For the week ending 31 December 2011 / 4 Tevet 5772

Old Wardrobe

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Melissa

Dear Rabbi,

Let me say from the outset that I am Jewish, and proud of it. But when I see the way traditional Orthodox Jewish people dress, particularly the men, I am embarrassed. It looks so peculiar and out of place that I wonder why it has to be so? Couldn’t they dress more with the times?

Dear Melissa,

Your question is right on the button, and I hope to cover it adequately, although there is no uniform response.

Jewish Law dictates only that clothing for men and women fit the guidelines of Jewish modesty. However, it does not cover what general style of clothing should be worn. That is something that was always tailored according to the sensibilities of each particular community in its particular time period and place.

That being said, a common thread in Jewish dress throughout the generations is that, despite being influenced by local taste and functionality, the Jewish wardrobe was interwoven with some distinctly Jewish fashion, meaning or symbols. This might include cutting, sewing, using colors or numbers of pieces of a garment or a number of layers worn that are of some significance in Judaism. In this way, modes of dress were clad with the import of religiosity, and enwrapped within tradition. And tradition is preserved, for among many reasons, it preserves.

While many Orthodox Jewish communities have adopted in varying degrees a more modern, Western apparel, and that’s fine, those who have not should not be criticized. Rather, they should be lauded for their real, and often uncomfortable, commitment to Judaism. This may not wear well with other Jews as yourself, but a question no less on the button than your own is, “Why not?”. Ascribing to a societal view that celebrates multi-culturism and ethnic tolerance, why would a Jew feel embarrassed by another’s traditional garb?

Is it possible that seeing a fellow Jew clothed so “Jewishly” feeds one’s own insecurities vis-à-vis the prevailing non-Jewish environment, and/or vis-à-vis one’s own Jewish self-conscience?

A non-religious elderly man was once riding the subway. He saw what looked to him to be a young Jewish Orthodox man bedecked in a big black hat, long black coat and long beard. He berated the man in Yiddish, while Jewishly gesticulating his derision by pointing at the man from head to toe. The young man replied politely, and in perfect English, “It seems from the way you’re pointing at me that you disapprove of my people’s dress. Do you have such a dislike for the Amish?”

Extremely embarrassed and guilt-ridden, the older man apologized profusely, explaining that he thought that the young man was a fellow Jew, and assured him that he has absolutely no dislike of the Amish at all. On the contrary, he affirmed, “I have nothing but respect for the preservation of your traditional way of life which is a good and pleasant and healthy one!”

The young man then replied in perfect Yiddish, “If you have such a respect for the Amish yet so dislike the Heimish (Yiddish word for observant coreligionist) then you must not think very highly of yourself!”

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