// essays //
The Spread of the Skullcap:
A Look at the History of the Yarmulke and Multiculturalism
The Quebecois, the French-Canadien party governing Quebec, has recently sought to prohibit public officials from wearing religious symbols to work. As part of an attempt to preserve the cultural unity of Quebec, hijabs, yarmulkes, crucifixes and other religious paraphernalia will be forbidden with large public, historical symbols left alone for the foreseeable future. Bill 60 is proposed in the name of preserving neutrality and affirming the state value of secularism, but seen as most directly targeting the Muslim population. Some already report an increase in animosity towards individuals seen displaying outward Muslim affiliation whereas, on the other side, increased numbers of secular Quebecers are donning kippas and hijabs to show their opposition to the proposed legislation.
Although this assault on multiculturalism seems outrageous from an American perspective, it was not too long ago that New York City, now perhaps regarded as the most culturally diverse city in the world, dealt with its own controversies on public display of religious symbols.
In 1970, 25-year-old Abraham J. Goldstein of Forest Hills, Queens filed a complaint with the City Commission on Human Rights that his employer at the New York Stock Exchange didn’t allow him to wear his yarmulke to work during the two years of his employment. Soon after his hiring, Goldstein was informed that he could not wear his yarmulke on the trading floor because it would “disturb the brokers,” violating the Exchange’s standard of dress. Goldstein complied with the request and remained bare headed while on the trading floor while continuing to wear his yarmulke upstairs. When he was told to remove his yarmulke from here as well, Goldstein decided to protest his treatment. After the Commission set a date for a hearing, the Stock Exchange changed its policy, now allowing yarmulkes “in recognition of an established religious requirement.”
Only four years earlier in March 1966 a New York City public school student was told he could not wear his yarmulke in school. The school’s legal counsel advised the school to take this position, although it was never formally adopted as a citywide policy. Following protest by the New York Board of Rabbis, among others, and an inquiry by the mayor, the Board of Education released a statement affirming the legitimacy of Jewish boys wearing yarmulkes to school (there was no consideration that girls might wear yarmulkes at the time). Not long afterwards, the Board of Education also announced that all public school teachers were now permitted to wear yarmulkes while teaching. Advocacy seemed to be swift and effective, with the sides never going to court in either of these cases.
One year later, in July 1967, 13-year-old Orthodox day school student Bernard Paul White of Hillsdale, New Jersey, decided to take a summer typing course at the local Hillside public high school. As was his practice in school and year round, he came to the class wearing his yarmulke and was promptly asked by his teacher to remove it. After he refused, the vice principal repeated the request, which ultimately reached superintendant and chairman of the Board of Education, who both ruled that White could not attend the class while wearing his yarmulke.
In this circumstance, it was not only the New York Board of Rabbis that pushed for the right to Jewish headgear. The American Jewish Congress, a secular organization concerned at the time with protecting human rights and religious freedom, argued that forcing religious Jews to uncover their heads would infringe on their religious practice and emphasized that no public or private interest is violated through their continuing to wear them. Similarly Rabbi Harold Gordon, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, argued that, to observant Jews, “the yarmulke is to be worn at all times during the waking hours just as much as a shirt or a pair of trousers,” denoting humility before God. However, this view of the yarmulke as indispensable was not always reflective of the religious practice of observant American Jews.
Many traditional Orthodox Jews generally wore hats or went bareheaded in public spaces during the early part of the 20th century, suggesting a policy of accommodation rather than advocacy. Further, given the apparent religious significance of the yarmulke and the seemingly innocuous nature of its presence why did Jews only begin to publicly and loudly voice their commitment to it in the public sphere in the 1960s?
The truth of the matter lies in a complex combination of the history and significance of the yarmulke as well as American Jewish history. The exact extent of the religious obligation to wear a yarmulke is a matter of dispute in Jewish law, with significant traditional authorities holding it to be a strongly recommended pious practice with ancient roots. There were, however, observant Jewish communities that did not have a custom to always cover their heads in public settings and this was recognized as legitimate in Jewish law. In part due to custom and fashion, in part due to lax observance and in part due to social pressure, observant American Jews did not usually wear yarmulkes in public through WWII.
