Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Kippah Your Head Covering Outta My Office

Kippah. Yarmulke. Beanie. Skullcap. You can call it whatever you want, but the Jewish head covering has been in the news and in pop culture a lot lately.

The New York Post reports that an Italian man is suing McKinsey & Co., the international consulting firm, claiming he was fired after repeatedly complaining to human resources that his colleagues made fun of his yarmulke. Ciro Rosselli claims in papers filed in Manhattan federal court yesterday that he wore a yarmulke in the McKinsey & Co. offices where he worked as an executive assistant and was discriminated against for it. I know there are several McKinsey & Co. employees who wear a yarmulke to work. Rosselli's case is interesting, however, because he's not even Jewish. He was wearing the Jewish head covering while practicing "theosophy," an obscure spiritual philosophy that maintains that "there is no higher religion than truth."

Rosselli's colleagues at McKinsey & Co. gave him a hard time about his kippah. He claims his boss compared him to Madonna, the Kaballah-loving celebrity who has embraced Judaism despite the fact that she's Christian. Another co-worker suggested that Rosselli was just trying "to hide his bald spot." According to the lawsuit Rosselli filed, one co-worker said he wasn't a "real Jew" and another demanded that he "take that [yarmulke] off! You're creeping me out!" Rosselli's lawsuit seeks unspecified money damages from McKinsey & Co. for discrimination and retaliation.

The kippah has also made its way into pop culture. It's become more common to see actors wearing a yarmulke on television shows (Jeffrey Tambor on "Arrested Development" or Jeremy Priven on "Entourage) and in the movies (Ben Stiller in "Keeping the Faith" or Owen Wilson in "Meet the Parents"). But this is just to let the audience know they are playing Jewish characters.


In a recent episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the kippah was the punchline. Like he did as a writer on "Seinfeld," Larry David draws on real life situations for "Curb" and shows how humorous they are. I'm sure that living in Los Angeles, Larry David has encountered middle-aged Jewish people who suddenly embrace Jewish observance. And that was precisely the situation he wrote for Bob Einstein, who plays the dentist Marty Funkhowser on the show. In the "Palestinian Chicken" episode, Larry attends a dinner party where Funkhowser, wearing a yarmulke, explains that he's recently undergone a spiritual awakening following his divorce and mid-life crisis. He has been meeting with a female rabbi each night who has influenced him to become more religious (saying the blessings before meals, wearing a kippah and even considering "Koufaxing" his friends by not playing in the golf tournament on Shabbat).

In this scene (video below), Funkhowser is about to enter a Palestinian chicken restaurant wearing his large velvet yarmulke, but Larry David and Jeff Garlin (playing Jeff Greene) won't allow it.



I started wearing a yarmulke when I was four-years-old at my synagogue-based pre-school, and then continued to wear it at my Jewish day school in Detroit and whenever I was in a synagogue. During my freshman year of college I decided to wear a yarmulke all the time. At first I probably wore it as a sign of Jewish solidarity and then later for more religious reasons. Today, I cynically joke that I wear it simply to cover my bald spot, although truth be told it probably has protected my head from getting sunburned every now and then.

Leo Rosten claims that the word "yarmulke" comes from the Tatar word for skullcap. However, I think it's more likely from the Aramaic "yira malka" meaning "awe of the king" as a sign of respect to God. Whatever one's reason for wearing a yarmulke, they deserve to be treated with respect. Whether you're an Italian New Yorker experimenting with many religions or a spiritually renewed Jewish dentist going to eat some Middle Eastern chicken.

22 comments:

Alia Ramer said...

My first (and only, really) kippah-ed boyfriend in college had a knitted one for every outfit. He was quite preppy, and had a stack on them: striped, colored, and - fer reals - an argyle one to match his argyle cardigan sweater.
The punchline? Now he wears a black hat in Queens. What sorrow to his vast kippah collection.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Well, Ciro Rosselli's not the first Italian to wear a yarmulke (cf: The Pope).

Anonymous said...

Why would someone who wears a kippah eat treif chicken or break Shabbat?
I don't understand why in movies or TV the first thing someone who becomes more Jewishly observant does is to put on a kippah. For me and for 99% of people I know who embraced more observance, wearing a kippah was one of the last things we did.

Anonymous said...

This is your post for Tisha b'Av?!? Is this a statement of how Conservative Judaism/Halacha treats this day, or a statement of how you treat this day, or both?

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous #4 - That's not really an appropriate post for everybody to see. If you have issue with the blogger you should make it direct not public.

Further, the Rabbi-blogger broke none of the numerous and detailed halacha of Tisha-B'av.

