He poses playfully, but he’s completely covered up in traditional Hasidic black and white. It appears he even brought his own fur shtreiml to the photo shoot.
The Hasid smiling in these unorthodox images is 32-year-old college student Yoel Weisshaus. Born and bred in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he now lives in New Milford, New Jersey, and works a variety of jobs to support himself.
As part of a group of “shomer Shabbat” (Sabbath-observant) actors, he’s had a few extra and supporting roles in TV shows and films shot in New York.
Out of necessity, he’s also learned to do paralegal work. In 2011 he sued the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey when it announced a hike in fare tolls. The case is pending in the federal Southern District of New York court.
Weisshaus is amused by the fascination that’s sprung up since his modeling debut. The photos of him were published on Aug. 31, but fittingly, began gaining traction online last Wednesday, the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
The company’s notoriously scandalous past advertisements seem to butt heads with the high value Judaism’s most conservative sects put on modesty – a point Weisshaus isn’t too concerned with. “Why would there be a conflict? It’s just a photo.” He acknowledges it’s unusual to see a Hasidic man in an advertisement for a mainstream retailer, but says those marketing decisions have “nothing to do with me.”
A few months ago, Weisshaus was told by a friend that American Apparel was seeking Hasidic models for a photo shoot, so he applied, went in for an interview, and scored the job. It wasn’t just for money. The images combat the stereotypes of religious Jews, who value their insular communities, but also, he says, the typecast of the company’s amateur models.
“Some people are complaining saying American Apparel always has only nude or sexually oriented models, and quite to the contrary – you can see the same thing on the nonsexual figure, just in regular dress,” he says, He’s enjoying pushing the envelope, in this case. “I like the controversy, I enjoy the conversation, I like to get people talking with this stuff going on.” In fact, they didn’t quite have enough time in the four-hour shoot last month to do all the outfits planned, and he would gladly go back to the studio for more.
Though the founder of American Apparel, DovCharney, is Jewish–and even recently unveiled a black nail polish color called “Hassid”– the company has run into religious controversy before, after being sued by Woody Allen for using an image of him as an Orthodox Jew with Yiddish text reading “The High Rabbi.” It was a move Weisshaus found much more humorous than offensive.
Charney founded American Apparel in 1989 after havinga long history with T-shirts and a fascination with American culture.