Appreciating the Torah’s Separation of the Sexes

This week I had what I like to call a “Mi Kiamcho Yisroel Moment.” It came upon me as I was reading through a new book called “The Girls Who Went Away.” As you probably already guessed this book is no sefer. Its not put out by Artscroll or Feldheim. In fact it’s the kind of story the frum press wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, but nevertheless, reading it has given me a gevaldige hizuk in a strange sort of back handed way.

“Girls” is an an exquisitely researched journalistic account of the life stories of thousands of women who fell pregnant during their teens, and in the years before Roe v. Wade were coaxed or even coerced to give up their newborn offspring for adoption. The book details the trauma these girls, in some cases they were as young as fourteen, endured. Most of these girls were sent away from home because back in the fifties and sixties the shame of having a pregnant teenager around the house was to great for the family to endure. Then after a stay in a home for unwed mothers, where the girls were at times forced to adopt assumed names to “protect’ their anonymity, the girls were sent to the hospital alone and then forced to relinquish their babies who they were not even encouraged to cuddle, “so they wouldn’t grow attached,’ the social workers told them. After that experience, which of course was not to be mentioned, the girls were expected to reintegrate into society, to finish school, get married and start life on the proper footing. Needless to say more than a few had a tough time. Some fell into depression, others used drugs and alcohol to numb their psychic pain. In some cases the mothers reunited with their offspring after decades of separation; in others not.

Now the subtext of the books author is fairly obvious. Look how far we’ve evolved as a society. We now permit open access to contraception, sex education, legal abortion on demand. No longer do women have to endure this kind of suffering. We’ve solved it, but of course we know this isn’t true. If the Torah has one enduring message—of course is has many, it is that unregulated sex, sex without commitment leads to pain and in some cases (like the Sotah) to death. Our Torah is a Torah of life. Vechai bahem, is the message of our mitzos and as such the Torah erects a high fence, topped with barbed wire around the sexual drive. A dress code to minimize unwanted attractions, separation of the sexes in education, in prayer, for casual socializing, all of these are designed to eliminate the tragic scenarios described in ‘The Girls who Went Away.”

Sometimes it seems that we go off the deep end, expecting our girls to cover their elbows, knees, and toes, banning popular literature and music but all this is to protect that which Judaism designates as most sacred—an undisturbed clean relationship between husband and wife, a couple who stand under the Huppah, virgins both without the skeletons of a hundred failed relationships rattling around in their brains.

If there was any one reason why I chose to adopt an ultra orthodox lifestyle it was this. To live in a society where there were no cocktail parties, not even the “kosher “ cocktail parties (sans drinks) called kiddushes and simchas that occur regularly in certain circles where the separation between the sexes is disregarded. I wanted to raise my kids in an atmosphere that was free from the lewd sexuality that permeates the media, without Bratz dolls and Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce and Brittany Spears.

This is how we protect our families, through these fences which sometimes seem anachronistic and excessively high. And we’re succeeding. Every virginal Bais Yaakov girl that standing under the Huppa is a walking miracle and there are many, so many in fact that we don’t seem to take a deep breath and whisper a prayer of thanks to the Almighty whose protection made this possible.

I wouldn’t tell all of you to click onto Amazon and order the Girls who Went Away, but sometimes looking outside, observing how the other half live, or fail to live can give us some much needed perspective on just how lucky we are.

Now what does this have to do with Beyond BT? Nothing; none of the cases histories detailed in the book were about Jewish women but, wait, that is exactly the point. None of these women were Jewish, and certainly not Torah observant.

Originally Published April 7, 2008

My First Sheitle

The tireless search for the perfect sheitle is a daunting one. Nabbing the perfect, and affordable, wig, first time out of the gate, is akin to finding a designer gown on sale for less than 100 dollars, in just the color you need for your next simcha. With a bracha from Hashem, it happens, and it feels like winning the lottery when it does.

When I called up the Partners in Torah organization eight years ago, looking for a mentor, I was clear with them about my goals. “Please find me a frum woman who can help me learn the laws of Shabbos and Pesach, but please don’t match me up with anyone who is going to pressure me to cover my hair. It’s not something I plan to do.”

And so, they assigned me to dear, Adina Henderson, of Saint Louis, Missouri, the most patient, non-judgmental teacher, and I gave her my speech: “I’m willing to keep Shabbos, kosher, mikvah. But I’m never going to wear a sheitle, so please don’t expect that of me.” I could hear her smiling across the phone waves. “No problem,” she said, and we proceeded with our first lesson.

A year later, I was progressing nicely in yiddishkeit, taking on new mitzvot by the week. Except for. . . covering up my gorgeous, back-length thick, wavy, hair, other than wearing a hat on Shabbos to shul to be respectful. Where I was living at the time, Yardley, PA, only a few women covered their hair. I wasn’t “frum enough” to be a card-carrying, sheitle-wearing, Jewish mama, or so I thought.

And then, Hashem intervened. As a public speaker for one of the books I had just published, I was stranded for a day in the airport, and to compensate me for my troubles, I received a free airline ticket to be used anywhere in the country in the next year. I put it in a desk drawer and completely forgot about it. . . until two weeks before it was due to expire, and I found it. “Where to go in two weeks by airplane?” I wondered. I had been learning with Adina every week for a year, and a thought popped into my mind. I picked up the phone and called her.

