“Oh, and wear something bordering on appropriate,” my mother says into the phone, an hour before my cousin’s wedding.
“Hrmm,” I say noncommittally, reaching deep into my closet for an item that to the untrained eye might appear an elaborate doily. I’ve only worn this dress once before, to another Orthodox Jewish wedding.
I hadn’t planned it that way when I bought it. Or maybe I had. Orthodox Jewish functions are the only events that compel me to dress like a stripper on a cigarette break.
I don my doily with pleasure, feeling revolutionary. A sartorial Che Guevara. I’ve come a long way since the days when the best I could do was a jean skirt that showed some shin. At the New Jersey day schools I attended for my first 18 years of life, girls studied family purity while the boys wrangled with the Talmud, and the dress code was taken several times more seriously than college admissions; skirts had to reach mid-calf, sleeves had to cover the biceps, and even exposed collar-bones were risqué. If a student showed up to class in an outfit that didn’t meet the guidelines, she’d be forced to change into the tznius (modesty) skirt the administration kept on hand for such contingencies. I was rarely that contingency.
But the further I travel from the fold, the more compelled I am to flash the rabbis. It’s as though I’m trying to say, look at me and know the path I’ve chosen, know there’s a reason you haven’t seen me in ten years and it’s not because I moved to the Upper West Side. I am different. I am lost to your world.
I am an idiot.
I realize this as soon as I get to the decked-out hotel ballroom filled with dark-suited men and women in wigs, and remember why I’d buried this dress so deep in my closet. It was to prevent my third or fourth reprisal of precisely this moment, when I realize I am not about to pull off the grand moral heist I’ve envisioned. No one is going to look at me and find that the unquestioned truths they arrived with have been replaced with Kant’s categorical imperative.
I stick close to the edges of the endless tables of food, trying to blend in with the linens. This is where my mother finds me.
“Hey there nakadika shiksa,” she says. Nakadika. Naked. Naked gentile chick. Thanks for nothing, lady.
She’s dressed in a suit that veers so sternly away from sexy it’s in danger of qualifying as luggage. She’s overdoing it. Modesty does not come naturally to her either. Orthodoxy itself never came naturally to her, and she finally made her ragged break with the role of good Jewish wife around the time I was shucking the guise of good Jewish daughter. Unlike me, though, she has no urge to suggest to the faithful that they’d need special rabbinical permission just to hear what she did last Friday night.