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The Transformation of American Jewry and Men's Headgear: The Story of the Yarmulke from 1945 to 1975

Grossman, Aminadav

On September 13th of 1970, the New York Times marveled that “New York is
probably the only state where candidates campaign with yarmulkes in their pockets–if they’re not already on their heads– and with good reason.” In the city with the largest Jewish population in the world, the yarmulke was the identifying religious and cultural symbol marking one as a Jew and displaying identification with the Jewish community. According to the Times report, even gentile politicians would don this uniquely Jewish garment. Yet, until just a few years earlier American Jews shunned yarmulkes, avoiding wearing them in public for fear of ridicule, violence, or unwanted attention, leading most
Jewish men to go bareheaded or wear a hat instead. Over the course of the years from 1945, marking the end of World War II, to the early 1970s, American Jews began wearing yarmulkes openly in much greater numbers and contesting policies across public life that restricted or prohibited male headgear. This thesis considers the change between the early period of the twentieth century where the yarmulke was rarely worn in public or written about in the media and the postwar years from 1945 through the 1970s, when there was a minor eruption of writing about Jewish head covering followed by gradual acceptance in general public institutions. What inspired American Jews to challenge the status quo and stand up for a practice that would differentiate them from their peers and colleagues? Why did Jews across the religious spectrum take up instruments of advocacy and legal action to ensure protection for those who opted to wear yarmulkes, when they believed, at most, that male head covering was not a religious obligation, but rather a “pious practice,” custom or symbol? Finally, considering that according to Jewish tradition, any head covering is sufficient, why was it the yarmulke that became the overwhelming favorite?

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More About This Work

Academic Units
History
Thesis Advisors
Connelly, Matthew J.
Degree
B.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 30, 2014
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