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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

I've had this shirt for years and years and years

One of the poems from my very early childhood was written by Michael Rosen

I printed this shirt some time around 1993
"I've had this shirt
that's covered in dirt
for years and years and years
  It used to be red
  but I wore it in bed
  and it went grey
  cos I wore it all day
  for years and years and years
The arms fell off
in the Monday wash
and you can see my vest
through the holes in the chest
for years and years and years
  As my shirt falls apart
  I'll keep the bits
  in a biscuit tin
  on the mantelpiece
  for years and years and years."

While Zafra has been prone to spontaneous vomiting over my clothes, I've taken to wearing fairly shlochy attire - old T-shirts in particular. [For those not familiar with Yiddish, a "shloch" is kind of what it sounds like, someone who is unkempt.] But I've come to realise that because I wear slochy clothes, I look like a shloch. In a recent conversation with my loving and eternally patient wife, Jenny, I realised that one shirt that I've been wearing is actually quite old...18 years old, in fact. That's half my life I've had that shirt. It's a shirt I printed at the Haberdashers' Aske's Summer School in the early 1990s and, although you might not be able to see them in the photo, there are aome pretty sizable holes and stains on it now, so it is really quite slochy. In fact, if I'm honest, half of my wardrobe is completely shlochy and I think I have to say that it's partly deliberately so.

I've never been one for fashion. As far as I'm concerned, fashion is just another way of making people unhappy with perfectly usable clothing in order that they buy more of it - planned obscolescence gone mad. How one perfectly usable garment can suddenly be undesirable or, worse, discarded, just because other people aren't wearing the exact same garment is utterly perverse. At the moment, around 2 million tonnes of clothing and textiles are discarded in the UK every year. So I wear clothes until they have holes in and when they have holes in I find myself thinking, "Who cares? Yes, this shirt has a hole in it. Do I really care about what someone thinks if they're the kind of person who will think less of me for wearing a shirt with a hole in?"

But the truth is I think I do, particularly because Bournemouth is one of those towns where people will bump into you. The number of times I've been "off-duty" (is a Rabbi ever truly off duty?) and bumped into someone while shopping or in the street (I particularly enjoy those moment when people start hiding their shopping trolley behind them because they don't want a Rabbi to see what they're buying!). It's one thing to be at home in a shirt with a hole in, it's another to be out in the street where members of my community, or of another community, might see me. If nothing else, it doesn't look brilliant for the synagogue if the Principal Rabbi walks around with irreparable holes in his clothes.

So it's time to smarten up.... but I don't want to.... I genuinely don't. Every shirt that's produced is more resources, more pollution. A single cotton shirt takes over 2500 litres of water to produce. It may well give a job to someone in a distant country but transporting it across the world is utterly unnecessary pollution. Even if it's a fairtrade organic cotton shirt, it's still replacing a shirt I already have just because people will judge me and that seems ludicrous.

Perhaps the only answer is in charity shops. Clothing in charity shops has essentially travelled a very short distance because it already travelled far for the previous consumer and I'm not liable for that journey or the resources use in creating the clothing. Buying from a charity shop also means that I'm not adding to the ridiculous profits of the giant supermarkets who squeeze independent businesses out of the market.And, of course, buying clothes from charity shops means giving more money to charity.

All this has got me thinking much more about the mitzvah of bal tashchit - the commandment of not wasting resources. I wrote a summary on this mitzvah which you can see at http://www.bournemouthreform.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=38. The connecting point between my spirituality and my environmentalism is here in this mitzvah (commandment/compelling commitment) but I'm afraid to explore the consequences of this because of how profoundly I know it will change my life if I do. I think maybe this is what this blog is truly about - my high impact, low impact life. I think this is the starting point of a long journey...


  1. I've always preferred a nice and classic wardrobe with clothes meant to last me for years. Suddenly, the doctor prescribed a medication which put 40 pounds onto my figure. This has me shopping in the charity shops as well (if and when there are a few pound coins to work with). I donated my stunning clothes to charity shops so other women could wear them, hopefully with pride, and hope to find comparable items gradully. It's hard at my height, though, so I just need to pray that another woman with a weight change and a stunning wardrobe had to donate all of her stuff to make the size change. Also, as you said, it's greener and the money goes to charity.

  2. So why donbt we have a dress down service at the schul, and ask people to consider that next time they are about to buy an item of clothing they instead stop and donate the money they would have spent to some worthy cause ?

  3. Dressing up and down for shul is very interesting, isn't it? Some people feel that the clothes that they wear should be comfortable and reflect their current mood and so they may not dress up as much. Others however feel that if we're standing in the presence of the Ruler of the Universe we should dress very smartly.
    I think the theme of this thread for me is that there is something to be said for appearance and maybe dressing down isn't always appropriate because one person's dressing down is another person's slochy.
    And then there's the issue of what it means to judge people by their clothes, and what kind of community do we want to create?
    Lots of things to think about...!

  4. Me again ! Is there not a danger that by dressing up for shul we are creating a potential barrier for some people. There are those who simply can not afford wonderful new clothes and may feel slightly intimidated or even embarrased by there appearance when compared to others. Is it possible that Gd is more concerned by what is inside us than what we are wearing. Whilst we should of course make an effort to show respect, is there not a risk that our clothing becomes a label by which we are judged and are we in a position to judge others?

  5. There is definitely a risk of intimidation. Interestingly, we do have a smart shirt in my office just in case someone wants to come to shul but suddenly finds themself embarrassed.
    At the end of the day, the overriding factor must be the intention. If a person dresses casually because they don't have smart clothes, that's different to a person who can't be bothered.
    But the gist of this blog posting wasn't about clothes for shul per se but rather clothes for general use. What should I as a Rabbi be wearing?

  6. Hello

    In that case may i suggest the following:

    As a Rabbi is a teacher should not teachers lead by example?
    I was not aware of the 2500l of water it took to produce a shirt. But now after reading your blog i am. As a result i was faced over the weekend with the choice of three cheap T shirts (7500 litres) or one much better quality item. The cheap ones would of lasted the summer the other maybe a few years. Result i chose the better quality one. So what if the colour is not as vibrant in a few years, with so many facing the threats of advancing deserts a faded shirt is nothing.

    So i suggest keep those old shirts and wear with pride, if people comment you can tell them why and let them decide if they want to follow your example. As for work wear then please dont follow the false god of fashion that seems to control our current society instead a good quality suit, somthing that will not wear out quickly and maybe try and get one with two pairs of trousers, after all these wear out before the jackets and that seems a waste.

    But please keep the scuffy clothes, and i will keep a tie in the car ready for services