The tisch: Women in shtreimels

Is it possible that in our times we will witness a widespread return of women wearing the shtreimel?

Tzipi Livni (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tzipi Livni
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In 1993, French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier (b. 1952) presented a collection entitled Chic Rabbis. The arresting images of the new line were exhibited in Paris and featured in Vogue, and they included a woman wearing a shtreimel.
Gaultier is famous for drawing inspiration from diverse cultures and for presenting rebellious fashion images that confront viewers. Indeed, he is known as the enfant terrible of French fashion. The fashion line inspired by contemporary hassidic Jews was no exception.
At the time, The New York Times hailed Gaultier as “the first major designer to use Judaism as an inspiration.” Indeed, couturiers – before and after Gaultier – have been hesitant to send Jewish garb down the fashion runway. Yet the Gaultier collection was met with mixed responses. Fashionistas praised his work and his gall, but others criticized the collection for being culturally insensitive. Hassidim took particular offense by the sacrilegious act of placing traditional male garb on women.
Back in 1993, Gaultier was quoted as describing his collection: “It’s an homage to the Jewish religion, but it’s also quite punk.” Amanda Walgrove, writing in 2011, reflected on the exhibition calling it “one of the most Semitically provocative sartorial moments of the past century.”
Gaultier’s designs did not catch on, but a year later a future female shtreimel-wearer tasted Olympic success. It was the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and Oksana Baiul (b. 1977) was only 16 years old, as she went out on the ice to represent Ukraine in the ladies’ singles figure skating competition. By winning gold in her event, Baiul became the first Olympic champion of independent Ukraine.
Fast-forwarding to 2007, Baiul skated down the runway in New York City’s fashion week wearing a shtreimel in deference to her Jewish roots. The gold medalist was raised as a Russian Orthodox Christian, but later in life she discovered that her maternal grandmother was Jewish – making her Jewish according to Jewish law.
Baiul is not the only Jewish figure skater to win Olympic gold: Russian Irina Rodnina won Olympic gold in 1972, 1976 and 1980; Russian Gennadi Karponosov won in 1980; and American Sarah Hughes won in 2002. Yet Baiul may be the only Olympic gold medalist to wear a shtreimel.
After the 2007 fashion show, Baiul was quoted as saying: “The show was a way of connecting to my heritage, and it was a tremendous success. I already heard that people were upset that I wore the shtreimel, but I wanted to do it because Levi” – referring to designer Levi Okunov who grew up as a Lubavitch hassid – “said, ‘Oksana, it’s meaningful.’”
Another female shtreimel fashion statement came in 2016, in the Rosh Hashana edition of Tablet magazine. The cover of that issue included a photograph titled “Yentle 4Eva” of Jewish actress Natasha Lyonne (b. 1979) wearing a shtreimel and standing next to a… bride!
Of course, women wearing fur headwear is not really unusual in any way. But the clear reference to the hassidic shtreimel makes these fur chapeaux stand out. It would appear that the shtreimel as a fashion item is determined to go beyond the confines of the insular hassidic community, much to the chagrin of hassidim. Indeed, these shtreimel-wearing women make bold fashion statements; they push the boundaries of sartorial expectations and challenge cultural norms. For those who associate the shtreimel with the contemporary hassidic community, the images capture attention with their striking incongruity.
Yet, from a historical perspective, these shtreimel-wearing women are not truly breaking new ground; rather, they are reclaiming fashion norms of old.
In the early 18th-century communal regulations of Boskovice, Moravia, the shtreimel is mentioned in an ordinance limiting what women whose husbands had paid minimal communal taxes were permitted to wear: “Someone who does not remit two coins to the [communal] fund – his wife is not permitted to go with a shiny scarf or a Prague hat, rather she may wear only one shtreim hat with marten- fur trimmings.” Like many other communal regulations – in Boskovice and elsewhere – the rule had a social objective: to prevent low-income households from spending beyond their means due to peer pressure. The shtreim – shtreimel being the diminutive form in Yiddish for shtreim – therefore was indicative of communal tax assessment.
Is it possible that in our times we will witness a widespread return of women wearing the shtreimel? Animal rights activists would certainly protest such a move. What about synthetic shtreimelech for women?
This possibility seems rather unlikely, especially in the warm climate of Israel. But there is one prominent Israeli woman whom we may see – indeed we may hope to see – wearing a shtreimel.
In February 2014, MK Tzipi Livni – who was then serving in the government as the justice minister – proposed adding the haredi parties to the coalition. Haredi news outlets reported that Livni declared: “For the achievement of peace [with the Palestinians] I am even prepared to wear a shtreimel.”
I might impishly add: As we yearn and pray for peace, we conjure up the image of the wolf dwelling with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid goat, the calf with the lion and the fatling together… and a woman wearing a shtreimel leading them. ■
The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the Pardes faculty and a post-doctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.