“Don’t mess this one up,” my friend sighs over the phone. “A girl like you, with your background, and to merit a shidduch of such high caliber…”
The young man and I agree to get dinner at a restaurant, then to stop by at a nearby wedding of mutual friends; one of us makes the joke about the irony of attending a wedding together.
It’s Brooklyn-hot, the air is heavy. I feel myself growing faint as he starts to ask the questions that a third date would demand: Why do you write like this about our community? And why not under a pen name? Wouldn’t that be more modest, more befitting? Are you not afraid that you are leading your readers off of the path of Torah?
And I answer something, the usual, something about fear of Heaven, something like how if you’re a Real Believer, you can write without fear of Others, or something about how the truest criticism comes from love.
“Hmm,” he says.
Really, I simply want to tell him that I was raised by Soviet Jewish immigrants: My father is a physicist with a passionate belief in God and an equally passionate skepticism of institutions’ Soviet mindlessness, my mother a wise woman with sharp observations and a decidedly uncovered head. I want to tell him that I’m very much, and safely, in the margins of a community, constantly an Other, too Russian here, too American here, too religious for these people, too enlightened for these, and this gives me a freedom of mobility that a religious man like you does not have — you, comrade, are tied to your yeshiva, your rabbis, your community, while I have little to lose, understand?
But I stay quiet. The humidity is oppressive: My wrists are trembling, my knees are weak, my vision going dark, and I curse my tendency to faint in heat. I ask the waiter for more water. And then more questions, now about modesty: Will the young woman dress appropriately for the community we would live in, In-Case-Of-Marriage?
I laugh. “I suppose, that you’re now asking me about my religious level, since you question my attire?” I look him in the eye.
He catches the irony in my voice, laughs along and says yes.
I chant the requisite lines, without thinking: Stockings, yes. Longer skirts, perhaps — up for negotiation. A wig, of course.
But really I want to challenge him further: Perhaps it’s better that you ask me to show you the daily tally of blessings I say over food, or perhaps the Pentateuch pages my sisters and I pore over? Maybe you’ll watch me from around the corner to see if I enter a restaurant with a liberal kashrut certification. Or you’ll gauge the decibels of the soft tones with which I speak to my parents over tea, or perhaps you’ll inspect my teenage self’s paintings of Jerusalem — or is it better that I simply show you tear-stained prayer books? Will you take out a ruler to measure the diameter of my tears? What can I give you, as testament to my belief in God, if not fearless words alone?
“Well, modesty is very important,” he says, carefully, as if he heard my thoughts. “You know that the Sages say that modesty for women is just as important as Torah study is for men.”
This, too, they taught us in school. Girls, your evil desire to dress immodestly is equivalent to a man’s evil desire to abstain from Torah study. I remember nodding to this, somberly. The mention of evil desire was reason enough to shudder; sometimes I wondered how it was that the way one dresses could be equated with another’s intellectual activity.
“So then, a good wife for a yeshiva student has nothing to do with belief in God,” I say aloud, absentmindedly. “All that matters is that the girl is pretty and covered, modest, quiet, no?” Invisible, I want to say.
He sees I’m stirred and he softens; my sudden bitterness makes him uncomfortable. “Ah, shh, mademoiselle, shh, no, I didn’t mean to put you on the defensive, really I didn’t. We don’t need to discuss this anymore; you’ve answered everything for now. Tell me, instead, who is your favorite character in literature? Oh, let’s have a look at the dessert menu, shall we? Tiramisu?”
We’re late to the wedding. The chuppah ceremony has already begun. “Blessed is the newcomer,” the rabbi chants into the microphone and the whole wedding hall echoes with ancient Hebrew.
I watch myself from the outside: a proper religious girl, this ivory blouse, these stockings, walking in rhythm with this tall young man in a hat and tzitzis. It’s almost cinematic; a secular Israeli filmmaker would have a field day here. We each go into our respective entrances for men and women. I dash to retouch my makeup in the bathroom; out of the corner of my eye, I see the bride smoothing down her veil outside the chuppah room, a cloud of white surrounded by sisters and friends, a beaming mother on the side.
The chanting continues: “He understands the speech of the rose of thorns, the affection of lovers.”
