Jewish Identity, To a ‘T’


Want to create an instant community? Just add cotton. That’s what one San Francisco-based entrepreneur says she’s doing with a line of T-shirts silk-screened with the slogans "Yo Semite" (a play on the national park’s name) and "Jews for Jeter": in support of the Yankees’ star shortstop.

Undeniably clever, the shirts ($15 to $20) are "no joke" to their designer, Sarah Lepton, 30.

They are "a way to find other Jews, a way to stick out," she told The Jewish Week from her West Coast home. "Yes, there are ways to express that religiously, but why not culturally as well?"

Lepton’s ironic expressions of secular Jewish pride are part of a larger crop of conversation-starting T-shirts and other apparel emblazoned with pro-Semitic slogans like "Jewcy" or "Jew.Lo" (a Hebraic spin on "J.Lo," the nickname for singer/actress Jennifer Lopez).

Visitors to the Columbus, Ohio-based site can choose from 21 styles of T-shirts bearing phrases like "Naughty Jewish Boy," "Nice Jewish Girl" and "Pursue Peace," as well as key chains and baseball caps. (Jewish jeans currently are unavailable.)

True, public displays of Jewish solidarity are hardly new.

"The first person to put on a yarmulke was the first person to wear Jewish apparel," said Josh Neuman, the publisher of Heeb magazine, which sells its own line of T-shirts hawking the 2-year-old urban-culture title.

But T-shirts that have hit the Web in the past few years complement the contemporary rise of cultural Judaism as a significant form of ethno-religious identification. At the same time, larger trends in American life point to the creation of communities, or "tribes," outside of the conventional delineations of race, religious affiliation or even family.

"Traditional religious Jews, it’s easy for them to find each other," said Lepton, who does marketing for a Jewish summer camp located in Yosemite National Park. "I feel like more liberal Jews are a tribe, too."

Or as "comedian-chanteuse" Susannah Perlman put it in an interview, "We [unaffiliated Jews] need love. We need to feel a part of something. It can’t all be about J-Date," a reference to the Internet dating service.

Lepton was active in the Reform youth movement growing up in Columbia, S.C., and she participates in her local Jewish community today. But nearly half of American Jews (49 percent) identify as secular or "somewhat secular," according to a 2001 survey of American Jewish identity conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

From the highlights of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Study released in June, more Jewish New Yorkers appear likely to attend Jewish cultural events, museums or a JCC activity than regular synagogue services.

The question is, "Can you make a Jewish community that is somehow unconnected to Jewish religious practice?" suggested Paul Zakrzewski, the editor of "Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge" (Perennial), a recently released anthology of new Jewish writers. An attempt to create just that kind of community was made public last month when a group of humanistic Jews announced plans to open the Center for Cultural Judaism in Manhattan this fall.

Jews are not the only ones banding together and marking their identities in unconventional ways.

"More and more we’re becoming a nation of tribes," said Neuman. "People are tattooing themselves, people are piercing themselves. It’s a tribal world."

In his soon-to-be published book "Urban Tribes" (Bloomsbury USA), author Ethan Watters describes a new social phenomenon among long-term singles in their 20s and 30. These "never-marrieds" form tight-knit groups of friends or coworkers "with unspoken hierarchies, whose members think of each other as ‘us’ and the rest of the world as ‘them,’ " Watters wrote in an October 2001 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

In that spirit, Lepton calls her T-shirts a kind of "counter-assimilation mechanism," but new Jewish tribalism doesn’t necessarily make for clannishness. Several T-shirt Web sites (including Lepton’s (, "Putting the racy back into conspiracy")) feature multi-ethnic models. On, founder Julia Lowenstein, 27, says her brand "sees Jewish pride as a first step to a more multicultural and happy society."

To some observers, the T-shirts also reflect factors that both inspire and complicate pronouncements of Jewish pride: the heightened conflict in Israel over the past three years and the coinciding global rise in public expressions of anti-Semitism.

"It’s all in the environment," Zakrzewski, 35, the director of literary programs at the JCC in Manhattan, said. "And it all somehow contributes to what the T-shirts mean."

Steven Verona, 34, president and co-founder of Jewish Jeans, was motivated by an awareness of growing anti-Semitism to launch the line, which sells for $24.95 to $49.95. He started with two shirts, one reading "Nice Jewish Boy" and the other "Fight Anti-Semitism."

"I was in a bar [wearing a shirt] and a guy walks up to me and gets right in my face and asked what that was all about," Verona, an inventor who co-owns a construction company, recalled.

After a few minutes of explanation, "He started to understand what I was saying," Verona said. "I felt like if I made a difference even with just this one guy, this could be something that could make a difference in the world."

Still in the red, the year-old Jewish Jeans has donated $10,000 to $15,000 to Jewish causes, Verona said. Some funds will go to his personal mission: finding a media spokesperson for the American Jewish community who can promote the image of Jews as a peace-loving people.

"At the moment, we have no response, and left with a void, people fill in the blanks with their own prejudices," he said. "That’s what the problem is."

Lowenstein of Jew.Lo is trying to change perceptions, too. She sees the Bronx-bred Lopez as "a role model for a new kind of sexy: ethnic, city, powerful and real." Her site derides Jewish celebrities who mask their Jewishness (Winona "Horowitz" Ryder and Natalie "Hershlag" Portman among them) and praises those who flaunt it, such as film actress Amanda Peet and comedian Sarah Silverman.

"Jew.Lo gives props to zaftig Jewish figures, recognizing that a girl need not be a stick figure to be hot, and that a true dish loves her knish," Lowenstein, who was traveling in India and could not be reached for an interview, writes.

Along with promoting robust Jewish sex appeal, the new Jewish T-shirts equate Jewishness with hipness. The 9-month-old, New York-based offers consumers "kosher-style fabulosity" that is also "racy" and "lusty" and full of ethnic pride.

Breaking "close to under a hundred pieces a month," according to co-founder Jason Saft, 26, Jewcy sells thong underwear, baseball caps (both $15), stickers ($1) and T-shirts ($20 to $25), including a new one that taunts with a traditional Jewish greeting and an insinuation of inappropriate familial relations.

Saft and his three cohorts also organize communitywide Jewish-themed events, and they recently started sending out a monthly "best of" list. (Another unrelated group called Jewcy is a national affiliation of grassroots Jewish community activists.)

"I don’t know if people envision themselves going back to temple," Saft said of people who attend Jewcy events like the upcoming comedy show starring Jackie Hoffman of Broadway’s "Hairspray." But they will find "commonalities and a similar background," he said.

Saft suggests that "reading Heeb, wearing a Jewcy T-shirt or going to see the Hip Hop Hoodios" (a Latin-Jewish hip-hop band) might even spark an interest in Jewish culture, heritage and "in learning what they forgot in Hebrew school."

Whatever their external effect, the T-shirts essentially are a way to have fun and feel Jewish at the same time, which may be a new phenomenon for many Hebrew school graduates.

"I’m never going to suggest that a T-shirt is a serious sign of religious identity," said Lepton, who aspires to attend rabbinical school. "But it’s a fun way to stick your chest out and say ‘Yeah, we’re Jews.’ "

Lepton is currently designing a "Haman’s Angels" motorcycle shirt for Purim 2004.

"Jackie Hoffman and Meshpucha" appear at the Ars Nova Theater, 511 W. 54th St., Manhattan, at 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 15, (212) 868-4444; $15. Tammy Faye Starlight and the Angels of Mercy perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct 25. See the Arts Guide on page 24 for details on the upcoming Hip Hop Hoodios show and "Lost Tribe" literary event.