Pants-Pants Revolution: A Skirt-Wearer Talks Back

By: Hannah Dreyfus  |  January 29, 2013

This article is a response to the widely circulated article, Pants, Pants Revolution, recently published in Tablet Magazine.

When you’re served a kosher meal on Air Berlin, openly identifying as Jewish takes on whole new meaning.

I travelled last summer with a group of Jewish students to Germany. The program, sponsored in large part by the German government, encourages Jewish American college students to re-visit modern-day Germany, confronting the complex questions and emotions that naturally go with. As a group, we landed in the Berlin airport, responding with differing degrees of apprehension to the brusque German voice on the loudspeaker. As a group, we visited Buchenwald and Track 17 (the platform from which the cattle cars departed for Auschwitz). As a group, we walked through the Wannasee Villa, our footsteps making the tired floor boards creak in the eerie still. And, as a group, we re-confronted what it meant to openly identify as Jews.

For the boys, the decision revolved in large part around wearing a kippa. The unmistakable skullcap garnered an interesting variety of responses, ranging from humorous (one rambunctious teen stealing the kippa from off the head of one of our number, and prancing around with it atop his own stiff hairdo) to chilling (one group member was openly threatened while out for drinks because of his conspicuous head-covering). There was, however, a certain defiant pride in being openly identifiable as Jews. One member of the group, who did not normally wear a kippa, decided to don the headgear a few days into the trip. His words exactly: “The hell with anonymity—I’m a Jew, and I want people to know it.”

For women, externally identifying as Jews, to the exasperation and consternation of many, usually comes down to a discussion about pants.

The recently published article “Pants, Pants Revolution,” brought up many important points, the author eloquently voicing the internal struggle faced by many traditionally observant women. I include myself unquestionably in their ranks. Seems like just yesterday I was twelve-years-old and smuggling a pair of jeans to my friend’s house for a sleepover, desperately not wanting to look different when we took our highly anticipated trip to the mall. I, like the author, am not one to trivialize the pants/no pants dilemma. To those who mutter disgruntledly about discussing something important for a change, I point out, respectfully, that while the conversation begins with a pair of cloth cut down the middle, it ends in a deeply complicated exploration of communal expectations, social mores, change within halakhic practice, and Jewish guilt. The article adroitly touches upon all these topics. Her decision to wear pants was a choice to unshackle herself from the communal expectations and ‘Jewish guilt’ which she finally deemed unfounded.

While I too am a “card-carrying member” of Jewish guilt in many areas, that is not why I wear skirts. And I want to talk about it.

I wear skirts because it is a way for me to proudly and openly identify as an observant Jew. Because I am no Talmudic expert, I make a conscious decision to skirt (no pun intended) the halakhic dimensions of this discussion. I merely point out that while the article operated under the assumption that wearing pants is an arbitrary decision when it comes to keeping the halakhic code, that is not a commonly accepted opinion. The halakhic discussion moves beyond just the question of begged ish—men’s clothing, as cited by the article. It also involves certain guidelines of modesty, pants inevitably outlining certain parts of the body more definitively. That said, my discussion of the sources stops here.

What I want to discuss instead is the message of Jewish pride I tacitly communicate by dressing differently. Describing the moment she first wore a pair of jeans, the author writes, “When I wore them, I knew I wouldn’t stand out as different from everyone else, as I had for most of my life. I would be like any American girl, wearing her jeans.”

For me, that is the very reason I choose to wear a skirt. Why not stand out, if we’re proud and confident in what we stand for? By ceding this external method of communal identification, a silent but significant decision is made to associate with a different community. It is a decision that was not lost on the author, as she consciously stepped out of the recognizable Orthodox Jewish girl-mold, and into the typical, comfortable, Indian-style friendly American silhouette.

I do not pass judgment on someone who grows tired with being openly identified as Jewish. But, to all those pants-revolutionaries who have decided to burn their knee-length pencil skirts to the chanting cry of ‘freedom,’ I merely point out that the decision simultaneously embraces a new level of anonymity. If slipping undetected into the New York hustle seems a tempting prospective, you owe it to yourself, as a Jew, to at least ask why.

I chose differently. I was not yet ready, willing, or wanting to give up that “nod of recognition” when I see another proud member of the tribe. For me, there remains something comforting, and triumphant, about identifying openly with the religion that pulses at the core of my being and daily decisions. “To me and my community, skirts are a symbol of something more than a fashion decision; they are symbols of Orthodoxy, the mark of belief in a religion that can and will guide the minutest aspects of our day” writes the author. I could not agree more. Some choose to give it up. I, personally, think it too valuable to give up—more valuable, I dare say, than being able to sit comfortably Indian style.

I don’t write to criticize, and I don’t write to preach. Modesty, as the author beautifully expresses, is a deeply personal form of expression, and should remain so. Nor are pants the determining factor between the righteous and those damned to eternal hell—I gratefully commend the author and her article for taking the first steps towards debunking the feckless stigmas and meaningless judgments that serve only to deepen rifts in a Jewish world already struggling to stay together.

No—truth is, I couldn’t care less if the girl next to me is wearing pants or a skirt. And, as the author was pleased to discover, neither do her friends, family members or colleagues.

But, while the author presents her decision to wear pants as a benchmark of independence and bravery, I’d like to share how my decision to wear a skirt communicates the very same thing. When I put on a skirt, perhaps my community and immediate peers will give me the once over and say ‘same old.’ But, to the rest of the world, the decision provokes questions, curiosity, and often engaging conversations, accounts of which would fill up this entire article (need I say more than amusement parks). To the rest of the world, I look different when I consistently wear a skirt. And, when they ask why, the conversation always begins: because I’m Jewish.

But, even if the rest of the world isn’t looking, and doesn’t care, I know my code of dress identifies me with a certain community, and a certain way of life, both of which I have chosen, and of both of which I’m proud.

Towards the end of my stay in Germany, an Israeli woman who had moved to Berlin spoke to us on a panel. Asked if she had ever experienced any anti-Semitism, she responded, “No. I don’t dress like a Jew. And, luckily, I have blue eyes and light hair. So I have the privilege of being invisible.”

Those words settled, with an uncomfortable weight, on my mind. There was something strange, something unnatural, about wanting to hide. Invisibility—a privilege? A reel of stories, images, began to chase through my mind—stories of women who cried with embarrassment when the head coverings they wore with pride were ripped away; stories of men who refused to shave their beards and side-locks, and of men who were marched in endless, jeering lines, phylacteries upon temples and skullcaps clutched in place.

For me, this isn’t a question about a piece of cloth, cut down the middle. For me, the choice to wear a skirt is a personal refusal to embrace invisibility.