Hot Hasids Of Sum­mer

Lenore Ske­nazy looks at those who swel­ter for their faith, and those who won­der at them.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - BY LENORE SKE­NAZY 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.

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

It’s not like Hasids go out of their way to swel­ter.

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 lighter­weight 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.


Wa­ter Park: An Ortho­dox man cools off in a Jerusalem foun­tain.

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