Blessed be the shtreimel makers, despite fur fury

The Sydney Morning Herald/June 27, 2009

At dusk on the Sabbath, few things are more spectacular in Jerusalem than the fascinating passing parade of fur hats moving inexorably towards the Western Wall.

Great furry crowns of all shades of brown, lined with velvet and leather, some them 22 centimetres wide and 15 centimetres high.

Others are so wide and flat that they look like a sombrero made of sable. Some can be so high you might think they are a top hat of mink.

Shtreimels are what they are, the traditional head-wear of Hasidic Jews worn on the Sabbath and on holidays.

But the shtreimel is not to be confused with spodiks or kolpiks, other varieties of hairy chapeaux reserved for more revered rabbinical sages. Once symbols of persecution, they were first imposed by 18th-century Polish kings who decreed that Jews must wear the tail of an animal on the Sabbath to show they were not working.

The tradition spread through eastern Europe, with each Jewish sect adapting the shtreimel to their own taste, and instead of being a mark of persecution it became a symbol of pride.

Standing at the Damascus gate to the Old City at 5pm on Friday, watching the stream of shtreimels make their way to the holiest site in Judaism, the practised eye can tell a lot about each person just from the cut of their hat.

The name of the sect each Hasid comes from and from what part of Europe their ancestors came from. The shtreimel is also a dead giveaway for things such as income, what religious texts and customs they adhere to, and even whether or not they are Zionists.

All of which makes the shtreimel an important garment in the life of a Torah observant Hasidic Jew.

"It's the gift of a man to his son on the day of his wedding," said Menachem Eliezer Moses, a member of the Knesset in the United Torah Judaism Party.

"It's a very important part of the Jewish life."

Sitting in his parliamentary office, dressed in a black tail-coat, black vest and white shirt, Moses had just returned from a heated debate in the Knesset.

"People want to ban furs imported from Asia because of the way the animal is killed there," said Moses. "But what does this mean for the shtreimel?"

With the proposed law carrying a punishment of one year in prison, Moses asked who would pay for the prisons to house all the law-breaking Jews who import the wrong kind of fur.

"Today, as I told the history of the shtreimel, what it means to Jewish history and custom, I left them all wide-eyed in the Knesset. Jaws open," he said.

Moses said that the Opposition Leader, Tzipi Livni, was one who approached him after his speech offering congratulations. End result? The bill has been deferred to committee.

"We hope for compromise. Jews like to talk, no?" Moses surmised.

Not that this will affect shtreimel popularity in Israel, even if the law passed. In a Hasidic neighbourhood not far from the more celebrated Mea Shearim (100 Gates) quarter, we found Moshe Weiner, 31, a Melburnian and now one of Israel's leading "shtreimelmachers".

"My great grandfather used to make them, so I got interested in the craft and now my business is here," Weiner said.

To make one shtreimel can take up to 400 tails of various breeds of mink, sable of fox - the scrap of the fur industry. With only 10,000 shtreimels produced around the world each year, it's definitely what you call a niche market.

But at a cost of up to $4000 each, it can be a profitable one too. "All my furs I source from Europe," Weiner said. "So hopefully the law won't affect my business at all."

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