Class blends Jewish genes with trendy jeans

For generations, American teenagers have defined themselves by their jeans.

Tight, baggy, cropped. Boot cut, straight-leg, skinny, bell-bottom. Torn, dyed, sandblasted.

All this led Bunny Pearlman to wonder: Can I teach teens about Jewish identity through a fabric that’s already part of their American identity?

And that’s what she’s done.

“Jewish Jeans and Genes” at Midrasha in Berkeley teaches middle-school girls two things: How to express their Jewish identity through embroidery, and the rich history of Jews in fashion, fiber arts and homemaking.

“I wanted to start a class that would specifically appeal to eighth-graders,” Pearlman said. “And I promised myself no Kiddush cups. They’re saturated with them in the younger grades.”

After clearing the idea with her teenage granddaughter, Pearlman worked with Midrasha students to develop the class content. The primary goal for students was to embroider a pair of comfy blue jeans with at least five Jewish symbols.

“This creates a different venue for communication,” Pearlman said. “They can be cool while at the same time dealing with some Jewish ideas and spirituality, and there’s a real need to be cool” at this age.

The class is somewhat “socially chaotic,” as Pearlman likes to say. The girls’ laughter and chitchat reverberate through the classroom. Still, when Pearlman presses them, they’re able to talk about chumsahs and chais, then decorate their denim with those symbols, among others.

Students enlivened their jeans with a wealth of artistic flourishes.

Some used fabric markers to draw images. Some embroidered only the pockets or cuffs. Two girls embroidered the outside of their denim, then used fabric markers to write Hebrew words and Jewish wisdom on the inside of the pants.

“I was very taken with that — it’s a deep artistic statement,” Pearlman said of the girls’ decision to decorate the inside and outside of their jeans.

Some students have developed true embroidery skills through the class, Pearlman said. Theresa Kaplan, a 14-year-old from Berkeley, designed her jeans with beautiful flowers, an olive branch, a burning bush, a Star of David, butterflies and a chai.

But will she wear them?

She grins sheepishly and rolls her eyes to indicate, “Of course!”

“I really like embroidery and art,” she said. “But I also like learning about Jewish symbols. And learning about Levi Strauss was interesting too.”

The course is still in its infancy. Pearlman would like to offer it again in the fall, but may try working with a different medium — shoes.

In which case, the class might be called Jewish Soles … and Souls.

Because that’s the part of teens Pearlman really wants to work on.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.