When I was a kid, September meant shopping. Mostly for new school clothes, though the season also always brought one new dressy outfit, to wear to synagogue on the High Holidays. Nice clothes were de rigeur for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (In those days, "nice clothes" mostly meant black patent leather Mary Janes and dresses with smocking across the top.)
It's years since autumn meant the start of school for me, and I don't usually shop for holiday clothes anymore. I have a couple of decent fall dresses that have gotten me through the last several High Holidays; I'm not such a fashion maven that I need something new every year. But as Yom Kippur approaches, I've been feeling like I wanted something new to wear. Specifically, I wanted something white.
It's traditional in some communities to wear white on Shabbat. The first time I encountered that was at the UAHC summer camp where I worked the summer I was nineteen; I loved seeing the streams of kids pouring out of their cabins to walk to the outdoor ampitheatre as sundown approached, all clad in white. We do the same at Elat Chayyim, and though nobody looks askance at those who don't know the custom or don't bring white clothes, every time I go I find myself wishing I had white to wear. When I was there in June I promised myself I'd get a white dress for my next Elat Chayyim Shabbat.
My next Elat Chayyim Shabbat, it turns out, is Yom Kippur: the "Sabbath of Sabbaths," which this year falls on a Shabbat. A lot of people wear white on Yom Kippur, too. It's customary in some communities for men to wear a kittel, a white tunic, on festivals like Yom Kippur and Passover (bridegrooms wear them, too). The white represents purity; the kittel also resembles a burial shroud, which serves as a reminder of impermanence. On Yom Kippur in particular the kittel is supposed to remind one of what's genuinely important (repentance, right thinking, purity of thought, elevated consciousness) -- arguably better areas of holiday focus than, say, what hemline is "in" this year.
In the community I come from, we dress up on the High Holidays because fancy dress is a way of showing respect for the community and the holiday. And were I celebrating Yom Kippur with my parents, I'd surely be looking for something elegant and new to wear, out of respect for that custom! But since I'm going to be at Elat Chayyim, where people will be wearing simple white (and presumably wearing canvas sneakers in lieu of leather shoes, too; though hopefully not eschewing bathing), I want to follow their tradition. But most of my white clothing is super-lightweight linen (in which I would shiver at this season). I have a white sweater, and plenty of white t-shirts, but those do not a wardrobe make. What to do?
A quick trip to the Berkshire Mall solved my dilemma. I found a pair of sturdy, serviceable winter-white corduroy trousers to pair with the white shirts I already own, so if it's cold, there's my holiday garb right there. And if it's warm? A flowing white embroidered dress from the ethnic-clothes-and-incense store, which will also serve as my Elat Chayyim Shabbat dress for the next umpteen years. Now I just have to hope no one blinks at my burgundy Converse Hi-Tops...