Rosh Hashanah is a season of reflection, hope and honey cake. And, for anyone with a teenage daughter, a time for arguments that start with “That skirt is far too short to go clubbing in, let alone shul.”
Or, as my grandmother would say : “You can’t wear that; it’s cut up to your pupik!” I was never quite sure exactly which part of my anatomy the pupik was, but now I know: the belly-button. Oh, Grandma, you exaggerated. But only slightly.
It’s part of our tradition, in other words, that many Jewish women start off as rebellious girls, determined to flout the rules that demand modest dressing in shul, and end up enforcing those rules ourselves. We know just how we want our daughters to look as they sit next to us in shul. Modest, demure, serious and —although beautiful — completely unsexy. Make up, yes. Legs on show, no.
The question of modest dressing has gone mainstream recently, with a trend for covering up hitting the catwalks. This is excellent news for the more religious in our community, for whom modesty is a way of life, and also for the less religious Jewish mothers who can now take their daughters Yomtov shopping with some hope of finding a suitable outfit, something sufficiently stylish to please the girl, while not frightening the rabbi.
But it also means that discussion of modest dressing has gone mainstream, too, with non-Jewish feminist friends of mine sounding off on Facebook about how offensive they find the whole concept. Modest dressing, they contend, is a restriction on a woman’s right to choose for herself what she wants to wear. It turns her body into something that can be seen as offensive and inflammatory, and makes male reactions her problem, not theirs.
I agree with this in principle. But I also agree with the idea of dress codes. There are certain places — shul, work— where it’s better to cover up. Just as men wouldn’t come to shul in shorts, I don’t think it’s terrible to keep skirts in close communication with the knee. We should be sensitive to our surroundings, and know how to show respect.
However, there are limits. I’m far too old to voluntarily show my knees to anyone but a skilled orthopaedic surgeon. But I have sympathy with the door-slamming teenage girls, because I have my own version of shul-dress rebellion. It is the expectation that, as a married woman, I will wear a hat.
Once upon a time, when I was first married, I rather liked wearing a hat to shul. In those days I was (I recall) tall and slim and I wore contact lenses. My hats set off my auburn curls, and made my green eyes look bigger. Plus they told everyone who’d like to know that I was married, without having to flash my rings in their face.
But, now, I am mysteriously shorter and not-so-mysteriously stouter. My eyes are too dry for contact lenses, so my green eyes are hidden behind glasses. My curls do not appreciate being squashed, and if I wear a hat indoors my body temperature shoots up dangerously. In a full-on, wide-brimmed hat I resemble a sweaty mushroom, and the micro-climate inside the hat turns my curls to frizz.
I have tried alternatives. There is the scarf worn hijab style, which is liable to fall onto your shoulders every time you stand up, transforming you instantly into a dumpy peasant. Or the fascinator, which either looks like you’re being attacked by a mutant butterfly, or as though there’s a rat hiding in your hair.
I contend that my attempts to cover my head are far more distracting than if I didn’t bother at all. My locks au natural have yet to cause any devout person a moment’s distraction from their prayers. But it’s quite possible that people might spend time wondering if I know that a rodent is perched on my head. And my marital status is really my own business.
I have heard that some families are abandoning the United Synagogue and heading for Reform, Liberal or Masorti in search of more meaningful batmitzvahs for their daughters. Many US shuls have responded by expanding the scope of what girls can do. But I’d like them to think a little more about letting women decide their own definition of modest.
This year, I will search for some sort of hairband or handkerchief, grateful that my daughter is now old enough to police her own hemlines. I know the rules, and I will follow them.
But, if I’m honest, it’s the hat issue that most puts me off going to shul on Shabbat. And it seems crazy to miss out spiritually because I prefer to be bare-headed. So, if the rules don’t relax to make hats optional once you’re 50 — and how about letting teen girls wear trousers? — then next year it’s Reform for me.