Growing up, I was taught a few basic rules: always say “please” and...
Imagine a man with a Dali-esque moustache roaming around the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, shoving a photo of Iranian President Hassan Rohani into the faces of passersby, and asking “Do you know this man?”
In recent years, Israel’s walls have been causing quite the brouhaha. Two have transcended brick, mortar and security guards, becoming the country’s leading conflicts incarnate.The Western wall and the women at it have been stealing the headlines with questions of traditional religion in the modern state. Meanwhile, a younger partition serving as the apotheosis of the occupation – the Israeli West Bank barrier— was just dubbed “100 times more horrifying” than Berlin Wall by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. “Terrorist”, “apartheid”, “humanitarian crisis”, “security”, “oppression”, “green line” and “ethnic cleansing” are words commonly associated with the former wall, but thanks to the work of one Israeli designer, we just might have another rather surprising one: “fashion.”
A Lebanese, Tajik and an Israeli walk into a studio. Sounds like the making of a bad joke, but in fact, this is the daily routine of the dynamic fashion trio threeASFOUR. Since 1998 Gabriel Asfour, Angela Donhauser, and Adi Gil have been pushing cultural and sartorial norms with avant-garde apparel, proving that two’s company and three’s a multicultural fashion crowd. Yet this season threeASFOUR is taking things a step further fusing religion, geometry, tradition and technology in a collection redefining the way we think of clothing.
My latest on Times of Israel:
Yesterday I said goodbye to love. Well sort of. I bade adieu the man behind the personal nom de guerre “my love”: to the fire in my chest, the humus on my falafel, the Chardonnay to my Brie, my vice, my spirit. I kissed off to an unassuming base, the phantom of my dreams, the face I awoke to, the soul I hungered for, the man who was my yesterday and I hoped to call my tomorrow.
Together we delved into Talmudic pages, we made decadent biblical jokes, we examined Borat clips, we sang off tune, we pretended to cook, we cut watermelon, we cut prices at Mahane Yehuda, we laughed until we broke wind, we broke glasses, we shed tears, we shed light, we played ball, and we played with silence. Together we were homeless in Jerusalem, homeless in Tel Aviv, and homeless in Gush Etzion. Together we got into ideological fights, Hermeneutical fights, food fights, and precarious Styrofoam sword fights. We were just very adamant on fulfilling the biblical command on becoming “one flesh” (Genesis, 2:24)
Second piece of Times of Israel:
Some protests are so gentle, so subtle in Iran, only a native or Persian cognoscente could catch them. Let’s take the color green. Normally just a word to describe envy or Queen Esther’s face, during the 2009 election, presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi transformed green into the hue of freedom still adorning posters, chadors, faces, and wrists, to this day.
My first piece on Times of Israel:
All I wanted was to plunge. I wanted to slip on some spandex and dive head first into the inviting Kinneret for the annual women’s swim-a-thon this past May. As a gap year student in Israel, when else would I be able to swim across a Middle Eastern sea (it is technically called the Sea of Galilee) for a good cause? There was just one problem: time. With my seminary situated in the turbulent hills of Gush Etzion, the only swimming pool within reasonable tremping distance lies in what Dosim refer to as “Rabbi Hollywood,” the home of Yeshivat Har Etzion, the adjacent religious settlement of Alon Shvut. Like all entities run by Orthodox Jews, the pool is gender “apartheid,” with separate hours for men and women, and unlike other seminary girls, in addition to learning, I was juggling an internship, ballet, and a shaky love life, leaving just a very small window for swimming. Even that was soon shut by an inconvenient timetable.
On the 23 of August I hopped on a plane in search of self, and study of “the enigmatic seminary girl amid her natural habitat.” Did I assume I had enough courage to undergo the tribulation my mission called for? Could I don features of religiosity like Chanel’s little black jacket; in such sangfroid that I could circumvent Rabbi’s and live among Frummies without authorities discovering I was only an aspiring Frenchwoman with a boisterous brown mane, just observing to “take notes”?
