Too Jewish?

April 18, 1997|By Linda Nochlin

GROWING UP in Brooklyn in the 1930s and '40s, meant living in a world where almost everyone was Jewish. Not for me the depressing experience of ''otherness'' or marginalization or alienation described by so many who have written on growing up Jewish. In my basically secular, culturally ambitious, secure middle-class neighborhood, being a Jew was considered a good thing, when it was considered at all, although there were, of course, better and worse examples: Einstein was better, Louis Lepke was worse.

But ''too Jewish?'' What could this mean in a world in which being Jewish exhausted the possibilities of existence?

Yet, paradoxically, living in a homogeneous society produces fine discriminations. In my secular but Jewish-identified community, it was clear, if almost always left unstated, that some people, some looks, some modes of behavior were less than desirable -- shrugging, loudness, dirty fingernails, side-curls. Well, these were just ''too Jewish.''

There weren't many Hasidim around in those days, before World War II brought them in droves to my old neighborhood. But I remember peering down into a kind of basement assembly room below street level and seeing Them crowded together, like black beetles, bowing and mumbling, little men wearing old, identifiable garments, so different from my emancipated doctor-grandfather's white linen summer suit and jaunty straw boater.

It was clear that Grandpa's opinion of Them wasn't high. This was precisely what he had come to the United States to escape -- this darkness and superstition. Not that he ever wanted to assimilate, to forget that he and his artistic cronies at the Cafe Royale were Jews. It was simply that the Hasidim and their ilk were ''too Jewish,'' Jewish in the wrong way: retrograde, uncultivated, narrow, rule-ridden and authoritarian, rather than open, rational, literary, politically and culturally left, up on the latest in art and theater.

None of this may seem particularly relevant to the issue of Jewishness and haute couture, but these childhood memories made my reactions all the stronger when I first saw pictures of couturier-provocateur Jean Paul Gaultier's explosive ''Hasidic'' collection, a collection that made waves in the fashion world both here and abroad in fall of 1993.

A campy send-up

If ever there was an incident within the realm of popular culture that figured the Jew as excessive, as ''too Jewish'' with a vengeance, this was it. Broad felt hats with synthetic pais attached; man-tailored caftans for women. The ''show was a campy send-up,'' declared New York Times fashion critic Amy Spindler. ''Manischewitz wine was served, the invitations were lettered in Hebraic-looking script, and models' heads were adorned with exaggerated curls and yarmulkes. . . . Mr. Gaultier himself came out wearing a blue-and-white striped one, to match his signature Breton fisherman's shirt.''

My first reaction to Mr. Gaultier's chutzpah was, I must admit, mixed. On the one hand, there is no way I can deny my first, almost instinctive, negative reaction to the collection as anti-Semitic.

But then again, almost immediately, I delighted in the fact that these exquisitely crafted caftans and elegant beaver hats dripping synthetic pais were camping up just exactly that aspect of (excessive) Judaism that I had always disliked: its deliberate uglification and desexualization of the human body; the segregation of the sexes, signaled by the archaic clothing, which seemed, unlike the similar quaint practices of the Amish and Mennonites, for instance, to implicate me in its strategies.

Above all, the collection sent up the authoritarian postures of Orthodox Jewish men and their insistence on positioning masculinity and femininity as absolute difference, with femininity equated with secondary citizenship. This, to me, was and is the root of what is literally ''too Jewish,'' and this was what Gaultier, and his tribe of adorable shiksa models, flaunting their side-curls with a difference, was blatantly calling into question. The rigid gender separation essential to Orthodox Judaism was blown sky-high by gorgeous models in male drag that was, at the same time, patently feminized, to be read as a gendered signifier and one that calls into question the whole authoritarian structure of Jewish fundamentalism.

It seems to me that Jewish women have always suffered a double oppression: one as Jews, from the society at large, the bTC other as Jewish women, within Judaism itself, which type-cast women for certain roles but denied them access to the heart of Jewish theory and practice. Mr. Gaultier's transvestite imagination brought that out into the open.

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