Ralph Lauren is retiring. So too is his WASP-y Jewish era (COMMENTARY)

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Designer Ralph Lauren greets the crowd after presenting his Spring/Summer 2016 collection during New York Fashion Week in New York, on September 17, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Designer Ralph Lauren greets the crowd after presenting his Spring/Summer 2016 collection during New York Fashion Week in New York, on September 17, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

(RNS) So, Ralph Lauren, nee Lifshitz, is retiring (sort of).

The creator of the iconic Polo brand has announced that he is going to step down as CEO of his fashion empire.

What was the psychology behind Lauren’s success?

It was the iconic Polo label.

Here was the subliminal message: I am wearing a picture of a polo player and a horse. I could be someone from the polo-playing class.

But first, a little bit about Ralph Lifshitz.

He was born in the Bronx to Pinsk, Belarus, immigrants. He attended the school that is now known as the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy.

Ralph Lauren knew (or still knows?) Torah.

So, what is the Torah of Ralph Lauren?

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It’s about Jewish entrepreneurship.

Perhaps it started with this week’s Torah portion, the account of creation itself.

When God created Adam and Eve, they were told that they would be “like God,” which one medieval commentator defines as being “creators of worlds.”

Jews created the fashion industry and the entertainment business. This made them very successful in imagining and creating new worlds.

Many of the Jews who created the entertainment industry were willing to shed their Jewish ethnicity in order to advance their careers. For a while, network television was the domain of three Jews — William Paley at CBS, David Sarnoff at NBC and Leonard Goldenson at ABC. They created the sitcoms of 1950s and 1960s television — a “Leave It to Beaver” world, with white picket fences.

But the white-picket-fence world of 1950s television never really existed. As Neal Gabler writes in his book “An Empire of Their Own”: “The American Dream is a Jewish invention.”

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Ralph Lauren’s WASP fantasyland was also a Jewish invention. The ultimate irony: He designed a world that Jews in the early part of the 20th century could only have dreamed of entering — the clubs they could not join, the tony suburbs in which they once could not live, the universities they could not attend.

His own style icon was none other than the former King Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor — an exiled, royal embarrassment, who had impeccable taste (except in world leaders and ideologies; he admired Hitler).

Hence, the old cliche: “Think Yiddish, dress British.”

But that world Ralph re-created — the world of the WASP — has disappeared, and with it, Jewish assimilationist fantasies.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew what they wanted, and by and large they got it. They wanted to be Americans.

Consider Philip Roth’s famous short story, “Eli the Fanatic.” It was first published as part of the “Goodbye Columbus” collection in 1959. It is one of the defining stories of modern Judaism.

In the story, of a group of assimilated Jews in a leafy Westchester, N.Y., suburb hires a Jewish lawyer named Eli Peck to drive a yeshiva of Holocaust survivors out of their community. They don’t like the way one of the Orthodox survivors dresses when he does business in town. He is, quite simply, an embarrassment to the other Jews — a reminder of the world that they fled, and the world that had been destroyed.

Eli prevails upon the man to dress differently. He gives him one of his Brooks Brothers suits to wear. The survivor responds by giving Eli one of his black suits to wear. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Eli dons the suit, and fumbles with the lock on his back door. A neighbor calls him: “Eli, there’s a Jew at your door.”

“It’s me,” says Eli.

Fast-forward, a half-century.

Since the time “Eli the Fanatic” was first published, many Jews have felt a Jew knocking on their (spiritual) doors — the inner Jew.

Not every Jew wants to be an active Jew. But neither do they want to be something else, in order to lubricate their entrance into an upper-class world.

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That world is now open to everyone. There is nothing left to assimilate to.

For some 300 years, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ruled American life and its institutions.

No longer.

The mainstream churches, the bastion of WASP-dom, are shrinking.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Religion News Service photo by Steve Remich

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Religion News Service photo by Steve Remich

You really want to see the decline of the WASP? Look at who is running for president, and who has run for president and vice president: Catholics (even two Hispanics); Mormons (Mitt Romney); Jews (Bernie Sanders and, once, Joe Lieberman). Two presidential hopefuls — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — have Jewish in-laws; in Trump’s case, Orthodox Jewish grandchildren.

Ralph Lauren might be stepping back, but his brand continues. Why shouldn’t it? It’s a good product.

But the fantasy — that you can be a WASP — has vanished.

Good riddance.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society. )


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  • Jack

    It depends on how you look at it.

    Most of the slang and catch words, as well as dress, in our culture come from two main sources — the black inner city and…..drumroll, please…the “WASP” prep school world that supposedly vanished.

    Buy the Preppy Handbook from 35 years ago, look at the glossary, and you’ll see how many phrases endure to this day.

    And look at the kinds of suits and business casual outfits both men and women continue wearing today. It all came from the preppy WASP subculture….it began proliferating in the 80s and it endures today.

    And that’s what Ralph Lauren did — he spread it to the whole country, to the whole of white collar America, from entry-level office workers to CEOs and law partners.

    And go to the upper West Side of Manhattan where modern but unassimilated Orthodox Jews are a growing population, and see what they’re wearing — same thing. Lauren and Brooks Brothers.

  • Jack

    In other words, Ralph Lauren’s success is proof that Americans of various races, ethnicities, and religions can retain their uniqueness while also identifying as American. The preppy uniform is the symbol of the majority of people buying into Americanism without having to be literal WASPs.