Having Obama in mind I answered “yes, oui, כן (ken)!” I supposed I could. I had some faith in my acting skills and thought sacrosanctity could be assumed long enough to complete my task. Could I pass ten months in a West Bank Jewish nunnery? I said I could and I would—and I think I did.
After opening the unexpected email of admittance, I rushed to practice the part in which I was to make my debut the following day. What a difficult task, I thought, to appear before a crowd and convince them that I was a Dosi. I was already unaccepted to one institution because of an uncovered photo of myself with scantily clad arms—I was not about to invite déjà vu. I began to think my task a hopeless one, but it had to be done. So I flew to the mirror and examined my face.
“I am afraid of that wily smile of yours,” quipped my Orthodox friend. “I will smile no more,” I said imprisoning a grin in order to embark on my delicate and, as I found out, ensnaring mission. I was bent on looking at my condition through unsympathetic glasses. It’s just as well to take a last “fond look,” I mused, for who could tell how the strain of playing pious , and being shut up with a crowd of Semgirls eating peanut butter and the Bible, might turn my own brain, and I would never get it back. But not once did I think of eschewing my mission. On the following sweltering August day, I French braided my hair in two, threw on my longest black skirt, my mother’s high collared linen blouse and navy J.Crew cardigan. Far more covered then any of my peers taking group flight, I looked like a gentle little school girl who should have been accompanied by a succoring adult.
I had little confidence in my capacity to deceive the religious experts, and I think my prudent friend had less. Nonetheless, from the moment I entered the settlement, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of piety. I purported and prodded as I do in ordinary life.
Calmly, outwardly at least, I went out to my cockeyed business.
As a fashion habitué, my initial observations were topical at best: I noticed how all Semgirls sported snug Hard Tail skirts with fitted chambrays. How the Anglo Jewess toted her iPhone in a kaleidoscopic LeSportsac cross- body and come Friday, how that small purse morphed before my eyes into a LeSportsac tote available in an even grander salad of prints. I analyzed what each sartorial decision indicated vis-à-vis group dynamics, conformity and economic status of the modern orthodox nymphet. It was only a matter of time before the curious anthropological case, turned into an addlepated excavation of my Dasein.
I imagined myself as a sort of Nellie Bly. In 1887, Ms. Bly revolutionized journalism and most importantly treatment of the mentally ill, spending10 days at Bellevue Hospital while posing as a mental patient for a madhouse exposé. Sociologists, anthologists, psychologists, and all other “ists” call this method participant observation: data collection, where the researcher actually slips into the subjects shoes, taking on the studied role. While I am not calling seminary an asylum, the parallels subsist for your own musing pleasure.
All I had to compare to the Orthodox Jewish world were books. The Beit Midrash appeared to be the gateway to the Yeshiva world. The practices, the uniform, the thoughts were alien— I figured I could at least learn my way into this cerebral circus.
In Gush Etzion , darkness lands precociously. It dangles in the morning air like the sword of Damocles; then in the midafternoon a pewter blue vesper descends, and the Jerusalem stone houses and aluminum caravans bare a somber expression. Yet high atop a steep Judean hill, across from the passing shepherd with his flock, and contiguous to Beit Fa Jay jayFajjar, an elevated pentagonal roof accompanied by a great triangular window emanate hoards of light, shattering the fat darkness of moonless, starless nights. Through the first few weeks at Migdal Oz, a gossamer menace of assumptions, ignorance, and Lilliputians, startled me, drying my hands, grating my apprehensions, making me eat saccharine, budget halva disintegrating with human touch (the only kind Migdal Oz provides) too often. I would pace to and fro; my palms gulped by the long sleeves of shirt a friend had lent me too fit in.
In my first night-learning period’s, which leading up to Yom Kippur were all about atonement, I wanted to escape and tread towards Efrat through the twilight in order to touch the twinkling Jerusalem lights, but each time I tried , I became entwined in some wild, vociferous Talmudic dispute drawing me back, as if with corroded chains, into my seat.
