There is a concept in Judaism of “mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma.” This means that if you start doing something for the wrong reasons you will eventually do it for the right reasons.
This is an idea much emphasized in the bais Yaakov environment, because it can help you become the bais Yaakov maidel you want to be, even if you aren’t quite yet. For example, if prayer isn’t meaningful to you, then you won’t pray. And then you will never have the opportunity for it to become meaningful to you.
But if you daven mincha every day because the school requires you to, then every day you have the opportunity to make it meaningful. Eventually, you may do it of your own free will.
In daily bais Yaakov life, suggestions for your personal improvement were offered regularly: in class, at special assemblies, and during the regular “Kabbalah of the Month” announcement. Those were a monthly affair in which a student would suggest a new step in personal improvement to the entire school.
The concept of “mitoch shelo lishma” meant that you were expected to adopt these kabbalos even if you didn’t understand or agree with them. Adopting them with blind acceptance was the only way they ever had a chance of becoming personally meaningful to you.
So, you might feel silly addressing your teachers in third person, but you were urged to try it for a month. After a month, it would be your new normal. Far from weird, you’d feel disrespectful saying “you” to a teacher ever again.
At least, that was the theory.
And I can honestly say that I have pushed the theory to its limit with regard to skirt length, and I have found it wanting.
Avoiding skirts that brush the shoes was a big no-no in my school. But hemming skirts the requisite 2” above the ankles was anathema to anyone with the mildest sense of style.
The Rebbetzin urged me to try wearing hemmed skirts for just a few months. Once I saw how much more refined it looked, I would never want to go back.
That was 9th grade.
I hemmed my long skirts to 2” above my ankles throughout high school and hated it. Every time I looked in the mirror I saw – not a put-together bas melech – but a pathetic neb with scraggly ankles sticking out from a too-short skirt. But I accepted the premise that the problem was in my head, and all I had to do was get used to it. So I gritted my teeth and kept doing it.
And I did it through seminary too.
Then I came home from seminary and tried to keep up the habit.
Most of my friends would roll their eyes at the amount of anguish this 2” rule caused me. Either they didn’t bother hemming their skirts, or they wore knee-length skirts instead.
I came to that pretty late in life. I hated tights, and I lived in sneakers. And I needed a skirt that would keep my knees covered no matter what activity I was engaged in.
In high school, my skirts were mostly uniform skirts. But once I graduated, I needed a wardrobe for daily wear.
This was a problem.
That’s because I had to conform to the rest of the bais Yaakov dress code at the same time. And the bais Yaakov dress code makes it impossible to buy a long skirt. Because to be an aidel bais Yaakov skirt, the skirt must:
- not be made of denim
- not have a fly
- not have rear pockets
- not have cargo pockets
- not be too snug around any curves
- not look sloppy or slovenly or too gothic
Additionally, to make me want to buy it, the skirt also had to:
- permit a full range of motion
- be sturdy enough for any activity
- be comfortable
- appeal to my sense of style
This is obviously impossible, and led to many, many exceedingly frustrating shopping trips. In fact, for about a year after seminary, I shopped constantly and never bought a single skirt.
Finally, in desperation, I took an old, worn-out skirt to a seamstress and asked her to duplicate it.
Then, one day, browsing in Elzee, I found the perfect skirt. It was a sort of Israeli-style full skirt, a-line, flattering, and except for the length, perfectly tznius according to every bais Yaakov rule. There was a side zipper with a string tie, it was made of a tough but thin black fabric, and there were no pockets at all.
It was perfect. It was beautiful. I would love it forever. So I bought two.
The problem was, the long a-line style was clearly meant to brush the tops of one’s shoes. That was the style. Hemming it two inches would ruin the silhouette. It would be transformed from beautiful to hideous. I almost couldn’t do it.
But I knew this was just a nisayon, so I took them to the seamstress for a hem.
When I got there, I pulled them out of the bag, and oops – I had accidentally (“accidentally”?) left one of them at home. So only one of them got hemmed.
I told myself I wouldn’t wear the unhemmed one until I got it hemmed. But I never got around to it, laundry happened, and did I mention this was the only long skirt I had?
This is the insidious weakening of resolve they warned us about. That creeping backslide that invariably happens when you graduate high school and leave the close embrace of daily tzinus exhortations. Soon enough, I was wearing both skirts interchangeably.
And then I noticed something: I was reaching for the unhemmed skirt more often. The reason was simple: when I looked in the mirror wearing the longer skirt, I saw someone who looked put-together and presentable. The two inches of scraggly ankle that stuck out from under the hem of the shorter skirt had not become easier to bear after six years.
The Rebbetzin was wrong. I still hated the look.
After six years, I could say it with definitude: mitoch shelo lishma isn’t foolproof. You can’t find meaning in a practice that has none. Hemmed skirts did not look more refined. They did not look like anything a bas melech would wear. There was just one thing that they were: ugly.
So I stopped wearing them.
Experiment declared failure. Sorry, Rebbetzin.
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