The Plain Man’s Guide to Jewish Head-Coverings

Wendy Elliman

(IPS) 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 kippa, 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 kippa 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 kippa has become for many either a fashion statement or a declaration of sociological and political affiliation, or both – and nowhere more so than in Israel.

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 kippa 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 kippa with its endless variations of design, because it’s been captured by the National Zionists.

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Israel’s nationalist religious Zionist camp is typified by the colorful crocheted kippa. 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 kippa 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 kippa. The late American Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, renowned for his expertise in halacha (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 seedbed of many of Israel’s leading religious Zionist rabbis, favors a larger full-headed crocheted kippa. To confuse the issue further, however, many of the rabbis who teach at the movement’s yeshivas wear the traditional large black kippa.

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 kippa, 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 bima (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 kippa, 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.