Clothing, signals, teshuvah
July 27, 2007
Not long ago, I made a day trip into New York City to see an old college friend who has become baalat teshuvah. Regular readers may know that teshuvah is the continual process of reflection and refinement, turning and re/turning to orient oneself in alignment with God, central to Judaism in all of its forms. But colloquially, someone who is baal/baalat teshuvah is someone who came from a secular or liberal background and has entered the Orthodox or Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world.
My friend who has become BT lives in Jerusalem now, and it's not my place to tell her story. But I've been thinking a lot about my experience of visiting her in what used to be her hometown...and about how I agonized over what to wear, and what that process revealed to me about my emotions surrounding her choices.
Maybe, I thought, I should dress in a tsniusdik (modest) way to put my friend at ease. After all, I would do no less if I were visiting a foreign country where such dress were presumed. In the Vatican, in Amman, and in Mea Shearim I have worn long flowing linen in order to respectfully interact with religious cultures that don't match mine. I could do the same in Queens. Then again, thought I, maybe I should dress as I ordinarily do at this time of year, in cropped trousers and a tank top. My friend has known and loved me as I am and have been, and I shouldn't need to change my appearance in order to interact with her.
Of course, what I chose to wear wasn't really the issue. The real question was, what would my clothing choices say about who I am, and who she is, and how I hoped we might interact going forward? On one level, I wanted only to see her, to reassure myself that she is still herself despite these substantial life-changes, and to remind both of us that our friendship can still flourish. Arguably I could do that no matter what I was wearing. But on another level, clothing always signifies, and there was so much I wanted mine to say.
Early in her transformation, she told me that I may be one of the few people in our old circle of friends who can understand the joy she finds in serving God. I believe that I can -- but I'm still deeply challenged by the places where our practices and priorities differ. There are aspects of her choices which make me uncomfortable and sad. We can agree on the centrality of Torah, avodah (service / prayer) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness); on the benefits of prayer, study, and daily spiritual practice. But when it comes to matters of gender and sexuality, what women do and how women dress and by whose rules women live, we're now in very different places.
The Judaism I cherish is expansive, egalitarian, queer-friendly, cognizant that ours is only one path to holiness. The Judaism she has chosen is based on some assumptions that are very different from mine. That's not easy for either one of us. And all of that emotional and spiritual stuff got piled, inevitably, on the question of how I decided to dress for my day trip. Clothing encodes all kinds of messages about who we are. What messages were my sartorial choices going to send?
In the end, I dressed as I ordinarily do: flowing black linen capris, a sleeveless shirt, uncovered hair and open sandals. Ardent Jewishness comes in a wide range of forms, and mine remains deep and real even though I dress in ways she would no longer consider appropriate. I could only come as I am, not as who I imagined she might want me to be.
And in the end, the chitzonim (externals) weren't that significant; what really mattered was how we approached each other, and that was (literally and metaphorically) with open arms. I think we managed an honest conversation about some of our differences, and also some of the places where we still match, clothing choices aside.