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Ironing On Irony

Celebrities and trendwatchers have an eye out for T-shirts that play on Jewish identity. Are they celebrating an era of acceptance or anxiety?

Ellen Umansky
July 09, 2004

“It all started with a T-shirt,” declared Britain’s Observer in December. The tee “helped stoke a worldwide pop-cultural movement,” Carol Eisenberg claimed in Newsday.

Featured on the torsos of Demi Moore, Madonna, and other celebrities in the pages of People, Time, and In Style, the T-shirts in question are Jewish in theme, with front-and-center slogans that range from the familial (Mamaleh) and the playful (Yo Semite, Jew.Lo) to the risqué (Jewcy) and in-your-face (Shalom Motherfucker).

A flurry of media coverage has portrayed these tees as emblems of a new movement, sartorial vehicles for young Jews to express a burgeoning Semitic pride. “The rebranded, trendy twenty-something American Jew is about as far from the neurotic characters in a Woody Allen film as you can get,” Naomi Wolf wrote as she rejoiced in the emergence of what she called “Hebesters.”

Manufacturers play along with the pundits. “It may sound really cheesy to say this, but fashion is really powerful,” says Sara Schwimmer, 27, who in March launched, a website that sells T-shirts and accessories such as “Chai Maintenance” baseball caps. “When someone buys a T-shirt, it’s a first step. They’re saying they’re comfortable expressing that they’re Jewish.”

But is wearing your identity on your sleeve—or in this case, your chest—really that simple? Look beneath the shirts’ cheeky, irony-infused, look-at-me text and you’ll find remnants of assimilation and identity issues that American Jews have been grappling with for generations. In the early 1980s, an Israeli Coca-Cola T-shirt, the beverage’s logo rendered in Hebrew script, was de rigueur at certain suburban Hebrew schools. Less common, but perhaps more coveted, was another shirt featuring faux Hebrew letters. If you read it backwards—as only a Hebrew reader would know how to do—they spelled out, “Go fuck yourself.”

While this wave of shirts—a subset of a broader trend of sloganed, hipster tees reviving an old-school aesthetic—have captured the attention of the glossies, it’s rare to spot someone sporting one in public. It often seems as if reporters are more interested in talking about these tees than consumers are in wearing them.

And most of these clothing lines remain small side ventures, often launched on a whim by individuals who have turned to the Web to hawk their wares. When the behemoth of mass-market hipsterdom, Urban Outfitters, introduced its ethnic-pride line of shirts, one said “Everybody loves a Jewish girl,” surrounded by dollar signs; the chain quickly withdrew the item. More typical is Sarah Lefton, 30, who created the “Yo Semite” shirt in 2002 as a joke of sorts, inspired by her day job for Camp Tawonga in Yosemite National Park. On her website, Jewish Fashion Conspiracy, she sells the “Yo Semite” line along with her “Jews for Jeter” design. Lefton says she is selling a couple of dozen pieces a week; “I’m deliberately moving slowly on this,” she says.

Jewcy, often identified as the company that jump-started the trend, and Kosher Klothingreport annual sales in the hundreds, and others are moving even more slowly. The website for Jewish Jeans, a company profiled in Time magazine in December, is no longer operational, and an email sent to its customer service desk bounced back.

Rabbi’s Daughters, founded in Los Angeles by three daughters of a Conservative rabbi and a Yiddish-speaking mother, may be the most robust of the niche companies. Daniella Zax, 32, the youngest of the sisters, wouldn’t offer sales numbers, but says that more than 200 stores in the United States carry their designs—plain white tees and tanks printed with sayings such as “Bubeleh,” “Oy Vey,” and “Shayna Punim” in a Hebraic font—as do boutiques in London and Paris. While several manufacturers reported some sales to non-Jews—as well as the odd T-shirt to an Orthodox student on his way to study in Israel—Rabbi’s Daughters traces some of its success to the philo-Semitism of bubblegum pop stars such as Mandy Moore and Christina Aguilera, who has been seen sporting their “Shiksa” design. Zax says it’s one of their biggest sellers. “We have a lot of non-Jewish customers who don’t even realize they’re speaking Yiddish,” she says.

