Standing outside that synagogue so many years ago, I was puzzled by my friend’s excessive resentment. The woman who had offended her was clearly a sheltered busybody who jumped to conclusions about other Jews’ level of observance based on their clothes. My friend is a Sabbath-observant, kosher-eating, Torah-learning gal from a strong Jewish home. She knows exactly how religious she is; I did not understand why she was so offended by a stranger’s foolish assumption. In fact, I found the encounter mildly entertaining. A few weeks ago, my friend’s experience hit home. A visitor to the Center for Jewish Life bent over me during services and informed me in an eager, pedantic manner that I was bowing improperly. I found the advice bizarre and bemusedly thanked her for her concern.
At the end of services she approached me, and, I admit, I expected an apology for her earlier unwanted instructions. What I got was a 10-minute lecture covering the virtues of modesty, the dangerous suggestiveness of trousers, a description of acceptable skirt length and the probability that I would snag a good husband. Apparently there’s a significant correlation between hemlines and domestic felicity. I raised a few arguments against her view of modesty, assured her that I am not presently on the prowl for a mate and suggested that we agree to disagree before fleeing the scene. This lady is either mentally unstable or so out of touch with the world she cannot walk into a community that differs in any respect from her own without giving offense. I have never met her before and will probably never have the honor again. She is not a human being whose good opinion I desire.
Yet when I hid in the CJL lounge afterward trying to recover my dignity from this well-meant, terribly misguided attack, I felt traumatized and humiliated. At some point I registered that I was vacillating between feelings of shock, anger and amusement. The shock quickly wore off, leaving anger very much the dominant emotion. The Princeton Jewish community is a sanctuary for me, an environment that successfully mingles respectful pluralism with proud, unapologetic assertion of identity. This woman unleashed her intolerance in the heart of the environment that religious Jews escape to when they are tired of explaining and apologizing for their lifestyle. Her intrusion was nothing short of violation.
Thankfully, our campus doesn’t contain or produce many individuals who feel entitled to criticize strangers’ outfits. Such criticism is generally recognized as antisocial behavior. On the other hand, students don’t always have the same sensitivity when it comes to their friends’ clothes. When we criticize a dress as “slutty” or a tie as “toolish,” we are passing judgment, intentional or not, upon its owner. This article is not really a call for students to stop making cruel remarks about their friends’ clothes; those who do so have no idea how much their words hurt, or worse, they don’t care, and no amount of preaching will change that. This is a request that the butt of such remarks stand up for themselves. What made me so angry in my interaction with the modesty policewoman was my own reaction: I validated her attack by respectfully hearing her out and trying to reason with her. When anyone, friend or stranger, condemns my clothes, casting implications upon my lifestyle and character, I owe it to myself to lose my temper or immediately walk away. What we wear is deeply, meaningfully related to who we are. Don’t tolerate someone else’s disrespect.
Tehila Wenger is a sophomore from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at email@example.com.