I step into the bathroom, and I’m startled by a pair of eyes: my own. I watch myself in the mirror — the rabbi chanting outside, the bride walking down the aisle in the next room, and here I am, in this high-necked blouse and heels, my face powdered, and the first word I think is in Russian: kukla. I look like a doll, painted, dressed up, ready to step out and smile and dance.
After that dinner conversation, that sudden intrusion of the modesty-question, I am suddenly all too conscious of my skin, my clothing, my outsideness — what’s that Isaac Bashevis Singer line, again? “What a strange power there is in clothing.” My elbows and knees, my God, never have I been so preoccupied with these awkward joints until now; and what if I’ve grown so obsessed with the increasing covering of my skin, this Russian-speaking demon, that I’ve entirely forgotten about my soul?
And now, as I open my cosmetic case, I feel like my insides are shrinking — not from this faith, but from this preoccupation with the exterior, the way that it’s seeped into my writings and taken over my mind, simply because here, this is all that I am, all that I’ve become. It’s something that no man will ever understand — not a single man can ever fully empathize with that sinking sensation every young woman feels, at some point, some fleeting moment, when she feels herself an object.
“Shh,” the Orthodox men tell us, “It’s not a big deal, calm your hysterics — are you such a vain creature that this matters to you? Where are your ideals, daughter of Israel?” Secular men, meanwhile, tell us to leave: “You’re oppressed — are you so blinded into being a victim of parochialism that you can’t see otherwise?” How is it that no one seems to understand that a woman can at once value modesty and tradition deeply, but simply ask that it not be imposed upon her from outside, that it not be her defining virtue?
I search for my mascara. The previous Shabbat, I had told my father that I can’t leave the house anymore without being nervous that I’m never dressed modestly enough. “Papa, it’s like a paranoia, a disorder of some sort, eyes, eyes, someone is always looking. And I know, I know, it’s not God who’s looking like that.” My father was quiet, and then said simply, “It’s your own fault that you’re constantly afraid of being seen.” The implication of his words is clear: We didn’t come to this country, and we didn’t return to Torah, for our daughters to slip back into censorship, into yet another System.
The yeshiva student’s words echo in my mind: “It’s a system. Our yeshiva community is like a factory, it produces pure children. That’s the beauty of it.”
I had half-laughed in response, and couldn’t help but wonder if my daughters too will go through this factory one day. What if, one day, someone will call to ask about my daughters’ stockings before they ask about their characters? I will hold the phone, look away from the challah dough or the keyboard in front of me, and laugh at the way that some things never change.
And this gentleman, he’s somewhere outside, in his suit and black hat, his shoulders set back. He has probably already walked into the chuppah room now, and I’ll be there in a moment, on the other side of the aisle, clutching my iPhone and reciting the Song of Songs as the ceremony unfolds, praying to merit a righteous match and to stand under this very canopy too.
I stand there in front of the mirror and a coldness washes over me. I wonder if this will be me soon. What if this was all a dream and I’m about to wake up to realize that I’m at my own wedding, that tonight’s young man is waiting there for me at the chuppah, and the rabbi is blessing our future, and that it’s my younger sisters who are giggling nearby, and it’s my mother who is standing there crying with gratitude that I’m finally getting married, and all I have to do is step out? I dab my neck with perfume and my fingers tremble like they do when I write, my shoulders feel suddenly fragile.
Is this me? This tireless game where I’m forced to play defense, where I’m prodded and interrogated and asked how it is that I write? Tell me, how is it that I don’t write? What alternative does one have to breathing, to praying? I at once feel at home and a stranger here: here, here where my skirt length seems to matter more than my kindness, my thoughts, my voice.
And yet, I am here, we are here, for greater things — for what I know isn’t propaganda, but for what sometimes gets obscured. Speak with Orthodox women in the privacy of their kitchens and Sabbath strolls, and you’ll find that for every woman who seeks to fight and join -isms and makes statements in the name of progressivism, there are thousands of women who quietly struggle with the apologetics they’ve been taught, for the sake of bigger aspirations, for the sake of children and community, for the sense of belonging and purpose.
We stay here for the spirit of the Sabbath, the order of kashrut, the promise of Divine words, the pursuit of truth, and yes the secretness of covered skin too. We stay here because nowhere else is Torah study so central, here where the melodies are so alive, human emotions so stirred, here where God is emulated, where the mundane can become holy and the holy becomes quotidian. We are here for the mere concept of sacredness; in a secular world enamored with mindless cynicism, here we have built an island of passion, ideals, purity. But, ah, to find that purity, in this ocean of religious apologetics, social cues, and futile stringencies — it’s like one absurd comedy, one that perhaps God Himself is laughing at.