“Adina, I have an airline ticket due to expire in two weeks. What do you think about me coming to visit you? You’ve been teaching me the laws of Shabbos over the phone. How about doing so in person?”

Two weeks later, on a sweltering hot July day, I was standing in Adina’s kitchen, helping her make Shabbos. Unbeknownst to me, my – kind, non-judgmental, never going to push me into a sheitle- teacher, had a plan. She asked her sheitle macher to supply her with a box of sheitles to be just “sitting around her house”, in case she had the opportunity to introduce the idea to her completely sheitle-reluctant student.

Two hours before candle lighting, I was complaining to her about how hot my snood was in the Saint Louis summer heat. Adina casually responded, “I know what you mean. I find that a sheitle is much more comfortable than a snood in this heat. You know, I happen to have a box of sheitles in the house. Have you ever been curious? You could take a look.”

What fun. I never had the nerve to stick my hands into the Yardley rebbetzin’s hair. I’d always wondered what a sheitle felt like. Adult dress-up, why not.

Adina brought out this box full of sheitles and showed me where the bathroom was. “Have fun,” she called out.

I opened the box and pulled out the first sheitle. A shiver ran up and down my spine. I was holding my hair – the exact coloring, curl, and length. Below it in the box were short blond sheitles, red sheitles, a wide variety, but this first one. . . this was me. I placed it on my head and looked in the mirror. And the tears came. I looked like me. Only prettier.

I left the bathroom to show Adina. She tried to appear nonchalant. “Looks nice, why don’t you keep it on for tonight’s dinner, for fun?”

I did, and I wore it the next day, too. Motzei Shabbos, I knew I would be purchasing it. Her Sheitle machor couldn’t believe it. It needed no adjusting. It was perfect, right out of the box.

I was sure I was never going to wear a sheitle. Hashem had other plans when He stranded me in the airport for a day, one year earlier.

First Seen in Mishpacha, Family First, January ’08.

Turning the Tables on the Constant Test of Summertime Immodesty

By Rabbi Yonah Levant
The entire zechus of this post should accrue to, and contribute to the immediate freeing of the Yeshiva bochrim kidnapped by terrorists:
1. Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah,
2. Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim
3. Eyal ben Iris Teshurah

The 1st Mishna is Pirkei Avos, Chapter 2 says:
Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] said:…
Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) as with a major one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the ‘reward’ received for sinning compared to the loss….

The two parts of the Mishnah, the encouragement to keep mitzvos, and the steeling oneself to avoid aveirah, seem to be distinct and can be fully understood independent of each other. It seems.

I saw a chiddush (novel insight) that manages to link the סוֹר מרע (turn away from bad) with the עשה טוב (do good) in a way that can have a very big impact on a person’s entire relationship to Hashem.

This is based on what we all intuitively know – that it is most worthwhile to daven to Hashem during an עת רצון (time of divine favor). “Worthwhile,” in terms of having one’s tefilos heard and accepted. The Ohr HaChaim on the pasuk ואתחנן אל ה’ בעת ההיא לאמר (and I davened to Hashem in that time saying) explains that the בעת ההיא (in that time) meant that it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor), and that is why Moshe davened then. Moshe knew when it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor) and he took full advantage to daven then.

Wouldn’t we love to know when there is an עת רצון (time of divine favor), or better yet, be able to create such a thing, by ourselves!

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita of Bnei Brak quotes the Ba’al Sefer Shomer Emunim who says that whenever one does a mitzvah, it is an עת רצון (time of divine favor). And especially when one sees inappropriate scenes, pritsus (immodesty), and one looks away with proper שמירת עיניים (guarding of one’s eyes) , that creates a עת רצון (time of divine favor) such that your tefillos will certainly be accepted by Hashem.

What does this mean to us? What does it mean to us who live in a very degraded generation in terms of tsnius (modesty), and what does it mean to us in terms of our lives as Jews, in the Big Picture.

Before this insight, a person might feel overwhelmed by a non-tsnius (immodest) world, especially in the summer, where one is put to the test all the time. A person might end up feeling aggravated endlessly, that the world is so antagonistic to Torah observance. You can’t look around and walk around like a normal person. You always have to be on edge, like in a battle.

And Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) is a tricky business, since willpower doesn’t stop your optic nerve from working! The Ran in Nedarim says (I don’t have the source location) “אבל עיניו ואזניו של אדם אינם ברשותו, שהרי על כרחו יראח בעיניו ובאזניו ישמע.” – (but the eyes and ears of a man are not his possession, because one sees with his eyes and hears with his ears, even when he doesn’t want to). So, it’s a mitzvah where you practically start off on the wrong foot all the time! You see something inappropriate and only then do you look away.

If you need to be on the street, or driving, etc. you can’t prevent your eye from seeing something un-tsnius (immodest) if it (or her) steps right in front of you. The chiyuv (obligation) is obviously to look away immediately. So, it is a nisayon (test) of great proportions, considering that a healthy human being is not Parev (neutral) about these things. It pulls at a person’s very base nature. If the mitzvah of Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) was to avoid looking at wool, it would be much easier to observe, even though wool is also everywhere! Nobody has a deep desire for looking at wool!

