Sam Barsky is the next Jewish video icon.
You don’t know who Sam is? That’s OK. Allow me to introduce him. Or maybe you do know him, but didn’t know he’s Jewish. Well, allow me to rock your world.
Sam Barsky is probably the most famous sweater knitter on TikTok and Instagram today. Boasting over 200,000 followers on TikTok and 100,000 on Instagram — who comment enthusiastically every time he posts a new sweater — Sam commands an audience of fans from around the world who gravitate towards his boundless positivity, enthusiasm for his craft and his joy of traveling.
Here is what Sam does in his videos: Standing in front of a green screen with the backdrop of a place he has visited, and wearing a sweater knitted to depict that place, Sam quickly describes the location and why he made the sweater. Despite their brevity, with most clocking in at under 20 seconds, Sam’s videos shine through with the wholesomeness of a guy who has found the peace one can only find as a sweater-knitting TikToker with hundreds of thousands of adoring fans.
Joy, I think, is why people love Sam. It’s why I loved him even before I found out this not-so-hidden tzaddik — righteous person — is Jewish.
“This is my Great Lakes sweater. It was inspired by a bus trip I took around Ontario many years ago. I made it out of scraps of yarn that I had [insert big grin].”
“This is my Viaducts sweater. It’s the only sweater I ever made that is exactly the same on the front and the back. Which has posed some problems! [Insert mysterious smile, followed by moving to turn off the camera.]”
“This is my Egyptian pyramid sweater. I made it back in 2004. I have never been to Egypt, but I’ve stood in front of the Luxor Hotel, which looks like a pyramid, in Las Vegas, and taken a picture there wearing it.”
Sam doesn’t know exactly when he decided to become a knitter, but he started pursuing his dream during nursing school. He would search for local knitting classes in the community, but “each time I would sign up,” Sam tells me, “they would get canceled… Sometimes it was just me.”
It was actually medical issues that eventually led Sam to fully pursue his dreams: He had dropped out of nursing school, but eventually found a place willing to teach him how to knit a sweater. “It took me eight months, but I got my first sweater done by the end of the year.”
It didn’t take long before Sam was in love. In short order, he started only wearing sweaters. Whether it’s winter or summer, he wears sweaters. And no matter where he goes, he wears a sweater, including to weddings (he has a video showing off both his formal and informal wedding sweaters, of course). The location sweaters started organically — it was something he did whenever he would travel somewhere new.
Years later, thanks to social media, he has been able to make this his full-time gig. His story went viral in 2017, and since then he runs his own knitting workshops, sells t-shirt versions of his sweaters and sends personalized birthday messages (the price for these is chosen by those who pay for them because he is that much of a mensch), all of which can be purchased on his website.
For Sam, this is all part of what he considers to be a world filled with miracles.
Sam grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in the Washington D.C. suburbs, but when he reached college, he left observance (“It just wasn’t for me”). It was miracles that got him interested in religion again.
“There was a show in the late ‘90s called “It’s a Miracle.” It would have people telling stories about miracles of coincidence that happened in their lives. For example, strangers would meet each other and find out that they’re biologically related to one another. People who were in the right place at the right time, for whatever reason. People who survived things that would almost certainly mean death.”
He soon started attending a Conservative synagogue, and in short order everything changed for him. After first meeting his future wife at the local JCC, he ran into her again at his shul, and that was the end of that. They got married, and soon, their observance increased: They were both in love with Judaism, and the love they experienced for each other helped them grow into the Jews they ended up becoming together.
“I am very Jewish,” Sam confirms.
Sam even has his own Hanukkah story: He had bought a very special yarn from a specialty vendor for a Hanukkah sweater he was working on, but he lost the contact information for the vendor. As he was finishing his sweater, he realized something. “I was about maybe 15 rows away from the conclusion of it. I only had enough yarn that was the size of a marble, that was far short of enough to finish that sweater.
“But somehow, I had plenty enough yarn to get the sweater done! I don’t know how it happened, but the yarn lasted and I got those 15 rows done. And I still had some remaining afterwards!”
Because of his natural gregariousness (his friend describes him to me as “such a gem”), Sam meets tons of people on his travels — and he sees miracles in those meetings, too.
“I have a belief that God intends any two people who know each other for any period of time… God has intended for those people to know each other.”
This leads to his joy in meeting others. “I’ll be somewhere and just meet a stranger and strike up a conversation. It’s like, where are you from? And they’ll say Baltimore. And I’m like, ‘I’m from Baltimore, too!’ We never met each other in Baltimore, but we’ve met each other in some foreign country somewhere. I’ve had that happen so many times.”
All of it — the success of his knitting, meeting his wife, his observance, his interactions with strangers — are miracles to Sam. And honestly, when you see Sam’s life, it’s not hard to see why.
All you need is to see life the way he does.