Sunday, February 19, 2012

Keep It Under Your Hat!

As I write it’s raining hard in Jerusalem and snow has been forecast.  You might expect the hats to be coming out here to protect people’s heads from the weather but if that’s what you think hats are for you are badly mistaken.  You may even see some orthodox Jews wearing plastic bags over their hats to protect the hats themselves!  Hats have a much more social purpose altogether especially here in the holy city of Jerusalem.  “Fashion”, someone once wrote, “is a kind of communication.  It’s a language without words”.  We talk about someone “wearing many hats” and we mean that they have many roles in life.  We mean that a hat is really a piece of uniform.   It signals a person’s role and status; their position in society.  Think of crowns for kings and queens, police officers’ or soldiers’ hats and you’ll get the idea.
Jerusalem society is many layered and therefore it is a place of many different hats - figuratively and literally.
Detail from a mediaeval Hebrew calendar
Over the centuries Christian or Moslem authorities turned customary forms of dress into badges of shame for the Jews.  Some Jewish communities took these badges of shame and made them symbols of their pride in their own identity.  In the year 1215 under Pope Innocent III the Fourth Lateran Council ruled that Jews and Muslims must be distinguishable by their dress.  The Jewish hat was a cone-shaped pointed hat often white or yellow, worn by Jews in Mediaeval Europe and some of the Islamic world. It was initially worn by choice.  After 1215 it became compulsory in some places in Europe for adult male Jews to wear this hat whilst they were outside a ghetto so that they could easily be distinguished from others.  

Orthodox Jew wearing a shtreimel
Photo: Boaz Gabriel Canhoto
Enter an ultra-orthodox area on Shabbat and you will see many men wearing round fur hats - shtreimels.  The shtreimel is a black velvet cap surrounded by sable or fox tails.  It is worn on special occasions such as Shabbat and festivals by married men from many Hassidic groups and, in the old Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem, by boys from the age of bar mitzvah.   The number of fur tails used gives the shtreimel an added, mystical significance; 18, for example is the numerical value of the Hebrew word חי – life, and 26 the numerical value of the name of G-d.  The origin of the shtreimel is obscure.  Tradition has it that an anti-semitic ruler in Europe decreed that Jews should wear a tail on their heads on Shabbat to identify themselves.  This form of discrimination had been seen before.  In 16th century Holland lepers had been forced to wear fox’s tails on their backs to mark themselves out.  The Jews complied with the decree but turned the tail into regal headgear rather than a badge of shame.  The shtreimel is worn with pride, and it does indeed resemble a crown.  
Herbert Samuel British High Commissioner
 for Palestine with kavasses 1923
The fez or tarboush probably has its origins in Greece but for about 100 years it became the most common form of hat in the Ottoman Empire.  It was what my great-grandfather wore when he moved from mainland Turkey to Egypt before the First World War.  In 1826 the Sultan Mahmud II made a fez with a cloth wrapped round it the official headgear of the Turkish army.  In 1829 he ordered officials of the empire to wear a plain fez.  This was a symbol of his modernisation of the army and of the civil administration.  The wearing of the fez soon spread to the general population.  After the demise of the Ottoman Empire Kemal Ataturk, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, banned the wearing of the fez in Turkey in 1925 as decadent, Ottoman dress.  Nowadays you will only see the fez worn in Jerusalem by the kavasses walking at the head of important religious processions.  During Ottoman rule these officials of the empire were armed escorts who accompanied consuls of foreign powers and heads of religious groups in the city including the Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Photo: Michael Jacobson
In 1842 Rabbi Haim Gaguin was appointed the first Hakham Bashi or Chief Rabbi of Eretz Israel under the Ottoman Empire.  Just over 100 years later his great-great- grandson, Rabbi Dr Maurice Gaguine officiated at my parents’ wedding.  The title Hakham Bashi was not new but it had never before carried this kind of governmental authority, over education and matters of religious ritual and marital status.  Rabbi Gaguin was granted a firman (a royal mandate) from the Sultan, and with it a hat and embroidered robe of office as well as an escort of kavasses.  The Jews called the Hakham Bashi “Rishon LeZion” (literally “the First in Zion”), a title still used by the Sephardi Chief Rabbis of Israel.  The hat of the Hakham Bashi was a black tarboush with a long blue cloth wound round it.  A black hat like this was worn by all the Sephardi rabbis but that of the Rishon LeZion had a silver thread woven into it.  The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel is today known as the Rishon LeZion.  His hat and robe recall that of the Hakham Bashi.  The current Rishon LeZion is Rabbi Shlomo Amar.  Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who held the post from 1973–1983 is also called by this title.
Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem 1900
There are about 20 ancient Christian communities and some 30 more Protestant denominations in Israel.  The Armenian Orthodox Church is amongst the oldest here.  Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity in the year 301.  Like the Druze the Armenian Orthodox Church does not accept converts.  There have been Armenian Christians in Jerusalem since the fifth century.   In the past there were many Armenian institutions in the city.  Armenian mosaics from the Byzantine period were uncovered on the Mount of Olives during the building of the Russian Church of the Ascension.  The community is now concentrated mostly around St James’ Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter - the smallest and most private of the four quarters of the Old City.  Senior Armenian priests wear a characteristic high black triangular cowl.  Some say that it represents Mount Ararat in Armenia where Noah’s Ark came to ground.  Others say that it is taken from the lines of construction of the dome of the church and represents the “point of perfection” where the cross is suspended.
I have only just scratched the surface of the hat culture here.  Jerusalem is wonderfully rich and diverse; a mosaic of different cultural, religious and ethnic groups.  Each one makes its unique contribution to the sights, sounds, tastes and aromas of this amazing city.

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