“Sprezzatura” and yiddishkeit

By Gabriel Spiegel*

Growing up in a modern orthodox Jewish home, my family and I would go to synagogue every sabbath. In our community, the level of attire for shul could be simply described as business casual to business attire, and it is at the age of 13, when he becomes bar mitzvah, that a young man begins to dress this way. In addition, to the celebrations with family and friends, one of the most important moments of this weekend is when the bar mitzvah boy reads publicly from the Torah. Often, boys spend up to a year studying for this moment. However, the preparations for one’s bar mitzvah are not only liturgical. When that special time approaches, it is time to go shopping for two things. The first being a set of tefillin, and the second is your first nice dress outfits.
When my mother and I drove an hour’s distance to Brooklyn to go clothes shopping, I knew it was something special. When we arrived at the tailor shop, we were greeted hospitably. Mom even received a glass of wine. While drinking her she watched as the tailor measured me to see what suits he had that would most likely fit me best. Now, most kids hate clothes shopping because the options are usually never that exquisite and so they are not excited to wear them. However, in my case the clothes they had at this store were simply lavish beyond compare (for a 13-year-old), and I left that store with what was soon to be the birth of a lifelong obsession.
Weeks passed by and all I wanted to do was wear those three outfits mom and I had picked out. Why one may ask? Well, as my favorite clothing connoisseur Hugo Jacomet would say “When you put on a well-constructed jacket and you look sharp, you feel bulletproof.” Let’s just say that from that point on, if I was going to dress up, I was going to do it right.
Since then, I have learned a great deal about the small intricacies of men’s fashion; and I quickly realized that it mainly emanates from three countries: Great Britain, France, and Italy. Furthermore, ever since I read the Italian Gentleman by Hugo Jacomet, at the beginning of 2017, I was hooked on the idea of traveling to this magnificent country, not only to continue my studies for a semester abroad, but also to enrich my knowledge of and passion for its unique culture and people. What always caught my attention was its fascinating language, beautiful clothing, and magnificent art.
There is even a word in the Italian language, “sprezzatura,” which means to have a “certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
This fascinating word was coined by the Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione in his masterpiece, The Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, where he considers the proper way to behave in a princely court. Among the many topics in this complex discussion of the mores, fashions and practices of 16th-century court culture, is an understanding of one’s clothing. Now, the point of sprezzatura is to have this appearance of being perfectly put together, while giving the impression that you just simply took the first suit, shirt, tie, and pair of shoes that you saw in your wardrobe that very morning, when in fact, you did indeed put forth considerable effort to make sure you are well dressed.
One modern misinterpretation of sprezzatura understands it as mere flair, but this couldn’t be more wrong! The whole idea behind this work of art we call dressing properly is to wear clothes with pride, yes, but even more so to give the appearance of natural ease.
Hopefully, this upcoming fall I will be able to soak up every ounce of wisdom and guidance that Italians have to offer. While throughout the years my fashion sense has surely evolved, my principles of being a proud young Jewish man have never wavered. Throughout this journey of attempting to acquire this perfect blend of sprezzatura and yiddishkeit I believe that while I may not have yet reached my destination, I am surely on my way.

* This piece is part of a series of articles written by students of Muhlenberg College, Pennsylvania, USA, enrolled in a course on the history and culture of Jewish Italy, taught by Dr. Daniel Leisawitz, Assistant Professor of Italian and Director of the Muhlenberg College Italian Studies Program.

Above, Bar Mitzvah (1920) by the Austrian painter Oscar Rex.