Around three years ago, Jon Polsky and Josh Goldstein thought that T-shirts with Yiddish slogans would be cool. Polsky was recruited to model a “Mensch” shirt, and he willingly wore a navy shirt with an iron-on appliqué, thinking all was well and good.
That was until last fall, when Yiddish Ts started cropping up all over town and the pair realized that a 10-year plan wasn’t going to cut it. Other designers also had realized that Jewish apparel is cool — not nerdy.
Such are the politics of jumping into the thick of a successful Jewish apparel phenomenon rooted in clothing, bags and jewelry. Which is exactly what Polsky and Goldstein — along with Goldstein’s wife, Rachel — did last November when they launched their “Shoytz” T-shirt label.
In Urban Outfitters stores last winter, shoppers were snapping up the store’s “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl” and “Everyone Loves a Jewish Boy” shirts. By spring, tabloids were showing Madonna performing in a top that said “Kabbalists do it better,” with Jewish labels sprouting as quickly as crocuses.
“Jews have come out of the fashion closet,” declared Sara Schwimmer, who in March launched www.chosencouture.com, an online marketplace for Jewish labels.
“The fact that people are wearing their religion on their sleeve says something,” she said. Like the little black dress, Schwimmer insists, “it’s rooted in something deeper than fashion.”
This was not the case back in 1999, when the Kosher Klothing label — one of the first of its kind — launched with a near monopoly on the market, with designs like “Nice Jewish Girl Gone Bad” and shirts that pronounced an anatomically rendered pig “kosher.” Since then, Jewish apparel, and its star power, has mushroomed into a multilabel affair. The “Jew.low” brand sells underwear that promises to hug those zaftig curves; gorgeous knit tanks from Israeli label Elisha sport Jewish stars and Talmudic questions (“If not now, when?”),and the Jewish Fashion Conspiracy’s shirts tout Americana with tops like “Jews for Jeter” and “Yo Semite.” And then there is “The Common Ground” necklace promoted by pop singer Evan Lowenstein of the twin singing duo Evan and Jaron: This glass amulet is filled with sand from Israel, and it hangs around the wearer’s neck as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish state.
With ethnic T-shirts of all stripes flying off shelves, “it is the moment of the T-shirt,” said Daniella Zax, the youngest of a Los Angeles rabbi’s three daughters, who founded the T-shirt label Rabbi’s Daughters.
By any measure, Rabbi’s Daughters has set high standards since the label’s 2003 launch, after which it became the only Jewish label sold in mainstream boutiques and stores. T-shirts emblazoned with “Bubbeleh,” “Oy Vey” and “Shiksa,” which sold in 20 stores during the first year of business, now are featured in more than 200 stores throughout the United States, as well as in London and Paris.
“People are fashionists,” said Zax, a former buyer for a Los Angeles boutique. She pointed out that by slapping Yiddish on a sexy T-shirt, the line was bound to become hip and trendy. It also became widely imitated.
Devora Yellin Burstin and Jen Sonstein Maidenberg of Tuscan, Ariz., combined a city slicker’s ’tude with a Southwestern way of life to come up with their “2 Jewish Cowgirls” line last November.
Burstin and Maidenberg — recent East Coast transplants who bonded over a shared interest in Judaism — were so proud of being Jewish in Arizona that they wanted to shout “Yippee Chai Ai” from the rooftops of Tuscan. Instead, they put it on a T-shirt.
“While there is a vibrant community here in Tuscan, it’s not easy to find outlets for feeling that group atmosphere in certain cities back East,” Maidenberg said. In Tuscan, which has a Jewish population of 25,000, a Jewish cowgirl T-shirt is as much about cultural identity as it is about community and a distinct way of life.
Back in New York, Shoytz’s Polsky and Goldstein were embracing “Jewish cool” instead of Jewish outreach. In fact, their Ts are a kind of statement in defiance of “bad memories of Hebrew school,” Goldstein quipped, pointing out Judaism’s new positive role — one that includes young Jewish media, beer labels and the popularity of Yiddish culture.
And, it’s not just for Yids anymore. Polsky and Goldstein said they relish their non-Jewish customers, some of whom — including a recent group of Japanese tourists — don’t even understand the slogans.
E.B. Solomont is a writer living in New York.