Embracing Layering

I have a good friend who rocks the “seminary girl” look – layering shells and a tight pencil skirt under otherwise not tzniut dresses, tops, and tunics.  This is something which I have never embraced – until now.

I went shopping with this friend, and she got me to try on the skirt she does this with (which happens to be super inexpensive from Forever 21) and a few tops of the right style. I actually loved it! I didn’t feel nearly as awkward as I always expected that I would. In fact, I felt completely comfortable – and not only because the skirt is super comfy as was the dress I had on over it.  I felt like it was natural to layer in this way.  Why is layering a dress over a skirt somehow different than layering a tunic over pants? I always thought it was, but maybe its not.

Since the shopping trip, I have bought a few more dresses/tunics to wear in this way and I am slowly trying it out.  The skirt I have creeps up a little as I walk, and since I am a giant (not really, but at 5’9″ I sometimes feel like one in the Jewish world) it sometimes borders on the length I feel comfortable with.  So I have to be careful about where I am going and how much walking I am doing, when selecting this look.

What really caught me recently, was that I showed up for Shabbat dinner and due to some unforseen circumstances the Rebbetzin was not yet dressed for Shabbat.  Yet, what she had on was this look! A beautifully colored tunic dress over a black shell and pencil skirt! I don’t know if it would have caught my eye so much had I not been thinking about it already, but it did and it made me feel even more comfortable with embracing this look.  To see a very pulled together, yet busy working mom and Rebbetzin wearing it comfortably reminded me that its not just for seminary girls anymore!

What are you playing with in your closet lately?  Any fun tricks for modest-ifying trends?

Happy Hair-aversary!

First Hair Covering - Post by Melissa

Yesterday* was my second wedding anniversary (hooray!) – so that makes today my two year anniversary of head covering! Clearly an occasion worth noting and celebrating in a blog post!

The first day I covered my hair (as seen to the right), I took a long rectangle scarf and tied a simple bun. That didn’t last very long, so the bun got unwrapped and just hung down my back. Both of these methods required constant adjusting – and I know now I made some key rookie mistakes!

a) nothing holding the scarf on my head: I now know that almost everyone needs something to help hold a scarf in place. My preferred option are some wide bobby pins from Goody with slip resistance on them.  Oh, and behind the ears is better than above them.  Other options include headbands, wig caps, hijab clips, and regular bobby pins.

b) the weight makes it slide – fold it up: Having really long tails at the nape of your neck or dangling down your back can add a lot of weight in the back which only furthers the sliding factor. Folding or twisting the tails over your head helps to disperse the weight – plus it adds depth to the scarf so it looks cooler.

c) layering is your friend: Using multiple scarves is a great way to add color, dimension, and style to a head-covering. Also, putting a thin cotton scarf as a base layer helps to fake or bulk up a bun!

d) you have to be conscious of the thickness of tichels: Thicker scarves are not only heavier, they are often harder to wrap as well. There is definitely a learning curve, and newbies should start out with thin cotton scarves.

e) positioning on the forehead: There is a key spot (which I think is probably different for everyone) of where you need to position your scarf along your hairline to minimize slipping or looking funny. I have to start the tie with it about an inch onto my forehead so that by the time I’m done its just in front of my hairline and then as I move about it comes just a touch behind there

f) not tying too tight: when tying tightly it pulls the fabric and then is more apt to pull and slide. This one I don’t really understand but its the truth – trust me.

I consider myself a bit of a pro scarf tier now, but I still struggle with some things.

a) what length to keep my hair ofr optimal diversity and efficiency in hair covering.

b) the endless battle between head coverings and glasses, with the added trick of all the holes in my ears.

c) color coordination of multiple scarves. to match, compliment or contrast – that is the question.

d) how to replicate other people’s styles with my funny shaped head.

e) if i should invest in a sewing machine and start making my own scarves.

Perhaps next year I’ll have answers to all these too! In the interim, feel free to share your own lessons and questions, respond to my struggles, and check out the wide variety of posts on hair covering from both Jessica and me.

*Ok, so really my anniversary was two days ago and my hair-aversary was a day ago now. But I wrote most of the post on my hair-aversary, so I’m not changing it for factual accuracy ;-)

head covering in the hospital

Post by Melissa

I recently had surgery (all went well, it was for a long time injury, and i’m on the way to healing – b’h) and as I was laying in pre-op, I couldn’t help but think about my bare head.  I wish that I would have asked about wearing a tichel and leaving it on, or gotten a surgical cap to wear, or at the very least asked for the papery one they gave me right as they wheeled me back earlier in my time there.

While I recognize that it was for medical purposes and that Hashem will clearly forgive this oversights – I was uncomfortable.  I was very aware of my exposed head and hair.  However, in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t even stop to think about the shortness of the sleeves of my hospital gown.

It has been a few weeks since this incident, and I keep thinking about it.  Whats done is done, but I wonder if I had to do it over, what would I do…..

