« Peter Schuck Replies to his Critics on Birthright Citizenship | Main | Teaching Con Law in the Current Moment »

Thursday, November 08, 2018

I am Spartawitz or Wearing a yarmulke after Pittsburgh

I began wearing a yarmulke the Tuesday after the October murder of eleven Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. I would have started sooner; the idea came to me almost immediately. But I wore a baseball hat on Sunday, so my head was covered. On Monday, I was late getting to work and forgot, as finding a head covering had not become my routine. I wore one to an inter-faith memorial service at my Reform temple near Miami on Monday evening, and it has remained.

This is new for me. I grew up in an unaffiliated Hebrew School that combined Conservative liturgy with a Reform commitment to justice; yarmulkes were reserved for services. I attended a public school district that was about 45% Jewish, but not one kid in my class wore one. I  attend a Shabbat morning minyan, a small, joyous, informal service at which I wear a tallis and a baseball cap, usually bearing the logo of my daughter’s private, Episcopal-affiliated middle school (we both appreciate irony).

The deaths in Pittsburgh triggered a desire to publicly pronounce and announce my Jewishness. Not that this was not already obvious to anyone paying attention—my last name is Wasserman, I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I work in academia, and I am obsessed with Jewish baseball players. This was different. I was challenging anti-Semites or other people who are uncomfortable around “different” Jews. As if saying hineni—“Here I am.”

Update: Tablet's Unorthodox discusses (around 58:30) a letter from a listener who similarly began wearing a yarmulke following the shooting. He discusses greater initial apprehension of a negative reaction from other Jews than I had.

The practice of wearing a head covering outside of prayer is said to rest on two ideas. One is as a reminder that Hashem always is above us and that we must remain humble as we walk through life. The second is to stand apart as Jews, to dress differently from the Nation around us and thus to affirm and celebrate our separate identity as the People Israel.

I was motivated by the latter idea and its symbolism in a moment of distress for the Jewish People. I described it to one (non-Jewish) colleague as an “I am Spartacus” moment. (“I am Spartastein”? “I am Spartawitz”?) A student who has worn a yarmulke his entire life stopped by my office to thank me—having always stood out in this noticeable way, he appreciated other Jews joining him in such a public display. I have heard stories of rabbis in France warning congregants not to wear yarmulkes outside, given the increase in anti-Semitism there. I would not be so dissuaded, although I believe (hope?) the situation in the U.S. is less fraught and dangerous.

But I have experienced two things in the past week or so. First, it has become more than symbolic. Having something on my head reminds me of my identity and my place as part of the Jewish People at every moment. I appreciate the constant sense of belonging; I am not sure I am not walking with my head slightly higher. (This is easy to say at 50; I am sure I would have felt differently if I were obligated to do this at 15). Second, I am beginning to appreciate the first idea—the constant awareness of humility and the feeling of something greater as I walk my four cubits.

I do not know how long I will continue to do this, if I will return to my old fashion stylings when the immediate memory of Pittsburgh has faded, if I become annoyed by the feeling the thing is flying off my head when I pace around in class, or if this is a permanent change in my life and my identity. But early results suggest a substantive response in a symbolic act.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 8, 2018 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Religion | Permalink


Thank you all for the comments. A few responses:

• I am friends with three Reform rabbis around here (two at my temple, one at the temple where my daughter went to grade school)--all wear yarmulkes outside Temple.

• I am trying to think through the arguments, in these comments and elsewhere, that wearing a yarmulke is a practice uniquely reserved for the Orthodox or those who observe all Jewish laws. I am especially trying to figure out how so much weight has been tied to this practice (which is not commanded in the Torah), but not to other practices. Or why this symbol of Jewish identity but not others--such as wearing a Star of David or a chai or a yellow "Jude" star (as one student did in a provocative act in the week after Pittsburgh).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 18, 2018 12:14:24 PM

Agree with Anon 12:19:15. You're portraying yourself not just as a Jew, but as an Orthodox Jew, when you're actually Reform, so there's a false advertising element there. You'll have to do everything an Orthodox Jew would do or get looked down on.
Plus, if you're Reform then your rabbi probably doesn't wear a yarmulke outside of religious functions. So what are you going to do when someone from your temple says to you "So now you're more religious than the rabbi?"

Posted by: AYY | Nov 15, 2018 12:22:16 AM

It's more than just opening yourself to criticism.
If you engage in "non-kosher" conduct while wearing a yarmulke, you are going to make at least some observers think that at least some purportedly-observant Jewish people are hypocrites/casual about the religious practices that they are supposed to be strictly observing.
You are, in effect, "culturally appropriating" something from another part of your own religion.

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 14, 2018 12:19:15 PM

Friendly advice--if you go into a restaurant that doesn't have kosher certification and wear a yarmulke, you'll be opening yourself to criticism.

Posted by: AYY | Nov 13, 2018 11:58:38 PM

A yarmulke is *not* a "fashion styling."
I think that most people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, would consider it to signify the wearer's serious commitment to specific religious practices, and not take it just a general expression of solidarity with Jewish people (or observant Jewish people).
Why don't you just wear a Magen David (star of David) on a chain around your neck and outside your shirt?

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 8, 2018 12:59:19 PM

Great post, Howard. Very powerful.

Posted by: Anthony Gaughan | Nov 8, 2018 12:54:03 PM

Here , titled :

" Anti-Semitism is so bad in Britain that some Jews are planning to leave "

And very relevant citation ( to my comment down there ) :

"I just want to get out of here. It's a massive thing to do but I've actually had enough," Lewis said. "People might dislike me in Israel because of my political views, might think I'm too right-wing or left-wing or whatever, but they are not going to dislike me for being Jewish."

Here :



Posted by: El roam | Nov 8, 2018 12:42:52 PM

My comment here , appeared , then , has disappeared , so here again :

Interesting . We get here clear impression about certain spiritual transformation you go through .This is normal . What I find bit weired , is the fact , that despite it , no single thought even , nothing has crossed your mind , concerning the idea or natural urge , to immigrate to the Israeli state , and there , feel really more safe ( at least concerning your spiritual identity ). Recently , many Jews by the way , French citizens , have immigrated to the Israeli state , due to such antisemitic attacks .

Also , what about taking advantage of your second amendment right , and buy a hell of gun or alike .Make no mistake , They don't hesitate to personally attack Jews ( not only congregations ).

Here , one negligible one :

" We’re not ashamed': Phoenix family may leave anti-Semitic graffiti uncovered "

Here :



Posted by: El roam | Nov 8, 2018 12:19:02 PM

Thanks for writing this, Howard. It is very moving and important. I have a suggestion:

Read Dara Horn's recent article in Smithsonian about Anne Frank and Holocaust erasure (my blog about it will be up on The Faculty Lounge tomorrow, which is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht). It opens with a story about wearing a yarmulke in contemporary Amsterdam.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Nov 8, 2018 11:02:05 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.