The symbolism of head coverings


Israel: The way Jews in this country cover their heads offers insight into their political and religious convictions.

April 16, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- In the early days of the Jewish state, the pioneers settling the promised land often wore a funny-looking, beige hat, a little like Pinocchio's conical cap, as imagined by Walt Disney.

An Israeli cartoonist recognized the symbolic possibilities of the "kova tembel," as the hat was known, and began featuring it in newspaper sketches. The headgear became synonymous with the new Jew, a Zionist in shorts, sandals and open-collared shirt living in a kibbutz, working the land, building the state of Israel.

As the country grew and Jews came from around the world, what a Jew wore on his head -- or didn't -- became a cultural signifier: observant Jew or not; follower of a Hasidic rebbe or an American-born, Reform rabbi; native of Poland or Morocco; politically on the left or right; settler or anti-Zionist.

And it's not confined to the knitted or black velvet skullcap -- or kipa -- worn by religiously observant Jewish men. For Orthodox women, the gear ranges from simple black scarves and crocheted snoods to straw bonnets and wigs woven of human hair.

One can do a whole anthropological study on head coverings," says Israel Hershberg, one of Israel's foremost realist painters. "The way religious Jews use head coverings, both men and women, the type, the material, its size and color have political significance as well as religious significance."

These days Hershberg, an Orthodox Jew, wears a baseball cap. "They don't know what to make of it," he says.

Although biblical law does not require a head covering, the question of whether to cover has been debated through the ages. In biblical times, high priests wore a cloth miter or a turban. Since the Middle Ages, rabbis associated head coverings with piety and a bare head with frivolity, according to an entry in the Encyclopedia of Judaism.

The Hasidim of 18th-century Poland and Russia opted for a wide-brimmed hat during the week, a fur-trimmed "shtraymel" (shaped like a flat, wide hatbox) for the Sabbath and other holy days. They are still worn today.

Since World War II, the wearing of a skullcap or hat has been closely identified with Jewish tradition. While many Jews, especially in the United States, wear a skullcap only during religious services or to pray, religious Israelis wear them as a matter of course.

The chief Sephardic rabbi here, the religious leader of Jews from Arab countries, wears a gold, embroidered turban. His European counterpart dons a square-topped, black hat with a wide brim.

While covering the head was considered a matter of piety for a man, it was a matter of modesty for a married Jewish woman. In Hasidic communities today, a new bride shaves her head and wears a head scarf. Wigs have been worn since the time of the Talmud but they became popular among European Jewish women in the 18th century. Today, the customs vary and the amount of hair shown does, too.

At Mimi's, an exclusive hat shop in Jerusalem, Michal Biton browses among the straws and silks and cotton-crocheted hats on the shelves. Her reddish-brown hair is covered in an elaborate navy-blue silk and velvet head scarf.

Newly married, she explains, "I'm only now starting my collection" of hats. Although she follows the rituals of Jewish life, Biton doesn't feel compelled to cover her hair. She checked with her rabbi and got the OK.

"The religion that I respect is in my heart, not on my head," says the 24-year-old.

Her aunt, Sarah Elbaz, 40, donned a hat when she became religious three years ago. Today she favors a crocheted cap that allows the stub of her pony tail to show. "I always wear hats. It's a mitzvah," she says, using the Hebrew word for a good deed.

The perspectives of the two women reflect the diversity among Jewish women who are religious but not ultra-Orthodox, says Tamar El-Or, an anthropologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has written about religious women and their customs.

In the modern Orthodox tradition, some young women have decided to wear the head coverings their mothers rejected. But they discuss it with their husbands-to-be, El-Or says. "These are modern people who belong to a community that has to obey rules. When you belong to a community of law-abiders, many people look for their special twist, their special trope, to say what sort of Jew am I."

The nuances are great, she says. A modern Orthodox woman who decides to cover her head may also wear pants, which would be inappropriate among the ultra-Orthodox sects that often dress as did their 19th-century ancestors.

In its appeal to Israeli voters this election year, the National Religious Party has focused on the knitted skullcap worn by modern Orthodox Jews.

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