On December 19, 2016, a rally was held in Jerusalem attended by girls in grades five and six studying in Bais Yaakov seminaries in Israel. The Thursday evening rally was held at the Jerusalem Arena, a multipurpose sports center and one of the largest indoor spaces in Israel’s capital city. With eleven thousand seats, the arena is the home of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club. But the girls had not gathered for a sporting event. The goal of the gathering was to discourage and deter girls from pursuing academia – meaning degree- or diploma-granting higher education – even in institutions or programs that seek to cater to the Haredi population or that operate under Haredi auspices.
One of the speakers, Rabbi Pinhas Erlanger, summed up proceedings by declaring, “Academia is a stumbling block for the House of Israel, and the entire content stands in contradiction to it, and therefore one should not study in these places…not even online.”
The first speaker was Rabbi Baruch Shapira, a high school teacher in Kol Torah – a renowned non-hasidic Haredi educational institution in Jerusalem that includes a high school and a rabbinical academy. Rabbi Shapira related a conversation he had earlier that day with Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman (1914–2017). At the time of the rally, Rabbi Steinman was widely regarded as the foremost religious authority of the non-hasidic Ashkenazic world. Besides being a renowned Torah scholar, Steinman was also the head of the Degel HaTorah faction of the Agudat Yisrael political party in Israel’s Knesset. Consequently, a message from the respected and influential centenarian carried significant weight.
According to the message delivered by Rabbi Shapira as reported by news outlets, Rabbi Steinman supported the rally, summing up his distaste for Haredi academic programs with a pithy remark: “Haredi academics?! That is a pig with a shtrayml.”
In Jewish imagination, the pig is the paradigm of something non-kosher and the very antithesis of holiness. Hence, when a Jew refers to something or someone as a pig it is nasty and can be particularly hurtful. The flip side of a bellicose statement like “a pig with a shtrayml” is that it conjures up an incongruous image with a powerful message.
Rabbi Steinman’s crisp – though offensive – quip may have been drawing on a Yiddish expression. For example: ‘From a pig’s tail, you cannot make a shtrayml.’ The expression is often taken to mean that from something bad you cannot make something good. Alternatively, the expression may mean that something holy, like a shtrayml, cannot or should not be made from something that is impure. Another possibility was that Rabbi Steinman was thinking about a different Yiddish expression: ‘If you put a shtrayml on a pig, does that make him into a rabbi?’ If these Yiddish expressions were Rabbi Steinman’s points of reference, then he was suggesting that holy Haredi society cannot include non-kosher academia.
A shtrayml would not be found among the clothing of the primary school girls in attendance, nor in the wardrobe of the women who were the target of the rally’s larger message decrying academia. Why then did Rabbi Steinman mention the shtrayml? He himself did not wear a shtrayml, so he was not talking about his own headwear. Moreover, most of his followers were kneitsch wearers, that is, non-hasidic Ashkenazim who wore fedoras rather than fur hats. The shtrayml, however is a symbol. In the image that Rabbi Steinman conjured up, the traditional fur hat represents the Haredi community, while the pig represents academia. Putting a shtrayml on a pig is absurd; so too is Haredi academia. The two just do not go together.
Animals wearing shtraymls are not a common image in Jewish consciousness, though the Yiddish expressions indicate that Jews have toyed with the notion of shtrayml-wearing livestock. The truth is that other farm animals have also been topped with the furry headwear.
In 2011, an American Yiddish magazine that caters to hasidic communities advertised a shtrayml sale before Passover. The full-page advertisement showed a lamb wearing a shtrayml, tied to a bed in the desert with pyramids in the background.
The image evoked the biblical Exodus where lambs were procured four days before the children of Israel left slavery (Ex. 12:3-6 – “let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household…”). According to the sages, the lamb was tied to the corner of the bed before Passover evening when it was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten.
The shtrayml-wearing lamb is a bizarre sales pitch: Which shtrayml-wearing Hasid would want to be tethered to a bed in the desert for four days before being slaughtered? Presumably the peculiar image was designed to capture the attention of the magazine’s readers. Furthermore, the image relayed a message: a new shtrayml – just like securing a lamb in Egypt – was an essential, perhaps even divinely mandated, element of Passover preparations.
Indeed, as Passover approaches, many shtrayml sellers advertise their wares. For those who cannot treat themselves to a new fur hat, specialized cleaning services are offered.
It is possible that the earliest source for an animal donning a shtrayml comes from Lubavitch lore – an interesting fact in itself given that Lubavitch Hasidim no longer wear fur hats. The story which I will presently recount, harks back to the dawn of Hasidism.
The tale – as so often happens with this fabulous literary genre – appears in different versions. The earliest recorded version appears to be an 1879 discourse delivered by Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Maharash, 1834–1882). The discourse would have been delivered in Yiddish, though a Hebrew transcription is what has reached us. The exact term shtrayml does not appear; rather, a more general term is used: kova shel shabbat, a Shabbat hat. Maharash’s son and successor, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn (Rashab, 1860–1920) also recounted the tale, as did his son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz, 1880–1950).
When retelling the story in 1941, Rayatz specifically referred to the shtrayml. So too did Rayatz’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), when he recalled the tale in 1984. The numerous retellings suggest an abiding lesson which transcends a specific context.
According to this story, the Besht (Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, ca.1700–1760) instructed his disciples to close their eyes, and they suddenly perceived an ox wearing a shtrayml. The Besht explained that this was a Jew who sits and eats ox meat in honor of Shabbat. Alas, instead of savoring Shabbat, he relishes the ox meat.
The power of this colorful image lies in its ability to evoke a response in the audience – which in this case was the followers of the Lubavitch hasidic masters. Pondering the odd scene, the hasidic audience would be able to imagine themselves as shtrayml-wearing oxen. The shtrayml in the tale is what indicates that the figures are not real oxen; rather, they are Hasidim who are acting like oxen. The moral of the tale is compelling. You may be decked out in hasidic garb, but you are behaving like an animal.
Of course, the enduring lesson is not limited to the shtrayml wearers. No type of respectable clothing can justify behavior that is unbecoming of a human being. Whether that timeless message has anything to do people studying in academic institutions is another matter.
The shtrayml and other elements of the hasidic wardrobe are discussed in Levi Cooper’s forthcoming book Hasidic Relics: Cultural Encounters, to be published later this year by Maggid Books.