One Shabbos morning, during that rainy spring of 2011, I was late for shul. In a rush, I grabbed my hat out of the closet and, clutching my brand new Shabbos cane (a gift from my brother, the Chassid, who urged me to “use it in good health!”), I trundled off through the mists to shul.
Upon arrival, as is my custom, I went immediately to the wash basin in the lobby to rinse my hands for prayer. After these ablutions, I glanced in the mirror and was struck dumb by shock: Staring back at me was a Haredi Yid, adorned with a high-crowned, wide-brimmed, Black Hat. He looked at me, and I looked at him, I nodded to my right and he to his left, our simultaneously opposite motions like something out of a Charlie Chaplin or Harpo Marx mirror-skit.
What was going on? Where did this resh mesivta (“Yeshiva principal”) come from, and why was he impersonating a shnook like me?
Then I figured it out. In my rush out of the house I had grabbed the wrong hat. Instead of my usual snap-brimmed black fedora (with sporty feather), I had grabbed the wrong lid, a big, black, Borsalino “Yeshivish Special.”
One problem solved and another opened: Knowing now that the guy in the hat was me, I was left with a greater puzzle — how had this staple of Yeshivish male frumkeit found its way into my hall closet in the first place? Our Shabbos guests tend to be of the modern Orthodox persuasion; their black hats are normally berets or unintimidating fedoras like my own. Some wear Greek sailors caps. Others wear leather. No one dresses up like a kollelnik from Boro Park to eat chez Jaffee of a Shabbos — trust me!
So where did this elegant and regal chapeau come from? I still have no idea. But the whole event set off a train of nostalgic reflection on the shaping of my own Jewish identity as represented by head gear.
May I share it with you?
Even after my fervent baal teshuvahdom of the mid-’80s, I didn’t feel “authentic” enough to deserve a black hat until sometime around 1994 or 1995 — about the time I got my first black suit (which, it seems, came with a dandruff attachment — I may have had the flakes before then, but I’d never noticed). But unlike the common type of baal teshuvah, who desires to overcome his blemished background by slavish imitation of the style of the surrounding Jews of the “community,” I — a professor, after all — felt compelled to use the common tradition of dress to forge a unique personal Jewish style.
I use the term “forge” in full understanding that it can mean “to mis-represent a copy as the real thing!” I went downtown to Banana Republic and bought a black Australian outback hat with a leather band. I was so in love with that hat!
But when I showed up in shul that Friday night looking like a cowboy at a Chassidic Bar Mitzvah, only the kindly rabbi (whose identity I shall protect here) acknowledged my bad taste and good intentions with a nod: “Very nice hittl!” he told me.
I wore that hittl on Shabbos for about three years. It took me that long to realize how foolish I looked in it! Now I only wear it at rodeos, of which — as is well-known — I am a pious devotee.
Predictably, as the fervent days of baal teshuvahdom cooled into the rote and automatic rhythms of true religion — and as I realized that I’d never be a model of Jewish sainthood, anyway — I loosened up on my Jewish fashion statements, as I did in other matters, such as holov yisroel (Jewish-supervised dairy).
I’ve ditched the black suit (which I always hated), then moved on to a herring-bone blazer (a professor after all!), and now prefer Hawaiian shirts (for Shabbos and weddings — yontiff is another tale).
As for hats, I shifted to a Greek cap for cold, windy weather, and, for rainy day protection, the aforementioned black fedora (a “pork pie,” you should pardon the expression). For summer wear, each year, I keep planning to buy a straw hat, but summer is always over in Seattle before I get around to it. So when it’s really ferociously hot (in the low 80s) I just wear my yarmulke (still plain black velvet — I’m proud of my roots!).
I think part of the shock I felt when I got to shul that particular Shabbos, with that Borsalino perched rakishly on my head, was this — I recognized in that hat the range of Jewish life that I might have lived, but had not. Because I simply couldn’t.
And you know what? Bittersweet as the moment was, I felt comforted by that fact. In my zeal to make myself over into a “model” of Orthodox Judaism, I had not become “frum,” nor even mildly pious in any common terms. But I had succeeded, in a way I hadn’t anticipated, in making a Yiddishkeit of my own which now fits me more perfectly than any store-bought model!