Dressing Like a Jew

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The Invisible Jew
In a mix and match society like America, who must the invisible Jew imitate? The feudal system of Poland made it simple - we would like to blend in with the business class, the merchants of the day, the only level of society that really existed in a space apart from aristocrat and peasant. But in America, we have far too many options to consider, and even these options are not so clear cut as to have one definitive form of dress - the business class is composed of business casual, business composed, business classy; the political class consists of individuals trying to blend in with the common man alongside politicians trying to stand out and make a point of their separateness. Then we have the archetype of the preppy student, the wandering hippie, the jolly yuppie, and so many countless strata of society which we could choose to emulate. Unfortunately, Modern Orthodox cultural norms have virtually decided that if I want to present as Orthodox, I need to emulate the Polish business class in dress, a black and white suit outfit that means something totally different in modern American society than it meant when it originated in post-Renaissance Poland.
One of the many reasons I don’t wear a black hat or the accompanying accoutrements is because as a mixed Moroccan and Czech/Hungarian Jew whose ancestors didn’t come from even a moderate amount of money, I truly don’t identify with the mid-1800s Polish business class. I also don’t identify with the potential reasons why certain elements of Ashkenazi Jewry chose to emulate their look. First off, I’m not a businessman. Suits and ties to me do not mean “I’m dressed well” - they mean, “I’m dressed blandly.” To me, being dressed well means expressing your unique individuality through the clothes you chose to wear. It means the exact opposite of wearing a specific suit of clothes because somebody told me to. Especially not because somebody told me to because to do so I have to fit in with my own religious community, whose actually relevant spiritual standards I constantly strive to upkeep within every dimension of my daily life.
Beyond this, I can’t help but feel that wearing a suit everywhere I go carries an implied message of “holier than thou.” I truly believe that if I walk into a Starbucks wearing a suit the first thing people think is “money.” The second thing people think is “power.” Why do I want to identify myself with these things?! These are the very opposite of Torah values! The Torah teaches us to devalue these accoutrements of materialist existence. Our holy Sages only perceived through metaphors the reality of the accelerated development of gross materialism that has unfolded within the span of my lifetime and which began with the unprecedented growth of the Industrial Revolution. Even the successful businessmen back then had limits. They didn’t have the ability to have literally whatever they wanted delivered to their door by the next morning. They didn’t have the means to buy up shares of stock in other peoples’ companies by the thousands. They certainly didn’t usually think about making investments the equivalent of buying an $80,000 car. This is the stuff I think of when I see a person in a black suit and white shirt – that is, when I’m not thinking of an Orthodox Jew. What does the closeness in those appearances imply? What message does wearing that outfit give to the rest of the world?
So this is what I do. I believe that the outcasts of American society are its most admirable elements. Social strata that have insisted on maintaining their originality despite the constant pressure to conform to the mainstream. I’m thinking hippies, punks, bikers - that’s the American example. If I’m trying to blend in with a classic American look, just like my supposed forebears did in their respective countries (I bet you anything that even my Czech-Hungarian Jewish ancestors didn’t wear a black suit every day and I’m not going to start now), I’m going for one of those.
Of course, in an America that is, beautifully, the product of the 21st century’s unprecedented cultural interchange, the other nonconformist paradigm of dress is dressing the way your specific cultural ancestors did. Children of immigrants, like myself, usually have family members in other countries who still dress in the style of the old country or at least pictures of relatives who did. The problem is that my mother was not born in Morocco but rather spent her whole childhood in Israel, and thus the chain link to my ancestral dress was broken in another center of Western intercultural communion. So I would feel pretty weird walking around in a jalabiyah now, with my mother and nearly all her brothers never having worn one casually in their lives - and since my Dad was born here in America, I was raised wearing Billabong, Quicksilver and all the other surfer clothes that characterized the San Diegan look in his most developmental period.
So what do I wear now? Honestly, I wouldn’t know how to unilaterally describe it - it’s a cocktail of clothing, a mix and match mess of patterns, trippy designs, appealing images and American cultural references that I appreciate. I believe my brother calls it “homeless chique.” I’m down with that. I wear the clothes that make me fit in somewhere with American society (well, in Berkeley society, at least, which is all I really need) while still refusing to chain myself down to one social demographic - and the truth is, today’s Bay Area businessman could be wearing exactly what I’m wearing when they show you their next million-dollar app. I’ll wear homeless chique and stay on fleek, whatever makes me feel unique. Because in all the crazy and unpredictable ups and downs in my life, the absolute worst times were those that felt stagnant. Stale. Colorless. Black and white. That ain’t me, friend. That ain’t me.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t be up praying first thing in the morning, rushing to my little classroom corner right before teaching for a quick Mincha, or praying a late Ma’ariv after finishing my Chok L’Yisrael when I’m really feeling the call to bed but the call to prayer’s a little louder. Because I would never turn my back on the teachings of my ancestors. And I truly believe that one of those teachings is that the Jew in exile is one who’s mastered the art of blending in while staying separate, the master disciple who knows better than to continue showing off the external signs of mastery when the true master appears as an everyman. Like they say, Eliyahu HaNavi usually looks like a beggar. And if you cross paths with another strangely styled Jew on your mutual wanderings, I hope you make sure to ask for a blessing.
.   Jacob Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
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