A couple of years ago, I received a telephone call at work from my then-7-year-old. Who, by the way, I didn’t even know could use a phone. Bad mommy, I know.
Lilly: Mama, can I be in the multi-cultural fashion show?
Me: Is it tomorrow?
Lilly (laughing): Of course it’s not tomorrow.
Me: Then this conversation can wait until tomorrow. Anyway, why would you be in a multi-cultural fashion show?
Lilly (eyes audibly rolling): I am Jewish, you know.
[Sidenote: the audible eye-rolling at 7 ought to have been a clue that she’s going to give us a run for our money.]
I was intrigued that not only did Lilly sense that her Jewish identity extends beyond issues of faith, but she was willing to stand up and take her place among her Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Egyptian, and Indian classmates.
Now we just had to figure out what she should wear. I mean, it isn’t as if one could just go online and find a “Jewish” costume.
Ha-ha! If only this had taken place today. Because now Walmart has made it ever so easy for boys and girls to dress Jewish. Because there is such a high demand?
Looking for a Jewish costume for your son? So very many options from which to choose. He can be “King David“–a costume that is nearly identical to their “Royal King” one only with David Ha-Melech (in Hebrew letters, no less) embroidered on the back. Descended from the lowly Israelites but have a lifelong yearning to be a member of the Levites? No problem. Now your son, or husband as they have adult versions available, can don the “Jewish High Priest” costume. Walmart offers the opportunity to dress up your son as a “Seifer Torah” (Torah scroll), a “Jewish rabbi” (is there any other kind?), and a “Grand Jewish Rabbi.”
And for your daughter? Far fewer choices. She can dress up as one of two Jewish mothers. Before you start screaming stereotype, these are our foremothers, not the one you don’t call (and when you do, the first thing she says is “Why don’t you ever call?”). Yes, for less than $30, your daughter can be “Jewish Mother Rachel” or “Jewish Mother Rivkah.” It seems your daughter can’t dress up as a Jewish rabbi unless what she wants to wear is a costume of an 18th century Lithuanian man–complete with sidecurls and facial hair.
The reactions online have ranged from mild bemusement to out-and-out disgust. I fall somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, it’s just a little bit crazy that Walmart feels there’s enough of a market for these “Jewish” costumes to justify carrying this dreck. On the other hand, it’s a bit insulting that our width and breadth as a people has been narrowed down to these few stereotypical offerings. And who decided which images to caricaturize? There is more to us than these monolithic characters suggest.
What about Judah Maccabee or Deborah?
What about a
or chalutza–the young, strong men and women who pioneered the land of pre-State Israel, making the deserts bloom?
Or shtetl-chic, replete with shmattes on the head?
Or saris as the wives of merchants in Cochin, India?
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in his groundbreaking 1934 work,
Judaism as a Civilization
, wrote, “Judaism is not only a religion; it is a people with its own history, identity, culture and civilization.”
Though he might have agreed that includes a people with its own styles of attire, I’m quite confident that cheesy costumes sold at Walmart wasn’t what he had in mind.