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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 32: Jewish Head Coverings: A Blessing on Your Head

The yarmulke has become an almost universal symbol of Judaism; however, Jews around the world cover their heads and hair in many different ways, including hats, wigs, and scarves. This custom isn't Jewish law, but was developed over centuries as a community norm that continues on in a variety of ways today.

In this episode, guest scholars Eric Silverman and Amy K. Milligan discuss the history and practice of head and hair covering – and what the practices reveal about Jewish experiences of gender, assimilation, and antisemitism.

Images of the styles discussed in this episode:



Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons


Fedora Chabad-Lubavitch 2023

Photo by Shmulie Grossbaum/ via  Wikimedia Commons

Bukharian Kippah


Photo by Yoninah via Wikimedia Commons

Yemenite Kippah

Yemeni Kippah-A_young_Jewish_Israeli_boy_of_Yemenite_descent_at_the_Western_Wall_in_Jerusalem,_Israel

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy via Wikimedia Commons

Breslov Kippah

Breslov Kippah

Photo by Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Wikimedia Commons



Photo by Adam Jones via Flickr



Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons



Photo by Jordan Rathkopf via Wikimedia Commons



Photo by David Federmann via Wikimedia Commons

Judenhut, "Form of the Hat," Frankfurt, 1613

Judenhut "Form of the Hat," Frankfurt, 1613


Erin Phillips: Welcome to “Adventures in Jewish Studies,” the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history, and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m one of your hosts, Erin Phillips. And today, we’re taking a look under the yarmulke, so to speak, at why and how Jews around the world choose to cover their heads.

While I was researching for this episode, I decided to ask a popular AI tool to generate me some images of rabbis. I gave it all sorts of prompts - rabbi in synagogue, group of rabbis, even rabbi on the street and rabbi at home. Every AI rabbi I generated had one thing in common: they were all wearing some sort of hat. Today, certain types of head coverings have become almost universal symbols of Jewishness – from the distinctive hats worn by men in certain ultra-Orthodox communities, to the skullcap known as the yarmulke or kippah, which is increasingly being worn by people of all genders. The practice of covering one’s head or hair is a minhag or cultural custom, rather than an explicit Jewish law. Nevertheless, it’s a religious and stylistic choice that has developed over centuries to become powerfully symbolic to many Jews. For some, it’s deeply religiously meaningful. For others, it expresses their commitment to Judaism within their own communities. Still, for others, it marks them apart from the outside world and lets people on the street know, “Hey! I’m Jewish.” Today, we’ll learn about different ways Jews cover their heads and hair, explore the history of the practices, and understand how they connect to Jewish experiences of gender, assimilation, and antisemitism. To see pictures of the styles we’ll talk about today, visit

[Musical transition]

Erin Phillips: While the yarmulke is probably the most iconic Jewish head covering, the ways Jews round the world cover their heads and hair are as diverse as Judaism itself. 

Amy Milligan: There's a lot of different types of hats. Probably most worth noting is the shtreimel, which is a wide brown hat that's made of animal tales, usually Fox or mink. There's the spodik, which tends to be taller and black. They're usually worn on Shabbat or festivals or to weddings. Other hats like the fedora, favored by Chabad, for example; during the week, we also see other high crown hats.

Erin Phillips: This is Amy Milligan, the Batten Endowed Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Women's and Gender Studies and the director of the Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding at Old Dominion University. When I asked her to name a few types of Jewish head coverings, she told me she could go on for hours. Even yarmulkes have dozens of variations. Crocheted ones are traditional in many communities, but…

Amy Milligan: There's also suede kippot that come in tons of different colors, and they're pretty common among liberal Jews. And this same style in black is worn by a lot of folks within ultra orthodox movements, typically under hats when they're outdoors. The Bukharan kippah is a different shape completely. Let me see how I can describe this. It's a larger size. It's very colorful and it typically covers most of the head. And it's secured by a really wide brim or band that goes around it. And this style has become very popular, especially by those who have trouble securing their kippah on their head. This is my husband's favorite type to wear because he doesn't have a lot of hair to attach a yarmulke to. Another style that's a different shape is the Yemenite kippah, which is a stiff black dome. Unlike the other ones which are circular, it holds its shape as a dome. And these are typically velvet and they have really pretty decorative borders. The Breslov kippah is soft, it's made of white yarn. It's knit with a pom pom on the top. And a really traditional Breslov kippah has text all around the edge. And a similar style white but with no text is sometimes also worn by non-Breslav, or Hasidic children.

