Tag Archives: yarmulke

Deja Vu

By Sheldon Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

It should hardly be surprising that as a kid growing up in Boston during the 1950’s, I nearly always went about sporting my beloved Red Sox cap. I worshiped the Sox but wore the cap for an entirely different reason. I wore it because my father demanded that I do so. No, not because he was a fan-he was not and never had been. In fact, he could not make any sense of the sport of baseball and often wondered aloud how it was that grown men got paid by running like lunatics from one place to another.

My father was adamant and would never give an inch. No amount of arguing or pleading could possibly change his mind. “You must wear a cap. I do not want you to go out in the street with a yarmulke (skull cap) on your head. My son, there are too many people who hate us and if given the chance, would be only too happy to do us harm.” He would then relate a series of events detailing how Jews suffered in Europe–how they were demeaned, mocked and yes, at times, beaten in many a location including Poland, the country of his birth.

As a Holocaust survivor, he was in possession of a treasure trove of illustrative stories to make his point. Recollections would emerge of how unwary children were abused and ridiculed just for being Jewish. He would go into exacting detail of how the innocents were chased and often assaulted while the shouts of dirty Jews reverberated on the street. And the final insult, the coup de grace, was that the yarmulkes were nearly always pulled from the victims’ heads and proudly thrown to the ground. Joy and shouts of victory came when the yarmulke was ground into the soil, debased and spat upon. “But we’re in America,” I would helplessly chime in, “those type of people are not here.” “Listen to me my son. There will come a time when you will remember my words. There will always be people who hate us. They may not always say or do anything but they hate us nonetheless.”

My father’s insistence along with his many recollections have never left me. To this day, whenever I leave my neighborhood, I don my cap. No! Not a Red Sox cap. I now reside in New York and must be wary of all the diehard Yankee fans who would be only too happy to start up with a Red Sox guy. I work without wearing a yarmulke because I know only too well that my father would want it that way. “Don’t antagonize people. The yarmulke can bring out the worst in some.” And within the blink of an eye, he would produce a story or two to substantiate his dire warnings. When asked by co-workers or patients why it is I don’t wear my yarmulke, I never go into detail and simply reply that it’s just my custom not to do so while at work.

So what’s the point in bringing up the yarmulke at this time you may ask. Well the yarmulke has recently been in the news. Even though I initially tried convincing my father that people have changed and that we now live in an entirely different world, I must concede he was right all along. The current war in Gaza should serve as an awakening to those who are of the opinion that times have changed. That the evil our forbearers had to contend with is a thing of the past. We should all take the time and read about the appalling incidents that are so often brushed aside by many of our prominent news outlets. Worshipers being attacked outside of a synagogue or stores being threatened for carrying Kosher food are simply not news worthy.

Anti-Semitism has never left Europe and will likely never do so. This centuries old hatred raises its ugly head every so often and any excuse, no matter how inane, brings out the worst in people. Gaza just happens to be the flavor of the month. A severe downturn in the economy or unsettled weather somewhere in the Pacific is all that is needed to open the spigot once again. Occasional accounts often buried in the back of newspapers describe the hate that is on the ascendancy throughout much of Europe. The rants of kill the Jews can be heard in many a European city. Synagogues and Jewish owned concerns have once again been set ablaze. But for me, what captured my attention were the warnings from Jewish leaders that Jews in France and Belgium should no longer walk the streets wearing their yarmulkes. Boys and men were being verbally abused and beaten.

I find myself repeating my father’s words as I warn my own children to take heed and wear a cap whenever leaving the neighborhood. We are often referred to as a stiffed neck people, a proud and stubborn bunch that has defied all odds. We have learned to adjust, to adapt and persevere in spite of the challenges we must constantly face. So for the time being, at least, I encourage my children to wear a cap. It’s just safer.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears(http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.


Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

Navigating Between Two Worlds

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

When my friends and I entered our synagogue for Shabbat services or for Hebrew school during the week, we were required to cover our heads. A pile of yarmulkes was kept in a large wooden bin standing by the door to the sanctuary.

Back then we didn’t call them kippot but yarmulkes, a Yiddish word meaning skullcap, which linked us more closely to our roots in Eastern Europe than to the new seeds that had been planted in Israel in the 1940s and 1950s and were beginning to sprout in America in the 1970s. Yarmulkes were made of soft velvet or scratchy nylon. They sat perched, rumpled and creased, on top of my head and on the heads of my friends as we bent over our Hebrew primers or sat bored out of our skulls waiting for junior congregation services to conclude. Yarmulkes looked like small rags or tiny handkerchiefs that my grandfather might have taken out of one of his dresser drawers. Kippot, on the other hand, were usually small, round, knitted or crocheted head-coverings that fit snugly to the back of one’s head, often held there by two or three bobby pins.  Young, modern Orthodox Jews wore kippot, while mostly older men wore yarmulkes. We weren’t modern Orthodox Jews, so my father and my brother wore yarmulkes, and I wore one, too, no matter how silly I thought it made me look.