Lastly - your swipe at conservative Judaism is really un-called for. It's nature of intra-jewish strife that brought upon the korban beis-hamikdash in the first place.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Another question (and one I didn't get in to) is what happens when someone claims to be from another religion. Are they automatically entitled to certain religious rights in the workplace? In other words, could Rosselli say he is "trying out" different religions -- in accordance with his practice of "theosophy" -- and this month he's "trying out" Judaism... would he be allowed to take off Yom Kippur?

Can a non-Jew wear a yarmulke, get ridiculed and then call it anti-Semitism? I don't think Rosselli has done that, but I'm asking hypothetically.

And finally, if his coworkers at McKinsey & Co. said he shouldn't wear a kippah because he's not Jewish, then aren't they just bringing the "Who's a Jew" debate to the workplace? I know there are employees there who would say that a Jewish person who converted with the help of non-Orthodox rabbis isn't a Jew. And someone who was born to a Jewish father, but non-Jewish mother isn't a Jew.

And also, non-Jews wear yarmulkes all the time in synagogues throughout the world. You don't have to be Jewish to wear one (unlike the tallit and tefillin).

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Anonymous #1:

It's a TV show!

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Anonymous #2:

Should I ask you what I should blog about from now on?

If you give me your email address, I'm happy to send you some of the Tisha B'Av material I've written.

bobbie said...

Always wondered where the word "yarmulke" comes from, and your explanation makes a lot of sense. Still "kippah" sounds much nicer! This clip reminds me a bit of a really cute movie, "Infidel" about a Muslim man who discovers after his mother dies that not only was he adopted, but his birth mother was Jewish. It skewers everyone and is hilarious.

Anonymous said...

I’m sorry if anyone felt my earlier post was inappropriate, however Rabbi Jason is free to not post it. Obviously he felt it was not malicious (it was not meant to be), or he would not have allowed it.

Rabbi Jason is a conservative rabbi. He does not hide this fact. He should be willing and able to hear and answer questions – even difficult questions – on Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Jason, I do not want you to check your topics with me prior to posting. But that was not my question. My question was not answered, so I will rephrase and expand, in case it was not clear.

In addition to his blog posts, one can go to his website and see sermons/essays on various topics. (I have not read them all, or even a majority, but I have bounced around the blog posts and the sermons.) One particular sermon I read mentioned the joke about three types of Jews: Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, and Conservative Rabbis. The point of that sermon (at least the point I took from it) was that Conservative Judaism is a halacha-based movement, and a Conservative Jew is obligated in tefillin, shabbos, etc. Even if we were to say that this blog post “broke none of the numerous and detailed” halachos (which I am not ready to say – it is said in the kitzur, mishna brura, rambam, (any others?) that one who fasts but goes about in levity, taking trips, etc. is grasping the tofel and casting away the ikar), it is clearly not in the spirit of the day. Of course, I am Orthodox, so I am coming from a different angle. Rabbi Jason, I am not “taking a swipe” at Conservative Judaism. I am not looking to cause “intra-Jewish” strife, and I don’t believe there is sinas chinam here. I honestly want to know, and want you to publicly say, whether this is indicative of the Conservative Judaism and its attitude towards the day (are there responsa regarding how one should/may conduct oneself on Tisha b’Av? – please post links), or is this indicative of your personal attitude toward the day? Some combination? Something else?

Thank you.
M.S.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous #4 - I'm the individual who posted Anonymous #5. While I might have my own disagreements with Conservative Judaism - Including some recent and many long-standing rulings of their Rabbinical Assembly (I also daven at Orthodox shuls) I don't think that Conservative Jews are not in fact Jews or the vast majority of mitzvot that are observed are not mitzvot.

Conservative Judaism in particular - Does recognize Tisha-B'av and while many do observe Tish-B'av the community certainly does.

If you were in the Metro-Detroit area you could have gone to:
http://farmington-mi.patch.com/events/community-wide-tisha-bav-service

rachel kapen said...

To the Anonymous who answered Anonymous # 4; It was the Hurban Beit HaMikdash and not the Korban Beit Hamikdash you are talking about. Korban would be fine as it means: Sacrifice while hurban means destruction.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anon#5, I never said, nor do I believe that someone is not Jewish because he identifies as a Conservative or Reform Jew, nor did I say, nor do I believe, that mitzvos done by said individuals are not mitzvos. If you are Jewish and you take a lulav on succos, it is a mitzvah, no matter how religious (or not) you are. If your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, like it or not. This idea that Orthodox Jews believe that non-Orthodox Jews are not Jewish is false, and I’m not sure how it is relevant to my question anyway.

