Life & Culture

The American Jews with their own clan tartan

The Goldblatt family’s own kilted collection is on display at the V&A in Dundee


Professor Joe Goldblatt and his wife Nancy in their family tartan in Manhattan

In a Scottish museum showcasing tartan, an item of bespoke clothing specifically made for a Jew is perhaps the last thing you’d expect to find. Yet Joe Goldblatt’s woollen tie, woven to a pattern designed for his own family, sits proudly in a showcase at the V&A Dundee alongside tartans representing Highlands clans dating back centuries.

“We were delighted when our design was selected for the V&A exhibition as a ‘people’s tartan’,” says events-management expert Dr Goldblatt, who has embraced Scotland after arriving there from the US more than a decade ago to take up an academic post at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

Dr Goldblatt’s tartan story began in 2014 when he took a surprise phone call from a leading designer of the fabric. “She rang me and told me to start dreaming about tartan,’ he recalls.

“I was confused. I had no Scottish ancestry. My Jewish grandparents hailed from Kyiv, Prussia, France and Germany.

“However, she insisted that tartan is Scotland’s gift to the entire world, and offered to design me a tartan free of charge because she knew I would be a good advocate of it as I gave speeches all over the world.

“I thanked her, closed my eyes and began dreaming.”

After learning it was a chair at Queen Margaret University who had brought Dr Goldblatt to Scotland, the designer took blue from the university’s own tartan, gold from his family name and purple associated with the Ayrshire home of Robert Burns, the lecturer’s hero, and came back with suggestions on how to combine them.

After long discussions, the Goldblatt family settled on a final design. “And with that decision – and the transfer of several thousand pounds – the MacGoldblatt was born,” says the academic, who is chair of Edinburgh’s Interfaith Association as well as emeritus professor at Queen Margaret.

“I have worn this tartan all over the world as an affinity Scot – one who passionately loves our bonny land.”

The MacGoldblatt was one of several designs submitted to the V&A by ordinary people with a tartan tale to tell when the museum announced a forthcoming exhibition about the history of the quintessentially Scottish fabric to mark the fifth anniversary of its Dundee outpost.

The professor, who quotes a line from Exodus exhorting ancient Jews to wear plaid – “It is written ‘You shall weave a coat in chequer work of fine linen’”, says he and his wife Nancy were deeply moved to be included in the show.

“We felt as though were were finally woven into the social and cultural fabric of our people and nation,” he says. The Jewish-tartan connection does not stop with the MacGoldblatt, however. ​

Alexander McQueen, the “enfant terrible” of British fashion, was once snapped with his sometime Jewish muse Sex and the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker in matching tartan at New York’s famous annual Met ball. So it seems only right that his tartan designs feature in the exhibition.

The V&A show also features outfits by Donna Karan and her fellow Jewish designers Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and the late Bernat Klein have brought their own twists on the Scottish patchwork cloth to the catwalk.

Goldblatt and his wife are also not the first Jews living in Scotland to seek to distinguish themselves with one of the customised designs once reserved for the country’s ancient clans.

In 2008, Glasgow dentist Clive Schmulian designed the Shalom tartan, which incorporated the blues, black and white of the Scottish and Israeli flags.

But the first tartan to be registered with the Scottish Tartan Authority as specifically Jewish was the Kosher Tartan, which was designed by Rabbi Mendel Jacobs of Glasgow Chabad.

It also includes the colours of the Israeli flag but adds gold, emblematic of the Ark of the Covenant, silver (Torah scroll finials) and deep red representing kiddush wine. Even the quantity of vertical and horizontal lines in the plaid correspond to sacred Jewish numbers – three and seven – which represent unity and completion.

Despite the exhortation from Exodus, there is no linen in the Kosher Tartan because mixing it with wool, as is traditional when weaving tartan, is prohibited under Jewish law.

While products emblazoned with the Kosher Tartan are on sale in shops stocking Judaica in both the UK and the United States and New York’s Jewish Museum has a kilt in the fabric in its collection, the Goldblatts like to keep their tartan under close family control.

Having been advised to think of the future as well as their own clothing needs when specifying how many yards of the fabric to order, Joe and Nancy consulted their sons and daughter-in-laws on the design decision, bearing in mind any baby Goldblatts – they now have two Scottish-born grandsons – who might want to wear the tartan down the line.

“As chief of the MacGoldblatt clan, I regularly grant others the privilege of wearing our tartan, as I wish to share our love for Scotland with as many others as possible,” says the American professor, who is now proud to describe himself as “Jewish-Scottish”.

*Tartan is at the V&A Dundee until 14 January

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive