Rebbe to Wear
By Amy Verdon
A Hasidic person is instantly recognized by his or her style of dress. Brooklyn, NY, is home to a diverse population of this ultra-orthodox religious group. Crown Heights, Boro Park and Williamsburg are three of the largest Hasidic communities in the world. For three hundred years, Hasidic male dress has mimicked that of the late-medieval Polish Nobility, yet each Hasidic court has its own style or uniform. To an outsider these subtle differences may go undetected but to a Hasid the signals are obvious. There are at least seven different courts (sects) that thrive in Brooklyn and possibly 100 worldwide. Called the urban Amish, they are a mega-pious group (Hasid is Hebrew for pious). As a Hasid, it is the utmost to let people know that one is Jewish and dress is one way this is achieved. Here, I will decipher some of these codes of dress, focusing on the Lubavitch Chabad of Crown Heights, Bobov of Boro Park and Satmar Hasidim of Williamsburg's Southside. But before I continue we must first discuss a little history.
The early part of the 18th Century was a grim time for Jewish people in Poland. After 250 years of prosperity and growth in Eastern Europe, the "Golden Era of Jewry" was shattered by the Ukraine Cossacks in the mid 17th C. As a people they were desperate for a leader. In 1730, a learned Russian/Pole, Baal Shem Tov (or Besht) professed that, "not until every Jew hears his beliefs will the Messiah come." Most importantly, he averred that one did not have to study the torah 24 /7 to achieve spiritual ecstasy. The same end could instead be reached thru the discipline of prayer, performing mitzvahs (good deeds) and studying the torah. That joy is the closest one can be to God, who is omnipresent. This ideal appealed to many Jews at that time and inspired hope. Hasidim spread quickly and by the death of the 2nd great tzaddik, (great healer, righteous and holy person) Rabbi Dov Ber, in 1773, the followers splintered in to different shtetl (towns) and taught their own interpretations of the Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah. The tzaddik were known amongst followers as the Rebbe and the Rebbe was known by the town's name. This established the different courts of Hasidim. According to his followers, the Rebbe is the closest man to God. So naturally they revere, love and are devoted to their Rebbe. The Rebbe is heavily relied upon for guidance, support, leadership and advice on all subjects by both the community as a whole and by individuals, as well. To show respect the followers dress like the Rebbe they follow. For all the similarities amongst the various courts of the Hasidim, they are very different. A Hasidic person follows one Rebbe. One is not a little Satmar and a little bit Ger, instead one adheres to a single group and is either Satmar, Ger, Belz, Bobov, etc. Although each court has different identities, all Hasidim share similar social experiences expressed in their dress. For the Hasidim one is always in the presence of God, hence one must look his/her best. Not for ones' self, but for God. Thus, the act of dressing is in itself a divine act (mitzvah) by which one can enjoy spiritual fulfillment.
Lubavitch, founded by Rabbi Schneerson Zalman of Liadi, a student of the Besht, was the first court established. This Russian sect populates the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, is the largest Lubavitch community in the world and follows Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Rebbe Schneerson was the seventh Rebbe in this dynasty and was interpreted as the coming of the Messiah by his followers. Since he passed in 1994, at 102 years old, his followers have been preparing for his return. (Another court the Breslev also worships a dead rebbe). A Lubavitcher's greatest mitzvah is to help other Jews find their way back to Judaism. They are known for proselytizing. Since Lubavitchers are out there seeking new members they are not so hung-up on pure bloodlines. Many Lubavitchers are people who have returned to their faith as opposed to being born into Hasidim. These returners are called ba'al t'shuva. Lubavitchers are open to outsiders learning about their way of life. Lubavitchers are educated on secular subjects, speak English, their native tongue and Lithuanian Yiddish.
What Pat Buchanan is to the Republican Party the Satmar are to Hasidim. In the orthodox Jewish world, it does not get any more conservative. A 20th C. Hungarian, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the 2nd son of a powerful Rebbe from Signet moved to Satamar in 1904 and established this court. A bright and charismatic man, he followed the traditional ways; which appealed to many. Strict Hasidic orthodoxy flourished in Hungary, Slovakia and Transylvania about this time. Rebbe Teitelbaum immigrated to NYC in the 1940's and settled in Williamsburg soon thereafter. The Satmars are defiant anti-Zionists (they do not support Israel). They believe that upon the Messiah arrival, he will decide where the Jewish state will be. Satmars speak Yiddish and possess no particular interest to assimilate. They have very little education outside of Jewish law and secular culture is frowned upon (full of sin). Good luck getting into this club if you don't have the blood. Unlike the Lubavitchers, Satmars are very particular about their bloodlines. They will marry other Hungarian Hasidim, but not a Lubavitcher. They are damaged goods to the Satmar. The Satmar are by far the largest Hasidic court in America. They also have established communities worldwide. Rebbe Yoel died in 1979 and his nephew, Moses, inherited his position. But if one were to walk Lee Ave tomorrow, he or she would see Rebbe Yoel's photo everywhere.
Hasidim reside in the beautiful suburban neighborhood of Boro Park. This
area is also home to many orthodox Jewish families, is the preeminent
Orthodox community in the US and, thus, an excellent neighborhood to observe
the subtle difference in dress. Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam came to NYC after
WWII. He landed on the upper west side, resided for a short time in Crown
Heights and in 1967 established Bobov HQ in Boro Park. The gentle and
generous Rebbe recently died. He was descendent of the Polish Halberstam
dynasty and was also the only Bobover Rebbe to survive the concentration
camps of WWII. Although not as strict as the Satmar, the Bobov style of
dress is very close to the Satmars. Bobov speak English, their native
European tongue(s) and Polish Yiddish.
At the age of 3 all Hasidic boys get their first haircut; where it is cut back to the skull (opsheren or upsherinish), expect for the side locks, payees. Payees have to be long enough to curl around the finger and are kept long until the boy can grow a beard. This practice is born from a biblical reference; one shall not round the corners of the face. All Jewish men wear a yarmulke, a skullcap. It is to remind them that there is a higher power above. Hasidim wear yarmulkes even when sleeping. Besides constantly wearing a yarmulke the boys begin to wear a talit-katan or tallis-katan, which is a four-cornered garment worn over the head like a vest. Boys usually wear this as an under garment, though men will wear them under a jacket. Cotton ones are worn during the week, while woolen ones are saved for Shabbos and holidays. Attached to each corner of the talit-katan are tzitzis, four hanging strings sewn to each corner of the article, dangling out from under the shirt. Tzitzi are not to be tucked into pants, except in the presence of a deceased relative. It is worn to help remind the males of the 613 Jewish laws by which they live. Thru time, an elaborate system of knots will develop when certain mitzvahs are fulfilled.
All men must wear suits. After his Bar Mitzvah (becomes a man) at age 13, a dark suit and brimmed hat are donned. During the week there are two modes of dress a modern look and a traditional one. A traditional dresser is interpreted as a more frum (religious) person. A very frum person will wear a kapote, a black silk overcoat accented with the trousers folded into a knee-high white or dark sock with a slipper-like shoe (shich). This especially fancy look is usually reserved for the Rebbe, shtickel Rebbes (close associates of the Rebbe) or Ravs (ordained Rabbis). One would not wear certain apparel unless he possessed the discipline that accompanies the outfit (no posers allowed!). Once one becomes a man, he also gets a t'fillin. The t'fillin (a phylactery, based on a biblical reference: one is to be bound in prayer) is a small leather box. It is strapped to the head and left arm by a thin strap of leather, which wraps around the forearm. This is used during Morning Prayer. Eyeglasses are common amongst Hasidic men and watches are the only acceptable form of jewelry.
For Shabbos (the Sabbath), men's attire changes. On Shabbos (God's day), one must dress his best. Men wear a Bekecher, a silk robe with pockets in the back and 3 to 6 buttons, resembling a kimono in its elegance, with a Kapote (also called rijevolka) over it, also made of silk but not quite as fancy as the bekecher in that it has no pockets and buttons right to left though the buttons are hidden. Generally, only the most pious men wear white or dark socks but the younger generations have been taking on this look. Styles may change within the community out of respect for a Rebbe; e.g., to wear what he wears or maybe not to wear what he wears.
Men's hair is shaved because it is more comfortable under the hats. The payess or side locks are a biblical reference, but court and preference dictates how one wears them. When old enough to grow a beard, Lubvitchers cut the side locks back. But the Bobov and Satmar continue to wear them long. Whether to wear them as tight ring curls or loose and hanging is up to the person. Some like to wrap them around the ears, although this seems to be an old style. The longer the payess, the more frum the person is seen amid his kind. Some men never cut them and mothers are known for putting curlers in their son's payees. Beards are also a must for the Hasidic man. The beard is not to be cut but many trim it back. Another old style is to twist the beard up in itself, to get it out of the way.
Dress is modified once more when a man marries. On Shabbos, married men sport the very striking shtreimel, a velvet hat with a wide sable trim. The width of the trim depends on the Rebbe one follows and also reflects one's wealth. Polish shtreimels are higher and more cylindrical, opposed to the Satmars' wide brimmed circular hat. Amongst the Williamsburg Satmars, only married men wear these unusual hats. It is usually a gift given from his in-laws; though I have seen a few teenagers wearing them in Boro Park. Possibly they are Yeshiva superstars, a family member of a large dynasty or perhaps simply well off. Married men also wear Talis, a large white prayer shawl with dark blue bands woven across the width of each end with fringe (tzitzis) attached on the corners. One drapes his talis over the head or shoulders. It is worn during Morning Prayer and on Shabbos. This attire is accompanied by gartels (belts) which are tied around the waist and come in different colors and material.
