Spodiks and shtreimels, the large, circular fur headgear, are most identified with hassidim.
In most cases, a person wearing these signifying garments would be correctly labeled as a hassid – but not in all cases.
Fur headgear was standard in prewar Eastern Europe, and not just for the hassidim. In the autobiography of the Yiddish and Hebrew writer Ben-Zion Alfes (1850- 1940), we find the shtreimel in the milieu of the most important figure among the mitnagdim, those who opposed Hassidism: Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797).
Alfes wrote that he personally knew Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (1779-1869), the head of the rabbinical court in Vilna, and he related the following tale about that rabbi’s early years: When young Yehezkel was engaged to be married, his prospective father-inlaw brought him on Shabbat to the Gaon of Vilna in order to receive a blessing. When the two arrived, the Gaon was sitting and eating kugel with his hands.
The Gaon then stretched out his hands to bless the lad, and young Yehezkel recoiled – as he did not want the Gaon’s oily hands to touch his new shtreimel.
The Gaon then placed only one hand – presumably the cleaner hand – on the groom’s new shtreimel, and gave him a blessing.
Alfes related that Rabbi Yehezkel Landau lived a long and healthy life, studying Torah until his dying days without the need for spectacles. Nonetheless, Landau was always remorseful about his pettiness; that he had valued his shtreimel more than the hands of the Gaon, greasy though they may have been.
Typically, rabbis – even if they were not aligned with Hassidism, and even if they identified as mitnagdim – could be seen sporting the spodik. Portraits have survived of notable non-hassidic rabbis wearing a spodik: Rabbi Haim of Volozhin (1749-1821), a famous leader of the anti-hassidic camp; Rabbi Dov Ber Meisels (1798- 1870), chief rabbi of Krakow and later of Warsaw; Rabbi Shmuel Salant (1816-1909), longtime Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem; Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein (1829- 1908), author of the monumental halachic code Aruch Hashulhan and rabbi of Novardok (today Navahrudak, Belarus); Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv, 1816-1893), head of the Volozhin Yeshiva and author of important Torah works; his son, Rabbi Haim Berlin (1832-1913), rabbi of Moscow and, in his final years, assistant to Rabbi Salant at the helm of the Jerusalem rabbinate; Netziv’s son-in-law, Rabbi Rafael Shapira (1837-1921), who also served as head of the Volozhin Yeshiva; Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein (1866-1934), head of the Knesset Yisrael Yeshiva that was originally in Slabodka, Lithuania, but moved to Hebron and then to Jerusalem; and Rabbi Epstein’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer (1870-1953).
Perhaps the most famous non-hassidic leader pictured with fur headgear is the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), who was photographed on numerous occasions wearing his spodik.
It would appear that fur hats only came to be a visual marker of Hassidism after World War II. Alas, even that assertion is not entirely accurate: On a Shabbat stroll through certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem, one would encounter non-hassidic shtreimel wearers.
Males who trace their roots to the Old Yishuv – the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel before, and without regard for, political Zionism – wear shtreimels.
Unlike the hassidim, these shtreimel-wearers do not necessarily wait for marriage before they start with furry headwear; typically, they begin to wear shtreimels from bar-mitzva age.
It is important to remember non-hassidic shtreimel and spodik wearers because they remind us that these caps did not begin as essentially hassidic garb. True, the shtreimel and spodik have become cultural markers of hassidic affiliation, yet originally the hassidic wardrobe was not the only place they could be found.
While this account suggests a narrowing shtreimel- wearing public, new shtreimel markets have recently sprung up. Sephardi boys who have come to appreciate the teachings and legacy of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810) can be seen wearing shtreimels… though their forefathers were most certainly not familiar with this Eastern European headgear.
Perhaps the most surprising development in the shtreimel and spodik annals has been the interest of the American fashion industry. In 2007, Ukrainian Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul skated down the runway in New York Fashion Week, wearing a shtreimel in deference to her Jewish heritage. More recently, in 2013, American Apparel featured a photo shoot with a shtreimel-wearing hassidic man modeling the brand’s clothing.
It must be said, however, that this extraordinary non-hassidic shtreimel has not caught on; at least, not yet… The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah and a post-doctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s faculty of law.