How do you turn Jewish identity into a hip, national business? Sarah Lefton, 31-year-old founder of Jewish Fashion Conspiracy, a sassy clothing design company did it with a decidedly “pro-Semitic” message; “I was working as the marketing director for a camp,” says Lefton, “and friends from the office would jokingly pronounce ‘Yosemite’ as ‘Yo, Semite.’ I thought, hey, that would make a great t-shirt slogan!”
Lefton started with a $400 investment and sold 36 t-shirts to her friends. As word of mouth spread via the Internet, business exploded, and Lefton created more designs—like her “Jews for Jeter” tee, after the New York Yankees player. “You have no idea how many secret Jewish East Coast baseball fans there are in other cities,” says Lefton, “I wore that one to a game in Oakland, and practically everyone who walked by was giving me a thumbs-up.” Lefton sold over 3,000 shirts last year, sporting slogans like “Bris me, I’m Jewish.”
Raised in South Carolina, Lefton says that the small size of the Jewish community where she grew up made her feel her identity more acutely. “Everything I’ve done has been in response to the feeling of having to work hard to create my own community. That was what 1 enjoyed so much about this project— wearing an overtly Jewish shirt in San Francisco and having people stop in the streets and ask where I got it. Nobody would have blinked in New York.”
While Jewish organizations throughout the country voice concern about assimilation, she says her generation is finding new ways to express cultural identity, from Hasidic reggae and Yiddish rap to organic cotton, fair-trade clothing.
The website proudly claims to be “Putting the ‘racy’ back in ‘conspiracy!'” Asked if selling sexy Jewish underwear has caused any scandal, Lefton responds, “When 1 made Hanukkah panties—which say ‘A great miracle happened here’—1 did get a few complaints from religious people who thought it was lashon kodesh—they didn’t want holy language on underwear. But most people just think it’s a riot.”
The next phase? Kvetch ‘n’stretch yoga gear. “I went to a yoga retreat and kept meeting people with names like Sudhir Goldberg. I thought, baseball stadiums are full of Jews, and so are yoga studios!” says Lefton. She’s currently working on a DVD called “Karaoke Shabbat,” using her own brand of humor to teach the sabbath blessings to secular Jews.
But Lefton isn’t stopping there. Asked about her long-term business plans, she confesses, “My sister and I talk all the time about opening a hipster-Judaica shop. Cool Judaica, not like something my grandmother would have. Yeah, it would be a store, but you could also come for a little Slivovitz and hear an interesting speaker talk about Hanukkah.” Manischewitz cocktails, anyone?
You can see Lefton’s apparel at www.jewishfashionconspiracy.com