Of holy hats and culture clashes


SOME people were born to spend their lives under a yarmulke. Of course they were: they are called Jewish men of the Orthodox persuasion.

Which is not the point. Certain heads would look unfinished, unfurnished even, were they to appear yarmulkeless in public. They would be an i sans dot.

Oy vey? Not according to a Jewish friend who, upon being told the story, mused kosher-faced, “Just like the religion: don’t ask why – Just Do It.”

The Talmud says no man should walk more than four cubits – about two metres – with his head uncovered. For some heads, that’s four cubits too many. A fine specimen of such a noggin bobbed atop a proudly portly body as the heat shimmered from a parking lot on a Johannesburg summer afternoon.

His profoundly Jewish nose parted a pair of tarry, tarry eyes. In the splodge of shadow beneath his schnozzle lurked a half-bagel of moustache. Then came a mouth wide shut and, eventually, a second chin.

Joburg’s Orthodox Rabbis will be pleased to know that the cultural clues were confirmed by the undeniable presence of a yarmulke at the apex of said fine specimen.

But a goy’s idea of a yarmulke this was not. As our man loped past, a familiar symbol gleamed incongruously in the sun. There it sat near the stark line where holy hat ended and head took over, as plain as the day was bright: a Nike logo. The Swoosh was with him.

Oy vey? Not according to a Jewish friend who, upon being told the story, mused kosher-faced, “Just like the religion: don’t ask why – Just Do It.”

He said some men indicated their choice of whisky on their yarmulkes. Who could take issue with a Johnnie Walker number? On Shabbat, “Keep Walking” is the law.

Some yarmulkes are made of satin, others of suede or leather, and they are often vividly patterned. Still others are crocheted, like the one I borrowed to wear to Shul on Rosh Hashanah once upon a warm Bulawayo evening. It was a spectacular shade of pink.

To date, I have covered cubits under a yarmulke just twice. The other occasion was at the wedding of the friend above, and a jolly good Johnnie Walker time was had by all.

But my relationship with religious headgear is burgeoning. Having let a woman from a Muslim family into my life, I sometimes find myself under a topi.

Or, if you like, a rumi topi – “Rome cap”: a reference to its origins in what is now Istanbul. Rome had its Pope, and Constantinople had its Caliphate.

A single topi does not a Muslim man make. The one I wore to our Nikkah was pristine white. Bought from an earnest Egyptian merchant in Fordsburg, it was nonetheless “made in China”.

My favourite is of midnight blue denim with black velvet panels. I’m sure it’s not done to refer to it as lingerie for the head, but that’s what it feels like.

Whereas the yarmulke typically follows the form of the wearer’s skull, the topi is rigidly structured and more often than not adds a boxlike appendage to the head.

Might this be a metaphor for the Jewish habit of assimilating into foreign cultures, and for the Muslim tendency to remain recognisably separate?

That said, Jews and Muslims share more than many of them would care to admit, particularly not if there’s an argument in the offing.

For instance, the kitchens of the Middle East are abuzz with contending theories concerning the national origins of foods like falafel and hummus.

Of course, shared geography leads to entwined cultures and history. So, for the armchair anthropologist, it is plausible that the topi and the yarmulke were once one and the same.

Evidence exists to suggest that ancient Israelites and Bedouins wore similar headdresses, and Muslims in rural Malaysia still wear a kopiah – similar in name and appearance to the kippah, another term for the yarmulke.

My late father-in-law owned a topi of the minutest blue checked fabric. Rising conically from its band to a pitched peak, it features a downright sporty tassel at the back. It is, without doubt, a fine hat.

With that on my head, I wouldn’t have to think for the time it takes to walk even a smidgen of a cubit to be able to point the way to Mecca. Under this splendid example of the Muslim milliner’s art, I reckon I could glide flawlessly through the prayers I currently fluff more often than not.

Topi envy is not something I thought I would fall prey to, but I refuse to indulge in denial: I want one just like it.

Wherever did my father-in-law acquire this handsome hat? If I had a dinar for every time I had been on the point of asking him just that, I might be able to afford a bespoke replica cut from Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat itself.

At least, that was what I used to think until I returned from a trip to Istanbul with a fair dinkum fez angled audaciously on my head. If Bob Dylan had seen it, “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” would have become “Red Velvet Black Tassel Fez” and the history rock and roll would have been so different.

My father-in-law was impressed and aghast all in the same arched eyebrow: “And? Where’s mine?”

“Mazeltov,” I said. Silently, of course. ♦

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