Friday, June 29, 2012
When the mercury passes 90, most New Yorkers start to wilt. Many resort to shorts and tank tops, even in the office. More than a few bankers and lawyers reach for their seersuckers.
Yet amid all the casual summer wear, in some neighborhoods more than others, Hasidic men wear dark three-piece suits crowned by black hats made of rabbit fur, and Hasidic women outfit themselves in long-sleeved blouses and nearly ankle-length skirts. To visibly cooler New Yorkers, they can look painfully overdressed.
Some New Yorkers who are not Hasidic surely ask themselves: How on earth do they stay cool?
The answer is a mix of the spiritual and, yes, the creatively physical. The Hasidim will tell you they have learned to live comfortably in all seasons with their daily attire.
“I think I’m not as hot as other people because the sun is not on me,” said Chany Friedman, who was shopping recently in Borough Park, Brooklyn, with two of her five children in tow, wearing a sweater and dense stockings in addition to other concealing clothing. “If I’m covered, the sun is not on me. I’m happy that I’m not exposed to the world.”
Using a Hebrew name for God, she added, “That’s what Ha-Shem wants from us.”
In the Hasidic world, the traditional fashion code and interpretations of ancient Jewish law dictate modesty for a woman — a concept known as tzniut — so even on sizzling days women conceal their necks, arms and legs, and married women don wigs, head scarves or turbans to hide their real hair. While Hasidic men do not feel the modesty obligation to the same degree, they believe that it is a mark of humility and respect for others to dress formally when encountering the world.
They also found some humor in the question about the Hasidic wardrobe.
“Does anybody ask a congressman why he walks into Congress with a suit or a Wall Street executive why he goes to work in a suit?” asked Isaac Abraham, a leader in the Satmar Hasidic community.
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.
“Why are they spending so much money on only a half a pair of pants?” he said. (Cue rimshot.)
Still, Hasidim have found subtle ways to beat the heat.
In Borough Park, women snatch up neckline-hugging shells that allow them to wear thin, long-sleeved and open-necked blouses from, say, Macy’s. Hasidic men seek a frock coat made of lighter-weight, drip-dry polyester, without a shape-holding canvas lining, and lightweight weaves in the fringed, four-cornered, woolen poncho known as tzitzit, a daily version of the prayer shawl that is worn over a white shirt. Also, men will go jacketless when working or driving, though any substantial stroll along a public sidewalk requires a suit jacket or frock coat, known in Yiddish as a rekel or in its longer and fancier Sabbath version as a bekishe.
Even the shtreimel, the tall, cylindrical, Russian sable hat that Hasidic men wear on the Sabbath to dignify the day, has been modified in recent years, with holes in the crown to provide a kind of ersatz air-conditioning. Those innovations may not seem to offer that much relief, but in Hasidic philosophy, it is more important to please God.
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 equation of burden doesn’t come into play, when that’s the tradition you’re brought up in,” said Amram Weinstock, 65, a Satmar Hasid who was shopping at G&B Clothing in Borough Park, a store with racks of suits, in numbers to rival Brooks Brothers, although these suits come only in shades of black, navy blue and gray. “We are happy to live that tradition and feel uplifted by living that sort of life,” Mr. Weinstock said. “This is how our parents went; this is how our grandparents went.”
Dark, austere clothing also serves to identify Hasidim and separate them from the rest of the world, which helps keep members inside the fold. Even eyeglass frames tend to be distinctive: black and heavy, not streamlined designer styles.
Another Hasid at G&B checking out the frock coats, which sell for $149 in summer versions and $250 in heavier, winter styles, acknowledged a down side to the customary dress.
“You shvitz!” the man said, using the Yiddish word for sweat. But his “what’s the big deal?” expression seemed to shrug off the problem as a piddling price to pay for a virtuous lifestyle.
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who specializes in Orthodox Jewry, pointed out that Hasidim did not spend idle time outdoors, at best going “from the shop to the yeshiva to the study hall to the house.”
“They spend a lot of time indoors, and they’re not Amish or Luddites, so they have air-conditioning,” Dr. Heilman said.
Hasidim believe that casual time outdoors exposes them to the temptations of the streets, not the least of which are skimpily dressed New Yorkers, said Alexander Rapaport, a Hasid who runs the Masbia soup kitchens in Brooklyn and Queens.
Some Hasidim contended, as Mrs. Friedman did, that concealing clothing kept them cooler.
“Look at Bedouin,” said Nuchem Sanders, who owns a hat shop in Borough Park where members of an Ecuadorean family block and stitch the trademark Hasidic black hats. “They live in the desert and they have layers of clothing. Why? It protects them from the heat.”
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.
For daily wear, he has secured a sleeveless undershirt with slits and fringes at four corners; it is made of cotton and eliminates the need for a separate T-shirt. The brand name is PerfTzit. It has taken off in the wider Orthodox community, particularly among children, but the most exacting Hasidim will not wear it because they insist on wearing tzitzit over white shirts and also prefer wool to cotton. Mr. Roth is working on finding a version that they can wear when parched.
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