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Material Differences

My 3-year-old wanted a velvet yarmulke, like they wear at his Chabad preschool—an early skirmish in the values clashes I knew were coming.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner
January 03, 2012
(Avital Pinnick/Flickr)
(Avital Pinnick/Flickr)

The yarmulke my son picked out at a local Judaica store on his third birthday was big like a salad bowl and the deep, chocolate velvet of a dress I once wore to a winter formal. Etched into the yarmulke in Hebrew letters was the name Yosef Yitzchak. There were a number of things wrong with this, not the least of which is the fact that my son’s name is Ezra. But that was the last thing that bothered me.

At the store on the west side of Los Angeles, where we live, I tried to talk Ezra out of the velvet yarmulke. The clerk, whose yarmulke said Shlomo and whose name probably was Shlomo, helped me try. But on the topic of a yarmulke that says a name that isn’t his, Ezra was irrational. He didn’t yet understand that letters signify words, which signify identity. On the topic of velvet being an impractical fabric, he was unmoved. Ezra wanted this yarmulke because that is the kind they wear at his school, which is run by Chabad, the ultra-Orthodox movement. Yet we are Modern Orthodox, not Hasidic, and the yarmulkes men wear in our Modern Orthodox community, the yarmulkes my husband wears, are crocheted.

The kind of yarmulke men wear in an Orthodox community signifies the type of observance they undertake, not by law but by tradition. To me, woven yarmulkes like my husband’s mostly signify that we are Zionists; they also indicate that we identify as Modern Orthodox, that we are constantly straddling the tension over what it means to be a religious Jew in the larger secular world. Velvet yarmulkes are favored by more right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose religious practice is led by a central rebbe. Though many of these Jews are missionary in their approach, they are also mostly insular, dressing in a certain fashion and eschewing much of the modern world. If you aren’t religious, you might see the velvet and the woven simply as yarmulkes; but to us, they are often indications of great differences.

To me, Ezra’s longing for the velvet yarmulke pointed to the hold his school has over him and how the lessons it sometimes imparts conflict with the lessons I try to impart. As an Orthodox woman who largely objects to the sexism inherent in the tradition, I am braced for the ideologies Ezra and his brother could bring home as they grow older. But I wasn’t braced for Yosef Yitzchak’s yarmulke.

It foreshadowed other conflicts I’ve known were coming. We’d always planned on sending our boys to an Orthodox day school, the kind I’d gone to in New York, after they finish nursery school. These kinds of day schools are familiar to me: Boys lead prayer, there are co-ed classes until kids are separated around age 10, children undertake Torah-related art projects, like cardboard Noah’s Arks and clay Sinais, and the school day ends long after it gets dark, except on Fridays, when dismissal is long before that. Boys in these schools learn that they are considered superior: They recite a prayer thanking God they are not slaves, then they recite one thanking God that they were not created as women.

(In grade school, I remember, we girls would then recite a prayer that comes almost as an apology: “Thank you, God, for creating me as I am.” Which is not the same thing as thanking God for not creating you a man, or thanking God for creating you as a woman. It is a sentence of resignation, not pride.)

As white men, my boys probably won’t need any help to feel privileged or entitled. Why do they need to assert that privilege out loud in prayer? To what extent are ancient prayers like this at the root of inequality, as much as reflections of it? Though the obligation to utter this particular prayer is tenuous, it still remains in morning services around the world. Increasingly, other staple practices of Orthodoxy—allowing only boys to lead services or to become rabbis, teaching boys and not girls Talmud, and even the insistence that girls wear skirts—are being challenged by some Orthodox Jews. When I looked at Ezra in his yarmulke, I wondered: If he can’t be counted on to follow our example by wearing what we want him to wear at age 3, how can we count on him to dismiss these retrograde religious practices at 10?

I have to face the fact many Orthodox schools are going to teach my boys things I don’t want them to learn and that I can’t count on my kids to be revolutionary in their thinking, to disregard that which is unfair or outdated. And though these are problems I have with Orthodoxy on the whole, I go to a progressive synagogue where these issues are addressed often. And the things I don’t like about Orthodoxy, I don’t allow into my home. My kids will see that, but can that compete with what they’re being taught nine hours a day? I am vexed by contradictory questions: What is the message I send my son if I allow people to teach him that girls are not allowed to chant Torah, when I don’t believe this is mandated in the Torah? Am I teaching him to disregard teachers’ authority? I believe the laws of public and women-led prayer are due for an overhaul. I believe women should be rabbis—and I believe the confines of Orthodoxy allow for these innovations. But am I living these beliefs if I tell my boys what I think and then send them to a school that insists otherwise?

How do you decide what school to send your kids to? When there is no institution that matches your values completely, do you give up on the religious values, or do you give up on your own values? These are the questions Yosef Yitzchak’s yarmulke brought up for me.

For now, we have opted to send Ezra to a public school next year. The decision was based on a different kind of value: financial responsibility. As much as religion is something we cherish, so is the lesson that our children should not spend what they don’t have.

As it turned out, as quickly as Ezra started wearing his new yarmulke, he stopped. A few weeks after his third birthday, he wouldn’t wear it to shul, to school, or anywhere. He took it off and has refused to wear another one since. He just turned 4, and his head, for the most part, remains bare.

I should have known from the beginning that the control I think I have over my child, the influence I think his teachers have, is all an illusion. Maybe school doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Ezra will grow up, with God’s help, and his head-covering will not be subject to my opinion anymore. I will teach him now what I want him to know and hope that he makes decisions that are right, hope that he doesn’t dismiss our values. He will survive what we teach him; he will figure out what we don’t. We pour our love and knowledge and ethic into him, and we watch with wide eyes to see what comes out slowly over a lifetime. He is as God made him.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a correspondent for GQ and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a correspondent for GQ and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.