Photo Credit: Mosaica Press

Title: Reclaiming Dignity: A Guide To Tzniut For Men And Women
Bracha Poliakoff & Rabbi Anthony Manning
Mosaica Press



A few years ago, my then teenage daughter wore a nude-colored shell under a black lace gown to a family simcha. The gown had a short sleeve, and in an attempt to create a more aesthetically pleasing junction between shell and gown, my daughter folded up the sleeve of the shell in a way that exposed her elbow. A friend of my mother sidled over to my daughter and attempted to pull the shell down over her elbow with the admonishment, “don’t make waves.”

When I requested to review this book, I was asked if I had a particular connection to the topic. I laughed. Aside from the above story, I can tell you a million more, and although I generally shy away from reading books about tznius, Reclaiming Dignity is much more than just another tznius book. The first part is a series of personal essays written by contemporary Orthodox educators and leaders, and the second part, while ostensibly dedicated to the halachos of tznius, is also a masterful compendium of the hashkafic differences that exist between communities vis-à-vis the practical application of these halachos. Unlike previous books about tznius, this book is geared to both men and women; as educator and lecturer Ilana Cowland writes, “Tznius is not a women’s mitzvah. It is a Jewish society’s mitzvah.”

When I was growing up there were no books about tznius, there was no need for them. Rifka Wein Harris, a former classmate of mine, notes in her essay “…it was absorbed from the air. Without anyone telling me, I knew exactly where the borders lay – in speech, in action, in posture, and yes, in clothing, just by living among the adults in my orbit.” I don’t even remember how old I was when this changed, but by the time my own girls were in elementary school the concept of tznius had metamorphosed from being an implicit lifestyle into being a restrictive dress code, one that was enforced in a way that left many women, even years later, with ‘tznius PTSD.’ The editor of the book Bracha Poliakoff succinctly sums up the heart of our current tznius problem, “By making tznius about medida (measurements) we ignore tznius as a middah.”

This concept of tznius as a middah versus tznius being solely a mathematical equation involving multiple body parts is a unifying theme that is woven throughout many of the personal essays. Some of the essays took me by surprise by expanding the parameters of tznius into arenas that were a little off my radar while others verbalized sentiments that I’ve had about tznius but was never able or willing to put into words. Shevi Samet’s Tznius, Privacy, and Social Media will make you think twice the next time you post even the most innocuous photo of your sweet toddler. “It’s not always what is being shared that is inappropriate, it’s the fact that you’re even sharing it at all.” Yael Kaisman (who was my daughter’s chumash teacher, and a woman who personifies tznius) notes that although she never struggled with dressing modestly, as a teenager, she “felt a constant struggle between my personality and my perceived expectation of tznius.” As someone with a “strong, outspoken, and feisty personality,” she wondered if Hashem wanted her to squelch her personality so she could be more like the reticent girls who were praised for their modest behavior. Alexandra Fleksher, a writer and podcaster with a large global reach asks a question which resonated with me a lot, “by publishing your ideas, are you no longer being private or modest?” This is something I often wrestle with when I write articles that include anecdotes from my family life; how much sharing is too much? Israeli marathon champion Beatie Deutsch speaks for many women when she confesses “I don’t find modest dressing empowering…I’d actually find it a lot more empowering to show off all those muscles I work so hard for.” All of the essays are engaging and because the writers come from diverse walks of life there is a hashkafic tone for every reader.

In the second half of the book Rabbi Anthony Manning delves into the halachic aspects of tznius and he presents the material in a way that is not overly didactic nor judgmental. As someone who moved from Flatbush to Highland Park as a young adult, I found the chapter Tzniut and Dat Yehudit to be particularly illuminating. Although I didn’t consider myself yeshivish, I had always dressed ‘bais yaakov style’ and I was confused when in my new community I met women who did not conform to the dress code I’d always thought was immutable; yet in all other areas of observance these women were just as ‘frum’ as I was. The concept of minhag hamakom was foreign to me, one that I only learned much later after years of grappling with where I wanted to be on the tznius spectrum. There is also a discussion in the book about how to dress when visiting other communities; are you required for example to wear a sheitel and not a mitpachat when you visit Borough Park since that is their custom? Do you have to wear pantyhose when you visit Lakewood? Other discussions surround what it means to dress in a dignified manner; for example, a long sheitel may be dignified on a young woman but less dignified on an older woman; a subtlety that is nonexistent on a rigid checklist of ‘yays’ and ‘nays.’

Rabbi Manning also tackles some of the recent tznius trends in certain communities, topics that include the absence of women’s faces in print and online media as well as the deeply disturbing trend of blaming the world’s catastrophes on women for not being tzniusdik enough. There is also a section on tznius and bein adam lechavero which includes discussions about ostentatiously flaunting your wealth as well as not being rude or judgmental to others who don’t adhere to your tznius level (maybe pulling down someone’s sleeve in public is something to think twice about.)

I read somewhere online that this book is aimed towards the Modern Orthodox community but I disagree. The section on dat yehudit in particular accomplishes so much more than just the elucidation of this facet of tznius; it also plants seeds of tolerance and understanding between communities by differentiating between minhag hamakom and halacha. But the book’s greatest strength is that it is actually a book about tznius. It is not just about women or just about clothing. It is not about measuring or judging or scolding girls for wearing crossbody bags. It is about going back to the beginning, to the true meaning of “haznei leches,” to the true meaning of what it means to have a private relationship with Hashem. The orthodox community owes a debt of gratitude to Bracha Poliakoff and Rabbi Anthony Manning for providing Klal Yisrael with a powerful new tool to help us finally reclaim our true dignity.

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Dr. Chani Miller is an optometrist and writer who lives in Highland Park, N.J., with her family. She is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.