If you are male and have ever wandered into a synagogue unprepared, you are no doubt familiar with the basket of kippot that you can borrow from and cover your head. But what if those yarmulkes had their own story?
They are genuine antiques, and not just bits of textile treasure. Inside each is an inscription: names and dates from some long-ago wedding or bar mitzvah. The most recent in the trove was produced in the disco era, but several harked back to the Eisenhower years. They chronicled events not just at Bialystoker, a century-old Orthodox synagogue in a landmark building, but also from around the region, perhaps left by visitors, or brought by congregants cleaning out the drawers of parents who have died.
“People decided they didn’t need as many yarmulkes as they’ve accumulated over the years, so they delivered them to the synagogue, where they could be put to good use,” said Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York State Assembly, who has been a member of Bialystoker since 1957. “My wife prohibits me from bringing home any more yarmulkes from Jewish weddings.”
For generations, celebrants at fancier affairs have provided guests with custom-made commemorative skullcaps, sometimes inscribed with a tidbit of poetry or inspiration. During the events, these color-coded kippot, often matching the bridesmaid dresses or the table napkins, form a unified sea across the congregation and dance floor. The more opulent the affair, the more extravagant the skullcap.
The old wicker basket can be seen as a velvet- and satin-lined chronicle of the Jewish-American experience. Here is a look at a few of the old souvenirs inside, and the couples at whose weddings they were worn.