The New York Times has a piece on hasidic dress written by the Times' unofficial in house 'Jewish expert' Joseph Berger.
These types of fluff pieces – Look! Those hot, sweaty hasidim aren't really as hot we think they are! – were a staple of the Times Brooklyn coverage for years, covering the emergence of matzoh bakeries every spring that – surprisingly! – aren't open for business in May, June or July, and similarly cute but unimportant fluff, repeated ad nauseam with only slight variation year after year, while all around them kids were being raped, rabbis were covering up, the D.A. was looking the other way – and the Times knew it.
Just because the Times has now discovered that haredim have a child sexual abuse cover up problem much like that of the Church, and that the D.A. appears to have enabled that ongoing coverup (although the Times' coverage is heavy on the latter and light on the former), doesn't mean that it will stop publishing these inane shtreiml/sheitel/matzo pieces.
And so we get Joseph Berger's piece today.
My oh my is it hot! My oh my are haredim overdressed! My oh my are we wrong to think as outsiders that haredim aren't actually dressing cooler than they appear to be!
Early in his piece, Berger – the Times unofficial 'Jewish expert' who is looked at by them as an expert on haredi Brooklyn – quotes Shea Hecht and misidentifies him:
Hot and cold is all in the mind anyway, argued Shea Hecht, a Lubavitch Hasid who heads the movement’s educational outreach arm. In his dark suit and gray fedora — Lubavitch garb differs from that of other Hasidim, though it is still conservative — he sometimes chuckles at people in Bermuda shorts.
Shea is not the head of Chabad's "educational outreach arm."
Chabad's educational arm is Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch Lubavitch, headed by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky. Chabad shluchim, outreach rabbis, report to Merkos. So the Chabad rabbi in Podunk, USA reports to his regional head, who himself reports to Merkos and Krinsky.
Shea Hecht heads what is in effect one of those Podunk, USA Chabad Houses – except that he's located in Crown Heights and runs a couple small school and a larger day camp. But he is not in any way the head of Chabad's "educational outreach arm."
Past that, 99.99% of Chabad shluchim wear a particular style of black fur felt fedora hat – the same style (and often the same brand) as the late Rebbe wore. They do this in the middle of a frigid North Country January when temperatures are minus double digits and the snow is driving and stings like jagged ice. They also wear those same fedoras when the temperature is hot, like it is now, walking the streets of Brooklyn or Phoenix when the temperature is pushing 100 degrees, sweat dripping down their faces, salt-stained fedoras firmly planted on their heads.
Beyond the law, the identifiable style of Hasidic clothing — even some waggish Hasidim call it a uniform — serves many purposes. It honors the way ancestors dressed in Europe starting in the 18th century, when the Hasidic movement was founded by sages who sought more joyous fervor in observance that could be expressed by the common folk. Many dress patterns, like the round, fur hats and knee-length frock coats, imitated the attire of the nobility. A style adopted by a movement’s grand rabbi filtered down through ardent acolytes.
The "ancestors" in Europe dressed in ways we don't see at all today. Hasidim – except for rebbes (grand rabbis) and heads of yeshivas and senior Torah scholars and teachers – wore various types of caps that were identical to what non-Jews wore. The rest of their clothing was similar to what non-Jews wore, as well.
Even on the Sabbath most hasidim wore newsboy-style caps or caps that were similar to Greek fishermen caps – not hats, not shtreimls, not spodeks.
In fact, the average middle class hasid in pre-War Hungary looked on the average weekday just like his non-Jewish counterparts, except for tzitzit protruding from underneath his vest, an untrimmed beard, and hat/cap-wearing inside as well as outside.
Berger knows nothing about any of this, just as he seems to know nothing about the change in hasidic clothing in America over the past 50 years.
In 1979 it was common to see hasidim wearing long but completely unlined frock coats in the summer, coats so thin they were almost sheer.
Hasidic summer hats were made of straw. Lightweight summer shirts were covered with lightweight cotton tzitzit or tzitzit made of an almost sheer wool fabric.
Shoes were often woven cotton.
Flash forward to 2012.
The coats are overwhelmingly wool (or silk), black and not sheer. The hats are beaver fur felt. The shoes are black leather and fully enclosed.
Hasidic women's clothing has itself gone through a similar shift to darker, heavier summer fabrics.
And lets not forget that hasidic rabbis issued bans on denim skirts, blouses made of lighter materials, or that were too bright colored or denim, stockings that were not opaque enough, and those without (or sometimes, with) seams. All of these bans are recent. All the items banned were worn by hasidic women before the bans. Berger misses all of this.
In other words, the basis of Berger's article is wrong, he wrote based on a false premise, and he made factual errors – as did the Times' fact checkers.
I'll close with one more of those errors. Berger writes:
The tzitzit, the fringed ritual garment, adds another layer for men on a torrid day, so Jacob Roth, of Malchut Judaica, one of the largest distributors of prayer shawls, is working on some remedies. For the Sabbath, he has come up with a summertime wool version that is half the weight — “light as an eagle” is its name in Yiddish. It can be accompanied by an imitation silver collar band to replace the heavy band of real silver that the most traditional insist upon.
Berger – again, allegedly the Times unofficial 'Jewish expert' – is confusing the tallit (prayer shawl) with the arba kanfot (four cornered garment). The latter, often known colloquially as "tzitzit," is worn every day – even Saturdays – by Orthodox and hasidic Jews. It's the "poncho" Berger refers to elsewhere in the piece. Arba Kanfot do not have silver band on their "collars," even though they have collars. The tallit, however, worn by adult (usually adult and married) men during morning prayer services, can have a band of silver attached to part of one of its edges. The tallit is a much larger garment than the arba kanfot and, unlike the arba kanfot, which is essentially a small poncho, the tallit is essentially a large shawl. And as you know, shawls do not have collars.
Way to go, NYT.