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On Wednesday, the Rabbi Wore Polka Dots

A few weeks ago, I found myself eyeing a pair of socks decorated with typewriters. I used to love stuff like this, I thought, Why don’t I wear crazy socks anymore?

Oh yeah, I remembered, I’m a rabbi now.

But as I prepared to place the socks back on the rack, I wondered, Why can’t a rabbi wear crazy socks? More importantly, Why can’t I, as a rabbi, wear crazy socks?

This issue, of finding a professional style that is at once personal and polished, is not a new issue for men or women. Recent trends in business fashion, however, have added a new wrinkle: with workplaces becoming more relaxed about professional attire, how do we balance professionalism with creative expression?

In a recent article, Sarah LeFleur responded to yet another tone-deaf piece in the New York Times Style section, by pointing out that a more relaxed approach to professional-wear may not be as liberating to women as we think.  Although there may no longer be “rules” in women’s work fashion,  as LaFleur insists “there will always be codes.” Figuring out a personal style within these codes may take away time most women (and men) would prefer to spend actually doing their life’s work.

For a woman rabbi, dress codes are not always clear. I’ve been the first—and the only—woman rabbi at each of my congregations. There haven’t been models to emulate. I couldn’t dress like the other women in my office—they weren’t rabbis—and I couldn’t dress like the other rabbis in my synagogue—they weren’t women.  Like my male colleagues, I “suit up” for important occasions, but I have yet to determine the exact female equivalent of khakis and a polo shirt.

While there is no pre-existing “woman rabbi” dress code, there is certainly plenty of feedback about how rabbis dress! I never wear jeans to a temple function, even our “picnic service,” after someone at my student pulpit critiqued my (female) predecessor for wearing jeans to the cemetery. I always wear a jacket and close-toed shoes on the pulpit, after a congregant said, of another, sandal-clad, (female) colleague, “I don’t need to see the rabbi’s toes!”

Which begs the question: who gets the power to decide what a rabbi should look like?

Philosophically, I gravitate between Rev. Victoria Weinstein’s Beauty Tips for Ministers—which emphasizes the importance of dressing to impress as a clergy person—and Dr. Katie Manthey’s Dress Profesh—which urges academics to redefine what it means to look professional.

I’ve spent a great deal of time, energy and resources trying to look professional, especially in my first year as a solo rabbi: the first woman in 168 years.  As I get more comfortable in my professional skin, I find myself questioning my codes.  Since my congregants are also my neighbors, I’ve been spotted in everything from my bathrobe to my bathing suit, something that, in the past, would have been mortifying. But as far as I know, no power suit has ever convinced anyone to accept me as an authority figure, and no single fashion choice, or chance encounter in my gym clothes, has prevented anyone from seeing me as their rabbi.

Like LaFleur, my goal is not to develop my style exclusively for the purpose of self-expression, but rather to perfect that style so that I can spend less time thinking about it. My goal is to dress in a way that represents the rabbi I am, and gives less consideration to what I imagine others expect a rabbi to look like.

And it isn’t only crazy socks that have me obsessing over my clothes. Recently, I found a navy lace dress from my StitchFix box that I’d never worn, and asked myself, Can I wear that to work?

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, 2016
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Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, 2016

The synagogue was hosting a huge public event in the morning and our annual meeting at night. I had to make an appearance at an outdoor event at a downtown church. According to my codes, I should have worn a suit. But with the temperature set to hit 90 degrees, I decided to attempt a professional image, without the jacket.

I paired the dress with a gold magen David and polka-dotted ballet flats. The lines were clean, the cut was modest. I felt confident and comfortable, feminine but not exposed. I looked like a young woman, yes, but as far as I know, I didn’t stop being a rabbi without my jacket.

You’ll still see me, most days, wearing a knee-length skirt and black boots. But once in awhile, peeking out from my most sensible black pants, you might see a pair of typewriter socks. 

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Typewriter Socks
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Typewriter socks from socksmith.com

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How to cite this page

Berkowitz , Leah. "On Wednesday, the Rabbi Wore Polka Dots." 19 July 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 13, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/on-wednesday-rabbi-wore-polka-dots>.

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