Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Do clothes make the Hasid?

When I first began this blog, the pic on my profile page was this one of me and my cat, Sapphire.  This was a photo recently featured in Cat Fancy magazine in an article called "Clergy Cats," about cats who live with religious leaders. (Read more about that.)  I thought it did a pretty good job of illustrating life here on our Minnesota hobby farm.  (And it provided a good joke about how I am "outstanding in my field.")

Well, it wasn't long before somebody asked me why, if I am really a Hasid, don't I wear a suit on my profile?  The fact is, a good suit is the last thing you want to be wearing when you are doing farm chores.  Ditto for white shirts.  To clean the barn, you want to wear the oldest rags you have -- and change them when you come inside.

However, I did think about it and replaced the old photo with this one of me wearing a jacket and standing in front of a bookcase -- the typical scholarly bio pic that was, in fact, used on a couple of my book covers.

Did that satisfy the halachah police?  Not really.  Before long I got another query asking why I wasn't wearing a brimmed hat.  Never mind that I was wearing a yarmulke -- "everybody knows" a true Hasid wears a brimmed hat over his yarmulke.

Yonassan Gershom, 2013
So OK, folks, here is a recent pic of me in a brimmed hat.  I'm a lot older and grayer than in the earlier pix, but that's life.

No doubt there will be somebody who points out that my coat is blue, not black.  Oy vey, when will it end?  First of all, Breslov Hasidim (the group I belong to) do not have a uniform, so you see all kinds of clothes at a Breslov gathering.  And secondly, it is a fact that Jews -- even very religious ones -- did not always wear black.  Neither did the American Pilgrims in the 1600s, even though we now portray them that way.  Their clothes were colored with natural dyes in various earth tones.

So were the clothes of Jews.  Consider this folk painting of pre-Holocaust stetl (village) life in Eastern Europe by Ilex Beller:

"Samedi Apres-Midi" (Sabbath Afternoon)
painting by Ilex Beller (click image to enlarge)

You can clearly see men's coats in a variety of colors, even on the Sabbath.  The rabbis in the center of the painting are wearing black (a mark of honor and scholarship back then), but the common people are dressed in blue, purple, brown, etc.  The fact is, a true black dye was not invented until the 1700s, and was very expensive in the early days of the Hasidic movement.  This was the origin of "black tie" events in the secular world for the upper crust, and of black coats on the Sabbath and holy days, when it is traditional to dress more formally.  For the weekdays, most people wore less expensive clothes.

This detail from another Beller painting shows shoemakers working -- and wearing non-black clothing.  Most likely, they did not want to get shoe polish and glue on their good Sabbath coats, same as I don't want dirt and chicken poop on mine. 

When I mentioned this history of black dyes in another online conversation, I was told that people got black wool from black sheep.  Not very likely -- most "black" sheep are not a true black, either.  They are more often a very dark grey or even brownish.  Which might have made a nice coat, but it would not be the black we know today.  It is true that recently some farmers have bred for the black color, but since black is recessive in sheep, they were not as common until genetics was better understood.  (Grigor Mendel did not work out basic genetic patterns until the mid-1800s.)

Last but not least, this detail from yet a third Beller painting shows a Jewish peddler wearing a long blue coat very much like the one I have on in the photo above.  One could argue that this artist simply used bright colors for the sake of art -- but his purpose was to chronicle life in his old village, in memory of those who died in the Holocaust.  Throughout the series of paintings there are recognizable individuals wearing the same clothing.  In some of his descriptions that accompany the paintings, he actually names them.  So I'm pretty sure he is painting memories of real people and how they dressed. 

Nowadays, it seems, everybody wants to dress in rabbinical black.  I don't fault them for this -- but really, the color of my clothes is no indication of whether or not I am a Hasid. 

"Do Clothes Make the Hasid" story now on video!

In October 2021, I decided to tell this story on video -- with a bit of humor, too. Enjoy!
 (And if you like it, please subscribe to my channel.)

UPDATE:  Clothes are not the only thing people use to try to discredit me.  See also:

(Note:  The Ilex Beller paintings are used here as part of a critical art discussion about the works, which I believe falls under the category of "fair usage."  There is no intent to violate Beller's copyright.)


Yonassan Gershom said...

And then there was the guy on YouTube, who posted this list of insults on one of my video pages:

"Yonassan Gershom is a complete and total fraud. he is no rabbi at all. rather, he is a self-hating Jew, a left wing liberal lunatic marxist islamofascist loving gay homosexual. and those are his good points."

This was so ludicrous I burst out laughing. How can you be a fascist and a Marxist at the same time? And I doubt many Islamic extremists are gay -- at least not openly. Clearly this guy just opened a list of canned epithets. (I'll claim liberal though, that's no insult for me!)

As for "self-hating Jew," I went to this guy's channel, expecting to find some Haredi halachah cop in Israel -- instead, I an empty profile page and nothing but secular videos on his feed, much of it drivel, and none of it obviously Jewish. So why does he even CARE who I am or what I do? He must really hate vegetarians...

Anonymous said...

And then there is this:

Lots of white on the heads of the Na Nach. Looks like they are having fun, be warned the tune is sticky

Be happy


NochEinmal said...

Appears I am about 5 years late in leaving a comment but I could not resist because the picture of you in the blue shirt made me smile. I've never seen a Hasidic man wear colorful clothing. I grew up and lived in Lakewood, NJ until I was in my late 30s and I've only seen the adult Hasidic males wearing the black outfits. Since there's a large Yeshiva in the town, perhaps that had something to do with it? Most of the Hasidim in Lakewood are "city folks" who know little about animals or farming. You remind me more of the "old timers", the Jews who came to Lakewood after WWII, many of whom were builders and chicken farmers back in the 50s and 60s. Most of them were Conservative or Reform, if memory serves me correctly.

Getting back to the clothing-thing, you are correct, in that the color of your clothing is no indication of whether you are Hasidic. Your comment means even more, now that I've just finished reading both your books on the Holocaust/Reincarnation. I know it's who you've always been. :)