Hillel vs. Shamai or When is it OK to Tell Your Wife’s Friend She Looks Fabulous?

by Brian on November 17, 2014

in Just For Fun

Merav in hat (sm)The sign on my front door read, “Men, please announce yourself.” It was a Friday around 1:00 PM and my arms were filled with pre-Shabbat shopping: challah from Pe’er, still moist chocolate rugalach from Marzipan, eggplant dip in Thailandi sauce from Tzidkiyahu. The Jerusalem Post, of course. 

I walked right in.

“Don’t come up!” my wife Jody called down immediately from the living room, up a half flight of stairs, as she detected my familiar shuffle. “There are women changing up here! And you’re the only man in the house.”

Not exactly a “house” anymore. Our Jerusalem home had been transformed for the day into a boutique clothing store. The living room was enclosed on three sides by shiny metal racks holding hundreds of dresses, blouses and pants created by Alex Benchemoul, a talented clothing designer from Pardes Hanna. A rainbow colored mirror from the Israeli wood furnishings shop Kakadu stood in a corner. 

We met Benchemoul several years ago at the Jacob’s Ladder music festival where she was running a sales booth in the outdoor lawn area, not far from the hot dog and chicken stands. Her style immediately spoke to Jody: flowing, soft, sexy, breathable and modest all at once. Accessorize it with a belt or scarf, or just let it hang for casual chic. Benchemoul says that she makes “elegant and comfortable” clothes that will look great on anyone, “not just on skinny models.” She’ll even custom cut a design on request.

Jody bought a dress one year and another the following Jacob’s Ladder; then Benchemoul had a baby and stopped coming. 

Pardes Hanna, where Benchemoul lives and operates a small shop, is not on our usual travel itinerary. But Benchemoul is an excellent guerrilla marketer and every Friday she’s on the road doing “home shows.” The prices are reasonable and the host can take 10% of sales as a credit on personal shopping. 

The only catch: I’d have to hide in my home office or stay away.

Then a funny thing happened. After my presence had been duly announced and I was putting away the challah and rugalach in the kitchen, doing my best to avert my eyes, a couple of the women suddenly appeared in the kitchen. “What do you think of this?” asked a friend of Jody’s. “I think it might be too tight. What do you think? Is it too tight?”

Now, in our house, I’m not usually the go-to-guy for fashion advice. On the contrary, whenever I tell my 21-year-old daughter what I like or dislike in her wardrobe (whether prompted or not), she invariably does the opposite. And as for my own style, well, let’s just call it retro in an “I don’t like to shop…ever” kind of way. Just let me wear that patchwork sweater from 1979. If it was hip then why shouldn’t it still be cool 35 years later?

But here I was, the token male, and whether it was sexist or not, I was being asked a direct and somewhat indecent question. This was going to be tricky: how do I give my opinion while simultaneously not looking too closely at someone other than my wife. 

The dress was too clingy, I concluded. But would admitting that betray a wayward eye? Should I pull a Shamai or a Hillel? 

Perhaps the most famous story of those two great rabbis of the Talmud centered on a difference of opinion regarding what celebrants at a wedding should sing when dancing in front of the newly married woman. According to the House of Hillel, the dancers should say the same words in front of all brides: “What a beautiful and graceful bride.” The House of Shamai disagreed. “What if she is lame or blind?” they asked, citing the commandment in Exodus to “stay far away from falsehood.” Ultimately, though, Hillel won the day.

So, did that mean I should say that the item of clothing I was being asked to weigh in on looked fabulous…even if it didn’t?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gives slightly more nuanced advice as he seeks to bridge the two positions in his commentary on the parable. In his 2000 volume, The Book of Jewish Values, he suggests that telling a Hillel-style white lie is appropriate if not doing so would result in inflicting “hurt without benefit.” Thus, he writes, “if somebody at a party asks you how they look, and you think they don’t look well at all, a blunt statement of what you feel may cause the person terrible discomfort, and accomplish no good whatsoever.” 

On the other hand, he continues, “If before going to a party, your spouse or a friend asks you if he or she looks good, and you think they look awful or are dressed inappropriately, you should tell them the truth. Doing so in as tactful a manner as possible will spare them from embarrassment.”

I decided to go for the truth. The friend didn’t buy that dress, but she did purchase two others. So did a lot of other women. (Not everyone asked my opinion, of course.)

The clothing sale was a success on all sides – Jody’s friends got access to some innovative designer clothing at a good price while Benchemoul, whose parents hail from Morocco and Lebanon and who isn’t a regular in our Anglo shtetl of southern Jerusalem, received exposure to a wide open new market. 

Benchemoul, 37, trained many years ago as a yoga instructor but as the field for downward dog poses in Israel began to fill up, she switched to clothing. Both of her grandmothers sewed, as did her father, who made a living stitching up jeans and handbags. Benchemoul started with her own machine when she was 15-years-old and is entirely self-taught: she never studied fashion design in school. She began selling ten years ago out of her house and opened her shop in the Karkur neighborhood of Pardes Hanna in 2012. She still does all the sewing and cutting herself.

Benchemoul’s business is small but growing. She promotes her work almost exclusively on Facebook and by home sales. If her visit to Jerusalem was any indication, she’s on to something. Sales were brisk (one buyer alone purchased NIS 1,500 worth of clothing).

As for me, other than a little schlepping heavy bags of clothes up from the parking garage to our living room, it’s all upside: I get to enjoy the fruits of the sale as my wife expands her wardrobe and my status as a fashionista will be forever validated. 

OK, fine, my status as the only man in the store…and that’s no lie.

Benchemoul will be back in Jerusalem for another home sale this coming Friday. Details on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/alexandra.benchemoul

My fashion sense was first revealed over at The Jerusalem Post.

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