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  • Clothes Make the ManA Photo Essay on Russian Jewish School Uniforms
  • Eliyana R. Adler (bio)

In one of his beloved short stories, 'On Account of a Hat', Sholem Rabinovitz, better known by his pen name, Sholem Aleichem, describes the tragi-comic mishaps of a ne'er-do-well would-be businessman on his way home for the Passover holidays.1 Because of the train schedule, Sholem Shachnah has to sleep at the station. Before lying down on a bench already occupied by a Russian official, he issues strict instructions to the porter to wake him for his train. At the appointed time, in his haste to catch the train, instead of grabbing his own hat, however, Sholem Shachnah inadvertently grabs the hat belonging to the still slumbering tsarist official. He boards the train only to walk past a mirror, where he sees, to his horror, the official:

Twenty times I tell him to wake me and I even give him a tip, and what does he do, that dumb ox, may he catch cholera in his face, but wake the official instead! And me he leaves asleep on the bench! Tough luck, Sholem Shachnah old boy, but this year you'll spend Passover in Zlodievke, not at home.2

The story is, obviously, a farce, yet another misadventure for the antihero Sholem Shachnah Rattlebrain. Such comedy was Sholem Aleichem's bread and butter. This ability to laugh at all of the indignities of Jewish life in Russia gained him tremendous popularity. But there are serious themes embedded even in these light stories. In fact, it is not only Sholem Shachnah who is fooled by the hat with the red band. Even the ticket seller and conductor treat him with unusual courtesy for those few minutes. The mere addition of a hat transforms a poor Jew into a respected representative of the government.

The story is a popular one, and has been analysed from a variety of perspectives [End Page 131] by literary scholars. It is a story about Jewish identity, about Jewish psychology, a Jewish response to Gogol's 'The Overcoat'.3 David Roskies has demonstrated that the story ultimately originates in an old Jewish joke.4 At the same time, at the most basic level, it is a social commentary. Sholem Aleichem was playing with costumes partly because they were meaningful in the world in which he lived.

In his autobiography Sholem Aleichem includes a telling scene. The son of a local man not known for his piety has returned to town from the Russian high school where he is studying. That Saturday the young man and his father come to the synagogue. The congregation is overwhelmed by the experience:

Next to him stood his son, Sholom, or Solomon, wearing his uniform with silver buttons from top to bottom and a strange cap—a cap with a badge. He held a little Siddur and prayed, just like a normal person. Neither the adults nor the children took their eyes off this gymnasium student with the silver buttons. He seemed to be like everyone else—an average boy—yet he was different. He was a gymnasium student.5

But why should a group of Jews who go to synagogue regularly and know the prayers backwards and forwards find themselves unable to concentrate simply because of the arrival of a visitor? Surely visitors came through their town with some frequency. It is not the fact of a relative stranger, but the juxtaposition of this stranger's uniform with his setting. The worlds of the traditional Jewish house of worship and the imperial gymnasium were as yet strangers. Just as Sholem Shachnah could not assimilate his own face in the hat of a tsarist official, the congregation was unprepared to process a young man who felt at home both in a synagogue and a gymnasium.

Throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century, as young Jews increasingly entered Russian schools, communities and individuals would learn to assimilate these two worlds. As they did so, the school uniform remained a potent symbol, both in writing and in visual culture. This chapter seeks to probe the meanings assigned to the school uniform...


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