Erin Phillips: Almost all of these hats and kippot Dr. Milligan has mentioned are traditionally worn by men. Throughout history, head and hair covering has been a highly gendered practice. And that’s still true today, which is why women in many more traditional communities have developed distinct styles of their own to cover their hair, typically once they’re married. 

Amy Milligan: I think one of the most common is the tichel which is a scarf. And there's lots of different ways that these can be worn. So, there's pre-tied tichels, which is a scarf that already has a bit of elastic sewn into it so it holds its shape. This is a style that has tails that can come down and be worn down the back or over the shoulder, tied around the hair. They come in a seemingly endless variety of colors and fabrics. There's also untied scarves that could be tied in countless creative ways. There's also many other variations of snoods which would go almost like a small sack over your hair, turbans, other forms of head wraps. I think the other thing that is really important to talk about for Jewish women's hair covering is the sheitel, which is a wig. And it's the other most common type of hair covering. So, a sheitel is typically used to cover all or most of the hair. It can also be a partial wig or a fall that is used to cover some or part of the head. And likewise, there's also other forms, things called shpitzels, which are worn by some Hasidic women that are like a braid of the hair that go across the front of your hair. And then the rest of your hair would be covered by by a tichel or a scarf.

Erin Phillips: Like many practices in Judaism, the gender divide in head and hair coverings comes from the Torah, or the Hebrew bible.

Eric Silverman: Around the world, many cultures invest a great deal of symbolism and  meaning into hair. And in Judaism, women's hair takes on enormous importance in traditional Judaism. And you can begin, you can see the origins of that in various passages in the Torah or Old Testament, where wild, unkempt, hair signified uncontrollable sexuality. The equivalence between hair and sexuality is to an anthropologist common in cultures around the world.

Erin Phillips: This particular anthropologist is Eric Silverman, a research scholar affiliated with Brandeis University.

Eric Silverman: And so Jewish women had a tradition of covering their hair, except in front of their husband.

Erin Phillips: Dr. Milligan identifies one of the central verses of the Torah that establishes this custom.

Amy Milligan: So, hair covering for Jewish women is primarily based on an interpretation of Numbers 5:18, which talks about the Satah ritual, which is about a woman who's committed adultery and how her hair will be uncovered – which is interpreted to mean that her hair normally would have been covered. So, of course, practices then develop as cultural norms. They're described throughout rabbinic literature and then are codified throughout culture. 

Erin Phillips: It’s worth noting, though, that for both men and women, head and hair covering is never expressly mandated in the Torah – this story about the uncovering of a woman’s hair is perhaps the closest we get. Dr. Silverman notes that for men, the Hebrew Bible contains even fewer hints of the practice.

Eric Silverman: When it comes to the Jewish law, or what devout Jews called halakha, the rules about head covering are actually non-existent for the vast majority of Jewish history. So for example, if you look to the Torah, or what people call the Old Testament, or the Five Books of Moses, you will see absolutely no unambiguous clear statement that the Israelites or the Jews were required to wear distinctive head coverings, or any kind of head covering whatsoever.

Erin Phillips: While the ancient Israelites and Jews up until 1000 CE probably were expected to cover their heads, the practice just doesn’t make its way into Jewish law until the later Rabbinic commentaries of the Talmud. There, Dr. Milligan tells us, the Rabbis begin to make a clear connection between religious devotion and the covering of the head and hair.

Amy Milligan: So, we see this codified throughout the Talmud, and in various rabbinic texts. And they're pretty clear in their messaging. They say things like, “cover your head in order that the fear of Heaven may be upon you.”

