Tzniut, It Is Our Battle Cry

Once upon a time, about 6 hours ago, I was walking with two friends in a city that shall remain nameless to an event. En route we were oh so fortunate enough to meet a rather honest neighbor. I thought the protocol for meeting someone is you say your name and then a generic and dull line such as “how are you.” Well needless to say this neighbor in the area didn’t get the memo or read Mr. Manners when he was younger.

As we were rounding the corner a Charadi man looked at us up and down and told us our knee length skirts aren’t modest and walked away.
Wow, thank you, you angel sent from God for your life changing comment. I will no longer wear knee length skirts. Actually I will no longer expose my legs full of mosquito bites. In fact I will wear black floor length skirts with black tights under just to make sure my legs don’t ever see sunlight again. Actually, just direct me to the nearest burka store. Thank you, oh savior.

I mean really?! What did he possibly think would come out of that ridiculous comment? He certainly isn’t going to get an invite to join me for my next shopping spree if that was the plan. I have unfortunately read countless stories of women getting told off by strangers for what they are wearing, and often times receiving the cherry on top after being completely torn apart- the notorious spit. This was the first time I have ever had a personal encounter, and to be honest it was very distressing.

My decision to only wear skirts and to attempt to have them reach around my knees happened during my seminary year. During the year my connection to Judaism grew rapidly and I wanted to have a way to publicly display that I am a proud to be a Modern Orthodox Jew. I wanted something that would be the female equivalent to a kippah. I felt the appropriate equivalent was a skirt. Easier said then done. As the years progressed I have to remind myself constantly why I have taken this skirt wearing lifestyle upon myself. It has become a struggle more often than not, but it is not something I am willing to give up on. In a nutshell it is the ultimate love-hate relationship. So when some man who I have never met before tells me my skirt isn’t modest it makes me question why I took upon such a lifestyle. It causes me to ask myself why I even bother trying if all I will receive in return is a snarky remark?

However, the more I thought about this whole ordeal, I realized perhaps all of us (myself included-gasp) are guilty, just like my Charadi buddy, for making unnecessary and frankly disgusting comments regarding what other people wear. When I was in elementary school someone made up this song most likely about charadim. The first two lines were, “tzniut, it is our battle cry. Tzniut, it’s either do or die.” Well, sometimes when a song is sung too often, whether as a mockery or not, the words become internalized. There have been far too many times I have caught people staring at me up and down as I walked into a room and vice versa. Believe me, we ain’t staring because we like what the girl is wearing. These stares are joined with whispers such as “someone please give her the number for the nearest tailor, she needs a skirt adjustment ASAP” or “holy moly, shield my eyes, a collarbone is showing.” The difference between us and the charadim that make comments is they do it to someone’s face, while we do it behind someone’s back. Both are wrong, sick, and a twisted and confused understanding of Judaism. We don’t know the struggles other people go through or the decisions they make while they buy their clothes. It’s personal, and until someone comes to us for help it is none of our business to judge. Perhaps it’s easier to point  fingers at Charadim, because yes, they are more vocal about it, but we aren’t innocent either.

As seen in the latest Pew survey, Judaism is trying to stay afloat. Less than half percent of US Orthodox Jews remained part of the Orthodox community. I don’t think we can put the blame entirely on them for leaving. Could it be our comments, gossip, and shallow understanding of what a Jew is led them to the exit door? I wouldn’t say “no” too quickly.

About the Author
Lottie Kestenbaum was born to British parents and grew up in New Jersey. To add to the identity crisis, Lottie made aliyah in August 2012. Hello tri-citizenship! She is currently studying Jewish History and English Literature at Bar Ilan University. Lottie shares more of her aliyah adventures & ongoing thoughts on her blog, Newest Sabra on the Block.