Yes, I was wearing jeans, but wasn’t I modest in ways many other girls in skirts were not?
Some become frum through an intellectual process. Some through an emotional process. For me it was a shot of emes, straight to the heart. And then it was decision time, a choice I had never been looking to make: If there is G-d and He gave us the Torah and He told us to keep it, then… It’s not multiple choice. There was only one possible answer on my personal exam.
And now I was stuck.
The rabbis at Neve put me in the beginner’s classes for hashkafah, but because I spoke Hebrew well, they put me into Advanced, the fifth level, for text-based classes.
Every girl in that level was frum, inside and out, complete with skirts and socks and long sleeves and high collars. I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and the ubiquitous Nimrod Israeli leather sandals. Definitely no socks. It didn’t bother me. I wasn’t there to change my wardrobe; I was there on a dare from Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller to check out a school I’d defined as “black and anti-Zionist.”
My introduction to Jewish texts was Chumash. Parshas Ki Seitzei. The eishes yefas toar. If that didn’t send me and my feminist upbringing fleeing on a plane to Nebraska, I was probably there for the long haul.
Only girls in Mechinah, the first level, wore pants. But I was in Advanced, where no one dressed anything like me. I didn’t care. I’ve always been comfortable swimming upstream. But I hated being judged based only on externals. I felt like I already was tzanuah. Felt like I’d always been tzanuah. I had been the teenage girl who wouldn’t wear shorts into town. The girl who never felt comfortable in sleeveless shirts. The girl who wasn’t loud or ostentatious. So, yes, I was wearing jeans, but wasn’t I modest in ways many other girls in skirts were not? And didn’t jeans cover you up best?
It irked me. Seemed shallow and unfair. I didn’t get it yet. (How could I?)
And the more pressure I felt, the less I wanted to change.
I may have spoken Hebrew well, but I was far behind the class in many areas, so I was assigned a tutor to help me prepare. Naomi was a young, married FFB. We worked well together and enjoyed each other’s company.
Until: “I’d like you to wear a skirt when we learn together,” she said one day. “I’m not comfortable learning with you when you’re wearing pants.”
The boom had been lowered and knocked me flat.
My tutor had turned on me. I thought she liked me — all of me! But suddenly all she could see were my jeans?
I felt hurt.
I went into class. Debated what to do. Hatched wild plots. I could always walk out the door, out of the building, out of Neve, out of this life. Leave Neve without looking back. Head for Nebraska.
Class ended. I walked out the door.
Naomi was waiting for me.
“I’m sorry. I apologize.” The words came out in a rush. “I was wrong to say what I did. We’ll learn together tomorrow as usual. Don’t give it another thought.”
We stood there looking at each other.
This was a shock. This was another shot of emes straight to the heart. The knife had been withdrawn. The wound closed almost immediately.
This is a big, big person who realized she made a mistake and took instant action to fix it. This is how frum people act. This is what it means to be a Torah Jew. No one is too big to apologize, and no one is too small to be apologized to.
This is what my mom always called a life lesson.
“Okay,” I said.
She smiled and looked so relieved. “Okay! Then I’ll see you tomorrow!”
I nodded. “Okay.”
I don’t remember a single detail of anything we learned together that year.
I do remember that apology.
Cindy Scarr is a writer and editor who lives in Jerusalem.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 877)
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