During Hanukkah of last year, my mother sent me two sweatshirts from the new and very Jewish clothing line “Bubuleh.” One sweatshirt is imprinted with the name of the company, a word that most Jews regardless of their background can recognize as Yiddish pet-name used by zaydes and bubbes, and the other is adorned with the word “faygelah,” a Yiddish slang term for a homosexual. Though I didn’t put these garments on my wish list, my mom was certain I would love them. And I indeed love them. Walking around both New York City and Israel in these sweatshirts—getting smiles, smirks, nods and eyerolls from fellow Jews—I immediately feel a sense of kinship, a feeling that comes straight from the heart of Bubuleh and its founder: nice Jewish boy Jordan Star.
Jewish identity has always been important to Star. He was involved in Hillel in college, he lived in Israel for a brief time, and he, like many young Jews, pinpoints his Jewish grandparents as a source of joy. Many of us identify Yiddish as being the language of our ancestors, and still feel a sense of warmth when we hear it around the Shabbat dinner table. “I am trying to bring people, through clothing, to a better time,” Star says. “If you look at the research into nostalgia, you’ll see that people are always looking for a way to feel the comfort of childhood, or the comfort of a time gone by.” Bubuleh, which launched in December 2020, seeks to express a particularly Jewish nostalgia through the medium of fashion.
The tagline of the Bubuleh online store is “made with love and a little anxiety.”
And it succeeds. The tagline of the Bubuleh online store is “made with love and a little anxiety,” which is embroidered in playful colors on one of their bestselling t-shirts. Other items include shorts that read “kiss my tuchus,” and a facemask that says “shayna punim.” Select attire has been publicly donned by Jake Cohen, the New York Times bestselling author of the Jewish cookbook “Jew-ish,” and Shoshana Bean, the singer/songwriter currently starring on Broadway alongside Billy Crystal in “Mr. Saturday Night.”
Star, now working out of his apartment in Los Angeles, explained to me the irony of his garments appealing more broadly to young people while their inspiration comes from the older generations of American Jews. “One day during the pandemic, my cousin Rachel and I went to my grandmother’s house, and immediately started complaining about whatever was upsetting us that day. My grandma, who was undergoing intense chemotherapy at the time, stopped in the middle of our ranting, and just said ‘Do you guys realize that I’m the one with cancer?’”
The attitudes of sabbas and saftas during the pandemic encouraged Star to show them appreciation in an artistic way.
The attitudes of sabbas and saftas during the pandemic encouraged Star to show them appreciation in an artistic way. He notes: “Everyone I knew was so miserable—constantly talking about how their lives had been obstructed. But the older people, they adapted so quickly to Zoom and to other virtual gatherings without many complaints, and they were the ones with the threat of death over their heads. I found this to be really resilient.” Therefore, Star notes, the incorporation of Yiddish and fashion is not only an outlet for younger Jews to feel tethered to Jewish holiday meals and kisses from relatives at the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but also a salute to our elders and all the challenges they have had to overcome to keep Judaism alive.
In addition to a clear Jewish influence, Bubuleh also conveys an LGBT aura that has made the brand particularly attractive to gay, Jewish young people. “The queer aspect of my identity and the Jewish aspect of my identity are definitely intertwined—I don’t see them as separate from each other,” Star explains, a sentiment to which I can relate strongly. The month of June is designated for sexual minorities to be openly proud of who they are—often expressed through unique clothing. Star suggests that the same avenue for pride should be available for Jewish people.
“I see connections between how gay people have always been nervous to publicly show their identities and the way Jewish people have been periodically anxious to wear their Judaism on their sleeves,” Star explains. “Like last May for example, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas, even people I know were taking the mezuzahs off their doors and hiding their Magen David necklaces. What I design, what I put on clothes … I make sure that it helps people explore who they are and be proud of it. Seeing other people wearing cheeky Yiddish slogans creates a feeling of safety.””
Though Bubuleh clearly comes packaged with Jewish themes, it is a clothing brand for all people. “We are Jewish owned and Jewish inspired, but everyone and anyone can buy, in the same way that clothing manufactured by people of color with their culture intertwined in the fabric can be celebrated by everyone,” Star explains. “It’s an act of allyship, especially during a time when antisemitism is on the rise.” Star was also surprised at how many non-Jews knew what the word “Bubuleh” meant but were not aware that it came from Yiddish. “If everyone is going to know Yiddish because so many words are in the vocabulary today, they might as well support Jews and Jewish businesses who make it their trademark.”
Toward the end of our conversation, Star and I discussed how clothing manufacturing is embedded in the Jewish-American story. The first members of my family who made their way across the ocean worked in the garment district in New York City, as did many of their fellow Lower East Side dwellers. My great-grandfather opened a men’s clothing store on King’s Highway in Brooklyn that has since become a CVS Pharmacy. When we think of Jewish contribution to American society, we often think first of law, of media, of academia, but oddly, rarely of fashion.
“There are many important Jewish contributions to fashion, including Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs, and Tory Burch,” Star notes. “They’re not outspoken about being Jewish, however, because although America has been good to us, it sort of pressures us to detach from Judaism if we want to be successful in our fields.” Bubuleh seeks to combat this by injecting the spirit of Yiddishkeit back into clothing, to not only provide customers with quality material, but also to remind us of the Jewish contribution in what we wear.
“Wearing Bubuleh,” Star closes, “reminds us who we are and where we came from. It’s here to challenge internalized antisemitism by forming a community and getting back in touch with our roots. If Jews are going to survive, we need to know who we are.”
As a gesture of camaraderie with fellow Angelinos, Star is offering readers of Jewish Journal a 15% discount on merchandise from bubuleh.com if they use the code “JJ15” at checkout.
Blake Flayton is New Media Director and columnist for the Jewish Journal.