Religion & Beliefs
“Oh, and wear something bordering on appropriate,” my mother says into the phone, an hour before my cousin’s wedding. “Hrmm,” I say noncommittally, reaching deep into my closet for an item that to the untrained eye might appear an elaborate … Read More
“Oh, and wear something bordering on appropriate,” my mother says into the phone, an hour before my cousin’s wedding.
“Hrmm,” I say noncommittally, reaching deep into my closet for an item that to the untrained eye might appear an elaborate doily. I’ve only worn this dress once before, to another Orthodox Jewish wedding.
I hadn’t planned it that way when I bought it. Or maybe I had. Orthodox Jewish functions are the only events that compel me to dress like a stripper on a cigarette break.
I don my doily with pleasure, feeling revolutionary. A sartorial Che Guevara. I’ve come a long way since the days when the best I could do was a jean skirt that showed some shin. At the New Jersey day schools I attended for my first 18 years of life, girls studied family purity while the boys wrangled with the Talmud, and the dress code was taken several times more seriously than college admissions; skirts had to reach mid-calf, sleeves had to cover the biceps, and even exposed collar-bones were risqué. If a student showed up to class in an outfit that didn’t meet the guidelines, she’d be forced to change into the tznius (modesty) skirt the administration kept on hand for such contingencies. I was rarely that contingency.
But the further I travel from the fold, the more compelled I am to flash the rabbis. It’s as though I’m trying to say, look at me and know the path I’ve chosen, know there’s a reason you haven’t seen me in ten years and it’s not because I moved to the Upper West Side. I am different. I am lost to your world.
I am an idiot.
I realize this as soon as I get to the decked-out hotel ballroom filled with dark-suited men and women in wigs, and remember why I’d buried this dress so deep in my closet. It was to prevent my third or fourth reprisal of precisely this moment, when I realize I am not about to pull off the grand moral heist I’ve envisioned. No one is going to look at me and find that the unquestioned truths they arrived with have been replaced with Kant’s categorical imperative.
I stick close to the edges of the endless tables of food, trying to blend in with the linens. This is where my mother finds me.
“Hey there nakadika shiksa,” she says. Nakadika. Naked. Naked gentile chick. Thanks for nothing, lady.
She’s dressed in a suit that veers so sternly away from sexy it’s in danger of qualifying as luggage. She’s overdoing it. Modesty does not come naturally to her either. Orthodoxy itself never came naturally to her, and she finally made her ragged break with the role of good Jewish wife around the time I was shucking the guise of good Jewish daughter. Unlike me, though, she has no urge to suggest to the faithful that they’d need special rabbinical permission just to hear what she did last Friday night.
She’s grinning. “I wonder what you would have worn if I hadn’t called to warn you.” She knows my lofty ideal of inscribing an ethical treatise on fishnets.
“Think I’m having an impact?”
“Oh, without a doubt.”
“Well, I’m not embarrassed,” I tell her and discover it’s true.
I used to come back to the fold and feel pricked by the dual familiarity and remoteness of it. It was returning from exile and knowing I couldn’t stay. Now my lack of embarrassment indicates the other emotions I’ve shed, and it’s this disrobing that makes me feel truly nakadika.
If I really don’t mind that I’m as out of place here as an I Heart Ahmadinejad T-shirt at a sisterhood luncheon, then there must be nothing left in me of the girl I was for the first 18 years of my life. That was a girl whose favorite stories were bible stories, who prayed with such meticulous slowness that the other kids complained, who rejoiced when the high school principal caved to radical feminist forces (my mother) and let the girls dip into the boys-only domain of the Talmud, experimentally, for one semester. Several hours ago all I wanted was to show that I’ve crossed a treacherous gulf, that I live on a high and windswept place inconceivable to the likes of my fellow guests, where on Saturdays we read the Book Review instead of the haftorah and we speak of morality without believing in sin. Now I’m sad to find it may be true. It’s one thing to reject your past; it’s another thing to find you’ve finally let it go.
Then I catch a magnificently bearded fellow gazing through the fruit display at my cleavage. I glance down, blanching at just how much is showing, and know that I haven’t entirely abandoned home yet, just as it hasn’t entirely abandoned me. After all, if that conflicted and rebelliously believing girl is not still in me, then who put on this outfit?
I’ll know I’ve finally left my past when I start to dress like I haven’t.