So, what is that little beanie that many Jews wear?
I'm glad you asked. The short answer -- and I like short, to the point answers -- is that observant Jewish men keep their heads covered at all times by wearing a skullcap. In Hebrew, it's called a kippah (Kee-pah), in Yiddish a yarmulke (Ya-meh-kah).
Other Jews -- both men and women -- also wear such head coverings, just not as often. Generally, members of the Conservative and Reform movements will wear a kippah when praying, studying Torah, taking part in most any sort of Jewish-related ritual or trying to impress someone with just how Jewish they are. This is especially true of college-age guys who think wearing a kippah will make them more attractive to college-age gals. Don't laugh. It works.
But how and why, you might ask, did this tradition begin? The answer to this query is a little more difficult to explain.
There is no reference to head coverings in the Torah. And despite the fantasies of Hollywood filmmakers portraying ancient religious leaders -- Temple priests, for instance -- and their followers wearing kippot (that would be the plural of kippah), that just wasn't the case.
About the only references you'll find on the topic is in the Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition. The Talmud states that a Jew should cover his head "in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you."
Well, that not so pleasant reference has been revised by modern rabbis who now suggest Jews cover their heads as a reminder that G-d is always above them -- sort of the same idea, just with a more positive spin.
Another, somewhat more sociological reason I've heard for the wearing of a kippah, speaks to the contrary nature of a people often viewed as "The Other". The reasoning goes that if Christians are expected to uncover their heads when entering a church, then Jews will cover theirs when entering a synagogue.
Worth noting, is that just as there are numerous sects and movements within Judaism, there are also many different styles of head coverings. For instance, religious Zionists are known for wearing knitted kippot; the ultra-Orthodox, black velvet; the modern Orthodox, suede. Conservative and Reform Jews wear all of the above, plus kippot that look like smiley faces and soccer balls, feature school colors and the names of sporting teams. Plus they come in a variety of sizes and shapes, some covering the entire top of the head, others not much larger than a silver dollar.
Finally, you might wonder if non-Jews should cover their heads when venturing into a synagogue or taking part in any sort of Jewish ritual or celebration.
The short answer? It couldn't hurt!
MATTER OF STYLE: A wide variety of kippot (photo above), on display outside a shop on Ben Yehudah Street in Jerusalem, include skullcap's sporting smiley faces, super-Jew icons and a variety of sporting team logos.