What is the meaning of:
weaving together fringes of Jewish life”?

Do you wear a Kippah and/or Tzitzit?

On Sep­tem­ber 24, 1996 I asked my rab­binic col­leagues… in par­tic­u­lar, those who wear Kip­pot (and request/require the stu­dents in their con­gre­ga­tions to wear Kip­pot when either study­ing or enter­ing the syn­a­gogue), whether they wear Tzitz­it as well, and if not, why.
My orig­i­nal ques­tion was not so much about Tzitz­it or Kip­pah as it was about how we make our deci­sions.
First, I clar­i­fy from where I come.

Polity, not Piety

My back­ground is not Reform, clas­si­cal or oth­er­wise. Nor is it Ortho­dox nor, Con­ser­v­a­tive (note: I list them in alpha­bet­i­cal order). In fact, I do not come to the rab­binate out of any of the “reli­gious” (per­haps I should say “syn­a­gogue”) move­ments of our peo­ple. I come to the rab­binate from “poli­ty” not “piety.”
My par­ents were Yid­dishist Sec­u­lar­ists and I grew up in Jew­ish Cen­ters and the Labor/Socialist Zion­ist move­ment. Even so (or per­haps so!), I am the only one of the kids in the small Los Ange­les Con­ser­v­a­tive con­gre­ga­tion, where I cel­e­brat­ed becom­ing a Bar Mitz­vah and Con­fir­ma­tion, who became a rab­bi (and one of only one other—outside my family—who became pro­fes­sion­al­ly involved in Jew­ish life, though a very few oth­ers (I’ve tried to keep track) main­tained high degrees of involve­ment). The rab­bi of the con­gre­ga­tion (B’nai Israel) (who I see once every three years or so — Paul Dubin, now (at the time this was first writ­ten, June 3, 1999) Exec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent of the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Board of Rab­bis) used to tell us that he wished he had a hun­dred con­gre­gants like us instead of what he had. Though we rarely went to ser­vices (my father felt they destroyed our Shabbes obser­vance), we reg­u­lar­ly made Shab­bat din­ner at home with can­dles, etc. and sang “Shabbes songs”. Look­ing back on it, I see that we sang songs “about” Shab­bat, rather than singing Shab­bat songs. Even so, we had a rich­er Jew­ish life than most of the peo­ple I knew. As we began our Erev Shab­bat rit­u­al, my father would say that we per­form the actions and recite the words that iden­ti­fy our­selves with Jews through­out his­to­ry and around the world… and “as the world turns toward dark­ness, it has been the prac­tice of Jews to light can­dles in dark places.” Per­haps you could have called us “uniden­ti­fy­ing Recon­struc­tion­ists”. Since then I’ve coined the phrase “Clos­et Recon­struc­tion­ists”. Actu­al­ly, I often say:

99.44% of Amer­i­can Jews are Clos­et Recon­struc­tion­ists

intellectual honesty, not “style”

I look for intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty, not “style”. Among oth­er things, my father taught me how to think soci­o­log­i­cal­ly and anthro­po­log­i­cal­ly. I can appre­ci­ate that Tzitz­it were prob­a­bly part of the nor­mal iden­ti­fy­ing dress of our bib­li­cal ances­tors (see below). A descrip­tion even­tu­al­ly became a pre­scrip­tion.… How do you know a fel­low Israelite? Look for his fringes with a thread of Tekhelet! I am fas­ci­nat­ed as to how the change has occurred from the Tzitz­it to the Kip­pah.

When I grad­u­at­ed from high school (1964) I went to Israel on the Year Course of Young Judaea. We lived in the San Remo Hotel at the inter­sec­tion of Strauss and ha-Nevi’im, not far from Me’ah She’arim.

Intersection of Strauss & Ha-Neviim (Jerusalem)

Inter­sec­tion of Strauss & Ha-Nevi’im (Jerusalem)

On a street cor­ner a block or so away from the “hotel” a young Dati woman (per­haps a cou­ple years old­er than I) sat and cro­cheted Kip­pot.