“Soon may there be heard, in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem…the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.”
The chuppah ceremony is about to end, and I sprint to the hall to catch the end of it. I spot a dozen high school friends on the women’s side. We smile, gasp, embrace. Over the girls’ shoulders, my eyes scan the men’s side and I wonder where my evening date is; the men all look the same.
After the groom breaks the glass, we move to the buffet, and the conversations are surprisingly delightful, warm, giggling, exactly like it was four years ago when we graduated from high school. We exchange news: who’s engaged, married, pregnant, a mother.
And then, across the room’s hum of bewigged women and young girls in satin dresses: a former teacher of mine. She had been my religious mentor, until I started writing and publishing about life in the Orthodox community, when she called me and told me she understands it’s difficult to be single but that I needn’t write these things. I could barely eat for three days afterward.
Now, her eyes fix on me from across the women’s section, and I feel my face grow pale — I’m 15 again. She pushes away the girls crowding around her, moves to hug and kiss me. “Come, come,” she takes me by the hand and pulls me away from the others. “What’s this I hear, you’re dating someone seriously?”
Word travels fast. I smile and say, not so seriously. I suppose she’s talking about tonight’s date, who has probably already called her as a reference for me. Really, I want to ask which “someone” she is referring to; my mind is one big mess of names and faces and résumés, a blur of recycled jokes and anecdotes, lists of reference phone numbers and hearsay.
She squeezes my hand the way she did when I was younger and curly-haired, longer-skirted and standing in the school hallway: before I discovered Heschel and Leibowitz, before the mascara and the cocktail parties and the perpetual Word documents with social commentary. The whole wedding hall has suddenly grown muted, and it’s just the two of us.
Her eyes watch mine for a second. “Listen, I don’t read everything you write, and even if I don’t agree with it,” she pauses, glances around, and then: “I know what you’re doing is right — I know how hard you try to be straight with God. But you can’t live somewhere narrow-minded; you need to live in a place where people are not embarrassed that their children study alongside yours. I may live here, but you, you will forever suffer in a place like this.”
An image: A carpool pick-up of little boys in skullcaps, little girls in uniform-pleated-skirts, each holding principals’ notes asking that we find a “more suitable” place for our family. Having neighbors who are “not embarrassed” of my children — so this is what our people has come to. I look around at the wedding happening around us: I’m the only one in heels this high, my eyes are suddenly too darkly lined, my hair too defiantly swept back.
And now my voice is hoarse, broken: “It’s a terrible thing…to be judged…People say I’m not modest, about the way I speak my opinions…”
My teacher’s face grows serious, and now she’s speaking quickly: “Stop listening to the voices outside, and the world will respect you for it. There is nothing inherently passive about being an Orthodox woman. Do you remember my Hebrew name?”
I nod: Yehudis Devorah, Judith Deborah, names of ancient female Hebrew warriors.
“My parents gave me the name of a doubly aggressive woman. Where is the passivity in that?” She winks at me. “I have faith in you, and you have faith in God: Do not lose faith in yourself.”
We say goodbye as the trumpets start to blare; the bride and groom are about to enter the room, the girls are cheering.
And then the dancing begins, feverish, the room shakes. On the women’s side, we girls prance and skip and jump, we kick our legs up devilishly and perform antics for the bride, bowing to her, falling to the floor into break-dances, our hips swaying and belly-dance scarves emerge, gold coins shimmering in the dark. We sashay, we sing at the top of our lungs, cheer, whip out our dance props and ululate as the bride raises her arms and smiles at her guests.
This intensity, this dizzying circle, these trumpets and gowns, this tension and this Brooklyn heat, the room sways as if it’s Yom Kippur: I watch the bride dance with her sisters and wonder about the young man on the other side of the partition, and then about every other young man in the past few years — those with eyes tormented between holiness and sin, those who watch with darkening faces and say, “You have so many opinions, but I’m most afraid of your quietness,” those who sigh and tell me about guilt and secret desires and perceptions and torments until I no longer know what to say.
The dance floor itself is spinning, turning dark, unstoppable, and a brief image flits through my mind: those blue eyes in the bathroom mirror. I feel myself growing faint again.