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My Ongoing Journey with Modesty

The concept of tsnius was never really a struggle for me. A contributing factor was that dressing modestly according to halacha was something that I took on myself, and in intervals. When my parents joined the Orthodox community when I was 12 years old, I was not pressured to start “dressing tsniusly” the minute we moved onto the frum block. No one was in a rush. It was in that atmosphere that I decided on my own to only wear skirts, and even to stop wearing short sleeves which I only took on later in high school. The decisions were mine to make and when they were made, I was committed to my word. They were a personal symbol of my growth in my own religious journey.

It wasn’t always easy, being part of the “Orthodork” crowd in my co-ed yeshiva high school which was comprised of students of all denominations. Standing up in the middle of a packed cafeteria to go to the washing station could feel more like a walk of shame of sorts – a very obvious pronouncement that you were religious. Something just wasn’t cool about it. The segregation lines of our peer groups were pretty much based on things you would or wouldn’t do socially. Thank goodness for NCSY, which really was a movement to which we could attach ourselves. It wasn’t BBYO or USY, but it was our alternative that created our identity.

In NCSY, I met religious day school girls who wore skirts and covered their elbows while looking so refined and stylish. Little did they know that they were such role models for me. They davened with kavanah, loved to learn, and sang (and cried) their hearts out during “ebbing” (i.e. the closing of Shabbos). I would hold them up as examples of who I wanted to become.

Back at school and in between shabbatons, I always felt different to so many of the people in my class. I felt a bit self-conscious being religious and felt that my non-Orthodox classmates thought I was strange for it. Until I literally bumped into one of the most popular, and non-religious, boys in our class. We were both rushing though the cafeteria doors at the same time, in opposite directions. I fell backwards onto the floor. With his hands covering his mouth, he blurted out, “Alex, I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” And then he apologized for what he realized was the more serious offense: “I touched you!” And he really meant it. Like he felt that he had broken some unsaid rule, violated some sense of my privacy. This memory is so clear in my mind because it was the first time I felt respected for following my beliefs.

I didn’t only survive my high school years, I thrived. Being the outsider ended up making me stronger. While I was obviously not a bais yaakov girl, I was a sincerely frum girl who was shomer everything and who loved to discuss religious issues with my friends – boys and girls alike. Once, at an NCSY roller-skating event, I had a nice debate about the necessity of the concept of bentching with a Conservative friend we had conned into coming to NCSY. Now, he is a very successful kiruv rabbi (and our shadchan – another story…)

As I was never rebellious or a boundary pusher, preserving my identity as a modest young woman was natural for me, as well as a requirement for me to get through high school. By the time I was a senior, tsnius was “my mitzvah.” (I attribute this concept of mitzvah ownership to NCSY. It makes religious observance empowering and personal.)

The night of graduation, the gang of us decided that, in an act of unity, we would show up to our class’s graduation party. We were all seminary and yeshiva bound. We were growth-oriented and knew what we wanted for our future. But we didn’t want to separate ourselves from our class as we were saying goodbye.

A bit nervous, we arrived at the same time as the beer kegs. Everyone was hanging out by the pool. It clearly was a real graduation party, and it clearly wasn’t for us. To confirm that, I overheard a classmate say as we walked by, “Oh, so everyone in the senior class was invited.” We left and had our own “graduation party” at Caribou Coffee where we sat and talked until the shop closed.

I ended up going to the most right-wing seminary out of all my friends. (My male frum classmates quipped that I would return with a black hat.) During my last year of college, I dated a yeshiva bochur from Ner Yisroel who I identified as “the one” quite early on. I proudly brought him home to introduce him to my Ner Yisroel rabbis in Atlanta.

At our engagement party, I had something to say. I don’t remember what I had to say, but I do remember standing up and giving a little impromptu speech. My chosson smiled throughout the whole thing, and then, with a sweet laugh and a bit of a bashful smile, told me when I was done that the kallah doesn’t usually do such a thing (but he didn’t mind, of course).

While dressing modestly has come naturally to me without struggle, figuring out the parameters of modesty when it comes to non-sartorial issues has been more of a journey. I have been part of tsnius chaburas (study groups) that emphasize not drawing attention to oneself and staying as private as possible. It is hard to find the right balance. I have questions. If by publishing your ideas, are you are no longer being private, as you are now “known” in a more familiar and acquainted way? If by “being out there” in sharing your personal experiences, are you very well drawing attention to yourself? Does acting modestly mean always avoiding the figurative spotlight? (Sarah Davis Rudolph provides some wonderful insights in her most recent article on modesty here.) Thankfully, I have many rabbis whose words of approval and encouragement to keep writing sort of answer my questions for me.

Since these are not halachic issues, but rather issues of sensitivity, I also find my answers in how comfortable I feel, and I respect those women who make decisions to not publicize their picture or to function behind the scenes if that is their comfort level. Yes, I will sit on a board of a shul, which I have done. I have no qualms about publishing my picture. In the right setting, I would speak in front of a mixed audience. On the other hand, I understand that in the current shul I belong to, where the norm is that women do not speak in front of men, the types of sensitivities are different, and I would not feel comfortable (let alone have the opportunity) to speak in front of a mixed audience. Social norms and tsnius are so closely intertwined.

The question of tsnius is very much alive and well when it comes to what topics I choose to write about. I have been told by editors regarding personal narratives that I needed to provide more grit, more reality TV, more inner struggle, more showing. That is when my inner voice tells me what I want to reveal and what I don’t, what needs to remain private and what is invited to see the light of day. I won’t compromise my personal sense of modesty for an article.

As I have said to the many people who have asked if my headshot will accompany my articles in Mishpacha: no, it will not. I am not expecting it ever will. I am not terribly bothered, even though I am an advocate of publishing pictures of women in Orthodox publications. Again, social norms and tsnius are so closely intertwined. On the other hand, I wish it was a societal norm to have headshots of women writers and that the practice wouldn’t be considered not tsnius, or anything controversial. In the chareidi media, and increasingly so in the chareidi world at large, it is not the case.

But if I had my choice to have a voice or a face, my voice would win. There is no way I would ever give that up. The current reality is that I can't have both. My ideas must be unaccompanied by my picture.

I’ve come a long way from being a naïve out-of-towner, but my commitments to my own personal sense of modesty remain intact. The journey is just more nuanced now. As opportunities and challenges arise, I will be forever defining and redefining what it means to be tzanuah as an Orthodox woman who feels it is important to share her voice with others, and the community at large. And I invite more Orthodox women to pick up their pens and join me.

Until next time,