Your weekend think piece: Do you know, when you see yarmulkes, how to read between the lines?


OK, it's flashback time.

Remember when you were in high school, on in college, and you could walk the halls of your school, or gaze around the cafeteria, and pretty much know who was who just by one or two items of their clothing? You know, to cite one obvious example from my generation of Texas guys, little golden alligators and boat shoes vs. leather vests and boots?

I love reading pieces that take this kind of inside-baseball knowledge of people and symbolism and tell me something new about life on the religion beat. Thus, I want to point readers toward a fascinating little think piece at The Forward that ran under the headline: "Show Me Your Yarmulke: Everything You Wanted To Know About Jewish Headgear."

The thesis and some crucial background information:

... You can tell a lot about a Jewish male by the type of yarmulke (also referred to as a kippah, or in Hasidic Yiddish, kapl) that he wears. ...
Moses and the Israelites proudly left Egypt bareheaded, according to one Exodus explanation. Later, according to the Babylonian Talmud, head covering was a pious practice exclusively for learned married men, possibly because it connoted humility. After the talmudic period, one can find a dizzying variety of evidence as to what the local practices were. By the 18th and 19th century, attitudes toward head covering hardened: As Ashkenazi Jews ubiquitously covered their heads in yarmulkes, not covering became something modern Jews would do.
By the early 20th century, wearing a yarmulke became associated with Orthodox Judaism, although many men wore hats in place of yarmulkes in public. The halachic debate of whether one is required to wear a yarmulke thus shifted to the size one should wear: The bigger the yarmulke, according to popular convention, the more pious the wearer.

This article focuses on current norms among Orthodox Jews, while freely admitting that personal taste plays a crucial role, as well.

So what's going on here? Let's look at one or two items in this typology list, one basic item and one a bit more exotic:

A black velvet six-slice yarmulke is made of black velvet fabric with a polyester lining and has six pieces, or “slices,” sewn together. These are manufactured with or without a satin rim, the rim denoting greater piety. The overwhelming majority of Hasidic boys and men, other than those who belong to the Chabad-Lubavitch and Ger sects, wear the black velvet six-slice kapl. The wearers generally have short-cropped hair and sidelocks.

OK, but what about that yarmulke you saw the other day on the subway near New York University that somehow blended Judaism and Harry Potter studies?

Arguably the most fun and varied category, character yarmulkes can be made of cloth, suede or knit, can be cut in four or six slices or none at all, and have imprinted or puff-painted images of child-friendly themes -- from cartoon characters to sports team names. These yarmulkes can be seen on young and adolescent boys -- and occasionally on adult men -- in Modern Orthodox communities as well as in some mainstream Orthodox communities across America.

Enjoy! Now, can someone please get me a similar guide to the wearers of exotic coffee t-shirts in Emerging Evangelical Communities?

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