By Sarah E. Needleman
As published in the Wall Street Journal Online
September 29, 2008
Estelle Julian expects to turn some heads with the political message on her head this week. The 76-year-old Jewish Republican will be sporting a yarmulke with the words "John McCain is Zayer Shain," Yiddish for "John McCain is Great," at a Reform synagogue in Hillsborough, N.J.
Religion and Politics Mix
Yarmulkes have become a political fashion statement this election cycle.
The traditional Jewish head covering is usually plain, with solid colors or simple patterns. But this year, a number of American Jews will observe the Jewish New Year, which begins Monday night, with yarmulkes promoting presidential candidates.
Shlomo Perelman, owner of Judaism.com, said political yarmulkes first became popular during the 2000 election season, when Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut became the first Jew on a major-party presidential ticket. That year, Mr. Perelman sold 60 of the yarmulkes, also known as kippahs. This year, they are making a bigger splash in the Jewish community. Mr. Perelman has sold about 160, and another retailer, Shmuel Tennenhaus, has sold more than 400. "You're going to have quite a political statement in all the [synagogues] around the country," said Mr. Perelman.
Mr. Tennenhaus began selling political yarmulkes through a Web site he launched in late June called vanitykippah.com. His self-designed kippahs for supporters of Barack Obama say "The Obamicah" on one side and "My bubby [Yiddish for grandmother] is voting for Obama" on the other. Ms. Julian's McCain kippah was also one of Mr. Tennenhaus's creations.
Voting With Dollars
Sales of yarmulkes and other election-themed products provide another kind of measure of how both candidates are faring.
Mr. Tennenhaus has sold 269 in support of Sen. McCain -- including five dozen to his campaign -- and 172 in favor of Sen. Obama. The figures are surprising, given that typically, Jewish-Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections. Sales of Mr. Perelman's yarmulkes are more true to form, with Obama kippahs easily the top sellers.
Judy Davidson, a member of Sen. McCain's National Jewish Advisory Coalition, purchased several dozen to hand out at the Republican National Convention.
Not everyone is amused. "It's inappropriate," said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park, N.J., president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. "Would anybody put 'Vote for McCain' or 'Vote for Obama' on a cross? Anybody who did that would be considered sacrilegious."
Ari Schulman, a 24-year-old Jewish real-estate broker in Long Island, N.Y., and a registered Republican, says he'd never wear a yarmulke with a political message on it. "Advertising on a kippah is inconsistent with Jewish ideology," he says.
"The point of a kippah is to indicate a certain level of humility, that our ego stops here," says Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun, a Jewish renewal synagogue in San Francisco. "When that religious point gets transformed into an advertisement for a political candidate, or simply a way for somebody to make lots of money, I think there's a misuse of a religious object taking place."
Rabbi Stephen Stern of the Arden Heights Boulevard Jewish Center in Staten Island, N.Y., disagreed. "The yarmulke doesn't have any holiness attached to it," he said, unlike a prayer shawl that is used in religious rituals. He says kippahs with political messages are akin to ones with sports-team logos, which most people accept now. "They just have a different theme to them," he explains.
Wayne L. Firestone, president and chief executive officer of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, says yarmulkes touting presidential candidates reflect a modern way that many young Jews express themselves. "Students tend to feel very strongly about their views," he says. "[They] want to be able to share that with their friends in the community in which they're socializing."