Kippah from Me'ah She'arim

Me’ah She’arim Kip­pah

I bought one and began to wear it as if it were part of the “nation­al cos­tume” along with my Nim­rod san­dals and my blue shorts (Noam (now when this was first post­ed), peri­od­i­cal­ly, wears wore this one). While liv­ing in Jerusalem, the girl with whom I had a hand-hold­ing rela­tion­ship cro­cheted anoth­er one for me which I wear at rare inter­vals.

Girlfriends Kippah

Girl­friend’s” Kip­pah

In all respects I remained a sec­u­lar Jew, even though I kept Kosher (not con­scious­ly or pur­pose­ful­ly, that was what we were fed). I should add that in the win­ter time, grow­ing up in Los Ange­les, the males in my fam­i­ly wore berets. I had an old red one that I had with me in Israel and wore most of the time and even when I began to wear the Kip­pah. When I trav­eled out of Jerusalem on Shab­bat, I wore the beret instead of the Kip­pah.
I wore the beret through­out the ’60s and into the ’70s, though I switched from red to black. My broth­er wore red.

Jay being left and Jewish

Jay being left and Jew­ish

We were rec­og­nized around Los Ange­les. For a short time I wore a Greek fish­er­man’s cap. (I appear that way in the Jew­ish Cat­a­log.)

unusual” Kippot as objects of Jewish costume

I have long had an inter­est in Kip­pot as objects of Jew­ish cos­tume. I recall Ivy-League Kip­pot of the mid-’60s (plaid with a small belt buck­le “in the back” –if you have one I want it–it belongs in a muse­um!). I remem­ber hear­ing about one made of Lev­i’s den­im some­time dur­ing the late ’60s (It even includ­ed the tag(!) does any­one have more infor­ma­tion on this?). In the late ’70s, when I lived in New York City, I bought a beau­ti­ful­ly hand-made, vel­vet-embroi­dered Kip­pah from a woman my age at a Jew­ish crafts fair spon­sored by the UJA-Fed­er­a­tion Cam­paign for which I then worked. (It has begun to wear out so I no longer use it; she was trag­i­cal­ly mugged/killed a few years after I bought it.) In the late ’80s I bought what might be called a Rasta­far­i­an Kip­pah (rain­bow-col­ored skull-hug­ging cot­ton from Guatemala and one big enough to stuff with a huge head of hair) which I wear on Par­shat Noah and dur­ing the Joseph cycle.

Rastafarian Kippot

Rasta­far­i­an Kip­pot

In Israel (in Yafo) a few years ago I bought a “Mus­lim” Kip­pah made of white cot­ton thread which was actu­al­ly made in Chi­na.

Muslim Kippah, Made in China, Purchased in Yaffo

Mus­lim Kip­pah, Made in Chi­na, Pur­chased in Yafo

Now, I gen­er­al­ly wear a “base­ball” cap to keep the sun out of my eyes and my head warm. I look for a visor cap with no logo. I wore this on my last recent trip to Israel. In this way I do not have to car­ry a Kip­pah. I nei­ther need to switch and put on a Kip­pah in those many places where it is expected/required, nor am I iden­ti­fied with that aspect of Israeli soci­ety with which I gen­er­al­ly do not want to be iden­ti­fied.

past and future tallitot

When I became Bar Mitz­vah I received the stan­dard poly­ester Tal­lit com­mon at the time.

Bar Mitzvah Tallit

Bar Mitz­vah Tal­lit

I wore it as the can­tor of our Junior con­gre­ga­tion.

Deb­bie and I were mar­ried under the silk Tal­lit that my grand­fa­ther had brought over from Rus­sia, and prob­a­bly nev­er wore here in the States.

My Zaydes Tallit

My Zay­de’s Tal­lit

I start­ed to wear my Zay­de’s Tal­lit when I became the rab­bi of a Recon­struc­tion­ist con­gre­ga­tion and they expect­ed me to wear a Tal­lit (and Kip­pah of course). It began to show seri­ous signs of wear at that time and I spoke with a mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion who paint­ed fab­ric for uphol­stery for a liv­ing about the fea­si­bil­i­ty of a paint­ed-silk Tal­lit.