“Ben Azai answered ‘What can I do? My soul desires Torah! Others can make babies’ (Yevamos 63b).” Sing-sang Shira, my Chavruta.
“Who does this Azai guy think he is? Is that a valid pretext for pussyfooting the Cultural Mandate? Following creation, God tells man to be fruitful and multiply— except for those who fall in love with texts?!” I roared at my Chavruta, struggling to match my tone and gesticulations to the notorious Talmudic melody.
Our Oz-like, green roofed seminary’s stream of glowing windows must have added our share of mortal mystery for the passing spectator in the dimming mountains. I was her too, watching the light and speculating. Was I walking up the wrong yellow road from the closest settlement of Efrat? Should I search for bricks? Was The Great and Powerful Oz really inside? Was that a flying monkey I spotted in the corpulent night? Would I pull aside a curtain, revealing the Wizard to be an old illusionist who would only prove that the brainless Scarecrow, heartless Tinman and spiritless Lion, each had what he wanted all along; that all I needed was a pair of scintillating red stilettos to take me home? Entranced and disenchanted by a surfeit of information, I had one foot in, one foot out; at once I stood inside and outside the wonderful Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz.
Drawing her chair closer to my perspiring body, Shira released a torrent of warm breath justifying Ben Azai’s deviant conduct.
The following mornings, evenings, and afternoons in the Beis, I quaffed a Talmudic sugya, and one more, and one more, and one more, and one more, and just one more, until I became loudly intoxicated with knowledge, struggling to maintain my balance with an indifferent Gemarah glued to my hand. I was addicted. Talmud satisfied all my needs. She challenged me with legal battles, aphorisms, literature, philosophy, bible, questionable biology, math equations, sex advice, table manners, philological challenges, Persian history, and fashion tips. Nonetheless, I was simultaneously terrified by the truth she was left behind on each daf.
Sitting alone in a strange territory, far from my wardrobe, house, family and everyone I knew, a sensation waylaying, finally attacked. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for— but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d overlooked or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, pleasure and repulsion. But not too much pain, because I felt alive. That was the moment I fell in love with the Gmarah’s pages, and I felt the Gmarah fall in love with me.
But acting the part of a Dosi was one thing; becoming one was my biggest fear. I snubbed the thought of morphing into just another religious girl when I had no one at home encouraging me to trim my negatively free wings. At all costs, the investigator undergoing participant observation must circumvent ‘going native’: becoming a full-time group participant ruins the entire experiment. Thus, I had lots of fun comparing myself to the Tannaic scholar who’s “tongue was never tired of singing Greek songs” (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 9), the sage who infamously thought his student R’Meir Torah while illicitly riding a horse on Shabbat (Hagigah 15b), the “Other one”—otherwise known as Elisha ben Avuya.
I had successfully dissected every theological statement, verse, concept, and precept into something psychological, tangible, human, not to mention, deprecatingly rational. Probing to such an extreme, I sucked the numinous, the whole Godliness out of religion. According to my philosophy, I could easily break down what the Talmud meant stating that God cried, that when one enjoys without blessing, he steals from “the assembly of Israel”, and that on Shabbat you cannot separate the unwanted bits in your salad from the wanted bits. I was left in Migdal Oz singing the Tinman’s “If I only had a soul, dudu dudu dudu.”
Maimonides teaches that we learn in order to know what God isn’t, in order to love God: “In proportion to one’s knowledge is his love of God.” I could finally speak the language of the Talmudic man, but so what? Drowning in pilpul, I forgot learning’s raison d’être— love.
Of course it took the other gender’s touch to wake me from my surreptitious slumber. “My god” was not “his God” and that could cause a problem when building a life together, because “we don’t live on Islands.” I was still barred from the Orthodox coterie. I knocked, pushed, pulled, and clouted those overbearing doors but no one would let me in.