Erin Phillips: They also say things like, devout Jewish men should never walk more than four cubits, about six and a half feet, with their heads uncovered – that’s in the Shulchan Arukh, a code of Jewish laws codifed by Rabbi Joseph Caro in the sixteenth century. But while men and women of the time likely heeded Rabbinic advice to cover their heads and hair, it’s less likely they did so in a way that was uniquely and recognizably Jewish.

Eric Silverman: There's no evidence in the New Testament that early Jews – that is Jews who are living around the time of Jesus in the first century – that they themselves also had distinctive head coverings, or, for that matter, distinctive clothing.

Erin Phillips: Up until the medieval period, it was easy for Jews to follow head and hair covering community norms while also blending into the wider world. Dr. Silverman pins this on historical fashion trends.

Eric Silverman: Head coverings were the norm. Really up until the modern era. Hats, caps, scarves, all manner of head covering regardless of gender was really the norm across most of Europe. And these headcoverings, again, would often signify your occupation, where you lived, your region, your wealth, your status, and so on, and so forth.

Erin Phillips: Unfortunately for Jewish men, as well as Muslim men, in the early thirteenth century, the Christian Church decided that their head coverings must do more than denote where they lived and what their professions were - head coverings must mark them as religiously different, too.

Amy Milligan: But it gets pretty complex during medieval times because Jews were actually forced to wear special hats called Judenhut which delineated them and publicly identified them as Jews when they were outside of the ghetto walls. And this caused a lot of stigma, of course.

Erin Phillips: So, what did these mandatory Jewish hats look like? Well, there was a lot of variation across Europe, and there certainly was no universally recognized garment like the yarmulke. The Judenhut, the most popular iteration in medieval-era depictions of Jews, is a pointed cap with a ball at the top – to me, it looks like a piece from Sorry!, the classic childhood boardgame.

The medieval edicts mandating Jewish mens’ hats were designed to stigmatize and otherize Jews. But at the same time, the Torah also contained guidance for Jews to dress distinctively from other peoples, and to stand out. Laws about Judenhut technically followed the guidance of the Talmudic Rabbis -- but they created complicated feelings and tensions around following it. Here’s Dr. Silverman again:

Eric Silverman: So, I think it's fair to say that from say, the rise of Christianity, maybe a few centuries after, up through the long Medieval Period, Jews were sort of caught between, on the one hand, their religious authorities, the rabbis, saying, “we need to signal our distinctiveness from the surrounding people. Because that is what's commanded of us from the Almighty.” And, on the other hand, authorities saying, “you Jews are the despised race of Europe, and we want you to dress apart so we know who you are.” And so, Jewish clothing was sort of sandwiched between these two opposed forces. 

Erin Phillips: And this tension sandwich continued up until the early eighteenth century, when edicts mandating Jewish hats began to fall by the wayside. In their wake, Jews grappled with their newfound choices around covering their heads.

Amy Milligan: There was a lot of religious commentary then, when they were no longer forced to wear these hats about whether or not Jewish men still had to cover their heads. And so, ultimately, some groups felt that it was only needed during prayer. And others felt that Jewish men needed to wear some form of head covering all the time.

Erin Phillips: During this period of history, both community norms around Jewish head coverings for men – as well as styles for both men and women – began to shift rapidly, especially in Europe, thanks to broader cultural movements.

Eric Silverman: We're now talking about, generally speaking, the nineteenth century, when you have really two major earth shattering developments that really happened in Europe. One is the rise of the Industrial Revolution. The other is, certainly within Judaism, the rise of moral individualism.

Erin Phillips: The rise of moral individualism, as Dr. Silverman puts it, also gave rise to an intellectual movement known as the Jewish Enlightenment, which greatly encouraged Jewish assimilation, particularly through dress. 

Amy Milligan: For both Jewish men and Jewish women with head and hair covering, it was really during the Jewish enlightenment that we saw a shift as they began to want to become more assimilated. So, this also parallels where we see the evolution of Reform Judaism. And we start to see folks begin to question how they want to be perceived, and to really start to understand themselves as maybe Jewish second in their identity, and that they might have the choice of not identifying first and foremost as Jews – that they could choose to only identify as Jews at home or in the temple. And so, of course, one of the ways that they wanted to assimilate was to take away this externalization of their Jewishness. And they could do that by abandoning religious garb.

