Hillel The Sage Gets A T-Shirt

Hillel The Sage Gets A T-Shirt

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

What do H&M and a far-left political group have in common? Mishnaic sage Hillel, of course.

Both the Swedish retail giant and a Jewish anti-war group allied with JVP are using “If not now, when?” the rhetorical question found in Ethics of Our Fathers [Pirkei Avot]: H&M as a T-shirt slogan and the group #IfNotNow as a name.

A large billboard in Times Square features Hillel’s urgent question, the third in a series after “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?” written in oversized black letters on a slinky tank top selling for $9.95. But the T-shirt isn’t in the store.

“That’s been one of our most popular items this summer,” said Kiera Elliott, an H&M saleswoman in Times Square, who explained the shirt’s conspicuous absence from sale-racks. “We sold that item out weeks ago, but people keep asking me about it. It obviously made a lasting impression.”

Though the company declined to comment further, they’ve been doing their part to enact Hillel’s immortal words. After a building collapse in Bangladesh this past May that killed more than 1,100 workers, H&M, along with several of the world’s largest apparel companies, signed a plan that requires retailers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in Bangladesh factories. H&M is the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh. For them, “If not now when” has ceased to be rhetorical.

The use of religious references has long been a pop culture trend — think Madonna’s crucifixes and rosary beads — beloved in particular by retailers. And #IfNotNow isn’t the first protest group to use Hillel’s query as a call to action; serious-minded activists love to plaster it across the less-racy T-shirts they favor.

This past week, the popular clothing brand Zara removed what some are calling a “concentration camp” shirt for children from its shelves. The shirt featured blue and while stripes and a gold star, reminiscent of a Star of David. The company apologized in several languages to its 520 thousand Twitter followers and guaranteed consumers that the t-shirts will be “reliably destroyed.”

“What happened with Zara reflects on a bigger problem the clothing industry is having,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of programming for T’ruah, an organization that unites rabbis working for human rights. “The market moves so quickly that products often lack thoughtfulness,” she said.

Urban Outfitters got into similar trouble just a few months ago, when it pulled a duvet decorated with an elephant-headed Hindu deity after religious leaders protested.

And, of course, American Apparel, the socially conscious T-shirt company founded by Montreal Yid Dov Charney, featured a Chassidic man as a model in several ads.

H&M itself made a shirt modeled after a prayer shawl in 2011. The tunic-like top, with black stripes, a loose-fit, and fringes all along the bottom, was coined “tallit-chic” by bloggers and fashion-enthusiasts.

But maybe with Hillel, many people’s favorite sage, fast fashion has finally pulled off a cultural reference that’s more homage than exploitation.

“It’s pretty cool that certain Jewish aphorisms now hold such an esteemed place in the American lexicon,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster, who said she would definitely consider wearing the “If Not Now” tank. “Jewish value-statements seem to have become mainstream.”

And it’s not just rabbis who think so. “Customers loved the ‘If not now when’ shirt because it was mysterious and exciting,” said Elliott.

Whether or not they understood the covert Jewish reference, she wasn’t sure. Nor did she think it mattered in terms of sales.

“I guess some Jewish customers might get it, but for the rest of us, it’s just cool,” she said.

Well, Hillel also famously said we should all go forth and learn. Maybe they’ll look it up.

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