I just had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Birthright. I am one of 400,000 Jewish young people from 66 countries who received the gift of a free trip to Israel. The immersive, 10-day itinerary was nothing short of educational, eye-opening and hot — extremely hot.
Having been warned about the intense Israel heat (in August, no less), I packed light summer dresses, easy breezy rompers and enough Lululemon to make a yoga instructor cringe. Nonetheless, I just couldn’t stand the heat. And then it hit me: If I could barely sit still without profusely sweating, how could highly observant Jewish females - who generally cover their collarbone, ankles and knees - manage to go outside and look put together?
From the Western Wall in Jerusalem to Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv, I simply couldn’t shake the question. It wasn’t actually answered until I returned home and met a Hasidic fashion blogger, Emunah Wircberg, better known as “The Modest Mom."
Emunah Wircberg, "The Modest Mom." (@the_modestmom/Instagram)
Wircberg, a 23-year-old Philly native and director of the Old City Jewish Arts Centerwith her rabbi husband, Zalman, is the epitome of effortless style. Even on humid, 98-degree days, she is arguably one of the best-dressed women about town, proving that covering up and stylish femininity are not mutually exclusive.
If you recognize Wircberg's style from shopping in Old City boutiques like Lost + Found and Erdon, you might not realize she is an Orthodox Jewish mother of two who observes the rules of Tz’ni’ut (modesty). In Hebrew, the word also signifies privacy.
“In terms of modesty, I think that there is a big misconception,” Wircberg tells PhillyVoice over coffee. “If you look up the English definition of modesty, it means small and insignificant; it kind of has a negative connotation. But the Hebrew definition of modesty, Tzanuah, means private.
“When something is private,” she reveals, “it turns out to be very powerful, sacred and holy, but humble at the same time.”
As a street-style blogger who often opts for a grandma-chic inspired ensemble, I have yet to meet a turtleneck I didn’t love, so I can really appreciate the notion of leaving something to the imagination. After taking one look at this Instablogger’s ethereal maxi dresses, classic Breton stripe tops and flouncy high-waisted skirts, it is hard not to be inspired by Wircberg's modern sense of chic modesty.
“When you have the guidelines of modesty, you’re holding a certain power,” says the mother of Levi, 4, and Roza, 1. “When something is secret and hidden, it’s more powerful because it’s not out for the entire world to see.”
Before we even discuss how she can embrace her love of boho meets ladylike clothing while respecting her religious beliefs, she is eager to point out that while the halachas (laws) of modesty are fairly clear and consistent, every woman is different. Even within the boundaries, every woman's expression of self can be modest and also unique.
For Wircberg, “modesty” means covering her elbows, her collarbone and her knees, but she also emphasizes the need for sensitivity. Not everyone feels ready to embrace modest dress as she does, but everyone should be open to grow. And she explains this way of life does not prevent her from feeling stylish or beautiful.
“The reason why you can still be beautiful at the same time is because showing off your figure is not why you are drawing people to you,” she explains. “Of course, you can show, ‘Yeah, I dress nicely, I care about the way I look, I care about my presentation,’ but that’s not the main draw. And there’s something very powerful about that.
"You hold this key, you hold this power -- that I’m not just open for everyone to come and see and check out my body, but that I have ideas, goals and accomplishments and I am here for a purpose.”
And while this wardrobe may be from a bygone era for some, Wircberg points out that layering and modest styles are very much in fashion. Designers like Dior, Valentino and Dolce are creating modest looks. Not only does modesty not contradict fashion, but so much of fashion is inspired by the elegance and refined look of modesty.
“It’s refined and it’s incredible and they don’t have the guidelines of modesty, but they’re echoing the sentiment that there’s nothing wrong with covering up,” Wircberg adds.
But what does she have to say to skeptics, those who think the restrictions are suffocating her freedom of self-expression? She candidly acknowledges at one point struggling with the Orthodox dress code, which has now garnered her a niche following on Instagram.
“It was something that I used to see as a restriction and negative, but I turned it into something positive!” she says. “I think that’s all part of my goal for ‘The Modest Mom’: I want to inspire women of all ages to turn the concept of modesty into something positive.
“You can be beautiful and be modest at the same time and even do it on the budget.”
A self-proclaimed deal hunter, she nabs affordable, trendy pieces at major retailers like Zara (her favorite), H&M, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew.
Wircberg captures her favorite looks on Instagram.(@the_modestmom/Instagram)
In a world where fashion blogging and social media as a whole can often come off as narcissistic, it is actually refreshing to watch someone like Wircberg express her sense of personal style for a greater goal.
“It’s not about how many people follow you or how many likes you get on a picture,” the blogger notes. “Even if it is one picture that inspires someone to see the beauty in modesty, that’s what’s important to me.”