New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel


Yarmulke Me Crazy

By Simha Gulkarov

When examining a Jewish community there are certain characteristics that distinguish them among many other cultures. Walking down the streets of Midwood, Brooklyn, one will find mostly small, black velvet skullcaps on the heads of the men walking the streets. When observing the streets of Forest Hills, New York, one will see a different setting- old men walking around with rich, lively colored, patterned skullcaps, while the young men walk around with uncomplicated skullcaps. The presence of these skullcaps, or hats, serve functions other than keeping the head warm. The Jewish practice to wear a yarmulke does not come from a biblical passage like many would expect, but rather born out of a custom to show respect to their God. A symbolic custom is created by wearing a yarmulke upon ones head, which is the highest part of a persons body, thus noting respect for the God above them. The Talmud, a book of Jewish law and thought relates to a story that started the custom of wearing the yarmulke. The story in summation is of a women who’s son was noted to be a thief, but to prevent this from happening she had him cover his head to remind him that God is always “above” him watching his actions. Over time yarmulkes have served the function of exemplifying the distinguished image of Jews. This standard article of clothing worn upon the Jewish head is known as a yarmulke, but carries other names such as kipoh, kippah, kippot, and yamakah.

When one walks into a place of religious service for Jews, one will see a sea of men’s heads covered with various types, colors, and sizes of yarmulkes. This simple, yet intricate article of clothing comes in many different types-BukharianYemenitecrochetedsuedeblack velvetsatin, and white crocheted– each type bringing its own movement within the Jewish community. As Jewish immigrants entered into America from all around the world, men easily became distinguishable from other immigrants because of their headgear. To spot a religious Jewish man one would only need to observe his head, but the deeper understanding of the material and style of the kippah gives a stronger insight into the type of Jew he is. Understanding the type of kippahs worn by different Jewish immigrants brings an element of significant identification within their Jewish culture and into their residence in New York City. For Jewish people the tradition of wearing a yarmulke comes from the purpose of showing respect to God but the function and use of kippahs has been extended as times progress and environments change.

In New York City, a place with one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, the yarmulke is the identifying religious and cultural symbol that gives Jews identity within the Jewish community. Seeing a circular cloth perfectly situated on ones head usually renders their identity as a Jew. However, living in New York City where almost two million Jews reside, the need to distinguish the type of Jew you are becomes evident. Being an individual means that you carry something unique about you that differentiates you from the next person. In the Jewish community the easiest way to do that is by wearing a yarmulke that coincides with your specific community. For example, Israeli Jews in New York are spotted mostly with knit yarmulkes, Orthodox Jews with Black velvet yarmulkes, Modern Orthodox Jews with suede yarmulkes, and Bukharian Jews with Bukharian yarmulkes.  The type of Jew you are, and in turn the type of yarmulke you wear, comes from the country you or your family are from. Even further, certain areas of where Jews immigrated from contained only certain types of materials to make certain types of yarmulkes. This lead to certain Jewish immigrants wearing specific types of yarmulkes- the differentiation among Jews is not theological but rather cultural. In New York City, where the population of jews is large, identifying the Jewish community one belongs to is becoming easier as different Jewish communities are wearing specific yarmulkes to fit their home countries style.

My interview with 16-year-old Bukharian Jew, Simha Rubinov allowed me to investigate the connection between New York City, standing out, and yarmulkes. The interview brings about a few key ideas of the role yarmulkes play in the old and young generation of Jews in the Bukharian Jewish community. The term “Bukharian Jew” refers to Central Asian Jews where the majority live in the Uzbek cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent. Bukharian Jews have created a Jewish community in New York located in Forest Hills. My walk to a park in Forest hills, where old Bukharian Jews get together to play dominoes and cards, allowed me to see a repetitive type of yarmulke present- the Bukharian yarmulke. This type of yarmulke identifies any wearer on the basic level as Jewish, but not among the regular type of Jew that you would see wearing a suede or knitted yarmulke.



Old Bukharian Jew Wearing A Bukharian Yarmulke

Bukharian Yarmulkes

Bukharian Yarmulkes

This Bukharian yarmulke brings images of old school elegance, with its big size and vibrantly embroidered style directly relatable to the Bukharian custom. In their home country the décor is patterned the same way. The natives had rugs that were vibrantly embroidered like their yarmulkes and would not only have the rugs on the floor, but also on the walls. The Bukharian community thus decided to incorporate the patterns on their rugs onto the yarmulke. When you would enter their homes you would know they were Bukharian because of the décor and the yarmulkes- it separated them among others in their home countries, and now functions to separate them among other Jews wearing different types of yarmulkes in New York City.

When asking Simha Rubinov if he knew about these Bukharian yarmulkes, he responded, “Yeah with the flowers, of course I do… but that’s for the older generation like my father and my grandfather”. He instantly notes that these yarmulkes are for the older generation. Simha further goes to try to explain why it’s not for the younger generation. He mentions that in New York City it’s all about standing out from one another, but the older generation doesn’t want to lose their significant Jewish identity as Bukharians. They wear Bukharian yarmulkes so they can be distinguished as Bukharian Jews. It allows them, as immigrants, to bring something from their home country into New York City. The younger generation of Jews wants to stand out, they wear yarmulkes as a respect to God, but they also “add a New York spin to it” as Simha says. In essence, it makes sense to do so. The younger generation is mostly native New Yorkers and they know that New York is all about adding your own personal style to everything- you only stand out as much as you want to. The young Bukharian Jews wear yarmulkes to embrace their Jewish identity, insomuch as it doesn’t clash with the New York theme of things. You can’t personalize a Bukharian yarmulke, and add a Knicks logo like Simha Rubinov did to his yarmulke for when he goes to play basketball or a Knicks game. The Bukharian yarmulke for young Bukharian Jews is limited in its ability to be stylish- its old school elegance needs to be left for tradition. In New York City, the younger Jews realized they can still embrace their Jewish identity but choose to do so by personalizing a simple yarmulke. They’re starting with the basics.

