives. And a very blessed week to you as well!

  2. Ah, I see what you mean now. That shopkeeper’s earnest attempts to help you be more Jewish sound a lot like my praise of well-dressed students at Sunday Mass! I can imagine that it must get really frustrating to have to explain that you’re not Jewish and don’t need to behave like a Jew. I, too, would imagine that pants would do it, but I guess not.

    I do have to say that, if close-fitting skirts count, they shouldn’t. Regarding mobility, I had a (Christian) friend in college who always wore skirts. I wondered the same thing how she moved freely) until I started wearing skirts more often. I find that it’s a matter of the length (below the knees automatically gives you more coverage) and the fabric (cotton and cotton blends lend themselves to activity). Modesty is only partly about the clothing itself; it’s mostly about how you behave wearing it.

    The tank top in #2 seems as contradictory as “modest is hottest”—using the very concepts you’re against (calling people “hot,” or staring) to say that you’re against it. I’m not sure what I’d do in your case, but it’s so fascinating to hear about!

    • Jessa

      Thanks for your comments, Lindsay! I completely agree that modesty is (or should be) more about behavior and less about clothes! I recently saw a Jewish teenage girl pulling off her tights from under her skirt at a public bus stop on a hot day! I couldn’t believe it! But she was wearing a skirt and had her elbows and collarbone covered, and unfortunately, those seem to be the only details most people are fixated on. There were no grumpy old ladies giving that girl a piece of their minds, even though I think that action was far more immodest than the action of wearing pants!

      Also, I agree that the tank top in #2 is not actually an appropriate response to this situation. That was mostly a joke. I would never wear something that skimpy in public by itself. Maybe the t-shirt version, though. If the grammar were correct. :) But it’s a little too confrontational for my taste as well.

      There is another really interesting facet to this situation, and that is what I mentioned about how a majority of local Christian laywomen here almost exclusively use pants for daily wear (often, just because they can, like in the communities I grew up in). Personally, my go-to “nice” outfits usually involve skirts, and I was quite surprised when I first met with a Patriarchate priest about volunteering there (which is essentially the Catholic archdiocese of the Holy Land) and he specifically asked me if I was Christian. Why else would I be there? But then I realized that I was dressed in a black skirt and tights and a long-sleeved, high-necked blouse. (It was a cold day.) I just thought I was dressed nice, but he thought I was dressed “Jewish!” (So just as you mentioned, apparently, in the way that wearing pants to a tzniut shop doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not interested in a tzniut undershirt, oddly enough, wanting to volunteer at the Latin Patriarchate doesn’t necessarily mean you’re Catholic either.)

      Don’t get me wrong; a Christian wearing a skirt is fine, if rare, but I think that (here at least) wearing a tzniut undershirt is a specifically Jewish action that would look to most Christian women like “trying too hard,” or “trying to be Jewish,” or even worse, “pretending to not be Christian.” What a fascinating and confusing world we live in!

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