Coming of Age on the Upper East Side

by Ariel Balter

I concentrated upon the girls of the community. I spent the greater part of my time with them. I studied most closely the households in which adolescent girls lived. I spent more time in the games of children than in the councils of their elders. Speaking their language, eating their food, sitting barefoot and cross-legged upon the pebbly floor, I did my best to minimize the differences between us and to learn to know to understand all the girls of three little villages on the coast of the little island of Tau, in the Manu’a Archipelago.

Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa

LeSportSac, Coach, Fryes, Bass penny loafers, Capezzios, Topsiders, Olaf Daughters clogs, Tretorns, Calvin Klein Jeans, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Levis, Izod, Ralph Lauren, Cartier diamond tennis bracelets, Tiffany Elsa Peretti hearts.

Name brands only. No knock offs.

Such were the tribal totems of the Sohar Academy Jewish American Princess, circa 1979. This constituted religious or frum chic at Sohar, namely, dressing stylishly within the confines of Sohar’s modern Orthodox inspired dress code. Restrictions around the latest fashions presented quite a dilemma for Sohar’s many Jewish American Princesses. For really, how could a teen-aged-girl both subscribe to Seventeen, Glamour, and Vogue and abide by the modesty mores of Orthodoxy.

Although Sohar, a “modern Orthodox” yeshiva in New York City, which I had the misfortune of attending, did not mandate uniforms, because they were deemed unfashionable by the upper-crust families of the school, it did have a strict dress code. Boys were required to wear long pants, button down shirts, and proper shoes. No jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts, or sneakers were permitted except during gym class and competitive sports. It was mandated that girls be sheathed in skirts or dresses that fell below the knees. They were forbidden to wear athletic shoes, t-shirts, sleeveless tops, and of course, pants of any kind, despite the fact that professional and respectable women had been wearing trousers since the 1930s. According to Sohar’s interpretation of modern Orthodoxy’s rules for fashion, boys had to be relatively tidy, or what would come to be defined as business casual. Girls, on the other hand, had to be modestly, uncomfortably, and anachronistically attired. Ironically, their attire had more in common with the dress codes for Iranian and Saudi women than the wealthy, well-dressed W.A.S.P.s who populated Sohar’s neighborhood.

Just for the record: the anachronistic garb of the Orthodox Jews was in no way linked to Biblical fashions or edicts. Instead, the men, particularly various sects of Hassidic men, dressed in imitation of 18th-century Eastern European nobility. Why they would dress like those who persecuted them was beyond me. As for the women’s dress restrictions, keeping them modest, dowdy, and unattractive to anyone seemed fully in line with the sexist Orthodox ideology. At least that made sense—to them.

And there were no exceptions: not illness, weather, nor comfort. Nothing. Years earlier when my best friend Nadia and I were still relatively law-abiding fourth graders, there was a massive snowstorm in New York City. Sohar was one of the few schools that remained open that day, though at least half of the students did not show up. Nadia did—in snow pants of all things—and was sent home for disobeying the dress code. The fourth grade Judaic Studies teacher, Mr. Isaacs pursed his lips, shook his large, bald head, and scolded Nadia that her snowsuit “embarrassed him in front of Hashem,” as if God had strong opinions about fashion. Sohar’s priorities were clearly in order; instead of praising her for braving the elements by trekking through snow and wind to get to school, on time, no less, the authorities humiliated a nine-year old, ordered her parents to retrieve her from class after they had already deposited her and were on their way to work, and established that a knee-length skirt was more important than attending school. Her puffy, well-padded, figure-obscuring snow pants were, in fact, as asexual and modest as any piece of clothing could be.

So what was a fashion-conscious yeshiva girl with unlimited means supposed to do with such a dress code? What if above-the-knee-length skirts were in? Were denim skirts acceptable even though jeans for boys were not? Were capped sleeves the same as sleeveless? What about gauchos? Were they pants or skirts? Were Annie Hall-inspired vests and ties too manly for a girl to wear to religious Jewish school? These dilemmas were far more pressing to the queen of the J.A.P.s, Debbie Ginzberg, and her ladies in waiting, than Talmudical debates.

