Cherokee sweetheart. Trayvon Martin. Sexy nun. Adult rabbi.
Every Halloween season features a signature stew of timely and extremely offensive costumes — such as the 2013 Trayvon Martin costume, the 2015 Caitlyn Jenner look-alikes and last year’s Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Just last week, the internet exploded in a rage about the sale of Anne Frank outfits.
The purveyor of the Anne Frank costume — complete with chic beret and Peter Pan-collared frock — was forced to yank the outfit very publicly. But it continues to sell a rabbi costume. It consists of a beard and sidelocks, a black hat and robe, and a scarf that’s probably supposed to be a prayer shawl. It comes in regular and plus sizes, and it’s modeled by a man holding up both hands in a gesture that seems to say, “So nu — what can you do?”
The annual lists of offensive attire never include the rabbi among the mix, yet rabbi costumes are sold across dozens of costume sites, just like attire for Rastafarians, geishas and sheiks.
“You want to be acknowledged for your wisdom, your scholarship and your vast knowledge of the Torah?” one product description reads. “Then this classic rabbi costume is for you!”
Americans spent $9.1 billion on Halloween in 2016, according to the National Retail Federation. Typically, the most popular costumes among adults are a mix of classic monsters and superheroes. Wonder Woman is a big seller this year.
The rabbi costume is not, but Amazon has sold the “adult rabbi” get-up since 2006; it’s ranked just inside the top 2,000 costumes for men. The retail behemoth also offers variations on the theme, with a “Sephardic Chacham,” or scholar, version, a silver “deluxe” robe and a golden “grand rabbi” coat. Several hat-and-sidelock combos are on offer; one of them ranks No. 663 in the wigs department.
Most buyers gave the product rave reviews for comic potential and versatility.
“This fits very well, and it’s funny as hell, and if you can’t take a joke, don’t buy one,” one review said.
Only one reviewer decried the costume’s potential offensiveness.
“Wow! I bought this costume last year and LOVED IT!”“Kira” wrote. “Not only was it completely inappropriate and offensive — it fit really well, too! J/K. We want this costume taken down! I thought wearing this costume would boil an entire culture down to a racist stereotype. And I was right.”
Indeed, one company is making sure it doesn’t get caught up in an Anne Frank-style costume kerfuffle.
In early October, Costume SuperCenter, a relatively small party supplier, removed its adult rabbi costume from its site.
Asher Weinstein, marketing manager of Costume SuperCenter, said that it was a preventative move, because Halloween costumes based on ethnic or cultural heritage perennially cause an uproar somewhere.
“They’re really not accurate,” Weinstein, who is Jewish, said of the rabbi outfit. “So rather than waiting for people to bombard us with complaints, we wanted to take a more proactive approach with that.”
Even without seeing someone wear the adult rabbi costume, Weinstein said he was personally offended by it, and advocated for it to be removed. It was the only rabbi costume his company sold, unlike Amazon. Still other sites sell rabbi onesies.
@WGladstone Baby Rabbi Halloween costume. Cute or questionable? pic.twitter.com/Q1Sd6w5mrH— Hamburger Sandwich (@terry_gisi) October 14, 2015
The company’s decision was made easier, he added, by the fact that the rabbi outfit represents a small portion of its sales: between 50 and 60 units a year. (The costumes sell for about $30 on Amazon.) But Weinstein said he has his eyes on other offensive materials.
“We’re looking into getting rid of some of our other costumes, specifically some of the sexier Indian costumes that some people see as extra offensive,” he said. “We’re also looking into getting rid of some of our Confederate costumes.”
Of course, the rabbi costume is not the lightning rod for outrage that similar burlesques of Mexican, Native American and black culture can be. But it’s is still a way for some non-Jews to ridicule Jewish culture, said Eric Lott, a professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class,” originally published in 1993.
The rabbi costume is a form of “Jewish blackface,” he said, and is to a certain extent about controlling a minority culture, just like blackface does.
Maybe I should bring a bottle of manischewitz to go with my rabbi costume. #Halloweenpic.twitter.com/u4eblZnHDT— Merx 🇧🇧🇵🇷 (@Merxces) October 25, 2014
“It’s non-black people having their way with, trying to control the black image,” Lott said of blackface, which has been used in the United States since at least the 1830s. “That is not cool. And I would say the same thing for non-Jews doing that with the Jewish image as well.”
But Lott stopped short of offering a blanket condemnation of the use of Jewish costumes. Jews dressing up as Jews, he said, “changes the context completely.” In fact, he added, his girlfriend, who is Jewish, once dressed up for Halloween as a rabbi many years ago.
“That was more of a cross-gender thing than Jewface,” he said. “She doesn’t have to put on Jewface.”
Lott went on to note that the prevalence of blackface and Jewish blackface may reflect the centrality of those cultures to popular American culture.
“Without both of those cultures, the United States would be vastly impoverished,” he said. “These costumes suggest that on some deep unconscious level, people understand how important Jews and blacks have been to making the culture we inhabit and love.”
Love is actually an integral part of what makes the practice of dressing up for Halloween so powerful, according to Jeffrey Cohen, a professor of English at The George Washington University — especially when we dress up as something monstrous and scary. Cohen studies monster theory, which posits that monsters are the products of our desires as much as they are things we wish to avoid.
“What monster theory points out is that fear of the monster is really a kind of desire, and vice versa,” Cohen said. “You can fear the monster and still want to be the monster.”
Throughout human history, Cohen said, different groups have been “monsterized” in a way that robbed individuals of their humanity. Jews, he added, are a perfect example of that.
“The line between human and monster is a thin and traversable line,” he said. “The line between the Jew as a human being and the Jew as a fantasy figure that hides something sinister is essentially thin as well. That’s how anti-Semitism works.”
Even though a costume may be an homage or an unconscious expression of affection, it can still be offensive if the person in the costume is not respectful about it.
“It can reveal a little too much about how their fantasy life is working,” Cohen said. “This is why people get in trouble on Halloween for pretending they’re Mexican, or putting on blackface, or pretending to be a Jew for an evening. What does that say about what you think about Jews?”
By this point in the national conversation about costumes, many have become more attuned to how dressing up as a cultural stereotype can offend someone from that cultural background.
Erez Cohen, executive director of Illini Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that students on his campus mostly know better than to wear an offensive costume. In 2006, the university got rid of its longtime mascot, Chief Illiniwek. It has yet to install a new official mascot.
The Illini Hillel hosts a Halloween barn dance every year, and Cohen said he has yet to see a rabbi costume, or other costumes that caricature or sexualize other cultures.
“I think people are attuned to being respectful,” Cohen said of the student body. “Even within the Jewish faith, there is the understanding that one should not mock a community leader of their own community or another community.”
Even so, the “sexier Indian costumes” and other potentially hurtful outfits are still up on Costume Super Center’s site, even though the company pulled “Adult Rabbi.” There are countless offensive costumes on Amazon and in brick-and-mortar stores in your city.
Costume SuperCenter is already sold out of its Sexy Native American Babe Costume, Sexy Warchief Hottie Costume, Sexy Indian Maiden Costume, Sexy Lusty Tribal Temptress Costume, Sexy Cherokee Sweetheart Costume, Sexy Tribal Vixen Costume and Sexy Indian Seductress Costume.
Weinstein said the company will likely wait until this Halloween season is over to address some of other potentially offensive outfits in its catalog.
“As you can imagine, it’s very busy,” he said. “Costume selling is taking priority.”