I Can Do What to My Yarmulke Now?

Knicks Yarmulke

Knicks Yarmulke

The younger generation, as I mentioned, is embracing its Jewish identity in creative ways. Aside from the simple suede yarmulkes that are seen throughout New York City, there’s a small addition that was made to add a lot of “flavor” to them. Walking into Madison Square Garden you’ll see many New Yorkers using items that express their love for specific players and teams- foam fingers, team jerseys, team colored sneakers, and team logoed caps. But there’s one item being added to that list- sports team yarmulkes. As Simha mentioned, he can be seen at a Knicks game in Madison Square Garden embracing his Knicks yarmulke. ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported in the year 2013: “The Emblem Source now makes the official yarmulkes of Major League Baseball and the NBA…the business has taken off … People in Brooklyn can’t get enough of the black Brooklyn Nets one or…Expos ones for Jewish fans of the former team in Montreal…” When examining the exact function of these yarmulkes you’ll see one thing is evident. New York has almost two million Jews, and Brooklyn holds a strong percentage of them. When ESPN reporter Darren Rovell noted that people in Brooklyn cant get enough of the black Brooklyn Nets yarmulkes, it only makes sense. The Jews that enjoy watching basketball now have an additional way to express their love for their teams- by having logos printed on yarmulkes. The MLB stepped in and took advantage of that market noting that two of the biggest baseball teams- Yankees and Mets- are in New York. As we also know, one of the biggest populations of Jews are in New York, thus it only makes sense to make yarmulkes that are team-branded with two of MLB’s favorite teams. But it doesn’t stop here.

Everything Has to Do With Politics

If you were to hear, “ Lets manufacture Obamicas and McCipahs” you wouldn’t begin to fathom, how to go about doing so and if it would stand in the Jewish community. But that was not the case for the Faith-Action-Change-NYC group that decided to take yarmulkes and create Obamicas: “…Faith-Action-Change NYC group, has created ‘Obama 08’ yarmulkes, just in time for High Holy Day wearing. With a background of ivory suede, the yarmulkes feature the campaign’s logo above the words ‘Obama 08.’” What seems like an absurd idea- taking a religious and cultural item and converting it into a political tool- actually exists:


Obamica Yarmulke

The robust aura of New York City is creeping its way into the Jewish communities and extending the way of expressing oneself through their yarmulke. Originally, owner of, Shlomo Perelman attempted to create political yarmulkes but had a weak start with sales of only 60 yarmulkes. As the Obama and McCain presidential battle took place, New York City demonstrated its love for the democratic side: “The figures are surprising, given that typically, Jewish-Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections. Sales of Mr. Perelman’s yarmulkes are more true to form, with Obama kippahs easily the top sellers.” But just because political yarmulkes are being produced and sales are starting to rise, that doesn’t mean it’s accepted by every Jew. The sport yarmulkes seems not to offend people; it’s a creative, fun, and slightly entertaining method of harmless expression. However, knowing that yarmulkes are connected to God, and politics are connected to corruption, political yarmulkes has caused some anger among the Jewish community: “Ari Schulman, a 24-year-old Jewish real-estate broker in Long Island, N.Y., and a registered Republican, says he’d never wear a yarmulke with a political message on it. ‘Advertising on a kippah is inconsistent with Jewish ideology,” he says.” It may be inconsistent with the Jewish ideology, and inconsistent with the olden times of having yarmulkes for the simple purpose of religious prayer. But times have changed, and beliefs are starting to follow.

New York City At Its Finest

The younger generation of Jews are finding creative ways of expressing themselves, all while keeping the yarmulkes religious purpose still alive. Wayne L. Firestone, president and chief executive officer of Hillel, a Jewish organization present in many colleges and universities stated in an article in the Wall Street Journal that “yarmulkes touting presidential candidates reflect a modern way that many young Jews express themselves…able to share that with their friends in the community in which they’re socializing.’” Clothing is a way that every single person expresses something about himself or herself, and the yarmulke is no exception. The young Jews of New York embrace the New York theme of differentiating yourself among others, and do so by having their yarmulkes express key traits of their personalities. From the sports logos, personal engraving, and political yarmulkes, it only makes sense to encourage self-expression through the yarmulkes. Any view that this form of expression is inconsistent with Jewish ideology shows the difficulty of accepting the modern world we live in. The development of yarmulkes from different material hundreds of years ago didn’t offend anybody because different clothes were the only way creating a yarmulke to ones liking. However, times have changed, and the generations to come will only get more creative and far more expressive than they are now.

Further reading and information on Islamic Women Headwear, Differences in Older and Younger Generational Assimilation, and Orthodox Jewish Clothing Attire can be found by clicking the respective highlighted text.

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