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Say Yes to the Yom Kippur Dress

I own hardly any white clothes, a fact that took me by surprise, once again, last Kol Nidre.

This is equal parts vanity and common sense: white is a color that highlights your shape; it emphasizes largeness and form. And in New York City, where I live, every surface is dusted with low-grade filth.

I owned one pair of white jeans that rode too low and never came out clean, no matter how I washed them. I had one sheer jersey dress, an ill-fitting gift that I couldn’t face throwing away. So come Yom Kippur morning last year I trotted them out, cobbling together an outfit. My giant tallit covered the rest. I looked ridiculous, but that was the price I had to pay for my failure to plan, I told myself. Next year, I promised, I’d get my act together in advance. I made a lot of promises that week.

Draping oneself in humble whites on Yom Kippur has been a traditional Jewish custom for millennia. It’s also the custom of the exuberant, neo-traditional-hippie Jewish community that I gravitated towards in adulthood. While I do not own a kittel (the white burial robe that men traditionally wear on their wedding day and Yom Kippur), I like the gravity of donning a garment with the weight of death; the effacement of self-expression when approaching divine judgment. But the notion of purity—so central to the Yom Kippur prayer service—that’s harder for me to swallow.

Last month, I listened to one of my favorite rabbis singing selichot, the penitential prayers offered before the high holy days. With his studied persuasiveness, in a gravely voice that gets me every time, he offered his annual plea: Do something to prepare yourself for the Days of Awe. Don’t let the holidays creep up on you. Do the spiritual work.

I do not believe that the work he envisioned was online dress shopping, but that is exactly what I did as soon as I got home—until 1AM. I was dismayed to find scores of white dresses at full price after Labor Day. (Are no sartorial traditions sacred anymore?) I recalled my ambivalence while white dress shopping for my wedding, the appalling 600 percent markup on anything a bride might consider wearing. Same symbolism: death, rebirth, purity, humility. They are very expensive symbols.

And there were so many ways to sort and filter the results! White, of course. Not short, maybe long or mid-length? The thought floated through my mind that this was perhaps not the type of work that would best serve my most sincere repentance. But imagining myself embodied on Yom Kippur was weirdly helpful. What would it be like to slip this dress over my head or zipper it up? How would the fabric feel on my skin? I rejected outfits if I didn’t think I could move freely in them, or ones that looked itchy. With this time investment, at least I’d get to skip the nagging guilt of failing to prepare.

Except that I found nothing. I filtered until there was nothing left. Everything was too short, or too cleavage-enhancing, or made of some unearthly polyester. These dresses were not designed for a solemn occasion, for beating one’s chest or praying through tears.

I thought about the time a few years back when I tried to do the Great Aleinu—the full prostration—in high heels and a very reasonable skirt. I remembered being totally distracted by my clothes, and how I had obviously not done the work—the unglamorous, practical work—of making sure that I could pray the way I wanted to. My body’s shelter, inside my community’s shelter, was totally ill-suited for the task.

One Yom Kippur when I had just moved west, I attended a Jewish Renewal service in Oakland. One congregant in particular caught my eye. She was standing up, swaying, arms pointing heavenward, and full-throat singing literally the whole time. I don’t know what she was on, but I wanted some. Her flowing caftan housed her corpulence, and I realized that she was free to really be in her body. It was hers—and God’s—to see. I wondered if that was what it was like to be invisible and also really, truly seen and present.

With no acceptable white dresses online, I went to H&M, and was immediately overstimulated by the ritual thud of dance music. But in the clothing-to-junk cycle of seasonal fashion, there were no more white dresses. I had not prepared early enough. Thumbing through racks, I thought about how nobody seemed interested in selling women clothing for solemn occasions; clothing for simply being present in our bodies—as opposed to being gazed upon by judges, male and female. It seemed so obvious. Obviously nobody wants to sell me that.

When I was a kid, we looked really nice on the High Holidays. This was my mother’s rule, and her mother’s. No runs in stockings. Nothing scuffed or stained or ill-fitting from last year. The clothes weren’t white, but they were pristine and considered in advance. It wasn’t spiritual per se, but it was a big deal and the community custom.

I remember visiting that congregation during college. A teenager was wearing a barely-there fuchsia and black party dress with spaghetti straps. She looked miserable. I preferred to imagine that the misery preceded the dress, a spirited teenage protest. She wasn’t allowed to skip services, but she could wear that dress. Or perhaps she felt miserable because she realized she’d committed an etiquette misstep.

I was not offended by her dress or her body, but I wondered how she felt, if she was conscious of others’ eyes on her, or perhaps blissfully unaware. I wondered if her dress helped her get what she wanted out of that service or that day, if it helped her do her work.

I was never much moved by the soul of that suburban temple. But I did notice that we’d all shown up, even those of us who probably would not return for another year. The room contained a kernel of somber optimism, a desire to hold for a moment the belief that with the work, one can find in oneself a fresh heart. That our days can be renewed. God knows, we can’t do it alone.

Back on the internet, I lowered my standards. I found myself considering my shopping filters and realized that they described some odd form of modesty, a concept I hold with profound suspicion. I think of modesty as a construct, a matrix of community norms—people looking at other people, and women worrying about what other people think we look like. There is so little I can do about this. I can maybe control my own feelings, and I can learn better not to project a bunch of baloney onto other people. But my tools to resist unreasonable standards—the same standards that demand me to wear clothes I can’t do my work in—are limited, because I’m a person. I wanted a modest uniform for this day of extreme humility, not to serve someone else’s needs, but to do my work. It’s not exactly that I wanted to be invisible. Rather, I wanted an outfit in which I felt safe revealing the innermost core of myself, beating my chest, shedding my tears, whatever that looks like.

I filtered the results again, optimistically. Mid-length, sure. White or off-white. Natural fibers or natural-looking. The results that popped up were mostly sheer, with peek-holes, or sundresses that would give me a chill. There was nothing left.

The part of me that wanted to look polished, like my mother would strongly recommend, that part of me was not on good terms with the part of me that would like to not be seen, to just buy the damn kittel already. But I couldn’t look good and be unseen at the same time. Wearing the men’s uniform wouldn’t solve this dilemma. It wouldn’t undo the tensions between seeing and being seen, by community, by God, by myself.

So I just bought a dress and accepted its imperfections. It’s not designed to solve my problems. No dresses are. It’s too big. It’s 80/20 cotton/polyester. It was on sale, but not by much. But it has pockets and falls to a comfortable length above my knee. It’s like a boxy house, though it looked more like a stylish and modern house on the model than it does on me. The fabric is thick and spongy, and I’ve been added to the store’s email list, from which there is apparently no unsubscribe. I’m more terrified than ever about my limited capacity to do this work—the real work under the clothes—but this feels like a durable shelter, a start.

(Image by Vanessa P., via Flickr)

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