Erin Phillips: While some Jews were choosing to doff their Judenhut and modernize their appearance, not everyone was on board. Many traditional Jews had come to accept and identify with distinctive garments. But once again, antisemitic European laws around Jewish attire forced the issue.

Eric Silverman: There are several European governments, especially Russia, which are trying desperately to modernize. And their model of modern society was essentially Germany, Western Europe. In really the Polish and Russian territories, there began a series of edicts which required Jews no longer to dress distinctively. That too, caused a great deal of concern within the Jewish population over, “wait a minute. Our traditional Jewish clothing, which you had required us to wear for many centuries that we've now become attached to, and we claim as our own symbol of our identity. Now you want us to throw this stuff off in dress like everybody else?” And there's really quite moving accounts of many Jews in tears who were sort of, “but this is our identity! You want us to really rip it off and dress again, in something new?”

Erin Phillips Whether motivated by these laws from their homelands or inspired by the Jewish enlightenment, though, by the late nineteenth century, a majority of Jews arriving to the United States from Europe were ready to cast off their old garments. 

Amy Milligan: Particularly when Jews came to the United States, they wanted to Americanize themselves as quickly as possible. This is not true of all Jews, but many. And while it was really difficult to learn a new language, or to change your accent, changing the way that you looked, was the easiest thing to do. And so we saw a lot of early American Jews, quickly abandon religious dress. There's a lot of folk narratives of people throwing various head coverings and hair coverings into the water as they enter New York City. Whether that's true or not, I don't know.

Erin Phillips: While many Jews may have abandoned their head and hair coverings from the old country, for men in particular, head covering didn’t go entirely by the wayside. In the United States, religious Jewish men found a compromise between the warring demands of the Rabbis and fashionable society.

Eric Silverman: If you look at old photos, paintings, etchings, sketches, drawings of, let's just say Jews in America in the nineteenth century, the very early twentieth century, you'll see all manner – on men – of caps and hats. And none of them communicate, “this person is uniquely Jewish.” They were just the common hats and caps of the day. And part of the reason is all men were wearing hats in those days. So, the fact that somebody had a hat on, didn't tell you anything about their religious affiliation. And by this time, the rabbis had made it pretty clear that Jewish men should wear head coverings. But there was no sense that, okay, this is the distinctive Jewish head covering. And even if you look at Jewish men in the synagogues in etchings and drawings and paintings, they're not wearing yarmulkes. They're wearing all sorts of other caps.

Erin Phillips: The prevalence of fashionable hats made a real difference in preserving the practice of Jewish head covering among even less religious Jewish men. Dr. Milligan juxtaposes it with the transformation of women’s head coverings during this time. With no popular modern parallel to adopt, less religious women often abandoned hair covering altogether. 

Amy Milligan: And so then, hair covering kind of followed the same trajectory with assimilation, that it became less common, but was still maintained within certain groups. 

Erin Phillips: This phenomenon is documented in an 1896 novel called Yekl, by Abraham Cahan. The namesake character, Yekl, has assimilated to life in the New York ghetto, when he brings over his wife, Gitl, and their daughter from Russia. Here’s a passage from when Gitl arrives to New York:

His heart had sunk at the sight of his wife’s uncouth and un-American appearance… her hair was concealed under a voluminous wig of pitch-black hue… In New York, even a Jewess of her station and Orthodox breeding is accustomed to blink at the wickedness of displaying her natural hair, and… none but an elderly matron may wear a wig without being the occasional target for snowballs or stones.

Yekl makes Gitl take off the wig, which she insists on replacing with a large kerchief. And later in the book, Gitl abandons even the kerchief, getting a haircut and wearing her hair uncovered in order to win back her husband’s favor.

It’s clear that by the late nineteenth century, in America and parts of Europe, many Jewish women abandoned their wigs and headscarves for the latest fashions of the day. Another part of this shift, for both men and women, was the rise of consumerism.

