Identity, Religion, Sex & Gender

Between a rock and a lacey head-covering


On New Year’s Day, I was driving back from celebrating with friends at a little cabin in the woods. It was already into the evening when I and my driving buddy hit Connecticut. Temperatures were dropping rapidly, especially from New York state heading north. While driving over a bridge, my car hit a patch of black ice, wobbled, and then headed into a terrifying skid that took us 360 degrees around, over two highway lanes, headlights of the car behind us in our eyes, highway rails glimmering in the peripheral, screaming, until we stopped abruptly facing forward in the righthand lane. Thank God no one was hurt, and no car damage, mostly due to the fact that there were miraculously no cars driving right near us excepting the truck behind us.
We pulled gingerly off the highway and stopped at the next side street. I put my head down on the wheel and said, “Baruch Hashem, baruch Hashem, baruch Hashem,” over and over, like an incantation. As sure as I knew the feel of the seat below me I knew I had been given a miracle.
The following Shabbat, I wanted to bentch gomel, the blessing one who has survived a life-threatening experience (such as illness, pregnancy, or traveling long distances) makes after an aliyah during Torah service following their recovery. The catch was that I was visiting my sister. She and I were both raised in a Reform congregation and both have since come far from it — I to my neo-Chassidic, renewal, traditional, feminist enclave and rabbinic path, and she with an Orthodox husband and part of the Orthodox community of Pittsburgh. Usually, when I visit her, I make an exception to my acting principle that mechitzot = trayfe for my davenning so we can all be together. However, this Shabbat, I would not have been able to have an aliyah to bentch gomel at her shul, and so she and I went to the Conservative shul near her.
Now, I honestly don’t spend a lot of time in synagogues, but especially not in smaller cities since I’ve always lived in big cities. In the winter, when presumably the cold keeps people from trudging out to services on Shabbat, this shul combines their library minyan with their regular congregation and has one combined service–albeit still only around 40 people by Torah reading.
The gabbai came up to us when we got there to welcome us and wish us Shabbat shalom, at which point I mentioned that I would like to bentch gomel. He was really sweet about it, asked if I was all right, and set about getting me an aliyah. Someone would come and let me know which it was, he said. My sister and I found siddurim, chumashim, and took our seats. A few minutes later, the other gabbai came over and told me that I would have the fifth aliyah.
He also handed me one of those lacey doilies old ladies wear in shul and a bobby pin.
Now, I have had quite a head-covering journey over the years. I became a bat mitzvah wearing a kippah and didn’t wear one again for six years. Once I started davenning more regularly in college, I only wore one while wearing a tallit because somehow it felt strange not to. The following summer, while studying Jewish texts at a summer program, I wore one all the time and even began making my own. When I returned from that summer, I went back to wearing one only when praying, eating, or learning, and sometimes all day on Shabbat.
After college, I began substituting often with more feminine feeling head scarves and head bands, but when I got to Israel, I had a dilemma: I could chose between sticking out as a transgressive liberal with the kippah or being coded as married with the head scarves, neither of which was particularly attractive. When I got to rabbinical school, I wore a kippah all day at school until around half-way through last year, when I think I figured that I had nothing to prove to anyone by wearing a kippah and started wearing one when I felt like it. At other times, I had looked around and seen that women were not wearing kippot, and I wanted to be that woman who did, to show people that it could be done, to be an example, to be taken seriously. But that wasn’t a problem at rabbinical school — it gave me the freedom to experiment with what I actually found was the right path for me.
What I wasn’t prepared for, after all that journeying, was the doily. I asked, “Is it required?” He said, “yes.”
I was surprised how out of water I felt by the simple request. I searched through my tallit bag — maybe I had left in it one of the ones I used to wear all the time that I had made for myself. No luck. I searched the kippah baskets by the door for one that wasn’t a nylon “Jew-fer” (aka Jew-fer-a-day kippah). No luck. Doily it was.
On the one hand, I was glad they had head-covering requirements for both men and women; looking around, almost all of the women were wearing kippot (from knit to those strange wire-and-bead barrettes to the ones with bows, but kippot nonetheless). On the other hand, I didn’t want to wear a doily! Or a black nylon kippah! Coersion! And, I wanted to prove that I was not one of those women who needed a doily, that I was a (former? current? future?) kippah-wearer! I belonged to that demographic!
In the end, I bobby-pinned on my doily, bentched gomel, and sat back down. I was glad to have had the opportunity to ritualize my thanks to God in a Jewish communal space, even if it (and I) was not quite my own.
The blessings for bentching gomel:
BARUCH ATAH ADONAI ELOHAYNU MELECH HA-OLAM, HA-GOMEL LE’CHAYVIM TOVOT SHE’GE’MALANI KOL TOV SELA.“Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe Who bestows good things upon even the undeserving, and Who has bestowed goodness upon me.”
Those who witness a person reciting this prayer respond:
MI SHE’GEMALCHA KOL TOV, HU YE’GAMALCHA KOL TOV SELA.“May the one Who has bestowed goodness upon you continue to bestow goodness upon you forever.”

