The hat of manhood Sign of seriousness: When an orthodox Jewish boy dons the customary black hat at age 13, it is a sign that he is accepting the obligations of adulthood -- and a fashion statement


When the black hat of Orthodoxy first settles upon the head of an adolescent Jew, the boy beneath the brim begins giving way to manhood.

"The mothers say they can't see their little boy anymore," says a rabbi who supplies hats to Baltimore's Orthodox community. "They want the smallest brim because they don't want the child to disappear beneath the hat."

Though a symbol of strict adherence to Jewish law, the wearing of a black hat is custom and not law. In the United States, it was almost exclusively the domain of rabbis and yeshiva students until about 40 years ago.

And it is no small statement of fashion, even among a people taught to value modesty and humility.

Young men looking to cut a dashing figure favor hats of smooth felt with wide brims. In Baltimore in the early 1980s, a 1 3/4 -inch brim was the norm and 2 1/4 was considered far out. Today, 2 1/2 -inch brims are standard bar mitzvah fare and 3 1/4 inches -- the stuff of cowboys to many old-timers -- is the cutting edge.

At weddings, the father of the groom may indulge in a fine suede for photographs. And boys, who get their first hats at the bar mitzvah age of 13, are known to brag and gossip about the size, style and price of their kovim the way secular youths compare athletic shoes.

Together with a full beard (also customary but not required), the black hat is the easiest way to recognize an Orthodox Jew on the street.

But it takes a while for a young man to grow a beard, and for a bar mitzvah boy, getting a grown-up hat while assuming the obligations of adulthood is a rite of male passage. Such rites are rare elsewhere in society.

"I felt like I was on the team," says Binyomin Schwartz, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the Talmudic Academy on Old Court Road. "When everyone in your society is like that and you're not there yet, you wish for that day."

It is a time that the young Jewish male tells fellow Jews he is not only ready to don the hat, but also a certain seriousness; that from now on, when he prays he will dress as if in the presence of a king.

The custom, mentioned in commentaries on Jewish law going back hundreds of years, also used as a reminder to resist the temptations of assimilation, telling the world in no uncertain terms: I am a Jew.

Just before he became bar mitzvah in December, Binyomin was taken by his parents to buy a size 7 Stetson, a prized possession he stores in its box when he's not wearing it.

"It marks the end of one era and the beginning of another," says his mother, Priva. "It gets you in the heart."

His father, Yaakov, a teacher at the Talmudic Academy, also wears a Stetson (size 7 1/4 ), but, although he grew up Orthodox, he did not adopt the black hat custom until he came to Baltimore's Ner Israel Rabbinical College from Columbus, Ohio.

"My parents always joke that some people are the black sheep of the family, and I'm the black hat of the family," he says.

It was his desire to be like his Ner Israel teachers, such as the fabled Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman, that led Rabbi Schwartz to don a black hat not long after he arrived there at age 19.

"I will revere Rabbi Ruderman all of my life, and when I picture him in my mind I see the beard and the hat, and I seek to emulate what he stood for, his depth in learning and moral greatness," says Rabbi Schwartz. "In secular culture, people root for the Orioles, admire Cal Ripken and wear the team's hat and T-shirts. It's a way to connect."

At the Hattery, a clothing store run out of a rabbi's basement in Northwest Baltimore, the connection can be made for as little as $55 for a Pinizza to $169 for a top-of-the-line Borsalino. In the middle are Stetsons and Huckels.

The rabbi who runs the store, where most Orthodox Jews go to get their hats in Baltimore, does not want his name used because, although he is a licensed merchant and pays sales taxes, his basement is not zoned for retail use.

Since a more stringent Orthodoxy hit Baltimore a generation ago -- an Orthodoxy in which most young men want to imitate the rabbis they honor -- the Hattery can hardly give away its surplus of blue, brown and gray hats.

The rabbi sells 50 dozen or so hats a year, and his customers demand black.

"The rite of passage when you made your bar mitzvah used to be the fountain pen; now it's the black hat," says the rabbi, who sells hats to supplement his income from teaching fifth grade.

"I tell parents to buy the $55 hat the first time out. It's going to get stuck in a locker, he'll ride his bike with it, it'll get crushed. I feel that all first hats will disintegrate."

Some Orthodox families in Baltimore -- kosher, observant and as respectful of the Sabbath as anyone -- have found themselves on the fence over the black hat.

Howard and Judy Elbaum of Mount Washington have become increasingly strict in their practice of Judaism as their children have moved through Jewish grade school and high school. A few years ago, their son Ari, now 15 and enthralled with the knowledge that his ancestors in Poland were rabbis, started talking about getting a black hat.

Mom and Dad have not said Ari can't have one, but neither are they quite ready to rush out and buy one. In this country, at least, it has not been the family custom. They would like their son to wait a bit longer before deciding.

Yet, Ari appears eager to wear one.

"A black hat is a beautiful thing. It's a sign of respect when you're standing and praying in front of [God], a symbol of going up the spiritual ladder," says the 10th-grader at the Hebrew Academy of Washington. "My goal is not to base my life on whether or not I wear a black hat; my goal is to be the best Jew I can. I have a lot of learning to do."

And it would not surprise anyone in his family if, before long, he is doing it in a black hat.

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