It's hotter under the Hasidic collar: Religious garb in the summer is a challenge
By Shulem Deen • New York Daily News
With temperatures recently hitting the triple digits and sure to climb into the 90s again, most New Yorkers want only to go from one air-conditioned haven to the next, avoiding the outdoors. But it could be worse. We could all be Hasidic Jews. And some of us actually are. Or, in my case, were.
New York's most religious Jews don't give up their wide-brimmed black hats and long black coats even when the thermometer might burst from the heat. One would think that sartorial choices originally intended for Polish winters would've made way for attire more suitable for New York summers. One would be wrong.
On Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, when Hasidim are generally confined to Williamsburg or Borough Park, the two largest Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn, you might see them, even on the most scorching days of summer, wearing 6-inch-tall fur hats, black silk caftans and, as they walk home after morning services, heavy wool prayer shawls.
Because I, too, was once a Hasid, my non-Hasidic friends have been asking with irritating frequency: Dude, what is up with those clothes? It is not an unfair question to ask. And it is a question that could be asked just as easily of devout Muslims and others.
The answer is, most often, the same. As far as my own tribe is concerned, Tevye the milkman from "Fiddler on the Roof" got it exactly right when he declared that there's little reason behind a lot of what religious Jews do. It's simply tradition, as the song goes.
That is, there's no biblical commandment about wearing black garb. There's no record of Moses telling the Israelites to wear a snug, six-button vest over one's four-cornered wool garment. There's not a mention in any of the thousands of volumes of Jewish law of the requirement to wear the fur shtreimel. It's just the way it's been for centuries.
So what is that experience like? My long dark coat, come June and July, would would turn my personality hostile. If you'd tried to take my seat on the Hasidic bus I used to commute to and from my Manhattan job, I'd fix you with a stare so vicious it would chill you.
My beaver fur hat, normally only a mild irritant, would etch deep sweaty rings around my forehead. The wool-fringed garment over my starched polyester shirt would shift around under my dark blue vest as I tried in vain to position it for maximum airflow to my body underneath all those layers.
When the city heats up these days, I no longer steam in my religious garb. Four years ago, I chose to leave the Hasidic lifestyle for a variety of personal and ideological reasons - having to get married at 18 not the least among them. Having fled the belief system into which I'd been indoctrinated, I allowed myself my first pair of shorts and my first T-shirt. For the first time, I felt the whispers of a breeze rustle the hair on my bare head. And these days, as I watch Hasidim on the streets of Williamsburg or on the G train, I take a quick moment to be thankful for the freedom to wear whatever I want.
I suppose that, in the name of tolerance, I should declare grudging respect for the Hasidim tenaciously clinging to their heavy dress during the summer months. But frankly, I don't really care that much. I neither scorn it nor admire it. I'm simply glad that I'm no longer sweating along with them.
But I do still have a measure of compassion. Hasidim are like humans the world over: They conform to the norms and fashions of their society. They aren't always comfortable, practical or sensible. Look at your run-of-the mill Wall Street banker, with his dark suit and necktie. Ties in this weather? Dude, what is up with that?
Deen is the founder and editor of Unpious.com, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe.
Shulem Deen is wrong. His error is significant because it misleads Jews into thinking today's garb is the "authentic" Jewish way of dressing mandated by centuries old custom. But it is not.
Rank and file hasidim did not wear black wool or silk suits, vests and black hats 100 years ago, winter and summer. Clothes were often blue or gray or brown. Hasidic men wore caps of varying colors, not hats. Like most of Eastern and Western Europeans, some type of suit jacket was also worn, even by laborers – although that jacket was often removed during actual labor in the hotter months. Hasidic summer clothes were made of lighter weight fabrics like cottons or summer weight wools. Hasidic men who worked in non-Jewish industries sometimes dressed exactly as their non-Jewish counterparts dressed – even wearing fashionable straw hats.
On Shabbat and holidays, hasidic men wore their most formal clothes, to honor the holy day. That might mean a long frock coat or, further east, a caftan – both of these adopted by Jews from the surrounding gentile royalty.
But only actual rebbes, very wealthy men and noted Torah scholars wore shtreimls, spodeks and the other crown-like fur hats commonly seen on the heads of hasidim today on the Sabbath and holy days.
So hasidic garb 100 years ago was far less rigid than today. It was more colorful and more varied. It was less formal. And it was lighter weight in the summer and heavier in the winter.
Go back another 100 years and you find even more variation and even less rigidity.
Go laterally to the non-hasidic Lithuanian communities, and 100 years ago you find a mix of styles – most similar to or even the same as non-Jewish business attire, although rabbis and noted Torah scholars generally retained the longer Prince Albert-style frock coat rather than shifting to the shorter style suit coat still worn today by businessmen – and sometimes, businesswomen, as well.
The fedora hat, now almost universally worn by Lithuanian and Sefardi ultra-Orthodox men and by Chabad hasidic men began in the late 19th century as…a women's hat. As it crossed over into men's fashion, it was slowly adopted by these ultra-Orthodox Jews and is now a near-universally known sign, or even a logo, for ultra-Orthodoxy in many parts of the world.
Even 60 years ago, just after the end of the Holocaust, hasidic dress was far less rigid than it is today.
But many hasidic rebbes, seeking to rebuild their destroyed communities, allowed men who before the war would never have been allowed to wear a shtreiml to wear one. Stressing a cohesive group identity in part through what they allowed their followers to wear, while at the same time lowering the standards for wearing these clothes originally meant to distinguish men of special social rank as an inducement to remain in the group, rebbes formed a new type of hasidic community.
What was new and novel in 1951 became blacker and more ridgid by 1981, and uniformly so by 2001. By 2011, hasidim and ex-hasidim like Dean either do not know, will not admit or won't allow themselves to remember that things in the recent past used to be very different.
When I first went to yeshiva in 1982, one of my teachers – a follower of a Galatian hasidic rebbe, not of Chabad – had an unlined cotton frock coat he wore during the summer.
"I'm lucky to have this," he once told me. "They're almost impossible to find today. Forty years ago, everybody wore them. Now almost no one does."
He also had a wool or silk frock coat for daily wear year round that was light blue with grey stripes. "Soon," he told me, "I won't be able to buy these, either."
The hoaried ancient customs Dean writes about are in reality of post-World War Two origin.
And so is the Fiddler on the Roof myth Dean briefly mentions.
Sholem Aleichem's stories the play and movie are based on have no resemblance to the myth the play and movie promote. Instead, they were dark, brooding stories about the poverty, backwardness, and rabbinic tyranny that made shtel life so awful for so many Jews.
Dean's comparison to the dress of Wall Street brokers and executives is also wrong, because as we all know, light weight suits are worn in the summer as are light colored suits, and men often do not put on their ties or jackets until they enter their workplace. On the other hand, hasidic men now wear their hasidic uniform whenever they go outside thier home.
Shulem Dean should know better. Perhaps he does, but found it easier (and more lucrative) to write what is in effect a lie, than it would have been to tell the more complicated, less saleable, truth.
Dean's ignorance or his dishonesty isn't important.
What is important is this: the hasidic dress and culture of today is of post-World War Two origin. It is not holy or ancient or even old.
And you should never trust anyone – even an ex-hasid – who tells you different.