I’m not sure if the rest of you watched Netflix’s latest 3 part drama Unorthodox like I did. I was perched on the edge of the couch, slack-jawed and gripped like it was a documentary about aliens from a distant planet.
Hasidic Judaism was not an entirely foreign concept to me. I’ve seen pictures, heard stories and we studied Judaism at schools in the same way we looked at all the major religions across the world. But I had no idea Williamsburg, New York was like a portal to another world. A living museum of ideas and rituals that date back long before the War – before a lot of wars.
There is so much to unpick in the grander narrative of Williamsberg. A diaspora of people displaced by the Haulocost and suffering post traumatic stress so severe it’s travelled across generations. Holding close to their culture and building an impenetrable social wall, for good or for bad, is how they’ve chosen to cope with that trauma.
The rich tapestry of this world has so many details but there was one that captured my attention above all others: That Hat.
The Shtreimel (Str-eye-mel) is a decorative hat worn by married men in the Haredi Jewish Community. If you haven’t seen the show (or the people) these impressive fur covered rounds create such a distinctive silhouette they are impossible to ignore. Through the centuries, the design has shifted from a small crown of sable to the giant towers or fur that are seen on the streets today. Because of their exorbitant price a man normally has only one hat in his lifetime, so you can even see the fashion shift between generations. The older men have shorter hats of only 10-15cm in height, but the younger generation have embraced the taller versions with newer hats reaching 20-25cm in height.
I was stunned to learn that the hat itself has no religious connection. It is traditionally worn on celebration days and offers the same merits as any other second head covering above the traditional yarmulke. It’s origins and meaning are like so much of Jewish history – lost amongst the ashes of a million burned books across time. The ghost of the legend I found is that the hat begins with the Tartars (or the Polish). Another cruel king from history decree (probably after many goblets of fine wine) that the jews would need to wear tails pinned to their head to identify themselves. The Jewish people, as they have done through countless persecutions, took the order in stride with grace and turned the mockery into a crown of fur to rival all the kings of Europe.
The look is so iconic that even Jean-Paul Gaultier based his winter collection of 1993 on Hasidic dress. There was understandably a lot of controversy about the collection, although the complaint was more about the lack of respect for gender associations rather than religious defamation.
It takes a lot of tails to make a Shtreimel, anywhere from 14 – 26 Sable tales are needed to make up a hat. The behind the scenes documentary from the show revealed that all their prop Shtreimel had been made from high-quality faux-fur – fluffy animals across Europe rejoiced. They made over 100 hats for the production which I have to admit is a lot of naked animals for just a TV show.
The liberal use of fur is something that also has not escaped the attention of Israel (and many other countries for that matter). In 2009 they first put forward a bill that would ban the import of fur to the country, especially furs from Southeast Asia where animal rights laws and practice fall well behind international standards. It’s a bill that keeps appearing and keeps being rejected – the community so attached to their shtreimel one of the loudest voices in the argument. Faux fur hats appear occasionally when the economy slumps but are not generally accepted by the community as they don’t have the same high-quality finish that real fur shows. An argument I can understand for an item that is entirely used for status, the quality and finish are the key elements of the product. Although, to me it just seems like an argument to find a better faux fur.
Currently (I write like a time-capsule to the future) New York is out of bounds due to COVID19 travel bans. I hope all those Shtreimel owners, their families and friends are doing okay over there. One day though, I’d love to find a cafe with an excellent view on a celebration day and watch the Williamsburg community live their lives – tall figures striding with purpose through the streets, a crown of brown fur upon their heads. An ancient relic still alive in a modern world.
- https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/0695ead5-9aaa-4b8e-a7c6-3022d3070dc4 / https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/b5d113b5-fde5-42d0-941d-c0f4057bd5b1