Covered Heads

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06/03/2010

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

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I have been to exactly one rabbinical student graduation party: Jewish Theological Seminary, class of 1998. The party was held outdoors on the rooftop of a pub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the balmy May night helped create the illusion that the bar was somewhere outside the city—a mountaintop perch under an oddly starless sky—even though the traffic noises rising up from Broadway were still audible. The patrons of this rooftop bar were mostly Columbia students, many of them wearing baseball caps and slangy t-shirts; our party, on the other hand, was made up of bearded men wearing knit kipas and curly-haired women sporting fashionable eyewear. (I know it’s tricky, characterizing a group of Jewish people according to appearance. But isn’t that what the graduates looked like?) I remember being struck by seeing so many observant Jewish men—future rabbis with beards and covered heads—lifting mugs of beer, slowly becoming goofily inebriated while, on the other side of the rooftop, the corps of college students (frat boys with covered heads) seemed to wonder whether it was okay to party alongside the theologians.

Earlier that day, in an auditorium at the seminary in Morningside Heights, I’d watched my brother Steve walk to the center of the stage, where one of his teachers had draped a shining white tallus over his shoulders. I can still remember Steve standing in the spotlight in front of a crowd of hundreds of Jews, a shine reflecting off the bright prayer shawl he’d been given to wear. In that moment, the audience witnessed the official minting of a new leader of the faith, and simultaneously saw the fruition of my brother’s long-sought religious identity. (Steve, just shy of his 34th birthday, was among the older graduates in his class, and the only one whose mother was a Jewish convert.) I was moved by the ordination ceremony not only because I could see the continuation of Jewish culture playing out there on the stage, one new rabbi after another marching up to be blessed and favored with a long white shawl, but also because of Steve’s unlikely success. My parents were also in the audience and I imagine that they, like me, still felt some surprise at the scene unfolding before them: somehow, a child of theirs had made it through seven long years of seminary training and become a rabbi.

In a sense, this was like a conversion for my brother—a conversion from secular to observant, from omnivorous to kosher, from Hebrew-illiterate to deeply familiar with the ancient language of the Torah and the Talmud. The transformation didn’t take place all at once, but the moment when Steve stepped into the light at the center of the stage confirmed his transformation.»

Covered Heads
Photo by Emmanuel Dyan

As I stood on the rooftop drinking with my brother and his classmates on the night of their rabbinical school graduation, I wondered at the meaning of this metamorphosis. I looked over to see my brother raising drinks with his fellow rabbis, the Manhattan skyline spreading out behind them as darkness fell. What lesson could I draw from Steve’s ability to commit to a life so unlike the one we’d shared during childhood? I noticed that my brother was still wearing a kipa on his head as he drank his beer, and this surprised me; I knew he was a rabbi, but I’d never before seen him cover his head this way outside of synagogue, after hours, in public, at a pub. He had made a commitment to something other than himself, a commitment that changed but did not erase him. Still a drinker, my brother now enjoyed his ale while following the Talmudic example of Rav Huna, who never walked six feet without covering his head—a show of respect for the Divine Presence above. Bareheaded, I wished for a baseball cap of my own that night, something to cover my head and pull down over my eyes, for I recognized, in the face of all this pleasantly drunken dedication, that I hadn’t yet learned how to commit.

Brian Schwartz teaches writing at New York University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in print publications on both coasts, and he writes the sports column "A Fan's Notes" at therumpus.net.
 

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