The unlikely victim of my aliyah was a skirt. Not a regular skirt — my beloved long mermaid jean skirt. I was wearing it when I met my husband. When I bought it back in Montreal, it was a prized find.
Fast forward 13 years. I’m celebrating the bar mitzvah anniversary of my aliyah this week without my skirt.
I’ve done a lot of philosophizing about my life and move here—both on this blog and in two books—so I’ve decided on this momentous occasion to focus on something material but also very symbolic of the Israeli experience.
I bought the skirt pre-aliyah, as a young university graduate, eager to enter the world of work and real life. It was stylish and flattering, appropriate for jobs and fun. Jackpot. As a Canadian, I didn’t know the weighty significance the skirt would hold in my new home.
I quickly found out.
During my first summer here, Israeli friends, colleagues, and strangers would constantly ask me if I was becoming religious. At first, I didn’t understand. When bearded, kippah-wearing men who would normally not look my way started hitting on me, I was dumbfounded.
The skirt even duped my future husband. The first time we met I was wearing the mythological skirt with a button-down, three-quarters length shirt (the latter being another incriminating item)—standard work attire in North America, but way too formal for Israel. He kept asking if I spoke Hebrew. He couldn’t figure me out.
Here’s the punchline: the long jean skirt is the uniform for religious girls and women. In Canada, “looking religious” would not have bothered me. Yet, in Israel, where society—and fashion—is highly categorized, wearing the wrong thing is dishonest. A few friends suggested that I wear the skirt with a tank top so that people would know that I am secular.
My husband later told me that he thought I was a non-Jewish foreign correspondent when we first met. Nothing about me fit, he said. If I were religious, he contended, I wouldn’t be looking to rent an apartment with two guys. I didn’t follow the rules. Back then, he got kicks from walking around Jerusalem with me in my skirt, him without a kippah. We’d get confused looks.
At first, I ignored the comments and stares. Why should I conform? I bought that skirt with my hard-earned money! It looked good on me! It was hard for me to accept that in Israel every piece of clothing, every accessory can speak volumes about a person’s essence. A particular color or the way you wear a headpiece can imply something about your religious observance, politics and lifestyle.
I hung onto my skirt for many years, but the half-joking comments about my religious beliefs eroded my patience for Israel’s rigid fashion rules. A few years ago, I reluctantly stopped wearing the skirt altogether. Last summer, I gave it away.
When you move to a new place, you gain and lose many things. My skirt may just be a piece of clothing, but it represents a lot more.
This post has been adapted from a chapter in the author’s book Israel Upended: A Journey through the Human Landscape of Conflicted Nation.