Monday, June 22, 2015

The Jew and the Muumuu: Celebrating Survival

It is said that all Jewish holidays revolve around this essential philosophy: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat!" But, as I wrote this post, I came to wonder if, for some Jewish women, there is also this essential philosophy: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's dress up!" Here is my story of Miami, a maxi dress, some muumuus, and a new feeling of pride in my body.

Sandals: Wonders; Necklace: blogger prize; Sunglasses: Aldo; Earrings: vintage; Dress: I cut out the tag so I don't know
I've worn this dress before, generally when my back is hurting so much that I want to wear the closest thing to a nightgown that I can. But this was the first time that the dress made me think of my roots, the ones I never really got to know as a child: my paternal, Jewish roots, and the colourful, cultural flamboyance of some elderly Jewish women.

As I worked on this post, looking at photo after photo of Jewish women who were old when I was still a child, I realized that some of them were Holocaust survivors. (Of course, I can't be sure that all the women in this post are Jewish but most of them are.) I found myself reflecting on the beauty of bodies -- like theirs, and, some day, mine-- that have endured hell and survived to become elderly and plump. In that context, the bright colours of flamboyance become a kind of celebration of survival, and of chaim (life) itself.

I was raised by my Quaker, maternal family. I recently confirmed that they too were Jewish (on their maternal line), but there was very little cultural evidence of that as I was growing up. In the Quaker tradition, I was taught to be modest and simple in my lifestyle so as not to let the material world and greed distract me from contemplative prayer and doing good works for the less fortunate.

This included an almost unspoken but deeply felt belief that flamboyant and flashy fashion choices were, somehow, vain, materialistic, and a distraction from what was really important. No matter how much I explain to myself that this is not so, I still struggle with feeling that the way I dress is somehow counter to my deep passion for social justice.

Photo by Gay Block
I'm pretty darned sure I would not feel this way if I'd been raised in the Jewish side of my family!

I love bright, loud colours, and fashion as a form of playfulness.

Is this, like my uncontrollable hair, genetic? It's hard to say. I have so many characteristics associated with cultural Jewishness: I'm neurotic, studious, brainy, talkative, sceptical, questioning, and, yes, I love love love my jewels.

Genetic or not, there it is: me. As I posed for these photos, gesticulating and glamping, I was thinking of one thing:

Photo by Gay Block
The Jewish retirement community in and around Miami, circa 1960s - 1980s.
All four of the people in this photo survived the Holocaust, and here they are, in their joyful, playful colours, kibitzing (chatting) and laughing.

I survived years and years of child sex trafficking that left me with complex PTSD and at least one back injury that now causes constant pain and disability -- and here I am, in my joyful, playful colours, laughing and hamming it up for the camera.

Who can explain the resilience of the human spirit?

Some people have that in them. I don't know why.

Photo by Flip Schulke 
But thank God for it.

All this rumination started with this muumuu.

Okay, technically I think it's a kaftan, or, if you insist, a maxi, but whatever.

I'm not even sure why, but, when I think of muumuus, after I think of Mrs. Roper from Three's Company ...

I think of retired Jews in Miami.

Muumuus and their variations had a real Vogue in the 1960s and 70s.

I'm sure that Elizabeth Taylor's fondness for them helped their popularity. They were all over the place.

The young certainly did wear them.

But the those elderly who loved flamboyance (so not my Quaker family) took to them like fish to water. And why not? They're incredibly comfortable, they conceal anything a woman might want to conceal, and their colours and patterns are fun.

Let's face it: There is very little difference between the kaftans and muumuus of the 70s and the maxi dresses of today.

They both allow great comfort and freedom of movement ...

Photo by Gary Monroe
... for whatever ....

Photo by Gay Block (?)
... you wish to do in them.

And they both allow a great freedom of expression for the flamboyant woman ...

... like me ...

From Remembering Mawmie. Check it out for more great photos of Mawmie's muumuus.
... like her ...

Iris Apfel
... and her ...

Some of the great Advanced Style ladies
... and them.

They're also friendly to old and/or crippled bones and bodies that have a little -- or a lot -- of trouble getting up ...