So, a person can be exhausted and aggravated from the ongoing nisayon (test) , even if he is successful! Or, chas v’shalom (G-d forbid), a person can give up the fight, and not keep the mitzvah, and abandon that level of kedushah (holiness) that Hashem wants of every single Yid.

With the insight of the Shomer Emunim, a person can change each nisayon (test) of Shemiras Aynayim (and any other aveirah nisayon (trangression test)) into an opportunity for tremendous dveykus (closeness) to Hashem. When one looks away, one can proclaim “Hashem, I am yours, I do not belong to the street! And since I am yours, and since I am overcoming my desires, for You, please help me with…” A person can become Davek to Hashem amidst the shmutz of our world. A person can grow, because of the opportunity hidden within the nisayon (test). “I am not looking Hashem, because I am yours! I am not theirs!”

Rav Zilberstein in his sefer טובך יביעו ח”ב עמ’סח quotes an unnamed Godol who said that a person who doesn’t practice Shemiras Aynayim sullies his davening and learning which require Kedushah. But it also robs him of his ability to get real pleasure and sweetness from learning, and davening, and the like.

You essentially end up switching the forbidden pleasure for the pleasure Hashem wanted you to have in dveykus (closeness) with Him through a geshmak (wonderful feeling) in learning, a heartfelt davening, etc.

I think it was the Steipler Gaon zatzal who was quoted (2008 Men’s tsnius asifah in Lakewood, Rav Wachsman drosho) as saying that when a person foregoes a forbidden pleasure, because of Hashem’s Will, then he will get a תשלומים, an equivalent, a replacement pleasure through Avodas Hashem. He will find real pleasure, real earthly pleasure in davening, or learning, or some other kosher venue. You will not lose out, says the Steipler Gaon.

Let us all try to turn this constant test into an opportunity to have our prayers answered, especially in this troubling time.

Of Open-Book Enigmas and Whispered Secrets

Tetzaveh 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah:Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Make a  Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate. It shall be of patterned brocade, like the ephod.  Make it out of gold; sky blue, dark purple and crimson wool and twirled linen. … Set it with four rows of mounted gemstones.

-Shemos 28:15,17

… And the gemstones shall be upon the names of the 12 sons of Israel, one for each of the 12 stones. Each one’s name shall be engraved as on a signet ring to correspond to the 12 tribes.

-Shemos 28:21

Thus, Ahron will carry the names of the sons of Israel in the Choshen Mishpat over his heart when he comes into the sanctified site; it shall be a constant remembrance before HaShem.  Place the Urim and Thumim in the Choshen Mishpat and they shall be over Ahron’s heart when he comes before HaShem. Ahron will bear the just-decision instrument for the children of Israel upon his heart, before HaShem, perpetually.

-Shemos 28:29,30

This [the Urim and Thumim refers to a] writ bearing the explicit Name, which he [Moshe] would place within the folds of the Choshen, through which it would illuminate words on the gemstones (מֵאִיר) and perfect (ומתמם) those words. [i.e., the Urim and Thumim lit up letters forming words, and those words like an incontrovertible halachah/mishpat, were dependable. (Yoma 73b)] … Because of that Name-bearing-writ, the Choshen  was called “justice,” as it is said: “and he shall seek the just-decision of the Urim before HaShem on his behalf” (BeMidbar. 27:21).

–Rashi ibid

Conventional wisdom understands the power of the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate as some kind of a sanctified Ouija Board, chalilah-Heaven forefend.  The questions would be put to it and it would, miraculously, “predict” future events.  According to this understanding the destiny of K’lal Yisrael–the Nation of Israel, is fungible.  As an entity existing entirely in the “now”, any number of alternative histories and futures are possible.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom fails to convey the deeper meaning.  Not only does it give the wrong impression the mechanism of the Urim and Thumim, the Choshen Mishpat and the “battery” that powered it but it misconstrues K’lal Yisrael as a temporal entity rather than as the eternal being that it actually is.  Transcendent of time, K’lal Yisrael is not subject to alternative histories.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that the “power cell” that activated the mechanism of the Choshen Mishpat was the very heart of Ahron the Kohen Gadol-the High Priest, not merely the writ bearing the explicit Divine Name. His explanation for how it functioned follows the pasuk and midrashic excerpts:

HaShem’s wrath blazed against Moshe, and He said, “Is not Ahron the Levi your brother? I know that he knows how to speak; moreover, observe, he is setting out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.

-Shemos 4:14

… Your suspicions about your brother, that he would resent you for your eminence as My spokesman, are unfounded. On the contrary, he will be happy for you. Rabi Shimon bar Yosee taught: “the heart of he who rejoiced in his brother’s eminence will wear the Urim and Thumim as it is written: ‘ … and they shall be over Ahron’s heart’”

-Midrash Rabbah Shemos 3:17

The opposite of love it is not hatred.  Very often, hatred is the same deep, passionate emotion as love, inverted.  As William Congreve wrote “”Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” The true antithesis of love is envy.

Love seeks to give to others and grows more tender and warmer with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the loved one(s).  In stark contrast; envy seeks to take away what others have and grows more venal and bitter with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the envied one(s).  Ahron’s heart was devoid of pettiness and was aflame with the love of Israel.  As there is no greater success imaginable for human being than to be HaShem’s spokesman and agent,  his heart had withstood the definitive litmus test determining if one is a giver or a taker in the crucible of the most extreme potential for envy; sibling rivalry.  Exulting in his younger brother success, he proved his heart to be utterly empty of envy and brimming with ahavas Yisrael-the love of Israel.

