10

A Modest Proposal

With the way people are dressing these days, they could use a little tzniut.

No, tzniut (if you’re in a more Yiddishized circle, tznius)is not the latest Swiss fashion accessory, but the Jewish concept of modesty for men and women that dates back to the Talmudic era. It literally translates to “modesty” or “privacy” and refers mostly to clothing, but also the way people lead their lives.

Is it worth it? Let me work it.

Just about every Orthodox Jewish girl (and definitely every Hassidic Jewish girl) covers themselves up with long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, and closed toed shoes. When she gets married, she might cover her hair with a hat, a scarf, or a full-on wig. It doesn’t end there, though. Included in the umbrella is negiah, or rules of touching, which are followed by avoiding physical contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex, and kol isha, or female voice, which mandates that hearing a woman’s singing can distract a man and lead him to impure thoughts. This rule does not apply for prayer, singing z’mirot at a dinner table, or a choir of mixed voices. Some even say that even a recorded female singer violates these laws.

Men do not have as many restrictions; just refrain from touching women and wear clothes that cover your body.

Growing up in Orthodox-Jew-Land, I was well aware of all of this. At my school, girls and women had freedom of choice to wear long pants if they wanted to; some did, but most stayed within the guidelines above. Touching was not explicitly forbidden, but it was generally frowned upon, and I don’t really think we ever had any huge singing issues; if you didn’t want to hear a girl sing, you wouldn’t come to any school musicals, or if you did, you went elsewhere whenever a woman was singing alone. Kind of hard, given that we were a high school and did musicals with plenty of parts for girls, no 1776 here.

I started noticing it more as I went to college and started seeing the stark differences between how people dressed in such mixed environments. As a male, it’s pretty easy for 99% of what you wear to be acceptable every day, and if you make the choice to become more religious, you probably won’t have to go to much trouble to buy new clothes. Girls have it a bit rougher; making the tznius choice means goodbye to bare shoulders, t-shirts, short skirts, and any type of pants, so usually a significant wardrobe overhaul is necessary.

Today, I feel that modesty is something our society is definitely lacking, promoted by corporate trends and celebrity couture. Sometimes a strapless or mini version of an outfit is tasteful, and then you have Miley Cyrus (sorry Miley, but I needed an extreme comparison). This might sound a little pander-y, but I think that women should be able to choose what they wear, and while most women pull off this look effortlessly, maybe tznius should be reexamined in our times. For example, long sleeves and long skirts are probably quite uncomfortable, even thin/airy fabrics, in hot summers and for Jewish women in tropical countries or Houston. While yes, it’s argued in the Talmud, a lot is based off of what women wore in the shtetls of wintry Russia or Poland where the wind chill made these outfits practical. Furthermore, I don’t see a huge problem with pants, either. Not all pants are skinny jeans, and many tznius girls have a tight denim skirt or two. A pair of slacks or trousers can even make an outfit look sleeker and more elegant, and it would make riding a bike or climbing a ladder a lot easier. I don’t see tznius clothes as being restrictive in any way or out of fashion, but give girls a break. As long as they’re dressed appropriately for the weather, occasion, and activity, you’re good to go right there.

This leads me to talk about my own personal tzniut appearance and behavior. I made the decision awhile back to stop wearing shorts of any kind; not just because I don’t like my legs, but I just don’t see any reason why they need to be exposed – and also a bit of solidarity with my Orthodox Jewish sistas. With tank tops/wife beaters/muscle shirts, I didn’t grow up wearing them, and they certainly weren’t allowed in my school, so they never really joined my wardrobe. I love t-shirts, but since I live in Wisconsin now, I’ve been layering them over long sleeve shirts, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. The only time you’ll probably ever see me in shorts is when I am in going swimming, and even then, I’m underwater, so ha ha you can’t see me.

Probably the most surprising thing about my personal style is that this applies even at the gym. I’m always the guy in the long pants (the stretchy kind, not sweatpants, who does that?) and a shirt that covers most of the top half of me.

Orthodox Jewish girls know what’s up…and I stand with them (but not in a skirt) when I call on all my menfolk to display some tznius and look like a gentleman.

I mean, do you see what most guys wear to the gym these days?

Also – if anyone knows why my stats are skyrocketing, (1000 views today, thank you very much!), please tell me, because I’ve spent most of the past forty-eight hours bewilderingly watching people (mostly across America) click on my site, yet I only have about 120 followers, and 67 comments, most of which are my own. This blog is kinda lame most days, so either I’m doing something right or the Internet is going bonkers. So, if you’re reading, please leave a comment about what you think and how you got here (so I can get a sense of what’s going on, did someone put me on BuzzFeed or something? – I’m not that amazing of a writer), or a like, or an idea of something you want me to write about. Oh, and keep visiting, Americans. You too, other countries.

1

אין סוף (Without End)

I normally wouldn’t do something like this, but something recently made me want to reread a book I’ve already read. I originally read it for a project for which I didn’t even end up using it, but it stuck in my mind all the same. I haven’t thought about this book for awhile, but when I remembered it, I knew I had to get a copy and read it again. Astonishingly, the library didn’t have it so I had to order it through ILL, and since it’s due tomorrow, I should probably write something about it now. It’s one of those hidden gems of literature that says little (90 pages, exactly) but says a whole lot. It’s a novella entitled Bubbeh by Sabina Berman.

I continued eating grapes and talking, mocking the congregation and their Amens, while laughing with amusement at my own cleverness, all with the same mouth, a mouth that was very big indeed that day. And my grandmother, absorbed in her own thoughts, continued putting the pieces of the broken plate together.

