A friend had an engagement party recently, and it got me thinking. The vort was in her parents’ home, and pretty much everyone at the event was very frum, visibly so in their dress. There was very little color in the room, even on the women’s side… Another friend and I, in green and red (unplanned, but appropriate for the season?), were almost the only spots of color in a room full of women dressed almost exclusively in blacks and greys.
But that’s not what really struck me about the whole event.
From March 2016 through February 2017, I attended numerous wedding-related events for my three younger brothers’ weddings. Each one was excruciating for me. The main reason, of course, was that I was expected to pretend I wasn’t having panic attacks each time I saw the brother who had molested me as a child. But the other reason was that I was hiding bits of myself each time.
It’s difficult to hide the fact that I’m not frum, what with my short red hair and visible wrist tattoo. But I still had to hide essential parts of myself, as I joined in the joy of a very religious ceremony, a very religious celebration – even though life events are semi-universal, when they’re so steeped in religious meaning, they become less about the happiness of my dear brothers and more about the religion I cannot stand.
March 2016 – Brother’s vort #1, with sister and cousins. I’m wearing a black dress which covers my knees, a black shell, black tights, and black shoes.
March 2016, Brother’s vort #2. The dress is in fact above my knees, and I’m wearing sheer nude tights and a burgundy dress because I wanted to feel pretty, and because I knew the brother whose vort it was wouldn’t mind, even if my parents did. I spent much of the time pretending I didn’t see as women glanced down at my knees and then quickly focused on my face again. As I posed for this photo, my aunt looked at me with *that* expression on her face. I ignored her and focused on my sister, who was egging me on to stop being stiff and to “pose like a normal person!”
October 2016, Brother’s vort #3, with sisters, sisters-in-law, and the chosson (groom). I’m wearing a new dress I bought for the occasion, which was in itself a stressful hassle and laden with anxiety.
And during dinners and lunches, at the weddings and at the aufrufs (pre-wedding weekends, kind of), the conversation would seem perfectly natural and uncontroversial to everyone sitting there, everyone who had been raised in the same environment, while I sat there unable (or unwilling) to voice my intense disagreement with views everyone else took for granted.
While I held my tongue because a simcha is not the time or place to assert my selfhood and potentially make things tense.
While I pretended not to feel horrible when cousins, aunts, people from the “other side” would be fascinated by my life and my career, while they thought they were being nice but I felt like I was being treated like an oddity.
What a difference when the simcha is not my own family’s…
This time, at my friend’s vort, I was obviously respectful of the frum environment. I dressed appropriately and tzniusdig, with black opaque tights and a long-sleeved black shell.
(As you can see, my sister was right to be exasperated with my inability to pose “like a normal person…”)
But I didn’t have to worry about what people would say when they saw my hair and my tattoo, and how my parents would feel to know that their daughter was being whispered about, and that people were perhaps shaking their heads, “nebach,” on the whole family. People may have been talking about me, I don’t know – but it didn’t matter, because it was a fleeting moment and I was an “outsider,” anyway, not related to the ba’al simcha and therefore not reflecting anything about the simcha.
I also wore a really cute dress I’d had for a while and hadn’t had a chance to wear yet. If this were my own sibling’s vort, I would never have worn it (or would at least have agonized over wearing it and then felt guilty the entire time). I would have been afraid to shame my parents – or at the very least to cause them a pang of pain by “flaunting” my difference and non-conformity. But here – I was tzniusdig. There was nothing overly revealing about the dress – it even covered my knees!
It made me stand out because it didn’t blend in with the other dresses, because it shows individuality. I felt cute, and confident, and – gasp! – sexy. And not once were these good feelings tempered by worry, stress, or anxiety over how my choices are affecting my family, because at this event I was just another guest.
What a difference.
I reflected a bit on my classmates’ vorts from years ago as well. I was super uncomfortable at all of them, because I never felt like I fit in.
December 2005, high school friend’s vort. We were in twelfth grade. Her family was very chasidish, and after she got engaged, she stopped coming to school.
Winter 2008, seminary friend’s vort.
Autumn 2011, childhood friend’s vort, with girls I’d grown up with from pre-school through high school.
I never knew exactly what to wear, I always felt out of place, awkward in conversation with too much loud, boisterous laughter.
At this most recent vort, I’m sure I laughed too loudly a few times, but it didn’t matter.
I wasn’t trying to fit in.
And that is a real and valuable freedom.