The only other time during the week that I wore a yarmulke was on Friday night. We gathered in our dining room around a table set with fine china plates and crystal glasses. Mom lit the candles to welcome Shabbat, and Dad raised his wine goblet to recite the blessing over the wine. Standing at the head of the table, his prayer book open in one hand, a silver Kiddush cup filled with wine in the other, his reading glasses balanced at the end of his nose, Dad would read the Hebrew words with the slightest of accents, a holdover of the Eastern European-accented Hebrew that he’d learned as a boy. I’d watch his body tilt slightly forward, as if in the shape of a question mark, and noticed his hand tremble slightly. My eyes were fixed on the Kiddush cup. I watched to see if he’d accidentally spill any wine onto the white tablecloth.

On those Friday nights, the yarmulke on top of my head felt odd. It made me feel like an alien. How could a flimsy piece of cloth perched precariously on the back of my head make me a better Jew? Besides, it was distracting. How could I concentrate on the words of the prayers if I was worried about the yarmulke falling to the floor whenever I shifted my head from one side to the other? Even though I sat perfectly still while Dad recited the Kiddush and then the motzi, the blessing over the challah, I had trouble thinking about anything besides how foolish I felt wearing the yarmulke. I don’t think that I ever felt comfortable wearing one, but I never considered removing it. I’d been told that wearing a yarmulke was a sign of respect for God, and I wanted to be a respectful Jew, even if I didn’t fully understand all the prayers or rituals, or why wearing a yarmulke was a sign of respect.

Each time I reached into the bin as a boy to select a yarmulke and set it on my head, I felt as if I’d found a magic talisman with mystical power, a symbol of being Jewish which made me feel as if I’d stepped inside Jewish history, linking myself to all the Jewish men who had covered their heads throughout our people’s history to show their faith and loyalty to God. Someone—a teacher, my father, or a friend—must have told me that I needed to cover my head when observing Jewish rituals or stepping inside a synagogue. At baseball games, though, when we sang the National Anthem, we had to remove our hats. In contrast, in temple we kept them on. It was confusing, this business of being Jewish. Each time I put on a yarmulke, I felt this confusion. It was disorienting to make the transition from one world to another.

As incredible as it may sound now, I wasn’t fully aware of living in two different worlds as a boy, except during the month of December. Every year, from kindergarten through sixth grade, I dreaded the week after Thanksgiving when the custodian placed a 6-foot tall, freshly cut pine tree in the school’s central foyer signaling the start of the Christmas season. The tree gave off the sharp, tangy scent of a far-away forest, and I loved that smell but felt guilty for liking the tree so much. Over the next month the scent of its pine needles filled the hallway and classrooms, and, like my non-Jewish friends, I became excited at the sight of the red-and-green lights blinking on and off in its branches. On the night of our school’s Christmas concert, shiny gifts wrapped beneath the tree made it look as if Santa Claus had just dropped them off his sleigh.

Our music teacher was a skinny woman with toothpick-thin legs, eyes the same shade of blue as a robin’s eggs, and hair as straight and silky as the gold tassels that hung from ears of corn in July. Each year she lined us up in rows according to height on the half-dozen shallow steps in front of the tree. And every year I felt more and more uncomfortable standing next to the tree in the back row, worried people in the audience might mistake me for a Christian singing Christmas songs, afraid God, in his disapproval, might see fit to punish me for not standing up for my faith.

During those concerts I barely opened my lips to sing. I trembled with the certain knowledge that if I sang the name of Jesus aloud, God might send a bolt of lightening to end my life. Instead, I stood in the back of the choir pretending to sing, and hoped none of my friends standing on either side of me, or any of the adults sitting in the audience, would notice my silence. Nobody seemed to care about my Jewish identity or about my feelings as a Jew singing in a Christmas concert. For weeks after the concert, long after the last notes of the songs had faded away and the tree had been taken down and tossed into the incinerator room, I felt as if I’d betrayed my people and my God.

As a young boy, I didn’t realize how many seemingly inconsequential choices, such as putting on a yarmulke or singing in a Christmas concert, I had to make to navigate through the shoals of forming a Jewish identity. Nor did I recognize the larger, more significant choices that I had to make to help solidify my connection with Judaism and my link to the Jewish people. Somehow I made these choices—keeping kosher, attending Hebrew school, preparing for my bar mitzvah—without resenting them, even though I must have offered some resistance. Was it my father who insisted that I attend Hebrew school? Or was it my mother who gently pushed me into making these decisions? Or perhaps I was nudged quietly by my own conscience?

Now I can see how these choices added up to create in me a sense of being Jewish. But then, as I was making these choices, I was confused, uncertain about which path to follow. I had no way of knowing, except for some internal compass that was nearly impossible to read, which choice would lead me closer to my heritage and which might take me further away.

Bruce Black is the founder of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in The Jewish Week, The Jewish Exponent, Reform Judaism Magazine, and The Reconstructionist, as well as in The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. You can read more about his book, Writing Yoga, here: http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity