Fashion holds an elevated place in Jewish history. On Yom Kippur millennia ago, the high priest donned four special garments before entering the holy of holies. Similarly today, although they don’t don the linen tunic, breeches, girdle and mitre of yesteryear, local spiritual leaders will approach the first of the High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah — with an eye towards evocative fashion.
Cantor Moshe Taube shared that he will sport a white cap, white robe and a white tallit with a silver decoration from Israel while leading services at Young Peoples Synagogue.
“I am going to be wearing my regalia as I always do,” said Taube. “This is what people look forward to. I am a professional and as a professional there are certain dress codes.”
Taube, who is cantor emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom, estimates that he has been dressing this way for “at least 30-35 years, probably more like 50 years.”
It is a style that stretches back centuries, he explained.
“The regalia the chazanim is wearing is in commemoration with the regalia the kohen gadol was wearing in the beit hamikdash,” he said. “The kohen gadol was also [the people’s messenger with God] on the High Holidays, especially Yom Kippur, and he was wearing the regalia described in the Torah.”
Though cantors in Israel and Europe may have clung to bearing traditional garb in generations past, today such practices may be more predicated on institution than vocation, said others.
Molly May, Rodef Shalom Congregation’s cantorial soloist, said that she will wear a new suit for Rosh Hashanah, “so I can say shehecheyanu,” but as far as formal guises go she will not opt for the white robe.
“It doesn’t make sense for us,” said May. “We’re not a congregation with that
Cantor Henry Shapiro of Parkway Jewish Center echoed such sentiment by explaining that when it comes to what is worn, “there’s a bit of a culture in play.”
“At certain synagogues on a Saturday everyone is in a suit with a tie,” he pointed out. “At other synagogues people are more informal.”
A modern wane in the ceremonial attire at services has been noticed by Danny Levine, president of J. Levine Books and Judaica, a New York-based business that dates back 125 years.
Shifting styles and the internet have changed things, he said. “We’re the last of our kind in all of Manhattan.”
Even so, the fourth-generation owner regularly receives online orders — from as far away as Antwerp, Australia and France — for custom vestments for clergy.
“We sell lots of cantor caps, both black and white,” he said.
Complete with a pompom, and described as having a “regal style” and “high fashion look,” a hip hat can be purchased for $150.
“For the High Holidays everybody likes to be at their best,” said Levine.
Because the season brings a certain seriousness, Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt of Temple Ohav Shalom plans on following a familiar pattern.
“As I’ve done in years past, I will continue to wear a kitel — the one that I was married in,” he said.
Weisblatt plans on pairing the white robe with a tallit he purchased while living in Israel, as well as a knit kippah he purchased while living in Chicago. The kippah matches his son’s, he added.
“No one ever asks me for advice on what they should wear,” he noted, but in the event the subject is raised, “I would say the choices we make influence our mode or spirit.”
The High Holidays have “an awe and majesty” that surround them, added Weisblatt. As for how people should approach such grandeur, “I think it’s the same thing that goes into Shabbos. If you wear jeans and a t-shirt six days a week, wear something else that evokes that awe and majesty: either nice jeans, or a button down shirt or a suit and tie.”
Dressing distinctively “evokes respect for the day and helps elevate your sense,” he said. “When you put it on you feel different than you felt before.”
Keshira haLev Fife, the ordained “Hebrew priestess” who will lead Kesher Pittsburgh’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, agreed.
The High Holidays are “not a time to come in our street clothes, but there is a middle ground and that can mean different things for different people,” she said. “I hope that however people come dressed to the High Holidays, their experience is meaningful and fulfilling and leads into a sweet new year.” PJC