Friday, April 03, 2009

Dressing in Shades of Grey (Tzav)

--By Chanel

For a while, I didn’t wear pants. I don’t mean in the manner of Lindsay Lohan (leggings do not count as pants), but that I only wore skirts, in an attempt to take on greater religious observance. This lasted for about two years, before -- after careful examination -- I decided I was really better off in jeans. It’s taken me about that long to achieve an equilibrium of pants and skirts again.

Parsha Tzav is laden with this business about what it is to act on behalf of a community (as Aaron does), and how private observance affects everyone (the Israelites’ offerings). As a Jewish professional, I believe it’s not only important, but also vital to bring my authentic self to my work. I want my students to see the complexities of what being Jewish can mean, so I’m pretty loud about my multiple identities: feminist, Zionist, child raised by a single mother, etc. In the last few years working for Hillel, I’ve come to think of my Jewish identity as being public property. People are curious about how I behave Jewishly, and why.

You’d be surprised how many folks noticed my return to pants, even in the small, lefty Jewish community in which I worked at the time. Two years is a long time to commit to something -- how could I just reneg on tzniut (modesty)? It was hard to explain that skirts were an experiment in something larger: becoming more observant, and that the experiment had failed.

It didn’t lead to anything; aside from the skirts, I wasn’t keeping more mitzvot. I was just a girl in skirts, which led people to form whole new sets of assumptions about my identity. The prospect of deconstructing them exhausted me. In retrospect, I realize I wasn’t confident enough to not care.

Throughout Tzav is the work of sacrifice: how it must be done, how it can be eaten, how it becomes holy. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to connect spiritually to this. It’s Hebrew that’s difficult, with exhaustive descriptions and a certain level of monotony. What I can reach for, and relate to, is what it is to make sacrifices in my own life, and to recognize the sacrifices of others, large or small. To a degree, choosing to be a professional Jew means forsaking a private Jewish existence. My Jewish behavior will be under scrutiny by others, and as a result, my own.

This realization comes with a weird kind of relief: along with encouraging my students to develop Jewish confidence, I have to do the same. It’s imperative. I have to be as reflective as I ask them to be, I have to push myself as hard as I push them to look at the grey parts, the unsettling moments, both Jewishly and in the world at large.

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