Wear Your Yarmulke – Because You Can & Because it is Good for You
The former CEO of Timberland, Jeffrey Swartz, has made numerous contributions to both his industry in particular and the corporate world generally. In addition to focusing on profits, revenue, and the financial bottom line, Swartz was among the first to emphasize a corporation’s social responsibility and duty. In his first “Corporate Social Responsibility Report,” issued in 2000, he wrote, “It is not enough for Timberland to make the absolute best boots, or shoes, or clothing in the world. We recognize we must also serve. Everything we do, everything we sell has an impact on the communities in which we live and work.”
In a recent article about him, Asher Schechter describes, “Jeffrey Swartz’s appearance is misleading. The former president and CEO of the footwear company Timberland is an affable Jew with a yarmulke, and as far as you can get from the rugged look of the shoes he sold until recently, a brand beloved by rappers and world travelers. Swartz dresses modestly and walks around without an entourage in tow – not what one may have expected from the CEO of a big company who made a $2 billion exit when he sold it less than a year ago.”
“An affable Jew with a yarmulke.” Most of us don’t have the platform or capacity of Jeffrey Swartz and yet we, too, have an opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem each and every time that we publicly identify as an observant Jew. In the not so distant past, observant Jews in America could not wear their yarmulke to a job or school interview for fear it would handicap them. Many couldn’t wear their yarmulke to work for fear they would be discriminated against or even lose their jobs.
Recently, the head of the Jewish community in Marseille, France, called on Jews in the area to hide their yarmulkes. French President Francois Hollande called such a situation “intolerable.” A couple of French lawmakers even wore yarmulkes to Parliament in a show of solidarity.
In America, for the most part we are blessed to be able to wear our yarmulkes anywhere without giving it a second thought. My understanding is that today, wearing a yarmulke to interviews or to work in most parts of the country is no longer risky nor does it draw negative attention.
So, given the opportunity to wear a yarmulke so freely, why wouldn’t we want to proudly and confidently identify as Torah Jews and welcome the chance to make a Kiddush Hashem through our ordinary day? All around us, people are choosing to wear pins and ribbons that communicate their commitment to, and advocacy on behalf of, the causes that they care deeply about, including different forms of cancer and autism. Members of Congress wear pins and donors to the women’s division of Jewish Federation wear a Lion of Judah.
We also have an accessory that enables us to show our devotion to, and advocacy on behalf of, our cause, namely to fulfill our mandate of nekadeish es simcha ba’olam, to sanctify God’s name in His world.
Wearing a yarmulke or openly identifying as an observant woman doesn’t just serve the mission of sanctifying Hashem’s name, but it helps us be mindful of how we are behaving and the impression that we leave.
Several years ago, I visited Provo, Utah — in the heart of what its residents call “Happy Valley” — to deliver a lecture at Brigham Young University. My gracious hosts sent me home with a prodigious amount of branded souvenirs: T-shirts, mugs — you name it. The Mormons are serious about product placement.
One particularly nice gift was a briefcase, with the university’s name emblazoned across the front. I needed a new briefcase, but the logo gave me pause because it felt a little like false advertising for a non-Mormon to carry it. Reassured by my wife that this was ridiculous, I loaded it up, and took it out on the road. In airports, I quickly noticed that people would look at my briefcase, and then look up at me. I could only assume that they were thinking, “I’ve never seen an aging hipster Mormon before.”
That gave me minor amusement; but it soon had a major effect on my behavior. I found that I was acting more cheerfully and courteously than I ordinarily would — helping people more with luggage, giving up my place in line, that sort of thing. I was unconsciously trying to live up to the high standards of Mormon kindness, or at least not besmirch that well-earned reputation. I even found myself reluctant to carry my customary venti dark roast, given the well-known Mormon prohibition against coffee.
Almost like magic, the briefcase made me a happier, more helpful person — at least temporarily.
But it wasn’t magic. Psychologists study a phenomenon called “moral elevation,” an emotional state that leads us to act virtuously when exposed to the virtue of others.
Long before psychology identified this phenomenon, a brilliant woman in the Talmud intuited it. “The astrologers once told R’ Nachman bar Yitzchak’s mother, ‘your son will be a thief.’ She therefore never allowed him to uncover his head. She told him, ‘cover your head so that the fear of Heaven should be upon you and pray for God’s mercies that the evil inclination will not dominate you.’” (Shabbos 156b)
Similarly, the Talmud (Kiddushin 31) teaches, “Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua did not go four amos with his head uncovered. He said, the Divine Presence is above my head.”
Dressing the part encourages us to live the part. Wearing the uniform makes us mindful to embody the uniform. The Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of maintaining their names, their language, and their dress. Our Jewish dress redeems us and safeguards us from the temptations that surround us.
Jews in parts of the world cannot safely wear a yarmulke in public. We who can, should be especially eager to embrace our Jewish accessories and mode of dress and wear them proudly and with conviction.