Suddenly I felt sad. I stopped talking. The water continued running out of the tap into the sink.

Finally my grandmother said: “Close your eyes.” I squeezed my lids shut.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing.”

“And in that nothing, do you see a light?”

I concentrated. Beneath my eyelids in that darkness something like a yellow and white dust shimmered, a light.

“Yes,” I said. “But I always see that.”

“Always?”

I thought. That light didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.

“Yes,” I said, “always.”

“Always,” my grandmother repeated. “Well, that light is God, and it has many names.”

– Sabina Berman, Bubbeh, page 30

Bubbehor La bobe in Spanish, is a first-person account of the author’s relationship with her grandmother, “bubbeh” (which means “grandmother” in Yiddish). This true story takes place in Mexico City in the 1960s, but Berman’s grandmother comes from the “old world” of WWII-era Eastern Europe.

We are introduced to the grandmother as a woman who “lived tidily,” in Berman’s words. So tidy, in fact, that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, thereby eliminating the need for a traditional body-washing. Backtracking, we see the author as a little girl, moving into her grandparents’ house alongside her newly-divorced mother. Berman uses this opportunity to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, ladylike woman, with a faith in God that is foreign to her. The generation gap between mother and daughter is quite clear, with Berman’s mother’s aggressive and abrasive nature clashing with the grandmother’s more reserved and traditional ways. The more time that Berman (and the reader) spends with her grandmother, the more and more we see the beauty of the grandmother’s reticence and her unshakable faith in God despite having survived the horrors of war alongside her husband. The grandmother says very little herself, preferring to be dutiful to her husband yet maintaining a queenly presence as she introduces the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays to the author. After the author describes her grandmother’s funeral, she returns to the opening image of her grandmother’s death, which takes the reader by surprise even though it was revealed at the very beginning.

What really moves me about Bubbeh is Sabina Berman’s style of writing. The text is translated from Spanish to English but the words are so smooth, you’d never know. The way that Berman catches every detail, all the colors of the room, each crease in her grandmother’s wrinkled face, provides a rich context and a place where you can settle in and embrace the simplicity of faith and familial love. The undertone of her grandfather’s taste for secrets and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed adds a nice through-line that brings the story together, especially for the grandmother; although grandmother does not read and study like her husband does, she has some secrets of her own.

This story reminds me of my own mother’s mother, my grandmother Mimi. She was also a woman who spoke very little, especially in her Alzheimer’s-ridden final decade, in contrast to her own mother, who died shortly before I was born, whose outspoken nature made her the very image of a family matriarch. In contrast, my grandmother ruled with a different sort of nature; it would be incorrect to say “ruled,” as her equanimity (and unfortunately, failing mental state towards the end) kept her a silent queen, always present but not needing to make her presence known.

To most people, a person who prefers to keep things to herself is perceived as anti-social, cold, afflicted by either a deep sorrow or a negative attitude. But my grandmother was none of those things; she let her love for her children, grandchildren, and religion speak for her. In her younger days, she was a red-headed firecracker from New York City who traveled across the country between the wars to seek her fortune as an accountant in California, who always knew what she wanted and went for it. Upon marrying my grandfather and having children, this chapter of her life was completely shuttered; a locked file cabinet, never to be spoken of again. Even though she never lost her gleam, her luster, her zest for life, she concentrated all of her efforts on being a dutiful wife and mother. Like Berman’s grandmother, my own grandmother had a vast trove of secrets, some of which came out to my mother, and some only to me. Although after her death we found many artifacts of this life, we were unable to piece together a narrative; there were so many missing pieces. Some of my grandmother’s secrets are lost forever. I guess, in a way, by doing this, she cemented her reign in our lives and in our minds. She wanted us to have pleasant memories of her, as sweet, caring, and kind without fault. Without raising her voice or speaking her mind, she got her way, even after death.

My favorite passage is this one, on page 33-34.

I’m in the big bed, as fluffy as a cloud. A long, white bed. My grandmother covers me up to my chin with the goose-down comforter, and she sits down on the edge of the bed. The bedroom is in shadows.

My grandmother leans over to peer into my eyes. It’s an ageless moment. I’m eight years old, perhaps six or even four. Once more my grandmother becomes that tall woman whose profile extends upward, covering the cathedral’s golden clock. Her black eyes penetrating my eyes. Her face, as white as the moon’s reflection in a pond. The pond, my face, illuminated by her own. She passes her hand from my forehead down to my cheeks, half-closing my eyelids.

Her measured voice, distant and close at the same time: “Do you see that light?”

With her index and ring fingers, she taps the comforter on my chest. I hardly feel the pressure.

Yes, that greenish-white light, inside me.

Ayn sof,” she says, scarcely breathing the words.

Everything is like a secret. What my grandmother is now entrusting to me is, in face, a secret.

Ayn sof,” I reply very quietly.

Years later I will learn that Ayn sof means without end in Hebrew. It will take me even longer to fully comprehend that this is one of the names of God. I will be astonished at the simplicity with which my grandmother has asked me if I see that light and at the ingenuousness with which I answer simply, yes.

I will forever be curious about the things she didn’t tell us, things she didn’t leave clues to, and things she didn’t want us to know. Maybe someday, something will surface, but for now, these things – people, places, events, and how she really felt about them – are hers alone, her travel companions in the next stage. Sabina Berman’s Bubbeh is a testament to those lost memories and is something that should be treasured and read by anyone who is need of a reason to believe.

La bobe

This book review has been brought to you by the library of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the scary heavy winds outside.