20 Years A Jew: Installment 5 – Modest* Fashion and the Modern Woman

Mt. Carmel at Night.

By Athena DeRasmo

Dictionary Definition of "Modesty."

I am not a modest woman – never have been. However, when I was going through conversion, I went through changes. Becoming a Jewish woman would be a big responsibility and I needed my outside to be more in keeping with my inside. I decided that a more conservative appearance would be appropriate. My decision to change to a modest appearance would mean a radical shift in my personal style. Having a background in theatre, I understood the power of costuming and using garb to enhance an experience; however, there would be no artifice in this particular costuming. So, the hemlines came down, necklines came up, I gave up sleeveless fashion, and footwear became practical. I wore my hair simply and covered my head for shul. Like keeping kosher, for me, modest fashion was not going to be a sometime thing, but rather an ongoing representation of my observance. These fashion changes would become permanent, and I grew very comfortable with my decision.

Modest fashion was particularly helpful to me during my five years in Israel as a single woman. My modest fashion acted as a deflector shield for many unwanted advances from some Israeli men (both Jewish and Arab) who believe that single women get off the plane in Tel Aviv in order to meet them. My frum appearance allowed me to travel into areas that are typically taboo for a seemingly unaffiliated woman, such as Arab villages & Orthodox neighborhoods. On occasion, I was called out for pretense – for presenting as something I was not. On one such occasion, in Haifa, I hailed a cab on Shabbat. A secular driver pulled over, curiously asked where I was going. I told him, “The Synagogue at the bottom of the hill,” Mt. Carmel. He said, “You look religious, you go to Beit Knesset, then you act religious – you walk,” and drove away. In Israel, where all opposites meet, you play by the rules!

My time in Israel was 2000-2005. When I returned to the US, I continued to dress in modest fashion, knowing full well that modest is as modest does – and as a modern woman, it has to be asked, what is modesty? Considering the current course of the modern woman, once desirable attributes of “modesty” are no longer desirable – Who would desire their daughters to be timid, docile, reticent, or meek? It would seem that modest fashion and actual modesty have little to do with one another. Modest fashion is neither a guarantee of virtue, nor a misrepresentation of piety. However, it can be said that modest fashion in the modern world is a statement of cultural and religious identity, which also has the added benefit of saying, most unmistakably, “Hey, my eyes are up here!” A modest statement? Thankfully, I think not.

Installment 1 – “The Decision To Convert – Simple, Right?”

Installment 2 – “Why Judaism? What Made It Special (To Me)?”

Installment 3 – “What’s An Orphan To Do?”

Installment 4 – “Balancing Secular and Sacred” 

Installment 5 – “Modest* Fashion and the Modern Woman”

Installment 6 – “Conversion and Jewish “Pedigree””

Installment 7 – “And Then There Was Israel…”