When I still lived in Kiryas Joel, I once got this unsigned notice in the mail. It is an anonymous warning that I had been immodest. The letter is only signed “from a good friend”. What so bemused me about this letter is not that it is pretty out there – there are always people in very insular Hasidic communities who are more out of touch and obsessed with modesty and policing others. But rather, that someone had brought efficiency to the process. Now all you need to do in order to inform someone that you don’t approve of their crock-wearing is fill out a brief form and drop it in the mail. Does it work? I can’t promise results… 🙂

Here is the translation:

Dear Ms. F. Vizel,

As it is the obligation of every Jew to be responsible for the well-being of the other, therefore I need to make you aware of the following thing:

The __ (2 piece duster – dark color) __ of the: 1) dress, 2) housecoat, 3) skirt, 4) blouse, 5) socks, 6) turban, that you work last __(week)__ is not permitted according to Halacha (law) because: ____________(by every step we sadly no-nonsense saw your back. Please be careful not to trigger the public! Thank you!)

short
narrow
bold
open at the neck
see-through
wasn’t properly buttoned
long robe outside of the home
red turban
spoke or laughed loudly in the street, bus, store…
the scarf or turban wasn’t properly covered
the wig was long
white sneakers (crocks)
went with “babby socks

May the efforts to behave with modesty and reserve as is fitting for a Jewish woman God will bless you with plenty of money, joy and pride from the children, health and it will bring God’s spirit in your home and the remedy of modesty will hopefully do its work to rid us of illnesses god forbid, as is written in the books, until the messiah will come, amen.

Of course the people who busy themselves with such zealous policing of others are a minority, but they wield a kind of power. Because no matter how absurd I found this letter, I also felt a rush of self loathing when I first read it…

I’ve been going through some old files to make room in the closet, and found my old folder from my eighth grade “Sewing Course”. Sewing was usually the only class that didn’t involve sitting at the desk and taking notes. I find it really interesting to contrast this “special” (as such classes would be called in my son’s public school) with my son’s sevenths grade “specials”, which are of course music, gym, French and library.

The introduction states that the goal of the course is to be able to fix clothing to make it fit better and more modest.

Our particular course was to learn the various different approaches to filling a skirt slit so as to ensure it was modest. We had to write down instructions plus mini samples.

The “Skirt Pleat Extension”
The “Kick Pleat”
The “Center Pleat”
The “Pleat Insert Slash”

I probably couldn’t pull off any of this if my life depended on it, but then again, who remembers their high school calculus either.

For us ultra-ultra-ultra (ultra) Orthodox Hasidim, handshaking with the other gender was prohibited. No handshakes, no hugs, not even passing a paper to my boss directly into his hands. I’d put it down on a table, and he’d pick it up.

Now that I’m secular, I shake hands – not big deal. (I’m not so big on hugs though; they are a recipe for far too much awkwardness.) I am always humored when I meet a Jewish person with a kipa. My instinct is to not hold out my hand. My mind says ‘Orthodox person; handshakes not allowed’. But these orthodox people see in me a regular secular woman in slacks and a t-shirt, and they hold out their hand. The result is a pathetic, awkward, hilarious reversal.

*

I see the realtor from a distance and wave. He has a velvet yarmulke and I can see tsitsit dangling at the side of his black pants; his shirt is white but short sleeved. My mind goes ‘ah, so he’s Orthodox.’ I come up to him and say “Hi, I’m Frieda.”

“David,” and he stretches out his hand. I’m like, ‘woah! woah, he is giving me his hand! Ring the caught-you-red-handed alarm, quick.’ Then I think of ways to explain it. ‘Ah, this isn’t transgressive! He is offering his hand because he thinks… I’m not religious!’

Oh, right. I’m not.

My hands are in my jean pockets. I quickly pull ’em out. Ulp. Should I shake? I hear a voice inside scream ‘NO! It’s verboten!’

