You Shall Pursue

March 4, 2013

Lipstick and Pearls and Tefillin, How to Navigate Frumness and Femme

Filed under: Choosing Life, Rabbinical School — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 12:41 pm

Recently, I read this article written by a future Orthodox rabbi struggling with messages about her gender presentation within her religious community. I find these sorts of articles talking about the ambivalence that is so often paired with religion frustrating on a number of levels. These sorts of conversations offend me as a feminist, because I believe in every person’s fundamental right to live in their bodies without shame. But I also struggle with articles like these as a liberal Jew, because in certain ways we are not doing much better for our Jewish leadership.

The issue is one of degree rather than of kind. While I have classmates who wear miniskirts, I struggle strongly with a feeling that certain clothes (that I used to wear to work in my office job, mind you) are “not appropriate” for my clergy work, not because they are revealing, but because they are feminine. I tend to cultivate a certain degree of severity in my professional appearance these days, because I have absorbed the message that rabbis should not exude any hint of sex appeal, especially the female ones. An important part of this is that I mostly supporting myself through teaching, and I feel doubly pressured to dress frumpy in front of my students and their parents. While my choice of professional clothing was never anything but scrupulously modest, it was often selected expressly to show pride in my body and my femininity. My favorite business casual clothes are a-line or poofy dresses and pencil skirts. I feel drab in slacks. And I never wear red lipstick to teach (although I wear it to go out or just to show up for hanging out with my friends).

On the other hand, sometimes I feel as though I intentionally need to be drab. We rabbinical students are encouraged to live up to a high level of professionalism in our relationships with our students, co-workers, and congregants. This includes a clause that encourages us to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.” And in our society, what bears more of the “appearance of impropriety” than a woman who is attractively and femininely dressed? You need only listen to victim-blaming comments about the length of this or that girl’s skirt to know that American society still buys into the idea of women, especially attractively dressed women, as public property, who dress to advertise availability rather than to make themselves happy. And I know that the Jewish community is none so enlightened that it is entirely free of broader American prejudices.

And now the question for my fellow femme classmates who do feel comfortable wearing more explicitly femme clothes at work: how do you rock that shit with pride and confidence? I have a red dress that I’d like to break out sometime in the near future.



  1. Marley– Thanks for this! I think it is really crucial to think about the messages we’ve internalized that say that to be femme is to be unprofessional, and to equate being serious, good at one’s job, and trustworthy as a rabbi are masculine traits, and that you cannot be a femme professional.

    Over the summer when I began my job running technology and pr for a synagogue, I was rocking a hard femme, retro style, which involved lots of heels, cat-eye makeup, and mini or full skirted dresses (that I somehow biked in.) During that time, folks would first complement me for my outfit, before mentioning the work I was doing. Now I’m a bit more toned down, and I get different kind of feedback. I don’t know if this would keep me from pulling out the red lipgloss and back-seamed fishnets, but it’s certainly a tension.

    Comment by Ariana — March 4, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

  2. Marley, I hope you don’t mind me responding but as a Jewish, bigendered “part time” femme I wanted to opine. I WANT to see diversity on the bimah! I want to see, butch, femme, gay, straight, people of color, etc. on the bimah and in the congregation. I want to see women wearing whatever the hell they want! I was raised in the Conservative movement, belong to a Conservative synagogue here in California, and am about to walk away from the whole thing! They act like the fact that they allow women to occasionally run the service makes them wildly progessive. This is 2013! Judaism, in all of it’s forms, needs to adapt or completely lose it’s relevance.

    Proudly wear what you want to wear!


    Comment by Debby Miller — March 4, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

  3. Debby, thanks so much for your comment! It is helpful to hear from the people in the pews that diversity of expression is valued.

    Comment by marleyweiner — March 4, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

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