Frum chic, or just plain frum manifested itself in various forms depending on the wearer, particularly her age, marital status, and which part of New York she inhabited. This applied to the teachers as well as the students. The sartorial styles of the teachers largely coincided with whether or not they taught secular or Judaic studies. Both the male and female teachers of such subjects as English, history, and math wore the typical unassuming, dowdy clothing of underpaid teachers everywhere: corduroys, button down shirts, knit ties, and Wallabees, loafers, or Earth Shoes for the men, and simple skirts, sweaters or blouses, and sensible shoes for the women.

The male Jewish studies teachers, most of whom were Orthodox rabbis, brought uninspired dressing to a whole new level. With the exception of the fascistic Rabbi Stein, Head of Judaic Studies, and most egregiously by the ill-kempt and underpaid Rabbis Kleinman and Katz, the religious male faculty were short on baths and long on polyester suits. Their synthetic stained shirts were never properly tucked in, nor were their ties sharply knotted. They mixed stripes with plaid and checks with prints, as if they had gotten dressed in a dark closet. And worst of all, they smelled rank and sour like the New York streets on garbage collection days. Nadia and I often discussed whether they bathed exclusively and infrequently at the mikveh. Perhaps the pimply, hormonally unsettled, teenaged religious boys, like the three indistinguishable Jonathans, were not threatened or even felt comforted and inspired by these higher-minded men who did not concern themselves with such frivolities as hygiene and fashion. The princesses, however, found the rabbis to be an affront to their refined senses.

The entirety of the male faculty, Jewish or not, and all of the male students were required to wear yarmulkes or skullcaps while on Sohar premises. If the higher powers at Sohar had been able to enforce such a rule, the totality of its male denizens would have had to wear their kippot in public too, meaning while walking down the street, taking a bus, or doing just about anything. It was up for debate whether or not wearing a yarmulke while engaging in something impure was appropriate. The more pious boys wore their yarmulkes in public as well as at school. Others put them on hastily and sloppily as they entered the doors of the institution. The reasoning behind wearing the kippah derived from the Talmud, which states: “Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you.” One of the rabbis added that covering his head reminded him that, “God is always over my head.” And of course, best of all, the Shulchan Aruch commanded that Jewish men should cover their heads and, “should not walk more than four cubits bareheaded.” Note: only men, not women. Married Orthodox women merely had to cover their hair for purposes of modesty or eradicating their sexuality and attractiveness to other men. Single Orthodox women, however, could display their hair and heads and evidently did not need to recognize god lurking above them.

Since the Sohar boys were permitted so little flexibility or creativity in their dress, many used the kippah as a fashion statement. The most conservative students and teachers wore simple black satin, velvet, or crocheted skullcaps. But the more radical ones commissioned hand crocheted yarmulkes from their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and girlfriends in their favorite hues, or decorated with the colors and logos of their favorite sports teams: the New York Yankees, Mets, Knicks, or Rangers. Some chose arty geometric patterns, symbols of their favorite hobbies or interests like musical notes or basketballs. For a while, before he lost them, my stoner brother Ethan sported one kippah with a likeness of Jimi Hendrix and another one in the Rastafarian colors of red, yellow, and green. None of the teachers who cared about halacha or Talmudic religious law recognized who or what was displayed on Ethan’s skullcap.

The religious female faculty ranged from dowdy to poorly financed attempts at frum chic. The married female teachers, of which there were few, since they were home being fruitful and multiplying, wore wigs or kerchiefs covering their hair to signify their marital state, modesty, and unavailability to any men other than their husbands. Their long sleeves, calf-length, A-line, figure-hiding skirts, opaque tights, and highly buttoned blouses completed the look. The unmarried female religious studies teachers, like Ms. Erlich and Ms. Guttman, were in a bind. On the one hand, their Orthodoxy required them to dress conservatively; but, since they were on the marriage market, they wanted to appear attractive enough to capture a nice Orthodox man. Therefore, they showed off their modishly styled hair, which could still be exposed in their singular states, and wore makeup. From the neck down, they dressed much like their covered married counterparts.

