When we wear T-shirts, we don’t tend to think much about the message on them, much less how that image, slogan or trendy graphic design can be used to understand a group’s cultural identity. But the collection in the exhibit “T-Shirt Talk: The Art of Reimagining Cultural Jewish Identity” at the Slifka Center does just that. Through its presentation of a variety of T-shirts from Jewish and non-Jewish organizations alike, the exhibit explores how what we wear can be understood as a representation of ethnicity more broadly. Each T-shirt depicts a separate aspect of the Jewish identity: Most of the slogans rely on punny plays on words, certain stereotypes about the Jewish culture, or that one font that looks like it’s Hebrew but isn’t. In doing so, the exhibit not only dissects the larger meaning of these messages, but also how they’re informed by modern culture.
The exhibit is located in the airy expanse of the Slifka Chapel room. A sign that reads “Self-Awareness” introduces the first part of the exhibit, which seeks to showcase art that reflects an awareness of the Jewish culture and tradition. This portion of the exhibit displays T-shirts with slogans like, “Happy Hanukah Channuka Hakuna Fuck It,” with a Star of David at the bottom, or “I’m Jewish, wanna check?” followed by an arrow pointing downwards. I’ve never known much about Jewish culture outside of having attended maybe two bat mitzvahs. Probably because of this, I was unsure how to interpret the T-shirt; was it offensive to print “fuck” right before a picture a picture of the Star of David? If I’m being honest, I never knew how to spell Hanukah (?) either. I used to attribute that to not belonging to the culture; I had never considered that people who identified as Jewish would share my confusion.
The tone of the T-shirt was cavalier — “fuck it,” because it doesn’t matter anyway. Overall, however, it artfully spoke to larger cultural issues, like how to reconcile tradition with modern, secular American society. I found that the circumcision reference had a similar effect. After briefly entertaining the idea that someone would read the shirt and decide to actually check, I realized through referencing the cultural commonality that is circumcision, the shirt could create a sense of unity that surpassed its surface, humorous quality.
The second half of the exhibit is entitled “Cultural Appropriation.” Through this theme, the exhibit explores how aspects of Jewish culture and religion have been ingrained within pop culture today. I was surprised to see that cultural appropriation did not seem to be defined, in the context of the gallery, to be necessarily a negative thing, but rather a way of blending the understanding of Jewish culture with that of mainstream, secular/gentile culture. On this wall are shirts that display such slogans as “Get Lit,” accompanied by a picture of a menorah. Another selection is a frat tank that reads “Purple Drank” with pictures of Manischewitz, a type of Jewish wine. Purple drank references Lil Wayne’s favorite drink, which, plot twist, is not Manischewitz, but Sizzurp. In spite of this discrepancy, including Manischewitz in the picture was “a clever replacement,” according to the placard.
A third shirt had printed, again in the pseudo-Hebrew font, “I’m so” followed by the Hebrew word “chai”, pronounced, “high”. Besides understanding a general enthusiasm for both marijuana and the Hebrew alphabet, I didn’t glean much cultural meaning from the shirt’s message, and I felt that the negative connotation of cultural appropriation could categorize it. In contrast to the first half of the exhibit, which had a clearly translated cultural message, some shirts left me unclear as to their larger implications.
On the whole, “T-Shirt Talk” is an interesting and accessible foray into Jewish culture and its place in modern society. After chuckling at the cheesy puns and Googling things to understand references I was not savvy enough to understand immediately, I felt that I had gained greater insight into Jewish culture through a wholly unexpected lens.