Eric Silverman: For the vast majority of human history, people owned very few garments. You could not walk to Macy's and buy a new shirt off the rack. It was not possible until the rise of mass production in factories, and advertising and consumerism and disposable incomes. That all doesn't happen until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Nobody in the thirteenth century woke up in the morning, threw open their wardrobe and said, “Hmm, how do I want to present myself to the world?” It's a very modern concept. 

Erin Phillips: From all these complicated dynamics – consumerism, assimilation, and immigration – one unique hat does emerge as an iconic Jewish symbol, at first for men, and later for everyone. Iterations of the flat skullcap abound throughout history, which is why it’s hard to trace the origins of the yarmulke that took hold in the late 19th and early 20h centuries.

Even the origins of the word, “yarmulke,” are difficult to trace. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut argued that it originated from the term for a comparable garment worn by Christian clergy in medieval Europe – the almuce similarly resembled a small cap. Of course, other scholars trace it back to the Turkish word, yarmuluk, meaning “rain covering,” or to the German word, Jahrmarkt, which refers to a country fair, a place one might have been likely to see a Jew wearing such a hat. One last explanation traces it to the Hebrew-Aramaic term, yere malakhim, meaning “fearer of the King,” indicating that a religious Jew in a yarmulke is one who fears God. 

While scholars struggle to pinpoint where the style or even the word for yarmulkes originated from, it’s also hard to say exactly how it came to be adopted by American and European Jews. Eric Silverman doesn’t know, but he does have a theory for why the kippah became so popular in the nineteenth century. 

Eric Silverman: I contend that what happens in the earlier couple of decades of the twentieth century is that general fashion changes and men start taking off their hats. At that point, the association of Jewish men with covered heads begins to become common because religious Jews did not take off their caps. At this time, too, the yarmulke begins to become a nice compromise between Jewish law, which required a male head covering, and the wider society which was becoming more and more accustomed to not wearing hats at a yarmulke. It's unobtrusive. You can kind of, dare I say, pass.

Erin Phillips: Another element of the kippah’s success was that it was easy to mass produce and sell in large quantities. This meant that Jews could not only afford to own a yarmulke, they could often have many. The yarmulke became culturally ubiquitous because, more than any other head or hair covering, it was physically everywhere – especially, as Eric Silverman explains, at Jewish celebrations.

Eric Silverman: As Jews become more affluent and enter the middle class and have disposable incomes and can afford relatively lavish celebrations for Bar Mitzvahs at that time, and really weddings, there begins to develop this sort of small cottage industry of creating keepsake yarmulkes that would be handed out to the guests. And certainly by the 40s, inscribed with the honorees names and the dates and the occasion itself.

Erin Phillips: So, throughout the nineteenth century, the yarmulke became not just a religious head covering, but a marker of Jewish identity, a cultural symbol, and a souvenir that both preserved a long historical tradition of head covering and enabled Jews to express modern, individualistic identities. Here’s Amy Milligan again:

Amy Milligan: Some other ritual objects seem very complex or inaccessible to us, or seem extremely holy, or are extremely holy. We couldn't afford to buy them. You know, yarmulkes are something that we can do that takes something that's really familiar to us as Jews, and allows us to put it on our bodies as an external marker. We don't have to be in synagogue to do it. They can even be a little cheeky. You know, we can get them with sports teams logos or something on them. And we can choose when and how we engage with them. We can take them on and off if we want to. And I think it's just a really fairly easy way for us to engage with Jewishness.

Erin Phillips: Eric Silverman notes that accessibility and ubiquity are also why the outside world began to recognize the skullcap as a distinctively Jewish garment.

Eric Silverman: In the kind of lore of American Judaism, every somewhat religious Jewish house will have, you know, dozens of these yarmulkes in some kitchen drawer, this kind of stratigraphy. You can excavate them to see family events, or stuffed into the glove compartment of the car. And so, if a non-Jewish person is invited to a Jewish celebration, they're going to make the association of the yarmulke with Jewishness because that's what they were sort of given as a souvenir and to put on their head.

