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Jewnion, yes!: Playful union labels poke loving fun at Jewish culture

Membership in the Union of Jewish Handymen is surprisingly affordable: For the cost of one well-designed T-shirt, anyone can belong to this elite trade group.

Unfortunately, there are no other benefits to joining, but Jewnion Label creator Joshua Abarbanel says it’s all about Jewish pride.

“Growing up, I always envied the Black Panthers,” he said. “I thought it was cool that a minority group could raise their fists in the air, and so I love this idea of Jewish people being proud and owning what they are.”

But his pride is a little less militant, and a little more tongue-in-cheek. Abarbanel, who as a young teen worked in home repair, joked to his wife, Stacey, that he was such a rare specimen maybe he should form a union with the other Jewish handymen. And so Jewnion Label’s first design was born. Since 2010, the company has offered a wide range of fictional Jewish trade union memorabilia on www.jewnionlabel.com.

In addition to the popular Union of Jewish Handymen line of T-shirts, mugs and tote bags (there’s also one for Jewish handywomen), another top seller is the Guild of Jewish Mothers. Playing off the commonly held belief that Jewish mothers are perhaps a bit too concerned — whether their children are warm, if they’ve eaten enough, if they’ll ever call home — the emblem features a sweater, a table setting and a telephone. The guild’s cheeky motto reads: “Worrying about tomorrow today.”

Stacey says the design turns the negative Jewish mother stereotype on its head: “It says: Yes, I am a Jewish mother! And it’s done in a loving and positive way, and I think people get that.”

Most of the designs feature inside jokes, puns and a comical twist on characteristically Jewish activities. “You have to be knowledgeable about Jewish culture to appreciate these designs,” she said. The target market is the same acculturated segment of Jewish Americans ages 30 to 50 who might enjoy He’Brew beer and Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”

Jewnion Label offers 20 witty designs, including the International Order of Challah Makers, the Benevolent Brotherhood of the Brit Milah and holiday-themed choices, such as the International Federation of Shofar Blowers, the Loyal Order of the Latke and a seasonal Sukkot favorite, B.O.O.T.H.S. International (which stands for Builders of Original Temporary Huts and Structures). All of the local chapters are number 613, a sly reference to the number of mitzvahs in the Torah.

Most of the emblems, conceived by the couple and then carefully rendered by Joshua, contain a central image drawn in the style of union labels from the 1920s and ’30s. A few labels are based on heraldic shields or medieval guilds and craftsmen alliances. But the labor movement references don’t go much deeper than the humorous notion of a group of people organized around, for instance, shmearing bagels.

Rather, the driving force behind Jewnion Labels is aesthetic. The Abarbanels have a passion for vintage imagery, which extends to their choice of home décor. “We don’t have much ‘art’ in our house. We love typography and signage,” said Joshua. “We’re always struck by hand-painted signs with nostalgic images and pictograms.”

And their intent isn’t to make a political statement. “We do it because it’s a lot of fun for us,” said Stacey.

Married for 20 years, Stacey and Joshua both attended U.C. Berkeley and now live in Southern California. Stacey works at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and Joshua is an artist and curator. Their 16-year-old twin daughters are part of the family business, occasionally giving input on the labels and wearing them to places where the message will resonate, like Camp Newman and the family’s synagogue, Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles. “They’re our de facto board of directors,” said Joshua.

Stacey and Joshua continue to add to the portfolio of designs and have started offering specialty products to Judaica retailers. The gift shop at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum sells a set of four Jewnion Label coasters.

The Abarbanels also are beta-testing a spin-off website called Palate of the People, which features fake union labels for foodies. Their trademark humor translates well to this demographic. Their emblem for the Universal Society of Garlic Lovers promotes “the power of positive stinking”; the Golden Guild of the Grilled Cheese proclaims, “Griddle Me This,” while the Dedicated Donut Lovers League describes them as “glazed and amused.”