FASHION | Dressing Up For Shul

When I was a kid, my mom—a converted shixsa with blond hair and a southern drawl—would have me and my sister Alana model our synagogue best, from orange gingham jumpers to plaid blue kilts with white turtle necks, weeks before the Jewish high-holidays. If the clothes didn’t fit, she’d scour the shops for new ones. She wanted us to look ‘appropriate’ for synagogue, as she called it.

A woman of details, mommy would also inspect our white stockings for runs and make sure our black and white saddle shoes were polished. Then she’d also take us to get our red hair freshly trimmed into bowl cuts, and have the beautician scrape all the specks of dirt from beneath our fingernails.

I assumed that mommy was so obsessed with us looking ‘appropriate’ because she looked and sounded so different from the other women at our modern Orthodox shul (‘synagogue’ in Yiddish) in Montreal, where the congregation just stopped short of traditions like top hats and wigs.

Maybe we needed to look more religious than we actually were?

Of course, mom never bothered to explain what ‘appropriate’ meant. We just had to do it.

“I don’t want to look like HER,” my sister would shriek. Alana, a year and a half older than me hated the twin look, where on top of having identical freckly faces and hairdos, we’d also wear the same dress.

But mom said that when Alana and I matched from head to toe—sigh!—we were absolutely to die for.

Alana was particularly wary of mom’s fashion policies. Eventually, she came up with a theory that all the shul’s women were competing in a secret beauty contest. As in, the rabbi and his men were constantly judging the women, trying to decide who the best looking one was—best looking in a religious way, that is.

“Why else was everyone always checking each other out?” Alana insisted. And why else would mommy be so obsessed with our clothes? Obviously if we looked good, it made her look even better.

Alana’s Mrs. Shul contest was quite a compelling idea. It was just like the beauty pageants on TV, I imagined, but instead of rhinestone gowns and swimsuits, the women pranced around in long skirts and doilies during important holidays like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

But one thing I could never figure out is who won the Mrs. Shul beauty contest—and whether that someone was mommy. Like most Jewish affairs, I imagined that this decision was made behind the closed doors in the rabbi’s office, and only shared with the most elite shul members. It was quite unlike the Miss USA pageant, I considered, when the winner got to wear a real live crown.

While Alana hated the secret synagogue beauty contest, I absolutely loved the idea. So despite the ruffle trim, I beamed for the invisible judges every time the three of us strutted into synagogue. We’d all wave “hello” to my dad on the men’s side of congregation (men and women are divided in Orthodox Jewish synagogues), who’d been there since dawn, chatting away with the fellows around him.

Then we’d shimmy through the aisle and sit down next to bubby, my father’s mother, who’d also been there since morning. “He’s always such trouble!” Bubby would say, frowning at my dad from across the room. Unfortunately for my father, the synagogue was set up like a small version of a round hockey arena—but far more ornate—so bubby could easily watch her little boy misbehave during services.

This all-seeing architecture also allowed the congregation to check out whoever’s outfit, whenever they pleased. And when the large wooden front doors swung open, heads swiveled to monitor the next person coming in.

And—oh!—were the ladies magnificent, especially the ones too sophisticated for doilies. They had perfectly teased hair covered in these glamorous wool and velvet hats. Some wore theirs with wide brims, others had tiny numbers cocked to the side, radiant with sparkles. They wore luxurious silky blouses stacked with shoulder pads, which accentuated their tiny waists and fitted pencil skirts.

They were glorious—absolutely to die for.

Mommy was glorious too, and because of her blond hair she was softer and gentler looking than the others. She was like the one Krystle Carrington surrounded by dozens of Alexis Carringtons. To me and Alana, she was a serious contender as the shul’s most shayner maidel (‘prettiest woman’ in Yiddish)—even though it was impossible to know if she ever won.

As the years went by, mom’s dress-up ritual continued. We knew she was one of synagogue’s finest, or at least a runner-up, so we assumed she had great authority on the subject: “This is not a rock concert,” she’d say to us as teens, shoving all black clothes aside, instead putting us in sky blue and white suits, along with matching sweater sets.

Though, as a major nod to my budding sense of style, mom did let me keep on my favorite platform Mary Jane shoes. The strap across the top of my foot made them “appropriate” she said while fastening a headband over my red hair, which I now wore long and straight.

Whether it was decided in secret by the rabbi and his associates, or determined by the invisible workings of nature, I was now certain there was an established pecking order among the shul’s women. The ladies always commented on each other’s outfits—and some clearly got more attention than others.

