I went to Sternberg first half, back when it was six weeks and considered by many a pit of impurity. It probably was. After all, that’s where I learned the facts of life: something I would not have otherwise have learned from an educated source. (My educated source being an girl a with sex ed class under her belt.)
Perhaps worse, I walked out of Sternberg with an MO friend.
Then again, she walked out with a whole bunch of bais Yaakov friends. If anything, she flipped out by association with us, and not the reverse. She joined us in accepting all the important practices of bais Yaakov women, like long sleeves and tznius buttons. We exchanged copious emails tracking our progress, bemoaning the fact that we still, somehow, hated duty-length skirts, even though our teachers promised we’d get used to it after a month and never want to go back. We wanted to go back so badly, but we wanted to be good even more badly.
However, since she didn’t attend a bais Yaakov, some of the finer points of tznius were lost on my Friend. As was illustrated when I brought her to school one day.
I spent the evening before on the phone with her, reviewing all the guidelines for her Friday attire.
1 – No denim. Denim is the cloth of the working man. Benos Yisroel are not men. Benos melochim do not work. Denim is not appropriate attire for aidel maidels.
2 – No zipper fly. Flies are placed in a location that is wildly inappropriate on a woman. All it does is alert men to the available access points. NOT TZNIUS.
3 – No cargo pockets or similar accoutrements. Twofold problem here: firstly that cargo pockets were “in” and trendy is never tznius. (Fashion is decided by men in Paris whose sole goal in dressing women is to expose them in new and exciting ways. In contrast, tznius is decided by men in Manchester, whose sole goal in dressing women is to hide them from new and exciting male imaginings.) Second problem: see item 1 on functional work clothes.
4 – Skirt must reach four inches below the knee. This is so that when seated, the skirt still covers the knees and nobody can see up your skirt.
5 – Skirt must not be longer than two inches above the ankles. Long, sweeping skirts are untznius because they draw attention to oneself, they’re sloppy, and they’re fashionable (at least among the gothic crowd, and a bas melech is not gothic).
My Friend promised to heed all these rules, although she clearly thought I was overreacting. She was visiting for one day. What did my principal care what she wore?
I almost died when I saw what she brought to wear. It was a jersey t-shirt fabric with a drawstring and cargo pockets. And it went down to her ankles.
“You can’t…” I didn’t know where to start. It was obvious to me that benos melachim didn’t wear jersey skirts for anything but lounging around at home. Drawstrings hearkened to exercising, which has all sorts of immodest associations in the imagination of strangers. Worst of all, it was too long!
“I’ll roll it up,” she shrugged. “What’s the big deal?” Rolling the waistband hid the drawstrings, so I calmed my palpitating heart and took her to school.
“Maybe we can avoid seeing the Rebbetzin,” I comforted myself. My classroom was literally across the hall from her office, but she was a busy woman and we didn’t have many breaks in our day. It could be managed.
“You’re crazy,” my Friend laughed.
We did not avoid the Rebbetzin. At one point, we walked out of the classroom for a bathroom break and there she was.
I saw her eyes drop to my friend’s sneakers (yes, she wore sneakers *face palm*) and begin the slow climb of the Bais Yaakov teacher elevator eyes. I saw her take in the hemline (the skirt had slipped down), the cargo pockets, the jersey fabric, the drawstrings…
The Rebbetzin forced a smile, welcomed my Friend. Asked her a few questions. Let us go.
“See? That wasn’t so bad,” my Friend gloated. “You were all nervous for nothing.”
We were halfway through Parsha class when the announcement came over the PA. We were all required to attend an emergency assembly in the lunch room.
We exchanged puzzled glances. Had something happened? Were we being gathered to say Tehillim?
No, we were being gathered for something more important: a tznius reminder.
The Rebbetzin was a big believer in the power tears. Public tears. Mainly: her tears in our public. After all, how could we sit there stony-hearted listening to a full-grown woman sob about the state of our souls (or wardrobes) and not be affected?
It’s like Jewish mother guilt, but for an entire school.
And we were affected. We sat there, heads lowered, and listened to how important tznius was –- how it was the highest calling of an unmarried Jewish woman, the most important mitzvah of our gender. We listened to how important it was to present ourselves as benos melochim in our dress and our behavior. We listened to how important it is to hem our skirts two inches above our ankles to avoid looking sloppy or goyish. And we absorbed the visceral pain the Rebbetzin felt on seeing girls who didn’t value tznius cheapen themselves with the clothes they wore.
“Does this happen a lot?” my Friend leaned over and whispered.
I shook my head. Maybe two or three times a year.
“It’s because of me, isn’t it?” she asked.
“I told you so,” I whispered back.
“Wow,” she said. “She really cares about the length of your skirts.”
We filed out of the assembly soberly, weighed down by guilt over denim and with a new resolve to keep our hemlines restricted.
On the bright side, we missed most of Parsha and a good deal of Biology.