Who would imagine that after centuries of coercing Jews to wear strange hats and distinctive badges, society would one day turn full circle and order Jews to obliterate their distinctive clothing and coiffeur in favor of modern styles!
For Their own Good
In olden times, many European societies set their Jews apart by forcing them to wear distinctive dress. A late example of this trend is the Lithuanian enactment of 1538 that decrees: “Jews shall not wear costly clothing nor chains, nor shall their wives wear gold or silver ornaments. The Jews shall not have silver mounting on their sabers and daggers. They shall be distinguished by characteristic clothes, they shall wear yellow caps, and their wives kerchiefs of yellow linen in order that all may be enabled to distinguish Jews from Christians.”
But towards the end of Czar Nicholas’ cruel reign, clothing decrees, together with interference in Jewish education, became part of his milder initiative to tear Jews from their religion under the guise of progress and modernity. He was aided and abetted by Russian maskilim who regarded his measures as an important step in their plan to transform the Russian Jew into a man in the street.
So subtle was the tactic of forcing Jews to wear regular clothing that even the famous Sir Moses Mon- tefiore of London who was always anxious to help Jews in distress, had difficulty perceiving any harm in Jews modernizing their garb. When Rav Yisroel Friedman of Ruzhin sent an emissary to beg him to try and overturn the Czar’s proposals, Mon- tefiore, while sympathetic to his request, requested more information before taking any practical steps, arguing that modern dress might not necessarily be such a bad thing after all. In response, Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin assured him that even if such decrees seemed superficially of benefit, in reality, they
were “specifically intended to damage and violate our holy Torah, to cause desertion of the Jewish faith.”
An important source for this period of history is Zi- chron Yaakov, a three-volume history of Russian Jewry authored by Rav Yaakov HaLevi Lipschutz, personal secretary of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon of Kovno for twenty-six years. Rav Lipschutz insists that the clothing decree was primarily due to the efforts of maskilim who agitated the government to take measures to lessen the chasm between Jew and non-Jew. The initiative began, he writes, when Vilna Maskilim, who had already garnered significant political power, wrote to a Russian minister and explained why they considered it advisable for Jews to change their dress for their own good.
“The alteration of Jewish clothing from their present design to the clothes of the Christians among whom they dwell, is a very necessary measure for the following reasons,” their letter began. “There are countries worldwide where Jews dress the same as other nations. Why should the clothes of the Jews of Lithuania, Poland, and Reissen be different from the clothes of their Christian neighbors, who might indeed regard it as arrogant pride to flaunt rabbinical clothes? Furthermore, clothes alone are the dividing walls that stand between Jews and Christians, making them regard one another as a different human species. If clothes become the same, all hearts will unite.”
“Clothes even create division among the Jews themselves,” their letter continued. “A Jew who considers himself of high level or of good yichus goes with his outer garments even during the hottest summer days and absolutely denigrates those who go without an outer garment. But if the country’s law affects them all equally, there will be no exceptions and all will be absolutely equal. In addition to this, there are some Jews who would like to place their sons in schools to learn, and because of the difference in clothing they are ashamed to send them to such places there.”
The maskilim’s letter continued with an argument that would have been laughable were it not for the fact that the maskilim believed in it wholeheartedly.
“The alteration of clothes will increase ethics and manners,” the letter claimed, “for when a Jew wears Christian clothes he will make an effort to learn the manners and etiquette customary among the Christians, and learn at least one or two languages thoroughly in order to speak fluently so as not to be completely ashamed in their company.”
Finally, they argued that this would save Jews a good deal of money due to “the expensive material of Jewish clothing – silk garments – that cost about three times more than Christian clothing.”
The Fake Petition
The maskilim’s next step was to tackle the Russian Education Minister, Sergey Uvarov, while he was visiting Vilna. Although they had no qualms against speaking to him of the well-known plot to change the course of Jewish education, they were afraid to raise the subject of Jewish clothing lest faithful Jews get wind of their plan and nip it in the bud. Instead, they waited until he left and caught up with him in the town of Vilkomir that lies forty-three miles north of Vilna.
