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Pop Yarmulkes : Once Somber Skullcaps Get a Modern Look

April 12, 1990|R. DANIEL FOSTER | Foster is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Designer yarmulkes are turning up in vivid styles--decorated with symbols ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Mickey Mouse, and Batman to Lakers and Dodger logos. The skullcaps, once made of somber cloth, are now fashioned of materials ranging from plaid and paisley to leather and lace.

Rabbi Eli Schochet, 55, remembers the time as a child when he wore a baseball cap instead of a Jewish skullcap to satisfy a custom requiring Jewish males to keep their heads covered in reverence to God. Now the rabbi wears a yarmulke imprinted with the logo of his favorite baseball team, the California Angels.

The donning of the boldly painted skullcaps signals "a new way of going public," said Schochet, rabbi of Congregation Beth Kodesh in West Hills. "Jews were perhaps once afraid of being conspicuous. Today, the wearing of the yarmulke is a definite public statement."

"You see them everywhere," said Cathy Hoffman, who hand-paints design on yarmulkes in her Tarzana home and supplies them to area boutiques or sells them at festivals for Purim, a holiday commemorating the deliverence of Jews by Esther. "My sons have about 20 designs each. Every morning it's fun to help them pick out which one they'll wear."

For many years, doting parents have bought yarmulkes painted with colorful Jewish symbols, toy trains and blocks for their infants and toddlers. Three years ago, older children began wearing dinosaur, Superman and He-Man images. About the same time, according to area shopkeepers, new designs such as patterned stars made on leather or suede grew popular with adults.

The current explosion of hand-painted TV and movie character yarmulkes did not catch on until last year when the gleaming Batman logo grabbed the attention of grade-school children. Women soon began painting the logo on yarmulkes.

That was last year's yarmulke fashion trend. Now, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are popping up on boys' skullcaps in area Hebrew academies.

"Every single kid in my sons' class wears yarmulkes with some character on it," said Hoffman, 32, whose two sons attend Emek Hebrew Academy in North Hollywood. "They mostly wear Ninja Turtles, Super Mario Brothers and Ghostbusters." Super Mario Brothers is a Nintendo game. Most of the male students at the academy, which has 650 youngsters enrolled in preschool through eighth grade, wear some form of designer yarmulke during temple services.

"If it's in, you'll find it on yarmulkes," she said. Hoffman started her enterprise in September when other mothers asked her to duplicate her designs for their sons. Hoffman, who paints about 30 yarmulkes a week, also receives special orders, sometimes numbering 300, from Hebrew academies and sports camps that want their logos on students' yarmulkes.

A cottage industry, consisting mostly of one-woman businesses in New York, churn out many of the hand-painted designs. Most women apply acrylic paints to the suede or leather. About six Jewish gift stores operate in the Valley, all of which reported a brisk business of the painted skullcaps the week before Passover, which began at sundown Monday. The festival is an eight-day period set aside to commemorate the exodus of Jews out of Egypt.

Avrum Schwartz, 10, wears yarmulkes painted with Lakers, Dodgers and Mets sports logos. "I wear a Batman one too," said Schwartz, who lives in Van Nuys and attends Emek Hebrew Academy. "I got it in Israel."

By the time boys reach the age of 13 or 14, the allure of cartoon images fades. Some older children wear sports logos and others receive hand-crocheted yarmulkes from girlfriends. A few adults have special-ordered yarmulkes that signify their professions, such as a medical symbols for doctors.

"This says that it's possible for one to be an observant Jew and at the same time, be integrated into mainstream American life," Schochet said. "The designs may be kind of campy at times, but it proves you don't have to be morosely serious about religion."

He remembered a bar mitzvah where guests wore yarmulkes painted with spaceships, but the practice is not widespread, he said.

Schochet's wife, Penina, manages The Jewish Quarter gift shop in Encino, which sells about three dozen different designs, priced from $1.50 to $50.

Although many shopkeepers carry colorful yarmulkes, no adults interviewed admitted to wearing the more flamboyant patterns. Most, however, said they color-coordinate their yarmulkes with their clothes.

Some women refuse to hand-paint the more splashly designs. "They don't think it's appropriate," said Harry Mezci, who assists his wife, Sharon, 30, in running Kepah Art, a New York City home-based business. Kepah is the Hebrew word for the skullcaps. "It's not really sacrilegious and there's really nothing wrong with it, but a lot of people complain." (Many feel the act of covering the head is sacred, not the yarmulke itself.)

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