Portland is a bubble unto itself in so many ways. Besides keeping dossiers on every chicken we kill and serve in restaurants (and that scene from Portlandia isn't so removed from the truth in this foodie mecca, actually), we also have the best coffee, beer and bicycling of any city in the United States. (I'm ducking as I type this, knowing that someone somewhere will take umbrage...).
That bubble extends to the dress code. Here in the Rose City, a shirt with a fold-over collar is considered "dressy", or at least "professional", in many circles. Including at many synagogues on a Friday night. At my very hamish home shul we wear shorts to services in the summer if it's hot outside. I recognize that this is unusual and I am sensible enough not to try and wear shorts to services anywhere else, ever.
But I digress.
Because Portland is SO laid-back that it's nearly comatose, I always have to figure out how to dress when I visit synagogues in just about any other city -- and I am learning quickly that they are almost always dressier than anything I find on an average Friday night in Portland. At first, I was afraid to ask how people dress at synagogues that are about to hire me, thinking that maybe they think I should know this stuff already. But considering the wackiness of my career trajectory and where I live, I decided to give myself a little break. The dumbest questions are the ones you're too scared to ask, right? So I asked. The rabbi in this case was glad I did. Her response was: "Well, visitors from New York City are always surprised at how casually we dress here. That said, on the bimah you'll want to dress it up a little more. A nice sundress with a shift over it and some dressy sandals would work fine..."
I gulped. I paused. And then, I said, " well, I wonder if dress slacks would be okay. See, I haven't worn a dress in an awfully long time..."
The rabbi laughed gently and said, "of course. No problem."
I'm sure it didn't seem like a big deal to her, but to me it is sort of a big deal. And it's not because of anything she or any other rabbi has ever said or done. It's all about my personal journey through the twisty-turny road of gender expression in a society that recognizes only two clear-cut genders. And while liberal Jewish communities have made real strides in welcoming multiple expressions of gender into their folds in many places, the fact is that, for professionals serving on the bimah, the standard still feels a little more rigid. It's about gender, it's about class, it's about so many things that find expression in the clothes we wear in public and the messages we send or perceive in the process.
The brilliant female impersonator RuPaul said years ago that "drag" was basically anything you put on over your otherwise naked body. Once you cover up what God gave you, you're in drag of one kind or another. But clothing is more than just drag. it is how we show ourselves to the world when we go out, and how we carry ourselves in the world when we work, learn and play.
As a child, I liked the idea of "dressing up" to go someplace fancy, like a nice restaurant; but I chafed at the lace-trimmed dresses my mother selected for me. One day, I saw mannequins in a shop window, wearing the latest (circa 1969) skirt-pant-jacket coordinates. No lace anywhere. They looked smart and modern and sleek. I asked my mother why I couldn't wear something more like that. She looked at me, then pulled out a sketchpad and pencil and drew what she saw in the shop window. Three weeks later, I had myself a miniature tailored suit for picture day at school. I loved it. And I loved my mother for getting it. I was a girl, just not a femmy, frilly one.
Today, many of my friends would use the word androgynous to define my sense of style; I am definitely more comfortable in mens' clothing, but I don't think I look like a guy when I wear it. Gender expression is a weird thing with lots of variables and lots of societal confusion, especially for the fifty-and-over set of which I am now a part. To be clear, this is not about transgenderism; that is another topic entirely and I'm not trying to become a guy. I'm a woman who just prefers mens' clothes because they look good and are comfortable. This is just another way to move through the world as a woman.
Today, I am still trying to figure out how much of my Self I can retain when I am serving a Jewish community as a songleader or cantorial soloist. Skirts, dresses and any shoe with even a tiny heel all left my wardrobe decades ago and are not coming back. And womens' slacks? Well, that is a foreign country yet to be explored. But it has been very hard to think that I might have to leave behind the clothing I have felt so comfortable in for the last twenty years: mens' pants and button-down shirts, and flat shoes built on a sneaker last that are admittedly the most casual things I wear on my body. I am hopeful that whatever I show up in at this new synagogue in a few weeks will suffice. But if it doesn't I hope I will be able to learn and adjust -- without compromising too much of my sense of who I am and how I move through the world.