So I ask you dear readers, what would you do? Have any of you had a similar experience?

When the personal is public

Post by Melissa (Photo from Rachael Ashe @ Canvas to the Imagination)

The choice to cover one’s head is highly personal, but for those of us who work for the Jewish community – its also very public.

There happens to be an executive in my community who is an observant woman who is preparing to move to a new community – and is distraught over what to do about head covering.  She has been on a journey, partially inspired by my diligence in covering (quite humbling for me!), and has made ongoing commitments to herself to strengthen her observance of this mitzvah.  However as she prepares for the next step of her professional journey she feels halted in her personal journey.  She will be in a position where she cannot run the risk of alienating people from the get-go because of her choice to cover, or even within the covering community by how she covers.

Meanwhile, I am so committed to my head covering that it has become a symbol of my level of observance and who I am.  It has helped me to strengthen my observance of other mitzvot, knowing that when people see me with my head covered, I am an example of so much more than I want to be.  As a front face of a communal organization, my head covering has become a defining feature not only of me, but of a new approach to diversity in the community.  It has made many frum (observant) people feel more welcomed within our walls and events to not feel like a token, now that there is a visibly observant staff member.

Though my decision to cover my head full time was very personal, it has become very public. I am part of a small group of women in my local metro-area who cover full-time, and even less so who do it in a sheitel-free way (which makes it more obvious to outsiders).  As someone who still belongs to a Conservative synogague and works for a pluralistic community organization, it is even more noticably public.

How do we recitfy making a personal commitment, to how our community sees us?  How do we find a balance between our level of inner and outter observance?  What do we do to keep ourselves approachable and respected by a wide array of people as we rise in the ranks of non-profit professionals, without sacrificing who we are?

Reclaiming Mikvah

First some housecleaning since it has been so long with no posts from us!  Jessica and I spoke today, and we are doing away with the designated days for posting.  We will post when the mood strikes us as jobs and family life are currently taking more time than they were when we began this project.  We are committed to keeping this blog alive and active and welcome your input!

Ironically (or not, because Hashem has a way of guiding the world just-so), I had been thinking about writing a mikvah post as I have had some interesting conversations lately, and today Chaviva (aka, Kevitching Editor) posted about the lost spirituality of mikvah in her life.  As I began to write her a comment, I realized what I had to say was better suited to its own post here. So thank you Chaviva for getting me going enough to write what has been on my mind for a few weeks now.

Post by Melissa

Mikvah is a beautiful ritual with immense possibilities for spiritual enrichment; a ritual which can be as powerful or monotonous as you choose to make it.  Women singularly hold the power over this experience and what we share with one another can only help empower us to make it our own special moment.  I believe that embracing mikvah as not only something we must do, but something we choose to do, is one of the most feminist things we have the opportunity to do as Jewish women.

As someone with a long history of body image issues, having someone see me naked is no easy thing.  I could be stalled there from the start, however I make the choice to mentally prepare myself for the mikvah attendant to see me and am always relieved when it is a nice woman who doesn’t make a big deal of checking and has trust in my ability to follow the checklist and have appropriate preparation.  Regardless, I find myself having to push aside my fears and issues and simply trust in the tznuit-ness of my mikvah attendant.  I have to believe with all my being that she will not watch me as my naked back is turned to her. Once I slip out of my robe and begin to walk into the water, all else must be forgotten.

I focus on every step I take going into the water.  They are each a step away from the rigors of daily life.  A step into the calming natural waters of life. Being completely present as I descend into this sacred space is a blessing all its own.

Once fully into the mikvah pool, I get myself situated into the middle, take a deep breath and allow myself to be absorbed by the water, exhaling as I go in.  Exhaling all the negativity and stress. Holding in the beauty of the moment.  Taking a moment to right myself before repeating not only the physical dip into the water, but the spiritual one as well.

After I have completed my immersions in a kosher manner, which often takes me many more than the five I am aiming for, I take a moment to just be in that space.  I allow myself to reflect on the past month and the coming month; on the relationships which have grown or wavered; on those people in my life who need the healing embrace of these living waters.  I allow myself a  personal prayer to connect to these people and ask God for the strength to be what is needed in the coming month.

Before I exit the waters, I take the time to embrace my innermost spiritual self, really pushing my own comfort levels.  I force myself to think of the women all over the world who are also in this space at this time, and for the times before.  Connecting not only to my physical ancestors, but to all those who are my soul-sisters in this mitzvah. Sending them wishes for the healing and nurturing waters to provide for them in the month to come.

Ultimately, I find that embracing the deeply spiritual side of this ritual in a world where so many rituals feel monotonous is empowering.  It allows my entire sense of who I am as a modern religious woman to be revived and renewed on a monthly basis.  I know that I will miss it when I am blessed with pregnancy, and only hope I can find another source for a connection of this level.

