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Dressing Up

Dressing Up

Confronting the Jewish Dress Code


With adrenaline already pumping through my veins, I figure I might be able to power walk it home through Jerusalem's twisty streets in 25 minutes, duffel bag slung over a shoulder, bouncing behind me. After a long day hunched over a desk studying Torah in fine-print volumes, I feel accomplished for also dragging myself to the gym and getting in a good workout.

I often use this commute time to get in touch with family and friends back in the United States. Despite the physical distance and the changes I've made in my life by moving to Israel, I like to assure others, and even myself, that I'm the same person. Still a hard worker, still have the same sense of humor, still need that endorphin high — just in a different way.

The other phone is already ringing by the time that I notice something amiss. I feel a bit exposed, even. I look down and see that I'm wearing my black workout pants. No wonder I am making such good time.

"Can I call you back in a minute?"

I pull into an alleyway and zip open the duffel to pull out a corduroy skirt. About a size too large, it sits low across my hips. The ruffled hem comes down to just below the knee. I pull it on quickly, checking it see if anyone is around. I also wonder if it's really necessary.

This isn't the first time I've walked out the door wearing pants. I've been doing it my whole life, and it still seems quite normal.

Before I came to Israel in August, I couldn't relate to the practice of observant Jewish women limiting themselves to wearing only skirts and dresses. I used to believe that in modern times, such halachic (Jewish law) concerns about dress no longer applied. Being immodest meant wearing a bikini, not my favorite pair of wide-leg jeans, and if someone found it offensive, that was their problem.

I've come to consider the dress code to be part of the package of being an observant Jew, even if I don't always agree completely with how it fits modern times or my life. In Jewish tradition, established practice is revered. Many women stick to skirts when running, biking and hiking, even though it could easily be argued that pants might be more modest attire for these activities.

Ironically, my getup of sneakers, sweatpants and a corduroy skirt would grab undue attention pretty much anywhere else, and that's one of the things the skirt is supposed to deter. But the look works for the modern orthodox Jerusalemite lady who wants to get a workout. The only thing that might have batted an eye was my maneuver in the alley

I call my friend back to relate the incident, and she, too, is curious about my new style.

"So do you only wear skirts now?"

The truth is, I'm not sure. Living in a religious community has made me acutely aware of what stands out and what clothing can mean. To my surprise, even a short-sleeve shirt can feel revealing if no women bare their arms at all. Though I wouldn't go so far as to call pants immodest, now that I see myself in a skirt down to at least my knees on a daily basis, it seems to leave a bit more to the imagination than a pair of skinny jeans. And I'm okay with that.

At this point in time, I haven't ruled out wearing pants for myself. But when I choose what to wear each morning, something nags at me, and I take a skirt down from the hanger. Even when I go hiking, a stretchy skirt goes over my high-tech pants.

Modesty, I learned, is to a large extent a relative concept. In some neighborhoods that follow stringent opinions, this outfit certainly wouldn't fly. Nor would the distracting power walking. There, wardrobes are limited to formal skirts and tops in black, brown and shades of grey.

While the Jewish concept of tzniut, loosely translated as "modesty," is easiest to define according to hemlines, it also includes the deeper overarching concept of what one reveals, even in speech and action. According to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were initially able to perceive that the soul is the essence of a person, and the body is but a tool. There was no shame, and therefore no need for clothing. Since their sin, mankind has become easily misled by judging people by what they see on the outside. And that's where my dilemma comes in.

Individuals though we may claim to be, in all places on earth where people have enough resources to actually choose what they want to wear, few people make that decision truly independently. In high school, dress code identifies whether you're a "skater," "goth," or "preppy." Later on, clothing makes a statement about profession or the economic class a person is in (or wishes they could be in). Perhaps because it's all so new, the stakes here seem higher.

I know there are pants underneath my skirt, and I haven't forgotten how to wear them. The decision to cover them is not out of embarrassment of what I look like or what I've come from. It comes from a place of newfound respect for the society of religious women I want to be a part of and a newfound respect of myself.

Ilene Rosenblum is a freelance writer and digital media consultant living in Jerusalem.
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Idee Florida February 14, 2016

1st time going to Chabad I had been afraid to go to any Jewish center for years but i always had a nagging inside of me. My mother had passed 2009 and I learned myself the Kaddish and said it for her 11 months 3 times a day. When my father passed I started saying Kaddish for him but felt there was something missing . There would be a moaning deep inside of me which would come up through my throat and it was deep. I didn't understand and I mourned and cried and stop doing everything. Finally I called Chabad and the Rabbi said I could see him. I went and asked millions of questions which I don't remember now but he invited me to come on Saturday to say Kaddish. Amazingly I went wearing the 1 of only 2 dresses I have that had short sleeves but wore a long sleeve sweater over it. I was invited to lunch and started feeling less afraid of being there. I plan to keep going but can't find skirts that look nice on me and I'm confused where this will lead me. Reply

