Like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, every year on May 10th people in New York City lose their clothing.
To the untrained eye, it would appear that the people of New York City had all just collectively had their clothes shredded by wolves, or the mattress factories in the Bronx had run out of mattress stuffing and so all of New York had donated their clothing as stuffing, to support local industry. Or maybe everyone flushed their clothes down the toilet, thereby clogging the entire NYC sewer system and setting off the smell that starts haunting the sidewalks at just about the same time of year.
I call that smell “The Doody Monster”. The Doody Monster is a migratory creature who returns to his habitat when the sun starts baking the trash on the sidewalks. In my imagination, The Doody Monster looks like a long, shaggy ghost made of string mop heads. He floats in, and then farts out a toxic but invisible cloud of that sewer smell mixed with baking urine and crotchy garbage that characterizes the streets of Crown Heights in the summer. Knowing about The Doody Monster helps me to laugh when I am walking down my block, and the air/pavement/I don’t even know smells like a giant who hasn’t bathed in two years just wiped his bum on the sidewalk.
Were the sewers actually clogged by New Yorkers who flushed their clothes down the toilet? I mean, New Yorkers buy a lot of fast fashion, but I doubt it. When summer comes and the weather is hot, New Yorkers lose their clothes because they are not me.
“Well who are you?” is the next logical question. I am Chaya Kurtz. I was born near Boston in the late seventies, and I publish Internet content for a living. The reason that I fail to lose my clothes on the annual disrobing day is because I am trying to be a Chassidic lady.
“Trying” is a weird word, since it implies by its nature that I am also failing, which is true. I fail sometimes at this, and it all evens out to me being a pretty mediocre Jew.
“Trying to be a Chassidic lady”: Now that we have examined the “trying” part, we’ll now discuss “Chassidic lady”. One of the demarcations of Chassidic ladies is the sheer volume of clothing that we wear. Be it summer or winter, we can always be identified by our mid-calf skirts and long-sleeved shirts buttoned up to the neck. The hardcore among us always wear two layers, such as a shirt and a vest, or a shirt and a jacket, or a shirt and a sweater, or a shirt with a T-shirt under it.
Waiting for the subway car when it is 95 degrees out and humid, while wearing a wig, two shirts including one buttoned to the neck, a mid-calf skirt, and tights is very special. Some people might call it “holy” or “spiritual” or “a self sacrifice”. I actually think it sucks.
The first thing I do when I walk in the house after work is I rip my wig off. That is no exaggeration. I don’t even unclip it. I rip it off my head and throw it. Then I peel my sweaty tights and underpants off and hurl them into the laundry hamper, and then replace them with clean underwear. Then I go to the bathroom, where I wash the subway pole off my hands and then I scrub New York City off of my face with soap and a wet wash cloth. I finish up by wiping my face with cotton balls soaked in Thayer’s Aloe Witch Hazel just in case there is any residue of New York City still left.
Being Chassidic in the summer in NYC is to be drenched in sweat. My readers have complained that I often paint too rosy a picture of being Chassidic. I honestly am generally happy. But this business of the wig and the tights and the long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck all summer is the one thing that makes me want to throw in the sweaty towel.
And I am Lubavitch; I have it easy. The women of Belz wear hats on top of their wigs all year long, providing ultimate polar thermal insulation. Walk through Kikar Shabbat, an intersection in Jerusalem which is the crossroads of two legendary ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, and what you’ll see are women wearing polyester skirt suits with old-fashioned nylon tights with seams, and heavy hair coverings — all summer long in the blazing Middle Eastern heat. At least I can wear breathable natural fibers, and long skirts and knee socks.
If you think it is hot being a Chassidic woman in the summer, it’s a whole other level of red-faced, sweat-drenched self-sacrifice to be a Chassidic man in the summer. In addition to wearing a suit and shirt, each wears a wool tzitzit shirt plus and undershirt, as well as a big hot black wool hat. I see some of these guys wearing sweaters under their jackets on days when my lip balm melts off my mouth. I want to shake them and say, “Why don’t you know not to wear a sweater in this weather?!”
Nothing made me happier than seeing bearded Jewish men in Jerusalem without their jackets, shirt sleeves rolled up, tzitzit shirts worn over their shirts billowing in the wind. I wanted to congratulate them. “Good job, Moshe! You’re properly regulating your body temperature! Good job acknowledging that this is Israel in July, and not Russia in January.”
I didn’t grow up this way. I became Chassidic as an adult. Keeping Shabbat and keeping kosher were easy mitzvoth to take on. I never liked bacon cheeseburgers or clams. I’ve never even tasted pork loin. A craving for treyf was just never my issue. I also can’t digest dairy very well, so for the past five years, my kitchens have been meat-only kitchens, which makes keeping a kosher kitchen very easy.
The thing with the clothes — it took me a long time to adopt it, and I am still figuring it out. On a good day, I feel comfortable and confident. On bad days, I compare myself to women whom I could never dress like.
It’s hard to successfully crack jokes about feeling frumpy. It’s been done a million times on Cathy greeting cards and in gift books about women who want to wear purple dresses and red hats that don’t suit them. It’s also the oldest trope in the book: The frumpy Chassidic lady, fresh off the boat from Russia. The only good thing I can say about my summers of long sleeves is that it makes me feel tough. I feel like the lone wolf, a warrior of G-d. Whenever I pass another Chassidic lady in full garb or a Muslim woman in a hijab and abaya, I just want to high five them. However, I really enjoy getting home and trading my tights for cotton socks, and my wig for a cotton head scarf.