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Men of Many Hats

Yisroel Besser

His relatives in Germany were sure he’d ruin his family by moving to the Holy Land, but Avraham Yosef Ferster’s little hat shop in Jerusalem proved them wrong. Even as the new, casual breed of secular Israelis discarded their hats, the Ferster line blossomed along with the burgeoning yeshivah and chassidic world. Two generations later, the family business is still providing that crowning touch for Torah scholars and shy teenagers alike.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

hats

“Hats went out of style when elegance stopped being important.” As secular clients discarded their fedoras, the rejuvenation of the yeshivah and chassidic worlds gave the Ferster business a new lease on life (Photos: Ouria Tadmour)

Ferster Hats │Jerusalem, Israel │Est. 1912

Remember retail stores? 

Once upon a time stores had personality. They weren’t as sleek or efficient, but they had character. The people who helped you weren’t called sales associates, they didn’t wear matching shirts and matching smiles; they were real, like you. 

Sometimes, even now, we get lucky. We stumble inside a real store, the type with piles of merchandise still blocking the aisles, whiffs of the past still emanating from the shelves, decorated by personal idiosyncrasy rather than contemporary color schemes. 

And maybe there is a child — the proprietor's son or daughter — sitting contentedly on a stool, soaking in the special store ambience. 

Ferster Hats, a Jerusalem attraction on a block filled with landmarks, has it all: the quirks, the smells, the history and personalities and flavor of the neighborhood. 

And the child on a stool? He’s there too, though he’s got a gray beard and his own grandchildren work there now. 

Reb Itche Meir Ferster has never really left. 

A Warning Ignored 

His zeide Avraham Yosef Ferster, a Polish expat and Gerrer chassid, opened his iconic hat business just over a hundred years ago in Wiesbaden, Germany. Förster Hats was established just in time: it was the golden age of haberdashery, the era when every proper gentleman needed that perfect chapeau to top off his formal attire. 

It was not, however, the best of times for Europe’s Jews. In 1923, Reb Avraham Yosef had a premonition of evil in the offing, and decided to move to the Holy Land. But his destination of choice was regarded by most Europeans as a primitive colony rife with danger, privation and contagious diseases, and his extended family was horrified. That Shabbos, his brother-in-law stood up in shul and called out, "How can we stand by as our friend and brother prepares to put his life in danger? How can we allow him to do this to his wife and six children? We must stop him. No one in their right mind would leave Germany for Palestine!” 

Reb Avraham Yosef ignored the warnings and well-meant advice, and loaded his family onto the boat along with his haberdashery tools. When the boat finally arrived at the Jaffa port, Reb Avraham Yosef peered at the people waiting on dry land, and turned to his son Dovid with a typical Polish witticism. “It appears we will have parnassah here, too, with Hashem’s help,” he said. "I can see the people and it looks like they also have heads, just like the people back in Europe.”

“I’d like to think that my zeide would feel right at home in the store today.” In the “new store” in Meah Shearim, a legacy launched in Germany is still going strong

New Lease on Life 

Reb Itche Meir remembers the original store — his grandfather changed the name from Förster to the easier-to-pronounce Ferster — on Ben Yehuda Street in the fledgling capital. He grew up in its embrace, the clientele — chassidim and secular Israelis alike— seeing the shop as more than just a place to buy hats. Even Menachem Begin bought a hat there, famously paying in cash because he feared that the proprietors might not deposit a check with his signature. 

Hats, the current proprietor explains, were associated with the European sensibilities so many of them had left behind. The demise of the hat in wider society, Ferster speculates, coincided with the general decrease in civility and respect. “Hats went out of style when elegance stopped being important,” he theorizes. 

He tells a story he heard long ago from a Tel Aviv hat maker named Moshe Trungel. “He studied the craft at a prestigious Tel Aviv fashion school, and when he finished the course, he came to pick up his certificate. They looked at him and said, “Forget it, no certificate.” He wasn’t wearing a hat, and they maintained that someone who doesn’t appreciate the significance of a hat can’t be a hat maker. That was a different time.”

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