Unrequited love is the exception to the rule.  The default setting for love, as it is for all human emotions, is reciprocity.  Shlomo the king put it best when he wrote “as the face that is replicated in the reflecting pool, so is ones man’s heart to another”(Mishlei 27:19).  This axiom is borne out by the mutual and reciprocal of love that existed between Ahron and the people of Israel. When Ahron the Kohen Gadol died …  “The whole congregation saw that Ahron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days. “ (BeMidbar 20:29) All of the people loved him intensely.

As Rashi, citing Chazal, says:  [both] the men and the women [loved him], for Ahron had pursued peace; he promoted love between disputing parties and between man and wife.(Avos d’Rabi Nassan 12:4).  Loving all the people and realizing that their own success and fulfillment depended upon their loving one another, the greatest gift that Ahron could bestow upon them was to eliminate the pettiness, envy and disputes and that drove them apart.  Loving them, he gave them the ultimate gift of love for each other.

It is in the nature of those in love to share secrets with one another.  In some instances this is because only those who love us will continue to accept us and not be too harshly judgmental when they discover our darkest secrets.  But, more often, it is our noblest secrets, our loftiest and dreamiest ambitions that we only feel comfortable sharing with those whom we love and who love us.  Those things about us that are closest to the core of our beings can only be revealed within the framework of love.

As a great twentieth century Torah sage explained; this may be because the supreme expression of love is, itself, a secret. Chazal interpreted the pasuk “It is the glory of Elokim to conceal a thing; but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” (Mishlei 25:2) to mean that matters pertaining to the Genesis narrative-hishavus haOlamos, are shrouded in mystery and must remain hidden away. G-d brought the cosmos into being as an expression of His love.  As human beings are b’Tzelem Elokim– in the image of the Divine , tznius-top-secretiveness is apropos for the supreme expression of interpersonal love in that it is the closest that human beings, the  Tzelem Elokim, will ever come to emulating Elokim’s act of creation.

As we stand in the present moment, our most ancient past, lost in the mists of time, and our concealed and our unknowable futures, are secrets. Just as those in love share their most intimate secrets with one another, so too K’lal Yisrael bared her secrets to the human heart that most loved her. It was the loving heart of Ahron, the Kohen Gadol, that served as the “power cell” that activated the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat. The Choshen was not handicapping probabilities or predicting the future.  The letters that glowed and grew salient on the Choshen’s gemstones sounded the silent, soundless whisperings of eternal, transcendent, beloved K’lal Yisrael revealing her secrets to and through the loving heart of Ahron.

Sisrei Torah-the secrets of the Torah, are very much in vogue today. Everyone wants to learn, Kabbalah. Lamdanim-Talmudic theoreticians, have long known that even within nigleh-the more revealed, less mystical component of the Torah, there are hidden secrets; gems waiting to be unearthed. What many fail to realize is that a kabbalistic text and, in a larger sense, any Torah text, is an encoded message.  Merely setting one’s eyes upon the text and reading, or even intermittent and halfhearted attempts at deciphering, will no more force the Torah to yield any of her secrets than will with futile efforts of a third party who had intercepted love letters trying to grasp the hints and cryptic terms of endearment that these missives contain.

The Lubliner Kohen maintains that what is true for all interpersonal relationships informed by love and, writ large, what is true for K’lal Yisrael, is equally true for TorasYisrael. The Torah must be wooed and pursued. Sisrei Torah are not for weekend-warriors —  semi-committed dabblers who can take the Torah or leave it. Those who ardently love the Torah are loved by the Torah in return.  As Shlomo the king taught: “Does not Wisdom call out … ’I love them that love me, and those that seek me earnestly shall find me.’”(Mishlei 8:1,17) One’s heart must be ablaze with the love of Torah.  Torah must become a passion, an obsession and an infatuation, only then will the Torah reveal her innermost secrets.

~adapted from Tzidkas HaTzaddik inyan 198 

Metamorphosis: From Cubic Zirconia to Hope Diamonds

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah:Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

 By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

When you wage war against your enemies, HaShem will grant you victory over them so that you will capture his captives. If you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and yearn for her you may take her as a wife.                                                                                                     -Devarim 21:10-11

The Torah spoke only against the evil inclination…                                                                                      -Rashi Ibid

”Various commentaries explain that when a Jew/ Israelite warrior becomes enamored of a beautiful captive woman that his desire for her stems from something more profound than the womans skin-deep beauty. The apparent redundancy of the phrase “V’Shaveesah Shivyo” literally, “and you will capture his (the enemies) captive” indicates that there was something inherently holy that the enemy had imprisoned and that the Israelite warrior is merely recapturing. He is, in fact, liberating that which had already been held captive. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and the eyes of the sanctified Israelite warrior behold the beauty of the scattered sparks of holiness within the captive woman. It is this intrinsic holiness that makes her attractive to him. (Cp. Ohr HaChaim Ibid)

As the messages of the Torah transcend specific locations and historical eras the Biskivitzer contemplates how the law of the Yefas Toar– the beautiful captive and the lesson of “the Torah speaking only against the evil inclination” might be applied in present-day Judaism.

