Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Yarmulke Bin

The Jewish Week, September 7, 2007

It is time to reflect on our most underrated and ubiquitous ritual item: the yarmulke.

On the surface, it seems to pale when compared to other objects. Unlike the tallit, it has no foundation in the Torah and law; unlike the siddur, it can be tossed into the garbage. It has long been the butt of jokes, partly because it sounds more like a Japanese motorcycle than a ritual garment, but mostly because our ambivalence regarding the yarmulke mirrors our ambivalence about Judaism itself.

A Jew is instantly identified when wearing one, exposed not only as a Jew, but as a pious one. Some say the name stems from the Aramaic expression "Yiray Malka," "fear of the king," based on a Talmudic anecdote that Rav Huna never walked four cubits with his head uncovered, because "the Divine Presence is always over my head."

But it's more about identity than humility. Years ago, kipa choices were limited to the tightly stitched head huggers of traditional Zionists, the black velvet of the fervently Orthodox and the cheap satin blends found in the typical synagogue bin. But now, as with the rest of contemporary Judaism, one size no longer fits all, and there's been an explosion of variety. You've got the colorful fez-like Bukharian and brightly colored Ethiopian models, pastel and lace feminine styles featuring embroidered gold wire and beads, the camouflaged olive suede of the IDF, the thick-knitted ski caps favored by Breslovers and other mystics, handsome silk and leather folk art options and an infinite variety of woven styles.

There is a yarmulke for every taste, every ideology and every hairline. Yeshiva "bochers" tend to like it to flop on the side, while many middle-aged men put it directly over the bald spot, like a knitted toupee. Some choose clips or Velcro to hold it in place, while others, like me, go for the more subtle bobby pin.

Although they are often mass produced, each yarmulke tells a unique story. What other ritual item can be found in the glove compartment of nearly every Jewish-owned car? Whenever I visit a mourner's home, a basketful of yarmulkes, collected from every cranny of the house, invariably greets me by the door. So while we are saying Kaddish for Grandpa Joe, we're wearing the kipa from Joe's wedding or from granddaughter Lucy's bat mitzvah or baby Evan's bris. A family's heritage literally unfolds before us as we stretch these crumpled cloths over our scalps. A yarmulke museum could easily be constructed within nearly every Jewish home.

My personal history can be traced in my own overflowing yarmulke drawer. Several of my favorites feature my Hebrew name; some were made by girlfriends. I still have kipot purchased in Jerusalem on a summer teen tour, at a time when my Jewish juices gushed so powerfully that I seriously considered wearing one all the time. I actually did it for a short while when I got back home, but before long, facing overwhelming pressure to conform in my public high school, I shifted back to bare headedness. Still, I kept a kipa in my pocket at all times, which, I suppose, prepared me for a career in the rabbinate.

Now the crown rests more easily on my head than it did at the beginning of my career, although I still don't wear it every waking moment. I recognize it for the powerful statement that it is - and for the superficial bumper sticker that it can easily become. As proud as I am to display my loyalties, I strongly resist all labels. Still, I feel much more comfortable wearing a kipa on a New York subway than, say, a Red Sox cap.

My kids, of course, have an ample supply of Red Sox kipot, plus Pokémon, Superman, Harry Potter, Big Bird and Barney the dinosaur. Ironically, the attire designed to promote Jewish distinctiveness now enables our kids better to blend with the trendy. But that blending also enables them to become more comfortable in their Jewish skin. The kipa, no longer an embarrassment; now signifies "Jewish cool."

Every kipa tells a story.

Recently when visiting with sixth graders, I grabbed the yarmulke storage bin from the closet and randomly picked out three to hand to some bareheaded students. Each kipa told a story of a Jewish journey. One was from the 1979 bar mitzvah of a student whose child is now in the school. A second was more recent, from a bat mitzvah in 1999 - but it took place in New City, N.Y, about an hour away. I wondered just how many heads that kipa had covered during its eight year sojourn from Rockland County.

I reached for the third kipa. What exotic tales would it tell? Perhaps it was a mint-condition beanie from Steven Spielberg's bar mitzvah, now undoubtedly worth millions on eBay! Or maybe a lipstick-stained souvenir from Arthur Miller's wedding to Marilyn Monroe. Or even the one whipped out by Begin on the White House lawn with Carter and Sadat.

I slowly unfolded kipa number three. Turned out it was from my own son's bar mitzvah. Not worth much on eBay, perhaps. But priceless to me.

The yarmulke bin is a time capsule documenting our intertwined destinies and most personal life choices, a portal to Jewish Narnia, a mysterious hamper filled with our most sacred laundry, overflowing with fantasy, history and imagination.

The kipa is a touchstone to our holiest moments, reminding us perpetually: "Under me lived a Jew."

In the glove compartment of every Jewish car sits a souvenir from Sinai.

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