Saturday, January 17, 2015

Israel, Judaism and the Politics of Dress

I've always thought of myself as good at packing a suitcase. Having grown up in a joint custody arrangement shuttling between my parents' houses daily and attended scores of education, I've become adept at knowing the clothes I will probably need to look presentable but also still manage to fit it all in my suitcase.  As a commuter in New York, I find I gravitate towards thin, soft layers, that allow me to feel comfortable sleeping on a bus to New Jersey without exposing myself and easily store in my bag if the heating in a particular building.  Lots of knee-length skirts and leggings that I can wear with Uniqlo under armor long-sleeved tees and boots.  This fall I also pulled out a wool cloche hat from high school that I always think I've forgotten about but seems to always just the right scalp protection and wind resistance.

In preparing for the initial tour of my Israel program, I strategically separated items I knew I would need for the ten days.  I had travelled to the Middle East in January previously, so I knew not to expect summer temperatures.  So I put aside some comfy layers, in dark colors so I wouldn't have to worry about them looking too gross if there wasn't a laundromat and I had to wear things over again.

About the second night of our trip, we're waiting to check into our hotel and one of my new classmates asked me:  "Are you someone's wife?"

WTF?  I mean WTF?

Yes, I realize I am getting to the age when many of my friends are settling down--it's not necessarily an absurd question to ask whether or not I am married or have kids.  But those questions usually come up in the context of me telling a customer at Trader Joe's how cute her kid is.  This remark, however was completely out of the blue.

"Um, no," I replied.  "Why?"

"You've been wearing skirts and a hat so far this whole trip," he said. "I assumed you were frum."

"My bangs have been looking weird" I tried to say.  "That's why I've been leaving my hat on."

I mentioned the exchange a few days later to our tour guide, and he said he also assumed I was an orthodox woman--perhaps a divorced one, since I was signed up for this semester-long program.

Why these comments bothered me I'm not sure--was it the same kind of distain many secular people her in Israel feel toward anything Orthodox?  More charitably perhaps, I could also say that portraying myself as someone so serious about religion would be unfair since my own basis in Jewish texts is pretty lacking.  Or was it something deeper?  Did I hear the word frum and automatically wonder if it was derived from the same  old German root as the world "frumpy" (I looked it up:  it in fact does not).

Suddenly, I was rethinking my entire wardrobe approach for this trip.  There were bright, loud, items I had packed away in my storage unit in New York for the sake of simplicity.  Suddenly I wished it was summer and I could wear my tank tops and halter dresses.  I scrambled to find the few lower cut tops I had packed in my bag for the trip, and made an effort to pin my bangs back so I wouldn't be tempted to put on my wool hat and give anyone the wrong idea.

Our guide mentioned a similar experience with a friend of his from South Africa, who always wore a black kippah that I think may have belonged to his father.  When he came to Israel, he discovered that black kippot usually denoted to strangers that you were a member of a a Hasidic movement, so he switched to wearing a crocheted kippah to avoid confusion. Another guy on my trip, who has been wearing a kippah but doesn't consider himself orthodox or keep Kosher, decided to take off his head covering in super-secular Tel Aviv so as not to attract undue attention.

I'm not sure what this all suggests or how to process it.  And please don't mean me to imply anything particularly intolerant about Israeli society.

I guess it's just more to overthink about...

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