14 thoughts on “Between a rock and a lacey head-covering

  1. wow…it took you that much tripping around to say “thank you” to the One who already knows your heart?

  2. must krechts and say, that people who hear it should first say Amen, and then mi shegemalcha, etc.
    I can’t believe I am turning into a crotchety old maskil like my dear old dad.
    very happy you survived such a scary event!
    kol tuv

  3. Unless they’re responding to Yehudit Brachah or another doiley- or non-doiley-wearing woman, in which case they would respond by saying

  4. And if you were a doily wearer and given a kippah? I think a doily is the best solution: its not marked male, and its not a modesty-driven head covering.

  5. also, the sephardi version of the berakha – which makes more sense:
    îé ùâîìê èåá, äåà éâîìê ëì èåá ñìä
    he who has bestowed good upon you, will bestow all good [things] upon you, forever.

  6. I’m also impressed with your sister making an exception to her (presumed) principle of egal = trayfe, so that she could be with you when you bentched gomel.

  7. rebecca m, actually my sister would rather daven in an egal shul but there isn’t one with a young community in her (small) city and her husband is Ortho. Which I think points to one thing I was implicitly exploring and which I think deserves more writing and thinking — the way in which our ritual decisions can imply a static, affirming choice and rejection of all others (like, e.g., my not wearing a kippah that day; my sister belonging to an Ortho community) when the line is much more fluid and my ritual expression at a given time may not actually be because I reject all others (e.g. I actually do sometimes wear kippot; my sister would rather daven egal).

  8. this is so alien to me – why would you feel the need to wear anything on your head? the kippa for men is virtually invented and has almost no traditionally jewish source.
    It seems so completely upsidedown!
    A women can make a bracha NAKED – (in the mikva) so why would you feel the need to IMMITATE men?

  9. At least my mikvah has a cloth to cover the head. Headcovering is a commandment for women, but, as you said, practically invented for men.

  10. “Headcovering is a commandment for women” – Please tell me where it says so? OMG! so weird!
    There as ONLY 1 Bibilical and 3 Talmudic alusions to women covering their hair!
    It’s NOT a commandment!
    It’s only because it was considered sexy!

  11. OK, so there is a halachic issue here. The Shulchan Aruch tells us that one should cover one’s head when saying a blessing. The requirement is framed in masculine language, but that’s because the assumption is that all women would have their head covered from the age of majority, when they would be married off, anyway.
    SO, in these days, when women are not covering their hair, but their head, they don’t need to wear a kippah, specifically, but they should, when saying a brachah, wear a head covering. If one doesn’t like doilies, one should provide one’s preferred options for oneself.
    There is also, of course, the statement that a Jew should not walk four amot with an uncovered head for fear of heaven, but this is more a kavod matter, and not so much a requirement, although it might be useful to think that if one is saying the number of brachot per day required, wearing a head covering at all times is a matter of practicality – so that one doesn’t have to go running off to find a napkin or doily or hat or whatever every half hour.
    But the sum is that one should be covering one’s head when one says a brachah, regardless. In shul, one should certainly be wearing a head covering, since one comes to shul to do public tefilah, which is certainly chock full o’ brachah. Of course, this is all moot if one regards halachah as sociological, and to be decided on the basis of what moves one, as per Reform and/or Recon.

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