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!

Mentees as Mentors

As I have mentioned here before, I am privileged to be a mentor to a few phenomenal young women. (Hi ladies! I love you!)  These young women are on a mission to grow both as modern women and religious jews – and I am lucky enough to help them discuss where these coincide.

Over the past few weeks I have had some particularly powerful conversations with some of them, really delving into the issues at hand and how they play out in their lives.  Each has a different story, but the underlying message is the same: how does a young, intelligent, modern woman find a meaningful place in religious Judaism. While I hope someday to have a great answer, in the interim it leads to a lot of conversations, research, and personal growth for all of us.  The big picture of this is not the point of this post though, that is for another day – what I want to share today is about the mentorship which I have gotten myself from these ladies.

Every time they approach me with a question or to share their newest experiences and challenges, it gives me an opportunity for growth as well.  I had the joy of walking to taslich with one of these fine young women, and getting to hear about her recent trip to Israel and the effects which it had on her. As someone who in the past year or so has become Shomer Shabbat and Shomer Kashrut, she is in a particularly interesting period of growth – really trying to find meaning as she embarks on her newly religious life.  Listening to her share her experiences was very inspiring for me, and reminded me of why I have become the person I have.  It is difficlt to be a Jewish feminist in a world where that seems to mean hair covering is bad but wearing a kippah is good and mikvah is bad but leyning is good.

My relationship with these women has given me such a wonderful opportunity to talk through these issues and find comraderie.  It has shown me the value of having a balanced person to talk to about the struggles of being a religious Jewish woman in modernity.  It has given me a place to find my passion in life.  I hope to one day create a venue through which I can continue this sort of mentorship with more young women trying to find their place and to keep learning and growing myself so I can truly grasp the full spectrum of the experience, and someday the laws.

How much is enough?

Coverage that is.

Post by Melissa

I feel like I am on an ever evolving path in my religiosity (didn’t know that was a real word, awesome!) and outward expression thereof. Lately this has been affecting many aspects of my life, as well as D’s, as we reevaluate some of our choices and alter our plans to move forward. Just as Jessica and R’s plans were drastically changed with one phone call, so to did ours.  However, ours are not solid enough yet for public consumption, so you’ll have to wait to hear the details. In the interim, you get more glimpses into how this affects our lives and how it plays out in my head.

Right now, I’m facing a conundrum over how to cover my hair.  While I am comfortable in my modesty level with my clothing and have taken steps to continually express myself while being consistently tzanua, I don’t feel the same confidence in hair covering.

As I’ve mentioned countless times on this blog, I like having variety and I like covering my hair.  However I feel almost hypocritical when I leave some showing, as most of the time I fully cover and am vocal about finding it to be a meaningful experience to do so.  I don’t think tying a scarf in such a way that the last inch or so of my hair hangs out is inherently bad, I’m just not sure its consitent with tying a scarf so that none of my hair shows.  Espescially not when doing so interhchangably.

So this Shabbat, I pushed myself a little. I straightened my hair on Friday afternoon and when I got dressed for Shul on Saturday morning, I wore a scarf tied so the bottom bit hung down. I even put a fun flower pin on it.  I felt like I looked pretty, and I got a lot of compliments. Does that somehow take away from the mitzvah and modesty though? I wear scarves tyed in a pretty way and don’t think its a problem, why should this be?  Aren’t we supposed to beautify mitzvot anyway? Isn’t that why we have beautiful mezuzot, chunkiot, and Shabbat candle sticks?  Isn’t that one of the reasons for Chazanut, and even choirs?

I wish I had the answers, but right now, I just have musings.  Please share your own musings and insights with me, I would love the feedback…

Tzniut and Interviews

Post by Melissa

Lately, I’ve been on a spree of professional interviews, and every time I pick out my clothing, I go through an internal debate about what to wear and how to cover my head.  So despite the conversations I’ve been engaged in on this topic elsewhere, I thought it would be interesting to hear your thoughts as well.

In the warmer months, I don’t feel so weird about my clothing choices.  Typically I will wear a knee length pencil skirt with a shell and blazer.  Before I was dressing tzanuah (modest) this was also pretty much what I would wear on summer-time interviews.  This look doesn’t becomes out of place until you are wearing it with leggings and boots and a long down coat when it is 20′F and snowing, as happened to me this past winter.

I think the more difficult part is headcovering.  As previously stated, I will not wear a sheitel, so there goes that option for blending in.  In some of the places I’m interviewing the clientèle is lower-income people and a simple tichel may look more like a “do-rag” in those settings, even if it is tied nicely.  So I have mostly taken to wear nice crocheted snoods (as seen on me in the above photo) but even that doesn’t always feel appropriate.  I feel that it is important to cover my head in a way which I am comfortable doing if offered a position, but its hard to strike a balance of what is also interview appropriate.

