Jewish pride that fits to a T

“Yo Semite.” “Jewcy.” “Jew.Lo.” “Heeb.”

Around the nation, these slogans have been appearing across people’s chests, in a display of Semitic pride.

These ironic expressions of secular Jewish pride are part of a larger crop of conversation-starting T-shirts and other apparel emblazoned with pro-Semitic slogans.

True, public displays of Jewish solidarity are hardly new.

“The first person to put on a yarmulke was the first person to wear Jewish apparel,” said Josh Neuman, the publisher of Heeb magazine, which sells its own line of T-shirts hawking the 2-year-old urban-culture title.

But T-shirts that have hit the Web in the past few years complement the contemporary rise of cultural Judaism as a significant form of ethno-religious identification. At the same time, larger trends in American life point to the creation of communities, or “tribes,” outside of the conventional delineations of race, religious affiliation or even family.

Nearly half of American Jews identify as secular or “somewhat secular,” according to a 2001 survey of American Jewish identity conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The question is, “Can you make a Jewish community that is somehow unconnected to Jewish religious practice?” suggested Paul Zakrzewski, the editor of “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge” (Perennial), an anthology of new Jewish writers.

In his book “Urban Tribes” (Bloomsbury USA), San Francisco author Ethan Watters describes a new social phenomenon among long-term singles in their 20s and 30s. These “never marrieds” form tight-knit groups of friends or co-workers “with unspoken hierarchies, whose members think of each other as ‘us’ and the rest of the world as ‘them,'” Watters wrote in an October 2001 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

In that spirit, Sarah Lefton — whose Web site sells two tees: “Yo Semite” and “Jews for Jeter” — calls her T-shirts a kind of “counter-assimilation mechanism.” But new Jewish tribalism doesn’t necessarily make for clannishness. Several T-shirt Web sites — including Lefton’s — feature multiethnic models. On, founder Julia Lowenstein, 27, says her brand “sees Jewish pride as a first step to a more multicultural and happy society.”

To some observers, the T-shirts also reflect factors that both inspire and complicate pronouncements of Jewish pride: the heightened conflict in Israel over the past three years and the coinciding global rise in public expressions of anti-Semitism.

“It’s all in the environment,” Zakrzewski, 35, the director of literary programs at the JCC in Manhattan, said. “And it all somehow contributes to what the T-shirts mean.”

Who was the first among the current crop of Jewish T-shirt creators is unclear, though it could have been Marc Schapiro.

The New York-based Schapiro, 29, is the founder of the Kosher Klothing line. In 1999, he was working on a couple of concert tours and during the “Warped Tour,” which featured several punk rock bands, he kept hearing kids saying “That’s kosher,” as another way to say “That’s cool.”

“I couldn’t help but wonder do they even know what it really means?” said Schapiro. With a high-stress job though, it took him some time to get started. In 2001, he made his first “kosher” shirt. He sold about 150 in the first year, and then came up with more designs, including one of the “blasphemous pig,” in which he sections off all the parts of a pig by type of traif meat.

He sold several hundred of those too, to both Jews and non-Jews, and then stopped again until a friend suggested they begin again.

When asked whether he can take credit for the current Jewish T-shirt craze, he said no.

“I had the idea first in my head, but I was just really busy,” he said. “But now I have to just ride the wave.”

Schapiro said the time was right for him to expand, especially with a movie like the “Jewsploitation” film “The Hebrew Hammer” in New York City movie theaters.

Additionally, the sale of Jesus action figures, said Schapiro, “is making it more acceptable to speak about religion in not such a stern light.”

Steven Verona, 34, president and co-founder of Jewish Jeans, was motivated by an awareness of growing anti-Semitism to launch the line. He started with two shirts, one reading “Nice Jewish Boy” and the other “Fight Anti-Semitism.”

Visitors to his site (which is currently undergoing changes) could choose from 21 styles of T-shirts bearing phrases like “Naughty Jewish Boy,” “Nice Jewish Girl” and “Pursue Peace,” as well as key chains and baseball caps.

“I was in a bar [wearing a shirt] and a guy walks up to me and gets right in my face and asked what that was all about,” recalled Verona, an inventor who co-owns a construction company.

After a few minutes of explanation, “he started to understand what I was saying,” Verona said. “I felt like if I made a difference even with just this one guy, this could be something that could make a difference in the world.”

Lowenstein of Jew.Lo is trying to change perceptions, too. She sees the Bronx-bred Lopez as “a role model for a new kind of sexy: ethnic, city, powerful and real.” Her site derides Jewish celebrities who mask their Jewishness — Winona “Horowitz” Ryder and Natalie “Hershlag” Portman among them — and praises those who flaunt it, such as film actress Amanda Peet and comedian Sarah Silverman.

“Jew.Lo gives props to zaftig Jewish figures, recognizing that a girl need not be a stick figure to be hot, and that a true dish loves her knish,” writes Lowenstein, who was traveling in India and could not be reached for an interview.

Jew.Lo’s line of tight-fitting T-shirts includes the bosom-hugging “schwing” style and the “boy beater,” a feminine take on the white ribbed cotton undershirt, colloquially known as the “wife beater.”

Along with promoting robust Jewish sex appeal, the new Jewish T-shirts equate Jewishness with hipness. The New York-based offers consumers “kosher-style fabulosity” that is also “racy” and “lusty” and full of ethnic pride.

Breaking “close to under a hundred pieces a month,” according to co-founder Jason Saft, 26, Jewcy sells thong underwear, baseball caps, stickers and T-shirts, including a new one that taunts with a traditional Jewish greeting and an insinuation of inappropriate familial relations.

Saft and his three cohorts also organize communitywide Jewish-themed events, and they recently started sending out a monthly “best of” list. (Another unrelated group called Jewcy is a national affiliation of grassroots Jewish community activists.)

“I don’t know if people envision themselves going back to temple,” Saft said of people who attend Jewcy events. But they will find “commonalities and a similar background.”

Saft suggests that “reading Heeb, wearing a Jewcy T-shirt or going to see the Hip Hop Hoodios” — a Latin-Jewish hip-hop band — might even spark an interest in Jewish culture, heritage and “in learning what they forgot in Hebrew school.”

In a similar vein, Steven Bender is another entrepreneur to set up a Web site, “Hebrew School DropOut” and “Did I See You on JDate?” are among the funnier of his Jewish offerings. He has a whole non-Jewish line as well, with one of his funniest being “Stop Wasting My Daytime Minutes.”

The Los Angeles-based Rabbi’s Daughters,, is another newcomer. Among its offerings: “Meshuggenah, “Goy Toy,” “Shiksa,” “Bubeleh,” and a pair of panties with the word “tush” on the, well, tush. The “Shiksa” shirt has been especially popular, selling in trendy boutiques, and spotted on celebrities.

With so many individuals doing the same thing, one would think they might try to coordinate their efforts. That is beginning to happen.

“This whole universe of Jewish clothing has gone nuts lately,” said Lefton. “We’re all starting to talk to each other, and one woman is trying to start a Jewish-only clothing site. There’s a lot of merger stuff going on now.”

Whatever their external effect, the T-shirts essentially are a way to have fun and feel Jewish at the same time, which may be a new phenomenon for many Hebrew school graduates.

“I’m never going to suggest that a T-shirt is a serious sign of religious identity,” said Lefton. “But it’s a fun way to stick your chest out and say, ‘Yeah, we’re Jews.'”

Alexandra J. Wall, staff writer at j., contributed to this report.


Jewish Identi-tee — Jews proudly flaunt their faith on their chests