Lubavitch men dress in black suits consisting of a waist-length jacket, a white or blue shirt and a black Borsalino felt fedora. It is a hat that looks like something a truck ran over. Their style of yarmulke will vary from dark blue velvet with elaborate gold stitching decorating the outer edge to something more simple, like a black, non-embroidered satin. The Lubvitchers do not wear shtreimel for two reasons. When Rabbi Schneerson became the Rebbe he stopped wearing his out of respect for the Rebbe before him. So Schneerson Lubvitchers do not wear shtreimels. They also believe everyday is God's day and no one day is more important than any another. Some do however wear a kapote on Shabbos.
For the Satmar and Bobov modern dress consists of a dark blue three-piece suit, a white shirt and talit-katan with tzitzis dangling from the waist. The jacket is 3/4 length, double breasted, buttons from right to left and is accentuated with a simple black yalkumka. Satmar and Bobov will wear a shtufene hit (hat) made of fabric. It is a domed hat with a standard brim and a circular dent on top. The other, plachige biber hit, is a flatter, wider brimmed hat made out of beaver. Which hat one wears depends on how frum one is and perhaps the Rebbe he follows. The latter is seen as more frum. A gartel (belt) knitted by one's wife, is tied around the waist. The gartel symbolizes separating the sacred part of the body from the profane parts. Sometimes it is worn all day.
So what about the goirls?
Again, the belief of modesty and respect are very import ideas to help a Hasidic person dress within the guidelines. Mothers dress their children in identical outfits. By doing so none of the children will stand out in public or among one another. Females must not call attention to themselves in public or in the company of men. It is expected that females adhere to the notions of tznius. Beauty within. The idea of tznius derives from this verse from the Psalms, "The entire glory of the daughter of the king lies on the inside." Females who achieve a high level of tznius can expect abundant blessings, including wealth, children and grandchildren. Beyond personal gain, behaving with proper tznius unleashes sparks of holiness throughout the world and encourages the coming of the Messiah. Beyond physical appearance, tznius encompasses expectations for general behavior
begin wearing stockings between the ages of 3 to 6 years old (depending
on the piety of the family). Females must wear dresses or skirts, not
pants, for a few reasons but mostly because neither gender may wear the
clothing of the other and pants are seen as male apparel.
Most Lubavich teenage girls fall into the category of normal. Like most teenage girls, they tend to travel in packs and clothes are very important. Although they would never think of abandoning the Hasidic way of life, unbeknownst to their parents, most have watched TV, been to the movies and have even hung around the Kosher pizza parlor. On the weekends and after school the normals are dressed in current fashions within the rules of tznius. Long denim skirts mark these types of Lubavitch teens. Some have been known to wear pants under their skirt so they can later ditch the skirt when they leave the community. Pretty ballsy for girls whose school principle will measure skirt slits and give detention to those wearing long socks instead of stockings. The rebel dresses much like the normal girl but questions the Hasidic ways of life. A small group grows to shed the Hasidic life and move out of the community.
Women are prohibited from wearing clothes that reveal the shape of their legs. For Satmar females, tights must be opaque. At one time it was acceptable for the Satmar teens and women to wear a lighter nylon, but the Rebbe thought it was too provocative. He prescribed stricter guidelines and heavier seamed stockings have been worn since.
Dresses and skirts must be long enough to conceal the knees at all times and shirts must cover the elbows and collarbones. Brooklyn Lubavitch girls generally wear long jean skirts to the ankle but might show a little leg on Shabbos. One with an all black ensemble with ankle length nylon skirt could be from Israel. For the Satmar females their skirts must be four inches below the knee. In the mid-90's, long skirts became popular in secular culture and the Rebbe prescribed that the length of skirts for his followers had to be shorter. He felt his female flock was beginning to blend in, so hence the mandate.
All married Hasidic women wear sheitels (wigs). Married Satmar women of Williamsburg shave their heads completely where others might just cut it back very short. Married Satmar woman also wear a hat or a scarf over their sheitel. For informal activity a cloth head covering is worn in place of the sheitel. Lubavicth ladies wear snoods. Bobover wear a stern tichl, which is like a turban worn with a brooch gathering in the front, adding an air of elegance. Satmar ladies wear something in between the snood and the stern tichl that includes a hairline. The driving idea is that, even though women can and should look good, they should save their sexual attractiveness for their husbands. Unmarried girls are not required to wear a head covering. A young girl, teen or unmarried female must also wear her hair in a feminine style and must not be too short.
The Lubavitchers and Bobovers both wear wigs and follow the rules but like to push the envelope of tznius. Young Satmar women posses a conspicuous style where a young Lubavicther woman might go unnoticed. Following the rules of shantes, the preferred fabrics are cottons, velvets and velour.
I only scratched the surface of the street wear for the Hasidim of Brooklyn. The apparel for weddings, deaths and other social rituals deserve attention but unfortunately we don't have the space to carry on this discussion.
If you would like to learn more about the mysterious Hasidim
please refer to the bibliography:
Different hats, and hairstyles.
Satmar family walks together on Shabbos.
Lubavitch male dressed for shabbos, notice black gartel.