I know who I am now more than ever, but how I got here has been quite the journey. Fashion for me was once my defensive mechanism against an oppressive society but now it embodies my entire essence. Fashion allows me to express myself with the images of happiness that I want to leave as a lasting effect on anyone I meet. I love to paint the world that may seem dark and sad with bright happy colors & exciting patterns so that people will never forget to smile. And no, religious observances levels are not a burden; but rather a springboard for creative inspiration with your wardrobe! Girls, your road to discovering your inner Fashionista begins with knowing who you really are!
My passion for fashion is directly connected to the life that I have lived.
It was a very confrontational and uncomfortable life.
Being an Orthodox Jew and Black was never easy and will always present many challenges within the communities. As a child, growing up walking into religious settings such as a Beit Knesset or Shul (temple of worship), or even walking down the street in a religious neighborhood was an extremely uncomfortable experience for me.
It still is.
I detested when a person would stare at me endlessly, treat me like less than a human or speak to me and just focus on my skin color. It would often lead to very rude and insulting comments that left me feeling very helpless and uncomfortable. Many people would rudely approach me with ignorant statements hidden in questions such as “So when did you convert?” providing me with no wiggle room as they classified me as a convert already and disrespected my Jewish ancestors on the spot.
I grew up in Crown Heights; a Chassidic community which unsuccessfully blends together with a Black, mostly Caribbean non-Jewish neighborhood. I had the unfortunate timing of growing up in this community during the pre-riots and post-riots climate. Those days were an undeniably difficult time to grow up as a Black Jew.
To the Jewish community I was seen as an accident; as being someone unworthy of being a Jew; to the (non-Jewish) Black community I was the “Race Betrayer” who by being Jewish meant I was not “truly black” . Being Black and Jewish is something that I can not change, I was born this way.
*Insert Lady Gaga Anthem*
Yes I am quite aware that those people are ignorant but ignorance is very prevalent and unchallenged in situations such as mine. So their negativity showered over me for being just who I was born as, leaving lingering harmful fingerprints on my soul.
For most of my life I was looking at myself in the mirror everyday and seeing an oreo, a race betrayer, a monkey, a nigger, a kushi (hebrew derogatory word for a black person) and a shvartza ( yiddish derogatory word for a black person). I saw in my reflection what other people were calling me and not who I truly was. But fashion swept in and became my catharsis to deal with my inner problems.
It all began this one day when I was reading this book that I shouldn’t have been reading. A few lines from a convo between two friends changed my life forever. One girl was talking to another girl who had dyed her hair pink and she asked her something along the lines of “Why did you dye you hair pink? Do you know how weird it is? Do you know how much you stand out?” and the other girl replied:
“All my life I’ve been bullied and laughed at. I never knew why or what was wrong with me and it made me feel bad. I dyed my hair pink so I know what people are talking about when they see me.”
And just like that it all made sense to me. I had my answer to my problems. My fashion evolution were little changes here and there and stretched through many years.
I viciously removed shoulder pads from my suits.
There was this one summer when I was 15-16 and I had my hair braided upwards and downwards with various different diamond beads. I started to wear long satin gloves and I also wore Cleopatra beaded hats in various colors (cause it was trending at the time with the women of my family…but it is something I still do occasionally today) to shul almost every Shabbat. It cleverly worked because the focus was more so on what I was wearing than myself. Sure, I still have to deal with ignorant people a lot but what I’ve found is that people tend to look at something that is colorful and glittery rather than something that is more, well, human based .
So I began taking fashion risks and exploring myself. It changed from giving people something to look at to me finding out who I truly was. I learned that although I cannot change the stupid people around me, I can change my reaction to them. I learned to turn the pain & tears of my life experiences into smiles and laughter with the colors and prints of my wardrobe.
Then I started to notice something amazing happening.
People would react to my wardrobe and outfits with pure joy. Whether they loved it, thought I was nuts or just needed a breath of fresh air–I gave that to them. That is when I realized that fashion cannot only help me , it can help others! Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says that it is a mitzvah (good deed) to be B’simcha (happy) and dressing the way I do does just that for myself and others!
This, my dears, is the first step to finding your inner fashionista–you have to first know yourself. What you wear is literally wearing your heart on your sleeve. From your hair to your toes, you tell a story about yourself. And when you are telling your story, you are directly affecting the world around you. As women we must understand that our bodies are powerful, influential statements in society.
Never doubt your power and use your bodies for good.
I hope that with these posts I can provide some meaningful tips for being a modest, fashion-forward girl in both the secular and observant Jewish world!
Until then, remember to get some sugar and spice in your life!
Elisheva is a Brooklyn born, Brooklyn bred Modern Orthodox J.A.A.P. (Jewish African American Princess). Her greatest passions are fashion and dance. She hopes that one day dance and fashion can truly heal the world.