My seven year old drew a picture of the two of us holding hands. In her drawing, we’re both illustrated as wearing what would be locally referred to as “tznius” clothing. We’re smiling and she explains to me that we’re on our way to the zoo to see the penguins. Fair enough,we do that a lot.
Equal parts dutiful and doting parent, I immediately post her art on Facebook. The first comment I get says “Why do you guys look so frum?” I giggled initially at the question (let’s be honest, I’m kind of the antichrist of frum) but it got me thinking.
Before we moved to Israel, we lived in the East Village for just over two years. While I bathed in the hipster culture of lower Manhattan, there were several things that bothered me about New York-ness in general. Every culture I’ve lived inside seems to have their own opening line. In the South, they want to know where you go to church. (On my last trip through Alabama, they took this up a notch and instead asked “Y’all Jewish?” That was just a tad intimidating.) In the midwest, it’s “What do you do?” In New York, everybody wants to know where you live. Why? So they can categorize you, of course!
Upper East Side? Ooooh, either blue blood or new money. Upper West Side? Yuppie Jew with Jimmy Choos in her closet. West Village? Too cool for school, has her drug dealer on speed dial. Battery Park? Double-income, no kids, Wall Street education. Prospect Park? Overpaid for a brownstone, thinking about getting pregnant. Queens? Well, you’re not worth talking to at all, you bridge and tunneler. My time in New York was fabulous, no doubt – I was basking in the enviable combination of low responsibility and disposable income. I wandered through weekend street fairs sipping fresh juice “infused” with protein powder. Ahh, memories.
Then we moved and I got indoctrinated into a whole new opening line – the silent judgement. In Jerusalem, where we landed initially, one of the distinct advantages is that no one cares what you do or where you live. It does not matter whether you’re sporting this season’s fashion or your toenails are freshly pedicured. Those things are simply not a priority here. In Jerusalem, the judgement manifests itself in a more discreet manner – they don’t even have to ask you any questions. You are wearing your category. Literally.
Does your husband wear a kippah? Is it leather, knitted, velour? If it’s knitted, how big is it? Does he wear it on the back of his head or dangling over his forehead? Are you wearing a skirt? Are your daughters wearing skirts? From what age? How long is the skirt? Is it denim? Do you cover your hair, and if so, with a wig, a scarf or a hat? Can your bangs be seen? What about your pony tail? From a swift scan in any one’s direction, if one was so inclined, there are many conclusions to be drawn. And drawn they are.
In the States, I often donned hippie skirts because they’re whimsical and comfortable. I wore bandannas on my head because the summers are unbearable and I have very heavy hair. I discovered that this uniform, in Jerusalem, drew very different conclusions. What I wore spoke much louder than what I said. People seemed shamed and taken aback when a skirt-wearer (past the knee) claimed not to keep Shabbat. How confusing. How misleading. If you’re going to be secular, please dress in jeans and a T-shirt so we can more efficiently categorize you. Thanks.
We left Jerusalem after six years, and moved to the boonies. OK, most people call it a moshav, but it’s a 15 minute walk to buy milk, so in my book, that’s boonie-ville.
It took me about a year to realize that this isn’t Jerusalem. My mini-skirted neighbor (the kind of skirt that my mom always hisses “She could sell tickets in that!”) keeps Shabbat. My girlfriend in a neighboring moshav wears long skirts and watches movies on Friday night. The family across the road has a mom who wears pants, doesn’t cover her hair, and led an initiative to build a local mikveh. Heretics, all of them! They’re breaking the Jerusalem rules of categorization!
I had not realized that I now felt freer to pull out my hippie skirts from the back of my closet and begin wearing them again, free from incredulous looks when spotted munching schwarma during The 9 Days. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but clearly my daughter noticed. No one around here asks me (or my kid) why we’re dressing “frum.” No one cares.