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And What's That on Your Head?

by Bert Stratton

Maybe a collage artist could do something with my assortment of yarmulkes, which I’ve collected during the 23 years I’ve spent playing klezmer clarinet at weddings and bar mitzvahs in Cleveland.

My Guatemalan yarmulkes – crocheted by Mayan Indians – come from hipster weddings. These multi-colored Mayan kippot are especially big hits with female rabbi brides. That’s a niche.

My most heimisch lids are bubbie-knit. For one party, a grandma knit 150 yarmulkes. I took about five leftovers.

Skull cap. Those are harsh words. I have some blue suede yarmulkes, distributed by A1 Skull Cap Co. out of Brooklyn. The yarmulkes don’t breathe. I like a yarmulke that breathes, crocheted or knitted.

Camouflage kippot. I have a few. My band played a bar mitzvah where the theme was Zahal (that’s the Israel Defense Forces). The bar mitzvah boy’s father wore combat boots and a full Israeli army uniform. The band wore IDF T-shirts, except our trombone player, who is a pacifist.

Sports-themed lids happen too. One time we had to wear basketball jerseys and kippot at a bar mitzvah party. There even was a cheerleader squad. The girls did gymnastics formations while cheering “Mazal tov, let’s shout hurray. It’s Jeremy and Sam’s bar mitzvah day.” Another cheer was “I say ‘oy,’ you say ‘vey,’ Jeremy and Sam are men today.”

My band’s keyboard player often starts gigs by asking, “Is this a yarmulke gig or not?” He’s a gentile. I have explained that some are half-and-half: yarmulke for the ceremony, no yarmulke for the party.

My Conservative rabbi wears a “throwaway” yarmulke, the black satin number used by funeral homes and synagogues. My rabbi doesn’t want to look different from his congregants, I guess. I don’t have the guts to ask him why.

My white satin yarmulke from December 9, 2007 is imprinted with the groom’s name, Ananth Uggirala. His parents, from India, were Anjaneyulu and Manorama Uggirala. I had to announce them. Memorable.

You need the right kind of yarmulke clips if you’re a musician because you move around a lot. Bobby pins are the worst. They take your hair out. Duck bill clips – also bad. The best are the little surfboard barrettes.

If you don’t have good clips, you’re in trouble, particularly at outdoor gigs. I remember one Israeli guy marching with the chuppah outdoors, while smoking and balancing a drink. His yarmulke blew off. He scooped it up, put it back on, and took a drink. Secular Israelis, they’re funny.

I wore a yarmulke for a week when I hitchhiked out west. This was decades ago. I had just seen a photo of Bob Dylan wearing a yarmulke at the Kotel. None of the drivers who picked me up commented. My hat was just a hat – to them. To me, it was a religion.

Bert Stratton plays clarinet in the klezmer band Yiddishe Cup and is the author of the blog Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate. He is a member of Park Synagogue in Cleveland. www.klezmerguy.com.

 
 
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