I described a Tal­lit that would enable me to wrap myself in earth and sky. As a good-bye present, near­ly ten years ago, in 1988, they gave me an exquis­ite Tal­lit as I had described my desires. I wear wore it when I led ser­vices at my tiny con­gre­ga­tion and, though I gave it to Noam for his Bar Mitz­vah, more recent­ly, when I attend­ed ser­vices as well.

Bnai Keshet Tallit

Bnai Keshet Tal­lit

Kippah and/or Tzitzit?

Cur­rent­ly, I do not wear a Kip­pah, but I do wear Tzitz­it (inside).
Why? Intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty, I guess. I would­n’t have asked the ques­tion I asked if I did­n’t wear them.
But they’re begin­ning to “grow” on me.
Some of the rea­sons those of you who wear Kip­pot have offered (and I quote with­out cor­rect­ing typos or chang­ing orthog­ra­phy):…
One col­league sug­gests (and anoth­er seems to agree) that: “being vis­i­ble­ly Jew­ish is a new mitz­vah.… Clear­ly, being ‘white’ in Amer­i­ca used to mean not stick­ing out. I don’t want ‘white priv­iledge’… the kip­pah marks me as not white.”
I like this. It seems to relate to the ancient cus­tom (and com­mon in “tra­di­tion­al” soci­eties) of hav­ing a “nation­al cos­tume.” How­ev­er, nei­ther of these col­leagues explains why they wear a Kip­pah and (it seems) do not wear their Tzitz­it show­ing. Which should serve the same pur­pose.
Dur­ing the ’60s I wore not only the beret, but also for many years a lapel but­ton (I col­lect them) of a yel­low star on a black back­ground.

Yellow Star Lapel button

Yel­low Star Lapel but­ton

This clear­ly iden­ti­fied me as a Jew and raised con­scious­ness. Until recent­ly, all my work was with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Every­one with whom I inter­act­ed knew I was a Jew: we all were. In that con­text, a Kip­pah meant noth­ing. For the past sev­en years Since 1988 I’ve worked in a small com­pa­ny, a non-Jew­ish, busi­ness envi­ron­ment. Every­one knows I’m a Jew and after a while, they find out that I’m a rab­bi. Now, that sub­tle aware­ness seems suf­fi­cient. I need no spe­cial mark­ers.
I saved a note from anoth­er col­league a num­ber of months ago: “Ganzfried, who wrote the Kit­sur, was a founder of Ortho­doxy, in Hun­gary. He did the book not so much to short­en the clas­sic but to crys­tal­ize and set in con­crete what he believed to be the right way to go.… It was Ganzfried, not Karo or Mapah who insist­ed on head cov­er­ings at all times. Karo men­tions that cer­tain groups have the min­hag of pray­ing with heads cov­ered. We do well to remem­ber that Ortho­doxy is the reac­tion to Reform, whch began some 20 years or so ear­li­er.”
I have tried to approach Tzitz­it afresh (whether hid­den or dis­played).

What is the meta for?

None of the respon­dents have writ­ten of the metaphor of Kip­pah, only a “new” Mitz­vah. (Yes, I know of at least one metaphor: some­thing “beyond” me.) So, I ask myself: “Do I respond to a Mitz­vah of Tzitz­it? And if not the Mitz­vah, then, what is the metaphor of Tzitz­it?”
Eric Simon (writ­ing in his week­ly drash on the l.torah (Lib­er­al Torah) list iden­ti­fies Tzitz­it in a man­ner sim­i­lar to the Kip­pah):

Torah even sug­gests wear­ing the prover­bial “string on our fin­ger” to remind our­selves (actu­al­ly, strings from a gar­ment, Tzitz­it) to fol­low the com­mand­ments.

Inter­est­ing­ly this is also how R. Mordechai Kaplan is report­ed to have inter­pret­ed the Tzitz­it: he would proud­ly dis­play his Tal­lit Katan with a pur­ple thread on each of the four cor­ners. He would then explain that it was meant to remind the wear­er of the sov­er­eign­ty of God and of the demands of the Mitzvot which is to say that our own will is not final but should be sub­servient to high­er prin­ci­ples. He would also say that it served to remind him of the pri­ma­ry prin­ci­ple of divin­i­ty which is the assump­tion that there is enough in the world to meet our need but not our greed for pow­er and plea­sure. To which some­one com­ment­ed: “If you look at the Shemah on Tzitz­it you will see how this state­ment is an inter­pre­ta­tion.”

