Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days to walk around Yale’s campus. It is a rare delight for me — which is ironic given the solemnity of the day — to see how many religious people there are in our community. Even though the number of people at Yale who spend the day with ash-marked foreheads is relatively small, it surprises me how many people choose to be marked in this way.
I have a personal investment in the issue of markedness on our campus, particularly in a religious sense. I wear Jewish ritual fringes — tzitzit — daily. The white strings that hang out of my shirt are intended to remind me of God’s presence and commandments, which I see myself as obligated to fulfill. This is a religious choice that is in many ways similar to the ash — I feel a real religious requirement to wear tzitzit, but could wear the fringes inside my clothing, much as so many Christians choose to keep the ash on their foreheads though they could wash it off. To understand those decisions as completely personal choices, though, is false and limited.
We are marked as different from each other in countless ways. There are differences that are inherited and unchangeable and differences that stem completely from our preferences and choice. The most interesting differences, though, are the ones that lie in between. I do not wear tzitzit because I like the way they look, and I wear them every day, unrelated to any particular whim. I wear them because they are a religious obligation for me. But my decision to observe this ritual in a public way lies farther along the spectrum of choice.
I wear my tzitzit visibly in part because I believe it’s a preferable way to observe the commandment — “and you shall see them” is part of the Biblical instruction — but also because I want to be identifiable as a Jew. Observant men often wear yarmulkes, but a host of gendered and other factors push me away from doing so. While it’s uncommon for women to wear tzitzit, this practice is gaining traction in my corner of the Jewish community, and unlike wearing a yarmulke, tzitzit is a Biblical commandment. It is important to me that my tzitzit be seen because they represent my deep commitment to my religion and community. But though my fringes are invested with deep meaning to me, their symbolism is hard for others to read.
I have often felt envy for my friends in their yarmulkes or with their ash crosses. These ritualized symbols mean different thing to the people who wear them, but they have basic meanings that are legible to those who see them. My white strings are immediately identifiable to those familiar with traditional Judaism, but as a way of telegraphing to others that I am an observant Jew, they fall short. But a symbol’s legibility is only once facet of its meaning.
A friend recently mentioned to me that whenever she’s trying to explain to other people who I am, she says “you know, the girl with the strings,” and people more often than not know who she’s talking about. This surprised me; I have always assumed that people don’t notice my tzitzit unless they know what they’re looking for. To realize that my tzitzit can be shorthand for who I am, even when those seeing me don’t understand what they’re looking at, has changed the way I understand the potential of their symbolism.
The ways we mark ourselves as different, floating between our free choice and our convictions, our preferences and our communities, are powerful even when that markedness is illegible to others. I am “the girl with the strings” even when the strings are just strings and not tzitzit. This ritual is part of my identity on this campus, marking me even as it does not mark me with an immediately understandable identity. The importance of this practice to me is communicated through the very practice itself; the strings, as it were, are the thing. We often do not realize how much of ourselves we show and how much of each other we can see, our priorities worn on our sleeves and our shirts. We are often already looking at the thing that matters most to a person. We should strive to notice this, and ask about it.
Avigayil Halpern is a junior in Silliman College and a staff columnist-at-large. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .