LOS ANGELES (JTA) — These days, more people are wearing white after Labor Day, especially on Yom Kippur. Last year, to keep up with the trend, I looked to buy a white suit to wear during my yearly battle of spirituality vs somnambulism. I had heard that everyone else in my congregation was going to wear white, and on this day of communal confession, I wanted to be part of the crowd.
I also figured that on a day when God is supposed to take note of us as we pass before Him or Her (choose your Judge), it’s not a good day to stick out.
Why wear white and not the more traditionally somber black? After all, according to one interpretation, white is supposed to make us look like one of the angels. (I suppose that if the angels aren’t white as snow, as they are always depicted, at least they must look good in it.)
White is also a symbol of purity and repentance, and on the Days of Awe it’s what all the Torah scrolls are wearing.
White, it should also be remembered, is what many Jews are wearing when they are buried. The kittel, as it is called, is a kind of white robe-length shirt that many traditional Ashkenazic men wear on Yom Kippur. Wearing the kittel is meant to remind us of the gravity of a day in which we are struggling with life and death.
By those standards, my day shopping at Macy’s, where I had happened upon an after-Labor Day white sale, was very much in keeping with the spirit of the Day of Atonement.
Having looked up some shopping tips online, I found that when shopping for white, it was important to check for transparency. So when I found a pair of pants, I stuck my hand in them. Good thing I checked; I could see it waving at me. If I had bought them, on the holiest day of the year, more than my soul would be on review, and not just by God.
On a second rack, I found a less see-through pair, and they were a perfect fit.
“But are they going to fit on Yom Kippur?” my wife asked. She had come along to offer guidance.
She was right. I was on a diet, and by then, hopefully, would lose an inch or two. So I squeezed into the next smaller size, and did the same with the coat. So what if the suit cut off my circulation. If as it says in Isaiah “our sins shall be made as white as snow,” I would at least look like I tried to make amends.
Soon it was Kol Nidre. Putting on the suit, I wondered: Would I have to cancel my vow?
For a lot of us, wearing white at anytime is a bad idea. It makes us look pale, sickly or like Tom Wolfe. I know this day above all others is not about earthly style, but looking in the mirror on my way out to shul, I could barely believe my eyes. I didn’t look much like an angel; more like an angel’s milkman.
Before my kids went to summer camp at Camp Alonim in the Simi Valley, here in California, we had to shop for white outfits for them to wear on Shabbat. The camp’s dress code stated that the outfit had to be pure white. Not off white or kind of white, as we discovered many things were, but blazing white — the thought being that when the teenagers came together on Shabbat for prayer, they would see themselves as a like-minded community. Kind of like a Shabbat uniform, I thought.
Except it wasn’t.
On a Shabbat when we were invited to visit — we wore white, too — the effect of wearing white was more than uniform. Though each person wore white differently, the effect was of a common fabric wrapped around the entire congregation — a shechinah in cotton and light. It was a light that on the Kol Nidre I decided to step into.
When adults wear the same color, they are often drawn together, but for reasons not apparently spiritual. For sports, we put on the team’s colors, sit in the stands and cheer. For war, we put on our country’s uniform and try to stay alive. On St. Patrick’s Day, even Jews wear green to fit in.
Is wearing white any different on Yom Kippur — a day of cheering for our side and trying to stay alive for another year, even if we do it just to fit in?
For a day, white on white are the team colors drawing us together. And even if we have an accident at the break fast, like I did, we still can start anew. That is, if you have one of those stain remover pens on you.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)