15 September 2010

Keeping the kipas: A family tradition

Every Jewish family owns a bagful of these.

We collect these headcoverings, called a kipa or a yarmulke, at every lifecycle event we attend and Tracing the Tribe has long advocated the use of these objects to further family history research.

It's nice to know that the New York Times feels the same way, and carried a story by Uzi Silber - Time in a Basket - about the kipa stash at the Bialystoker Synagogue on the Lower East Side.

Each kipa or yarmulka - diverse names for the Jewish skullcap - carries a unique story. Thanks to the imprint inside, we know the names of bride and groom, the date, the place and sometimes additional details. Bar and bat mitzvah head coverings are also rich sources of genealogical information. In Los Angeles, I've even seen black suede kipas made up for funerals! They are usually color-coordinated to the party theme, and made of satin, silk, velvet or suede.
Like most synagogues, the Bialystoker Synagogue, on the Lower East Side, keeps a stash of skullcaps in the foyer, for anyone who forgot to bring one. In a tattered wicker basket, under a collection of limp nylon kippot and forgettable leather circles, lies a layer of shimmering velvet and satin yarmulkes in gaudy pinks, lemons, baby blues and golds.

They are genuine antiques, and not just bits of textile treasure. Inside each is an inscription: names and dates from some long-ago wedding or bar mitzvah. The most recent in the trove was produced in the disco era, but several harked back to the Eisenhower years. They chronicled events not just at Bialystoker, a century-old Orthodox synagogue in a landmark building, but also from around the region, perhaps left by visitors, or brought by congregants cleaning out the drawers of parents who have died.
One couple mentioned in the story provided a blast from the past for Tracing the Tribe.

A gold satin kipa was handed out at the wedding of Flora and Fred Mendelson (photo left) at their 1960 wedding in Swan Lake, NY - not far from our summer stamping grounds in Kauneonga Lake and my grandparents' large bungalow colony (Fink's Kauneonga Park).

Mendelson, 73, and his three brothers, although based in Miami, ran the summer kosher butcher shop - Mendelson & Sons Kosher Meat Market - in Kauneonga Lake for as long as I can remember. They closed the year after Woodstock. My grandmother and other relatives, as well as the local hotels and bungalow colonies were all loyal customers.

Also view the interactive display with information about each of the five couples featured in the story.

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