Thursday, June 10, 2010

I Have Met the Other, and He is Me

I’ve been having a case of writer’s block lately. Or more accurately, a lack of inspiration. I used to have an idea for a post pretty regularly, every week or two. Lately, nothing.

I suppose part of the problem is that I want my posts to be original and unique, and most of what there is to write about has been written. I can write about my own experiences, but unless my anecdotes tie in to some bigger point, posting autobiographical accounts just seems narcissistic.

That said, I finally had an idea. It occurred to me that I instinctively feel uncomfortable around people who dress the way I do now.

The yeshivish world is obsessed with how people dress. For girls there’s tznius; for boys, there’s the uniform of black hat, pants, shoes, socks, and yarmulke and the white shirt. Even little kids starting in in 4th or 5th grade have to wear an approximation of the uniform, though their dress shirts are usually allowed to have patterns and they can wear all-black sneakers instead of shoes. I remember going shoe-shopping as a kid and having trouble finding sneakers without a trace of other color. Even a white Nike swoosh on an otherwise all-black shoe was a problem.

While it might be permissible to wear a polo shirt on vacation or while playing ball, dressing “like the goyim” was completely unacceptable. To this day, when I shop for clothing I inevitably imagine the clothes for sale on the stereotypical boorish "goy" caricature and have to quiet the voice in the back of my head that asks how I could wear the same things as one of them.

The ultimate goyish clothing is the jeans-and-t-shirt outfit that has become ubiquitous in the US and around the world. T-shirts might be tolerated in camp during the summer, but jeans, especially blue jeans, are evil. I still instinctively react to a frum guy in jeans by assuming he must be a bit of a bum. Which is odd, because a guy in jeans and a t-shirt is what I see most of the time when I look in the mirror.

I was sixteen when I realized that judging people based on the way they dress is silly. My epiphany came one afternoon when I was passing by a shul and was asked to help make a minyan for mincha. As I stood in the back looking around at my fellow congregants, I noticed one who was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and sandals with a leather yarmulke on his head. I instinctively judged him to be less-than: less frum, less of a decent person, not as worthy as a refined yeshiva bochur like myself.

Then I realized how absurd that was. This guy had voluntarily come to shul in the middle of the day to daven mincha with a minyan. On the other hand, I, had I not been dragooned into helping make the minyan, would have happily not davened mincha at all.

And I was thinking that I was frummer than him? Because I wore a white shirt and he wore jeans?

We judge people based on how they dress because it’s convenient. We can tell at a glance what a person is wearing; it takes hours of conversation to learn about someone’s personality and beliefs. Because we judge people based on what they wear, clothing can be a strong group identifier. In the yeshivish world, wearing the yeshivish uniform declares that you’re One Of Us – and not One Of Them. Unfortunately Them is seen as the evil Other.

I have no problem with clothing as a group identifier. The indoctrinated belief that someone who dresses like One Of Them is the evil Other… that still affects me. Even when those who dress like the Other dress just like me.


  1. I suppose part of the problem is that I want my posts to be original and unique, and most of what there is to write about has been written.

    There are not many blogs that examine Jewish concerns with a genuinely philosophical spirit. Of course, doing philosophy is hard work -- much more demanding than writing reports on one's quotidian existence. So I hope that you can keep up the work that you have been doing, but I can understand if you find it difficult to be as productive as you have been at some former periods.

  2. Even a white Nike swoosh on an otherwise all-black shoe was a problem.

    That's what Sharpies are made for...

  3. Just discovered your blog from a comment you made on Dov Bear's "Miscarriage of Justice" post.

    This post of yours is very interesting. I can't remember where I saw it--some Jewish blog or other--but there was a photo of many yeshiva guys sitting and learning in a Bet Midrash (or Beis Medrish, if you prefer), all wearing white shirts--except for one, who wore a blue shirt! In later iterations of this photo, the blue was photo-shopped out to be white. Talk about conformity!

    If you've ever visited Israel, you know that there is a large segment of "frum" Jews (some call them 'settlers') who daven during the week in short shirt sleeves, no jacket, shorts and sandals. And never a tie, of course (you only wear a tie when you get married). They are no less frum than me or you.

    In my experience, actually, many are more fervent and have greater emunah, possibly because they are infused with the ambiance of...eretz hakodesh.

    Just an observation.