Galilee Diary: Headgear

We light these candles on account of the miracles and the wonders, the victories and the redemption that You performed for our ancestors in those days at this season.
–Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony

The Shabbat preceding the first candle of Hanukkah was rainy, and by the end we were a bit stir-crazy, so after the candles burned down we decided to go out for dinner. We chose a large dairy restaurant in Karmiel, popular with families, known for its fancy desserts. The restaurant does not have a “kosher” certificate, so one does not encounter Orthodox diners there. The restaurant – and the mall – were packed as is typical on a Saturday night, perhaps even more so as next day was the start of a school vacation for Jewish schools.

While waiting for our order, we heard singing, and soon the whole restaurant was focused on a group of teenagers who were lighting a menorah on the front counter. The Arab families looked on with bemused smiles; most of the Jewish patrons sang along, though no one was alert enough to correct the kids when they sang the blessings in the wrong order. On the one hand, there was nothing particularly remarkable about this scene; after all, the Jewish holidays are very evident in the public space in Israel. On Hanukkah there are menorahs in windows and in cases outside of people’s doors, large electric menorahs on buildings, and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) in stacks of trays in front of every bakery and grocery store already weeks ahead of the holiday. And yet, at the same time, this improvised ceremony made everyone smile – and it seems a lot of people found the whole scene something to write home about, as they were filming it on their smartphones.

Indeed, it created some awkwardness, in going beyond the usual, taken-for-granted presence of a lit menorah in a public place, because suddenly we all found ourselves, willy-nilly, part of a religious ceremony. Which meant that when I looked around, I saw that all the Jewish men in the restaurant had napkins on their heads. It was a pretty funny sight; to an outsider, it surely would have looked bizarre. Non-observant Israelis have an obsession about covering their heads during any kind of religious ceremony; if they can’t find a napkin or handkerchief, you can see them with their hand clasped to the top their head. There are many Israelis who would think nothing of eating a Reuben sandwich on Yom Kippur, which falls on Shabbat, but wouldn’t dream of transgressing two “mitzvot:” 1) covering their head when a blessing or prayer is recited in their presence, and 2) making sure that that recitation is not done by a woman.

The ongoing development of Israeli culture and its ambivalent relationship to the Jewish tradition is fascinating and sometimes frustrating.  From the earliest days of the Zionist return to Israel, there have been several interwoven strands:

  • A redefinition of Judaism as pure secular nationality – a rebellion against all religious practice and belief.
  • The affirmation of the halachic tradition as an essential pillar of Israeli culture and identity.
  • The mainstream position: the secularization of the tradition, meaning that we keep the traditions, but as culture, not as religious commandment – and thus prayer is, for the most part, not included. That’s why Hanukkah gets a lot more play than Rosh Hashanah.

At times it seems that this approach has been successful, as seen in the revival of the Hebrew language as a vernacular, and the definition of the rhythm of public and private life according to the Jewish calendar. But at other times one wonders if this separation of tradition from religion – and hence from a grounding in a sense of commandedness, from a set of moral values – is sustainable. In another 100 years, maybe we’ll have forgotten the blessings entirely, but we’ll still have the inexplicable custom of putting napkins on our heads.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!

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Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

About Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

Marc Rosenstein grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first exchange of the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program in 1962. He was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1975, and then served as assistant rabbi at Community Synagogue, in Port Washington, NY. Rabbi Rosenstein was a teacher and also a principal at the Solomon Schechter Secondary School in Skokie, IL. He also served as the principal at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, PA. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980's by a group of young American immigrants. He is presently the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR, as well as the director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence. Marc is married to Tami (originally from Waukegan, IL), a speech clinician working with handicapped infants and children. They have three children; Josh, Ilana, and Lev.

4 Responses to “Galilee Diary: Headgear”

  1. avatar

    This article highlights everything wrong with the current state of Judaism as it is ‘practiced’ and ‘studied’.
    Judaism is, at its roots, agnostic. To be rebellious against religious practice and belief, is unnnecessary. But that said,
    G-d need not be part of any denominational platform.
    Secondly, rabbinic Judaism is another religion entirely, based on the self-righteousness of medieval rabbis who changed the Torah for no good reason. To affirm halachic tradition as a pillar of Israeli (Jewish?) identity is at least misplaced and at most hypocritical.
    While traditions are cultural, they should at least have meaning. If not, they are, well, meaningless. To find meaning in cultural tradition is the challenge of Judaism, not the empty placing of a handkerchief on ones head because of rabbinic tradition, which is what one would think would be a meaningless source for tradition in a secular culture.
    Israel, too, has it all wrong. They need not be the standard of American non-Orthodox Judaism nor should the orthodox. Let’s find meaning, not just follow ‘instructions’, religiously ordained or not.

    • Larry Kaufman

      As an agnostic, I challenge your assertion that Judaism is at root agnostic. God is at the heart of every denominational platform, especially that of the Humanists whose mission seems to be to retain the culture but abort the religion.

      Rabbinic Judaism is not a different religion, it IS the only Judaism of today, practiced diffferently in different sectors, but a necessary creation of pre-medieval rabbis who had every good reason to change the way Torah might otherwise have continued being approached.

      I agree that the hanky on head response to the prayer of others is a somewhat absurd way of showing respect — or maybe I should say it is absurd to show respect for something one has abjured. But above all, let’s remember that Reform Judaism empowers each of us to find meaning in the Tradition in our own way.

  2. avatar

    This was a light, but thoughtful piece. Thanks. You remind me of sitting in a Chinese restaurant in New Orleans and lighting Chanukah candles. Some of the other patrons knew what was going on. Others were completely baffled.

    It occurred to me that Chanukah (and maybe even Purim) can be thought of as secular holidays. The impetuous starts with the humans in the story.

  3. avatar

    If the obsession with wearing headgear during religious activities is a symptom of affection for Halacha among non-observant Israelis, then they are not reading their Talmud! As Rabbi Jakob Z. Lauterbach demonstrated in his exhaustive responsum in the late 20s, there is a plurality of opinions in Rabbinic literature surrounding the practice of covering the head. It is minhag, and not din. Even from an orthodox perspective, there should be no issue with praying or even reading Torah bareheaded! The fact that this is almost unknown even to the orthodox today is a sign of tremendous ignorance on the part of Jews of all stripes.

    From a Reform perspective, I would say that individuals living in societies in which the absence of a head covering is more respectful than the presence of a head covering should pray bareheaded, and those living in cultures which consider covered heads more respectful should cover their heads. In most modern Western societies, this means that it is proper not to cover. This was Lauterbach’s argument, but he thought that it was not important enough to cause inter-denominational disputes.

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