Question & Answer With Miriam Woelke - Retaining One's Essential Character
A Simple Jew asks:
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote,
"A person who retains his own essential character can never completely be enslaved; and, conversely, a person who has no independent self-image can never truly be free."
In the past, you wrote about your hesitations about wearing only long skirts and no longer wearing pants. After I shared Rabbi Yissocher Frand's story about Chiclets, you responded, "It is very true that we all stick to our little Chiclets and as soon as someone is trying to take them away fom us, we are afraid to loose our personal freedom….I am probably thinking too much about loosing all my little Chiclets and therefore, I am still unable to move into any direction."
Now two months later, do you still think that changing your external appearance will change who you are on the inside? Do you acknowledge that there is a possibility that you still could still maintain your own essential character and independent self-image after giving up wearing pants?
Miriam Woelke answers:
Jewish Orthodox society wants a woman to wear long skirts and her sleeves should at least cover her elbows. In case a woman doesn't obey these modesty laws, she is not considered religious. At least not in haredi society. And there is no further discussion about it, as Torah law says so.
But what about religious women who do wear pants and see themselves as religious ?
Someone like me, for instance ?
I always liked to wear pants. I remember that very well because my mother used to force me wearing skirts as a child. And already then I promised myself that as soon as I will be old enough making my own decisions, I am only going to wear pants. Just dump all the skirts into the garbage.
My plans worked out fine. For many years I wore pants only, but one day I was again confronted with my old dislike. When I was about to enter an Israeli national religious preparation class, our litvishe teacher told me in a quite rude way that I am expected to show up in a modest skirt. "Tomorrow you come dressed in a long skirt or you are out".
Afterwards I joined many different religious programs; national religious and later on haredi. I did wear a skirt and even got used to it after a while. However, my dislike never disappeared. I could try as much as I wanted and as hard as I wanted, I just didn't get rid of preferring pants. The streets of Jerusalem are crowded with women wearing pants and nowadays there is a new style. It looks like Carlebacher or at least national religious. Young women wear pants underneath their skirt. A rather hippie style and very modern but still religious. It goes without saying that haredi society wouldn't be too pleased recognizing such women as religious. Nevertheless, especially in Jerusalem, everybody somehow religious can find her niche.
Once a friend said to me that I should join the hippie stylists, as then surely everything would be easier for me. But when I decided doing something, I do it the right way. And I am definitely not a hippie style person. Or in other words, this way of dressing is not religious enough for me.
In many ways I am totally haredi but I am simply not prepared to constantly walk around in a skirt. Sometimes yes – when I have to. Synagogue or I am meeting certain kinds of religious people. As soon as I am back home, I pull of my skirt and go back to my pants.
People say that religious women feel different while wearing modest clothes. Many chassidic Rabbis write about it and, by the way, claim the same about religious men. Wearing religious modest clothes should always remind you of who you are. Not listening to your Yetzer etc. However, wearing pants doesn't mean that I am anxiously running after my Yetzer. It has nothing do to with a danger of not keeping Halachot as soon as I am in pants. What I honestly admit is that modest clothes do give me a different feeling and they make me more aware of being religious. And suddenly also other people recognize me as being religious and treat me differently. But keeping or not keeping Halachot is not a matter of wearing a skirt or pants. At least not for me.
Sometimes I am really fed up with myself. Why can't I just get up one morning and lead a different life ? Going back to haredi lifestyle including skirts. There were times when it bothered me a lot and it still does bother me sometimes. On the other hand I keep on telling myself that maybe I am meant to be in different societies and not only in one (haredi society). This might sound totally schizophrenic and some of you might think that I am just too lazy or still like certain secular ways; that I don't really want to change.
The answer is that sometimes I seriously want to change and at other times I don't. Let's call it: I am happy with both ways. The only problem is finding a right Shidduch. Who wants a wife wearing pants? Well, if I was married I would probably behave more often. On the other hand, the pants are not the only Shidduch problem. I am having a whole list such as studying Talmud, writing on the Internet about different societies, going to the cinema, etc.
Maybe I should become Chabad, Breslov or Carlebach. But, as I said before, in those groups I don't really feel too comfortable. My views are far too extreme for - and here we are again: I am a haredi extremist but unable of making up my mind. This has been going on for years and, so far, there is no solution at sight.
At least not at the moment.
And at the moment, I am not unhappy with it but I keep on trying.