The attire of the Sohar students, particularly the girls, exemplified a multi-tiered system that reflected their wealth, geography, and religiosity: demographics that often overlapped of the various constituents. The core, original group of Sohar students, namely those who had attended the school since early elementary school, hailed entirely from Manhattan and largely from the Upper East Side with a smattering of slightly artier, more liberal, and less well-heeled from the Upper West Side. Most of the Upper East Side girls’ families belonged to Kol Emet, the synagogue affiliated with Sohar, and claimed Orthodoxy, especially at school and in shul, but practiced mostly when convenient or expedient. They appreciated the fashionable address of the school and synagogue as well as its expensively attired congregants. The daughters of Modern Orthodox wealth and status comprised the J.A.P.s.

Instead of the typical cliques, such as jocks and geeks, found in most high schools, Sohar mostly broke down into J.A.P.s and religious kids or frumies. Sohar’s Jewish American Princesses were a prominent tribe in each grade. In my class they followed the leadership of Debbie Ginzberg. Debbie often set the fashion trends, which the other J.A.P.s followed religiously. Since Debbie’s family was in the diamond business, she was the beneficiary of much expensive jewelry, which set a high bar for her cohorts. When she received diamond earring and necklace sets for Hanukkah or her birthday, the other girls also found themselves requesting comparable jewels from Tiffany’s and Cartier. The group required that all clothing be purchased at expensive and trendy stores, in season, not on sale or discounted. Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Bendel’s, and Benneton made the cut, while Gimbel’s and Macy’s did not. It was admirable to display the Izod alligator or Ralph Lauren polo player on one’s chest but shameful to exhibit an unlabeled or cheaper imitation. Had they been familiar with the term, “conspicuous consumption” would have been the mantra of the J.A.P.s.

Despite their egregious display of wealth and insistence on their Jewishness and religiosity, many of the princesses also wanted to blend in with the large W.A.S.P. faction of the Upper East Side and not appear too Semitic. Hence, the onslaught of nose jobs in the Sohar J.A.P. community. No one would admit this of course. It was always that debilitating deviated septum that caused countless teenaged Sohar girls to have their noses broken and reconfigured over winter or summer vacation. Come early January or post-Labor Day September, numerous girls would return to school with black eyes and bandages taped across their noses. Debbie Ginzberg was not a pioneer in this domain: unlike many of her friends, she was blessed with blue eyes, blondish hair, which contrary to nature, morphed into an increasingly lighter golden hue as she aged, and a small Anglo-Saxon nose.

Shockingly, even Ms. Guttman, the paragon of the Judaic studies teachers, got a nose job. She returned after one summer break, no longer bandaged or black and blue, but still inflamed, with a straighter nose and a new haircut to compliment it. Evidently, her desire to find a nice Jewish husband superseded her fear of looking too “Jewish” or what she clearly felt was less attractive. No one said a word and no deviated septum was mentioned.

The tribalism increased in ninth grade when the Bridge and Tunnel crowd arrived, adding other groups to what had been the exclusively Manhattanite Sohar scene. The new students hailed from Queens, Riverdale, Westchester, and Long Island. The Long Islanders, who came exclusively from Great Neck and some of the Westchester denizens, shared similar incomes, aesthetics, and ideologies or values with the Upper East Siders. The kids from Queens and some from the less affluent areas of Riverdale, on the other hand, were mostly frum and in no way chic. These middle class, religious girls from Queens and Riverdale dressed much like their single, religious studies, female teachers in dowdy, sensible, modest clothing, differing from them only with the substitution of knee socks for opaque hose with their below-the-knee-length skirts. No doubt, ten years down the road, they would be dressed the same way.