... and down ...

...and around in general. For certain people, they just make sense.

Photo by Gay Block (?)
And then there's the heat, something to be had in great abundance in those Florida retirement communities.

Photo by Flip Schulke
Personally, I'd rather die than lie out in the sun on a Miami beach.

The sun and I remain mortal enemies.

Muumuus, kaftans, and maxi dresses allow for maximum air flow. I feel sorry for men in the summer. They just don't get that option.
This was posted anonymously by the now grown little girl in the photo. The older woman is her grandmother.
One my fondest memories of my troubled childhood is of staying with my step-father's sister -- without my family. I was five and I felt safer with her than I did at any other time in my childhood.

She lived in hot, sunny, southern California, had a very spoiled miniature poodle, and wore a string of muumuus and polyester pant suits. She bought me a little blue nightgown that she let me wear as my very own muumuu. I remember it as light and airy and very pretty. I was so proud of it that I told complete strangers about it in the blissfully cool, air conditioned supermarket.

From Grandma Style on The Spohrs are Multiplying
She was marvellous! Both of the two above photos remind me of my relationship with her.

Even her house, a now classic, mid-century, modern ranch style, was quintessentially of its period and of her generation.

Perhaps that's why my muumuu/maxi-dress made me feel I simply had to pose with his house, which is for sale nearby.

Photo by Flip Schulke
But back to the old Jews upon whom I modelled myself in my outfit. The muumuu was, of course, not their only go-to fashion choice, but, man oh man, those colours keep showing up!

They're everywhere, and I love them!

It's easy to figure out where the inspiration for Seinfeld's parents came from. Do the colours of her dress look familiar?

Of course they do!

I assume that their place in the Del Boca Vista retirement home was a ranch style. It had to be!

And check out those gestures. Do they remind you of anyone?

Of course they do.

Photo by Flip Schulke
No wall-flowers we. Not us!

Genetic or not, I'm going to run with it. Modest, Quaker, dressing is not for me!

While we're on the subject of genetics, take a look at my figure here. In middle age and disability, I'm becoming a tad "matronly". In other words, my curves are becoming substantial.

Photo by Flip Schulke
As I researched this post, I saw my own future in the bodies of all the substantial, older, Jewish women I saw in photos. I've always known that my short, mesomorphic body came from my Jewish side of the family, but I'd never thought of my increasing curves as being Jewish too. How odd that this never occurred to me.

It makes me feel differently about my body. It makes me feel proud.

Photo by Flip Schulke
I love this woman, and, one day, I'm going to look a whole lot like her.

Gosh. That's not so bad, is it?

It's a survivor's body, flamboyantly attired ...

... magnificent curves and all, just like those of my Holocaust surviving forebears.

I'm going to work to think of it as a proud sign of survival. Next time I look at my curves and feel badly that I'm no longer skinny, I shall try to remember: not all of us were so lucky as to grow old and round, so I shall wear my boldly coloured muumuus and celebrate survival. It's whole lot better than the alternatives, don't you think?

(I'm sharing this with Happiness at Midlife and Spy Girl because I know she'll like it.)


  1. I love your colorful muumuu and it looks great on you!

  2. You look fine - enjoy our heritage and why shouldn't you?

  3. It's a beautiful dress on you, I also love such style (and love kaftans too). Now, the real question is - how did you managed to get a mosaic mimicking your outfit so perfectly? :) Enjoy your Summer! xxx

  4. They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's celebrate! With food, with clothes, with music, with colours, with jokes! You have a wonderful heritage :-)

  5. if i had to choose between a bigott quaker or a cheerful jewish heritage guess what i take :-)
    love all the wonderful pics of that fabulous women! and do you look gorgeous in that mumu dress!!!! xxxxx

  6. I say we should celebrate everyday - since life is so precious :0 I love your cheery maxi dress - it's fun and like you said perfect for summer.


    Hope to see you Thursday for TBT Fashion linkup.

  7. You know the woman who p,aged Seinfeld's mom? I heard that her long-ago boyfriend was James Dwan. Cool, eh?