Why Do Young Jews Embrace Off-Color Jewish T-Shirts?

Photo: Courtesy of Shmattes.
When I was in high school, one of my most cherished articles of clothing was a blue Urban Outfitters tee emblazoned with the phrase “Everyone Loves A Jewish Girl,” the text surrounded by dollar signs and shopping bags. In hindsight, I cringe that I wore something that so blatantly perpetuated the “Jewish American Princess” stereotype. There were other iterations of the shirt — one of my close friends wore the “Italian Girl” one as often as I did mine — but my version proved to be particularly controversial. So much so, it got called out by the Anti-Defamation League in 2004 and was subsequently redesigned by the retailer, sans the symbols. Granted, I was donning it at a progressive public school with a small-but-visible Jewish population, in NYC, where basically anything goes fashion-wise. (While I now question why, exactly, I wanted to flaunt that sort of message on my chest, it's not a shirt I would've necessarily felt comfortable wearing in a different, less-inclusive setting.)
Today, my very, uh, limited-edition tee would fit right in with the nearly 200 Jewish-themed shirts comprising Shmattes, a nonprofit art project that Anne Grant started in 2013. The items aren't for sale, alas; it's an ever-expanding collection of new and secondhand Jewish-themed shirts. Grant, currently a Yale Divinity School masters student, got the idea when she stumbled upon a headband from the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel outpost (the national Jewish campus life organization). It was the sort of item one would wear to a bro-y tailgate or a music festival, but with Hebrew characters instead of, say, Greek letters. “It was strange and noteworthy to me that a Jewish student organization was appropriating the kind of sweatband you’d see worn at a fraternity or sorority party, to advertise Jewish life,” she said.
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As for the project’s name, it’s the Yiddish word for “rag,” often used in reference to the garment industry (a.k.a. the “rag trade”), which was largely populated by European Jewish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries; in 1900, 60% of all NYC-dwelling Jews worked in the industry. "Jews managed and worked in garment factories in the early 20th century, and a significant number of leading figures in the clothing industry are Jewish, from the late Levi Strauss to Isaac Mizrahi to Donna Karen,” Jennifer Isakowitz, PR and digital marketing manager at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, said. “The trend of expressing one's Jewish identity through fashion choices signifies that young Jews have the freedom here in America to show pride in their heritage."
The name felt fitting to Grant because of Jews’ historical involvement in the industry, and yet, "it’s also a word that’s still tossed around by Jews who don’t speak Yiddish and maybe don’t have much context on what it means,” Grant explained. “It says something about culturally Jewish people cherry-picking Jewish, Yiddish, and Hebrew terms.”
The first five T-shirts in Grant’s collection had drug or hip hop references. The first shirt that kicked off Grant’s project is tie-dyed and says "I got chai at Hymie’s Deli," from an iconic deli outside Philadelphia, with the Hebrew letter “chai,” which sounds like “high” and means “life." That's pretty tame in comparison to a men's shirt bearing the phrase “I’m Jewish — Wanna Check?” with a downward-facing arrow. Another contentious one, which Grant got from a bartender in Philadelphia, reads “I heard there’d be Christian girls here” — “it’s like an Arthur Miller-Marilyn Monroe thing, and I just think it’s so funny to imagine a guy wearing that to a party,” Grant said.

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A number of shirts address the widest-known Jewish holiday, Hannukah, featuring multiple, all-acceptable transliterations of the word, all crossed out, with the words "Fuck It" below the various spellings. “It’s so great – it says so much about what it means to be Jewish today, and not knowing how to transliterate Hebrew words,” Grant notes. Another piece riffing on the eight-night holiday reads “Get Lit.” And along the lines of my once-beloved tee, there’s a shirt dating back to the 1970s, made in the Lower East Side, which says “Princess,” with a Jewish star dotting the ‘i’ and dollar-signs in lieu of the letter 's' [pictured above]. “A lot of people find the JAP [Jewish American Princess] connotation offensive,” Grant said.
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Approximately 60% of the collection was donated, be it from peoples’ personal stashes of Bat Mitzvah tees or from various Hillels; the rest were purchased by Grant, who constantly scoured eBay for new tees to add to the collection. Shmattes was shown (partial selections of the full collection) on a series of college campuses before it arrived at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York last year. Next up, she plans to show the project at a still-undetermined locale in San Francisco; eventually, Grant hopes to show the entire collection in full somewhere.
“It’s extremely common among college students to wear your affiliation, whether on a T-shirt or iPhone cover or computer cover — that’s where people are literally wearing the things they’re caring about, whether it’s their sorority or Dance Marathon [a philanthropic fundraising event], so it doesn’t surprise me at all,” Michael Simon, executive director at Northwestern University’s Hillel, says of Shmattes, which actually includes a tee donated by Simon.A student who wouldn’t necessarily wear something that says ‘IDF’ [Israel Defense Forces] or ‘I Love Israel’ might be very comfortable wearing a T-shirt from their Birthright Israel trip, with inside jokes from their particular bus and Jewish star on it, because of the cultural and group identity significance.”

