What are We Wearing?

Remarks delivered at The Community Synagogue on Friday, November 30, 2018.

Picture the casual kids’ section of clothing store. It’s loud. It has sparkles and action. It has too many pockets, tie dye, glow-in-the-dark, masses of zippers, silly slogans.

In a podcast series about clothing design called Articles of Interest, host Avery Trufelman asks why kids’ clothes are like this. Shouldn’t we all “start as young, blank canvases, dressed in shades of white and gray. Slowly acquiring more and more colors, more graphics, more signifiers of who we are[?]” Why is it that “all that decoration and phony self expression is put in a blender with birthday cake and sequins and then put in on a hanger in a rack[?]”

Yes, children tend to be attracted to bright and colorful things. But there are other reasons.

When companies started producing clothing explicitly marketed to kids, they had to prioritize safety. No parent wants to buy their child clothes that could hurt them. Injuries—and the subsequent lawsuits—led to a host of regulations.

A big difference between adult and children’s clothing is flammability. Kids’ sleepwear must be flame retardant and tight fitting, so as to minimize injury in a fire. This is both costly and uncomfortable. The problem is, just about anything could be considered sleepwear—all you need to do is fall asleep in it.

That means that any piece of children’s clothing that is comfortable or soft—avoiding the material and size requirements—must clearly not be sleepwear. Hence the loud colors, the sequins, and the action graphics.

As Avery Trufelman reports, decoration here is a form of protection. It protects kids from fire, and it protects manufacturers from lawsuits.

The story behind what we wear is always more than it seems.

In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter what is perhaps the most famous article of clothing in all of Jewish tradition: Joseph’s coat of many colors—or, if you’re on Broadway, his amazing Technicolor dream coat.

From Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Joseph’s coat is a gift from his father, Jacob, who favors Joseph from among his many siblings. Joseph’s coat sets him apart from his brothers, who already despise him, further drawing their ire. And Joseph’s coat is what the brothers dip in goat’s blood, telling Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild beast when they actually sold him into slavery. It is because of this coat that our people ends up in Egypt, experiences the Exodus, and eventually receives the Torah at Sinai.

Joseph’s coat is a pivotal item in our people’s story. Our own clothes, too, tell our stories.

In the Torah, two different Hebrew words are used for clothing: beged and levush. A beged is a garment that lends extra significance to its wearer, saying that the person or their actions are important. Begadim communicate our status. A levush, in contrast, hides something about the wearer, exaggerating something about them. Levushim are deceptive; they cover us up to make us appear like something else.[1]

Commentators debate about which kind of clothing Joseph’s coat is: beged or levush. But the dichotomy between beged, clothing that promotes, and levush, clothing that deceives, is not limited to Joseph’s story alone. We, too, can use it to understand what our clothes say about us.

Let’s start with beged, clothing that signals special status. Many commentators read Joseph’s coat as a beged because Joseph eventually grows into the figure of Yosef HaTzaddik, Joseph the Righteous, and he deserves a cloak fitting of that destiny.[2]

This is not the only example in the Hebrew Bible of begadim. Entire chapters of the Torah are devoted to describing the garments the priests are supposed to wear as they carry out ritual sacrifices: special hats, special pants, special jewelry. For Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we dress our Torah scrolls in the “fashion” of the high priest—including the jewelry—to say that what’s inside (the story of our people) is of the utmost importance.

Later in the Bible, in the stories of the prophets, the prophet Elijah wears a special mantle signifying his power. At the end of his life, a fiery chariot sweeps him into heaven with a great whirlwind, but his cloak is left behind. Elijah’s protégé, Elisha, sees the cloak lying on the ground, and he picks it up. Others see Elisha holding Elijah’s cloak, and they cry out, “The spirit of Elijah has settled on Elisha!” (II Kings 2:15). Elisha literally takes up the mantle of Elijah, and with it he takes up the role of prophet.

We signal our abilities, too, with the clothes we wear. Have you ever wondered why, for example, formal, professional clothing tends to be uncomfortable and restrictive? Marketing guru Seth Godin suggests we can learn why from peacocks. Their impressive plumage serves no health-related function other than to be a signal. The feathers say to a potential mate, “I am so healthy that I can afford to waste precious calories lugging this giant tail around.”