The Biskivitzers insight is based upon a innovative reading of the verse in Koheles 7:10 “Do not say: ‘How was it that the earlier days were better than these?’ for it is not out of wisdom (lo miChochma) that you ask this (shoaltah zos).” by the Rebbe Reb Binim of Przysucha (P’shischa)

Imagine, says the Rebbe Reb Binim, if a father wanted to present a diamond pendant to his young daughter but was concerned that she may still be too immature to care for the diamond in a responsible manner. So the father gives her an ersatz cubic zirconia instead.  Afterwards, he monitors her behavior and, if and when she proves her maturity and responsibility, he then gives her the genuine diamond.

HaShem treats us much the same way.  When we are young, or at least young in our Judaism, we characteristically pursue spirituality with zeal, ardor and passion. Torah and Mitzvahs seem dazzling to us and exert a come-hither attraction over us. We pine for Mitzvahs and yearn for Torah and want nothing more than to unite with the Torah and Mitzvahs. At the same time, the temporal pleasures of the here-and-now world lose all of their attraction and often even become repulsive to us. And while such yearnings seem to be priceless diamonds of spirituality they are, in fact, fakes. In metaphysical terms they are mere cubic zirconia. These yearnings were not the products of our own guile or efforts in Avodas HaShem– serving G-d, but freebie gifts bestowed on us by a “hopeful” Divine Grace to see if, when and how we would deal with the genuine article. The precocious and wise “daughter” will carefully guard and polish her cubic zirconia. In other words “she” will do everything within her power to preserve and increase the Cheshek-the passion and yearning for Torah and Mitzvahs, consistently breaking new ground in Torah and Mitzvahs, purifying her motivations for Torah and Mitzvahs and avoiding any over indulgence in earthly pleasures and diversions. Through these wise efforts she will then have earned a genuine diamond, i.e. a lifetime of authentic and immutable passion for Torah and Mitzvahs. On the other hand if she is careless and irresponsible with the cubic zirconia then, as all counterfeits eventually do, it will lose its appeal and cease to be attractive. The passion for Torah and Mitzvahs will wither and die.

So… do not say: “How was it that the earlier days were better than these?”  It is pointless to wax nostalgic over the good old days of our youth when our souls were on fire for Torah and Mitzvahs. For that yearning and passion was lo miChochma – NOT the result of our own guile, wisdom, awe of Heaven and exertions. Rather it was shoaltah zos- you borrowed it…it was a “loan” by the grace of G-d.

The Biskivitzer concludes that this is the contemporary application of the law of the Yefas Toar. When we first “go out” to wage war against the evil inclination in our youth HaShem grants us victories by gracing us with a passion for Torah and Mitzvahs. The Torah and Mitzvahs are, themselves the Yefas Toar. Comely, attractive and dazzling the Yefas Toar of Torah and Mitzvahs wield an overwhelming attraction that captures our hearts and that ignites our passions. Why does HaShem grace us with this gift? “Only against the evil inclination” to enable us to repel the evil inclination while we are young and, if we properly appreciate, guard and treasure this ersatz diamond while young, to obtain the actual diamond that stands the test of time. “Only against the evil inclination” helps us maintain and increase our passion for Torah and Mitzvahs throughout our lives to sustain a string of victories against the evil inclination until we breathe our last.

The Biskivitzer adds an intriguing wrinkle. He opines that in order to properly relate to our youthful passion, our zirconia, we need to internalize it. If you’ve got it don’t flaunt it. Don’t wear your holy yearnings on your sleeve. To carry the allegory a step further; think about tucking the diamond pendant under your blouse when riding the subways or walking through a high crime district. In his words “Divrei Torah do not require a hubbub or a flamboyant display. One who fails to hide his passion will dissipate it.”

Adapted from Kol Simcha  (D”H Od PP 6869)

and Neos Desheh (D”H Kee Saytazay LaMilchmah Ahl Oyvecha P. 101, 128 in the new edition

My Skirt is My Korban Todah

Today I’m wearing a new skirt. That isn’t really enough of a subject for a column except that this particular skirt is long, falling well below my knees, midcalf. Rather than slinky, it’s got substance, wide flaring pleats and in this age of impossibly flimsy ladies wear, a real honest to goodness lining.

My fashionable self would call it retro, something that might have been worn on the Vassar campus in the fifties, but that isn’t why I bought it. I bought it because its tsniusdig, Glatt Kosher 100 per cent okay according to all Rabbinical opinions.

This skirt is my Korban Todah (thankfulness offering), my own way of saying thank you to the Ribono Shel Olom for certain favors He’s done for me. I’ve been told, that tsnius is the ultimate women’s mitzvah, the point of her ultimate testing. Frankly, it hasn’t been my strong point. Ever since I ditched my blue jeans back in the mid eighties, I’ve been at war with myself, over my image about how I want to look. Tsniusdig, yes, of course, but not overly so because that would be frumpy, frumak, Farchnyucked, Yachne.

For years, I walked on a tightrope between the two, until now buying clothes that were good enough, just barely kosher, not kosher lemehadrin. Why? I didn’t buy foods with dubious hechsherim. Why was I letting myself be so sloppy with this. It just didn’t make a lot of sense to let a few inches of fabric come between me and the Ribono Shel Olom.