Erin Phillips: By the 1960s and 70s, many Jewish men started choosing to cover their heads at least sporadically with the kippah – from the ultra-Orthodox, who faithfully wore them all the time, along with other more conspicuous hats; to reform and even secular Jews who donned them at cultural celebrations. But for women, only the most devout continued to cover their hair after marriage. Women’s head and hair covering was largely a thing of the past – that is, until Jewish feminists set their sights on the kippah. Amy Milligan explains.

Amy Milligan: So, Jewish feminist started wearing yarmulkes, and less commonly prayer shawls at the time, during the 70s. They were working towards egalitarianism, right, which was super important and brave. There was a lot of critique, and there still is about the inherent patriarchy of kippot. But the women who were doing this were using kippot as a way of demonstrating religious agency by entering into spaces and wearing them. I think now we see women wearing kippot most commonly among Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements, a little bit less commonly within Conservative Judaism. But certainly we see it there, too. And we also see it I think, again, more commonly among women in leadership. So, particularly on the Bima – in the front of the temple – we'll see it with rabbis or Cantors who are more likely to be wearing them than folks who are in the pews. But I think that the Jewish feminists who really started in the 70s, whether it was a political action or a religious action, I think it was maybe both depending on who it was, who was doing it. I think that for some, it was very much a deeply spiritual practice of claiming religious agency. And for others, I think it was a, I think it was a statement. 

Erin Phillips: As women’s kippot became more widely adopted, even some Orthodox women also took them up, either as an alternative to hair covering or as a supplement – a wig with a yarmulke on top, for example. But Eric Silverman explains, traditional gender norms meant they often had to get creative with how they incorporated the yarmulke.

Eric Silverman: In sort of classical Orthodox Judaism, Jewish men and women are not supposed to emulate the dress of the other gender. Is that general rule violated when a woman wears a yarmulke? Well, no in the sense that a yarmulke is not a long standing traditional Jewish garment. Yes, I suppose one could say in the sense that it was mainly men who wore these kinds of head coverings for prayer. One way around this, of course, is to create yarmulkes that have an intentionally feminine aesthetic. Now, many women who wear a yarmulke will say, “I'm not emulating what men are doing. I'm taking back a commandment. If this tradition of head covering was given to the Jewish people, it had been unjustly appropriated by men and denied to women for many centuries. I’m taking back what is as much mine as it is men.” So, this is a gesture of equality. It's not a gesture of appropriation from something that was of a male prerogative. So, there's a debate within Judaism and within the different major Jewish denominations, each of which has specific rules about whether or not head coverings for women are optional.

Erin Phillips: Those debates continue to this day. So, do – as Amy Milligan notes – debates about women’s autonomy and traditional hair covering. The origins of the practice, as we’ve covered, are steeped in all kinds of ideas about women’s bodies as taboo.

Amy Milligan: For some folks, married woman's hair can be considered erva, naked or sexual, which is why it's covered. It's a little bit complicated, I think, for some Jewish feminists to navigate this, because of that. 

Erin Phillips: Eric Silverman agrees.

Eric Silverman: That becomes a difficult kind of religious strand to synthesize without some effort with kind of modern egalitarian notions and it's certainly the case that many Orthodox women have rewritten those kinds of requirements in a more empowering sort of way. But those traditional interpretations are still part of the religious canon. 

Erin Phillips: But Amy Milligan ultimately notes –

Amy Milligan: If we really look at it, any choice that a woman is intentionally making conceptually about her body can be really powerful.

Erin Phillips: And that power has caused some non-Orthodox Jewish women to reclaim the practice of hair covering – even some unmarried women who reimagine the tichel, or headscarf, as a uniquely feminine way to outwardly express Jewish identity.

Amy Milligan: I am seeing more women outside of orthodoxy who are choosing to cover their hair, I think that it's a really meaningful religious commitment for them. And I think that this practice is a really meaningful way for them to mark their bodies externally as part of their religious life. More than anything, I think it's one of the ways of pushing back against Jewish assimilation, finding a way to reclaim both their bodies and that narrative and say that they're affirming who they are, both as women and as Jews.

