The fashion giant H&M unleashed a firestorm this week when shoppers noticed similarities between one of its scarfs and a Jewish tallit (prayer shawl). The Twittersphere wasted no time in weighing in. Danya Ruttenberg, one of America’s most prominent female rabbis, brimmed with outrage. “Other people's sacred traditional patterns, other people's signifiers of resistance, other people's holy iconography. Just step off,” read one installment in a large accumulation of her denunciatory tweets.
Others were less perturbed. Sweden-based journalist Nathalie Rothman called for people to lighten up, and affectionately termed the scarf “#TallitChic”.
The Swedish origins of H&M did not pass unchallenged. One Twitter user harped on about rising anti-Semitism in Sweden, noting wryly that wearing a tallit is now dangerous in the Scandinavian country.
Following the uproar, H&M pulled the scarf from shelves in Israel, but it remains available for purchase on the company’s website.
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The kerfuffle recalls a larger debate about cultural appropriation — whether or not it’s acceptable to imitate or commercialize minority ethnic heritages for mainstream consumption. Yet it’s not exactly like we Jews never use anything from someone else’s “culture.” I have a Swiss Army backpack at home, with a big red cross plastered on the front. I’d wager that a lot of other Jews do too. Last I checked, Moses didn’t wear a cross. Certainly the cross is less distinct and unique than the tallit, but that’s not the point. The point is that in a non-homogeneous society ethnic heritages pool together and, to a certain extent, cease to be the exclusive possessions of their originators.
I do acknowledge that the tallit is a Jewish artifact and has been used in daily worship for centuries. So it's understandable that in the eyes of some Jews, adapting it into a common winter garment erodes its special sanctity and strips it of its Jewish identity. Yet I am less concerned. For the mainstream public, the scarf is nothing more than white cloth with blue-black stripes. The only people who would pick up on the similarities between it and the tallit are those who already understand the prayer shawl's religious significance – and they are unlikely to buy the scarf it or wear it.
H&M issued an official statement suggesting the tallit was not the inspiration for the scarf's design. “We are truly sorry if we have offended anyone with this piece. Everyone is welcome at H&M and we never take a religious or political stand. Stripes are one of the trends for this season and something we were inspired by. Our intention was never to upset anyone.” An H&M representative told Haaretz more explicitly that any resemblance between their product and the Jewish ritual object was unintentional. “Stripes are in this season,” she added.
Now, perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted given this isn’t H&M's first time getting into hot water with the Jewish community. Last year, H&M caught flak for selling a T-shirt that, to some, looked like a skull superimposed onto a Star of David. In light of that incident and the unmistakable resemblance here, it makes sense that many just aren’t buying H&M’s denials (or the scarf, for that matter).
So fine. Let's say that it was intentional — a designer saw the tallit and based this scarf on it. So what? There is no evidence that the H&M designer sought to mock the tallit or Judaism. On the contrary, companies are usually motivated by profit, so if anything, we really ought to take the scarf as a compliment. A fashion designer clearly thought that the tallit’s striped-pattern was pretty and could appeal to non-Jewish shoppers throughout the world.
I take this as just another indication of how universal Jewish culture has become. The tallit-scarf inspires uneasiness because it's hard to believe that a random fashion designer would benignly commercialize our heritage. We’re used to seeing the white sea of tallits in synagogue on a Saturday morning; not hanging in a department store. Our long history of persecution blinds us to how radically different Western social life is today. It primes us to suspect that the root of all this must be some crafty slight. But perhaps, in reality, it isn’t. Rarely is there a dull moment in the history of the Jewish people, and given what’s going on in Europe and Israel, now is certainly no exception. Why get out of bed in the morning and look for problems where they don’t exist?
Jared Samilow is a student at Brown University and a member of Brown Students for Israel. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' fellowship program in Israel-Arab studies and of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, Jerusalem.