July 7, 2006
A guide to Jewish head-coverings
Kippot no longer only come in one style, but a medley of colors,
shapes and designs.
WENDY ELLIMAN ISRAEL PRESS SERVICE
You can choose from velvet, satin, suede or leather. It can be
crocheted or woven, or you can custom-design it with your name,
Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants or your sports team logo. Men
can choose from designs advertised as "masculine without being
boring" and, for women, there's a choice in "beaded wire,
decorated with semi-precious stones that allows you to embrace your
tradition and still look very feminine."
If it's not yet clear what's under discussion, it's the once-humble
kippah, the head-covering worn by Jewish men and, today, in some
circles, by Jewish women, as well. For 15 centuries, the western
Jewish head-covering almost always took the form of a black skullcap
(exchanged for white on holy days or celebrations) and its sole
statement was religious piety. But with rabbis qualifying virtually
anything as a "kosher" head-covering these days, the kippah
has more recently come to signify a lot more than Orthodox Jewish
observance. Today, when it no longer takes courage to wear this
instantly identifiable mark of a Jew in public, the kippah has become
for many either a fashion statement or a declaration of sociological
and political affiliation, or both and nowhere more so than
Amid the flowering of kippot into a garden of shapes, colors and
sizes, the large, smooth, bowl-shaped skullcap made from black velvet,
satin or cloth lives on in ultra-Orthodox circles, where it remains
de rigueur. Even here, however, a sharp eye can discern small differences
that have large meanings. Sons of the community may express teenage
rebellion by wearing their skullcaps slightly smaller in size, or
even wearing them crocheted from black embroidery thread, rather
than made from fabric a minor bid for independence that nonetheless
allows them to remain in the classicist camp.
The crocheted black kippah can, however, signify very different
ideals, also favored on the opposite side of the religious and political
spectrum from the ultra-Orthodox. It is also worn by liberal-to-leftwing
modern Orthodox or Young Israel, a group most easily identified
by what they aren't: they aren't ultra-Orthodox and they don't identify
with the national religious Zionism of the settlers' movement. They
have abandoned the colorful, crocheted kippah with its endless variations
of design because it's been captured by the National Zionists.
Israel's nationalist religious Zionist camp is typified by the colorful
crocheted kippah. Where many western men once expressed flamboyance
with the size and color of their neckties, Israelis in this group
often do so through their head-covering. Endless and intricate variations
in color and design are acceptable here, from geometric patterns
to names spelled out, to slogans, logos and wedding or bar mitzvah
souvenirs. Orange, the color symbolizing opposition to disengagement
from Gush Katif in 2005, shone brightly on the heads of this group
last summer, with crocheting wives, girlfriends and daughters scarcely
able to meet demand.
In general, the larger the kippah, the more observant its wearer
(although increased size can also indicate increased hair loss).
There is no general agreement about the correct size of a kippah.
The late American Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, renowned for his expertise
in halachah (Jewish law), stated that its minimum measure
is that "which would be called a head covering." Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party in Israel,
says it should be large enough to be seen from all sides. So the
more observant (Merkaz HaRav) branch of the National Zionist movement,
the home of many of Israel's leading religious Zionist rabbis, favors
a larger, full-headed crocheted kippah. To confuse the issue further,
however, many of the rabbis who teach at the movement's yeshivot
wear the traditional large black kippah.
A different kind of head-covering altogether is found among certain
Sephardi communities, particularly those originating from Bukhara
and the Caucasian Mountains. Here, the tradition is the large, brightly
woven, brocade kippah, similar in shape to that worn by North American
cantors, minus the peak. In recent years, however, these large,
colorful caps have also found a market among religious hippies and
ecstatic Jews, as well as little boys who have trouble getting the
smaller kippot to stay on their heads.
Shopping for children's kippot in Israel spoils you for choice.
Dozens of Disney and non-Disney characters dance and prance across
the smaller-sized head-coverings, digitally imaged, embroidered
or painted onto the fabric or woven into its texture. Train, boats
and planes chug their way forever around the rims and whole kippot
represent anything friendly and circular - from the sun to
a big smiling face to a cross-section of a watermelon. With women
in some Jewish streams now taking their place alongside men at the
bimah (the raised platform from which the Torah is read), a
whole new market for kippot is opening as yet underdeveloped,
at least in Israel, where kippot thus far tend to remain masculine.
Perhaps the revolution that's occurred in the way religiously observant
Jews cover their heads is reflected in how we refer to their head-coverings.
The long-used Yiddish word yarmulke probably comes from the
Aramaic yira malka, meaning "awe of the King." It resonates
with the religious piety that was once the sole statement made by
Jews who covered their heads. The more commonly used term today,
however, is kippah, the Hebrew for "dome"
a comfortable and non-religiously charged name-tag which allows
Jewish headgear to shout out social, political, ideological and
fashion statements, as well.