You are likely asking a few key questions now, so lets just be blunt:  Yes, it is an annoyance to have to re- schedule other things to get to mikvah on the right night and time. Yes, I hate having to trek out in the cold, dark night to be scrutinized by a stranger.  Yes, I dislike having to schedule an appointment in a small window and feel rushed to get through.

Yes, I have to focus hard to get into the space to make it a truly spiritual encounter.

Yes, it is worth it to know that I am fulfilling such a wonderful mitzvah.

Yes, it is powerful to step into my Jewish femininity every month.

how long is the hair under there?

Lately I’ve been struggling with the length of my hair. It has been many lengths over the years, and that includes the past year while covering it.  While there have been pros and cons at each length – I cannot seem to decide what feels like the right choice at this stage in the game.

So tonight, I have no great insights of my own, I just ask – fair covering friends – how long is your hair under there? How did you decide what length to keep it?

the top MOdel

Photo from ANTM - Post by Melissa

Photo (c) CW and ANTM - Post by Melissa

Over the past few weeks, I have had numerous people ask my thoughts on Esther Petrack, the now renowned America’s Next Top Model contestant, who identified herself as Modern Orthodox from the get-go.  I too was intrigued and stunned by the initial episode, but really wanted to see how things played out before weighing in.  So over the past week I have snuggled up to my trusty laptop and watched most of the back episodes and read countless blog posts and articles on the topic.

While a quick google search will inundate you with information (including interviews with Esther and comments on posts by her mother), here is what seems to be the highlights:

– Yes, there was major editing in the first episode. The fateful sentence “I will do it” was not as casually tossed out as it appeared, rather it was part of a long and complex conversation around the various needs at play and how to make them work together.

– Esther did not give up Shabbat. (There are times when I noticed her absence from group things and found myself wondering if that was at times when she was doing Shabbat appropriate things.)

– Esther kept kosher in the house.  She maintained her own cabinet in the kitchen with food, pots, plates, etc.

–  Esther didn’t grow up in a community where dressing tzniut was a MO thing, so overwhelmingly that was less of an issue than other people made it out to be. (Oh, and she was wearing a bathing suit, not a bra in the first episode – its just harder to find cute tops when you are a busty gal!)

– Esther reports that she was uncomfortable in some of the outfits she wore, but either moved on or requested changes as appropriate.

In short: She continued to keep Shabbat and Kashrut. Last I checked (for an unmarried woman) those were the big two for identification of frum by the frum community.

With this knowledge in our heads, here is my commentary:

As anyone who has read our blog more than once knows (and first time readers are about to find out) I do not believe in a one-size-fits-all Judaism, nor does Jessica.  Everyone is on a journey to find a meaningful experience which resonates with their life and world experiences – Jewish and secular.   Various major life events help to propel us along, including moving out of our parents home and/or community.  As an eighteen year old woman out of her parents home for the first time, Esther also has to find herself and her space in Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy – she just had the added experience of cameras, editors, press and the watchful viewers to aid along the journey.  She had to find a way to balance who she was and who she wanted to be, so who are we to put her in any box?

Who are any of us to determine what qualifies a person as being any denomination, or being a good Jew, or anything else? We only know what editors deem fit to show or print.  We were not in LA with Esther nor home with her family in Boston.  We do not know her struggles before, during, or after the show, nor should we expect to.  Esther took a risk and while you may or may not agree with it – doing so should not inherently make her any “less Jewish” than she was when she graduated from a religious high school months earlier.  Living a Modern Orthodox lifestyle is complex, and anyone who says differently needs a reality check and an honest conversation with those living it.

I feel compelled to comment in reflection about one of the primary criticisms Esther received – that her personality didn’t shine through.  To me that was where you saw her MO upbringing the most. While she says in interviews that she is a different person at home, I think the person she showed on the show is a great example of  internal tzniut.  She didn’t want to draw a bunch of attention to her self by being loud and ostentatious.  (Perhaps, she also knew she had generated a flurry of online activity and wanted to diminish rather than add fuel to the fire.)  When people insulted her, she keeps her head held high and moved on.  She didn’t talk about people behind their backs or get overly involved in the gossip.  To top it off, she also cheered on her competitors and discussed her Judaism in a positive light.

I think all these things, set a good example of Modern Orthodoxy in a way which popular society needs to see!  Too often the Jews we see in public lights are extreme versions on either end of the spectrum which don’t allow for embracing ritual while living in modernity.  I think it would benefit us to embrace this empowered young woman striving to achieve her dreams and make it in the secular world while still living a very Jewish life rather than ostracize her for it. (Personally, it is inspiring to me to see a young woman I can relate to on so many levels really pursuing a dream – even if not in a way I would feel comfortable with. Alas, her journey and choices are not about me regardless of demographic commonalities.)

Kol ha’kavod Esther, and I wish you much hatzlacha in continuing to pursue your dream!

PS – There are many more things I wanted to say on this, but I had to draw the line somewhere. If you want to know my thoughts on something I didn’t address or skimmed over – ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to!