Erin Phillips: For modern Jews, choice is the great liberating factor in head and hair covering practices. While some ultra-Orthodox communities may still feel bound by duty and tradition, even members of these communities are often choosing to cover their heads and hair in certain ways that reflect their religious and cultural commitments. And Jews of all kinds today are finding freedom in the reimagining of head and hair covering practices – this is true, too, for transgender, and non-binary Jews as they’ve been able to take on more visible roles in Jewish communities and institutions. 

Amy Milligan: One of the things in particular for non-binary Jews has been the question of, “how do we navigate these practices that are so gendered? And that can be so problematic for us?” And so, I think one of the really powerful things that I've been seeing happen within non-binary and intersex communities is that I see Jews taking head and hair coverings – in particular, head coverings, though – and using them to mark themselves in a way that includes them in narratives, sometimes by creating what I would say are politicized kippot that carry messages. I'm really interested, in particular, in pride kippot,, whatever message they carry, whether it's rainbow, or the trans pride colors, or non-binary colors, or any of the other different color groupings or messaging that they might have on them. Other times, I think it's just a statement of affirmation to wear something that just feels like you. It doesn't have to be a political statement. It can just be a choice to show up into a space and something that feels nice.

Erin Phillips: Clearly, Jewish head and hair covering today has evolved from a customary practice into a deeply meaningful expression of individual, cultural and religious identity. Unfortunately, that expression can sometimes be dangerous. With resurging rates of antisemitic violence in the United States, particularly in the wake of the October 7 attacks by Hamas in Israel, many Jews are choosing to hide or abandon public expressions of their Jewishness. For some, this means covering their kippah with a baseball cap. For others, it means taking it off altogether.

Nevertheless, Jewish head and hair covering is an important practice that has survived centuries of change – from antisemitic violence and segregation to immigration to shifts in culture and attitude. And for Eric Silverman, studying the evolving ways in which Jews choose to cover their heads and hair offer insights into larger trends in Judaism and Jewish studies

Eric Silverman: When I started my initial research into the meanings of Jewish clothing, I remember on one online forum, I had asked a question. And I had somebody respond a little bit dismissively saying, “look, there's really important issues happening to the Jewish community. And you're writing about clothing? Who cares about yarmulkes?” And I responded then as I would respond now, by saying that the yarmulke, like all of Jewish clothing, is not for me about clothing, per se. It's about a much broader and what I think is important, conversation, which is, how does a self identified community, in this case this Jewish community, identify itself and express that identity vis a vis the wider society?

Erin Phillips: For Amy Milligan, too, the study of Jewish head and hair coverings is a study of Jewish self-identity. And while many Jewish practices are related to community or culture, head and hair covering is a deeply physical and personal practice that connects Jewish bodies to Jewish identities. She thinks there’s a lot to learn when we connect individual bodies to wider culture, and examine the ways they influence each other.

Amy Milligan: As we consider all of the different ways in which we engage our bodies, especially within a wonderfully diverse ethnoreligious group like Judaism, we see how often our bodies are overlooked and how our bodies are actually a canvas of the self, for our identity. 

Erin Phillips: “Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation and from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode.

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Guest Scholars

Amy K. Milligan

Amy K. Milligan

Amy K. Milligan is the Batten Endowed Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Old Dominion University, where she is also the director of the Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding. She is a folklorist and ethnographer who explores the intersections of the body, gender, sexuality, community, and location, specializing in the study of small Jewish communities.

Eric Silverman

Eric Silverman

Eric Silverman is a research scholar affiliated with Brandeis University. His previous roles include Full Professor of Anthropology at Wheelock College and the Edward Myers Dolan Professor of Anthropology at Wheelock College, where he also directed the Jewish Studies program. He has written several books, not only about Jews and Judaism, but also about a modernizing community in Papua New Guinea.

Episode Host


Erin Phillips

Erin Phillips is an audio producer, communications professional, and Jewish educator from Alexandria, Virginia. She has a BA in Social Innovation and Enterprise from George Mason University. Erin has produced thought-provoking stories for popular shows like Out There and the Duolingo English podcast, as well as local community radio.

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