I also then feel the compulsion to comment on my hair covering. So towards the end of my time asking questions I will typically say something to the effect of “I cover my hair for religious reasons.  There are a variety of ways I can do this which can be discussed if you chose to hire me.”  This never fails to feel awkward, but I sometimes feel like if I don’t say it, it is as though I have avoided the pink elephant in the room.

So I ask you, my beloved readers, what do you do (or have you seen done) which is appropriate, in all meanings of the word?  What would you wear? Would you speak up about it?

I have to add, this week I interviewed with a Jewish education and outreach program which is run by a religious person, and it was so nice to know I could wear my tichel (tied in the Urban Wrap style from Style Underground) and be accepted.  Though I have interviewed with many Jewish organizations, this was the first time my interviewer (who would also be my boss) was a religious person, and it really made such a difference in my comfort level!

Reflections on a year of hair covering

Post by Melissa

If I have learned anything in the past year of full time hair covering, it is definitely that anything with elastic is amazing and variety is the spice of life. I also have found that having super fun hats for special occasions makes the attention received for having your hair covered about more than just your hair being covered, it becomes also about your extravagant hat. Sometimes going big and making a statement makes it easier to be different.

I spent the year (or-so) before my wedding building up a collection of hats and scarves and getting used to having things on my head, as I had never tolerated that well in the past.  When we first got married I wore a lot of hats which came just above my ears (think baseball cap sized, but more fun and stylish), pre-tied bandannas, and rectangular scarves tied in a simple bun.  It was not uncommon that whatever I chose would drive me crazy, and by lunchtime I would be in the stores across the street from my office searching for something else I could put on my head that day. My hat and scarf collection grew rapidly in the early months as I truly struggles with what I felt comfortable in, both for modesty reasons and physical comfort.

Come winter, I quickly discovered an additional complication.  It was difficult to cover my hair nicely and not have my ears freeze off! I was able to find a few nice hats/caps which served double purpose, and then had my sister-in-law crochet me a headband I could wear with my tichel to keep my ears and forehead warm.  The combination served me well in the colder months.  However as spring approached I was looking for something different again.  I had started to grow my hair out a bit, after having kept it chin length since cutting 9″ to donate after the wedding, and the length was getting to be difficult to get under the scarf well without a lot of bobby pins (which often give me headaches).  At this point I was introduced to a woman who sold beautifully crocheted snoods, and bought two to try out.  D and I both agreed that they looked nice, and I soon bought a few more from her as well as some more casual slouch-hats that could serve the same purpose.

Recently Jessica found a blog with videos on more fun ways to tie scarves which introduced me to my current favorite hair covering supplier – The Style Underground.  I have not only found scarves which are slip resistant because of how she makes them, but they are gorgeous to boot and Julie (the designer and owner) is a fabulous woman to interact with.  (She isn’t even aware I’m saying these great things about her, so trust me – its worth checking out!) I have recently started trying to adapt her video style inspirations to work with my shorter hair, and get so many compliments on the new way I wear my scarves most often.  I have found the Urban Wrap to be very comfortable and with much less pressure than I had anticipated, and by wrapping it so much across the head, the weight is more evenly distributed which reduces the weight being on the back of your head causing it to slip down.

I have had friends who are just getting married, or just looking to cover their hair, or looking for a new way to cover it ask me about my process and what I found to be the best, so I shall leave you with some partign words.  I think that what works for me right now, may not be what works for you or even for me down the road.  The journey is important when taking on this mitzvah.  It is crucial to experiment and slowly build a stash of head coverings that work for you and have variety.  No matter how much you may like one look, there will be days where you just want something different, so allowing yourself to play around with different options keeps head covering a fun part of getting ready and not a mundane obligation.

Do you have insights or questions about hair covering? Please share!

Friday Question: Do you…

This weeks question is inspired by something Melissa was dealing with recently.

If you otherwise may have your head uncovered at home, do you make sure to have your head covered while doing Jewish learning? Does this vary based on what type of learning you are doing?

MSG says: I make an attempt, however sometimes D and I have spontaneous learning as we come across something which inspires us to look up something or have a longer conversation about something we had learned earlier. I think I need to be more cognizant of this but really look forward to your responses on this one.

Future of Women in Judaism

As mentioned on our Facebook Fan Page, I was recently asked to write a piece about the future of Judaism as it relates to women’s involvement.  I took it on in a true Melissa form and am both proud of the result and humbled at its inclusion.  To see my byline alongside Anita Diamant (Author and Found of Mayyim Hayyim) and Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (Founder of Uri L’Tzedek) is one of the greatest honors in my life.

Since I am spending today in the car with my parents, headed to celebrate my niece’s 6th birthday I leave you with a few links to peruse in my absence.

My piece for the Future of Judaism Series at Patheos: An Ever-Evolving Judaism: Women Meeting the Needs of Community

The entire “Future of Judaism” series at Patheos.

A brief blog post about the series which acknowledged my piece from MyJewishLearning.com

I’d love to hear your feedback!