For as much outreach as they do in the world, the Crown Heights Lubavitchers like to come home to their own. They have formed an airtight community in the middle one of the most populous counties in the United States. Street signs are written in Yiddish. Proper decorum is enforced by a crew of rabbis and other sticklers chronicled in today’s New York Times and known locally as the “tsnius police.” (Tsnius is the Hebrew word for traditional conservative dress, and those who police it go to great lengths to make sure Hasids aren’t bombarded by sexy female elbows and knees.) Duck underground for 30 minutes and you emerge from the subway into the cheating heart of the modern world, where you can watch a drag queen sodomize himself with a wine bottle on the stage of a popular nightclub, or do blow off the anatomy of a male model in the bathroom of a penthouse, or sit uncomfortably close to an eminent journalist during a dinner party in an Upper East Side townhouse and try not to look as he runs his fingers up the skirt of a senior member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Go back down in the subway, half an hour in reverse, and the year appears to be 1702.
One lovely Wednesday shortly after I moved to Crown Heights, where I lived with a rabbi for nine months (long story), I was walking to the subway with my headphones in, music blaring, dressed in what for me was pretty traditional workwear: knee-high boots, leather leggings, a short black shift that fell somewhere around my upper thigh, with a prim little green plaid button-up shirt underneath and a simple blazer over top. This was one of my favorite outfits. It emphasized my height and gave me the sort of confidence only a favorite outfit can give — that last-ditch feeling of presence in the world, when the one thing keeping you upright is your clothes. The music in my headphones was loud but not loud enough to entirely drown out a guttural scream from across the street. It couldn’t possibly be directed at me, I figured, so I kept walking. But the scream grew louder. I took out one earbud.
“Where’s your dress!”
That’s what it sounded like at least. I scanned the sidewalk. Crown Street had a gentle dusting of fall leaves. The sky was bright blue and the air was clear. It was a brisk, lovely fall day. The brownstones that lined the street were stately, and if you didn’t look closely at all the signs warning of Moshiach’s imminent return, this could have been the set of The Cosby Show. It was an idyllic New York morning.
My eyes ran along the horizon until I saw him — a tiny furious member of the tsnius police, maybe five foot four. He had a long salt-and-pepper beard, wore a black hat and black coat, and jabbed an index finger high into the perfect fall air.
“Where’s your dress! Where’s your dress!”
I looked down at my legs. My “dress,” such as it was, was peeping out maybe a half inch beneath the bottom seam of my blazer. It was demonstrably there, right on my body, but somehow I didn’t think that kind of logic would prevail.
I kept walking. He kept screaming. It was four blocks to the subway, and he shouted the whole time. The entire neighborhood, all the mothers out on the streets, all the little boys scuttling off to yeshiva, all the men buying donuts at the kosher grocery store on Kingston Avenue, turned and stared at me.
First came the wave of indignation. Who do these people think they are? This is America! I’m a woman! I’m free and independent, and what’s more, this dress is Diane von Furstenberg — hello?
“Where’s your dress!”
I took it as established fact that every female member of the Crown Heights Lubavitch community was horribly oppressed and every male was not only an oppressor but also a lout. I’d collected my Susan B. Anthony coins as A KID. I’d read my Gloria Steinem. Hell, I once tracked down Shulamith Firestone, the radical feminist who advocated a “smile boycott” on the theory that even a woman’s most basic expression of pleasure had been co-opted into merely a device for flirtation, designed to titillate men. (She lived in a brownstone on East 11th Street, and she didn’t answer the doorbell when I rang, with hopes of interviewing her about Sarah Palin.) The point here is that I considered myself a feminist. I was the daughter of a feminist. My teachers had been feminists and my peers, male and female, were feminists as well. If there was one thing I could recognize, it was oppression.
“Where’s your dress!”
I saw oppression, without even looking really — since I was afraid to make eye contact — in the frumpy dresses and crooked wigs of the women of Crown Heights. In the way they walked around pushing double-, triple-, quadruple-baby strollers, kids hanging off of them, all wrinkles and flab and bone-deep exhaustion.
I saw oppression in frumpy clothes because in beautiful clothes I saw freedom. I would not be exaggerating even a little, and in fact I’d probably be low-balling it, to say that if I could have back all the minutes in my life I’ve spent thinking about how I look, it would be enough time to earn a PhD. I’m vain. Not cripplingly so. Not to the point where I can’t get away from the mirror, or where I don’t eat anything, or where I lose all perspective entirely and believe vanity is a virtue. I’m vain, and it’s not great, but that’s what it is. Part of this vanity comes from a genuine love of fashion, which at its best really is a virtuous thing. A hand-stitched Gucci leather satchel made by trained artisans in Italy is hardly just a sack for carting around lip gloss and gum. A coat by Alexander McQueen is art. To wear these things is not just to feel fancy, but also to feel joined, however superficially, with something beautiful. What you put on your body is not so different from what you put in your body or cram into your brain. It’s an assertion of an individual self. The items in your closet may not be terribly rare — there are lots of Gucci handbags in the world, and lots more T-shirts from the Gap — but it’s all in how you put them together. An obituary made up of lines from other obituaries is still something materially new, and an outfit made from mass-produced items of clothing is distinct and consequential too. I don’t mean to get too highfalutin here: Fashion is, ultimately, just a lot of stuff. But I love stuff. I’m a girl in America in the 21st century, and, damn it, a pretty dress makes me feel alive.
So where was my dress? Here was my dress, under my blazer and over my leggings, which, yeah, were made of leather for no other reason than because it looks good.
Reprinted from JUJITSU RABBI AND THE GODLESS BLONDE: A TRUE STORY by Rebecca Dana with permission of Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2013 by Rebecca Dana.