Alexei Hay
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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Batsheva Hay

The fashion designer on keeping Shabbat, trying to stay stylish in Washington, D.C., and dreaming of Christmas trees

Periel Aschenbrand
January 03, 2018
Alexei Hay
Batsheva HayAlexei Hay

She’s got killer style, a new fashion line that’s got everyone who’s anyone lining up at her at Upper West Side abode-slash-studio, and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, an M.A in psychology, and a B.A. from Stanford University (with honors).

Not bad for a girl from Queens (holla).

How to describe Batsheva Hay’s work? Imagine what would happen if Laura Ashley and Little House on the Prairie had a fashion orgy, that’s how. Vogue has called her work “a psycho world of floral craziness” and they’re not wrong. Her line is only a year old, but she’s gotten further in a year than most designers do in a lifetime. She’s married to fashion photographer Alexei Hay, and is the rare fashion world superstar who is also shomer Shabbos. I met her in her in her home, which was recently listed by Zagat, which is basically the bible of the Upper West Side, as one of the draws of her neighborhood.

Periel Aschenbrand: I was sure I was I was going to come over and we were going to talk fashion but it seems we’re actually going to talk religion.

Batsheva Hay: We weren’t religious, but my dad was Israeli and they wanted us to speak Hebrew and be in a Jewish school and they thought it was innocuous, I guess, but I sort of started to feel kind of caged in in that environment.

PA: Because you couldn’t wear flowery skirts?

BH: The dress code for me, was the starting point of feeling like I didn’t fit in and there were too many rules. I had to wear a white shirt and a navy skirt and I hated white shirts—white and navy: Not into it.

PA: Too nautical?

BH: Certain things wouldn’t have become as big, I think, if they weren’t so forbidden.

PA: Like what?

BH: A Christmas tree. Who knows where I picked it up, my neighborhood was really Jewish but somehow I got that idea into my head and I started drawing and drawing Christmas trees and presents under Christmas trees and I think it was over the full year of first grade or second grade and I accumulated a stack of the drawings and I was hiding them, because I knew enough to know that it wasn’t allowed.

PA: That is fucked up.

BH: It was. And when it was discovered, it became an issue. I felt shame. Maybe not for the first time but it was an early experience of shame that stuck with me.

PA: That makes me want to cry. That’s awful.

BH: And I didn’t even know what it was.

PA: So your teacher found this stack of drawings of Christmas trees?

BH: My teacher found it, called my parents in, was like, “Let’s talk about Batsheva. What’s wrong? What’s going on at home?” And they sort of realized it wasn’t really the place for me.

PA: To their credit, right?

BH: Yeah.

PA: But your parents weren’t religious?

BH: They weren’t religious at all. My father has always had a real respect and admiration for religious people—he’s Israeli—coming from the place that it is because of people like this that we still have a culture. They’re kind of like the glue.

PA: Do you think that’s true?

BH: I don’t know. Would Jewish culture dissipate without them?

PA: Feels like there might be something to that. I’m glad that there are people who are more religious than I am. I’m glad they exist, I just wish they felt the same way about me. That’s the part I struggle with. But this isn’t about me…

BH: No, no, no. I had two perspectives growing up. My maternal grandfather had a much more negative relationship with Judaism. His family was from Eastern Europe and he came here before the war and really just wanted to be all American, he fought in Korea and he can’t look at a bagel without being grossed out.

PA: Really.

BH: He has a very negative relationship with his Judaism. But he likes Israel because it’s more macho.

PA: Ha!

BH: He doesn’t like Woody Allen, he doesn’t like whiny Jews.

PA: Well, Woody Allen is problematic on a whole other level.

BH: True. True, true, true, true. But he also doesn’t like Rabbis. My dad’s dad was an Early Zionist. His parents were both from Europe and went to Israel and bought their land from the Ottoman Empire and they farmed.

PA: Wow. Do you speak Hebrew?

BH: A little bit. Do you?

PA: Yeah. Okay. So wait. You grew up in Queens and your parents had the foresight to pull you out of religious school and then…

BH: I was also kind of awkward and shy and overweight. It was a rough time.

PA: It sounds like you were really cute.

BH: I had such deep shame about the way I looked and I started to get in touch with it because I was dressing the way that I do now.

PA: Already?

BH: Already.

PA: Do you just go back and make all the dresses you wore when you were little?

BH: I have all the dresses! My mother kept everything and so my daughter wears all my stuff.

PA: I am dead right now. Was your mom really into fashion or were you the one picking your own outfits?

BH: She was a hippie. She was a kibbutznik, that’s how she met my dad. She was an artist and she had an amazing appreciation for fabrics. She had stacks of interior magazines and I knew what Vogue and W and all of these things were, and she shared them with me.

PA: Maybe Queens was more sophisticated than we give it credit for?

BH: It definitely was not.

PA: Ha. So then what?

