A Reform rabbi learns about the yarmulke in Selma: A memory, a footnote to history


In the early years of his tenure as Temple Beth-El’s senior rabbi, William G. Braude was a hands-on activist in the community. Social action on behalf of those suffering social injustice was a core element of his rabbinate.

But by the sixties when I became the associate rabbi and worked closely with him, his robust community involvement had long-since given way to the life of the scholar. Translating classic rabbinic texts – the literature of Midrash – occupied his thoughts, his energy and his time.

So his announcement that he was joining a colleague, Rabbi Saul Leeman of Cranston, Rhode Island, to march in Selma, Alabama, was quite surprising. 

Upon his return he spoke positively of his experience and went back to his translations. Our busy lives turned to other matters and his Selma experience was a past event.

Until his sermon remarks the following Rosh Hashanah!

He began his talk by relating an incident that had occurred at Beth-El in November 1938. The congregation had organized a service of “grief and sorrow” for the lives that had been lost and the synagogues that had been destroyed by Hitler’s gangs in what came to be known as Kristallnacht.

Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany residing in Providence were invited to participate. Just before the service the president of the congregation, stormed up to Braude, demanding to know if he had given “those people” permission to wear their hats, a practice antithetical to classical Reform Jews and Beth-El. In his sermon, Braude reported that he never found out if the guests had been asked to remove their hats or not. But he always remembered the pain of that inhospitable and insensitive demand.

In his sermon remarks, Braude reviewed the history of the yarmulke in Reform Judaism; it had not always been discarded, and there was some new interest in wearing it now. He spoke of Cossack officers and Hitler’s SS forces taunting Jewish men by making them remove their hats.

And then he spoke about Selma.

He reported – to his amazement – that all the rabbis who had responded to Martin Luther King’s call to march with him were wearing yarmulkes, including Reform Rabbis! “It is our answer to the clerical collar,” declared one rabbi.  With the yarmulke identifying the rabbis as Jews, other marchers –  Jews and non-Jews,  approached,  expressing appreciation for their involvement. Men and woman called out, “Shalom, Shalom.” One marcher came up to Braude and said, “We are glad to see rabbis with us.” It was reported that many of the non–Jewish participants, black and white, began to wear the skullcaps, imported in wholesale numbers, presumably by a rabbi. They were dubbed “freedom caps;” the segregationists labeled them “Yankee Yarmulkes.”

Somewhere between Selma and Montgomery, in April 1965, William Braude concluded that it was time to cover his head in worship.

These are the words with which Rabbi Braude concluded his sermon:

“On this day I intend to perform a solemn act…To atone for the hurt afflicted on the refugees who innocently came to us as our guests; to atone for the hurt inflicted on many other innocents who were told not too politely to remove their hats; to identify myself with what I consider to be the growing maturity in the Reform movement and above all to identify myself with the spirit of our people throughout the world who associate worship with the covering of the head….Both as an act of atonement and as a symbol of identification with many Jewish brothers throughout the world, I solemnly place this yarmulke upon my head as I say, [the] Shehecheyanu.”

I was present at the talk that Braude titled, “What I Learned in Alabama About Yarmulkes.”  I observed – and Braude later reported – that the congregation was stunned. During the sermon some wept.  A small number of men – perhaps six or eight – reached into their pockets, pulled out yarmulkes and  donned them. The cantor, Norman Gewirtz, did so, too. He later commented that he had never told his father that he davened  – worshipped – without his head covered.  None of us had advanced notice. These men simply carried their yarmulkes with them, perhaps out of  habit from early experiences in more traditional synagogues. Braude continued to cover his head in worship until his death in 1988.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This account, and selected quotes, is based upon the manuscript of the sermon and by remarks recorded in “A Century and A Quarter of Spiritual Leadership. The Story of the Congregation of Sons of Israel and David (Temple Beth-El) Providence, Rhode Island,” by Seebert J. Goldowsky, M.D. (1989)

HERMAN J. BLUMBERG is rabbi emeritus, Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, Mass.; rabbinic director, Hebrew Senior Life, Hospice Care, Boston, Mass.; and was associate rabbi, Temple Beth-El, Providence 1964-1970.