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Sarah Lefton

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2003-11-05

Sarah Lefton

Sarah Lefton. Photo by Julian Cash

When it comes to being Jewish and hip, it doesn't get any hipper than Sarah Lefton and her Jewish Fashion Conspiracy company. With a range of clothing that includes funky Yo Semite, twentysomething Jews in the US have taken to her designs which inspire Jewish pride. Her latest project is getting Jewish women wearing her Chanukah-themed underwear.
 
1. What inspired you to do a range of Jewish-themed t-shirts?
It started out as a joke, honestly. I do marketing work for a Jewish summer camp in Yosemite (Camp Tawonga) and one day I noticed that Yosemite looks like Yo, Semite! And it was just so amusing that I decided to make some shirts for myself and some friends. Next thing I knew, people wanted to buy them, one thing lead to another, and I had this website that was snowballing practically on its own. I'm deeply involved in the Jewish community, from a personal and a professional standpoint. It's always been where I put my excess energy. Applying my natural punster tendencies and my entrepreneurial drive to that is definitely a new angle for me.
 
2. How important is your Jewish culture and what is your background?
I grew up a Reform Jew in South Carolina, in a town with two tiny synagogues. There were a very small handful of Jewish kids in my school, and my family spent a lot of time compensating - bringing my younger sister and I to big cities, sending us to camp every summer, and getting us involved in NFTY, the Reform youth movement.
 
Summer camp really made me who I am today as a Jew, and probably as a person as well. I learned that Judaism was something to be lived, not just something we sat through at Sunday school and on holidays. I fell in love with the music, ritual, community and with Shabbat.
 
My adult engagement in Judaism really reflects that. I feel like I am still making up for growing up in "the wilderness," that I have to work hard to get the education that kids who grew up in New York or Chicago take for granted.
 
3. What do your family think of what you are doing?
They love it. I am not sure they appreciate my sense of humour necessarily, but they definitely get it. My mom will only wear her Yo Semite shirt to bed. I think she's worried about crazy people who hate Jews attacking me someday.
 
4. You are now offering Jewish underwear for women, what has the reaction been and do you intend to also something like boxer shorts for men?
People are freaking out, they love the panties so much. Everyone wants them, and yes, definitely I am hearing from the guys that they want in on the fun too. I just tell them to buy their girlfriend a pair. :)
 
5. What do you think of the renaissance of other people doing  Jewish-themed clothing like Jewcy?
It's great! I'm not surprised at all, honestly. My generation came of age in a moment where everyone was being an entrepreneur - I myself was part of a few start-ups in New York in the 90s. We are all so used to boot strapping our way through the business world that this feels like no big deal. We're funny, we're proud of being Jewish and we know how to use the Internet. 
 
6. How do you think your business will grow, what are your plans?
It's definitely about more than just T-shirts. I have the research and a storyboard completed for an animated documentary short about Jewish views of the body, and I have a plan for a really fun educational DVD about Shabbat. I also am working on some new interpretations of ritual objects that creative, spiritual people of all stripes will enjoy using.

Like I said, I love our tradition but I hate Judaica shops. I feel like for the most part, they are wasted opportunities to educate and do outreach to people. Commerce is disarming, and when you invite people into a shop you have the chance to not only sell them a haggadah, but also to teach them something about G-d, or about Shabbat, or about what waving the lulav means for them in an intimate and powerful way. Many people are terrified of Judaica shops and with good reason.
 
My pieces - the media stuff and the ritual objects - will be funky and fun, but at the same time pretty seriously engaged with wrestling with the tradition and teaching the tradition. Everything I do has to work on more than one level - making it of significance to people who want to bring some new spiritual facet into their life, and to people who are totally unengaged with Jewish life.
 
That said, the T-shirts aren't going to get a whole lot more serious than they are now. :)
 
7. What inspired you to call the company Jewish Fashion Conspiracy and how did it all start?
I am always joking about the Jewish media conspiracy and so when I was looking for a name for the company, my boyfriend actually came up with the idea. I had sent an email to everyone I knew with the subject line "Pin the name on the company" and for awhile I was attracted to a couple of different names. I'm so glad we came up with JCF, although it takes a long time to say. :)
 
8. Apart from your own fashion, who else do you like and admire?
Mine are probably the only T shirts I ever wear. Most of my favourite clothes are vintagem although I do wear a lot of Donna Karan - she understands the Jewish woman's booty!
 
9. What are your future plans?
See #6.
 
10. Apart from Jewish Fashion Conspiracy, tell us a bit more about yourself and what else you do?
I'm the Marketing and Outreach Director for Camp Tawonga, an independent Jewish summer camp just outside Yosemite National Park. That means I produce our brochures, videos, slide shows, web site, that kind of thing, as well as going around in the community and talking to educators, rabbis, parents and kids about camp.
 
I also teach a night course in web development at UC Berkeley, and do occasional freelance design work. I spend my free time hiking, reading, cooking, making elaborate costumes for parties and showing people around San Francisco. I ride a red '81 Vespa.
 
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