Today I put the skirt on for the very first time, as is. There was no need for alterations because it was perfect as is and now I’m wearing it. It fits nicely. No reason why tsniusdig can’t mean pretty but so far nobody has noticed, not my husband until I pointed it out to him, not my next door neighbor who came by to borrow an electric pump, not my upstairs neighbor, and not the young mother of my son’s classmate whom I passed as she was pushing her baby carriage down the block. Not anyone I met at the grocery store either. Not at the vegetable bins, the canned goods section, the dairy case. As the matter stands, no one in my 100 per cent orthodox neighborhood has seen fit to compliment me on my brand new 100 per cent tsniusdig skirt.

And I desperately want somebody to say something nice. This is a major step in my life— as big as a beginning BT walking away from a Big Mac and I want it to be acknowledged. Not with fireworks, a parade, a hand coming down from heaven. All I need is a good word and a smile.

The silence makes me worry. Maybe my fashion sense was off. Maybe the skirt is really ugly. Maybe I should skip this frummy stuff and go back to my old way. This is the sitra achra, I tell myself, that undertow of negativity that bubbles up whenever we undertake some small improvement. I give myself a pep talk.

Yes, you are doing the right thing standing up for modesty in a world where Britany Spears and Beyonce rule. No you don’t need a 100 gun salute or a Congressional Medal of Honor or a Nobel Prize and besides you are getting one in shomayim.

But deep down, I still don’t believe it. I still want someone to notice me. Oh Hashem, please I beg, A compliment. A good word.

Toward evening I meet my friend Pearly. Pearly with her nose ring and tattoo, (hennaed and temporary, thank G-d, not the permanent assur kind). Pearly who spends her Shabboses walking her dogs in the park.

“New skirt,” she asks. “C’mon then. Give it a turn. Very nice,” and then she smiles.

Originally Posted Jun 25, 2008

Teaching Tznius

By Chaya Houpt
Originally posted on Chaya’s blog – All Victories

Last week, I dropped off three little Queen Esthers at gan. The holiday of Purim fell on Friday in Jerusalem this year, but this was the day the kids wore their costumes to school. Y.B. and A.N. and their friend Y entered their classroom and skipped off into a sea of princess-queens. The little boys were dressed as kings, and also alligators and policeman and all other kinds of disguises expressing a range of pint-size machismo. And my daughters and almost all the other girls were dressed as queens or princesses. There might have been a bride or two.

I thought about this post that I wrote last year about the contrast between pretty-pretty-princess culture and the Jewish concept of a princess. While the American cult of the princess ties her self-worth to her appearance, the Jewish model of female royalty is inner dignity and substance. I hoped that my attempts to reframe princesses in those terms would inoculate them against messages of the broader society. I wondered what would happen when they started preschool.

And here we are.

* * *

In past years, my girls have dressed up for Purim as a ladybug and a butterfly. And then a butterfly and a ladybug. And then two bees. This year, there was no discussion. They came home from gan with their plans fully formed: they would both dress as Queen Esther, just like Y and all their other friends.

We headed to the costume aisle of the local discount store. A.N. picked out a fabulous Disney-esque moon-and-star gown like this one. Y.B. spotted a costume labeled “Jasmine,” that I might have described more like “harem dancer.”

“Ooh, that one looks super-Persian, just like Queen Esther,” I observed. It really was pretty awesome-looking, all scarves and brocade and purple velvet.

Y.B. eyed the picture on the front of the package. A child model gazed out at us with all the provocative allure that an eight-year-old can muster. Y.B. noted the midriff-baring top. “That’s not tzanua,” she commented. Not modest. She’s only four, but she knows that.

“It’s okay,” I told her. “We’ll put a shirt underneath and make it tzanua.” She agreed and we tried it on and we picked out tiaras and a lion costume for B.A. (This doesn’t get said often, but toddlers are kind of easy. Especially boys). We were on our way.

* * *

Costume day arrived. The kids dressed with great excitement. Y.B. admired herself in the mirror. I felt swept along in the dress-up glee.

But something seemed off. Y.B.’s skirt was more like bunch of panels of tulle over transparent tulle pants. She was definitely looking more harem dancer than Persian queen. Not so appropriate for a preschooler.

“Y.B., I think you should wear this skirt under your costume. Look, it’s the same purple velvet as the shirt”

“No,” she said. “I like it the way it is.”

I tried again.

“Listen, I can see your legs. And it’s sort of hard to say whether that’s okay. For a little girl, it’s fine. And for a woman or a big girl, it’s not. And you are four-and-a-half, so you’re sort of a little girl and sort of a big girl. I’m telling you what I think. I think you should wear an extra skirt underneath. But I’m letting you decide.”

She chose not to add another layer. I appealed to my husband for help.

“You’re the one who told her it’s her decision,” he said. Rrrmmph.

I told Y.B. about when I was seven and I went as Sleeping Beauty for Halloween. It was an unseasonably cold October for Arizona, and my dad totally ruined my princess costume by making me wear long underwear.

“And you know, I was really mad at Poppy. But I was also warm,” I told Y.B. “Because Poppy loves me and he was taking care of me.”

