What I learned in Alabama about Yarmulkes
…But it was on the highway – on U.S. Route 80 – between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama that the deep significance of the Jew’s wearing his Yarmulke came to me. Some of you may remember that on Wednesday, March 24, 1965, Rabbi Saul Leeman of Cranston and I were among the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. On that day, the two of us, he quite readily and I somewhat reluctantly wore our Yarmulkes. The reason: to protect our heads from sunburn and to identify ourselves as Rabbis. We succeeded on both counts. From all sides, white and black alike, men and women greeted us with, “Shalom, Shalom.” Young Jews, their eyes aglow, came up: “We are glad to see Rabbis with us.” A professor of philosophy from Berkeley who did not look Jewish came up: “It means so much for one of my background to see Rabbis participating in the March!” One white man, a rugged blonde, a Gentile said: “Before you Rabbis are through, you will convert the entire Christian nation.”
And so, in the midst of this atmosphere of camaraderie Saul Leeman and I marched on. Then Sandy Rosen, a fellow Rabbi from San Mateo, California coming up from behind me, greeted me with the words “Shalom Chaver.” I looked at him. He, too, was wearing a Yarmulke. Know that he was a Reform Rabbi, I asked him: “Do your people wear Yarmulkes?” He replied: “No. But our colleagues who came to Selma throughout their stay there wore Yarmulkes.” And the Negroes – Sandy Rosen went on to tell me – took to the Yarmulkes, began wearing them and calling them freedom caps. Then the Rabbis proceeded to bring in large supplies of Yarmulkes which they distributed to many of those on the freedom march. Thus the one-legged man, a white man, who walked the entire distance from Selma to Montgomery got himself a Yarmulke which he wore from time to time. At the service in Selma on Saturday, March 27, 1965 which followed the killing of Viola Gregg Luizzo, the mother of five children, the Associated Press report stated, that many of those present, white and black alike, wore Yarmulkes. On the other hand the segregationists began calling these head coverings “Yankee Yarmulkes.”
Here is how my colleague and pupil Maurice Davis put it in a sermon: “We returned to the church, and I noticed that all the Reform Rabbis were wearing yarmulkes. When I questioned this, I was told, ‘It is our answer to the clerical collar.’ Clergymen of every denomination, from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism were wearing clerical collars to show that they were clergymen. Rabbis of all branches of Judaism were wearing yarmulkes.”
“I tried to get one, but I could not. I learned later that they set back for a thousand yarmulkes but all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them. Negro children, and white marchers were all sporting yarmulkes.”
“People keep asking me why I decided to go to Alabama. I’m not sure that even now I know the answer. I think I went to Alabama to worship God!”
To me, one striking aspect of Rabbi Davis’ statement is that when we went to worship God, he found that will’e nill’e he had to wear a Yarmulke…
Excerpt from the Rosh Hashanah 1965 sermon by Rabbi William G. Braude of Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island. In this sermon, Rabbi Braude explores whether or not to wear a head covering.