Orthodox Judaism has a uniform. It varies according to sect and strictness of observance, but it’s always there, worn as an identity.
As a child, I wore long, mid-calf skirts, sleeves below my elbows and necklines that covered my collarbone. I was lucky I could wear kneesocks, I couldn’t stand the feeling of tights, and I had room for expression with my hair and earrings. I pushed the boundaries as far as I could which wasn’t very far but made me a rebel. I got long cowboy boot earrings and rolled my socks down to my ankles. I pulled my sleeves up and stretched out my collars.
When I was a teenager, I exchanged that uniform for the one that branded me as trouble. I wore provocative graphic t-shirts I had cut, so they fell off one shoulder. I stole my boyfriend’s jeans and cargo pants and sported big black clunky boots. My hair hung around my face, stringy and unkempt. My hands, encased in homemade fingerless gloves, smelled like an ashtray and constantly twitched.
When I tried sobriety on, I bought wrap-around skirts that swept the ground and kept my t-shirts closer to my body.
And then, when the boy who wore flannel shirts on top of sweatshirts and baggy pants added tzitzit that flew behind him and a kippa that got lost in his wild hair, I thought about another uniform. He asked me to dinner one night. I got a haircut, put on my sister’s clothing, and said yes when he asked me to marry him sporting short hair and a clean collared shirt.
Very soon after, he walked down to meet me, a black hat I had never seen on his head, and the white fabric I uncomfortable wore constricted around me. The hat never reappeared, but a different kind took its place, and a beard grew with sidelocks and black and white, only on Shabbat, and I didn’t care because when you don’t believe in god, you don’t shake a marriage over a uniform. And anyway my skirts and shirts were changing with every season and every pregnancy, and every time I looked in the mirror and couldn’t recognize the woman staring back at me.
But my head stayed under wraps. Always, I kept my hair tucked beneath fabric I fought with each morning. Until he started sharing his doubts with me.
We started to strip. Slowly, we took off the bits of cloth that weighed us down and told the world the lie we once believed. And then it was down to a little bandana wound around my brain. Every day I would look at it and cry. Until I was tired of crying.
I walked out of the house without it late one Friday night when I knew no one else would be outside.
It took a while to feel comfortable without a uniform. I still feel naked at times. But that first time will stay with me always; an unveiling that is seared in my memory with a plaque reading: Here lies a woman of valor.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The air is cool and brisk. It has been a dry, moody winter and when the cold rain fell this morning a sigh of relief spread over me like a blanket. I am reminded that my sneakers don’t absorb water with a misstep into a pool of rainfall gathering in the groves of uneven pavement. It is dark and this section of sidewalk is poorly lit. My damp toes are worth the protection night has given me.
We are walking around the block. The kids are excited to be out in their pajamas. They chatter and skip, burying their noses in coats someone sent us from a place where winter means snow. Their cheeks are beginning to flush; I’m glad I left the windows open at home.
My husband walks beside me. His every stride is two of mine. No matter how hard we try; we are never fully in sync. He hums, occasionally adding a whistle, the way he does whenever he is lost in thought. I snake my hand into his pocket and find his welcoming fingers.
My heart is pounding.
My entire body is shaking.
I can feel every hair on my scalp.
I want to lower my head. I want to put my hood on. I want to run back home. I want to cry and laugh and cry.
A breeze blows towards me. I can feel the wind run through my exposed strands gently, almost lovingly. My eyes, stinging from the storm raging deep inside my tortured body, tear and swell, spilling sorrow down my cheeks where winter licks them softly dry.
We turn the last corner. We are alone on these cold, wet streets. We are performing a ritual we barely understand ourselves. They are accompanying me as I walk away from the crushing burden I know more intimately than the bare-head reflection I see in the mirrored lobby wall.
She smiles at me as I pass, her eyes are bright and bold and beautiful.