I’m not an Orthodox Jew.
I say this because every once in a while, after I publish an article or column, I receive indignant e-mails denouncing my behavior or thoughts because they don’t align with traditional Judaism. I say this because my February column on modest dress for “tweens” elicited several such letters, including one from a single male writer who was “dismayed by my ignorance,” and also “sad,” about the way my children are being raised.
So, to set the record straight, I’m not Orthodox. And it’s not that I haven’t been exposed to the beauty of observant life, and it’s not that I don’t treasure and respect my Orthodox friends. It’s rather that I fully embrace my identity as a liberal Jew.
Almost every essay I’ve ever written could include a postscript. There was the young woman who met her beloved after a young man read a profile of her in my column. There was the time my daughter Talia announced she’d chosen to focus on Israel for a third grade project; just hours before, I’d submitted a column noting her disenchantment with the Israel Day Parade.
Mostly, though, I don’t look back. But this past month, one woman berated me for “scoffing at” Jewish law. So I need to answer. And while I’m following up, I’d also like to share a letter from the month before, a note that seemed to stretch across the decades, linking me with two people whose charitable acts touched my life in profound ways.
But first: tween fashion. Several readers of that column expressed exasperation when I noted, “I’m not a big fan of tzniut,” the traditional Jewish concept of modesty. These readers found it hypocritical that I could say this, and simultaneously fear the wardrobe wars that might ensue if my daughter, almost 10, should show interest in the skimpy fashions currently in vogue.
I should explain further. The notion that I should cover my shoulders or knees, even on a sweltering August afternoon in Manhattan, makes me feel as starved for oxygen. It’s not about wanting to flaunt my deltoids (or lack thereof); it’s about feeling oppressed by rules — especially in a society where shoulders don’t make heads turn.
On the other hand, I do agree with Rabbi Susan Grossman, who believes that “every community has its own definition of tzniut.” The rabbi, who serves on the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement, says, “The challenge is: Where do we draw the line?”
Rabbi Grossman notes that tradition forbids Jews from appearing uncovered on the bima, which she interprets to mean that women, including bat mitzvah girls, should avoid backless dresses, and wear a jacket with sleeveless ones. She says, “There are certain choices that are distracting or damaging to children during this lifecycle event.”
“In our [Reform] world, we generally don’t talk about dress codes,” says Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, a Reform rabbi who is editing a book for the CCAR Press on liberal Jewish approaches to sexuality. “But we can have a notion of minhag,” or custom, she says, adding that while the traditional Jewish understanding of modest dress doesn’t resonate with most Reform Jews, “there are guidelines,” for how to dress in a sanctuary, and “what the community says matters.”
So for me, age and venue matter — as does the reason behind the choice of style. And while I don’t want to prematurely sexualize a 10-year-old, and while I don’t relish the thought of men leering at a 12-year-old, I also hope my daughter grows up confident and comfortable with her sexual power.
In a sense, the other recent surprise in my inbox also relates to my roots as a liberal Jew: In January, I wrote about two members of my childhood community, a Conservative synagogue in Flushing, Queens called Temple Gates of Prayer. Abraham and Bea Rosen didn’t have any children of their own, but their charitable fund helped send me — as well as hundreds of synagogue youth — to Israel. Even after I researched the article on the Rosens, I learned very little about them.
Then I heard from Milton Sokol, who regarded the couple as “like grandparents,” and frequently popped by their home around the corner from his own. There he sought and received advice in matters of love and work.
Abraham Rosen, according to Sokol, possessed remarkable foresight and business acumen, establishing a company selling automobile parts soon after production of Ford’s Model T began. Bea Rosen, who spoke elegantly in public, “loved children, loved humanity,” and also loved Abe. The couple held hands as the young Sokol poured out his dilemmas and dreams in their Queens living room.
For a long moment, I bask in these warm memories, braced for whatever arrives in my inbox next.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org