Initially, their attempt to bring the minister to their way of thinking seemed a disaster when he insisted the government could never do such a thing. First, the strictly religious Jews would regard this as a persecution of Judaism, and secondly, such a decree would cause great expense, which could not be borne by the poor and impoverished. But under the weight of their arguments, he unbent enough to concede that perhaps they were right.
“However, this matter lies under the jurisdiction of the Minister of the Interior so all I can give you is some advice,” he told them. “Write to him everything you have told me so fluently, get a large number of signatures for your petition, the more the better, and in this way you’ll achieve what you want.”
Accordingly, the maskilim penned a powerful petition in Russian, and bribed a handful of kehilla officials to collect signatures. In those days, petitions were by no means unusual. People were long used to signing Russian documents without understanding a word they said, relying on the sense and integrity of their community leaders, and they related to the maskilim’s petition with the same knee-jerk obedience. Through this subterfuge, the maskilim collected over a thousand signatures, which they sent to St. Petersburg together with a cover letter blaming the Jews’ backwardness and insularity on their separate mode of dress.
By 1844, the government took action. The first rumbling of the volcano was a five-ruble fine levied on any Jew caught wearing the traditional skullcap outdoors. The decree burst out in full force on May 1, 1850, when an imperial ukase prohibited “all over (the Empire) the use of a distinct Jewish form of dress, beginning with January 1, 1851.” With few exceptions, such as the right of governors-general to permit elderly Jews to wear out their old garments on payment of a tax, the prohibition included not only clothes, but also the quintessential sign of Yiddishkeit – long, winding peyos.
A year later in April 1851, the decree was extended to include women as well – “His Imperial Majesty was graciously pleased to command that Jewish women be forbidden to shave their heads upon entering into marriage.” In October the next year, the women’s decree was given teeth through a regulation that any married Jewess guilty of contravening its terms would be liable to a fine of five rubles, and any rabbi supporting her crime would be prosecuted. Officials began tracking down not only women who failed to comply with the law, but also any rabbi who had dared to be accomplices at the wedding ceremony.
Thousands of Jews ignored the government’s absurd demands and non-stop warfare erupted. Police checked under women’s hair covers or wigs to see whether they were complying with the law, and thought nothing of cutting off peyos and trimming long coats by force.
“The police fell upon the Jews like wild animals,” Rav Lipschutz writes. “They cut off their peyos with axes instead of scissors, taking off a little of the earlobe as well, tore their clothes into rags, and when they had no scissors or knife, cut their clothes with ax or saw accompanied with murderous blows.”
The Jews refused to back down and the battle dragged on for years. The reasons for this were many.
“First,” Rav Lipschutz writes, “it was not easy for the old Jews of that generation to lay a hand on their long, curled peyos, which were holy to them, or to wear short clothing when Jews had always worn long garments as we find in the Tanach (II Shmuel 10:4).” This reference goes back to the episode when King Dovid sent people to comfort the king of Amon after the death of his father. When his ministers told him that Dovid had sent them as spies, he shaved off half their beards and shortened their garments to waist-length.
“Secondly,” he writes, “they relied on the rule that a decree eventually gets annulled and fulfilled the verse, Go my nation into your rooms; hide a small moment until the wrath passes (Yeshayahu 26:20). All those who could hide did their best to avoid the police and not accept the decree. Stall keepers who could not hide from the police, made themselves short clothes for a while from rags, and went with them in the streets and stores of the town.”
In Poland, particularly, Jews were willing to be moser nefesh to maintain Jewish dress, led by the staunch example of their Admorim including Rav Yitzchok Meir Alter of Gur, the Chiddushei Harim, who was jailed for his heroic resistance.
Eventually, the police tired of the whole business and the decree was virtually forgotten even before it was officially abrogated by the more benevolent Czar Alexander II. It lives on as an example of how our enemies, non-Jewish or otherwise, have a propensity to fight against us while claiming that their evil decrees are really for our own good.
(Quotations from Zichron Yaakov are abridged.)