Every t-shirt tells a story, and divinity student's collection leads to shows and scholarship

In a serendipitous sort of way, it was a collection of t-shirts that helped lead Anne Grant to Yale.

The Yale Divinity School student was in a Ph.D. program in sociology at Vanderbilt University when she began collecting Jewish-themed t-shirts that interested her from a sociological perspective.

“The t-shirts had a lot of interesting things to say about Jewish identity, whether it was their texts or graphics,” explains Grant. Over time her collection grew from just a few t-shirts to 175. She began buying them on e-Bay, at Hillel centers on college campuses, at bat and bar mitzvahs, from stores, and from independent visual artists.

As her collection grew, Grant found herself increasingly interested in art theory, cultural studies, and religious studies, particularly in reference to Judaism. At Vanderbilt, she received some mentoring from art historian Leonard Folgarait about her t-shirt project, and began “tracking” what her collection of t-shirts communicates about contemporary Jewish culture. She eventually founded SHMATTES, a nonprofit organization, website, and traveling exhibition featuring her t-shirt collection. SHMATTES’s mission is “to help change the way we think about Jewish cultural identity,” Grant says.

“Shmattes” is a Yiddish word meaning “rags” — which, the Yale student writes on the SHMATTES website, is fitting for t-shirts, which are “disposable, cheap, and until the 1960s were unfit to wear even in public.” 

Grant says her t-shirts bear witness as material objects to what the Pew Center revealed in a 2013 study of American Jewish life: that many people identify as “cultural” Jews but are not practicing the religion in a traditional sense.

“Self-aware, visually striking, and often funny and provocative, these t-shirts are narratives of wildly divergent culturally Jewish identities,” Grant writes on her website. “With their cheeky, status-conscious treatments of what is (and what is not) Jewish, these shirts challenge the myth of a united and dominant American Jewish identity.”

As she began to focus her attention on her t-shirts and on writing about modern Jewish identity, Grant decided to leave the Vanderbilt Ph.D. program, eventually coming to New Haven to serve as cultural arts manager at the Jewish Community Center in New Haven.

As part of SHMATTES, she also began exhibiting her collection of t-shirts. Her first show was at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale in the spring of 2014. Since then her exhibit has traveled to the Brown University/RISD Hillel Gallery and the Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia (where Grant earned her undergraduate degree in Jewish studies). It is currently on view through April 1 at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City. That exhibition was selected by PBS’ Channel 13 in early February as one of its “Top Five Picks” of events happening in the city and was recently featured on NBC Channel 4 in New York.

The t-shirts in Grant’s collection include one that says “I don’t roll on Shabbas,” featuring a picture of a character in the Coen brothers’ comedy film “The Big Lebowski,” and one showing three different, incorrect spellings of Hanukkah, which are crossed out. Another portrays images from the Dr. Seuss book “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” only with the Blue Fish replaced by a comic image of a gefilte fish.

“The t-shirts are highly intertextual, meaning they are constantly pulling references from other cultural artifacts that you either know or don’t know,” says Grant. “I purposely don’t use captions on the t-shirts in exhibitions because that’s the whole point of the show: You either get it or you don’t.” In addition to food and films, some of the t-shirts make reference to alternative hip hop and other forms of music.

Grant is especially drawn to t-shirts that are provocative or humorous. Among her own favorites are one she got from a bartender in Philadelphia that says “I Heard There’d Be Christian Girls Here,” one that proclaims “Silent Nights Are Boring,” and another worn by a Jewish Harley-Davidson rider that quips “My Hog is Kosher.”

“That’s a clever one!” says Grant, who is Jewish. “I really like the ones that make you think or be more curious or laugh.”

What Grant has learned from her collection of t-shirts is that many people who identify as Jewish are moving away from traditional religious practices.

“Most Jewish Americans at this point don’t think of themselves as Orthodox by a long shot,” she says. “That means that the ways people are identifying Jewishly are changing drastically. For this group of people, it’s no longer about eating kosher or observing Shabbat or fasting on Yom Kippur.”

After viewing her t-shirt collection at an exhibition, those who are Jewish might come away with some clarity about their own Jewish identity, she adds.

“The show is generation-specific,” says Grant. “It situates people as to where they fall in this universe of references to Jewishness.”

Some of the t-shirts in her collection contain vulgarity, explicit sexual references, or other text or graphics that might be offensive to religious Jews, Grant acknowledges. She says that for some exhibitions — at student Hillels, for example — the shirts that might be problematic for some people are turned on their hangers or hidden in some way during special religious-oriented meals or prayer gatherings. She gives as an example one that says “I’m Jewish, wanna check?” with a graphic of a downward-pointing arrow.

“My own perspective is that if you make everything so sacred, you lose a lot of learning and you lose a lot of dialog,” Grant says. “If you can distance yourself enough to not be offended by certain things, I think you can come away from the show with a lot of food for thought. … [I]f you go in wanting to learn and wanting to think about material objects like t-shirts as your teachers, I think it can be a really enlightening experience.”

While in New Haven, Grant was accepted at Yale Divinity School, where she is in the Concentrated Master of Arts in Religion Program. She has taken such courses as the Institute of Sacred Music’s “Visual Controversies: Religion and the Politics of Vision,” taught by Sally Promey and Vasileios Marinis, and the Department of the History of Art’s graduate-level “Cross-Cultural Aesthetics: From Hybridity to Transculturation,” taught by Kobena Mercer. For the latter, Grant wrote a final paper about two of her hip-hop related t-shirts.

“Just to be able to take a class and have the flexibility and freedom to write final papers about what I do in my spare time, while employing the theoretical knowledge I now have through the classroom, has been great,” Grant says. “Before I came here, I had to teach myself the nuts and bolts of art theory.”

Her SHMATTES project, the Yale Divinity student says, has helped her to learn many new skills, from how to file for non-profit status to negotiating terms for her exhibits to holding conference calls.

“SHMATTES changed all sorts of things for me,” says Grant. “It led me out of a Ph.D. program and led me here.” She is also working part-time as a researcher in the education department of the Yale University Art Gallery.

While her project might eventually become a topic for a thesis, Grant says her t-shirt-collecting days are probably over.

“After three years, I think I’m ready to move on to a new project,” she says. She is currently trying to obtain funding for a new project about unconventional Jewish conversion narratives.

At Yale, Grant says, she enjoys being a part of a strong Jewish community, even though she is only somewhat observant of her own religion.

“Here, young people in their 20s show up voluntarily to be together and pray,” says Grant. “It’s incredible. I think it’s nice to see diversity of all kinds not just being tolerated but being embraced, and I’d like to think that Yale is increasingly becoming a place where your differences are not just tolerated and held at arm’s length but where people are curious and want to know more.”

In addition to her exhibit at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City, which was extended due to high visitor interest, Grant will also have a pop-up show on April 20 at 7 p.m. in Zelnick Pavilion at Wesleyan University. The event is free and open to the public.

Photos: T-shirts tell a story about modern Jewish culture

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