Y.B. listened with interest. She did not put on the extra skirt.

* * *

I thought, how important is this? Yes, she was a little skimpily clad for a kid. But was I worried about her dignity being compromised? This is a person who still throws tantrums in public and thinks nothing of it. She’s four.

And you know, with parenting, I’m playing the long game. I want my daughters and my son to grow into people who intrinsically understand modesty and want to embody it. That’s not going to happen by me pulling rank and making Y.B. change her clothes. It’s only going to happen, with God’s help, if my husband and I continually model tzniut, modesty, and encourage it in our children.

It’s not like my dad and the long underwear—he just needed to keep his kid warm during a chilly night of trick-or-treating. He didn’t need to worry that I would rebel and become warm-clothing averse for the rest of my life. He was meeting a short-term parenting goal that evening.

It doesn’t really matter what little Y.B. wears on any given day. What counts is how she feels about herself and her own worth, and how she learns gradually to manifest self-respect in the way she dresses.

This is tricky for me because I came to the Torah’s approach to modesty as an adult. Well, I thought I was an adult. Let’s say an older teenager. Which is to say, I recognized my options. I was old enough by then to understand what it meant to be a woman in the world and the implications of how I presented myself physically.

My children, however, have heard about tzniut since before they could talk. They are learning the laws and social norms of dress before they know anything about their context, before they can appreciate the alternative.

And so I tread lightly, careful not to misrepresent the Torah as shaming or oppressive. I try to give my children background and rationales that they can appreciate on their level, so that they don’t think modesty is just one more thing parents say. You know, like “chew with your mouth closed” or “put your clothes in the hamper. Those directives are important, certainly, but not on the same level as the eternal will of God, right?

* * *

Returning to the clothing struggle. I gave up. By which I mean that I looked pleadingly at my husband.

He sat down on the couch with Y.B. and told her about Queen Esther. Told her how all the other girls called to the palace asked for extra adornments to enhance their appeal, but Esther relied on her own inner strength to carry her through. Esther was tzanua. Esther was a gibora, a heroine.

Y.B. went into the bedroom and put on the extra skirt. She looked beautiful.

We made a big deal about Y.B.’s strength and bravery. But that’s not really what counts.

Refining the Rough Edges

“”Tsnius” is a broad concept that encompasses more than just clothing.

We need to be tsnius in thought and demeanor, learning to speak softly and carry a soft stick, modifying how we speak to each other and how we react to those inevitable “event cards” in our lives. How do we learn to be pure in thought and action, G-dly in manner and deed?

For the fledgling BT, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Growing up, I was known as “Foghorn Leghorn” in my family. As the disappearing middle child, I learned how to be noticed by developing a powerful set of lungs. I’m pretty sure I would have made it on the stage were I less shy than I was. In my family, you had to be LOUD to be heard, as rambunctious as we all were.

My aggressive and strong voice reverberates across the miles. People know I’ve arrived before I do. It’s just the way it is.

But just because I’m LOUD doesn’t mean I’m bold and confident. My ebullience masks a mass of insecurities and shrinking violet-itis.

I am a shy person. There you have it. Socially inept, tongue-tied and lacking in confidence, that’s me.

I don’t particular notice FFBs being modest and quiet all the time. In fact I’ve met some wonderfully outgoing and rambunctious characters in my travels – to my delight! I don’t think being a shrinking violet or a mouse is what is meant by being tsnius, modest and G-dly.

I do however need to smooth out the rough edges. I think we all have a desire to enhance our positive attributes while diminishing the negative – refining the nefesh to refine the neshama.

When I became frum, I tore into my wardrobe and eliminated the “not tsnius” clothing, mostly jeans and leggings. That was fairly easy to do. Okay, I admit it was a little hard to give away some of my favorite outfits, but I was never that flashy to begin with.

So now it’s time to overhaul my personality wardrobe.

I confess – I used to have a few swear words in my vocabulary. There’s nothing like a good expletive to make you feel better when you hammer your thumb. It just works.

I’m happy to report that I’ve eliminated these words, with just an occasional minor slip up, like when a pot falls out of the cupboard and hits me in the head. My husband always tells me to thank Hashem for the tikkun.

I’ve been able to successfully replace bad words with less damaging ones like “jeepers!” or “darn!”

I’d like to revamp me entirely though, so my automatic default isn’t anger or a negative behaviour mode when bad things happen.

I’d like to become the kind of person that doesn’t need to vent when things don’t go my way.

I’d like to be the kind of person that takes it all in stride and is comfortable knowing there’s not much I can do about life’s little annoyances, or even major catastrophes, since it’s G-d’s will anyway.

So, how do I do that?

How do I learn how not to let things get to me, to be less cranky when things don’t go my way? How do I quiet the internal road-rage when I hit life’s potholes and traffic jams?

How do I match my personality and demeanor to my tsnius skirts and blouses?

I think it’s by stilling the internal noise, and opening my mind and my ears.

Mishlei 23:12. Bring your heart to discipline and your ears to words of knowledge.

Modest is as Modest Does

Dressing modestly was probably pretty far down on my list of things to do, when I  became frum. It’s not that I dressed particularly immodestly – I wore baggy jeans and baggy sweatshirts all through university; and I never went for tight skirts or plunging tops.

