When I travel, I like to “discover” ritual objects from the far corners of the world that can lead a double life as Jewish ritual objects.
These things unite my love of travel and far-flung adventure with my love of Jewish ritual and Jewish celebrations.
When we moved to our latest home many years ago, my husband said the movers (Israelis, it turns out), couldn’t figure out if we were Jewish or Buddhist – based on the number of Judaica items we were unpacking together with our Buddha heads collection from China, Sri Lanka, Burma, etc.
But my favorite item – or really items in a big heavy plural – are our kippahs. They were not only collected from around the world, they were hand made with local fabrics by streetside tailors around the world.
Starting about two years before my eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah, I started buying fabric at colorful local markets on my trips, then tracking down local streetside tailors who mostly focus on fixing tears in shirts and pants and zippers. Universally, the tailors had never seen a kippah before, so I pack in a few from home as examples. Each tailor used my “samples” as a curious starting point, and then adapted the example per their own abilities and interpretation. A few things to note about these kippahs from across the globe:
- They are not all uniform.
- They may not all fit perfectly.
- But, they were custom made on the streets of India, Vietnam and Africa.
Below are photos and backstories of each of the kippot I’ve had made so far.
MADE IN INDIA: The “Sari Kippot”
These kippot were made from sari fabrics that Shelley bought from the fabric stalls of Mangaldas Market, one of the big bustling fabric markets of Mumbai, India. The market was crowded with sellers (mostly men) selling fabric to women of all ages/generations, who pick the fabrics they like best and take them to local tailors to fashion saris, cholis, lehengas, and other local women’s clothing.
I can’t say with 100% surety that I am the first person to purchase fabric there to make kippahs with, but it sure felt that way! I certainly don’t think there are many other men in the world – other than attendees at Zara’s bat mitzvah – who are wearing women’s sari fabric on their head as a sign as respect to G-d.
MADE IN INDIA: The “Elephant Kippot”
These batik fabrics were actually purchased on a years-early trip I took to India. The fabrics came, admittedly, as a wrap-around skirt. I always loved the elephant fabric but never wore the skirts themselves. (Too funky to wear as a skirt perhaps, but certainly not too funky for a kippah, right?!)
So when I returned to India in 2016, I took the skirts with me and had the material remade as kippot.
Lost in translation: My obsession with the elephants didn’t necessarily translate to the non-English speaking tailor. He chopped up those elephants, and the unfortunate result is that lots of kippahs may have only half an elephant, or an elephant tail but no trunk. I think he was probably trying to maximize the fabric rather than ensure each kippah featured an elephant in full. So if you are lucky enough to have a full view elephant kippah in your possession post-bat mitzvah, consider yourself lucky!
MADE IN INDIA: The “Street Corner” Kippahs
I had fun making these kippot with a street corner tailor in Mumbai. Literally, a dude with a sewing machine on a street corner. He had never seen a kippah, I don’t believe. But there are plenty of Muslim in Mumbai who cover their heads in similar fashion. Certainly not with bright colored sari fabric, but a round headcovering is a round head covering. He inspected my yarmulke samples from home with care, eyeballed my fabrics, quoted me a price, and got to work. We attracted a crowd of curious onlookers for sure (see video below!). But they were mainly onlooking me, not him. He just worked and sewed and sewed and worked. He even had one of his buddy’s model the finished product for me.
MADE IN INDIA: The Pashmina “Kashmir Kippot”
These kippot are the fanciest of fabrics of the international kippah collection. They are made from the Pashima scarves of the northern Kashmir region of India (which borders Pakistan), and purchased at a shop in Mumbai (Southern India). The hand embroidery of Kashmiri goods is famous not only in India, but the world over.
A particularly proactive shopkeeper convinced me to buy pashminas and have her “professional” tailors make kippot out of them. She was MORTIFIED that I had had a street-front tailor sew my prior batches of kippot. Apparently, the street front tailor (like, literally, a sewing machine and table on a busy street corner) is used by locals just for clothing repair…not for “real” sewing projects. So she said she would have “professional” tailors make this batch.
To save shipping, the shopkeeper was going to send them to NYC with her son several months later. But luckily, a good friend went to India on business about a month after I had come home, and she brought the kippot home to us in Bethesda. I hope you and your boys grabbed some of these ones, Samantha G!!
MADE IN VIETNAM: The “Church Kippot”
Shelley single-handedly provided an economic boost to the tailors of Vietnam during her “Wandering Jews” summer 2017 trip there with friends from Bethesda, Beth El and Chicago. An economic boost to a street-front clothing mender in old town Hanoi who made the first batch. To the tailors in Hue who made the second batch (and, incidentally, also a new dress for Shelley). And to the group of lady tailors in Hoi Ann who made batch after batch of kippahs in brightly colored Asian-styled fabrics. The lady tailors didn’t understand the words “bat mitzvah” or “synagogue.” But they did put together that it was for a religious event and kept muttering back “church, church” (and agreed to give me a “church price” on the 100+ kippahs I was ordering). The highlight was when they all modeled them.
MADE IN AFRICA: The “Home for AIDs Orphans” Kippah from Zambia
The fabrics in Southern Africa are just amazingly colorful. The fabrics are generally cut into 2 meter strips, and worn as wraparound skirts – called “chitenge.” These chitenge are worn by women in every country we visited this past summer: Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Malawi. The fabrics are also used to carry vegetables to and from markets, and of course, to carry babies. I think I can say with some confidence that they have never been used to make kippahs for an American bat mitzvah girl. This set of kippahs – the best of the bunch made in Africa – were hand sewn by “Barrie” – who was the cook at Home For AIDs Orphans in Mwandi, Zambia where we volunteered. During work hours she cooked us lunch and dinner. During non-work hours, she made some extra kwacha by sewing these kippas for me.
MADE IN AFRICA: Mwandi Streetside Taylor
Every time I roamed the streets of Mwandi, the town where we volunteered, I came back with more chitenge fabric. It was just so unusual. So colorful. So vibrant. Visions of kippahs danced in my head
MADE IN AFRICA: The “Conehead Kippahs”
Not all of the kippahs I commisioned turned out well. In truth, most are a bit “fecakta” – a bit “off.” Some are too big. Some are too small. All require a clip to stay on your head. Some, two clips. But for one particular batch, our sewer understood the concept of cutting and sewing 4 small triangles to make a circular head covering. But there is clearly some magic the other tailors understood that this one did not. These kippahs came out in such a way that we call them “the cone head kippahs.” If you grabbed one, where it with a sense of humor and the knowledge that it was sewn by this lovely villager in Mwandi, Zambia, who set up her sewing machine in front of the shop that her family worked at.
MADE IN AFRICA: Spreading the Wealth When Commissioning Kippahs
While in hindsight I probably should have stuck with the one great, stand-out tailor I found who made the best batch of kippahs, in truth I have fun wandering markets and villages and giving work (and income) to different streetside tailors. I like the “spread the wealth.” That way, more families benefit from my kippah making. And, I get to talk to more people and have more local interactions with the tailors themselves and the curious onlookers.
If you haven’t spotted your kippah yet, its because in Africa I sometimes used one chintenge to make 2-3 kippahs, plus a pillowcase or two! Below is an assortment of photos of the tailors who made my kippahs and the market vendors I purchased the chinteges from. Keep an eye out for your fabric.