President's Message

My Yarmulke

This is an article about clothing. Office fashion, to be precise.1

When I was a kid, we used to love to visit my father, a”h, at his accounting firm in downtown Manhattan. One time, he brought me to the office on a Sunday to pick up some documents. (This was pre-Google Docs, email, WFH, FedEx. . . .) On the way, he mentioned that Sunday is yeshivah day at the office. I soon understood his meaning, as nearly all the men in the office were wearing yarmulkes. Orthodox employees worked on Sundays to make up for time missed on Erev Shabbos. In those days, it was unheard of for men to wear yarmulkes in a professional setting. But on Sundays, it was acceptable for men to let their hair down (or put a lid on it), so to speak.

Fast forward to the mid-1980s. It was becoming increasingly common for Orthodox people to land jobs at New York law and accounting firms that once did not welcome Jews, but yarmulkes were still rare. Still, change was in the air, whether for political, sociological or other reasons. As I began my search for a law firm job, I resolved to alternate interviews with and without a yarmulke—until I received a job offer “with”2 one. I was among the first cohort at my law firm to wear a yarmulke to the office and, ten years later, among the first at the giant accounting firm to which I switched. Then the floodgates opened. By the time I retired, our firm had literally dozens of employees who wore yarmulkes in the office, and it was no longer uncommon to see men sporting peyos or untucked tzitzis.  

Despite this, some Orthodox men (and not only “old timers”) continued to go bareheaded in the office.3 Some felt that they may be denied advancement opportunities with a yarmulke, others worried that a yarmulke might prejudice their clients (e.g., in a courtroom), and still others did not want a yarmulke to restrict their ability to socialize with clients. Some wore their yarmulkes in the office only during meals, and some mastered the trick of removing/donning their yarmulkes in the revolving door as they entered/exited the building.  

Thankfully, this was not my experience. I was blessed that my yarmulke did not adversely affect my career. On the contrary, it helped me avoid potentially uncomfortable situations especially in restaurants and other social situations. I had the sense that my colleagues respected that I was living according to a set of principles—which went beyond eating kosher and leaving early on Fridays to include honesty, business ethics and careful speech. Of course, that created added pressure, or incentive, for me to strive to live up to those principles, which undoubtedly is the point.  

The word “yarmulke” is said to derive from the Aramaic “yarei malkah,” or fear of Heaven.4 The yarmulke is a constant reminder that we are standing before Hashem and should behave accordingly. This is especially important in a secular environment such as a university or office, where influences can be religiously toxic. In this regard, the yarmulke plays a similar (but not identical) role for men that dressing in accordance with halachic standards does for women. Rabbi Anthony Manning explains that a goal of tzenius is to develop a “life-changing awareness of being lifnei Hashem [which] applies equally to men and women.”5 Query whether a baseball cap has the same effect on its wearer as a yarmulke, even if it may satisfy halachic requirements.6

Wearing a yarmulke or a Magen David suddenly became fraught in many American cities. . . . Administrators at a Jewish day school in California recently instructed first graders not to wear their kippot on a field trip, out of fear.

At the OU, I am now doubly blessed to be in an office environment where yarmulkes or hats are standard. Married women in the OU office wear a wide array of hair coverings as well. This gives the office something of the feel of a beis medrash and enhances the sense of standing and working lifnei Hashem. I am surrounded by professionals who are passionate about serving the Jewish people. The sense of shared mission and service makes the office a special—almost holy—place, and office attire such as the yarmulke enhances this sense of holiness. Our environments affect our religious growth. As does our attire. We are all accustomed to considering the religious environment when choosing a community or a college; do we do the same when choosing a profession or a job?

Of course, public displays of yarmulkes and other Jewish outerwear and accessories have historically made Jews (especially Orthodox Jews) more easily identifiable targets of antisemites. In the recent history of the United States, this ugly phenomenon was mostly limited to the Chareidi community, primarily in Brooklyn. That changed on Shemini Atzeres of 5784. Wearing a yarmulke or a Magen David suddenly became fraught in many American cities.  

There have been two conflicting reactions in the Jewish community. Some have chosen to lay low and try to hide their Jewishness in public. Administrators at a Jewish day school in California recently instructed first graders (six year olds!) not to wear their kippot on a field trip, out of fear. Yes, we have to take reasonable precautions and employ security. But what message will children (and adults) internalize when their yarmulkes become a threat instead of a source of pride and inspiration?

Sometimes this attitude is taken to an extreme. In People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn describes the unfathomable attempt in 2018 by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to prohibit an employee from wearing his kippah. Apparently, a Holocaust museum has no place for living, committed Jews. Never again?

But there has been another reaction to the antisemitism that has exploded since Shemini Atzeres. I recently met Ethan Hamid, an impressive junior at the University of Southern California (USC) who co-founded Kippahs on Campus in October. The grassroots organization has inspired dozens of students to proudly wear yarmulkes on campus for the first time. The OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) educators on other university campuses similarly report a noticeable increase in the number of students wearing a yarmulke or Magen David, and sometimes tzitzis! (Some are also walking around campus draped in an Israeli flag, as if to dare antisemites to start up with them.) Our NCSY/JSU staff have seen a similar phenomenon in public high schools: kids wanting to connect to their Jewishness and to other Jews by displaying yarmulkes and Jewish/Israeli shirts and jewelry. This is inspiring. Yarei malkah. We fear Heaven.

David Efune beautifully gave voice to this reaction in the Wall Street Journal: “Publicly expressing one’s faith can be a life-threatening decision. For my part, I will wear the most prominent yarmulke I can find. The best way to honor the memory of those slain for being Jewish is not to sacrifice a scintilla of our Jewish identity but to express it in the extreme.”7

Our yarmulkes are more important than ever. May Hashem allow us to continue to stand before Him in all places with our heads proudly covered in awe and reverence and safety. 


1. For the first thirty years of my professional career, my mother, a”h, did not trust me to buy a single item of work attire on my own. Except for my yarmulkes. Which makes me something of an expert, I suppose. 

2. A law student a year ahead of me interviewed at sixteen firms. He wore his yarmulke to eight of the interviews, and received job offers only from the other eight.

3. This is in no way intended to be judgmental. See Iggeros Moshe, OC 4:2, CM 1:93. I am aware that Manhattan professional firms do not reflect society at large. There continue to be many industries and locations where one would not be comfortable wearing a yarmulke to work.  

4. Growing up, we pronounced it “yahmaka.” I recall being shocked when I first saw it spelled. I chose to use yarmulke rather than kippah in this article, because it’s a much cooler word.

5. Reclaiming Dignity: A Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women (Beit Shemesh, 2023), 503. See more generally, part 2, chap. 2.

6. To the outside world, a baseball cap often announces “Orthodox” as much as a yarmulke does, especially when worn by men who are (1) over forty (2) wearing a sport jacket or suit or (3) have a beard and a belly.

7. “Give Me The Biggest Kippah You Can Find,” October 19, 2023. This headline was a reminder that the size of my own yarmulke has grown over the years. Some ascribe it to my hairline, others to my ego.


Mitchel R. Aeder is president of the Orthodox Union. 

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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