Several years ago, when my oldest graduated from nursery care into classes as part of our Saturday morning ritual, she was informed that she needed to wear a kippah in class. While she accepted this as a rule within the context of her children’s programming, she then started paying attention in the larger service and the question I should have been expecting came. “Momma, how come you don’t wear a kippah?” I didn’t have an immediate answer for her because I didn’t want to tell her the reason: I’m uncomfortable wearing one.
It’s been years since the question was posed and I still don’t have a solid answer. While I wasn’t able to give her, or myself, a clear answer in that moment, I realized I needed to respond in some way. I just can’t seem to be a ‘do as I say not as I do’, parent. I parent by example, so either I needed to say I didn’t think she needed to wear a kippah, or I had to start covering my head.
I remember as a kid hearing that after you get married, Jewish women cover their hair. I’m pretty sure the picture in my head was little old ladies in drab head scarves; think Yentl or Fiddler on the Roof. I was adamant that I would never do that. My hair is one of my best features. It is certainly my most praised physical feature. As a child, I couldn’t comprehend any reason to cover my hair. Modesty in the age of Madonna was a matter of wearing a full shirt. Minus a comment here and there it wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to since we didn’t regularly participate in organized religion. I didn’t really have any specific goals to get married at all so I saw no point in giving it much thought.
In my early 20’s at a performance of the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, a woman offered me money for my hair. I declined, uncomfortable with the idea without being able to put words to my discomfort. I hadn’t even realized people wore wigs for religious reasons until I asked around curious about why she would feel comfortable making such an offer to a stranger. It added another layer of confusion to my primitive understanding of the practice, but it still didn’t enter my mind on a regular basis.
Fast forward to the present and I have found myself married with two children regularly attending services at a synagogue that prides itself on its egalitarianism. Covering my head wasn’t about modesty, it was about equality. I found my happy medium in hats. I’ve always liked hats. I blame Blossom for that one. I owned one or two hats that were covered in dust because they weren’t in fashion, yet I liked them too much to give them away. I don’t remember the first time I wore a hat to services. I don’t remember how anyone reacted, or if anyone reacted at all. There were very few hats in services and I’m sure I felt like I stood out. Looking back, I’m fascinated that standing out for wearing something different was more comfortable than fitting in with everyone else or simply continuing to do nothing and dismiss my child’s inquiry.
In the six years since I started wearing hats, my collection has grown to probably 30 or so hats. Various styles and fabrics to go with the seasons. I comfortably wear hats on a regular basis in my everyday life. Ironically for someone who was sure my hair would always be my defining physical feature, it’s now almost always tucked up into a hat or pulled into tight braids. My husband pulled out his dusty hats and acquired many new ones as well, though he still wears a kippah underneath. My girls have also become hat wearers and it has become one of the defining features of our family’s religious life. This summer I organized the 2nd annual ‘Fancy Hat Shabbat’ to sponsor kiddish where probably a quarter of the congregation came in hats.
While I enjoy seeing the increase in hats at services, I still occasionally wonder where my kippah comfort level is. Like many pieces of religion and culture in general, we find comfort in those things that are familiar. Things we grew up with regardless if they were normal within the larger society. I think if I had been raised with the expectation that I’d cover my hair upon marriage I would have embraced it. I am sometimes jealous of the beauty in the structure of the modern orthodoxy I’ve experienced. At the same time, I long to not feel conflicted. I do occasionally feel like wearing a hat in services is cheating on egalitarianism. It’s a value that I agree with philosophically, yet I haven’t figured out where to place it in my own personal religious practice.
While the judgment is all internal, it’s not something I can ignore. The largest lesson I’ve learned so far in adulthood is that I have to understand and believe in what I’m doing, and if I’m not there yet I need to question that as well. Sometimes the understanding is a matter of time or even accepting that there is no answer.