Anonymous hyderabad, pakistan May 12, 2012

Though I wouldn't go so far as to call pants immodest, now that I see myself in a skirt down to at least my knees on a daily basis, it seems to leave a bit more to the imagination than a pair of skinny jeans. And I'm okay with that. Reply

Victoria Garden City, 12 January 8, 2011

wow I have been struggling with this for a long while and I have to tell you the Question of being in front of a king just did it for me.
I have been wearing shorts and tanks all my life and not until I was older did I start to think about how people see they see me as a daughter of G-d or a hot babe?
Well I can tell you I have ordered a hair covering and think next summer will be in skirts instead of shorts and a tank top.
Thank you for inspiring me. It is a freedom to know others felt the same way and are happy with the change .I dont feel so alone in Idaho anymore . Shalom Reply

Anonymous Silver Spring, MD December 23, 2010

Dress Code Dear Anonymous, Naples, FL/USA,
I, too, worked in a field/area where pants and jeans - construction management. Surprisingly to me, at least, was the fact that I could wear my floor length skirts and long sleeve shirts on the job site with my steel toed boots and hard hat - and none of the men working on the site had any issue with my dressing that way. In cold weather, I wore sweat pants under my floor length skirt; in warm weather I wore bicycle shorts under my skirts. And I still climbed ladders to the rooftops - the men spotting the ladders somehow knew to look away when I was climbing. Reply

Anonymous Naples, FL/USA July 28, 2010

Dress Code I am currently learning Torah. I am in love with Torah. First, thank you for this article. I was brought up a Catholic and now am on my path to Torah and conversion. I want to partake in the dress code because I too, feel in my soul that this is the way to go. I work in an area that I must wear pants. I need suggestions to what I can do. Also, I know in my heart that I at some point in my journey want to cover my head. I know I will receive much criticism for my drastic change..but Im here to serve Hashem not criticism. I would like to know other women's journey to the dress code. Thanks Again. Leslie Ann Reply

Anonymous Baltimore, Md December 14, 2009

modest clothing As a convert to judaism I'm becoming more aware that I need to stay out of pants or wear long tops as a covering. I really appreciate this article. thank you! Reply

Anonymous September 20, 2009

I admire you for respecting the Jewish culture in Israel regarding women's dress. I am a born again Christian and grew up with a very strict Pentacostal background. I only wore dresses and skirts growing up and after I married because I married a minister in the same faith. I actually only started wearing pants after my husband passed in 2003 and I am 50+. We learn to adjust to our surroundings and changing seasons in our life. I visited Israel in March 2009 and it was absolutely beautiful. G-d Bless You! Reply


Small Steps Your husband should appreciated that his wife is not displaying herself for the benefit of other men. Shorts and halter tops are indeed comfortable (I wore them ages ago). The last time I wore a cute pair of white shorts, I was walking with my young sons. Men driving by whistled, even slowed down to make obscene statements. I asked myself is this what I want my sons to remember about their mother? What kind of image am I engraving in their mind? As a woman, you want to command respect, Jewish or non-Jewish, and everyone is always in G-d"s eyes. Reply

a wandering seeker Philadelphia, PA July 23, 2009

small steps It is good to learn that Judaism is a "work in progress" as we learn and grow - not a 'done deal'. I'm not officially considered anything - not Jewish by birth, not officially a convert, mostly a seeker and I love learning. The more I learn about Judaism, the more I love and respect it. This article is wonderful for me and explains so much. My husband jokes about my style of dress - but he respects my overall "conservative ways" and understands my modest preferences. The few times I have dressed more "modern" in public, I was dismayed at the disrespectful way I was viewed, and I chose to dress conservatively and modestly - out of respect for myself and in respect to G-d's laws and my understanding of Torah so far. Reply

Meira June 7, 2009

Modesty: A Choice What a timely article for me personally! As a geur (convert) I am making many decisions. Even as kosher is "fit" for me to eat, skirts are "fit" for me to wear; while my line of work might seem to lend itself to the wearing of pants, and I've surely been a blue jeans and flannel type in the past, the longer, modest skirts of the Orthodox community women "fit" me. Yes, I can feel the difference. Hashem has given us so many choices, and it is pleasing to fit in with my sisters. Reply

Jocelyn Ruth Krieger June 7, 2009

DRESSING UP To Connecticut annonymous:
It is very wise to take one step at a time. That is how everyone learned to walk. In my experience in encouraging others to live a Torah life, I discovered that those who take on everything at once, sadly lose everything at once or eventually. Like overeating. It gives indigestion!Remember:Non-kosher food for a Jewish soul is like running a BMW on dieself fuel. If you believe G-d is everywhere, then dress for Him. Your HOME is a miniature sanctuary where you learn and pray. May Hashem bless you endeavors and reward you with much happiness for your chosen path. Reply

