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Secret (dress) Code

Refoel Pride

In the boulevards of Brooklyn and Monsey, in the passageways and alleys of Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak, they go about their daily business dressed in the distinctive apparel that their grandfathers wore. For chassidim, tradition is more important than style – especially since the various fabrics, buttons, and patterns of their clothing often hold some deeper significance.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Anyone who’s spent Shabbos or Yom Tov in one of Yerushalayim’s older districts has been transfixed by the otherworldly sight of men walking home from shul in gleaming caftans, their heads crowned by shtreimlach. The scene takes on a timeless quality, especially in the shadow of Yerushalayim’s walls. But exactly how timeless? The Yerushalmim have an answer to that question that may surprise you.

“This levush is a mesorah from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov,” declares one prominent tailor, who, together with his wife, produces all the varieties of the Yerushalmi caftan in their home in Batei Ungarin. “We also have an eidus that when Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim they were dressing this way.” That’s not to say they were traveling through the desert getting sand in their shtreimels, but the Yerushalmi tailors treat the ancient significance of the caftan’s construction with reverence.

The tailor and his rebbetzin, who asked not to be identified, are part of a sizable cottage industry that has been at work in Yerushalayim for generations producing these garments. Wearers of the Yerushalmi levush have no large outlets like the ones found in Boro Park and Monsey, with off-the-rack garments (made in Hungary, Turkey, or China), fitting rooms, and alterations performed on-site. Instead, the clothing is largely produced — and sold — in private homes.

Most of the work is in fact done by women. This presents a bit of a complication in those situations where a man needs to be fitted for a new beged. When the tailor is male, the normal rules apply; but what to do when the tailor is a balabusta? Leave it to the Yerushalmim to work out a solution.

“One lady has developed a useful ability,” relates Reb Aharon Gunzberg, a Breslover chassid who resides in Meah Shearim, and who wears the levush. “She has the male customer stand on the sidewalk outside her house. She peers down at him from her window and is able to size him up from a distance. She’s able to fit a garment perfectly for this man, just by seeing him through her window.”

Reb Shalom Jacobs and his son Avraham are able to sidestep this difficulty. Reb Shalom opened his tailor shop 36 years ago and has been welcoming customers ever since at the same location — on Rechov Meah Shearim at the corner of Salant, right across the street from the Breslov shul. The father and son pair are happy to pass along the tricks of their trade.

Reb Shalom brings a Shabbos caftan from the rack and gives a quick overview of a few of its notable features.

“You see that the stripes run through the entire beged,” he points out. “But look closely. The stripes on the body run vertically, but on the sleeves” — he lifts one to indicate — “the stripes run horizontally. This is because the whole beged follows the tzurah of tefillin. The vertical stripes on the body are linked to the retzuos of the tefillin shel rosh, which come down in front; the stripes on the sleeve follow the direction in which the retzuos of the tefillin shel yad are wound.”

Reb Shalom reveals another item on the garment that signifies tefillin.

“You see these pasim here?” He points to strips along the edges of the garment that would equate to lapels on a typical Western suit jacket. “The design is longer on the right side and shorter on the left side. This also follows the retzuos of the tefillin shel rosh, and gives preference to the right side over the left, which represents favoring the side of chesed over the side of din.” (In Kabbalistic teachings, the manifestation of chesed [loving-kindness] is on the right side and gevurah [severity] is on the left.)

He lifts the sleeve and points out two panels of fabric on the body of the garment, under the arm, on either side of the seam running up the side.

“These two pieces here are for the luchos habris,” he explains. “The entire garment is assembled from 26 pieces, for the gematria of Hashem’s Name.”

He points to the cuff at the end of the sleeve. A V-shaped notch has been tailored into the cuff; the seam of the sleeve comes down to meet the point in the V.

“The V-shaped notch here, together with the line of the seam, forms the letter shin — for Hashem’s Name, Shakkai, and this is also an allusion to tefillin.”

Finally, he points to the collar, in back — which is finely embroidered, much like the atarah on a tallis.

“This is detailed handwork here,” he says proudly. “This relates to the atarah worn by the Kohein Gadol for his service in the Beis HaMikdash.”

Clearly, every time a Yid dons such a garment, he is draping himself in spiritual emanations numerous and deep enough to fill a sefer. And yet, Chinese manufacturers — as in most facets of modern life — have made inroads into the market for traditional Jewish levush, and have even begun producing the mystically laced Yerushalmi clothing. Can a Chinese factory worker fathom even the possibility that the caftan he is making is intended to be imbued with such deep significance?

A glint enters Reb Shalom’s eye as he answers.

“A tzaddik who lived here in Yerushalayim who has left This World told me what I had to do every time I make one of these garments.” (Reb Shalom would not identify this tzaddik despite being pressed repeatedly.) “He told me that if a woman is working on the clothes, she should be in a state of taharah. He also wrote out for me the text of a tefillah — beginning L’Sheim yichud — to say every time I’m ready to begin cutting the material. He told me, ‘If you will do these things, then when I wear the begadim, I will not come to gaavah [haughtiness].”

Reb Shalom’s son, Avraham, readily identifies some of the notable customers who have come to their shop: the Bostoner Rebbe, the Pittsburgher Rebbe, and the gaavad Rav Moshe Sternbuch. They have also had plenty of customers from American shores — from Boro Park, Boston, and even Alaska.

They also get customers from other “out-of-town” locales: Tzfas, Chevron, and Beit El, to name a few. It is these customers from Eretz Yisrael who are interested in the Jacobs’ entire product line — not just the Shabbos caftan, but the brown outer garment worn over it, known as the “jubeh,” and the weekday caftan, which incorporates all the design features of the Shabbos caftan, but presents them in a more reserved dark-blue color. There are other fabric patterns available in the Shabbos caftan as well: one can select from all the colors in the rainbow, or even include all of them in a single garment.

“I know one man here who has separate caftanim for Shabbos and Yom Tov,” relates Aharon Gunzberg. “And not just one for Yom Tov, but a separate one for each Yom Tov. And not just one for each moed, but one for Seder night and one for Shvii shel Pesach. And one for simchahs.”

Obviously such a collection would present a storage challenge in many Yerushalayim dwellings.

“He has room,” Reb Aharon assures.

Whatever patterns these customers select, there is one aspect they can all agree on — they are very meticulous about how their garments are assembled.

“These customers are mit’akshim [stubborn, insistent] that we follow all the minhagim involved with these begadim,” Avraham relates. And in raising this point, Avraham highlights an important fact about this levush, perhaps mistakenly labeled Yerushalmi. “These people are coming from Tzfas, but they want to know that we are keeping these traditions.”

“This is not just Yerushalmi levush,” clarifies the tailor in Batei Ungarin. “It’s better to call this Eretz Yisrael levush. The Jews of Tzfas, of Tiveria, and Chevron have worn it for generations.”


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