And then there were the outliers, girls from the Upper West Side, children of academics, or artists, or those in less lucrative professions than their counterparts across the park. The more pious among these girls dressed like the frumies from Queens, perhaps with a slightly artier flair, since they lived in Manhattan. The others muddled through the dress code, adding a personal or rebellious touch like Lisa Pearlman who aspired to a punk aesthetic and ethos by wearing combat boots and army jackets, and girls who bore hand-knitted or crocheted sweaters, and various retro looks from second-hand clothing stores and their mothers.

Debbie Ginzberg and her ilk came by their adoration of attire and accoutrements naturally: namely from their mothers, many of whom were Kol Emet wives. And yes, their status was that of wife, in that their role was to exemplify the financial prowess of their husbands by dressing accordingly. Up in the female-only balcony sat Mrs. Hildegard Ginzberg, her fur coat bedazzled with diamond pins, gossiping with the other behatted and bejeweled ladies. These Modern-Orthodox women, unlike the more traditional Orthodox teachers, covered their heads only while in synagogue; and they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a wig or kerchief. Instead, they donned richly ornamented, dramatic hats made of velvet or silk and adorned with feathers or jewels. The hats, whether or not they were in style with the non-Jewish, non-Orthodox fashionistas, were badges of honor or signifiers of success, which the Kol Emet women displayed proudly, that is, within the confines of the synagogue.

While I hailed from the Upper West Side and Nadia from the Upper East, neither of us really fit in fashion-wise with her peers in her neighborhood. I, the aspiring intellectual held great disdain for the J.A.P.s, specifically their shallowness and inanity, but I envied their wardrobes and well-filled wallets. I coveted fine, chic clothing, but our Herman family budget and values quashed any hopes of competing with the likes of Debbie Ginzberg. Furthermore, my mother, Barbara Herman, who also appreciated a designer dress, was a Depression era baby and very frugal. She was an expert sale and discount shopper who would find the Calvin Klein pants, or the Ralph Lauren blouse, or the Diane Von Furstenberg dress amidst the lesser brands and cheap imitations at Marshalls. She scavenged the semi-annual sales at Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s providing her family with the best possible wardrobes that fell within the confines of her pocketbook.

Consequently, I made do with off-season or last season’s sale items, knock offs, and second-hand or euphemistically named vintage clothing, which I deemed cool and arty. Since my mother rarely threw anything away, I appropriated cashmere sweaters and form-fitting wool skirts that my mother had worn in the early 1960s. With my babysitting money, I shopped at used clothing stores in Greenwich Village. My efforts resulted in some sort of mélange of arty, preppy, chic. Or so I believed.

Nadia also could not compete financially with the Debbie Ginzbergs of Sohar. Like me she enjoyed fashion and craved expensive goods but did not share the stylistic preferences of Sohar teenagers, nor very many girls her age anywhere. By the age of fifteen, Nadia could easily be mistaken for a twenty-something-year old. She had been dying her hair a drugstore purchased brassy blonde since eighth grade. She never left the house without heavily mascaraed lashes and her signature bright coral lipstick. Nadia, influenced by her hand-obsessed mother Sandi, had her long nails professionally manicured each week in a vibrant shade of lacquer that matched her lipstick. Nadia’s predominantly black wardrobe of darkly hued figure-hugging tops and skirts was accompanied by high heels of various genres—boots, sandals, pumps—but never flats. The impression she conveyed was that of a forty-year-old real estate agent rather than that of a student at a yeshiva.

My smart-girl chic neither allowed me to fit in with the J.A.P.s nor the more studious, religious girls, and nor did I really want to. Nadia didn’t either. So Nadia and I, along with a few other extras formed an unspoken alliance not solely against the J.A.P.s and frumies but as a way of defining ourselves by what we did not want to be or become. Our bond, in part, was a way of declaring that we were not really of Sohar Academy but just unfortunate enough to have been enrolled there by our parents. It is where we came of age, in spite of it all.