This is basi­cal­ly what Kip­pah wear­ers sug­gest as their metaphor. So again, why not Tzitz­it?

Our con­tem­po­rary midrashist Arthur Waskow sug­gests:

new “tzitz­it” between the dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions, fringes rather than fences.… But I do think there is a per­me­able-mem­brane bound­ary here, not a black-white on/off rigid one. For me the metaphor of tzitz­it is rel­e­vant here — just as between indi­vid­u­als we say that our bound­aries are fuzzy fringes, not on/off walls or fences, so nowa­days between dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties and tra­di­tions the bound­aries are fuzzy and fringe-like, not like ghet­to walls. Giv­en that, for me the ques­tion is how to tie CONSCIOUS fringes, not hel­ter-skel­ter fringes. The tzitz­it are CONSCIOUS and Jew­ish­ly self-aware fringes, rather than a sur­ren­der to hel­ter-skel­ter.

On anoth­er list a dis­cus­sion of Tekhelet in the Tzitz­it gave rise to some inter­est­ing ideas. Some Israelis have formed a non prof­it orga­ni­za­tion for the pro­duc­tion of real Tekhelet Tzitz­it.

So, when a par­tic­u­lar col­league (who wears a Kip­pah) says: “they don’t enhance my spir­i­tu­al­i­ty” I have to ask:

What is this Jewish value: “spirituality”?

An old­er col­league (who I think wears nei­ther a Kip­pah nor Tzitz­it) has a more tech­ni­cal prob­lem with the pre­vi­ous col­league’s response of being patoor. He sug­gests that unless “he [the pre­vi­ous col­league, that is, or actu­al­ly, we] wears some­thing round, all gar­ments have cor­ners, so tech­ni­cal­ly he is oblig­at­ed.”

To which our list’s mod­er­a­tor respond­ed:

Per­haps, then, the com­mand­ment tells us what to do with tassles we already wear. We are then faced with a deci­sion: what do we do when we no longer wear tassles. To my mind, this is rough­ly anal­o­gous to com­mand­ments that per­tain to slaves. We have no slaves, and so ignore those com­mand­ments. We have no tassles, and so per­haps we should ignore this com­mand­ment, too.

Yet we no longer wear hats either and our mod­er­a­tor did not indi­cate that he does or does not wear a Kip­pah, but he does say: “Then again, I still wear a tal­lit at shul.…”

An inter­est­ing par­al­lel to my ques­tion has arisen on the lib­er­al Judaism mail­ing list. There the ques­tion is whether or not men and women each must wear a Tal­lit when they have an Aliyah to the Torah. But even there, the pre­sump­tion is that one wears a Kip­pah when in the syn­a­gogue and dons a Tal­lit for the spe­cial litur­gi­cal moment.

To repeat the question:
How do we make the decisions of what is an appropriate Mitzvah?

A relat­ed ques­tion arose recent­ly on my favorite list: how do we pro­nounce the vow­el “Tza­yray”? Some have decid­ed to deter­mine the pro­nun­ci­a­tion based on a soci­o­log­i­cal choice: Israelis on the street pro­nounce it thus. Oth­ers have opt­ed for a “purist” pro­nun­ci­a­tion. I can under­stand not pro­nounc­ing the Thav or the soft Jimel (these seem to have been lost to us long ago). I strug­gle to teach my stu­dents that Hebrew does not have any “silent” con­so­nants. We may have dif­fi­cul­ty hear­ing and pro­nounc­ing the dif­fer­ence between Alef and Ayin, but that does­n’t mean there isn’t one. We can also “give up” on the Kamatz Katan. And I have heard rab­bis who, once they learn how to pro­nounce a Het begin to pro­nounce Hehs as though they were Hets. This is “soci­o­log­i­cal­ly based” choos­ing.

