What Is in a Busby, What Is in a Top-Hat: Tall Hats, and the Politics of Jewish Identity and Social Positioning

By Nissan, Ephraim | The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

What Is in a Busby, What Is in a Top-Hat: Tall Hats, and the Politics of Jewish Identity and Social Positioning


Nissan, Ephraim, The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies


1. Introduction

On the face of it, this is an article about costume. At a deeper level, it fits at the interface of material culture and the history of ideas within Jewish societies, about their place in hosting societies. As early as Amoraic Babylonia, we find that reasoning was explicitly made about the association (through a social convention) between a tall hat and social positioning. Of course, it does not need to be the case that higher status be signalled by means of a tall hat. The main thrust of this paper is two-pronged.

On the one hand, the article concerns a busby as the iconic social signal of incipient integration into the military, and then the higher echelons of the military for that matter--an area from which Jews were traditionally excluded. They were permitted however to have support roles: procurement in the early modern period in both Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire, and later on as medical officers in the Ottoman Empire in the years preceding 1908, when general conscription was decreed for the minorities, and a few would be admitted into the military academy in Constantinople. By 1893 the integration of British Jews in the military was advanced enough to make it possible for a Hanukkah celebration, "a quite unprecedented ceremonial" for Jewish "soldiers and volunteers," to take place at the Borough Synagogue in London. Figure 1-1 shows a detail from an image published along with a report (1) in The Graphic of 23 December 1893. Pay attention to the variety of military hats. A few civilians in the congregation wear a top-hat instead. Ladies in the ladies' balcony (not shown in this detail) wear the usual kind of women's hats shared with gentile society.

On the other hand, Jewish integration in both New York and London was beginning to take place at a time when the top-hat was already an iconic social signal of relative prominence in civil society (though its use--for stovepipe hats--also reached some in the lower classes). We are going to see, in Section 4, how a Jewish satirist treated the social role of the top-hat among Jews in New York about 1890, whereas in Section 5, various aspects of the top-hat as worn, even by Jews, are considered, with examples from Britain and Austria-Hungary, and Italy (including perceptions or symbology of the Jew as the quintessential Capitalist). Australia is also discussed.

The fact that there were Jews in the military in countries like the United States and Britain did not dispel a persistent, unsympathetic perception that Jews were reluctant to enlist. (2) Refer to Figure 1-2, which appeared in Punch in London in 1854, along with a brief item of text (3) under the headline "A Fine Opening for Young Israel" and the sub-headline "Recruiting Sergeant and Swell Jew." The sergeant says: "Enlist, my fine fellow, and serve the QUEEN." The Jew replies with an accent recorded in the spelling: "Much rayther remain as I am, and serve de Queen's Bench." Contrast this with a remark in Katz: "A Jew was admitted as solicitor in 1770, and a little later a practising Jew was given an officer's commission in the king's army" (Katz 1994). (4) Born in 1784, Moses Montefiore was captain of the Surrey Militia in 1805, attaining that rank after he enrolled as a volunteer at the time of the French invasion panic.

It is also worthwhile to note that about ten years after the given cartoon and text about supposed Jewish reluctance to serve in the British army, Jews fought for both the Union and the Confederation in the American Civil War. In the United States, the law opening chaplaincy to Jewish clergy was passed by Congress in July, 1862. Even so, Mark Twain ascribed to the Jews a reluctance to serve in the army. (5)

The media that convey the examples we discuss in this essay come in several kinds, two of which are family photographs and recollections for the Ottoman examples, and humoristic text in the case of the talmudic example from Sassanian Babylonia, and of the example from New York in the early 1890s. …

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