“Religion is just a costume party,” argues the formidable mystic and author Caroline Myss.
The first time I heard her take-no-prisoners tone in one of her recorded lectures, I was stunned by her sheer irreverence. How could she trivialize or reduce hundreds if not thousands of years of tradition and customs to the garb worn by religious practitioners? Weren’t there solid historical reasons, if not commandments, to dress a certain way? But mystics care little for appearances or bells and whistles. They strive for an unmediated experience of connection to the divine, whether clad in a bikini or burqa.
I remembered her comment yesterday while sitting inside the Dung Gate, one of the entrances to Jerusalem’s Old City. As I waited for my family to complete a tour, I watched hundreds of people parade through the ancient stone archway, many in distinctive dress. Some stopped to kiss the mezuzah inside the gate; others dropped shekels into a plastic box shaken by a Jewish beggar.
Even among ultra Orthodox or Chasidic Jews there are several variations of hat and garment. Some men wear a shtreimel, a large hat that my youngest nephew likened to a “furry tire”. These same men don kittels, a robe-like garment belted around the waist and hanging to their knees. Men in black velvet bowler hats sport formal black buttoned waistcoats and black loafers polished to a shine. They look as if they’ve stepped out of 18th century Eastern Europe. Below their brims dangle peyos, long side-locks twisted into curls and often held in place with gel. Meanwhile, I was told that men who wear white knit kippot, or skullcaps, are followers of the Chasidic mystic, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. Many of this group also passed through the gate.
Religious Jewish women, commanded to cover themselves from neck, to wrist, to ankle, don’t share as unified a look as the men. Some Sephardic women distinguished themselves from their more staid Ashkenazi counterparts with sequined and glittery turbans and other festive fabric head coverings, along with carefully applied makeup.
A man in a simple brown hooded habit, a white rope tied loosely around his waist, walked serenely despite the crowds that hurried past. He was probably a Franciscan friar or Capuchin. Bushy bearded men in black caftans with heavy crosses and other medallions draped around their necks hail from the Greek Orthodox Church. A group of Ethiopian women, wrapped in white gauzy shawls, seemed to float by. And I probably missed as many outfits as I spotted in the center of this ancient city, so holy to many monotheistic religions.
Seeing all these variations of God-inspired garb in one place, I thought of Project Runway. In this reality show, a group of designers is tasked to create outfits for particular occasions (e.g.the Oscars, a garden party) or to make clothing out of unusual materials (e.g. stuff at a garden shop, duct tape). The results are judged by a panel of fashion professionals. What’s fun about the program is to see how each designer (alone or in a team), interprets the challenge under a tight budget and deadline. Results range from amazing to awful. The high powered panel does not mince words: if a dress does not flow or flatter, they tongue lash the designer.
While the faithful I observed were certainly not strutting their stuff along an elevated platform, I wondered what the Creator thought of these representations of Itself as expressed in fabric, mostly flowing but some gently clinging. Did all of these religions succeed in fulfilling the “brief” to dress in a respectful manner? Did the Creator nod approvingly or grimace that some men in hot, dusty Israel wear clothing more suitable for a cooler Polish climate? What would a panel of practical archangels have to say about all this? Would they criticize a floor-length vestment for increasing the danger of tripping, especially on the Old City’s slickly cobbled streets? What if this heavenly panel decreed a new era in spiritual garb, forbidding cloaks and cassocks and insisted that teams of designers, each from a different religion, find common ground and create prototypes for something new (maybe cruise wear for clerics)?
Now that’s a program I’d like to see. I suspect even Caroline Myss would crack a smile.