Look at all those beautiful calories!

So it goes for professional clothing. “I am so good at my job,” say the clothes, “that I can do it in high heels that make it hard to walk, or with a piece of silk tied around my neck that makes it hard to breathe.”

Begadim communicate status. When we use them honestly, we help the world know who we are and what we can do.

Of course, we don’t always use our signals so honestly. That’s the stance some commentators take when they say Joseph’s coat is a levush, a cover-up. As commentator Gregg Drinkwater, editor of Torah Queeries notes, that’s certainly how Joseph’s brothers see the coat. They see it “as both an attempt by Joseph to put on airs and as material evidence of their father’s failure to see Joseph for what he really is,” which is, in their mind, just an immature little brother (p. 55).

It’s also possible to understand levushim, clothes that hide, with a little more generosity. In his same commentary, Gregg Drinkwater invites us to consider what it’s like for Joseph himself. His father thrusts him into the spotlight with the many-colored coat, and he’s facing down eleven older brothers whose strength intimidates him. Maybe he’s scared and unsure of his role in the family, and the coat is a crutch that projects an image of confidence. Maybe Joseph feels like an imposter.

We use clothing to hide our own insecurities—and the choice of what to wear can be its own source of consternation. I, for one, tend to overpack for trips because I’m never sure what to wear for social settings. I want to be able to don or doff a tie depending on the occasion. But I learned to be prepared the hard way.

The process of applying to rabbinical school at the seminary I attended is currently a two-day affair. On the first day, candidates sit for a psychological interview and a Hebrew test, and on the second day they face the formal interview with the admissions panel. I was most nervous for the evening between the days: dinner. Dinner with the other candidates, current students, and seminary faculty at the home of the associate dean.

Though I felt confident, sitting for an interview is always nerve-wracking. Would I be accepted? Am I right for this? Do I even want to be a rabbi? (I do, by the way.) I felt insecure. I asked a recently-admitted friend what to wear. He told me he wore a suit for the whole thing. So I packed only a suit. I brought nothing between that and pajamas with me.

When I arrived for day one, dressed in my suit, I got sideways glances. Apparently I’m the only person in the history of ever who showed up to the Hebrew test in a suit. (Probably not, but that’s how it felt.) There’s no better way to make someone who’s already jittery even more self-conscious than commenting on their clothing: “Oh, so formal!” But wasn’t I supposed to wear a suit? I felt like a fool.

And then the associate dean came by—the one whose home I’d be going to for dinner that night. He was rooting for me, but he inadvertently fanned my spark of anxiety into a roaring fire when he said, kindly, “You know, dinner tonight is casual.”

And that is why I did not spend the afternoon of my rabbinical school interview resting and recharging to sit before the admissions panel. I spent the afternoon at Macy’s, buying a new pair of khakis and a button down and borrowing my dad’s shoes.

levush might be deceptive, covering up how we really feel, but we’re all trying to fit in. Sometimes a levush his just what we need.

The ancient Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi teaches, “Al tistakeil bakanan, elah b’ma she-yesh bo. Don’t look at the container, but at what is inside” (Pirkei Avot 4:20). This is basically the Jewish version of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Each one of us is trying to fit in, trying to represent ourselves the best way we can. We’re never as great as our clothes make us out to be, but we’re never as bad either.

But we know it’s not quite that simple. Our clothes do communicate, and we often form first impressions with them. We can’t help it. Our clothes tell our stories. It’s up to use to use them purposefully. And it’s up to us to remember that there’s always a deeper story.

The hanukkiah at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, taken a year an a half after my sartorially stressful interview. 

When Hanukkah begins on Sunday night, we’ll light the first lights of the holiday. In their glow, may we see one another for both what is outside and what is inside. And may we feel the glow emanating from the light within each of us.

And, if you like Joseph, should receive a colorful sweater or scarf as a gift … Who knows? Maybe that’s the piece of clothing that will change your life.

[1]Torah Queeries, pp. 54-55

[2]Ibid., p. 55

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