Sadly, bubby passed away at 96 years old. She was a shrewd woman, and as quick with compliments as she was with her constant vigilance over my father. Because of her traditional ways, I learned Hebrew and Jewish history; and I also got to enjoy her company every Friday over dinner.

Only, after her watchful eyes left us, our family soon degraded to a less pious house of prayers. It was a conservative congregation closer to our new home, and more modern in its Judaic rule interpretations. In other words, it was rumoured that some congregation members ate bacon.

At this ritzy shul, women dressed like they did on the streets of New York. They wore Chanel suits in the most up-to-date, form-fitting fashions—with the matching purse and the camellia flower. Even the men had fresh-looking suits and perfectly gelled hair, just like Wall Street bankers.

Mom thought the whole charade was ridiculous. Everyone was far too gaudy for synagogue, she said. But, nevertheless, mom suddenly began to outfit us in her real designer purses and jewelry, once again turning us from potential outcasts into embedded participants.

“What a bitch,” a woman declared after services, as I, barely old enough for a Bachelor’s Degree, clutched a brand new Bottega purse, which I wore with shiny new woven loafers.

“I love your Elsa Peretti,” a married couple said to me as I was heading out the exit. It was only later that I realized they were talking about my oversized silver swirly belt buckle, which matched my swirly cuff bracelet and earrings.

I didn’t know half the labels in mom’s fashion arsenal, and Alana certainly didn’t know either, but we knew that mom was just sending us off to battle in this shul’s glamour brigade—which was less of a secret beauty contest and more like a full on civil war.

Alana was totally disturbed; I was utterly fascinated.

As the years went on, I became something of a glamour puss, buffing and polishing my style depending on the venue. This is all thanks to mom, of course. She even trusts me to dress myself for synagogue without surveying my outfit first—though my high-heels still make her gasp.

Now mom, or grandma, gets to dress up Alana’s two adorable young daughters. During one of these third generation dress-up moments, I finally learned what ‘appropriate’ for synagogue meant too—and it wasn’t about winning a beauty contest. Or not exactly.

Alana was about to dress her newborn for shul, while my mom was squishing the two year old into an ornate, frilly flower dress, complete with bonnet and white stockings. I was half-joking when I asked my mom whether she bought the matching outfit for the new baby.

“NO matching dresses,” Alana piped in with her signature tone.

“Yeah, what was that all about anyway?” I asked, wondering about why she was so obsessed with making us look like twins at Jewish services.

“Oh, you two were my sweet little baby dolls,” she replied, her southern accent suddenly resurrected. “I wanted you to look just like the ones I played with growing up named Trixie and Lulubelle.”

Then the memories came swirling back to me: The bowl hair cuts, the matching gingham jumpers, the powder blue suits from my teenage years—and the hand-me down pearls now hanging around my neck.

Turns out, the outfits Alana and I were forced to wear had nothing to do with looking religious for the rabbis and stylish enough for the Schwartz’s. It was about looking ‘appropriate’ for mom. She was a displaced southern belle who just happened to like that prim and proper look. “If it were up to me,” mom said, “you’d still be wearing matching sweater sets and headbands.”

Alana and I were stunned. We considered mom such a shul beauty queen—and the ultimate inter-denominational fashion warrior—that we tended to obey her fashion council. We thought she wanted us to triumph among all Jewesses; in fact, she was way more interested in making us stick out like two proud goyim, dressed in high-collar necklines and spanking new saddle shoes.

Upon studying mom’s matchy-matchy tangerine Escada outfit, it was even more surprising that we didn’t pick up on her flagrant attempts to condition our style all those years. When we were kids she’d wrap us in her favorite frill. And when we were older, she’d examine our wardrobes in advance and invariably conclude that our clothes were too tight, too dark or far too short for shul. “You’ll look like a street walker,” she’d say. By University, she was donning us in her favourite designer picks, which also came in matching sets, or at the very least were impeccably coordinated.

Everyone else was so dark and streamlined, the way tribal people living in the northeast tend to be. Meanwhile, we’d been wafting into synagogue wearing our Southern Baptist best, twisting our hair into hot-rollers while everyone else was straightening theirs.

I remembered bubby and how she was always grumpy when we arrived. She had to watch her two little shayna maidels waltz into shul after their extreme Christian makeover, hand in hand with our flaxen-haired mother. Wise indeed, all she could do was sigh and then utter some annoyance about my dad. Changing religions was one thing, but converting a woman’s style convictions was a totally different affair.