But how many T-shirt wearers of any background realize what the shirts are saying? When a woman in her twenties reaches for a stretchy ribbed tank with the word “Yenta” on it, she declares an affinity and nostalgia for an immigrant past along with her well-formed abs. When a young guy heads out to the park sporting a “Jewcy” or “Shalom Motherfucker” tee, he’s laying Jewish claim to certain elements of American popular culture while challenging age-old stereotypes. “I’m not an asexual weakling,” the shirt proclaims, even if the wearer would never be comfortable saying so.

Celebratory ethnic sayings on clothing are not exactly a new phenomenon. When talking about their influences, designers spoke of a longing for a feeling of pride and self-acceptance like that enjoyed by other ethnic and religious groups. “I thought of all those shirts—’Jesus is my homeboy,’ ‘Everyone loves the Irish,’” says Kosher Klothing’s Marc Schapiro, 29.”And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool for the modern Jew to show some pride and be funny about it too?”

“We were looking at it like Italian pride, Jew power,” Craig Karpel says of his three partners in the Jewcy venture.

The echo of black power isn’t accidental. To attain and harness “Jew power,” many of the T-shirt creators borrow hip-hop language and imagery, seeking an edginess and cool that they associate with African-American culture. “White kids who have been cracking racist jokes when I was a kid now have posters of African-American artists on their walls,” Jewcy’s Jason Saft told Time Out New York. “Ten years from now, maybe people will be walking into their barbershop saying, ‘I want a big-ass Jewfro.’”

Above all, these designers are determined to embody that elusive cool, stereotypes be damned. “Jew.Lo see that Jew and cool are not incompatible but go together like peanut butter and Kosher-for-Passover chocolate,” its website says. Jewcy declares that it “celebrates kosher-style fabulosity.” Like “kosher-style” food—which avoids glaring violations like bacon-wrapped shrimp while taking a don’t ask, don’t tell approach to what goes on in the kitchen—it is all about appearances: “You don’t have to be Jewish to be Jewcy (although it doesn’t hurt!)”

Says Sara Schwimmer of “We’re usually the nerdy, nebbishy, dorky characters. Of course we don’t want to be the dorky ones. We’re trying to rewrite the rules a little bit. You can be Jewish and cool.”

It’s this muted wish to rewrite history, to erase the anxiety fueling the desire for a makeover, which often gets overlooked in discussions of the new “hip Jew.” To put it more simply: Isn’t it just a case of protesting too much? If you truly believed you were cool, would you really need to say it, or emblazon it on a T-shirt for all the world to read?

This impulse to declare one’s affinities and anxieties on an article of clothing may be a peculiarly American one, and those who design or don the T-shirts view their Jewish pride through an American lens. On its website, Jew.Lo says it “sees Jewish pride as the first step to a more multicultural and happy society.” The quest for visibility and legitimacy, to somehow exist as a distinct group and yet be part of the larger American culture, is a delicate balancing act that Jews have been performing for as long as they have been inhabitants of this country—in films, fiction, and music as well as fashion.

People in their twenties and thirties are the ones most often grappling with such questions of identity and their place in the world, so it’s no surprise that they are both the designers and the target market. “My hunch is that it’s part of a way for young Jews to hook up with other Jews,” Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, says about the T-shirt trend. “Not just romantically, but socially as well.”

In other words, for the wearers, there’s an inchoate but powerful pull to publicly declare their Jewish identity, to join the club—in effect, to seek continuity, an age-old Jewish question. But who’s in the club, and what they are in fact hoping to continue, remain stubbornly unclear. “All of us were brought up Reform. Going to temple was something we never understood,” says Karpel, speaking for his partners in Jewcy.

Of course, with a T-shirt, nobody expects clarity. It is a fashion statement, an accessory requiring little financial, emotional, or psychological investment, and no adherence to any religious tenets. It would be exceedingly strange for someone to wear his Jewcy tee daily, as he would a yarmulke. Whatever statement you’re making is peeled off at the end of the day and tossed in the laundry basket, perhaps never to be picked up again. When you’re shopping for identity, what product could be better than a cheap tee that captures your feelings of the moment?

Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.