Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Seven months and twenty days: headgear as cultural signifier

To the outside world, nothing says "Jew" like a yarmulke. Gentiles only occasionally run across someone wearing a prayer shawl or tallit. Giant beards and twisted sidelocks are the exclusive property of Orthodox Jews and Hassidim, respectively. Anyone living outside of Israel or New York City has, at best, a limited exposure to either group.

Nope, it's the yarmulke, the seemingly unobtrusive skull cap, that marks us as Jews. When I was growing up, it seemed that the yarmulke was a never-ending source of fascination and confusion for my non-Chosen friends. Some of them exhorted in calling it "a beanie," which I felt was demeaning. Naturally, I said nothing.

Being the Only Living Jew in Orange County, I developed an ambivilant relationship with the Jewish symbol of God-fearing respect. To don the yarmulke was to cast yourself as an "other," and to invite the kind of curiousity that is easily misread as ridicule. As a kid, on those rare occasions when I found myself at temple, I struggled with the same question: "Do I wear the yarmulke or not?"

Out of respect, I won't cast this as a Jew-wide phenomenon. My resistance to the yarmulke came from the same place as my worry, every time I wore shorts to school, the the entire school had decided to play a joke on me and not wear shorts. Every time I put a yarmulke on my head, I felt like everyone was looking at the kid with the beanie.

It wasn't until my child started kindergarten at Brandeis Hillel that I heard the term "kippah" (pronounced KEE-pah) when referring to the traditional skullcap. The plural is "kippot." They NEVER use the word yarmulke at Brandeis Hillel Day School, though the kippot are quite visible.

Our saintly Head of School, Chaim Heller, wears a kippah 24/7. As far as I can tell, he removes it only to put on his Giants hat. Once I heard him explain how people sometimes treat him differently, sometimes have a different set of expectations from him, because he wears the kippah. For a demonstrably religious man, Heller mentions God far less than, say, former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner or Warriors small forward Cory Maggette. Since he rocks the kippah, though, people think they know what he's like.

Not knowing the Hebrew name for "yarmulke" wasn't the only thing I didn't know about kippot. Growing up, I'd always assumed there were two kinds of yarmulkes/kippot: most commonly, there was the thin satin kind, found in little baskets in temple entry halls. You grabbed one on your way in, trying hard not to think about how many other people had worn it before it found its way atop your head.

To me, the understated satin yarmulke was the standard-bearer. It came in white and black. I preferred black, which seemed to stand out less. I figured they cost about a quarter each and were totally disposable. Over the years, while doing laundry or cleaning out my dresser, I would run across a crumpled satin yarmulke, thinking, "No big deal. The temple has tons of them. It won't be missed." And then I'd crumple it back up and shove it back into the drawer it came from. I found one in the top drawer of my nighttable just this morning, in fact. White. Must have been an off week.

The other kind of kippah was worn by the Bar Mitzvah boy, the rabbi, or someone who went to temple so often that it made sense to buy your own. It was like a bowling ball or a tuxedo in that way.

These fancy yarmulkes were made of velvet and were much stiffer than their satin counterparts. They were royal blue on the outside and lined with white silk. I think I had one when I was Bar Mitzvahed. Like the Union Prayer Book I received that day, it has been lost to time.

It was early into our Brandeis career that I realized how limited my experience with kippot had been. At Brandeis, there are kippot of all sizes, shapes and colors; especially colors. A popular option -- too popular, if you ask me -- is the Age of Aquarius-inspired tie-dyed kippah.

Kippot come in various sizes. Our new Head of Middle School wears a very small crocheted one, not even big enough to cover my bald spot, were I to choose that model for myself. Some people wear gigantic ones that look almost like the African headgear NFL legend Jim Brown sports every time he's on TV.

The hats are affixed with a bobby pin, a convenience that, sadly, I'll never know. Without enough hair to secure a bobby pin, I have to rely on the velcro-like adhesion my razor-cut dome manages. So far so good; I haven't lost a kippah yet.

When we began our journey to Bar Mitzvah, I just assumed that the little basket of kippot by the sactuary entry was provided gratis by Temple Emanu-El. Every week, it was full of black or white satin yarmulkes. I have since learned that, like everything else involved in a Bar Mitzvah, the kippot come with a price.

A few months ago, just as we were ramping up our preparations, we sat down as a family and browsed Yes, there is such a site.

Here we found a treasure trove of skullcaps. Sure, we could go with the standard black or white silk, but what sort of message would that send to our guests? Wouldn't they be more impressed by a gold foil embossesed Star of David yarmulke?

"Lets do the math," I said not unreasonably. With about 200 guests, plus the temple's usual assortment of what my mom used to call "professional Bar Mitzvah-goers," we're looking at around 200-plus yarmulkes. At $2.50 a hat, that runs to around $500. Plus tax.

"What about these satin ones?" I volunteered. At, satin kippot are purchsed by the dozen. An abundance of colors is available. A box of 12 kippot costs $15. We were getting warmer.

Even further down the kippot pecking order we found the "shul yarmulkes," exactly what I thought a yarmulke was, before I joined the Brandeis Hillel Day School community and learned otherwise: thin, limp and available only in white, black or dark blue, they are sold for the low price of $38 per gross. You buy them by the gross! It's true you can't engrave your child's name and the date of his Bat Mitzvah inside, but I know that 90% of these things will be worn for two hours then flung back into the straw basket without a second thought. Why not go for the shul yarmulke?

We compromised and decided on the by-the-dozen satin ones, except for the Jawa, who will be wearing a Godzilla-themed kippah. If they can make kippot that make it look like you're wearing a baseball on your head, they can also make Godzilla kippot.

Come August 21, I'll be wearing mine proudly. I'm pleased to report that I've gotten more comfortable wearing a yarmulke, just as I've gotten used to calling it a "kippah." It may have something to do with the bald spot. Black is still my color of choice.

The final question is this: how will our non-Jewish Bar Mitzvah guests -- and there will be plenty of those, including some people who I'm guessing can count the number of Jews they've known in their lifetime on one hand and who no way have ever set foot in a synagogue before -- relate to the basket of kippot that greets them as they arrive. Will they take the lead of our president, Barack Obama, who donned a black kippah for a photo op before later bowing in the presence of the Saudi King? That second part of that might actually wipe out the first, I'm not sure.

I offer this to you, gentile party guests: in the spirit of inclusiveness, wear the kippah. Wear it proudly. Let it cover your bald spot. Let is slide down your head until it falls onto the person sitting behind you.

Afterwards, crumple it up and put it in your jacket pocket, where it will sit for months or years until one day you reach into your pocket and find it. An anthropological relic from another time and place, it will remind you of the day our Jawa became a man.

Most of all, wear the kippah so I won't feel like I'm the only one doing it. You can stop there, though; you don't need to wear shorts.


The Hammer said...

Cheapest thing to buy for the Bar Mitzvah (we came in at less than $75 and still have many left over). Our crew will wear them proudly. Don't forget to supply the clips. Then you can struggle about whether to supply standard bobby pins or the more effective pressure clips. Decisions, decisions.....

Samual said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samual said...

The roots of the wool tallittradition come from a passage in Numbers and Deuteronomy where adult Jews are instructed to add fringes to the four corners of their clothing.