…he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat…” – William Shakespeare
There are many reasons to come to the New West End on Shabbat morning, but for me, one of them is the hats. All kinds of headwear are on display, from top hats to trilbies downstairs and from straw hats to headscarves in the gallery. You may have also spotted one or two more distinctive hats and kippot.
Given that all men and married women cover their heads whilst in synagogue, it is unsurprising that Jewish tastes in head covering are wide and varied. Like many Jewish traditions, these tastes tend to reflect the fashions and customs of the society in which we live. Older members have recounted to me about a time, not so long ago, when nearly all the men wore bowler hats in synagogue.
Fashion creates its own prejudices. There is a story that one current member did not receive a call-up for 20 years. He was unaware that the reason was that he did not wear a formal enough hat! In some synagogues, a top hat is still required to lead services. Today, in the strictly orthodox world, which supposedly eschews fashion, every yeshiva student knows that a sign of devotion to G-d is wearing a black Borsalino hat.
As with most fashions, ladies have a far worse time than the men. Wide brims restrict vision, whilst smaller hats often lack grandeur. In orthodox circles, married women cover their heads in public at all times. Amongst modern orthodox women, who generally wear western fashions and would never dream of wearing a sheitel (wig), a fashion for headscarves has unusually returned. However, in deference to the modern world, these now often have bright colours and patterning. Indian headscarves, unlike sheitels, are usually permitted.
The custom that orthodox men in the west cover their heads at all times is very recent (within the last 30 years). Although hats are designed to protect the head from the elements, today their significance to Jews goes well beyond that. Many Jewish men use their head covering to demonstrate their allegiance to a particular sect.
This leads to some strange attitudes. Walking in Golders Green on a rainy day, you may see the funny sight of an orthodox man wearing a hat wrapped in a plastic bag. To many Israelis, a velvet yarmulke is the hallmark of the strictly orthodox, whilst a large crocheted kippah is a symbol of the right-wing settler movement. I wonder what they might make of a top hat?
I’m proud of the variety of hats that make up the New West End: formal, stylish and eccentric. Long may such traditions continue!