The Kittel Collection is a series of clothing pieces that explores the different ways clothing is used as a vehicle for meaning and identity within our tradition and literature. The kittel is a simple, white, garment used as a burial shroud, and customarily worn by men on various Jewish holy days. Each month, The Sisterhood showcases, and looks at the meaning behind, a kittel from my collection. View images of this month’s kittel, the Soulful Kittel, after the jump.
Sometimes our identities are created from within our culture, and sometimes they are imposed upon us. This kittel focuses on the ways that clothing has been used to shame and disgrace Jews in some of the darker episodes of our story.
There is a long and grim history of yellow marks that Jews have had to wear on their clothing: yellow circles, stars, tablets of law, and yellow belts. In Medieval Christian art, yellow equals Jew. There are many theories posited by academics and scholars as to why this is so. Yellow has many associations, such as Judas, jealousy, urine and sweat. And it is the color of TB and syphilis, both were considered “Jewish” diseases.
This kittel takes its form from an etching by Goya “For Being a Jew,” which depicts Jews being rounded up and humiliated during the Spanish Inquisition. He has depicted them wearing a tabard-like tunic and a pointed hat.
There is also clothing that has been used to shame people, to identify them by their sinful behavior. Part of the humiliation for the suspected adulteress going through the Sotah ritual is to change her clothes from white to black. The bottom of this kittel is dipped dyed grey, the white transforming into the black.
On the front of this kittel is a yellow stain in the area of a sweat mark on the chest. To sweat is to exert effort; and without working hard, without pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, we may not be able to achieve. Sweat marks indicate we are vulnerable to failure.
Within the yellow stain emerge various derogatory names for Jews. And women. It has often been noted that those groups who feel victimized end up displaying similarly aggressive attitudes toward women within their community. Anti-Semitic stereotypes of money-hungry Jews have found their way into the Jewish American Princess stereotype. Today in Israel we are witnessing similar themes. It is no coincidence that some religious groups that feel that they are victims, with their way of life under attack by the secular state, are the same groups that are labeling and degrading women.
Jacqueline Nicholls is a fine artist from London who uses art to explore traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She is a former artist-in-residence with the Forward’s Sisterhood.
The Shame Kittel