Ovadia Yosef as a Fashion Icon

The revered rabbi led a Sephardi cultural revival, and in doing so legitimized embroidered jalabiyas and kaftans as trendy apparel.

An interesting question to which we will now never know the answer is which of the following caused Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who passed away on Monday, greater distress: Was it his starring role as a target of ridicule, a cloth-and-acrylic puppet on the Channel 2 satirical show Hahartzufim (the Israeli version of Britain’s “Spitting Image”) — a figure whose bizarre appearance, with black gown embroidered with gold, bagel-like turban, thick dark glasses and full white beard, was no less its essence than the puppet's hot temper and tendency to curse out loud? Or was it, rather, the surprising turnaround that occurred in his final days, when the rabbi's unique exterior was lauded, admired and imitated? Strange as it may sound, that is the long road travelled by Yosef's public image in Israel from the mid-1990s to the present.

True, fashion is a fickle field where one man's obstacle is another man's stepping stone. Nevertheless, when two years ago actress Dorit Bar Or expanded her creative activities, she surprised many not by her decision to take on the new title of fashion designer, but by drawing inspiration for her first steps in the local fashion arena from none other than The Master.

The debut collection she showed at the Israeli Fashion Week held in Tel Aviv in November 2011 included kaftan dresses and sensuous jalabiyas of black silk embroidered with gold stems and leaves that called to mind the decorations on the black robe the rabbi used to wear in his public appearances. In media interviews Bar Or gladly mentioned Yosef as a central inspiration for the collection, even heaping praise on his dressing habits and unique sense of style. A cape-like blouse designed by Bar Or, also embroidered with gold foliage, was called the Ovadia Cape.

Understanding both the conceptual leap her proposal signified and the long way the public had to go in order to see the rabbi's attire as a tempting fashion statement for the present day, Bar Or was happy to reveal her sources unabashedly, enjoying the shock reaction this drew. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as a prominent fashion icon? One whose personal style should have a decisive influence on the apparel choices of secular women? Unheard of! Especially since for many years Yosef's garb, which reflected the time-honored tradition of Sephardi Jewry, was ridiculed by the secular Israeli hegemony.

And yet, Bar Or was just the harbinger. It might be overstated to attribute the renewed taste for kaftans and jalabiyas embroidered with Mizrahi patterns — and this is undoubtedly a real trend in local fashion, not limited to Bar Or's designs — to Yosef's influence. But being the symbol of a proud Sephardi cultural revival, he may be credited with preparing the ground for this breakthrough. Indeed, the current craze for jalabiyas has not passed over men's fashion either, thereby legitimizing the style for which Yosef was so often teased.

How to explain, then, the thoroughgoing change in the way Yosef's exterior came to be viewed, though nothing in it had changed? In fact, just last month, at the robing ceremony of his son Yitzhak Yosef inaugurating his term as chief Sephardi rabbi, the son donned the very same robe his father began wearing exactly 40 years ago.

On second thought, Yosef did after all introduce a few minor changes into his attire. The weaving of gold thread into his dark robes, the dark blue hue of his turban and the very specific shade of red of his glasses are not just colorful footnotes to his public figure. They can be seen to reflect the daring and independent thought that characterized his halakhic decisions over the years, just as his well-trimmed beard, sparkling clean clothes which never lost their brilliance — his collection of robes was refreshed from time to time with a new design, usually commissioned from Turkey — spoke of his highly developed aesthetic sense.

It is interesting to read the grain stalk decorations on his coat as honorary symbols for his achievements in the sphere of religion and Jewish law, which were ample. But his figure will probably be etched in the public memory for the last role he fulfilled, as the spiritual leader of the Shas party. It was particularly in this role that his appearance gained symbolic significance, strengthening his revered status as a talisman of sorts — a status which he himself opposed, as he despised the worship of kabbalist rabbis.

Noa Yaffe
Olivier Fitoussi