By Mordechai Schmutter
Today’s topic is: Name yarmulkes—good idea or bad idea?
To be honest, it’s a weird idea. My kids aren’t allowed to come to yeshiva wearing any clothes with writing on them, but yarmulkes are okay.
A lot of people like name yarmulkes because they’ve noticed that a lot of their sons look the same from the back, especially after haircuts. So they’re like nametags for short people.
How do non-Jews tell their kids apart? Do they make them wear actual nametags?
Maybe this is why they tend to have fewer kids.
And it comes in handy even if you’re not the kid’s parent. You can call the kid by name—because kids never think you’re talking to them specifically unless you use their name—and then the kid looks at you like, “How does he know what my name is?” because he’s not constantly going around all day thinking that there’s a name on his yarmulke. It’s kind of like when you wear a clever T-shirt, and people walk over to you and say a line about your shirt, and then they smile like you’re in on the joke, and you smile back and think, “What are you talking about?” You’re not walking around every second of the day thinking, “I’ve got a funny T-shirt; how will people respond?”
But this is why a lot of people are nervous about them. My aunt never let my cousins wear a name yarmulke growing up (now they’re adults, so I suppose they can wear name yarmulkes whenever they want), because she was afraid of potential kidnappers. Like someone would say, “Michoel,” and Michoel would say, “How do you know my name?” and the guy would say, “I’m a friend of your parents.” She was particularly afraid of kidnappers who not only knew how to read Hebrew, but without nekudos.
But not all name yarmulkes are Hebrew anyway. There are also those English-name yarmulkes made out of repurposed potholders that are particularly popular with people named “Jerome.” So it’s a real issue.
But it’s not just for identifying kids. It also comes in handy when you find a yarmulke on the floor—or several yarmulkes after a pillow fight or a basketball game—so everyone knows which one is theirs. For example, two of my kids share a bunkbed, and their yarmulkes fall down into the same tiny space every night. They’ve both decided they’re too old for name yarmulkes, so every morning they fight about whose yarmulke is whose, and if they want to avoid the fight, they each try to wake up extra-early to beat the other one to the yarmulke pile. So there are benefits both ways.
What do you do with these yarmulkes when the kid grows out of them? Find another kid with that name? It’s not going to be one of yours. So maybe we should just print the kid’s last name on his yarmulke. That’s what the other kids call him anyway. And that way he can pass it down. I bet this is why professional sports players do it.
For example, take my son, Daniel, who is in sixth grade. No one at school calls him Daniel, and not just because that’s a fake name I made up for the sake of my articles. Everyone calls him Schmutter. He has a friend named Yudi who hangs out at our house every day, and he still calls my son Schmutter in our house, instinctively, even though everyone in our house is named Schmutter. I’m not sure that he knows my son’s first name. One time he walked into the house and asked, “Where’s Schmutter?” To my face.
I don’t know. He’s either upstairs or in the basement.
So as a joke, and to make this kid feel stupid, I yelled, “Schmutter!”
And the correct son yelled, “What?”
But they can pass the yarmulke down anyway. My 6-year-old, Gedalyah, just started wearing Daniel’s old name yarmulke. And I’m the only one who is bothered by this, apparently. It doesn’t bother Daniel, because the yarmulke is too small for him, plus everyone calls him “Schmutter,” and it doesn’t bother Gedalyah, and my wife thinks it’s sweet. Personally, I think Gedalyah lost all his other yarmulkes, and he’s too lazy to look behind the bed. Or maybe he’s wearing it because he’s six and letter order doesn’t matter to him, and Daniel’s yarmulke has most of the letters he needs. Think about it—he has the dalet, the lamed, and the yud; the gimmel, and the nun look basically the same; and in Aramaic, alef is generally interchangeable with hei. It’s interesting how this works out, considering that all my kids’ names that I give you are made up.
But for some reason it bothers me. Why? Most of what Gedalyah is wearing is hand-me-downs anyway. Why is this different? Because it has a name on it? How is it different from wearing a sports jersey with a name on it? It’s not like anyone’s going to think it’s a hand-me-down.
“No, it’s me. Mordechai Schmutter.”
“Oh. I didn’t recognize you from the back. Get your own jersey, cheapskate!”
And it’s not like we’re going to mix up my 6-year-old and my 11-year-old from the back. There’s a height difference. Also, my 11-year-old won’t take off his coat, and my 6-year-old won’t put on his shoes. I don’t even know if he plays outside during recess, because I can’t imagine that he keeps his shoes on when he’s in school. I think he gets to school in the morning and takes them off, and then he leaves one in his classroom and the other in the office.
This could be why it takes so long to do afternoon carpool.
But what am I worried about? That people will call him the wrong name? He’s in first grade. His friends can’t read names without nekudos anyway. And having the wrong name on your yarmulke is a nice precaution against kidnapping.
So my wife has no problem with this. But then we went to parent–teacher conferences, and Gedalyah’s rebbi mentioned that he’s been calling Gedalyah “Daniel” lately because of the yarmulke. And it doesn’t help that there’s another kid in the class named Daniel, and that this rebbi had my Daniel in his class five years ago. And that my Daniel was much less academic than Gedalyah is. Though Gedalyah is spacier. All the rebbeim say, “He’s a spacey kid. Sometimes I call his name in class and he doesn’t respond.”
And now I’m like, “Are you sure you’re calling the right name?” Maybe he’s wearing it to avoid getting called on.
So that’s someone we forgot in this whole cheshbon—the rebbi who’s had both kids. This rebbi actually knows that I’m a humor writer, so he thought we were sending Gedalyah in with this yarmulke to mess with his head.
“You can’t tell the difference? He’s the kid without shoes.”
“This is first grade. They all take off their shoes.”
The name doesn’t always last as long as the yarmulke. I know a kid named Chezky who has a name yarmulke, but the yud on his yarmulke unraveled, so now it says “Chazak,” which is perfectly acceptable. He wears it five times a year, for Shabbos Chazak.
If you want to tell your kids apart, you don’t need names. You can just get them different styles of yarmulkes. You can be like, “This kid is into choo-choo trains, so he has a choo-choo-train yarmulke. This kid is into Lego, so he has a Lego yarmulke. And that kid is into flowers.” And so on.
“This kid is into Yerushalayim. This kid is really into alef-beis.”
“Um . . . He’s 3. They’re all into alef-beis.”
For adults, having people figure out your name based on your yarmulke isn’t that much of a benefit, especially if you’re tall. Unless you’re trying to identify yourself in a crowd picture. You’re looking at a picture of a huge levayah, and you’re like, “Hey, that’s me! I’m the adult with a name on his yarmulke!”
“Cool! I’m the one with choo-choo trains.”
With the potholder crowd, even adults have names on their yarmulkes, because a lot of times those yarmulkes are made by their loved ones and given to them as gifts. Whereas black-felt-yarmulke people wear out their yarmulkes too often for that, because black-felt yarmulkes turn into gray-felt yarmulkes pretty fast. So we all get ours in bulk from The Man with the Truck.
Another option is letter yarmulkes. You just get a single letter, which gets rid of the safety issue. This doesn’t help if you have more than one kid with the same initial, or if your kid is commonly known by two names. Unless he wears two yarmulkes.
“Which kid is he again?”
“He’s the one with two yarmulkes.”
“How does he get away with that?”
“He wakes up before his brother.”
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of five books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.