BH: Then I went to Stuyvesant and once I was in the city I grew up in pretty fast.

PA: Were you already making dresses?

BH: I went to an art camp. I was starting to. The style in Queens was so not me.

PA: Oh, really? You weren’t into like, Hotdoggers and Sergio Tacchini?

BH: Exactly. So once I was in the city, it was the time of grunge and I would make my own bellbottoms and wear peasant dresses and the whole thing.

PA: Where did you go to college?

BH: I went to Stamford for college and stayed there for a masters but I still dressed kind of weird. I was the one that people would stop and say, “I love what you’re wearing” but really what they wanted to say was, “What the fuck are you wearing?” It was always a theme—I was not dressing appropriately for where I was. And then I went to law school at Georgetown in D.C., which is like the death of fashion.

PA: Totally.

BH: D.C. is like the worst style city in the world. It was really confusing. D.C. is like the city of Ann Taylor Loft and Dress Barn. But I was also really focused.

PA: Are you a very practical person? Why did you go to law school? Why didn’t you get right into fashion?

BH: Oh, I don’t think my parents would have liked that very much. I wanted to prove I could do it. I have a real competitive thing in me. And I felt the drive. And because I was always a little socially awkward, I was always the teachers pet and doing really well on tests. I was killing it on tests.

PA: I love that. Killing it on tests. Who would have thought?

BH: But once it got to that point, like what do you like to do? And I had no idea. So it was medical school or law school. For some reason, that was my decision tree.

PA: Were you super Jewish during all of this?

BH: I always celebrated the holidays but I wasn’t keeping Shabbat and I wasn’t kosher or anything.

PA: Are you kosher now?

BH: Yes.

PA: No way.

BH: Mmmhhhhmmm.

PA: Because of your husband?

BH: Kind of. I mean our house is definitely very strict. He is super strict.

PA: But you became kosher because of him?

BH: I became kosher when we met.

PA: Was he already kosher?

BH: He had been for a few years. When I met him he was very strict and going through a spiritual moment and then we tried to discuss what our life together would be like. And I was vegan. And he was like, “So, kosher,” and I was like, “Okay, I can do that.” And then keeping Shabbat too, and I had never kept Shabbat before and then I started to keep Shabbat.

PA: How’s that?

BH: I never thought I was say it, when people used to say back then, “I love it, I look forward to it,” I would have said, “Yeah right, brainwashing,” but I actually do. It’s recharging.

PA: What does that mean, keeping Shabbat?

BH: I don’t use my phone, I don’t take the subway, I don’t buy anything, I don’t turn on the light. It’s hardcore.

PA: Wow. So do you guys just sit here in the dark?

BH: We just sit here in the dark.

PA: Ha!

BH: I sleep late. We usually go to my brother and sister-in-laws right. They’re on the same street, just across the park.

PA: Shut up! That’s so cool.

BH: For real. But if it’s snowing, we’re here. The thing that I like about it is that I’ll just invite people over. Like you know where I am and you can just knock on my door so if someone wants to see me, they can just come over.

PA: This is so interesting.

BH: It is. It was definitely a struggle for a while. But now it helps me get out of so many things I don’t want to go on Friday nights and if I want to go, I can figure out a way and also the no technology thing for one day is really good.

PA: So good.

BH: Am I blowing your mind?

PA: Yeah. A little bit. But it’s really interesting, too.

BH: It’s created a lot of space for me to do what I need to do.

PA: And you don’t practice law anymore.

BH: I do practice law.

PA: Oh my god. This is insane.

BH: One thing that happened when I was more introduced to the religious community, I started to become really fascinated with their style of dress. I have such a crazy vintage collection that are very modest but that their way of dressing was very minimalist and so different from the way that I dress. I always liked dresses and I was getting much more into my vintage dresses and really loving them.

PA: But there is a real feminist conversation going on that is really woven into the narrative of the style.

BH: Totally, totally, totally. It’s really interesting, I started to dig deep into my own identity through this and figure out what I really like. My starting point was Laura Ashley but I think I did re-create it seeing the Orthodox women.

PA: I love how they dress all the kids the same. It blows my mind but aesthetically, I think it’s wonderful. I should try to get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, what’s your favorite drink?

BH: Coffee. Or Martini.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

BH: Scrambled. With lox, always.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

BH: A lot of milk. Light and sweet.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

BH: Purim. When I can really wear my dresses and not feel embarrassed!

PA: Did you have a Bat Mitzvah?

BH: My mom told me I could choose between a Bat Mitzvah party and going on a full on vacation in Europe and I chose the vacation.

PA: Smart kid. What shampoo do you use?

BH: Aesop.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

BH: Lox! Gefilte fish, never, never.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

BH: Earphones, cellphone, Metrocard and a big tote bag because I’m always picking up stuff.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

BH: Some ugly Dansko clogs.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.