Scroll past images of showering models in mesh bodysuits and bare-faced girls in just-long-enough hoodies on American Apparel’s Tumblr, and you’ll find a surprising sight: a playful model sporting—along with classic menswear—perfectly curled earlocks, a chest-length beard, and a large, round fur cap. In one, he’s playfully sprawled on what appears to be a white-sheeted mattress, one hand under his cheek, the other on his hip. Sassy. If American Apparel is notorious for its hipster-next-door models, Yiddish-speaking Yoel Weisshaus is simply representing your quintessential Hasid next door.
Weisshaus is amused by the fascination that’s sprung up since his modeling debut. The photos of him were published on Saturday, but fittingly, began gaining traction online Wednesday, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
The company’s notoriously scandalous past advertisements seem to butt heads with the high value Judaism’s most conservative sects put on modesty—a point Weisshaus isn’t too concerned with. “Why would there be a conflict? It’s just a photo.” He acknowledges it’s unusual to see a Hasidic man in an advertisement for a mainstream retailer, but says those marketing decisions have “nothing to do with me.”
Weisshaus, who’s dabbled in acting prior to this modeling turn, juggles side jobs to bring in extra income while he’s a full-time student at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. A few months ago, the 32-year-old was told by a friend that American Apparel was seeking Hasidic models for a photo shoot, so he applied, went in for an interview, and scored the job. It wasn’t just for money. The images combat the stereotypes of religious Jews, who value their insular communities, but also, he says, the typecast of the company’s amateur models.
“Some people are complaining saying American Apparel always has only nude or sexually oriented models, and quite to the contrary—you can see the same thing on the nonsexual figure, just in regular dress,” he says, He’s enjoying pushing the envelope, in this case. “I like the controversy, I enjoy the conversation, I like to get people talking with this stuff going on.” In fact, they didn’t quite have enough time in the four-hour shoot last month to do all the outfits planned, and he would gladly go back to the studio for more. (A request for comment to the company went unanswered as of press time.)
Though the founder of American Apparel is Jewish—and even recently unveiled a black nail polish color called “Hassid”—the company has run into religious controversy before, after being sued by Woody Allen for using an image of him as an Orthodox Jew with Yiddish text reading “The High Rabbi.” It was a move Weisshaus found much more humorous than offensive.
“It’s not using religion, it’s me presenting myself and I deliver the message,” he says. “Whoever wants to interpret it to any other way they can interpret it, but for me I see it only as: I enjoyed it, it was a good photo shoot, a great team, we worked great together, and had some good laughs.”
Weisshaus was raised speaking Yiddish in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which in the past couple of years has seen its Hasidic demographic infiltrated by American Apparel–buying hipsters. Styles of the two groups have been known to overlap (a notion the blog ”Hasid or Hipster” jokingly toys with). The irony isn’t lost on Weisshaus, and he spins his participation in the ads with a historical twist. “Many Jewish immigrants were laborers in the fashion industry in the city, and a big part of it is rooted in the Hasidic heritage,” Weisshaus notes. “Hasids had a big part in development of American Apparel, and big part of the fashion industry has come from [us]. It’s a part of history we should not forget.” His modeling is somewhat of an homage to the religion’s history, he notes.
Weisshaus may not frequent American Apparel much himself (“I’ll tell you what, I’m a peasant, sometimes I cannot afford American Apparel”), but he doesn’t see why other Hasidic Jews wouldn’t shop there for work and casual clothing.
American Apparel’s sweatshop-free, made-in-the-USA branding first made the retailer famous. And Weisshaus himself is an activist who made headlines two years ago for filing suit against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for their exorbitant toll hikes, which, at double the minimum wage, he says limits his freedom of movement. The case, in which Weisshaus is representing himself, is currently ongoing in a southern district court of New York.
The retailer, he says, may be a bit expensive, but it pays workers a living wage in the struggling economy. “That’s what I found very impressive about American Apparel. They resonate that similar message in a different context, but we’re both advocates for the same thing.”
Weisshaus has dabbled in the entertainment industry since 2010, doing some freelance acting gigs, including once playing a rabbi in “Focus on the Flair,” a music video for rapper Y-Love, who is gay, African-American, and a former Hasidic Jew.
Weisshaus hasn’t had time to show his family the pictures yet, but says when he told them about the job, they all laughed. His grandmother in particular found it amusing and formed an analogy that if Hillary Clinton, during her 2000 run for the New York Senate seat, could mingle with the state’s Hasidic leaders, anything was possible. To his grandmother, the two are of the same outsider level. “If [Clinton] was welcome in the community, then I see no problem with American Apparel,” she told him.
Whether or not his religious beliefs gel with American Apparel’s message, the company’s newest face says he’s only gotten positive feedback from his friends and the professors he’s closest to on campus. And if any dissent surfaces, he knows where he stands. “Some people get offended, some people laugh at everything.”
Perhaps American Apparel will be selling Hasid fur hats called shtreimels—like the one Weisshaus brought to the shoot—as their latest winter offering. Besides, who would have previously predicted a Hasidic model representing the spandex-loving retailer? Certainly not Weisshaus. “You never know what will happen,” he says. “I’m already at the age where you don’t even predict, you just go along with the flow.”