Now, you say that Conservative Judaism recognizes Tisha b’Av. That is what I thought, and that is why I had my question. If they did not, then my question would be a non-issue. Since they do, my question is in play.

I am not asking Rabbi Jason to sit on the floor crying all day. I am not even suggesting that he post a Tisha b’Av related item. But posting something with such levity on such a day seems terribly inappropriate. But, as I said in my 2nd post, this is coming from the angle of an Orthodox Jew. Rabbi Jason is a Conservative Rabbi, and as such should be willing and able to address this issue. Rabbi Jason, would you please give me the angle from the Conservative side?

Thank you,
M.S.

Anonymous said...

I'm Anonymous #5. To Rachel Kaplan you are correct, it would be the Hurban Beis HaMikdash. I mis-typed. I also want to correct my other post. Many Jews who hold by Conservative Judaism - Do NOT keep Tisha B'av in any meaningful fashion. That doesn't mean they don't want to, or don't plan on it in the future, they just don't for one reason or another. That doesn't mean the Conservative Movement doesn't hold by Tisha B'Av - On the contrary it does.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Jason, did you not receive my previous comment or did you choose not to post it? if it is the latter, I am disappointed for two reasons. First, because you let the slander against Orthodox Judaism (that we think Conservative Jews are not Jews) stand unanswered and second because you seem unwilling to even hear tough questions. If you don't want to answer, just say that "my observance is deeply personal and I prefer not to share it with anonymous posters and others who read my blog". But to refuse to even post the question?!? Sad.

Anonymous said...

I'm Anon#5 - If my post came across as stating there are those who believe that Conservative Jews are not a Jews then I thoroughly apologize. I believe I forgot to type the word 'not' which changed the tone of my post.

It was not my intention to make such an insinuation - A Jew is a Jew by the entire Jewish community's standards regardless of their hashkufa - even if there haskufa is not recognized by others. Even an apostate Jew remains a Jew by the entire jewish community's standards.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

In response to: "Why would someone who wears a kippah eat treif chicken or break Shabbat?"

-Some Jewish people wear a kippah for non-religious reasons. On many college campuses there are Jewish students who wear a kippah to show solidarity with Israel (it might be misguided but it's done). Also, a kippah is a minhag (though it might be a minhag k'halacha to some extent) so while it might seem odd to you that someone would wear a kippah but not keep kosher, it's certainly possible.

In response to: "I don't understand why in movies or TV the first thing someone who becomes more Jewishly observant does is to put on a kippah. For me and for 99% of people I know who embraced more observance, wearing a kippah was one of the last things we did."

-In movies and TV a kippah is both a clear physical demonstration of one's Judaism and it is also a recognized Jewish ritual object/garb.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Oy! All these anonymous comments are making it difficult to respond to individuals.

To the comment about this being an inappropriate Tisha B'Av post, I disagree. I didn't post this as humor. In fact, the post begins with a lawsuit that raises some interesting points.

I take Tisha B'Av seriously and like other Jews I mourn the destruction of the Temples and contemplate the reasons for their destruction. It's ironic that we talk so much about sinat chinam (baseless hatred) among Jews on Tisha B'Av -- even citing that as the reason for the chorban beit hamikdash -- and yet you seem to criticize Conservative Jews in your comment.

I get the sense you wanted me to blog about Torah matters on Tisha B'Av, but I'm sure you realize that would have been inappropriate as well since we are forbidden from studying most sections of Torah on Tisha B'Av.

There is a prohibition on Tisha B'Av from learning Torah. Why? Why the prohibition on learning? Basing himself on the Talmud, Rabbi Yosef Karo cites the verse in Tehilim (19:9): "The statutes of God are upright, rejoicing the heart..." Since Tisha B'Av is a day of immense sadness, it is inappropriate to experience the joy that comes with learning Torah.

It doesn't say one can't blog about how the yarmulke was in the news recently -- both in a [possibly] frivolous lawsuit against an international consulting firm by a non-Jew and also on the television show.

Lis said...

Well, Ciro Rosselli's not the first Italian to wear a yarmulke (cf: The Pope).
By Blogger Rabbi Jason Miller

-- The Pope is not wearing a yarmulka, it is called Zucchetto and there are differences between a yarmulka and Zucchetto. The color of zucchettos denotes the wearer's rank, white for the Pope, red for cardinals, purple for bishops. And a zucchetto has 8 triangles compared to a kippah's 4. :)

----------
Lis @ Best Kippah

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Lis - I was only kidding but thanks for the information.

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