Singles – Black Hat and Birkenstocks

There are some things in life it’s difficult to own up to. When I was a child, I insisted that my hair was brown, though it was obvious to everyone with or without bifocals that my hair was clearly, undeniably, red; I never willingly acknowledge being a New Yorker by birth (could I help it if I was conceived in Brooklyn, which I am beginning to suspect is really the origin of humanity as we know it — who can’t connect themselves back to Brooklyn?), and for the past few years, I have been reluctant to admit I own a black hat.

This hat of mine is not your typical black hat. It is both shorter and narrower than the standard. My intent in purchasing it was to be able to fit in with the Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, crowd while still maintaining my individuality.

Having grown up Confusadox (the nebulous state between Conservadox and Modern Orthodox) in suburban Long Island, it took me a number of years of study in a number of Israeli yeshivas geared toward ba’alei teshuvah (returnees to the faith) before I was comfortable even with the concept of a black hat. At point of purchase, I was at a stage in life where I was not vehemently opposed to being hatted, so why not get one?

The change in people’s perception of me was extraordinary. I was able to walk into a haredi shul without being stared at, able to leap small ear-locked children in a single bound and generally accorded the mantle of “ben Torah,” literally, a son of the Torah, simply by virtue of the object on my head. It was disheartening to be judged by externals in a world that disdains ostentatious display, yet exhilarating to feel like an insider.

My friend Zvi calls my hat the “date getter” because having a hat meant I could now be set up with a whole cadre of women who were, to that point, off limits. Magically, the hat provided entree to a world of women who were both stockinged and seriously devout, who wanted their husbands to both learn Torah full time and work full time — at the same time. Apparently, having a hat enabled the wearer’s wife to believe such things were possible.

As I couldn’t bring myself to wear the de rigueur plastic bag with supermarket logo over the hat, I bought an unofficial official hat cover, which was basically a hat-shaped shower cap. Zvi would take to wearing the hat cover on its own, and I must say he looked quite dashing in it.

Though the number of dates with stockinged women increased on account of the hat, I came to find that I really didn’t like stockings or the rigidity of many of the women who wore them. The hat became a mask to hide my quirks and bursts of creative expression. I was able to fit in just fine, but the world I was fitting into wasn’t mine. There are aspects of the haredi world I like, even admire. But I am no more haredi than Modern Orthodox, Carlebachian or Chasidic. I am a mix of all of these.

In time, I started wearing the hat only on Shabbat and on dates, as opposed to every day. Some Shabbats I would not feel so haredi, and took to carrying the hat with me, but not actually wearing it. People became very agitated by this, much as when I used to wear my hat with Birkenstocks. Matchmakers would say, “I don’t understand who you are. How can you wear a black hat and Birkenstocks?” to which I could only reply, “Because that’s exactly who I am.”

It is somehow threatening to others to carry a hat without intent to place hat on head. I knew I was in trouble when I lost the ability to leap small ear-locked children in a single bound when carrying my hat.

A ba’al teshuvah is always a nomad, never quite fitting in either the world he came from or the world he has entered. I have struggled with my hat, and the connotations it suggests, for the better part of four years, and I am learning to accept it as yet another marker of what makes me different — another contradiction inherent in being a ba’al teshuvah.

I used to think you put on the hat and shut out the rest of the world; that having a hat meant an end to creativity, the arts, fun, a past. But no. I can be in the haredi world, and I can also be the guy who listens to Aimee Mann and loves “Lost In Translation.”

So I wear the hat when it feels right. It represents my haredi side well. It’s a good-looking hat, it looks good on me, and it comes in very handy when wanting to blend in while walking through Meah Shearim or Borough Park. And, in the end, despite other people’s perceptions, I know the hat is just an article of clothing. Connotations and all, it is still the person underneath that counts.

A version of this article appeared in the Jewish Week.