In the postwar years, however, Jews began wearing yarmulkes in much greater numbers. Demographics played a significant role with the postwar Jewish community affected an influx in more traditional minded European Jews who clung determinedly to the practices of their ancestors even as they came to America. This migration in part led to an intensification of practice among American Jews. These observant Jews often brought with them a different tradition from Eastern Europe that essentially mandated the practice. This was in contrast to the tradition of Orthodox German Jews and Sefardic Jews, who were among the first to found Jewish communities in America, and tended to uncover their heads in public settings where it would not have been accepted to wear a hat.
The fact that hats went out of style in postwar America also contributed to the changing role of the yarmulke in society. Without the fashionable option of covering one’s head with a hat, Jews were now likely to stick out more by covering their heads with yarmulkes. Only now was the decision to cover one’s head an active deviation from the societal norm, requiring a more committed community in order to popularize the yarmulke.
Many of the newer immigrants from Eastern Europe following WWII were more observant than their Jewish predecessors in the earlier part of the 20th century. In contrast to their predecessors, they came to America out of absolute necessity, as refugees with few other options for resettlement. While by no means an entirely religious as a group, many of them were committed to their tradition without being fazed at the possibility of seeming different. Thus, it seems likely that the newfound place of the yarmulke in American society during the 1960s was related in part to this surge in observance.
This demographic shift along with a trend towards increased religious involvement across the faiths and their denominations, combined to make Jewish affiliation more attractive during the postwar years. Likewise, synagogues saw an upturn in membership during these years reflecting the general spike in popularity that Judaism and religion achieved in 1950s America. To be sure, some distinguish between Jewish religious association and practice in this era, pointing out that observance did not actually increase. Nonetheless, the yarmulke as an outward symbol and identifying factor can be seen in line with the desire to increase Jewish affiliation. In addition to the increasing level of religious practice among American Jews, Judaism began to be characterized as a “third faith,” in addition to Protestantism and Catholicism during these years, bolstering the sense of a “Judeo–Christian tradition” that shaped the moral compass of the nation. It became much more comfortable to affiliate as a Jew when the religion had a positive national image.
Indeed, when defending young Bernard White’s right to wear his yarmulke to his summer class, the American Jewish Congress framed their argument in terms of increasing appreciation for diverse faiths and cultures in American society. A memorandum on this case, accessed at the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, argues that, “the presence of a child wearing a skull cap could be a living and therefore most effective teaching of the concept of a pluralistic democracy” as opposed to the time where “… we [Americans] did not recognize cultural pluralism as a desirable characteristic of our society.” The yarmulke controversies and ultimate resolutions of the 1960s are an example of the early flowering of multiculturalism in American society.
This greater appreciation for multiculturalism throughout the second half of the 20th century laid the groundwork for the yarmulke as it made its way onto national television, the workplace, and the courtroom. The increasing celebration and identification with Jewish symbols was an outgrowth of this postwar embrace of multiculturalism. Likewise, on September 13th of 1970, the same year that Goldstein’s yarmulke revolutionized the Stock Exchange dress code, the New York Times marveled that “New York is probably the only state where candidates campaign with yarmulkas in their pockets–if they’re not already on their heads.” Multiculturalism embodied through yarmulkes had made its way even into the most sacred of American values– democracy.
In stark contrast to the Quebecois– proposed Bill 60 which prohibited public officials from wearing religious garb, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released guidelines this month for dress in the workplace that require employers to “make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow religiously-mandated dress and grooming practices unless it would pose an undue hardship to the operation of an employer’s business.” These guidelines, aimed at both private and government employment agencies, include an example of a Jewish man sporting a yarmulke and tzitzit who was told to work in the back of the office, away from view. This kind of treatment that does not present any “undue hardship” for the employer and so in such circumstances the guidelines mandate that the employer treat the Jewish employee as they would anyone else and allow him to work at the front of the office as well.
Unsurprisingly, these guidelines were praised across the board of Jewish denominational organizations. Protection of the diverse religious expressions of differing citizens distinguishes the United States from the Quebecois, France and other parts of Western Europe that now seek to legislate preservation of cultural dominance. The ubiquity of the yarmulke in America is a testament to the reign of cultural pluralism in the U.S. and will continue to serve as a barometer for the religious tolerance of societies where Jews are a minority.
// AMINADAV GROSSMAN is a senior at Columbia College and Senior Editor of The Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo by Etsy user The Wasted Doctorate.