A Girl, Her Shoes, and a Place of Worship

girlshoesplacesofworship

When synagogue becomes more “house of fashion” than “house of worship.”

by Lindsey Fieldman

My grandmother, who was from Baltimore, loved telling the story of how, as a little girl, I used to ask if I could wear my “pahtty shoes” and she had no idea what I was saying. If you insert the “r” that my Boston relatives often overlook, you’ll find that what I wanted was to wear my “party shoes”—shiny, black, patent leather, Mary Jane–style shoes—saved for special occasions. Going to synagogue meant I got to wear them, so in my four-year-old state of mind, I was psyched to make the trip.

I called my mother to see if these memories held true for her as well. She remembered the shoes, and she fondly recalled the synagogue experience: “I loved those children’s services. They were shorter.” Conscious of it or not, going to temple for spiritual fulfillment was not something my parents passed on to me at a young age. We went out of obligation and tradition. I went happily because I got to wear special clothes, and once we were there, the children’s services were filled with storytelling and songs.
The party years

As I grew up, synagogue took on new meanings. It became the center of my social sphere, filled with friendships, crushes, and parties. In seventh grade, I probably spent as much time there as I did in school. Every weekend brought at least one bar mitzvah, if not two or three, enabling us twelve- and thirteen-year-olds to party hop from black tie galas to “kids only” DJ parties to parties held at the temple, the rooms transformed into the theme of the moment. The house of worship became a house of fashion, and many parties meant many dresses. It was at that young age that I internalized the association between what I wore and who I was. Back then, Judaism was largely about the party; hence, the clothes. This was a prevailing message from the community.

My post-college return to the temple in which I grew up was a mini reunion of sorts, causing me to think twice about the “synagogue outfit.” Of course I would want to look my best with the prospect of running into old friends and classmates. I would sit in the back of the synagogue with my parents during High Holiday services, counting the minutes until it was over and watching the fashion show parade. I would try to focus on the prayers, meditate, and not get distracted. As an adult, I continue to find this a challenge—the fashion outweighing the spiritual, the clothing outshining the sermon. I know I am not alone in this. In fact, many of my friends recall feeling that synagogue seemed like a chance for Jewish women to try out their fall fashions.
Breaking away from it

This year I approached the High Holidays with a renewed spirit and expectations. My family had made a decision to join a new temple, one that prides itself on creating and being a community, promoting diversity in ethnicity, lifestyle choices, and observance. We were told the dress was “anything goes,” and people wore everything but jeans. I thought, “now this is a kind of Judaism I can relate to.” By removing the fashion show from the service, I imagined I would be less distracted. Ten minutes before leaving for Rosh Hashanah services, I was ready to go, still in a skirt and, of course, cute shoes, but it was my boyfriend who had to change outfits three times.

Not wearing the usual obligatory suit meant there were so many options! Tie or no tie? Button-down or sweater? I realized the fashion challenges at synagogue were not gender specific.

At this new temple, the competitive dressing environment seemed less pronounced. But the range of attire was intriguing, as was the display of Judaism and affirmation of new practices through clothing. Some women wore beautiful tallitot. Kippot displayed a range of designs, from embroidery to Red Sox logos. Fashion, in this case, proved to be a powerful statement on feminist tensions within Judaism.

It was not until Yom Kippur that I found a place to pray, completely removed from all structure. Finally I was able to focus on why I was there and what the holiday was all about. I did not go to synagogue. Instead, I walked to a nearby pond and sat quietly on a bench looking out at the water. I was still aware of my surroundings, but I was able to reflect and pray in a way that felt comfortable and meaningful to me. I found a house of worship in an environment void of judgment, competition, and convention. There was no fashion show and no outward expression of belief through dress. I may have missed an opportunity to wear my “party shoes,” but I’ve learned that Judaism, for me, is not all about the party.

About the Author

Lindsey Fieldman
Lindsey Fieldman is the Director of Communications and Marketing at HBI.

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