In a corner of the Contemporary Jewish Museum gift shop stand two wooden frames with a clothesline strung between them featuring an array of T-shirts. A blue shirt bears a Star of David-shaped version of the unmistakable red and yellow Superman “S” logo. A purple tee from Camp Ramah in Ojai announces the camp’s ZIP code. A gray shirt has the OU kosher symbol on the front and reads “As Kosher as You Wanna Be” on the back — an artifact of professor Ari Y. Kelman’s college years at U.C. Santa Cruz. Kelman, the Jim Joseph chair in education and Jewish studies at Stanford, discusses some of the tees in a series of video features projected onto a white sheet behind the shirts.
This is “Hidden in Plain Sight! T-Shirts and the Curation of Identity,” a multimedia exhibition “exploring T-shirts as canvases for meditation on contemporary identities.” On display in the CJM shop through Nov. 1, the exhibit is the brainchild of Kelman, who developed it in collaboration with Sam Ball of the S.F. nonprofit Citizen Film, along with some of Kelman’s grad students at Stanford.
But the most interesting part of the exhibit is online. At the website www.ethnictshirts.org, you can watch each of the slickly produced videos, and everyone is invited to contribute to the exhibition by Instagramming a selfie wearing a favorite Jewish T-shirt and tagging it #ethnicteeshirts. A computer set up next to the exhibit in the museum shop allows visitors to engage with the online portion. “A lot of people stop to interact” with it, said Kevin Grenon, the store director.
For those who spent their childhood, adolescence or college years attending Jewish programs — and whose closets were at some point overflowing with Jewish tees — the very idea of T-shirts as ethnic or religious identity is immediately evocative. But the concept goes way back.
“When immigrant Jews arriving in the United States wanted to fit in, one of the first things they changed was their clothes,” Kelman writes on the website. “Today, we curate our individual and collective identities every time we get dressed. For the majority of Jews, who ‘pass’ as ethnically white, wearing T-shirts bearing Jewish messages calls attention to an identity that might otherwise be invisible.”
On Instagram, 10-year-old Solly appears wearing a 2009 Camp Tawonga staff shirt. “Camp Tawonga is one of my favorite places in the world. At Tawonga, I feel connected to nature and Judaism,” he says. Instagram user zanykirz posted an image of a black T-shirt that reads “A challah in the oven,” with the comment, “Maternity tee from my mother-in-law that announces and connects my enormous life changes with my Jewish identity.” Another from zanykirz: “Tee from Sukkot sleep out for the homeless at UVA Hillel, where I learned to connect Jewishness with how I acted in the world.”
In one video, Kelman talks about a shirt that depicts actor John Goodman as Polish-American Jewish convert Walter Sobchak from the Coen Brothers film “The Big Lebowski,” which has a huge cult following, especially among younger Jews. The shirt quotes Goodman’s most famous line from the movie, “I don’t roll on Shabbas,” which comes up in an argument about a bowling league game that has been scheduled for a Friday night.
“The decision between observing the laws of his bowling league and observing the laws of the Sabbath is a kind of classic Jewish dilemma between holding to a set of religious beliefs and a desire to participate in American culture more broadly,” Kelman says in the video. “Walter’s dilemma has made him a particularly beloved character to Jewish fans of the film.”
Several of the shirts featured in the exhibit are on sale in the museum store. Grenon lamented that they can’t sell all of the shirts in the exhibit because of copyright. His favorite, however, is on sale; it looks like it might be from Yosemite National Park, but it actually says, “Yo Semite.”
“Hidden in Plain Sight!” is on exhibit through Nov. 1 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum store, 736 Mission St., S.F. Free. www.thecjm.org