Sometimes a hat is much more than a hat

Sometimes a hat is much more than a hat

For some women, you are what you wear on your head

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Alba Hochman tries on a red beauty while Orlee Zorbaron admires the look. 
Alba Hochman tries on a red beauty while Orlee Zorbaron admires the look. 

It was a very odd scene: 20 women in their 30s to 70s, from an egalitarian Conservative synagogue, sitting in my living room discussing — and purchasing — hats.

For about 30 years, and at least 20 at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, women in Conservative congregations have been embracing rituals and practices long reserved for men in Judaism, from leyning Torah to wearing tallit and tefillin. While our mothers and grandmothers may have worn hats or “doilies” to shul, many of our daughters have learned to cover their heads with kipot — just like our sons. 

By the early 1990s, many of the women of Beth El, like others in the Conservative movement who had embraced the custom of wearing a hat, were trading their hats for bare heads — or, increasingly, kipot. As the ground shifted, women’s hats remained closely identified with the modesty standards and strict gender roles of Orthodox Judaism. 

It was a brown felt hat with a medium brim that sent me under the cover of a kipa 21 years ago. It was the first Shabbat after my wedding. Adhering to the traditional standards of my family congregation in Brooklyn, I took for granted the idea that as a married woman I would wear hats to shul. By the Musaf service on that first Saturday, I knew it wasn’t for me. 

I suddenly felt different, separated from myself and the congregation. I couldn’t see around the brim. I felt overly marked as married, unable to revise, reinterpret, or even claim as my own the messages the hat was sending.

Soon after, a friend knitted me a purple kipa with my name on it. When I put it on I felt whole, embraced, and somehow closer to God and community. It was just right and I never looked back — until now. Or more exactly, until about a year ago.

That’s when some younger women, in their late 20s or early 30s, started coming to services in hats. In the beginning, we assumed it was simply a reflection of their more traditional outlook. 

But as they integrated themselves into the congregation, it became clear that modesty was not necessarily the only thing on the minds of these young hat-wearers. 

Andrea Olitzky, 31, said her head covering defies facile stereotypes. 

“I choose to wear a hat to synagogue because that is what I am comfortable doing, and I have a difficult time when others make assumptions about who I am religiously based on what I put on my head,” she said. 

The hats in the pews became a source of chatter and curiosity. Because they were not necessarily about tzniut and were not, like a woman’s kipa, an obvious symbol of egalitarianism, they presented a new and strangely radical idea. Unlike a previous wave of women, who remembered the deep symbolism of a woman wearing a kipa, these younger women carry no such baggage.

“I choose to cover my head in the same way a Conservative man traditionally does — during services, when reciting brachot, and whenever I am in a synagogue,” said Rachel Wainer, 29. “I wear hats a lot on Shabbat and sometimes people think that means I was raised Orthodox or am very observant. The truth is, I just like wearing hats!”

And how they cover their heads is about how they relate to God, not to men or women.

“I cover my head for services, alternating between hats and kipot, in deference to the sacredness of communal prayer,” said Alba Hochman, 37, who attended the evening at my house with a sleeping newborn. 

Transform the narrative

I had another reason for considering a hat: a visit from my old friend alopecia areata (an autoimmune issue that causes hair to fall out). Instead of a wig, I chose a hat to cover my semi-bald head. It’s more fun and less fake, from my perspective. With a few long locks in front, I can create the illusion of hair under the hat. And that started some more chatter, because with my teenagers and emerging signs of middle age, I am not easily confused with the 30-something set with toddlers in tow.

That’s when the idea of a hat party struck. 

On Jan. 11, those 20 women from Beth El’s sisterhood, ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s, gathered in my living room for mulled wine, chocolate, and cookies — and, of course, plenty of options to cover our keppies. It was time for us to unpack the hat-kipa conundrum.

We started by studying the sources. After considering the traditional talmudic reasons for wearing kipot (awe of God, remembering the Shehina, or God’s divine presence), its status as custom versus law in Jewish tradition (unclear), and the current standards for when to wear kipot in the Conservative movement (in the sanctuary, praying/studying/reading sacred literature, performing rituals, eating), we turned to the sources on women covering their hair and heads. 

There were a few groans as we looked at the biblical source that led to the mandate for married women to cover their hair — that of the sotah, or woman accused of adultery. As described in Numbers 5:18, the priest would bare the sotah’s hair before proceeding with the ritual that would test her fidelity. If the baring of the hair is understood as humiliation, it follows that women, and particularly married women, must cover their hair. 

