Dress Yiddish Think Yiddish

I made a decision a while ago to start being more visibly and publicly Jewish. This presented a bit of a challenge to me, as there are some signifiers of Jewishness that already exist, but they either seemed wrong for me or I just didn't like them.

There is, as an example, the yarmulke and the tzitzis, the beanie and fringes that Orthodox Jews wear. But these aren't simply signifiers of Jewishness, but of religious Jewishness, and I am not religious, I was not raised Orthodox, and am not now Orthodox. I used to wear them, by the way, when I was in high school, because I went to a local Yeshiva, so they are something I have experience with, and I do especially like the tzitzis, which are fun to wear hanging down from under your shirt. But it is not a look associated with Jewish atheism, and so would not be right for me.

There is also the Jewish star and the Chai, but, for whatever reason, I just have never wanted to wear either. The star doesn't simply represent Judaism, but is closely associated with Zionism; it was selected as the symbol of the movement in 1897, and is, of course, on the Israeli flag. My feelings about Zionism and Israel are knotty, like a lot of American Jews, and it seems odd for me to wear a symbol that primarily communicates "it's complicated."

I do sort of like the chai -- Elvis wore one later in his life, perhaps as a nod to his own Jewish heritage. But it usually appears hanging at the end of a gold necklace, and I can't, I just can't.

So I have had to sort of come up with my own ensemble. I don't know if it actually screams Jewish to the general population, but it feels right for me.

The basics

The core of my wardrobe now consists of black pants, white shirt, black vest. It's a look that I like to call H&M Hasid, although that's putting on airs. Properly I should probably be called Target-brand Hasid, considering how many of my clothes say Mossimo on them. But, then, Target is a Minnesota company, so it seems right for me.

As it is winter. my vests are typically the sporty, stiff collared fleece vests that are sold in hiking stores. One of my brothers dresses pretty much exactly the same way, but it is because he actually does sporty things. He swims and hikes and rides motorcycles, which all seems very irresponsible to me. You could get hurt doing those things.

Anyway, without any additions, I just look like anybody in black pants, white shirt, and black vest, and, God forbid, somebody might even mistake me for a hiker, so I have some additions. Here is the most important.

The fiddler cap

This is called the fiddler cap because of Fiddler on the Roof, of course. Tevye wore what looks to be a linen one, one of the occasional filmic nods to his middle class aspirations (he also may sing about wanting to be rich, if I remember right), while the revolutionary Perchik wears a leather one
like some sort of Ukrainian Marlon Brando.

The hat is properly called a maciejówka, which is a traditional Polish cap, and if you look at pre-war photos of Jews in Eastern Europe you do see quite a few of them wearing one version of the maciejówka or another -- although you also see a surprising number of them wearing what seems to be a variation of the woolen karakul that comes from Afghanistan, and, of course, plenty of delightful fur hats. They hadn't reached the size or shape of the modern shtreimel, which looks like a flying saucer made of fur has landed on a Jew's head, but they look terrific nonetheless.

Shtreimels are worn by married men, and by hasids, and, again, I don't want to send the wrong message. Also, they cost, like, $3,000, and I don't have that kind of money. So fiddler caps it was to be, and fiddler caps it is. I have about five now, and I especially like them because John Lennon used to wear one, so it fits in with my "Dress British" theme.

All by itself, the ensemble does make me sort of look like a 19th century Greenhorn went to Walmart and just bought what was familiar to him. But an ensemble is made by its accessories. So let us move on to the pins and buttons.

The pins and buttons

I have three places I affix pins and buttons. First, there is my coats, which I have not discussed, but they are all black and long like a caftan, except that one is a duffel coat, one is a raincoat, and one is the sort of thee-quarter-length black leather coat worn by gangsters in 1970s films.

I was going to go with a theme for these pins I call "mine bubbe's tam," which means "my grandmother's taste." So on one I have a pin of some challah, and on another I have a bundt cake, which was invented by the Hadassa of Minneapolis just a few blocks from where I am sitting. But then I also found an attendance pin from a synagogue, and it was so delightful that I put it on my gangster jacket.

I also put pins on my vests. Here I decided to wear flags from the various countries my ancestors came from: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Poland. This is not something typically done by American Jews. You don't often find American Jews lingering at Polish-American halls, as an example, and this is understandable. It is hard to think of yourself as Polish when the country had a long history of antisemitism and participated in your murder.

But my mother's father came from Warsaw. He had a specific history in a specific place, and I wear the pin to remember that, and also to signal that I am from an immigrant family, which seems like something that is especially worth signalling when there is so much nativism around nowadays.

Finally, I wear pins on my hat, and here I decided to most clearly signal my politics. At my core, I am an anarcho-socialist, although, in practice, I'm just a very frustrated liberal. Nonetheless, I have pinned a black rose to one fiddler cap, a black cat to another, both traditional anarchist images. On the cap I'm wearing today I have an antifascist symbol, which, prior to the past few years, might have felt like the sort of thing a historical reenactor would have favored, but then fascism sort of became mainstream again.

Oh, and there is one more element to my wardrobe. The socks.

The Socks

As Albert Goldman says in "The Birdcage," one does want a hint of color. All of my socks are British flags. My father noticed this a few days ago and shook his head. "Dress British Think Yiddish," he said.

He gets it. He doesn't seem to approve, but he gets it.