That’s when like an uninvited guest, decision time had arrived. I could no longer play the part of the jaundiced spectator; the trial was over. I could leave the madhouse, or join the patients. A double life would leave me unhappy, confused and entangled in a plethora of possibilities. But thankfully Judaism is a religion rooted in action; salvation through faith alone is like saying “salvation through pork alone” to a Williamsburg Hasid. Members in the same synagogue may be reading the same prayer, bowing at the same time, and wrapping the same phylacteries, but what goes on in each person’s head is his own business. Belief is dubiously even a precept.
So I dived headfirst into the theological furnace, hoping to make it out alive—notwithstanding with a few valiant scars. The plan was that by acting like a religious woman, I would become a religious woman.
Weeks earlier a phalanx of students amassed in Sacher Park. Two commanders arrive on stage. Beats explode; debris blankets the ground beneath me; smoke shields the sky; shots scream from every direction. Instead of ducking for cover, the young polluted bodies convulse, bounce, pulsate, roll, grasp, and clasp. Enflaming, propulsive grunts and truculent synthetic rhythms put prospective doctors, lawyers and engineers at the mercy of the Infected Mushrooms. Music permeates the cracks between strangers, and I can almost feel the melody’s moisture in my ear, like a whisper from my neighbor’s lips. Whispers erase the masses leaving only my ear and his mouths condensation. Before my eyes, the whispers transformed the public affair into a private ear-to-ear.
My strongest sparks of human connection this year have been in moments like that concert, or sitting around with my Dosi peers on Friday nights singing after dinner. I found holiness in the absence of words, in the intellectual abyss, in the serene sea of song. In fact, the singsong tune accompanying Torah learning is sine qua non for the fullest study experience. In Judaism, the musical pronunciations associated with the cantillation marks used for ritual Torah reading are called Taamim— taste or reasons. The tune to which each words is sung reveals more than the limited word itself, they let you consume the idea, savoring each succulent note. If God created the world in ten sayings (Pir’kei Avot 5:1), then accordingly, the moments beyond words should allow us to surpass this world, letting man sneak a peek at the transcendental essence like a shaky Skype tryst between long-distance lovers.
At Migdal Oz I learned not to learn. My obsession with knowing propelled me into a vortex of unbridled intellect. Flooded with cases in which the less erudite are appointed to higher positions than the experts, the Talmud proves that unlike my presumption, knowledge does not conquer all (Brachot 4,Rosh Hashaana 25,Horiot 14,Ktubot 103).In Brachot, the prophet Eili concedes to a legal point made by his student Samuel, but forewarns that one who renders a halachic decision in the presence of his teacher warrants death (5:35). If one can keep his intellect and ethics as tight a Hardtail skirt on a Semgirl— he will succeed. However, if the intellect overpasses ethical boundaries, damage will indubitably ensue.
Who am I to think I can acquire it all like a cheap Forever21 knock-off? The wisest King of Kings himself confessed that “all this I tested with wisdom; I said, ‘I will become wise,’ but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes, 7). Befuddled by this statement, many commentators purport that Solomon alludes to the paradoxical Red Heifer. How could the same substance purify the defiled while defiling the pure? If a golden cow defiled the nation at Sinai, how can a red one bring atonement? As a gilded man made construction, the Golden Calf represents a conviction of total comprehension, making the Red heifer the perfect tikkun (fix) as she is bewilderment incarnate.
Knowledge is a Red Heifer, a double edged sword. Its power can be used for defilement or purification. Taken to an extreme, and sans proper intentions my intellectual pursuits turned into a pernicious game. Consuming every little morsel of information, gluttony overcame me, igniting an insatiable appetite bound to burst. It took a destructive romantic quake to save me, but now the reconstruction is up to me.
