As Heat Hits, Chassidim Hang Tough

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With one heat wave after another, it’s no wonder that most New Yorkers are walking the streets dressed in a minimal amount of clothing. After all, they naturally believe that they will feel cooler and less physically oppressed when they dress in such a relaxed fashion. But surprisingly, the city’s Chassidic residents continue to buck this trend summer after summer – and they wear their heavy clothing with pride, despite the often sweltering heat.

The typical mode of dress for Chassidic men – year-round, including the summer months – consists of dark three-piece suits covering their bodies, and black hats made out of rabbit fur sitting atop their heads. For Chassidic women, the standard outfit is composed of long-sleeved blouses and nearly ankle-length skirts. While onlookers who are not part of the strictly Orthodox community surely wonder how the Chassidim can endure the stifling warm weather dressed this way, the Chassidim will readily reply that – in addition to some moderate modifications in material – the knowledge that they are publicly presenting themselves in a manner that satisfies G-d’s wishes enables them to ignore any accompanying discomfort.

“I think I’m not as hot as other people because the sun is not on me,” explained Chany Friedman, who was busy shopping in Borough Park, wearing a sweater and thick stockings along with other concealing clothing. “If I’m covered, the sun is not on me. I’m happy that I’m not exposed to the world.” Friedman added, “That’s what HaShem wants from us.”

For the Chassidim – and strictly Orthodox Jews in general – the traditional fashion style and generally accepted practical applications of Jewish law require that women dress with tzniut (modesty). This means that even on extremely hot days, religious women wear clothing that covers their necks, arms and legs, and married women are seen in public wearing wigs, head scarves or turbans to conceal their real hair, in a sign of fidelity to their husbands.

While the same strict standards of modesty do not apply to Chassidic men, they believe that it is morally proper for them to display humility and respect for others by dressing in formal style when engaging with the outside world. “Does anybody ask a congressman why he walks into Congress with a suit or a Wall Street executive why he goes to work in a suit?” asked Isaac Abraham, a leader in Williamsburg’s Satmar community. `

Rabbi Shea Hecht, director of the Lubavitch community’s educational outreach division, said that individuals are able to mentally train themselves to feel cool despite wearing heavier clothing when it is hot outside. Clad in a more “worldly” yet conservative business-like dark suit and gray fedora, Rabbi Hecht mocked people who walk around dressed in Bermuda shorts. “Why are they spending so much money on only a half a pair of pants?” he said. 

While adhering to the religious strictures of modest dress, Chassidim have nevertheless used their ingenuity to come up with subtle ways to maintain a modicum of cool. For women in Boro Park, the latest rage is neckline-hugging shells that allow them to wear thin, long-sleeved and open-necked blouses. The men of the community tend to purchase a frock coat made of lighter-weight, drip-dry polyester that omits the customary shape-holding canvas lining. For the tallit katan and tzitzit that they wear every day on top of their shirt to satisfy the most stringent of halachic opinions, the men have the option of wearing lightweight weaves. Chassidic men will also generally remove their jacket while working or driving, though any lengthy walk along a public sidewalk will still mandate a suit jacket or frock coat (a rekel in Yiddish) or, on Shabbat, the longer and fancier bekishe.

Entrepreneurial Chassidim have even managed to modify the shtreimel – the tall, cylindrical, Russian sable hat that the men wear on Shabbat to honor the holy day of rest – by inserting holes in the crown to provide a cooling effect.

In addition to conforming to halacha, the unique style of Chassidic clothing serves other purposes. It perpetuates the fashion pioneered by the original Chassidim in Europe during the 18th century, when the movement was founded by sages who wanted the common religious Jew to experience joyous excitement within their Torah observance. Many aspects of Chassidic dress, such as the round, fur hats and knee-length frock coats, were patterned after the wardrobe of the area’s nobility. When a Chassidic rebbe took on a particular style, his followers emulated him and made his fashion sense part of their everyday garb. 

“The equation of burden doesn’t come into play, when that’s the tradition you’re brought up in,” said Amram Weinstock, a 65-year-old Satmar Chassid who was shopping at Boro Park’s G&B Clothing, which sells suits only in shades of black, navy blue and gray. “We are happy to live that tradition and feel uplifted by living that sort of life,” Weinstock noted. “This is how our parents went; this is how our grandparents went.”

The Chassidim also feel that by wearing dark, serious-looking clothing, they maintain their distinct religious identity and bolster their separateness from the rest of the world, thereby reinforcing their ability to remain part of the community. This uniformly conservative style even extends to the eyeglass frames most Chassidim wear – black and heavy, as opposed to streamlined designer styles.

Another Chassidic man who was going through the racks of frock coats at G&B acknowledged the inevitable drawback to the customary dress. “You shvitz!” the man said, using the Yiddish word for sweat. But the easygoing expression on his face indicated he was more than willing to trade off the extra sweating for the privilege of living an upright lifestyle.

Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who specializes in the study of Orthodox Jewry, noted that Chassidim tend not to spend their free time outdoors, but rather transition “from the shop to the yeshiva to the study hall to the house.” Dr. Heilman added, “They spend a lot of time indoors, and they’re not Amish or Luddites, so they have air-conditioning.” 

Like Chany Friedman, many Chassidim argue that they are actually cooler when they wear concealing clothing. “Look at the Bedouin,” said Nuchem Sanders, who owns a hat store in Boro Park. “They live in the desert and they have layers of clothing. Why? It protects them from the heat.”