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This “cool,” zeitgeist-y approach to telegraphing religious affiliation through fashion speaks to how many Jews are opting to connect with faith in recent years. A 2013 Pew Survey on Religion and Public Life indicated that a majority of Jews — 62% — feel that being Jewish is primarily about ancestry and/or culture, versus 15%, who view it as a matter of religion. The study is, in part, what prompted Grant to start the project; she was struck by how it generated “a lot of blowback from people saying that you’re not really Jewish if you’re not observant – meaning keeping kosher and observing Shabbat – and if you didn’t go to Jewish day school or aren’t fluent in Hebrew.” Grant wanted to explore “if culturally Jewish people had their own artistic modes of expression — we know what culturally Jewish young people don’t do, but what do they do, and what are they interested in?” she said.
"One of the most interesting things about Judaism in the United States is that there are so many different ways of practicing what it means to be Jewish,” Aliza Luft, assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of Sociology, told us, elaborating on the many types of identifying with the religion. “There are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian Jews, there are queer, straight, trans, and cis-gender Jews; there are Zionist Jews, Jews for Justice in Palestine, and Jews-who-couldn’t-care-less-about-what’s-happening-in-Israel Jews. There are socialist Jews (Bernie Sanders), conservative Jews (Jared Kushner), and politically apathetic Jews,” she said. “There are so many different ways of identifying as culturally Jewish, and yet so many stereotypes of Jews as a monolithic group, that wearing these shirts not only highlights how diverse, and diversely practiced, Judaism is in the United States, but it is also a way of asserting that diversity by displaying oneself as Jewish and combatting stereotypes in the process.”
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So, what’s the intention behind donning something that explicitly says, “hey, FYI, here's my faith” — especially if it’s done in a potentially controversial manner? It could be for the reaction: “wearing these shirts feels a little rebellious and is intended to provoke surprise by the viewer,” Luft notes. “It’s also a way of proudly asserting oneself as Jewish in the face of increasing anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States, particularly when one allies with other victimized groups such as Muslims; refugees; immigrants, documented and otherwise’ African-Americans; LGBTQ individuals, and others.” In other words, the humble tee can certainly function as a politically-loaded statement.
“We are experiencing a flourishing of Jewish self-expression amidst continuous assimilation and self-reinvention,” Lori Starr, executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, told me. (Starr does, however, underscore that it’s important not to generalize about modern Jewish identity.) Last year, the museum sold T-shirts featuring slogans and cultural identity signifiers, created by an undergraduate class at Stanford University, and for years, the museum has sold the “Northern California classic” tee that reads “Yo Semite,” a Jewish riff on on Yosemite National Park. “Text-based T-shirts with plays on Yiddish words are the tip of the iceberg, though, Starr explained, citing a career retrospective of Cary Leibowitz, “conceptual, kitschy, self-consciously Jewish and gay artist,” featuring work that addresses internal narratives around ‘otherness,’ which is currently on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “In some ways, Leibowitz's text-based work has informed the zeitgeist of which the Shmatte project is a part,” Starr said.
Interestingly, Grant hasn’t expanded her collection to include jewelry; necklaces with the star of David or chai or tree of life-type motifs are hallmarks of the Bat Mitzvah era, where Jewish jewelry often factors into the coming of age ceremony’s gift swag, right up there with a Tiffany & Co. heart-charm bracelet (which, unlike when I was 13, now comes in this 'roided-out version of the original).“Early on, I decided to focus on just T-shirts: it’s such a quintessential item in American culture,” Grant explained, also out of concern that it’d be “distracting” to have too much variety in the project.

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Grant has been asked before about whether she would do a cross-religion comparison; she doesn’t think this kind of variety of clothing would be found another faith. “I can’t think of an equivalent type of object in a Catholic or Muslim ceremony that would compare to a Bat Mitzvah T-shirt," she said. "It might have a lot to do with people wrestling with what it means to be Jewish, in a completely different way than someone who might be Catholic or Protestant."
Yet Shmattes also might give some insight about how millennials of all faiths (or no faith at all) chose to carve out and communicate their identities nowadays. Hazel Clark, professor of Design Studies and Fashion Studies and Research Chair of Fashion at Parsons, points out that the collection could be perceived as “a reflection of a wider search today, among younger people in particular, of what is sometimes called 'authenticity’,” she explained. “In other words, a desire to identify with a cause, a faith, or a belief, and be identified with a group of people of similar beliefs, through clothing.”
There’s also “an ironic element” to something so relatively cheap — most of the tees comprising Shmattes cost initially $5 or $10, and the most expensive shirt was $40 — being so significant, Grant said. “These aren’t fine art objects, but they provide so much information about what’s going on in the American Jewish world." So, that particular Urban Outfitters shirt of my teenhood was certainly vexing at best, straight-up offensive at worst, but, also, a chance for me to broadcast an inside joke that includes less than .2% of the world population and (and less than 2% of the U.S. population). For a religious affiliation that's largely structured around pride and persecution, the option and desire to proudly flaunt one's Jewishness is pretty damn meaningful.
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