We looked at whether it is considered law or custom (something in between) and turned to talmudic sources that focused on the notion of uncovered hair as ervah, or nakedness. Because the Conservative movement has generally rejected the idea that uncovered hair can be considered immodest or “naked” today, we turned to the meat of the evening: whether women are required to cover their heads, and what are the appropriate ways of doing so.

There is no consensus on either issue. Noting that there is no prohibition on women wearing kipot, most Conservative authorities encourage women to cover their heads. Their position can be summed up by Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed, a senior fellow at Northeastern University College of Professional Studies, in a work in progress on the subject of women and kipot: “Egalitarian communities should encourage all Jews, while engaging in sacred acts such as prayer and study, to wear a kipah or a form of head covering to designate an awareness to the sacred status of such an act.” 

Some, including Beth El’s new rabbi, Jesse Olitzky, say the requirements are the same for women as they are for men.

Many Conservative synagogues do require that women and girls wear a head covering — or just a symbolic approximation of one — on the bima during services, as a kind of half-way position. As for how to cover the head, some feel the kipa is the only appropriate means. Beth El’s former rabbi, Francine Roston, rejects hats in favor of kipot because “hats are connected with the religious laws of modesty/controlling women’s sexuality.” 

Reiss Medwed put it more formally. “We must differentiate between head coverings that are intended to signify recognition of sacred time/space/events and the covering of hair because of either a. the status of hair as ‘sexually provocative’ or b. ‘the designation of marital status of women through their hair covering.’” 

In other words, there is a difference between covering one’s head — a sign of humility before God — and covering one’s hair, which is connected to gender and sexuality. Reiss Medwed added in an e-mail message, “It is challenging as to whether it is possible to reverse or transform this narrative by women wearing hats to cover their heads rather than hair.”

Other sources reflect the discomfort women may have wearing kipot because of the prohibition against women’s wearing beged ish, men’s clothing, or simply because it feels too masculine. For that reason, Rabbi David Frankel, writing for the Masorti rabbinate in Israel, took the middle ground, permitting but not requiring girls and women to wear kipot

As in some many areas of Judaism’s centrist Conservative movement, there are no easy answers. 

“Contemporary halachists who advocate kisui rosh [covering the head] for women make claims on the woman’s head,” wrote rabbinical students Ashira Konigsburg and Deborah Zuker in a 2008 paper. “Each individual woman must unpack for herself how these minhagim inform her experience and thus guide her choices.”

Unpacking the hats

To help with the unpacking, we had a real hat party, trying on kipot, hats, and even fascinators — headpieces that are something less than a hat, but more than a kipa. There were no lace doilies, which most Conservative authorities reject out of hand despite their popularity. 

There were cloches and brimmed hats; hats that looked ready for the Kentucky Derby, Downton Abbey, or tea with the Queen; and those that were more suited to the club scene or a rave party or even a folk concert or a walk in Greenwich Village. (Hats were provided by My Fair Lady in Teaneck and Hats by Rivka, owned by Scarsdale milliner Rivka Zorbaron, who happens to be the mother-in-law of Beth El congregant Rachel Zorel, 34, who wears hats and fascinators regularly to shul.) Hat purchases outstripped kipa purchases by about six to one. But perhaps that’s because most of us already have drawers full of kipot

I picked up a crushed velvet number embellished with a delicate red silk flower.

Maybe I’m much more confident in my personal and religious skin today than I was at 27. Maybe I have nothing to prove. Maybe hats are better than wigs, which have their own loaded history in Jewish tradition. But I’m having a great time in my hats. I might have been the first woman over 45 to embrace the hat thing in our egalitarian shul, but there were women years older than I am buying hats that Sunday. 

But that doesn’t mean everyone suddenly switched back from kipot to hats. “It was fascinating to discuss how women in egalitarian communities have reclaimed the practice of head covering, disassociating it from the traditional sexualization of women’s hair,” said Marilynn Jacobs, 54. But she purchased a kipa, not a hat. “Having worn hats, I find myself gravitating to the kipa. It’s special, a covering that is specific to the times when I’m engaged in Jewish practice,” said Jacobs. “I can wear hats at any time: when it’s cold, when I want to get dressed up, etc. The kipa has only one use; the hat has many.” 

And not everyone was ready to reject all the other messages of the hat in Jewish life. As Andrea Olitzky said, “Throughout my religious journey, I’ve come to understand that covering one’s head and hair don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I can be egalitarian and cover my head during services and ritual times, and cover my hair additionally with a hat as a choice/distinction because I’m married.”

As for me, well, I am feeling authentically feminine, and still egalitarian, in my lovely new cloche hat.

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