Batman Can Make A Yarmulke Easier For A Boy to Wear
But What About Reverence And Copyrights? Ask Jews Vexedby Mixed
"The Wall Street Journal, Tusday, February 4, 1992"
Some days, Jonathan Rapfogel wears
turtles. On other days its ghosts. And when the question is Wheres Waldo?
the answer could well be: on Jonathans head.
Jonathan, who is 10 years old, wears
yarmulkes with popular cartoon characters painted on them, like the
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He has two Ghostbusters yarmulkes, one for
the original movie and one for the sequel.
Its cool, says Jonathan, who lives in
New York. Yeah, says his brother Michael, 11.
All over the country, skullcaps with
secular designs on them are showing up on more and more Jewish boys. As
many youngsters see it, they are a fashion statement, a sign of fealty to
a sports team or a fans tribute to Bart Simpson.
To many adults, they are something
else again. Im sorry, but cartoons dont belong on a yarmulke, says Sarah
Waserberg, an elderly New Yorker who gives her age as 21 plus. Thats a lot
Max Levine, a retired clerk, adds,
This should be forbidden. Handling a Ninja Turtle yarmulke at a senior
citizens center, he explains: A flower would be perfectly all right. A
Star of David would be perfectly all right. The boys initials would be
perfectly all right. But not cartoons.
For at least 2000 years it has been
the custom of Jewish males to cover their heads, especially during prayer
and study, to show their respect for God. At least 300,000 U. S. Jews are
said to wear yarmulkes every day. Among Orthodox Jews, some men wear them
all the time, even under their hats. And, in the matter of decoration,
they heed injunctions against graven images. Reform Jews may or may not
wear yarmulkes, even at religious services. But for some young boys of
tender years, the display of religious belief can be difficult; the
yarmulke sets them apart. Approving parents say the cartoon designs can
inspire youngsters to observe a tradition without putting up a fight.
The pop-culture yarmulke is becoming
increasingly common. At a store called J. Levine Co. Books and Judaica in
New York, Daniel Levine says he ells about 100 a month, half by mail
order. We send them to army bases, he says, and to small towns.
Mr. Levines collection includes Dick
Tracy, Super Mario (of the video games) and Goofy. On one, the irreverent
Bart Simpson is saying: No way, Dude!
Which is what some Jews say about
Bart Simpson and the rest. To critics, this is a black and white issue -
plain black yarmulkes to be worn most of the time, white ones for special
occasions, weddings and such. Crocheted skullcaps with floral designs,
Hebrew names and scenes of Jerusalem are okay, but Ninja Turtles are out
of the question.
At Yeshiva Toras Emes in Brooklyn, N.Y., yarmulkes with cartoon characters
and sports logos are forbidden. Those give the message that you dont have
to be serious, that its a fun thing, and we dont have to treat it as a fun
thing, says Rabbi Avrohom Respler, principal of the 450 - student school.
Its a religious symbol. Its supposed to teach humility, to remind you that
theres something above you.
But his is not the last word on the
matter, even among Orthodox Jews. All of those embellishments are really
irrelevant, says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a spokesperson for the orthodox
Lubavich movement, also in the the New York City borough of Brooklyn. The
main thing is that the head should be covered.
Jewish males in America have worn
various alternatives to yarmulkes in public over the years, including felt
hats for men, baseball and yachting caps and yarmulkes in plaid for boys,
says Salvia Herskowitz, director of Yeshiva University Museum in
Manhattan, which held an exhibition of crocheted skullcaps 10 years ago.
The Madras styles had buckles on the back. All the mothers bought them
because they were so cute, so much cuter than the black ones, she says.
They actually made life easier for
us, says Jonathan Rapfogels dad, William, of the 20 painted yarmulkes
Jonathan and Michael share. Mr. Rapfogel is executive director of the
Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations
of America. His wife, Judy, is an aide to a state legislator. They werent
sure about the zany yarmulkes at first.
On one level, theres sort of a
trivialization of the wearing the yarmulke. We were a little bit concerned
about that, Mr. Rapfogel recalls. But we quickly decided that that was not
Anything that made them feel
comfortable and proud at that stage, adds Ms.Rapfogel. There was no
religious reason not to. Her late father was a rabbi. It would have been
something for him to adjust to, she says.
The boys collection includes
characters from He-Man to Batman, but no Big Bird or anything else to
remind them of their days of watching Sesame Street.
Even in J. Levine Co.s huge
collection of painted yarmulkes, you wont find any Sesame Street
characters. Thats because another sort of higher authority-a lawyer for
the show- complained to Mr. Levine about copyright infringement. The
yarmulke is an article of clothing, and we have exclusive license for
clothing, including hats, explains lawyer Dawnald Henderson.
Attorneys for Superman, Waldo and the
others apparently havent been heard from. But the fear of legal action is
so acute that some stores wont identify the artists who paint the
yarmulkes they sell. One shop owner would only say that the artist he buys
from is a mother with six children, and I dont want her to get into
He did agree, however, to ask her to
call this newspaper. When she did, she wouldnt say where she was calling
from, but she was glad to talk. She keeps her ear to the ground and knows
the market. Right now, Waldos hot. Superman, you wouldnt believe. People
think hes dead, but hes still out there.
Team logos are big with sports fans.
The Braves-even though they lost-their yarmulkes are doing great. I sold
them all over the country.
In Atlanta, Joshua Kunis, 13, is
partial to a yarmulke promoting the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. It is
the most popular model at his school, Greenfield Hebrew Academy, he says.
Painted leather yarmulkes generally
retail for between $10 and $20. Plain cloth skullcaps, in contrast, go for
about $4 or $5. And not all aficionados of painted yarmulkes are young
boys. Mindy Sandomir makes them for her husband Larry, who teaches sixth
grade general studies at the orthodox Ramaz School in New York. He has 40
or 50. One day recently he sported one that read, Hey Teach!
Many of the students at Mr. Sandomirs
school wear painted skullcaps. Ten-year-old Avi Mermelstein, for instance,
has so many, he says, Its hard to keep track of them. Under the
circumstance, how does he decide which one to wear? Whichever I can find
first that isnt ripped or anything, he explains.
Ron Eigen, 11, another Ramaz student,
disdains yarmulkes with cartoon characters and such. Those are just fads,
he says. He is into being unique.
Indeed, he designs his own
one-of-a-kind yarmulkes. One day recently he was wearing an iridescent
pink number, with an eye on top. One of my favorites, he says, is a
Jackson Pollock one. Splatter paint.
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