When I first started becoming verbal about the fact that I was planning on converting to Orthodox Judaism, one of the things that really struck me about the reaction I got from people was how many times I was asked, “So does that mean you have to wear flat shoes from now on?”
I was a bit confused by this. I had never come across this supposed stereotype about Jewish women before, and I resolved to do some digging. I’d already read about the concept of “Tzniut”, or Modesty, although my information was somewhat limited: I only knew that you were meant to wear skirts and cover up more. Shoes, though? I’d seen women at my shul in all manner of high heels. Although more of a fan of pumps myself, I have to admit my curiosity was piqued.
Where I live in London, it would be impossible to draw conclusions on Jewish Modesty just by taking note of what the women wear. It varies greatly according to age, level of observance, and relationship status. An example would be this: married women cover their heads. There are various ways of doing this. Scarves, hats, wigs, bandanas… all dependent on your observance choices. If you were married and not-so-religious, you may not cover your head at all unless you are at the synagogue, where all married women are obligated to do so. Similarly, if you were married and fairly observant, a scarf covering the top of your head might be fine. You may even throw caution to the wind and let your hair flow freely from under the covering. Then again, if you were married and of the more observant or “frum” variety, you may cover your head entirely, either with a wig or a scarf, letting none of your own hair be seen by prying eyes. Only your husband would have the privilege of seeing you in all your bare-headed glory. It’s all about where you fall on the observance spectrum.
The same can be said for the clothes Jewish women wear. I know semi-observant Jewish ladies who do get away with jeans from time to time, but generally, trousers are frowned upon because they draw too much attention to the female form, and are seen as male clothing. According to my conversion tutor, we refrain from calling attention to our external selves, because we want our internal beauty to shine through. We enhance this through observance of the Commandments and the performance of the Mitzvot. Because we strive to be better people on the inside, we shouldn’t divert attention from that by being preoccupied with what we look like on the outside.
At the same time, Judaism recognises the natural urges that we have as human beings. It is therefore considered wrong to try to attract attention through our outside appearance, lest we cause others to diverge from the path of righteousness they are hopefully trying their best not to stray from. So basically, we don’t wear short skirts because it may make it difficult for some men (and these days, some women) to ignore us. And, depending on how religious you are, your attempts not to draw attention to yourself may extend towards other channels: wearing duller colours, shying away from high heels, wearing head coverings rather than beautiful wigs, wearing minimal make up, and so on. Whatever doesn’t turn heads, and whatever makes you more comfortable. It’s about finding the happy medium.
That said, I’ve found that in the case of people converting, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Unfortunately, in my experience (and this is a massive generalisation, so please don’t take it too much to heart), religious Jewish women can be incredibly judgemental. When I was newer to the concept of Judaism and trying to integrate myself into it, I received many dirty looks at my choices of clothing. These people don’t necessarily know I’m converting, so it’s not based on a lack of warmth towards people going through the process, but rather a general dislike for what they may see as a lesser care for the laws of modesty. It also depends on the community you belong to. I remember a situation a few years ago where I met a lovely Jewish lady who was visiting from Canada. I’d met her the night before, but the following day she came to the shul I was attending at the time wearing a very smart trouser suit. When she walked in, it seemed like a hundred pairs of eyes followed her to her seat, all staring daggers because she had dared to wear trousers. I felt terrible for her. But then again, in terms of mistakes to make, that ranks pretty highly – the laws of modesty are even more enforced in a synagogue. As a Jew, she should have known that, but she was probably used to wearing something like that to her shul in Canada and it probably being okay. It can help to know that even people who have been Jewish all their lives make the same mistakes sometimes.
So, how do you avoid making a Jewish modesty fashion faux pas? Ideally, at the bare minimum, religious Jewish women should cover up enough that the knees, elbows and collar bones are out of sight. I’ve been told that in the case of areas beyond this, like the forearms or the calves and ankles, we are free to make up our own minds on what we feel comfortable with. If we aren’t sure, we should look to the women in the shul we attend for guidance. If they wear tights, we probably should too. In my shul, most women come to the services wearing stockings, but there are many who wear heels, brightly coloured dresses, and so on. Some of them are even a little risqué with their skirt length. As for head coverings, scarves and hats seem to prevail more than wigs, and most married women cover all their hair.
I’m not married, so I don’t have to worry yet about my hair. I make sure that I cover my elbows, although most of the time this extends down to my mid-forearms just because of the way three-quarter length sleeves are made. I cover my chest properly, and if I feel a top sits a little low, I’ll wear something underneath for a little bit of extra cover. Even still, I find it difficult to find clothes that properly cover the actual collar bones. So I just try my best – it’s not as if I’m showing much skin there anyway. I’ve thrown out my jeans and now only wear skirts – either on the knee, or just below. I don’t really go longer than that just because I am quite short, and if I wear calf-length skirts I tend to look like an oompah loompah. I compensate by wearing tights, unless it is very hot, but I find that when I don’t wear them I worry too much about how bare my legs are, so I just wear thinner stockings. Some women wear ankle length leggings so they can wear open toed shoes, and I’ve seen religious women wear sandals strappy shoes with tights on, but I think it looks a bit strange, so I tend to wear closed shoes. I still haven’t found an answer to the flat shoes issue – but I think it probably stems from the way very religious Jewish women dress based on their own personal concepts of modesty.
Basically, the best advice I can give is to do what makes you feel comfortable. If you’re embarking on the journey of conversion, you shouldn’t take too much on at once. You’ll probably find that the more integrated you become, you’ll naturally start to feel like you should cover up more, and you’ll start to buy clothes that mirror this without even realising you’ve become modest. If you’re worried about what people may think of you, and you just want to fit in, you shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed of feeling this way – just cover your knees, collar bones and elbows, and wear something on your head if you’re married, and then no one has any right to judge you. If you’re still not sure, take your cues from what the ladies in your community are doing, or speak to your Rabbi’s wife.
And wear whatever shoes you like!