(JTA) — Just before Maria Patricia de Sousa set out for a yearlong stint at a seminary in Jerusalem seven years ago, she stopped by the house of an Orthodox Jewish woman in her home city of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
She wanted to find out about life in Jerusalem — where to eat, how to get around, what to bring for a Sabbath gift. But de Sousa soon learned that she had overlooked a major detail.
Her guide to the Orthodox world took one look at her — “Dressed,” de Sousa says, “like a typical girl in the summer in Brazil” — and said gently, ‘I think you’re going to have to find some new clothes.’ ”
Seven years later, the woman now known as Esther Goldberger is the proprietor of DellaSuza, a Montreal-based fashion line for religious women.
Goldberger, 36, designs the label’s lightweight dresses, tops and skirts at home and produces them with a small staff at her office.
“I started DellaSuza as a one-woman operation,” she says. “And there were many, many nights of insomnia and a lot of work.”
A former bilingual secretary and Baptist Sunday school teacher, Goldberger says she started to read about Judaism and “fell in love” with the faith. She studied the religion in Brazil, which eventually led her to a seminary in Har Nof, an Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. She was the only non-Jewish student there.
Her decision to convert horrified her Baptist family.
“In the beginning they freaked out,” Goldberger recalls. “But they accept me with love and that’s it.”
Goldberger met her husband online, inspiring another move — to Canada. She and Abie settled down in his hometown of Montreal.
She quickly found life as a housewife lacking and decided to study fashion at the city’s LaSalle College. Again, Goldberger says, she was the only Jewishly observant woman in her class.
Goldberger is the latest to join a small cadre of designers who have sought to remake haute couture for Orthodox women, whose modesty requirements make much of mainstream fashion inaccessible. But while many designers for Orthodox women focus on formalwear for special occasions, Goldberger says that she saw an opportunity to design modest clothing that can meet the demands of a religious woman’s everyday life.
“So many of these women want to dress in something comfortable to go to the store, to run after their kids in the park, but nobody thinks about them,” Goldberger says.
Her clothing designs reflect her sunny personality — bright colors and vivid patterns — all within the confines of modesty laws. Goldberger also writes a series of chatty columns about fashion for the Jewish Press, an Orthodox newspaper, with titles such as “The Glitzy World of Inverted Triangles.”
Goldberger is excited about the possibilities of expanding her line, providing modest clothing as well for Muslim and Christian women. She says she still struggles with convincing people, including her husband, that designing clothes is more than just a hobby.
“All my life it’s always been the same,” she says. “When I started studying Judaism in Brazil, I heard, ‘No, that’s not for you.’ The same thing when I met my husband online, and when I decided to start a fashion line. ‘Don’t think about that! That’s not for you!’
“But I never listen,” Goldberger says. “I just keep going.”