Jews, Modernism, Labor Unions, and Our Kippahs

Jews, Modernism, Labor Unions, and Our Kippahs

Henry Dreyfuss, Princess Phone, 1959. Photograph: Johnna Arnold. 

Several years ago, the Contemporary Jewish Museum put on an exhibition about Jews and modern design. Part of the exhibition was doing something most of us do - claiming notable Jewish cultural contributors with pride, marveling at the incredible accomplishment of the very special generation that came to the United States in the first half of the 20th century. A huge number of the heavy hitters of midcentury modernism are Jewish - Richard Neutra, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Alvin Lustig, and the first director of design at Herman Miller, George Nelson - all Jews. But the other part of the exhibition was questioning why - what exactly it is about Jewishness that lends itself to modern design. As a Judaica company concerned with the most beautiful and direct ways to create objects tied to ritual, this exhibition has been particularly inspiring.

Julius Shulman, Kaufmann House designed by Richard Neutra (Palm Springs, CA), 1947. Gelatin silver print. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute. Copyright © J. Paul Getty Trust.

“Avant-garde belongs neither to Gentile nor Jew, but is the plight of everybody who must rebel in order to breathe again, and in that number there are numerous Jews.” - Percival Goodman

Elaine and Alvin Lustig, Sunset Office, 1949. Collection of Elaine Lustig Cohen. 

Jewish architects and designers arrived at the United States when creative industries were the most immune to anti-semitism. The social ideas of these designers - decidedly leftist - lent itself perfectly to the progressive egalitarianism central to modernism. The hard work of labor activists (many Jewish) led to an increase in leisure-time for the average family, where post-war domesticity required a more personal culture of objects.

We like to think of our kippahs as existing somewhere in this legacy - mostly because of the intentional choice to craft each one from deadstock Herman Miller fabric. The fabric, designed by Alexander Girard, was exclusive to the design studio for decades, and harkens back to that golden age of modernism. There’s also something eco-friendly about choosing to use a deadstock material - like a midrash, we’ve reinterpreted the past in a new form.

Alexander Girard wasn’t Jewish himself, but he was obsessed with folk art and outsider-artist textile makers. This valuing of culturally specific folk traditions makes me think about my own great-grandparents, who had no formal education and moved to the United States from Poland with a completely self-taught knowledge base. They both found work as tailors, and promptly joined one of the most powerful unions in New York - ILGWU. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was full of Bundists, Socialists, and Communists, who despite working “unskilled” jobs, had a vast knowledge of organizing and strategized to advocate for the Jewish immigrants who dominated the tailoring industry. My own great grandfather, Rubin Zuckerman, was the ILGWU Cloak Joint Board chairman. My family has political cartoons and ballots in Yiddish made about him.

I like to think that the unfinished edges of our kippahs and the choice to have each one hand-sewn in Union, Maine by our friend Suzanne Macfadyen links us back to this legacy of Jewish garment workers.