First Person / sIngular
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

Why I wear a hat

by Susan Rubin Weintrob

IT USED TO BE you could tell a lot about a person by whatever hat he was wearing.

For example, in the Middle Ages, members of guilds wore certain hats to distinguish themselves. We still have a few leftovers -- such as the large white chef's hat that top-notch chefs like to wear. Today, a baseball cap might identify a player, or a small green cloth cap might tell us a person works in the operating room.

I wear a hat too -- but not because I am a chef, a baseball player or a doctor. I wear a hat because I am an Orthodox Jew. I am recognized as such by some, but most people in my town think it a new fashion. When I wear a beret, I am often saluted in French. One person asked me, "Is this a feminist thing?" I shook my head. "No, it's a religious thing." She looked disappointed.

When I am at functions withinin the Jewish community, people usually know that my hat means that I am Orthodox. Just as my hat tells them something about me, their reaction to my hat tells me something about them. Some approve -- one woman began telling me about her daughter, who like myself, is newly Orthodox. Also like myself, she is well educated and teaches at a university. And like me, she surprises many because despite all her choices, she chooses to be an observant woman.

It is this concept of choice that bothers those who disapprove of my hat. Why would a well-educated, so-called liberated woman, want to go back to those things that many Jews have worked hard to discard? Why do I want to be publicly Jewish? Why do I want to be publicly religious? Why do I want to stand out as different?

I don't wear a hat to stand out as being different -- I wear a hat to link myself to the many generations of women before me. The custom of married women covering their heads is one of considerable antiquity, discussed in the Mishnah and in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). Despite the tradition, except among the Orthodox, most Jewish women do not cover their heads.

So what's the big deal about wearing a hat? Can't you wear a hat and not be observant? And conversely, can't you be a good person or a good Jew without a hat? The answer is yes, of course. A hat or kippah does not guarantee goodness anymore than a chef's hat guarantees a tasty meal. But -- and here's the big but -- for most of us, to be a good Jew and a moral person is a constant struggle. We'll listen to some terrific gossip -- just this once. How about sneaking into McDonalds for a luscious Big Mac? We'll go to that meeting Friday afternoon and not prepare for Shabbos -- just this Friday.

Wearing a hat changes all that for me.

It reminds me of the promise that I have made -- not just to wear a hat, but to try to live as a good Jew. During Shavuos, we think of the promise all Jews made when accepting the Torah. Mystically, we are told, all Jewish souls were present at Sinai -- we all accepted the Torah and its requirements. It's not easy to make or keep these promises, as a friend of mine found out with her precocious son, who saw and smelled bacon for the first time. He was upset when his mother told him he couldn't eat it. "But why? It smells so good. I want it!" His mother told him that Jews had made a promise to G-d not to eat bacon. Her 4 year-old shook his head vigorously. "I didn't promise." "Sorry," his mother told him firmly, "Until you're old enough, I made the promise for you."

We don't always have parents to help us remain Jewish, so my hat becomes an outward symbol of this promise, making it harder to forget Jewish law and tradition.

Wearing a hat shows that you are a serious Jew. I cannot imagine a rabbi who wears a hat or kippah holding a university workshop during the week of Shavuos, as recently happened at my university last spring. I imagine a head-covered rabbi would be in services during the holiday or holding study sessions in synagogues.

I cannot imagine Jews who wear hats scheduling business meetings on Shabbat or discouraging fellow congregants from eating kosher. In fact, I can't imagine men or women who keep their heads covered trying to denigrate observant Jews at all.

For many, being a Jew has become empty of Jewishness. Being born Jewish is just not enough; Judaism takes discipline. Regrettably, too often the typical Jew is one who is Jewishly uneducated. This often leads to being disrespectful of Jewish law. What individuals do in their own lives that is disrespectful will be harmful to themselves or their families Jewishly. While regrettable, it pales in importance compared to rabbis, community leaders or administrators who are ignorant or disrespectful about Judaism, but have the power to make decisions that affect their fellow Jews.

"Each Jew should individually decide what aspects of Judaism are meaningful," I am told by many. To a certain extent this is true -- but only to a certain extent. All organizations have boundaries. A friend of mine who is Reform has often given me this individualistic line. I agreed with her the other day.

She was surprised. Then I said, "So you think it's all right for Jews who believe in Jesus to say they are practising Judaism?"

"Well, no," she responded.

"How about Jews who say they don't believe in G-d?" No, she told me, they are not practising Judaism either. I smiled. "So you don't think that individuals rule totally, do you? Only in the areas that you want."

The many Reform student-rabbis at the small congregation in my town frequently followed my friend's line of reasoning. Their lack of knowledge about Jewish traditions often made their decisions counter to what Jews have followed for centuries, though the students were generally unaware of this. The fact that they were often ignorant was understandable; they were students. The fact that many did not respect Jewish traditions was not so understandable. On the bima, reading from the Torah, many refused to wear a head covering or a tallis; many denigrated fellow Jews or long-held Jewish traditions in their sermons; some discouraged the use of Hebrew; most were poor role models by their own lack of observance and reverence. I remember asking one student-rabbi to let me know which Torah portion fell nearest to my daughter's Bat Mitzvah, which was then two years away. The individual told me to pick any portion that I liked, that it didn't matter. Even when I insisted on knowing, the student-rabbi wouldn't tell me.

I analyzed why this statement bothered me. I realized I wanted a rabbi who said it mattered.

When I see a Jew who wears a head covering, I know that Judaism matters to him or her. I know that if I ask a question about Judaism, I will not be told, "It doesn't matter. Do whatever you want." When I see a woman who wears a wig or a hat, I know that she will not try to humiliate me for keeping kosher. When I see a rabbi who always covers his head, I know he will not be doing workshops at a university during major Jewish holidays. When I see a congregation of men and women who keep their heads covered at prayer, I know that they try, in their daily lives, to be serious Jews.

It's gotten so that my children think I look funny without a hat. When I look at myself in the mirror, I see what they mean. I don't look complete anymore. I guess that parallels how I feel about being Jewish. It's hard for me to feel complete without observing the traditions that have helped Jews survive the thousands of years of murder, conquest and assimilation.

And that's why I wear a hat.

JWR contributor Susan Rubin Weintrob is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion and is a faculty member of Ball State University's English Department.


© 1998, Susan Rubin Weintrob