Anonymous Wallingford, CT United States June 6, 2009

To moshe in NY Thanks for the encouragement. I'm taking it one step at a time. I started wearing skirts to services and lighting candles and am soon going to kasher my kitchen. Selling my home and buying a new and appropriate one will take more time. I want to make sure each step is something I will continue as I move along this path. Reply

hava NY, NY June 5, 2009

I live in NYC and work in the jewelry district and like many others follow the modest dress code in order not to distract from business, not necessarily because of my own beliefs. In the summers I notice you can really tell who is truly observant by the long sleeves in hot weather. While I think the idea of modesty is correct and enjoy being appreciated for my mind and heart rather than my looks theres a part of me that hates being underappreciated because of a wardrobe that makes me look twenty pounds heavier and ten years older.
I went to a Sabbath lunch the other day and met a beautiful young lady who said she was planning to cover her hair after marriage. Her serenity and her certainness that she was doing the right thing really impressed me. I'm not sure I could be so strong- especially day after day, year after year- but I will say one thing- religious chicks rock! Their wisdom, spiritual beauty and inner peace can be far more beautiful than a flashy first appearance. Reply

Moshe New York, NY June 2, 2009

To Anonymous from Wallingford Good luck! You should make the move! Reply

Anonymous oak park, IL June 2, 2009

skirts You really touched on a subject I wrestle with. I cover my hair and wear skirts, but for that one hour a day of exercise, I struggle. Do I wear a skirt over my running pants?How far to I roll my long sleeve shirt up in humid chicago when running in the summer? Do I place a skirt over my judo pants, while doing martial arts? I never realized how much time I would spend thinking about just this area of observant Judiasm. Family purity laws, kashruth, davening, easy. Clothing, diffucult! Reply

Collette Batten Springfield, TN ~ USA June 2, 2009

Dress vs pants For days being 62 years old I had pants on and this man wanted to ask me a question. For reasons one morning I felt like wearing a dress. He came into the store and saw I am in a dress. He came up to me and said," Oh today I can ask you this question". I thought what was wrong with yesterday and said so, he told me today I was in a dress. To him it was important. The question was one of Torah a subject we both love talking about and going over this or that. I knew then what my parents with dress code and not chewing gum and other "ladies actions" were important. So, the book cover doesn't tell the whole story, we shouldn't judge by it alone but it does gives you hints to what the book will be about. Reply

Malka Miami, Florida June 2, 2009

another Floridian I, too, find the heat of Florida-dwelling a real tznius (modesty) challenge. But I figure it this way...Hashem (G-d), in His great kindness has given me a sturdy roof over my head (even sturdier since it was replaced post-hurricane) plenty of food in the frig (even though the compressor has been cranky lately and the warranty considers "between 24 and 48hrs." ample time to respond to this "emergency" repair) a nice family (also, sometimes as cranky as the frig's compressor, and not so easy to fix...) and wonderful shul around the corner (yeah, there's no room on Yom Tov, but they're building a bigger shul...) etc. You get the idea, plenty of blessings, even with all the kvetches. So if Hashem has asked me to "cover up", even if I feel a little or extremely hot (did YOU ever live inside of an oven?!) I do it. Spending 6 months in Yerushelayim did heighten my sense of what's really modest, both in dress and behavior -- a new challenge for me, back here in Florida -- keep up the good work all of you! Reply

Hinda Schryber jerusalem, israel June 2, 2009

black and grey I quit my pants the day before i got married 30 years ago. Since then i wear only skirts, and a hair covering. I also live in jerusalem and i work out at the gym and walk all the time. So im on your team. But what i do want to say to you is that Black and navy blue and grey are NOT the only colours that you can wear.
these colours may be the choice of certain sects of the jerusalem community, but it does not mean that other colours are not o.k. or tsnius (modest). There are loads of ways of dressing tznius in beautiful colous that are perfectly acceptable. The idea is to enjoy it and not to feel frumpy or laden down. Reply

Jocelyn Ruth Krieger boca Raton, Fl June 1, 2009

modest dressing Although I wear skirts since I am observant, there are times, especially if caring for children, a skirt can be a problem. Living in Florida, it gets rather hot (skirts are cooler) but I purchased bike shorts to wear under my skirt(they come to the knee.) Tights are too hot. THe alternative to bare legs is hosiery knee-hi. The real reason for tznius is that we are always in the Presence of Hashem. Test yourself by asking "Would I stand in before a human king dressed like this?" As a mother and bubby, I believe in representing what I preach. And why is a Safer Torah covered? Because it is kodesh, just as we must strive to be kodesh. Reply

Anonymous Wallingford, CT United States June 1, 2009

As a less observant older Jewish woman who is slowly becoming more observant, I find that I am more aware of my clothing as well. Though I still live in a suburban secular community with maybe two Orthodox families in it, I now tend to pull a skirt out of the closet when I attend Chabad services, even though I have to drive. I am even thinking of moving closer to the center so I can walk. Reply

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