What to wear to become a Jewish mother-in-law? – Forward

Posted By on October 10, 2022

Melissa Mizel and Mike Edwards at their sons wedding. Photo by Jenn Tai & Co (weddingsbyjenn.com)

By Melissa MizelOctober 10, 2022

Jewish humor has long suggested that mothers-in-law are excess baggage, and Borscht Belt punchlines have assumed a natural antipathy between a woman and her daughter-in-law. This legacy pessimism was daunting me as my sons wedding approached. Id attended many weddings, coordinated many more, and been a Jewish mother for 30 years. But this was new: What should one wear to become a Jewish mother-in-law?

MJ Ernst, a local couturire, had seen me and my daughter through every important occasion, and I gathered the particulars for her. There would be a band, and dancing was an argument for flats, so a snazzy pantsuit seemed the thing colorful, translucent, possibly with butterfly appliqus, the better to coordinate with Seattles Chihuly museum, where the wedding would take place.

With apologies, MJ reported that shed left Chicago and was caring for her father full-time in Michigan.

When March brought me to a California bar mitzvah, I stayed unexpectedly with my friend Moshi, whose resum, like mine, included a stint in the movie business. Asked if she still knew any Hollywood costume designers, she deemed my approach impractical given the many fittings required. And gently she urged me to abandon my design concept. You dont want to look like youre part of the scenery.Maybe beige?

I returned home, where I volunteer with the Progressive Chevra Kadisha, a Jewish burial society that ritually bathes, dresses and prays for the dead. In April, I worked alongside a woman named Annie, who told me shed embarked on a project to produce the rudimentary muslin garments required.

She could do so because she was a patternmaker, the first Id met since 1972, when my sister needed a wedding dress and turned to the patternmaker from my grandfathers long-shuttered dress company.

Annie had moved from Baltimore to Chicago in order to study with Rabbi Benay Lappe, the charismatic founder of the SVARA yeshiva, who had enhanced the groom-to-bes Jewish education years before. And Annie was equally eager to design a mother-of-the-groom pantsuit. Still, remembering Moshis caution concerning fittings, I decided to consider something ready-made.

My principal business is designing custom invitations, and my studio neighbor is a vintage clothing entrepreneur, Melissa Carter, who sent me to the annex where she keeps special-occasion pieces. I wasnt hopeful; at 5-foot-2, Ive learned that a random collection of womens apparel will hold out for me what a conventional restaurant does for a vegan a paucity of mouthwatering possibilities.

Seeing the clothes arranged by color (not size) was another discouragement. Yet I was drawn to a pliss gown with a white skirt and black bodice. It was far too big, but the sleeves exuberant ruffles ribbed, piped, wired, and sculptural made me smile.They echoed my curly mop and the spun-sugar marvels that Dale Chihuly rendered in glass. If I wore the dress at the wedding, it would be like having joy cascade down my shoulders.

I asked Melissa if I might purchase the dress, contingent on Annies being able to alter it. I dont do returns, she said, then lent it to me outright.

I found Annie at the classroom where she teaches refugee women to use commercial sewing machines. Posters on the wall showed the words for fabric and pins in Somali and Urdu.When I tried on the dress, Annie pronounced it salvageable but only if the garment was remade as if from scratch.

What made me commit to the expensive and time-consuming undertaking was Annies assessment that the dress dated from the late 1980s, when my husband and I married. Though Im as rational as the next person, I also believe in good luck, and I fancied the notion that wearing this dress could increase the odds that my son and his bride, too, would one day be celebrating decades of togetherness.

I wouldnt match Chihulys brilliant colors that I could leave to the mother of the bride, whod chosen rich shades of orange nor would I find safety in beige. Rather, I would wear a charming gown that could double as a talisman of happiness and longevity.

Annie approached her task with the rigor of a ballet costume mistress.The hands that Id last seen dressing an elderly woman for burial now turned me this way and that as she took my measurements for a moulage, a model composed of 14 not necessarily mirror-image parts.

When I returned to her shop, Melissa told me the dress had belonged to the late Sandra Shelton, one of the first Black women to earn a Ph.D. in accounting. An endowed professor, Shelton had worked with a client of mine and attended a dinner party I planned for him. I remembered her smiling presence. Another reason to think this outfit was bashert.

I returned to Annies classroom on Memorial Day. She had been teaching her refugee students despite the holiday, to make up for the next week, when she would be observing Shavuot. The unprepossessing moulage looked like a mashup of motel curtain linings.Yet when my daughter zipped me into it, something magical happened; I felt as though I were wearing a second skin. Finishing the dress took an auspicious 18 hours (chai!) of Annies labor.

When the wedding day arrived, the weather was gorgeous, the vows with which the bride and groom surprised each other were tender and charming, and their friends had turned out in droves. Festive attire was the dress code, and my gown fit the bill.

My friend Sally, a hospice chaplain, knew the backstory. At these moments of transformation, the veil thins, she observed. Were reminded of our connection to everything and everyone else.

Indeed, my quest for an outfit had connected through a couturire turned caregiver, a chevra kadisha team performing our mitzvah, a businesswoman relaxing her rules, a patternmaker shepherding refugees towards a livelihood, a Black scholar making history and more. Theirs were stories of womens love, trust, admiration, generosity, and defiance of oppressive assumptions in short, a bouquet of virtues I could draw from as I embarked on my new role.

When the time came to offer a toast, I stood up straight and introduced myself. Im a mother-in-law, I began.

Melissa Mizel designs stationery and invitations for special events in the Chicago suburbs. Email: [emailprotected]

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What to wear to become a Jewish mother-in-law? - Forward

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