Some of us decide whether or not to offi­ci­ate at inter­mar­riages or same-sex com­mit­ment cer­e­monies mar­riages based on what it might do (or not do) to the Jew­ish peo­ple or the spe­cif­ic indi­vid­u­als involved. Once again, this is soci­o­log­i­cal. Oth­ers of us make this deci­sion based on a read­ing of our inher­it­ed texts. This is (for want of a bet­ter word) the­o­log­i­cal. I would­n’t be sur­prised if some of us make our deci­sions some­times soci­o­log­i­cal­ly and at oth­er times the­o­log­i­cal­ly.

So, why do I wear Tzitzit? Or, why do I wear Tzitzit?

In no par­tic­u­lar order:

  • Grow­ing up in a Yid­dishist Sec­u­lar­ist home in Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia, what I con­sid­ered then to be the “far­thest reach­es of the dias­po­ra”, I was aware of liv­ing on the edge (of the con­ti­nent)…
    The Venice Fine Arts Squad (Terry Schoon- hoven and Victor Henderson), “The Isle of California”, mural at Butler and Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, 1971.

    The Venice Fine Arts Squad (Ter­ry Schoon- hov­en and Vic­tor Hen­der­son), “The Isle of Cal­i­for­nia”, mur­al at But­ler and San­ta Mon­i­ca Blvd., West Los Ange­les, 1971.

    …and even some­times, beyond the fringe.

  • I enjoy the phys­i­cal reminder of that “edgi­ness”.
  • Short­ly after I was born, our moth­er grew her hair long and began wear­ing it in a braid­ed crown. She kept that hair style the rest of her life. It is almost as though she was the sol­id, seem­ing­ly unchang­ing, cen­ter around which all the rest of us were enabled to flip around freely.
  • Our father would often say that learn­ing is like cre­at­ing a fish­ing net or a spi­der’s web. The more you weave into it the more it is capa­ble of catch­ing. The Tzitz­it remind me of how much still remains for me to weave in. [added 2009–06-05T11:35:17+00:00]
  • Change is a con­stant, yet most of us do not expe­ri­ence it. We live buffered. Most change hap­pens at the edge and along the fringe.
  • I have been active in “out­reach” work since before the term was com­mon in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. At the time (late ’60s ear­ly ’70s) we con­sid­ered it sim­ply “com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing”. But, when you are orga­niz­ing a com­mu­ni­ty or reach­ing out, it is, almost by def­i­n­i­tion to those who are on, or beyond, the edges/fringes.
  • As we trust scouts to explore areas where the vast major­i­ty of us will not go, I vol­un­teer. The fringes I wear remind me that I an still con­nect­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty that “sent” me.
  • I am (as many who know me well will report) will­ing to take chances and taste new and untest­ed expe­ri­ences, to see how I can weave these into who I am and can become. (My father would wear a lapel but­ton with the text: “I’m a sci­en­tist. Let’s exper­i­ment.”)
  • I like the idea of tak­ing some­thing very old and mak­ing it new. The fact that the ancient Egyp­tians knew that Semit­ic peo­ples wore fringed gar­ments sug­gests that this has been a way of gen­er­al Semit­ic self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of many thou­sands of years. (By the way, it is inter­est­ing to note that the ancient Egyp­tians divid­ed the world among 4 peo­ples while the ancient Jews rec­og­nized only 3 (cf. Gen­e­sis 9:18–19 (Eng­lish and Hebrew).
Four peoples of the world:a Libyan, a Nubian, an Asiatic (wearing fringes), and an Egyptian. An artistic rendering, based on a mural from the tomb of Seti I.

Four peo­ples of the world:a Libyan, a Nubian, an Asi­at­ic (wear­ing fringes), and an Egypt­ian. An artis­tic ren­der­ing, based on a mur­al from the tomb of Seti I.

Through­out 2006 I gave myself a chal­lenge to write a sim­i­le each morn­ing as I start­ed my day. On June 27, I wrote this one:

your mar­riage is like Tzitz­it, a tying togeth­er the loose threads of your lives.

Here, at davka.org, despite every­thing, I con­tin­ue to explore, exper­i­ment and reach out to weave a Web of asso­ci­a­tions.

Some links to Tal­lit and Tzitz­it of inter­est (most of these pages no longer exist):

[Last modified on] June 3, 1999

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