As I prepared to walk to Machane Yehuda for the first or second time, early in my Jerusalem summer, I hesitated over my choice of shirt. My trousers were of flowing black linen, pretty standard for me, but I was torn about whether or not to put on a tank top. By mid-morning here the sun is pretty intense; if I were home in Massachusetts, or back in Texas where I grew up, I wouldn't have thought twice about wearing the tank top. It's hot out! And I like feeling the sun on my skin. (Yes, Mom, I'm wearing sunscreen.) What's to question?
But here in Jerusalem, I felt uncomfortable for a moment at the prospect of baring my shoulders. Not because I mind showing my arms to the world, but because most of the women I see on the street are wearing some variation on "modest" religious dress. Long sleeves and long skirts; wigs and snoods and hats; sometimes even stockings beneath sensible summer shoes.
Even at the Yeshiva where I'm studying -- a Masorti/Conservative institution, hardly a bastion of Orthodoxy -- it's forbidden to wear sleeveless shirts. (One of my colleagues showed up at school in what we thought was a very modest long skirt and a lovely button-down blouse which had only cap sleeves; one of the teachers gently cornered her and told her that her dress was inappropriate. We've been talking ever since about whether the critique would have stung less had it come from a woman; something about the experience of being chastised by a man for one's sartorial choices, however politely, rankles.)
No one has told me what to wear, or not to wear, when I'm not at school. On a shopping trip to the market on a hot morning, there's no reason to cover up. (And, indeed, when I recognized the circle my thought patterns were going in, I chose the tank top with some vehemence.) What weirds me out is that I was policing myself. There was a temptation to cover my arms, to abide by someone else's notion of what's modest and appropriate women's dress, in order to avoid the risk of offending the religious people of this city by distracting them with my skin.
I told a friend about this a few days later, sipping iced coffee at the cleverly-named "Coffee Shop" on Azza street, and she asked whether I'd ever read Foucault. A shiver ran down my spine. "It's a panopticon," I said, amused and appalled. And that's a problem for me. I don't like the sense that Orthodox religious norms here are so taken-for-granted that I'm unconsciously judging myself by someone else's religious standards -- standards to which I don't, in my conscious life, personally subscribe.
The thing that has surprised me most about all of this has been the realization that I have a different emotional reaction to covering up my body for Jews than I do to covering it up for non-Jews. I've covered my body in various ways in various places. I've covered myself to enter churches in the Vatican, and to enter mosques in Amman. I aspire to be a respectful traveler, to honor the norms of other cultures even when they don't match my own. I don't mind putting on long sleeves, or a long skirt, or even a scarf to veil my hair, if that's the appropriate way to be a respectful guest in someone else's religious or cultural world.
The dissonance arises for me when I'm covering up without even thinking about it -- and subconsciously judging both myself, and all the women I see on the street, for the amount of skin I can see -- because I've assimilated someone else's sense of what's Jewishly appropriate. My initial impulse is to accede to the dominant cultural norm, to let their need to have my body hidden trump my inclinations to let my skin be visible. But then some part of me balks. I'm Jewish, too. Why should their brand of Judaism trump mine? In the world I usually inhabit, capris and a tank top are a legitimate way for a Jewish woman to dress; why should I relinquish that here?
I believe strongly that there's nothing shameful about the human body. And I believe strongly that it's not my job, as a woman, to hide myself away lest men (or women) be unduly tempted by my shape or my skin. (Nor do I believe that it's a man's job to hide himself away lest women, or other men, be tempted by his beauty either.) God put beauty here for a reason, and it's not my job to look after anyone else's boundaries or desires, just as it's not anyone else's job to be concerned with mine. That isn't to say that I'd walk down the street here in a bikini -- but I'm not comfortable with the notion that I need to cover myself in order to keep others from the possibility of being distracted by the physical reality of me.
Not, at least, in public spaces. There's a difference between what rules religious traditions choose to set for their religious spaces, and the attempt by any religious tradition to impose its rules on the larger public. I do think it's incumbent on me to be sensitive to the religious needs of others when I'm in their spaces. If I were planning to visit Mea Shearim I would dress according to their norms to the best of my ability. That's an Orthodox neighborhood, and entering their space is tantamount to entering their home. I wholly respect their right to enact their religious lives in the way that feels holy to them.
But I feel weird about policing my style of dress in the non-Orthodox spaces where I live and work and hang out. As though West Jerusalem belonged solely to the Orthodox majority. Sure, Orthodoxy is the religious norm here on both governmental and cultural levels. And Orthodox dress reads, here, as religious dress -- the default standard to which everything else is compared. But Jerusalem doesn't belong to the Orthodox alone. And neither does Judaism.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs printed up some fabulous t-shirts and tank tops that say This is what a rabbi looks like. (I keep planning to order one, though I'll have to squirrel it away for the next few years until I can wear it with pride.) It's flip, but there's power in the message. As my summer in Jerusalem draws towards its conclusion, I'd like to gently expand that message. I wear tank tops and capris and sometimes a rainbow knit kippah, and that is what a religious Jew looks like -- one version of religious Jew, anyway.
When I wear a swimsuit on the beach, that's what a religious Jew looks like. When I wear jeans and hiking boots and wool sweaters, that's what a religious Jew looks like. And the women in long-sleeved shirts and long skirts and tights: they're what religious Jews look like too. But theirs isn't the only way to be, or dress, Jewishly. I too am what a religious Jew looks like -- no matter what clothes I do, or don't, have on.