Glamorous Women Visiting Temple in High Heels and Sexy Clothes – Isaac Mizrahi’s Unlikely Memories of Orthodox Life

The Jewish-American fashion designer is best known these days for his flamboyant lifestyle and work. Yet his Jewish upbringing as the descendant of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn was decidedly different

Isaac Mizrahi at the launch of an exhibition honoring his designs at the Jewish Museum in New York, 2016.
AP

NEW YORK – Isaac Mizrahi is not happy. He is enraged. Embarrassed. Disheartened. In his own notoriously provocative manner, he lashes out at his America, its president, and the way it has treated women and minorities.

“I am appalled that we are still dealing with these issues about race, about sex – it is appalling to me,” the iconic fashion designer, 56, tells Haaretz.

A native New Yorker, he found his safe haven in this city, where he transformed from Orthodox Jewish boy to openly gay socialite.

We’re talking on the eve of the one-off show Mizrahi is hosting at Manhattan’s Merkin Concert Hall on Monday night: “In Your Face – New York” is a celebration of New York City’s voices and humor, colors and even smells. Its roster of performers includes New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast and “CBS Sunday Morning” reporter Mo Rocca.

However, it is another native New Yorker who is seemingly preoccupying Mizrahi. “So many policies of this president are not merely wrong, but insane,” he says about Donald Trump, “and so I think New York is the last gasp of a civilized American state.”

Producer Martin Sage says the show’s underlying theme will be humor, which he calls “critical, because most people don’t have access to the halls of power and we’re constantly in a position of punching up – meaning that if you don’t feel you have the power to change anything, the power you do have is to clarify things and shine a light on them.”

Mizrahi, who claims to suffer from stage fright, says he was eager to do the show – one of the many paradoxes of his flamboyant existence.

He grew up in 1960s Brooklyn, a second-generation American whose grandparents had immigrated from Syria.

“My background is very anomalous, it’s very hard to describe,” says Mizrahi, then proceeding to recount it in elaborate detail. He calls it a weird mix of a very traditional Jewish perspective and a particularly ostentatious immigrant community. “Flashy cars and flashy clothes, it was very strange,” he sums up.

His upbringing included kosher Syrian food, occasionally listening to Arabic music and going to a Sephardi temple, which reflected his Middle Eastern roots.

The contrast between the teachings of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Jewish day school he attended and his “glamorous” immediate environment – in which women visited temple in “very sexy clothes, short skirts, high heels, huge hair and loads of makeup” – resulted in confusing polar opposites and an exposure to different ideas about religion and tradition.

“Also, growing up gay was really hard in that environment,” he says. “In that Syrian community, homosexuality did not at all, not for one minute, have any space. It was literally persona non grata; you were a nothing, you did not exist in any way.”

Identifying as a black woman

Mizrahi remembers being terrified as a young man and found an outlet in laughter. “‘In Your Face – New York’ is trying to capture this nuanced sense of humor about New York City,” he explains. “New Yorkers are trying to keep their sense of humor, but it’s literally on the edge of pessimism and skepticism.”

The designer has previously described being bullied at the Orthodox yeshiva for being overweight and effeminate, but his life changed when he persuaded his parents to send him to New York City’s High School of Performing Arts. Foreshadowing a life in which he has balanced performance with design, he then attended the Parsons School of Design, having his first fashion show at the age of 26, in 1988.

The Jewish Museum honored the designer with an exhibition of his designs, “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History,” in 2016. However, Mizrahi speaks little Hebrew and has never visited Israel, which he sees as a war-torn country. While he concedes that some people may see this as the stand of “this idiot Jew from New York City,” he insists it’s not.

“I believe in women, I believe in homosexuals. I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in war,” he says by way of explanation.

Actually, Mizrahi goes much further than just believing in women. He believes he is one. When confronted with allegations of his own inappropriate behavior with women in the past – including the infamous red carpet incident at the 2006 Golden Globes, when he groped Scarlett Johansson’s breast live on the E! TV channel – he says he feels he has never done anything that is “off the meter of respect for women” because he considers himself part of the gender.

Isaac Mizrahi interviewing Anne Hathaway on the red carpet ahead of the Golden Globes in 2006.
AP

“In some respect I feel weird talking about women, because I feel like I am, personally, a woman,” he explains. “Even though my body doesn’t identify as a woman, I strongly identify as a woman. If I’ve ever joked about women or women’s rights, or black people and black people’s rights, it’s like I feel like I personally identify – no kidding – as a black woman, and so I can’t really talk” about it.

Mizrahi claims to have always been supportive of women and is shocked that the discourse remains about “women or men, or black people or white people, or Israelis or Arabs,” and not, simply, about people.

“I feel that however close we came in the past eight years with [President Barack] Obama, we distanced ourselves in one short year, and it’s very embarrassing and hurtful to acknowledge that.”

As an actor, Mizrahi appeared in three Woody Allen films in the late 1990s and early 2000s (“Small Time Crooks,” “Hollywood Ending” and “Celebrity”), but says he would probably not work with the now-disgraced director again.

He also appeared in the first season of Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice” – in which the likes of Omarosa negotiated with Mizrahi for a prize at a celebrity auction – and was upset by the then-businessman’s suggestion it was this appearance in 2004 (and several subsequent ones) that was the reason for Mizrahi’s fame and celebrity status.

Mizrahi has become increasingly hostile toward the president over the years, certainly since telling New York magazine about Trump in 2007: “He serves his purpose. The only reason I am saying this is because I was on his show, ‘The Apprentice.’”

Now, though, he predicts that “what is going to happen to [Trump] after he is out of office is ghastly. Locusts of all kinds are going to descend on that man,” he says. “At the end of this term, or if he gets a second term, he is dead meat. I swear, I will not be surprised if he goes directly from the White House literally to jail. He’s going to be eaten to the bone. The minute he’s out of power, he’s going to go down.”

“In Your Face – New York” is at the Merkin Concert Hall, New York, on March 12.