Notes From a Yarmulke Wearer’s Wife

By Dvora Wolff Rabino

When my midlife beau asked me to marry him some eleven years ago, I hesitated; Herb was a more traditional Jew than I. But he was also a scholar, a gentleman and a phenomenal cook with a tender heart and warm embrace. And I decided that meeting him halfway in the observance department was a small price to pay for spending the rest of forever with the man I’d come to call my Herbal Remedy. 

What I had not factored in was how it would feel to stand in public next to a guy who might as well have been wearing a sandwich board that screamed JEW to strangers near and far. 

I’m talking, of course, about Herb’s yarmulke. By the time we were engaged, he was wearing that colorful, crocheted head accessory pretty much everywhere he went.

I prefer to wear my Judaism a little more under the radar. If the Jew-haters can’t suss out my religion from my Hebrew name and ethnic face, their ignorance is more than fine with me. That way I can pretend that my ancestors’ experiences and my own recurring nightmares of anti-Semitism are all a mirage. 

To my relief, walking with my yarmulke-wearing future groom was, at first, a non-issue. In New York—the metropolis Jesse Jackson once famously dismissed as Hymietown—Herb’s headgear did even not raise an eyebrow. Even in my more homogenous, sterile suburb, where Herb moved when we married, the worst reaction I noticed was passing drivers calling out “Shalom”—whether to make friends or make fun, I wasn’t quite sure. 

I knew that other locales, though, would be less forgiving. Herb had told me that decades earlier, when he and his family lived upstate in Rochester, his young son once came back from walking the dog down their otherwise non-Jewish block and turned to his father. “What is a fork and kite?” he asked.

How does a father explain “fucking kike” to his seven-year-old? And if it was, as he told his little boy at the time, an “old-fashioned bad word for Jews,” wouldn’t that father now want to minimize the risk of subjecting himself and his new wife to the same venom? 

So, before we took off for a mini-vacation in France, I suggested that Herb, like many orthodox Jews, camouflage himself—or, more to the point, the two of us—by covering his head not with a blatant Jew symbol but with a baseball cap. 

Herb refused. He said he hated baseball caps and, besides, he said he was proud to be Jewish. He said he wanted to educate non-Jews that we can be perfectly nice, normal people. He said he wanted to bolster the spirit of Jews in less welcoming locales, more timid than he with public displays of affiliation. 

What could I do? It was his head, and I wanted to be a supportive wife. So, I swallowed my cowardice and bought my new spouse a snazzy vacation yarmulke in concentric circles of tan and grey to match his sporty new Banana Republic clothes.

I don’t know why I didn’t just tattoo a dartboard onto his bald spot.

In Paris, where the only things less popular than Jews are religious head coverings, Herb’s target-practice beanie was an act of quiet and risky defiance. When we tried to board a bus, the driver turned us away. When we explored the alleyways by foot, someone threw a lit cigarette at Herb’s head from the balcony above us.

Herb said the bus really was out of service and the cigarette was an accident. 

I said he was hopelessly naive.

During our vacations over the following years, I discovered a more surprising and benign function of the yarmulke: It was a Jew magnet. An Israeli-born gallery owner in Mexico greeted us in Hebrew and offered us a personal tour of Casa Cohen, the former mansion in which her shop was housed. A Provençal fabric seller reached under the counter to show us his secret stash of shiny, bright yellow Provençal yarmulkes. A tourist in Argentina ran up to Herb to ask for kosher restaurant recommendations; a visitor in London requested directions to the nearest synagogue and the time of evening services. Even curious non-Jews were pulled into the yarmulke force field. A couple in Wales asked us to explain our dietary laws, and a rural Floridian woman at Disney World interrogated us about prayer shawls.

Herb accepted every overture with enthusiasm—he bought two of those garish yarmulkes!—and answered every question with patience and grace. 

None of this prepared us for the Friday afternoon in Nice when we were standing near the rear exit of a bus returning from the Chagall museum. An old man in a nearby seat fixed us in his sights but did not say a word. Instead, he stared at us in intense silence until our section of the bus had almost emptied out. At that point he lifted his slight, stooped frame off his seat. Holding the back of the seat for support, he stood right next to Herb. He looked carefully over both his shoulders to ascertain that there was no one in earshot. Then he whispered, “Shabbat shalom,” and promptly scurried off the bus. 

My first thought, watching his slight, receding frame, was: How pathetic is that? The man couldn’t even wish us a good Sabbath out loud?

My second thought was: Now I’m the hopeless naïf. Who knows what this elderly Jew experienced in Vichy France and wherever he went from there? Who knows what he is experiencing now?

Herb’s reaction, when we talked about it back in our hotel, was to burst into tears. “I’m so glad I was wearing my yarmulke,” he said.

I was moved, too. But I wouldn’t say I was glad.

After Trump’s election, Herb suggested we spend two weeks driving through the deep South to better understand Trump country. This time, I put my foot down. I would go, I said, on one condition: that Herb ditch the yarmulke for a hat.

It didn’t really help. I should have realized that the Scottish tam he chose would not exactly make a bearded, bespectacled Yankee Jew and his large-featured, brown-eyed brunette wife blend in among the blond, blue-eyed wearers of red MAGA hats. On Saturday, a South Carolinian guest at the plantation-style Savannah inn where we were staying took one look at the obviously Jewish couple sitting beside her, scowled at our pleasantries, and pointedly ignored us for the remainder of breakfast. On Sunday, a woman on the street with a perfect coif and a cashmere sweater set asked if we were, by any chance, of the Jewish faith, and if we had been to church that morning. “Well, God bless you,” she said, ambiguously, when we admitted we had not.

This January, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, we visited a seaside town in the very Catholic Dominican Republic. We chose Boca Chica because it was famous for its sunshine, calm waters and white sand beaches. We thought we could steer clear of the sex trade for which the poverty-stricken area was also known. 

For the first day or two, Herb opted to cover his head with a floppy sun hat that marked him not as a Jew but as a gauche, pale-faced, sunburn-averse American tourist. And in town, desperate streetwalkers practically lunged at their potential new client. One catcalled him. Another pinched him on the rear and laughed raucously with her friend. He just shrugged and moved on. But when a woman tapped him on the shoulder and followed him three blocks into our hotel lobby hollering that he owed her money for the massage and that she would call the police if he didn’t pay up, he’d had enough. The next day, he used SPF50 as a sun shield and tried out the yarmulke as a prostitute shield. It worked: It signified, to Dominicans, that he was a man of God. For the rest of our stay, the women on the street greeted him with only a polite and formal nod. “Buenos tardes, Papa,” they said.

It turns out my favorite beanie baby is not so much a sandwich board as a walking Rorschach test. I’ve learned a lot about other people by how they react to his open display of religion. But I’ve learned even more about Herb. 

And while I am still on the fence about flouting our faith, I am increasingly sure about one thing: There is no one I’d rather spend the rest of forever walking beside.

Dvora Wolff Rabino is a retired lawyer and a writer who shares a home
outside New York City with her yarmulke-wearing second husband. Over the past year, she has published personal essays and short stories (under a pen name) in the Santa Fe Writers Quarterly, Steam Ticket, SLAB, and the Penmen Review.