Every morning, Sarah Dukes puts on what she calls her uniform. There are different variations of it depending on what she has planned for the day, but it always includes something that covers her legs, elbows, upper arms, shoulders and collarbone, usually in colors like yellow and turquoise.
Another part of Dukes’ uniform is her wig. She has many to choose from.
“I have one that’s a ponytail wig for when I’m exercising or when it’s really hot outside,” said Dukes, 35. “I have an everyday one, I have a more dressy one… It’s fun for me; there are different lengths, different colors.”
Dukes is a composer, a part-time psychotherapist, a mother of six living in Cedarhurst. She identifies as Hasidic, a subgroup of Orthodox Judaism.
The Talmud dictates that married Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair to convey modesty. How it’s covered is at the discretion of the community, so some Orthodox Jewish women wear scarves or hats to conceal their natural hair, while others wear wigs.
“I think that sometimes people look at us — especially in the summer — and they feel bad for us,” said Dukes. “‘Oh, how are you wearing long sleeves? It's summer.’ Covering your hair, you're not able to wear shorts.”
But for Dukes, what she puts on every day is no different from what police officers, soldiers and news anchors wear.
“Everyone has a uniform or something they wear that identifies who they are, and they're proud of it. Sometimes it's definitely inconvenient to wear certain things or to cover certain things, but it also comes with a sense of pride," she said.
Growing up, Dukes wasn’t always as religious as she is now. She was raised in North Carolina as one of four children — two sisters and a brother — to parents originally from South Africa. They came to the United States in 1980, and the family became more religious as the kids got older.
Dukes remembers a time in her life when she sported shorts and short sleeves regularly. “I didn't follow all of the laws of modesty,” she said. “It wasn't until I was about 12 or 13 and I was learning more and more about the religion and then went away to yeshiva and I learned about it and began appreciating the different laws and the reasons behind it.”
She’s come to understand the history behind the laws, as well. “In Judaism, we believe that women are respected and valued,” she said. She paraphrases a verse in Psalms that refers to women as “daughters of the king.”
“So in essence, we are princesses, and princesses have certain dress codes.”
Most days, Dukes wears long-sleeved dresses or shirts with long skirts. She calls her personal style “casual, but classy” and gravitates toward soft colors and chunky costume jewelry to “embellish” her outfits. “It shows character.”
Another way she shows her character is through her music. Dukes retreats to her piano anytime she needs to “express [herself] or release something.”
In addition to teaching her the customs and traditions of Judaism, her parents also showed her how to play. She first sat down at the piano when she was 6, but after a year or two, Dukes says she got bored and wanted to quit.
“My parents refused to let me stop,” she said with a smile. “And they said, ‘We don’t care, you don’t have to practice, but you have to sit by the piano every day for 20 minutes.’ They made me sit there! I was a stubborn girl and I refused to practice.”
Dukes started to just play around on the keys, pushing her sheet music aside. That’s when she realized she didn’t need it at all — she could make up her own melodies. She wrote her first song when she was 8, called “Elephant in Tights.”
“And once that happened, the piano was like a magical device for me.”
Dukes went on to release two albums of her compositions, all written by her and performed by pianist Yaron Gershovsky. Her first album, “Finding Forever,” consists of pieces she composed in high school that she calls “pure and innocent.” Her second album, “Life Sometimes,” is full of compositions she wrote after getting married and having children. Her melodies are dreamy yet precise, often building up to a powerful climax.
Lately Dukes has been working to expand her musical palette, for the first time penning a song with lyrics. Titled “Yesterday Again,” the song confronts the emotions that come with losing a loved one. It includes bittersweet lyrics such as “I still feel you and remember all that we’ve been through / And there is so much more that I would say if only it were yesterday.” The song was recently released on iTunes and streaming services.
“The song validates the broken heart and the pain that we experience, and takes you on a journey which in the end, I hope that people can find comfort in it. That’s my hope,” she said.
In another new step, Dukes is also performing more often in front of audiences. Whether she is asked to perform at talent shows, street fairs or more intimate settings like hotel lounges, she is always conscientious about her attire. She selects something she feels comfortable in, and maybe embellishes it with sparkles or sequins for special events.
“Because I’m going to be sitting at the piano, I just make sure my knees are covered when I’m sitting,” she explained. “Because a lot of times you can have a skirt that does cover your knees but when you sit down it goes above your knees, so that’s something that’s very important and I’m definitely aware of that when I buy clothes in general and when I’m performing, as well.”
“I’m not just performing,” she added. “I’m also representing a Hasidic Jewish woman, and that’s important to me — to remember who I’m representing.”
Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about religious clothing and identity on Long Island. If you’d like to share your story of faith with us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.