Hasidic in the Heat

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Aren’t you shvitzing in that?

To those of us who recently made the gleeful switch to shorts and tees from pants and sweaters, the garb of some Orthodox and pretty much all Hasidic Jews can look painfully off-season. Long coats, long sleeves, long skirts, long stockings, long side curls — well, those probably aren’t a big issue. But the rest? How can anyone dressing that way possibly keep cool?

The answer seems to be, by ignoring the ignorance inherent in that question.

While outsiders often assume that Hasidic men and women feel oppressed in the summer heat, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In many sects — heck, in many religions — covering hair, head, arms and legs is simply part of modesty, a way of being pious and doing the right thing by God. If that means feeling toasty, believers say, so be it.

“The truth is, at a certain point it almost doesn’t matter if you’ve got long sleeves or no sleeves: It’s hot, and you’re going to sweat,” said New Jersey lawyer Janette Frisch. She knows from secular summer clothes, because only in college did she start becoming more observant. “I kind of phased things in. I started with keeping kosher and keeping Shabbos, but the dressing came about 10 years later,” she said.

Why the lag time? She’d actually been worried about this very issue: heat! “I think I really did see it the way I’d say most people who are outside the Orthodox world look at it: ‘Why should I give up summer clothes?’ And I was very surprised to find out when I made the changeover that it’s nowhere near as hard as I thought it would be.”

The reasons, Frisch says, are both practical and spiritual. Practically speaking, it’s the 21st century; most places are air conditioned. But spiritually, she says, she came to understand, “It’s not about making yourself ugly, it’s about focusing on the inside, not the outside.” Ironically, once she did focus on the inside, the heat outside ceased to be an issue.

The heat doesn’t seem to bother Issamar Ginsberg much, either. “I’m in Jerusalem, and it’s pretty hot today,” the business and social media consultant said as we chatted by phone. He described his outfit as such: “White shirt, black pants, long black coat, black yarmulke and tzitzit, obviously. They’re made out of wool and have a black stripe.”

While that sounded almost unbearable to me — in short-sleeved comfort a couple continents away — Ginsburg gave the audio equivalent of a shrug. “I guess because I’ve dressed like this my whole life, I don’t really feel hot. When I sometimes see a construction guy with two-by-fours on his back, not wearing an undershirt, I think he’s hotter than I am.”

As Ginsberg is acutely aware, “It doesn’t say anywhere in the Torah you have to wear what I’m wearing. If Haredi Jewry would’ve started in the Mediterranean area, I assume we’d be walking around in flip-flops.” But since Hasidic Jewry began in Eastern Europe, and its outfits reflected what the nobility were wearing at the time, this is what he wears today.

A 2012 exhibit of Hasidic clothing at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum tried to trace the origins of the most striking — and seemingly stifling — item in the wardrobe: the fur hat called the shtriemel. Unfortunately, even the museum couldn’t get to the bottom (or top?) of the story, settling for the lore the Hasidim themselves tell: the Russian czar declared that Jews must wear the tail of an unclean animal to demean them. Turning this indignity into a point of pride, the Jews began proudly bedecking their hats with the tails of sables and foxes. Eventually, even the number of tails they affixed took on religious significance. It is this kind of adherence to history that meant merely arriving in the land of milk and heat would not change the Hasidic dress code.

That being said, there are a few tricks for staying cool. Perhaps least well known is the fact that most synagogues in Jerusalem have a coin-operated air conditioner in each room. “You can pay five shekels and put on the AC for everybody for about half an hour,” Ginsberg said. “I especially enjoy doing that — putting my five shekels in and saying, ‘May this be a merit for….’ I’m going to get so many mitzvahs for my five shekels!”

Another trick? (There aren’t a lot.) Using your black hat as a fan. Wearing lighter-weight materials in summer. And Hasids are human; they deal with heat by drinking cold beverages and looking for shade, like the rest of us. It’s not like they go out of their way to swelter.

So perhaps the real question isn’t how they can they stand the heat, but why does it seem so unbearable to the rest of us? After all, up until about 100 years ago, most secular American women spent their whole lives in long, heavy gowns. (Let’s not even talk about the corsets!) And in the Middle East, where locals know a thing or two about heat, everyone from the Bedouins to the Saudis seem to wear robes, not Bermuda shorts. And even today, here in America, when we see a banker or lawyer in a suit, we don’t shake our heads and think: “That’s just crazy! It’s 90 degrees out!”

This focus on someone else’s discomfort seems to reflect a sort of discomfort of our own. As I was poking around the Internet, looking up “religious clothes” and “heat,” I ended up on a blog post by a Muslim, titled “Yes, I’m Hot in That.” When someone asks the author if she’s boiling in her hijab, she always wonders, “Are they truly worried I might get heat stroke, or are they just registering disapproval of my clothes?”

It could be either. It could be both. That’s why it’s worth remembering that people across the board choose their clothes for a lot of reasons. Looking cool, staying cool or being cool with God. And of course, if you want to, you can always mix ’n’ match.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.” Her show “World’s Worst Mom” airs on Discovery/TLC International.

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