Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Kippah

The kippah has always been a fascinating kind of religious garment-more so than tzizis. Tzizis comes in second place. Second place because for the most part the “begged” part of the tzizis is worn underneath a shirt, the only part being exposed is the fringes themselves, if one chooses to do so. Apart from the few who wear the techelet woven in to there tzizis they are pretty much standard fare. Truth be told it isn’t exactly fair to compare the two because while one is a mitzvah-it’s source being the Torah, the other is custom, (probably traced back to the Talmudic period), but as custom it became the popular and appropriate part of male Jewish dress and as the saying goes Minhag Yisroel Din Hoo.

While the two mitzvoth originate from different sources they are intended to have the same effect, namely to keep us men on the straight and narrow. There is a Gemarah (T.B. Minachot 42) that relates an incident about a man visiting a beautiful prostitute. When he began undressing he took note of his tzizis, reminded of the taryag mitzvoth that they represented and reconsidered his intentions. A kippah on the other hand is referred to as a yarmulkah, which is an acronym for yireh malcus hashem. A Jew should be always aware of the G-d above, with the obvious purpose of impacting on our behavior. I’m sure it does to some degree, because someone wearing a kippah will think twice about saying or doing something that may prove to be a chillul hashem.

But as I said earlier, if there was a contest as to my favorite between the two, tzizit would come in second place. While they may accomplish the same thing in terms of altering our behavior and encouraging us to act ethically, the kippah tells you more about the person wearing them, than tzizit.

The kippah has a variety of different styles and ways in which they can be worn. Style color, the way it is worn all broadcast subtly or not so subtly what the bearer of the kippah thinks on a variety of subjects ranging from his religious affiliation to his politics. Tzizit, on the other hand, don’t reveal as much about the bearer because as I said earlier the begged is usually concealed with only the tzizit being visible. One who wears tzizit in or out doesn’t telegraph a whole host of socio/political information about himself other than the fact that he is frum. Usually modern orthodox don’t expose their tzizizit because ideologically it contradicts their raison d’etre.

My earliest recollection of a man wearing a kippah was a portrait of my zeidei taken in America in the 1920’s. His kippah was a pillbox sitting squarely and proudly on the crown of his head. It must have left a significant and lasting impression, because that very kippah my father gave me and I still cherish it. Unfortunately that style is no longer in vogue, although there are times when I will sport such a style because it telegraphs a wonderful message. It is sort of the brooks brothers of yarmulkas. Solid, proud, appropriate, conservative, without taking any political positions as to whether one was a socialist, capitalist, Zionist or a hard working yid.

Times have changed since then. By the early 1960’s a change had taken place in how and what kippah was worn. There must have been a confluence of circumstances ranging from Israel’s presence to the proliferation of yeshivot. Belonging to B’nei Akiva in those days had its benefits. The girls in our shevet would knit us kippot if we were worthy of their affection. The knitted kippah over the years took on social/political overtones as well as the other styles of kippot. Visible for all to see, they became statements of who we were. That’s my fascination with kippot.

My accountant wears a big black velvet kippah. He’s frum and he shows it. I can’t even imagine him in a kippah serugah any more than I can imagine the Novominsker Rebbe in a kippah serugah. I suppose that says something about them. The strange thing is that I’m AC/DC. I swing both ways. I can wear a kippah serugah or I can wear a black velvet kippah. What does that say about me? It’s quite easy to stereotype most people today (other than the truly ambivalent such as myself) by the kind of kippah they wear. There is nothing new about this. What has emerged however is a new kind of nuanced look - the kippah perched on the crown near the forehead.

There was a time when those who really didn’t want to wear a kippah, but due to social pressures wore one and placed it on the very back of their head- so far back that it would have slipped off had it not been fastened there with a bobby pin. It was so far back that from a frontal view it wasn’t visible. There were also those who occasionally wore a kippah, but due to lack of familiarity weren’t able to place it comfortably on the head. In recent times, I have noticed a new positioning of the kippah sported by many of the yeshiva bochrim newly back from a yeshivah in Eretz Yisroel. They perch the kippah on the top of their head near the front, but just behind their chupchip. Fascinating is the sizing of their kippah. It sort of reminds me of the comparison to a girl’s skirt. When asked once by my daughter about the appropriate length of a skirt, I suggested “that it be long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting”. These young fellows have mastered the art of wearing a kippah. They size it large enough to cover the subject, but small enough to keepwhomever interested. These “yunge lite” still have healthy heads of hair and take pride in their appearance.

I have the distinct feeling that the kind of yeshiva bachur who wears his kippah perched on his head in that swagger like sort of way, is very conscious of style. I don’t mean Borsollino style, I mean hip style. He’s ambivalent of where he belongs in western society. Western culture is appealing, but he’s been educated to question those values.

It would appear that these young yeshiva students are also ambivalent as to their place within their own religious community and are in a swing mode. They haven’t decided if they are going to go full black velvet covering three quarters of their head and risking messing up their hair or are they going to go modern, with a smaller model worn more to the back of their head.

I suppose these are important decisions because the style he ultimately chooses will determine the kind of girl he chooses to “date” and marry-which in turn will determine the schools and community he will associate with and on and on. So I guess the song is true: Hachol biglal masmer kattan!!!