“Yiddish Players Club,” reads a white bro tank on a pink plastic hanger. Its label card defines a Yiddish Player as a “Dreamer. Hustler. Artist. Thinker. Leader. The ambassador of Yiddish Swag.” “Shalom, Y’all,” another shirt greets. “I <3 Jews,” reads another. It keeps going—college Hillel T-shirts, shirts with delicate Hebrew script, a racy tee with “Jews Do It for Eight Nights” printed over a menorah. These shirts make up the well-traveled art exhibition featured at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York this winter: “Shmattes.”
“Shmattes,” the Yiddish word for “rags” or “garments,” is the brainchild of Anne Grant DIV ’17. The nonprofit art show explores the semiotic value of Jewish-themed T-shirts, focusing specifically on millennial “culturally Jewish” identity. According to Grant, “T-shirts have a lot of data to give us about how Jews—and non-Jews—are negotiating with contemporary Jewish identity,” and also about how comfortable they feel broadcasting their heritage.
After moving to New Haven to work as an arts coordinator at the Jewish Community Center, Grant linked up with the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale to exhibit “Shmattes.” She worked closely with Slifka’s then-curator, Lucy Partman ’14, a current doctoral student in art history at Princeton and an employee of the Jewish Museum in New York. Together with a couple others at Slifka, Partman and Grant curated “T-shirt Talk: The Art of Reimagining Cultural Jewish Identity,” which featured close to seventy shirts and hung on Slifka’s walls in spring 2014. Then, once the shirts had congealed into a show, Grant named her project “Shmattes.” The collection has since traveled to Brown, the University of Virginia, and the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City.
When “Shmattes” was displayed at Slifka, Partman recalled that, “People that were using [Slifka] for prayer were concerned, because some of the shirts had very explicit language.” One shirt apparently said the word “fuck” on it.
Grant began collecting Jewish T-shirts a few years ago, branching off from her personal five-shirt collection (“One HellUVA Jew” reads one shirt she acquired while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia). While at UVA, where she was involved with the Hillel (the campus center for Jewish life), she recalls, “I had a shirt that said ‘sleep with me’ from a fundraiser where you slept outside for charity. And I thought, ‘Wow, a Hillel is literally sponsoring a T-shirt with a very explicit sexual reference, and not even a disguised reference.’” After getting a shirt with a drug reference from a very old Philadelphia delicatessen, she started to recognize a pattern and began gathering more shirts, on eBay and from friends. Today, her collection numbers 175 shirts. She displays sixty to eighty in each show.
Grant curates and choreographs “Shmattes” according to four main categories. First, T-shirts from university Hillels. She owns thirty or forty of them, which is unsurprising given the shirts’ intended audience of college students. Then, cultural appropriation: shirts that combine imagery from other cultures with Jewish themes. “I just was seeing so many T-shirts that were including rap references and hip hop slogans, and imitating the iconography of groups like the Wu-Tang Clan or Lil Wayne,” Grant explained. So shirts that say “Jew-Tang” or have images of Manischewitz wine with the message “Purple Drank” fall into this category. Third: self-aware shirts. A shirt in this section, as Grant explains, will “make its own utterance of itself” (for example, one red-and-green shirt reading “Silent Nights Are Boring,” with a blue Star of David printed on it, is in this section). The connecting threads in this category are more conceptual than the others; it is less obvious, from the outside, how these shirts are linked.
Fourth and finally: “Did You Get It?” This section is comprised of T-shirts that demand inside religious knowledge. Grant gives no hints on her label cards. For example, a white ringer T-shirt with red-capped sleeves asks, “DID YOU…?” with a picture of a bench. To an unaware onlooker, the image is a puzzle, but a religious Jew would know that “benching” is a colloquial term for the Birkat Hamazon, an after-meal blessing in Orthodox Jewish households. For those who get it, this shirt can be a point of connection.
“Yiddish Players Club,” reads a white bro tank on a pink plastic hanger. Its label card defines a Yiddish Player as a “Dreamer. Hustler. Artist. Thinker. Leader. The ambassador of Yiddish Swag.”
Although this last category focuses on observant Jews, Grant is generally more interested in the concept (and audience) of non-religious Jews who still engage and identify with being culturally Jewish. “If this group of people eats a cheeseburger, and eats prosciutto, and watches TV on Saturday, and they’re still really strongly identifying as Jewish,” she wonders about her culturally Jewish peers, “then what exactly defines them as Jewish?” Grant wants to spark discussion about how, even though some “cultural Jews” break Kosher laws (cheeseburgers and pork are not allowed) and watch TV on Saturdays (electronics are forbidden on Shabbat), they display their Judaism publicly in other ways—through certain shirts, for instance, which highlight humorous aspects of Jewish life that have nothing to do with prayers.
The youthful, irreverent nature of “Shmattes” is a cornerstone—and perhaps a drawback—of the show. When “Shmattes” was displayed at Slifka, Partman recalled that, “People that were using [Slifka] for prayer were concerned, because some of the shirts had very explicit language.” One shirt apparently said the word “fuck” on it. There were complaints, and Partman and Grant ended up turning the offending shirts against the wall. One of Grant’s goals is to look at a distinctly millennial brand of cultural Judaism, so this controversy was only to be expected. She welcomes challenging shirts, and in fact is staging a show at Wesleyan this week that focuses on controversial or provocative Jewish shirts.
Ari Kelman, a board member of the Shmattes nonprofit and the Jim Joseph Professor of Jewish Studies at Stanford, also noticed that many of Grant’s shirts focus on contemporary college life since 2010, even though Jewish T-shirts are neither a brand new nor a necessarily youthful phenomenon. So he donated some of his old Jewish camp T-shirts to Shmattes partly to help “expand the story” that Shmattes was telling about Jewish life.
“T-shirts have a lot of data to give us about how Jews—and non-Jews—are negotiating with contemporary Jewish identity”
Kelman notes, too, that plenty of adults with no connection to college Hillels engage with cultural Judaism through designing Jewish T-shirts. Their shirts, rather than emphasizing rap lyrics or frats, play on an inter-generational Jewish humor. Kelman’s friend Sarah Lefton, for example, created a shirt printed with three birch trees and the words “Yo Semite.” Copying a Yosemite shirt, this design cuts at a corner of culturally Jewish people above the twenty-something demographic Shmattes highlights. Stacey Abarbanel, another Shmattes board member, also runs a T-shirt company called “Jewnion Label” in Los Angeles.
Yale’s own LOX ET VERITAS shirt certainly plays to a collegiate crowd, and maybe also to students who don’t always project their religion through shirts. “Yeah, I think my ‘Lox et Veritas’ shirt is the only Jewish T-shirt I own,” says Partman, laughing. As Kelman reflects, Jewish T-shirts “signal in a couple different directions to show people that you’re in the group.” Wearing a Jewish shirt, whether you’re a college kid or a middle-aged professor, signals an insider-ness and an access to Jewish life, that cat be religious, cultural, or somewhere in between.