  • samuel johnston

    “It’s about Jewish entrepreneurship.””…Jews created the fashion industry and the entertainment business.’…”But that world Ralph re-created — the world of the WASP — has disappeared, and with it, Jewish assimilationist fantasies.”
    There is a nastyness here that needs to be acknowledged. The Declaration of Independence, the Amarican Constitution with the Bill of Rights, were not superficial and stylistic- the were substantive. Snarkeyness and ungratefulness are undermining the great gift we have received from our Euripean ancestors. I am not arguing that my ancestors were “better” or “more worthey” than your ancestors. I am arguing that what they left us to build upon, is unique, valuable, and in danger of being destroyed by the attitudes expressed by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin. Shall we all return to the ancient tribal conflicts of the Middle East, or shall we choose to live together in peace? The dead cannot do anything. It is up to us.

  • Z

    Nastiness? Did he say anything negative about the founding fathers or the American system?

    And yet as late as the 1960s, the United States was an apartheid country. Jews were regarded as socially inferior and did NOT have the same rights a your ancestors. No matter how successful they might become, Jews could vacation in many resort areas, or houses in fashionable communities. No matter how successful they were, Jews could not to send their kids to many private schools, because they were Jews. Signs reading “no dogs or Jews” were not unusual sights on restaurant windows.

    Ralph Lauren lived in that world, as a second class citizen. That he changed his name and suppressed his Jewish identity (My grandfather did the same thing) was not gratuitous; it was because in America, to be Jewish was a handicap.

    None of which lessens my appreciation for what the founding fathers accomplished.

    But today, violent anti-Semitism is re-emerging. Salkin isn’t the problem here.

  • samuel johnston

    When I travel, I am reluctant to disclose that I am from Birmingham Alabama, because so many folks I encounter would assume that I am a redneck, hillbilly, evangelical, know nothing. Back in the Seventies, I went to work for the Brookmire brothers (they used the name Brook) in Atlanta. When I told them my name, they said it sounded to them like the names of cowboys in the movies (ha,ha).
    In the next breath one asked me why folks from Alabama were so anti-Semitic (I had to look up the definition of anti-Semitic -and we qualified.
    Over the years I have worked for and with many Jews. The secular bunch are mostly easy going and tolerant, but the religious crowd tend of to be strident and heading towards paranoia, much like their Christian evangelical “cousins”. At what point do people become responsible for their own troubles with the larger society?
    We are all weighted down with our history, if we choose to be. There is also the unique opportunity to just be an American, free of…

  • Jack

    Samuel, I think Rabbi Salkin means well but has profoundly misunderstood how Ralph Lauren and his success show that in the end (1) at least the trappings of WASP represent American culture and the aspirations of most Americans (2) to admire it is not to lose surrender one’s own culture and (3) the proof is how Americans of all cultures, and even first-generation immigrants from half-way around the world, wear Ralph Lauren clothing.

    Ralph Lauren clothing symbolized the larger American identity that most Americans aspire to. Its universal popularity symbolizes what is truly wonderful about America — that no matter one’s origins or ethnicity, we all subscribe to an American identity while still maintaining our cultural roots.

    It is the rejection of multiculturalism without rejecting pluralism.

    And it bodes very well for our country’s future.

  • Jack

    Z, you’re missing a much bigger point: The near-universal popularity of Ralph Lauren’s clothing, where today, Pakistani immigrants are nearly as likely to be wearing a Polo shirt as descendants of the Mayflower generation, speaks to a single American identity to which people aspire…..without shedding their own ethnic identities. The fact that Lauren shed his own identity is true enough, but dwelling on that misses the enormous implications of what I just said.

    The triumph of Lauren clothing is one of inclusivity, not exclusivity – a rejection of multiculturalism but an affirmation of e pluribus Unum, with a dash of pluralism, too.

  • Jack

    It cuts many ways, Z. Most Ashkenazi Jews came from countries where they were clearly superior in every way to their neighbors — from quality of family life to prevalence of education to native intelligence to basic moral and ethical behavior.

    But when Jews came to America, they met their match, so to speak. They reacted in various ways to that bracing fact, as did the WASP elite.

    At that point in our nation’s history, the WASP elite, which once was very pro-Jewish due to its fidelity to the Bible, was beginning its long decline. It began to exchange its native evangelicalism for higher criticism of the Bible, and to buy into the “new science” of the time, which centered on Social Darwinism and eugenics, clearly unbiblical concepts. That led anti-Semitic policies such as quotas for admission to the best schools.

    Also, while Jews met their match with WASPs, ditto with WASPs, who felt threatened by Jewish intellect and achievement.

  • Jack

    But the bottom line is that the great nation that the ancestors of the WASP elite created allowed Jews to immigrate in the first place, granted religious freedom, and in the end allowed Jews to make it in America the same way the original WASPS did, by building new enterprises from scratch. So even thought the WASP elite of the 20th century gave Jews a frosty reception, their ancestors created America in the first place…..they were essentially betraying their ancestors by redefining what WASP meant, turning it from a deeply spiritual and moral thing into an elitist, exclusivist thing. They replaces morals with manners, and ethics with etiquette, forgetting that both manners and etiquette came from their ancestors’ attempts to apply their faith to every nook and cranny of life.

  • Jack

    I don’t think Rabbi Salkin is trying to be “nasty.” I think he’s reflexively repeating the Jewish narrative of the encounter with WASP elites in the last century. It’s one-sided, sure, but those on the WASP side with a historical memory will repeat their own one-sided narrative, too. Ask members of old-line families about the great struggle on Wall Street between old banking families and the emerging Jewish presence and you’ll get a flavor of it. Basically, the Jews beat the daylights out of the WASP elites on Wall Street, partly because the WASP elite was in deep decline and partly because the Jews were what the WASP elite once was — dynamic, forward-looking and aggressive, and focused on substance over form.