A Kosher Kilt (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The recent announcement that a rabbi in Glasgow had "created the world's first official Jewish tartan" appeared to my eyes a problem of talmudic proportions. First of all, the design may well not be a first, as some Jews claim a Jewish pattern for a Scots kilt has already existed for centuries. Secondly, there's no way a tartan, Jewish or gentile, can be "official." Thirdly, a true tartan can't be Jewish, because by definition a tartan isn't kosher. But perhaps the most dubious part of the story was the statement that "there is expected to be a huge global demand for the design." Huge global demand? Granted, the news item earned astonishing international coverage in print and on the Internet. Carried by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the article appeared in numerous Jewish community weeklies and turned up in the blogosphere and on websites ranging from "The Malaysia Sun" to the white supremacist stormfront.org. Still, how many of the world's Jews could be clamoring to climb into kilts? Well, this American Jew once did, but I'll get to that later. First things first. Although Jews reportedly have been present in Scotland at least since the late 17th century, members of the tribe north of Hadrian's Wall, today numbering around 6,000, have never constituted a Scottish clan. Some sources nonetheless maintain that when moved to don the kilt, Scots Jews have long favored the plaid of Clan Gordon. One anonymous blogger claims this connection goes back around 200 years, and others point to photographs dating from the 1930s showing Scots Jews kitted out in Gordon-patterned kilts. Theories on the Jewish-Gordon connection are varied. One says it reflects a reminder of Grodno, Lithuania, where Scottish merchants were once active. Another says it comes from the Russian word for proud. The third, and perhaps most persuasive, maintains that it honors the eccentric Lord George Gordon (1751-1793), who converted to Judaism in 1787 and renamed himself Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon. But none of these theories is very credible, and none of my many Scots relatives has ever heard of a Jewish tartan, Gordonic or otherwise. And in any event, this whole clan pattern business was largely invented out of whole cloth. Clan plaids were basically cooked up by haberdashers and other merchants during Britain's mid-19th century Scottish fashion craze, which was inspired by Sir Walter Scott's wildly popular Waverly novels. Their assignment of patterns to various clans was arbitrary and inconsistent. Today, if you consult the Scottish Tartans Authority in Crief, Perthshire, or the Scottish Tartans Society in Moffat, Dumfrieshire, or the Scottish Tartans World Register in Dunkeld or any of a half-dozen other such councils, you'll be in for a lot of clan warfare. Outside of the Highland regiments and certain soccer clubs, there is little agreement on who may claim which plaid. In short, no tartan is official, because there's no more of a central authority on kilts than there is a sanhedrin for the Jews. Nor, halakhically speaking, can a tartan kilt be considered kosher. Before we go any further, a little terminology. A kilt in Gaelic is a feileadh beag. Plaide in Gaelic means a blanket. According to some lexicographers, plaid was also a verb in Middle English, meaning "to pleat." Therefore, a "plaid" refers to a blanket or something that is pleated. As for the familiar Mondrian-like pattern most English speakers call plaid, the Gaelic word is breacán. This apparently can mean speckled, dappled, striped, polka-dotted and, well, plaid. The kilt's colorful patterns of stripes and checks themselves are called setts. Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.