Happy Jew Year! What Getting Dressed Up Means For Some Trans & Queer Jews

Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Simpson.
Mom called to wish me luck the night before. “What are you wearing?” she asked. I described what I had planned — a dress, something simple. “You could also wear pants, you know,” she reminded me. That wasn’t me anymore. Dressing up for the Jewish High Holidays is surprisingly nuanced and complicated. Dress clothes and formalwear are part of the story, but queer, non-binary, and transgender Jews often find further significance in their choice of outfit and style.

After two years of addressing my Boston congregation on the High Holidays, I gave my first sermon that year as a woman. My debut and Rosh Hashanah celebrating a season of growth and change was an obvious connection to me, and I chose to address it directly.

Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year,” and this year is the 5776th since the proverbial creation of our universe. The tradition of wearing your best clothes makes the High Holidays unique, starting with Rosh Hashanah and culminating 10 days later on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Like its secular counterpart, Rosh Hashanah is a time of new beginnings; we try to present ourselves fittingly. The outfits can be as diverse as the congregants.
Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Simpson.
My dear friend Halley C., of Washington, DC, uses bright colors and keen detail points to honor her individuality and portray it outward in all its queer femme glory. “So many of us have been told that we’re ‘too much’ or ‘too loud’ or ‘too’ something,” she explains. “That my pumps coordinate with the embroidery on my handkerchief, which coordinates with my tallis, is not just an affectation — it is a form of prayer.”

Another friend, Levi M. of NYC, who identifies as black and ambiguous in gender, and has no preference of gender pronouns, admits "they" juggle aligning with tzniut — a Jewish concept of dignity through modesty — without feeling they are dressing solely for others. Levi expresses their personal identity in a compromise of styles, saying, “I look at the clothing ultraorthodox women wear and go from there. I wear head wraps nearly every day because just wearing a kippah causes too much discomfort. I wear pants, but would like to add another layer on top and prefer to cover to my elbows, but I don't cover my collarbone.”

During my first service as Hannah, I wore the dress I described to my mother, which I neglected to mention came from a trash bag on a street corner left behind by students going home after graduation. It was a slinky, comfy, black cotton frock that hugged my broad shoulders yet gave my narrow hips some shape. It was hardly the fanciest, but it helped myself, my community, and perhaps even my Creator, to see me for who I was.

In my sermon that year, I told a story about an unnamed girl in the local community whom I had flirted with unsuccessfully back in my most scared and closeted days when I was struggling with male heteronormativity. In retrospect, things might have worked better had I realized she was lesbian — and had she realized I was also female, which we had since mutually discovered.
Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Simpson.
We spend lots of time grooming ourselves to the anticipated expectations of others, sometimes at the expense of discovering or expressing who we actually are in the first place. Fortunately, confidence and individual sense of style is not a destination but a journey. You never stop growing and blossoming if you’re nurtured. Two years ago, for me, holiness was found in a simple dress. In this new year, anything feels possible.

Two years ago, for me, holiness was found in a simple dress. This year, anything feels possible.

Cis or trans, queer or straight alike, there is a sanctity within the clothes we choose to wear, and how we express our own definition of “fanciness” for Rosh Hashanah. We dress up for ourselves, and not necessarily who might be looking at us. That being said, since so many people show up on the High Holidays — if you being you does catch someone’s eye or, more likely, their grandmother’s (so you get introduced afterward), that might not be so terrible, either.

To those who are celebrating, l’shana tova! To a sweet, healthy, and glamorous new year!

Hannah Simpson appeared in Refinery29’s Trans America series. She is frequently a commenter on trans issues and was recently featured as a guest with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, as well as on WNYW Fox 5's
Good Day New York. You can follow her on Twitter at @hannsimp.

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