mardi 11 octobre 2011

Tell me how you dress I’ll tell you who you are

Walking down the streets of Jerusalem the other day, I realized that something that I had integrated quite rapidly might be worth notice for this blog: clothes.

For what I know, in Europe (or in America for the matter), if the way people dress matters, it’s more a question of fashion, in the broad sense of how colors or maybe even shape evolve through time. But in the end, the kind of garment in question doesn’t change; we’re pretty much stuck with the sneakers-trousers-T-shirt model. It is obviously not an immutable rule (shirt, polo shirt…), but it gives you a general idea of how a complete stranger to our civilization could fit in the street pretty much incognito. Because, and here is the most important point, once this basic clothing pattern is reached, we tend to think the details on this point don’t really matter: “l’habit ne fait pas le moine” as the saying goes in French. Or does it?

In Israel (and this is an introductory comment that works on many aspects), the general closeness to Western standards doesn’t forbid crucial differences. Indeed, at first sight, Israelis wear the same kind of casual cloth. But the very details that wouldn’t even be taken into account in Europe make all the difference here. However, contrary to the Victorian era those details don’t distinguish between social classes, but between ideologies. Let’s start with women.

Again, though French women mostly wear pants, it happens that, one morning, they pick a dress or a skirt from their (well-filled) cupboard. Even though there’s obviously no rule against this here, from what I’ve seen the norm would be that you are in either one or the other category. The reason is that religious girls (religious who by the way, all trends taken together, though not a majority account for a nice proportion of the population (1/3 in Israel? More here in Jerusalem where they actually probably constitute a majority of the population)) wearing skirts and dresses, secular ones also show their identity conversely by wearing pants, shorts and other mini-skirts. I say conversely, because otherwise they would wear them with the same “intensity” as their Western counterparts, sometimes wearing dresses, but it isn’t the case: they wouldn’t wear them except if, in a way, the garment would still be different from the “religious” version. By the way, the “rate of nakedness” (as a criteria invented for the needs of this post and that would measure the proportion of the body covered by clothes) in the streets of Tel-Aviv, all value judgment put aside, is absolutely astonishing, and totally unseen in France (again avoiding the moral aspect of the question, I think it’s quite vulgar, in a sense of lack of class and distinction: you’ve to have next to a perfect body not to ridicule yourself. Anyway).

In order to understand this phenomenon, one has to know what the Jewish law (Halakha, as the image of the (recommended) way of life) on how people should dress. There are two points, the first one being that each sex/gender should have separated models of garments and the second being a modesty (tsniout) criteria demanding to cover certain parts of the body. As always in Judaism you have extensive debates on how much exactly should be covered and that reveals the fault lines between trends of Ortodow Judaism: most religious-zionist/modern-orthodox girls wear clothes to the elbow for upper limbs and to the knee for lower limbs. But ultra-orthodoxes (haredi, or harediot to be more precise here) rule that they should be covered from the wrist to the ankle. So, especially during summer and early fall, you can easily know if the girl sitting in front of you in the bus is religious or not and then if yes, to what trend she belongs to. You can even know if she is married as the married Jewish woman covers her hair. There too you have a lot of variations, from wigs (not fashionable at all and paradoxically almost only worn by part of Haredi women whereas many Jewish decision-makers forbid it) to all kinds of head-bands and scarves of all sizes and colors. If you’re interested in details, they are easily distinguishable from the Muslim niqab, that covers the hair, the ears and 
I don't know this person but the scarf is very nice/colorful
the neck whereas Jewish women can just cover part of the hair (they have the right to 2 cms out on each sides) and use to wear it high around a chignon (I don’t even know how it holds, it’s quite a performance). Actually, many moderately religious young women wear head-bands that do not fit this criteria but because it’s a way of showing they’re married and they belong to the “community of believers”, to use the Muslim expression. Oh, and you hopefully obviously have many combinations possible between all kinds of affiliations, I’m just giving you an overview.

A kippa sruga
As for men, here too differences exist. Usually, look at the head to know who you’re talking to. The kippa can have as many kinds, forms, sizes and colors as possible. First, most Israelis don’t wear it. Then, you have the popular kippa srouga, that is knit with a crochet. Even inside this category they are more or less big and of an infinite number of colors (the “original” being white and blue) but then the details aren’t too important. What is important is that the kippa srouga, worn by most modern orthodoxes, is a clear sign of support for Zionism. The larger version, almost a bobble hat, is for the “hippy-zionists” (hard to define but you’d recognize them if you saw them in the streets). As for the ultra-orthodox, their kippa is of a black velvet. Simple? Wait, then all trends of haredim are theoretically distinguished by details in their uniform. Real Men in Black, the shape and length of their jackets tells about the school they belong to: some have regular black suits whereas some have long velvet ones, with even inside differences. A few groups (including the most anti-Zionist Satmars) have a long grey jacket with thin white or golden stripes. Some have a white kippa, especially large among the mystic Breslev group. In any case, entirely covered with this kind of clothes more fit for eastern Europe winter than to the 30°C we still have some days, under a bright sun (for those of the readers living in North-West of France, the sun is a sort of high-energy bowl that heats our planet and permits us to live outside. For more details see here: 1-2-3 soleil!)
A Breslev bobble hat 
two different trends of Haredim
And what about the famous shtreimel? will ask some. Well, it is only worn by a minority of haredim, and only for special events such as Shabbat and the Holy days. Most of them most of the time have black hats, themselves varying. In short (or in long if you prefer ;) ), what you wear matters. Not so much because people would make remarks (they won’t), but in your own interest if you want people to know who you are.

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