But the concept of wearing only skirts just didn’t appeal to me. It seemed way to ‘old’; and to be a statement that I would never ride a bike or jog in public again.

That’s when I was in my early twenties. I got married at 23, and then another element of ‘tznius’ came into play: should I, or shouldn’t I, cover my hair?

I decided I shouldn’t. Not because I thought G-d didn’t want me too – on the contrary, I knew I should be doing it. But it was just so hard. I have thick, black, curly hair that over the years has become almost my calling card. If I covered it up, I’d have to chop it off or risk passing out from heat exhaustion.

If I covered it up, in the UK workplace, I’d have to wear a wig or risk really standing out from the crowd, which I didn’t have the self-confidence to do. And wearing a wig just wasn’t ‘me’.

And so, every few years the question of dressing more modestly would crop up, and I would gently pat it away, to be dealt with at some point in the future, when I would need to be more consistent in my frumkeit.

That time came when my first child was born, and started to attend an orthodox school where the dress code for parents picking up stated that any woman on school premises had to be wearing a skirt.

A lot of my fellow parents complained about it; but I thought it was a fair request. The school was orthodox, it was teaching an orthodox way of life, and wearing skirts – for girls and women – is an halachic requirement.

At first, I thought I’d wear a skirt to drop my daughter off, and pick her up, and then change into jeans in between. But 3 changes a day wasn’t practical, so what happened instead is that I went out and bought a few more skirts, and started wearing them every day except on Sundays, when it was the weekend.

I have to say I did notice a difference. I did feel less ‘young-looking’ in some ways; but I also felt more feminine and less ‘hard’. Difficult to explain, but I started getting a lot more compliments from my husand. I also realised that shopping was SO much easier, when you were limited to buying longish skirts. I hate shopping, so having my choices curtailed by tznius factors was like a blessed relief.

Then we moved to Israel, and I started to only wear my jeans on the plane trips back to the UK. But something about Israel persuaded me that even that was a stretch to far, and last year, I donated my jeans to the local clothing charity.

But hair covering was still a big no-no. It was even hotter in Israel; it was even harder to do it, in some ways. It was even more of a statement of religious belief. It’s a long story, but to cut it short, I finally realised that it’s what G-d wants; and at least in Israel, I could cover it exactly how I wanted, without standing out from the crowd too much.

But it was still a shock to the system. For the first few weeks, I felt that my (chiloni) neighbours were looking at my new bandana quite suspiciously; it was like wearing a t-shirt with ‘I am properly frum’ emblazoned on the front.

But after a few weeks, both they and I got used to it. That was almost a year ago. Today, I’m only wearing skirts, and covering my hair – although not all of it, but that’s a topic for another conversation entirely.

A few months’ ago, I was talking to my friend, another BT, who had also struggled with maintaining a sense of her own style, when she became frum. As we talked, we realised this must be an issue for a whole bunch of BTs – and so, we decided to do something about it.

We have put together a website, www.nutmegshop.com, which sells affordable, fashionable clothes that are modest, but still stylish. We’re starting it on a shoestring, but as it develops, we’d like the site to become a forum for frum ladies to discuss clothes and fashion, and to share tips and experiences. As you’ll see if you visit, we’ve tried to kick things off by discussing what can happen when you cover your hair and you want to go down a water flume…

But it’s a work in progress, and we’d love to get more feedback from the Beyond BT community on it. My friend and I know from our experiences that ‘dressing frum’ is often one of the hardest parts of ‘living frum’. By launching nutmegshop.com, we’re hoping to make dressing modestly easier and more enjoyable, and also to make the point that dressing tzniusly doesn’t always have to mark such a radical departure from what came before.

Internalizing Tzinus

I was talking to someone the other day about the topic of tznius. She is newly observant and she asked me about the halachas of dressing in a modest fashion – now that the weather was getting warmer, she wanted to know what she could and couldn’t wear, and in observing others, she was a bit confused, because she saw that everyone did something a little different. I gave her a quick overview of the laws – covering elbows, knees and collarbone, wearing skirts and explained that when it comes to the rest of it, different people do different things and the best thing to do is to speak about it with someone you trust.

She then told me a story that blew me away. She told me that for a year, she had an eating disorder. She was obsessed with her body and her weight, and she became extremely thin, to the point where she could no longer find clothes small enough to fit her. Her friends and family were concerned and kept telling her that she was too thin, but she couldn’t see it.

She then learned about tznius and the philosophy behind it. She was taught about how the neshama should be able to shine from within, and that it is what is inside a person that is important. Her eating disorder disappeared as she focused on her internal image rather than her external one.

This woman, before even knowing the laws of tznius, managed to understand and internalize the underlying wisdom within the concept. I was awed by the fact that, instead of focusing on what she was wearing to be modest, she took it a huge step further and let the concept make an incredible difference in how she viewed herself.

Many people get caught up in hemlines, stockings, colors and sandals (and whether or not to wear any of the above). But tznius is so much more. It’s a way of life, of interacting with others, and of viewing oneself. It’s often a challenge to remember to focus on what is inside a person, to see their essence. It takes more effort and time to see someone for who they are rather than what they look like. But that is what tznius is all about – taking away the focus on outward appearance to give others the opportunity to look beyond. This woman has found it within herself. May we all follow her lead.