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This happened earlier this year, before my time abroad was cut short, but I still wonder what would have been right. I was working for a Jewish organization abroad, in eastern Europe. As part of the job, I was supposed to take a group of visiting students to an Orthodox rabbi’s house for Shabbat lunch. I hate wearing skirts. I look terrible in them, I think women should be able to wear what they want, and they are never warm enough when it is chilly out. My co-leader of the trip was insisting that I can’t wear pants to this rabbi’s house as a woman (he’s very Orthodox, and the country in general is very conservative about religious norms). I thought she was overreacting, but would it be very rude if I had shown up in pants?
Skirtless but not immodest
I don’t know if it would be very rude to wear pants, but it might make you stand out in ways that could be uncomfortable for you, depending on the setting, or send a message you don’t intend about your respect for Orthodox customs. In many Orthodox Jewish communities it is so strongly the norm for women to wear skirts, especially on Shabbat, that a woman in pants is kind of like a man without a kippah; it draws attention. If you were going to an Orthodox synagogue, especially one you describe as “very” Orthodox, I would recommend wearing a skirt, because you’re visiting a religious space where those norms are expected by the community.
But you’re going to the rabbi’s house, where I assume the group for lunch will just be the students from your trip. In that case, assuming you’re talking about an Orthodox rabbi whose community has some interaction with non-Orthodox communities since they’re hosting your group — which I’m assuming isn’t Orthodox from the way you’re describing the situation — you likely could have shown up in pants at his house without creating much of a scene. There is still the possibility he would take it as intentionally symbolic, as if you had worn pants specifically to signal that you are not Orthodox, but that might just mean some raised eyebrows and an internal shrug. Whenever you act directly differently than your host, you run the risk of drawing attention.
But this is also a work question. I’m interested in the insistence of your co-leader. Has this person been to this rabbi’s house before, or led other similar trips? If your co-leader is telling you that there is likely to be a fuss, or that pants will be taken as a sign of disrespect and will reflect badly on your organization, then take that seriously.
I assume part of working for a Jewish organization in your part of the world requires moving fluidly among different Jewish communities, and as a professional, you would want to follow the guidance of your organization on what clothing makes the different Jewish communities your organization serves feel comfortable. Your co-leader might also know the country better — I have no idea if there is an experience gap between you two —so if that’s the case, I’d trust your co-worker on this one and go with the skirt, at least for your first visit.
But if you’d feel so viscerally uncomfortable in a skirt that you’d be unable to interact well with the rabbi or lead your group, then wear what you want and just be prepared to potentially weather some social discomfort. Act graciously and respectfully, of course, and it likely won’t be a big deal. And in case it matters, a dress past the knee would be just as appropriate as a skirt of the same length.
Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to email@example.com.
Do I have to wear a skirt to an Orthodox rabbi’s house?