I came to Israel in costume, on a mission, and under the assumption that I would leave in a few months to spend the other half of my year studying French, piano, math, and “smart people stuff” in Paris or at my local community college. At the moment, I’m writing to you under a spoon chandelier (wondering if it comes in spork) from a cramped hipper-than-thou Jerusalem café, deciding if I should spend the next year here in the holy land. I came to prepare for college life and sharpen my mind through Talmud study, but all I gained was an ice coffee obsession, a nose ring, cheap second- hand treasures, ugly-pretty Naots, war time nightmares, love stories I fear to repeat, newfangled values, and an oversize purse full of questions. Hope my closet back at home has space.
A woman sashays through a bustling street spilling with lemony taxis, acrimonious honks and anonymous faces, to head in my direction. My eyes wonder over her beige tailored jacket, nude eyelet top tucked into a taupe A-line skirt, and finally halt at her vivid vermilion pumps. I am left gaping like an editor feasting her eyes on Coco’s historical reflection gracing the prism of that descending mirrored staircase of Chanel’s 1954 comeback collection. What could it be: her hair, her face, her strut, her scent? None of the above; rather, something magical occurred the moment my gaze rested upon that bright hue in the sartorial sea of pallidness. This phenomenon is known to aesthetes and fashion cognoscenti as the “pop of color”. But what exactly is this mystical power instantly transforming an outfit from drab to fab? Monotonous to marvelous? Lurid to lovely? Miranda Hobbes horrid to Carrie Bradshaw beautiful?
The Talmud explains: “Poverty is beautiful for the Jewish people, just as a red strap is to a white horse” (Hagigah 9b) .Now that’s something you won’t read in the latest issue of Vogue. Of all visually appealing items, why compare poverty to a sash stuck on a stallion? How is poverty “beautiful” for Jews? Who wants to be pre-rock Jenny from the block? Understanding this enigmatic statement reveals how although the ancient Talmudic sages where neither couturiers nor magazine editors, they did divulge avant-garde insight for the fashion and moral conscious, transcending time, location, and even religion.
Let’s apply a bottom up method of analysis, beginning with a chromatic breakdown. We all feel a little spark upon the sight of rich red roses, red lips, and of course a refined little red dress. Red is the color of blood, leading to its symbolism of vitality. It highlights the essence of life: excitement, energy, sex, love, desire, speed, strength, power, heat, aggression, danger, fire, blood, war, violence—all things intense and passionate. White on the other hand, is technically not even a color, but the manifestation of all hues. Thus, it stands for wholeness and completion— virginity, purity, birth, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, truth, and coldness.
On its own, large quantities of bright red will lead to an eyesore, anger the fashion god’s and make the wearer look like a cheap call-girl–in contrast–plain white will send the observer snoozing, and the wearer down the wedding aisle. But together in appropriate doses, these colors foil one another, working wonders for the wearer and even the most persnickety spectator.
Interestingly, in a culture far far away from Babylonian Talmudists, the mélange of these two pigments has its very own word: Kohaku. In the nation whose flag shares these pigments, Japan, Ko means red, while haku translates as white. Red mixed with white indicates joy and celebration, their pairing in the matrimonial ornaments presents -noshi or kaishi- a compelling quality supporting man’s desire to create a bond between his own life and that of the gods.
There is nothing particularly striking about a red strap— it is just a dyed strip of treated animal skin. Yet sitting upon the snowy horse, vibrant rouge underscores the contours and splendor of a truly majestic animal. A soigné, well groomed steed educes a striking image of strength, dignity, and prosperity. Alone, accessories themselves are of no distinction, but upon the horse they highlight the otherwise unheeded features of equestrian elegance.
Similarly, poverty is neither romantic nor exotic nor aesthetic. Hedi Slimane might have gone for the grunge in Saint Laurent’s most recent collection, but let’s face it –we’d all rather be the millionaire over the slum dog even if that meant giving up on a Jai Ho. Nonetheless, often the most challenging situation, that which pumps blood and flushes faces, is that which accentuates inherent virtues, allowing the best in us to take a well awaited strut down the runway. Challenging times of need and deprivation induce a reevaluation of priorities; after all, herculean stories of valor and altruism of the Great Depression, WWII, 9/11 and hurricane Katrina are moral pops of color par excellence. Evidently, poverty and predicaments in general, draw out the best in man, like a scarlet strap on a white horse.