I think this: he is giving me his hand only on the mistaken assumption that I am expecting it.

I ask myself, ‘so? Therefore? should I say “sorry, don’t shake hands with religious men — It’s my – I mean your – religion?”’

Goodness this is messed up.

They kiss.

The Hasidic couple, of my community’s arranged marriage variety, has their first kiss in the private room.

Someone recorded a Hasidic male teacher preparing the boy for marriage. The teacher is talking to a sheltered, nineteen year old boy who had no prior contact with women. The whole thing is difficult to listen to – for emotional reasons – but here is the transcribed and translated instructions for the Yichud Room:


“You walk into the yichud room. As soon as you get into the yichud room, you lock the door, — what’s her [your bride’s] name?”

“Libby”

“Libby? Very good name. You give her like so, Mazel Tov Libby, with both hands. Kay? Tell her Mazel tov, bless her very nicely, tell her to repeat with you: ‘May God help us have a good home, we should always be healthy, and always have good marital accord, mmm… talk, talk, talk.’ And as soon as you say the word “Amen”, the hand leave here (?), embrace her, and give her a good kiss here and here. Kay? In the cheek. Not in the mouth. Kay? And as soon as you finished kissing her you say ‘Wow Libby, your gown came out BEAUTIFUL, so stunning, it’s very, very nice.’ Fine. Tell her I have something for you, take out the earrings [a big gift, by every groom], she puts it on, say ‘Wow, it’s very very very nice on you.’ The next thing is, say ‘Come, let’s sit down…’”


And now you know.

Yes.

Okay, it wasn’t my hand he wasn’t shaking; it was that of the first lady of the United States. Laura Bush’s. My hand had nothing to do with it, but since my husband was the one making the scene, I was offended. Blushing-red offended.

This is what happened. Through some inexplicable chain of events, my Hasidic husband and I, at the ripe age of twenty four or so, got onto the invite list of the White House Chanukah Party.

I was probably invited because I was different and Hasidic, but I wanted so terribly, badly to fit in. If you judge me for being such a peer-pressure prone weasel, you are right. But do keep in mind that looking different ALL the time and being seen as odd ALL the time can leave you feeling not only judged, but also misunderstood.

So I agonized over the fitting-in thing for months in advance. I am sure it is obvious to everyone immediately that my scarf in this picture is ivory (not white!) as I’d used a box of Walmart yellow die in the washroom sink to make the scarf less overtly a weekend scarf and more… subtle, blended in…

Anyway.

At some point of the night, as I was going around eating, looking totally normal with a soft yellow scarf and a black-bearded, Yiddish-accented, excessively-friendly husband at my side (or not; he kept disappearing as he found someone else to run chat up) we got called to “meet the president”. We stood in line with decidedly boring-looking secular Jews who seemed almost on the brink of very dull. I guess normal does something to you. I remember how silent all the dolled-up, pearl-wearing ladies were, so that my husband’s loud chatter and my own mortification were the central event in the waiting line.

There was a large soldier in very intimidating uniform at the door, and my husband provided him with detailed warning that for the photo, we are not to stand as is customary, the woman on the side of the president and he on the side of Laura. Some other man in military costume and those shoulder pads and a deep voice announced us, and then a hand shaking fiasco ensued that could have competed with the worst sex scenes on Girls.

I, trying to be cool and normal (do not judge me! I am a coward) held out a hand to W as did my husband, but then he went on to explain to Laura that he has his hands in the back of his long suit jacket while hers stands like an erect teenager because of this whole religious thing, etc, etc, etc. I smiled wide from ear to ear, chuckled nervously, tried to smooth things over by exclaiming with far too much enthusiasm how nice everything was and then stood like a good girl at the side of Laura for the picture.

Later, to do something about the many humiliations of being coupled with a husband who made such a scene every time a woman offered her hand, I wolfed down all the potato pancakes stacked on silver trays. It felt like eating sawdust-pancakes and it looked like they were printed at the Mint.