Walking down the streets of Warsaw these days, you might do a double-take when you see young people wearing sweatshirts with Jewish stars on them or bearing slogans like “You Had Me at Shalom” and “I Love J(ew) Forever.”
The Jewish-themed apparel comes from Antonina Samecka, a 31-year-old Jewish designer. After a 12-year career as a fashion journalist, Samecka launched her own clothing line in 2011 called Risk: Made in Warsaw, which features clothing—from T-shirts to ball gowns—made of sweatshirt material, retailing at some steep prices (598 zloty, or $200 for a men’s sweatshirt). She has her own boutique on Warsaw’s trendy Szpitalna Street, and her clothing is sold online and in stores across Europe. The brand has been featured in many magazines and newspapers, including Elle and The Business of Fashion, and the Polska Times named Risk “the leading brand in the Polish fashion market.”
The Jewish-themed items are part of Risk Oy, one of the fastest growing branches of Samecka’s brand. The designer sees her clothing as “defining Jewish as sexy,” but it’s also about pride: “Rabbis have told me that Abraham and Moses would be proud,” she said.
Samecka’s first feelings of Jewish pride came after a Birthright trip to Israel in her teens. She sported a Jewish star on her necklace after she returned to Warsaw, her hometown; this made her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, fearful. “I was not raised with Jewish culture. I always knew I was Jewish from the beginning, and our house was a house with a menorah, but we didn’t have any other traditional things,” Samecka told me. “My grandmother was scared something would happen to me [and so] I took the necklace off—but I wanted to do something to take away the stigma of the Star of David.”
Every year, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee runs a program called “7@nite,” where seven synagogues around Krakow showcase Jewish projects. In 2012, the Joint contacted Samecka and Risk co-founder Klara Kowtun to see if they would participate in a fashion show as part of the event. Samecka created a Jewish apparel line and it was a hit; afterward, she decided to include the merchandise as a permanent part of Risk, and Risk Oy was born.
For Samecka, retrieving Jewish imagery through fashion is not only about igniting Jewish pride: She sees anyone strutting down the streets of Poland in fashionable T-shirts boasting Jewish stars as defying stereotypes. “When I go abroad, I tell people I’m Jewish and they tell me, ‘Oh, you don’t look it.’ There’s a really strong stereotype of how Jews look,” she said. “Sometimes Jewish clothing is not cool, but what we do is extremely cool. It’s not just shirts that make a statement; the design is cool, the print is nice, and the fabric is comfortable so they don’t feel overdressed.”
Using Jewish motifs in fashion has been done before: In 1993, acclaimed French designer Jean Paul Gaultier unveiled a “Chic Rabbis” collection, which was heavily inspired by Orthodox apparel, and in 2011, Moscow design house St. Bessarion’s fall collection featured Orthodox-looking apparel, side locks included. (Not to mention the T-shirt with the yellow star Urban Outfitters pulled from its shelves last year after much uproar.) But Risk Oy headed in a different direction: Rather than design in-your-face Jewish motifs or styles that scream Hasidic, Samecka wanted subtle styles that “were not too obvious.”
“A Star of David might look like a snowflake to people who don’t know it,” she said.
What’s perhaps the most striking about Risk Oy is not in its success with Polish Jews, but how popular the clothing line has gotten among non-Jews. “Wearing Jewish clothing is really cool: It makes you feel connected to an ethnic group,” said Tom Sztaba, a 26-year-old non-Jewish Warsaw resident and Risk Oy customer. “It’s fashionable to be Jewish in Poland now. People in this country used to look at Jews a certain way, but that was many years ago.”
Samecka feels proud as a Jewish entrepreneur, finding success in a country where she knows people still assume anti-Semitism is fresh and lingering. “Being Jewish in Poland used to be discouraged and dangerous,” she said, “but now it’s cool.”
Sztaba agrees that the clothing’s Jewish themes are trendy even for non-Jews: “It’s cool to have a story behind your name and have a story to your family, and not just tell people your grandparents were born in the Ukraine, like mine,” he said. “I don’t necessarily wear the clothes just for fashion, even though it does look nice. It’s more about the history behind it. I have so many questions about culture and history, and I’m interested in it. I know I can’t be Jewish by wearing a shirt with a star on it but I feel it gives me the possibility to be a part of it, to jump in and learn about the culture.”
The non-Jewish embrace for Risk Oy represents a general cultural shift in the way Jews in Poland are perceived and the Jewish community as a whole, according to Jan Gebert, a 32-year-old Jewish journalist living in Warsaw. While the several thousand Jews living in Poland are a far cry from the community of more than 3 million that once was, many are eager to revive Jewish life openly.
“Since the end of communism, Jewish life in Poland has been revived for the last 20 years,” said Gebert, who covers Jewish Polish culture for the newspaper La Repubblica. “The community might be small and strongly assimilated but Jewish culture is vibrant, alive, and even attracts non-Jews today.”
Risk Oy’s success is just one example of Poland embracing Jewish culture, according to Gebert. From Jewish history to food to music to art, Poland seems to be almost infatuated with Jewish heritage. Restaurants—non-kosher ones, too—featuring Jewish-themed cuisine have sprouted up across Poland in recent years. Krakow’s nine-day Festival of Jewish culture—a “Jewish Woodstock,” if you will—is a mass celebration dedicated to teaching non-Jews about Jewish culture and, drawing some 30,000 attendees, is one of the biggest Jewish cultural events in the world. Last year, the grand Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened its doors on the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto; over 180,000 visitors toured the building during its first few months, and many more are expected after the museum’s core exhibition opens this fall.
Gebert attributes the sudden interest in Jewish culture to nostalgia. “Poland feels guilt as a witness to the Holocaust. When you witness something and you don’t act, there’s always that type of guilt. But more important, Poland now is very nostalgic to the past, to a pre-war Poland,” Gebert explained. “The country was bigger territorially, had a more attractive culture, was more ethnically mixed, and had much more going on. There was religion and culture, and so there was music and arts, and just more attractive culture before the war hit.”
A renewed connection to Jewish culture might offer non-Jewish Poles a way to access their own cultural history. “By connecting to Jewish culture, and somehow rebuilding it,” said Gebert, Poles “feel they can connect themselves to the past.”
Antony Polonsky, a professor of Polish Jewish history at Brandeis University currently living in England, believes Risk Oy’s success reflects the rise of a new generation. “Poland has completely changed over the last 25 years. On one level [Samecka’s] success relates to the diminution of anti-Semitism and the acceptance of Jewish things in the public sphere,” Polonsky noted. “It’s certainly an interesting development that the clothing line has seen such success among young people.”
Polonsky stressed an interest in looking Polish youth: With time has come an increasing desire to come to terms with the negative impact on anti-Semitism, he said, and a self-critical attitude among young people is how they address the past.
While embracing Jewish culture helps Polish non-Jews connect to the past, Risk Oy popularity fuels the Polish Jewish community to look to the future. “When you’re a Jew living in Poland, it’s really hard not to stick to the past. The former Warsaw ghetto is a 10-minute walk from my apartment! It’s hard not to think about what was, especially when so many Jewish activities here focus on Jewish life before the war,” Gebert said. “But when a new Jewish project [like Risk Oy] rises, it shows that we can do something for the future. For the Jewish community, it’s something sexy, something wonderful, and something for the future.”
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