For the 2011 Cannes film festival, Milla Jovovich took this Talmudic insight quite literally, landing her a spot on oodles of illustrious best dressed lists. Looking killer in Prada, Milla made us all wonder if the devil was involved in the wearer’s enchanted ensemble. The drop-waist gown and scintillating beads conjured up the great Daisy Buchan and her roaring era, while a posterior slit ensured a sexy back.But what makes this the finest look of them all, lies in a minute detail with the grandest impact.Beige, nude, taupe, champagne and all those naughty neutrals are on trend but let’s face it, they can wash the wearer out; that’s where the red accents on the collar, neckline, lips and minaudiere come in, delineating the silhouette’s muted hues. These few major accents play off the gown’s neutrality highlighting the subtleties of the contrasting couture creation.
Another designer utilizing the power of the pop is Christian Loubiton— and boy has it recently developed into quite the brouhaha. Today, it seems everyone wants that tempered touch of rouge. Last year, in a case of high stakes over high heels, Louboutin indicted Yves Saint Laurent over using the French cobbler’s signature red sole. The Yves Saint Laurent heal at issue is monochrome red, covering the insole, outsole, heel and upper portion. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that Christian Louboutin had a enforceable trademark for the use of red outsoles, but only when the rest of the shoe was tinted in a contrasting color. Judge Cabranes explained it was “the contrast between the sole and the upper that causes the sole to ‘pop’ and to distinguish its creator.” It’s that discreet hint of tomato red, blood burgundy or pale blush that gives quotidian monochromatic designs that holy je ne sais quoi worth fighting for.
If the lesson of a white horse is so crucial, where else can it be found in the Judaic canon?
At the Hebrew nation’s very inception, Israelites smeared a strip of blood upon their doorposts for the angel of death to Passover their homes in Egypt; on the Day of Atonement, the high priest wrapped a scarlet thread around the scapegoat’s horn, who was then sent off a cliff to expiate Israel’s sins; the leper was purified through a process involving a crimson string and releasing one of two birds ; during Israel’s conquest of Canaan Rachav the harlot was spared thanks to the rubicund thread hanging by her window.
Even Solomon’s provocative Song of Songs harnesses the powerful imagery as the lover describes how the maiden’s beautiful “lips are like a scarlet thread” which Rashi understands as “beautiful to keep their promise as the spies did to Rachav the harlot” in the merit of the crimson string (4: 3). The dove-eyed woman returns the encomium explaining “my beloved is white and ruddy” (5:10).
Besides pigmentation and a shout out in the bible, cattle blood, ribbons and lips share an unlikely feature in these sources—redemption. Salvation comes through atoning blood of Israel’s sacrificial lamb, scarlet threads, and luscious cherry stained lips. But how can a nice color combination lead to deliverance? Is the Bible really purporting Sola Colorem; salvation through style alone? Far from it, rather, the aesthetic message of a little red and a whole lot of white translates to the behavioral plane as well. Thus, the pages of Hagiga advise not an abstention from all fiery passions but, in fact incorporation of these powers in appropriate amounts in order to enhance one’s unadulterated virtues; the secret to salvation lies in complementary accessories accentuating natural qualities. White purity is all the more noticible when countered by a tempered amount of florid flush . Just as the sanguine shard makes Angelina’s Valentino gown, it was Martin Luther King’s ardent dreams that liberated a subjugate peoples, Stravinsky’s octatonic chords that form the Rite of Spring,a cherry on top which gives the Shirley Temple it’s tantalizing charm. So the next time you want to leave the house all dressed in white (even after labor day ) don’t forget a redeeming pop of color, as from dress to demeanor —contrast is key.