Shtetl-inspired sweatshirts are creating controversy online but is shtreetwear really beyond the pale? – Forward

Posted By on October 18, 2020

Call it shtreetwear. Call it shtetlcore. The era of extremely Ashkenazi athleisure is here, and its forcing Jews to contend with a pressing question: What are shtetl vibes, and should you be able to sell them?

On Tuesday, the Jewish Twitterverse took note of Shtttl, a streetwear-cum-lifstyle brand inspired by shtetls yes, the small, pogrom-prone villages to which many American Jews trace their roots. The label immediately sparked uproar on social media, with observers questioning what seemed like an attempt to rework a fraught and complex period of Jewish history as a branding strategy. Yet Aryeh Goldschmiedt, Shtttls creative director, said he aims to revive an overlooked aspect of Jewish culture and spread the positive values he believes shtetl culture embodies.

Im using garments like a canvas, to bring wisdom and positivity and light to the world, Goldschmiedt, an artist based in Israel, said.

If the idea of shtetl fashion has you thinking of the American Pickle costume closet, youd be right sort of. Shtttl, which launched in 2018, peddles not shawls and suspenders but the monochromatic Brooklyn basics the film lampoons: oversized hoodies, slouchy beanies and slim-fit sweatpants perfect for attending slam poetry events or sipping soy lattes. What sets the brand apart from its many competitors in this genre are the slogans its products bear. If youre not satisfied with a Shtetl Vibes t-shirt, you can buy one emblazoned with the word Blessed transliterated into Hebrew or the inspiring (or ominous) proverb This Too Shall Pass. Hoodies encourage you to Elevate the Threads and baseball caps proclaim their wearers to be Humble / Bold / Blessed.

Shtttl gear might seem better-suited to Bed Stuy than Belarussia, but the brand takes inspiration from the bold faith and raw simplicity of shetl communities.

Shtetls were places of vibrant culture, elevating the mundane, hustling for those in need and living life with meaning & purpose down to the bone, Shtttls website said.

Aside from the Hebrew lettering, Shtttls promotional materials feature plenty of Jewish references. One Facebook post superimposed the Elie Wiesel quote Think higher, feel deeper over a skateboarding model; another featured the Jewish rapper Matisyahu.

What Shtttl lacked, until recently, was any explicit mention of Jews, the actual people who lived in shtetls. By reducing shtetls to a religion-neutral pastoral fantasy, Shtttl seemed to ignore the legally enforced antisemitism that created them and the persecution their inhabitants faced.

So on Tuesday, many Jews took to Twitter, encouraging Shtttl to ditch the rose-tinted glasses.

Some accused the brand of commodifying Jewish trauma.

brb opening a new clothing brand called pogromm, one Twitter user wrote.

Goldschmiedt, who said he was taken aback by the criticism, explained hed refrained from explicitly discussing Judaism on Shtttls website in order to emphasize the universal nature of the brands values.

But he said he understood concern about the messaging, and he responded quickly to the not-so-subtle hint he got from Twitter. By Wednesday morning hed overhauled the websites About Us page to include a crash course on shtetl history that nodded to antisemitic pogroms and persecution as well as the shtetl ecosystems complete devastation during the Holocaust.

Ultimately, Goldschmiedt said, the painful aspects of shtetl life shouldnt prevent Ashkenazi Jews from celebrating their roots. He recalled the tales his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor born on a shtetl, told about the vibrant culture of her birthplace: As she liked to say, What didnt go on in the shtetl?

It bothers me that people associate shtetls just with the negative, he said.

It makes sense to be extremely skeptical of any plan to transform the shtetl into an aspirational lifestyle trend. Shtetl Jews lived lives marked by social exclusion and violent persecution. Given the choice to leave, many did: If shtetl-dwellers were content elevating the mundane in the pale of settlement, they wouldnt have migrated in droves to the United States.

And for American Ashkenazi Jews, immigration narratives reinforced through generations of repetition have only strengthened our collective awareness of the difficulties of shtetl life. Many of us grew up learning about our ancestors upward trajectory from poverty and precarity in the Old World to stateside safety and prosperity. In these stories, the shtetl necessarily figures as a dark and dangerous place.

So while American Jewish culture may be deeply informed by the shtetl, its hard to imagine our ancestors extolling the raw simplicity of shtetl life or, for that matter, forking over $65 for a hoodie. In many ways, Shtttl seems less like an embrace of Jewish history than an utter departure from it.

But does that mean all discussion of shtetl history must be accompanied by somber expressions and uncool attire? Shtttl says no, and they may have a point. The look how far weve come narrative can obscure the richness of Eastern European Jewish history. Its easier to flatten the period into a picture of uniform rural misery instead of reckoning with the reality that there were shtetls big and small, poor and prosperous, rural and semi-urban. Shtetl life inspired Marc Chagalls art and the work of writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem. Despite persecution, places like Belarus became hubs of intellectual Jewish life, the Forward reported, where rabbinic dynasties formed and yeshiva students filled busy streets.

Thats why Yiddish composer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russel remarked on Twitter that knee-jerk criticism of the brand is reductive. Shtetl history, he argued, contains as much Jewish life as Jewish death.

Or as Goldschmiedt put it, For every tear there was laughter. To hold both of these emotions is a lot of what Jewish history is about.

It would be a mistake to sanitize that history in the interest of selling sweatshirts, but neither should we ignore it altogether. If Shtttl thinks it can redefine a period of history too often reduced to its worst elements, were waiting with one raised eyebrow to see how they do.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

Originally posted here:

Shtetl-inspired sweatshirts are creating controversy online but is shtreetwear really beyond the pale? - Forward

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