The Mac Weekly sat down with Alexander Watson ’17 for a chat about his formal attire and distinctive kippot collection.
TMW: When did you start to dress up?
AW: I didn’t start wearing a kippah until my sophomore year in high school. It was a personal, religious choice that I had been thinking about for a while. At the time I only had one kippah–or yamaka, they’re interchangeable words. It was a dark green one that I got from my bar mitzvah. I had no intention of dressing up or trying to match my outfits. I thought that was silly. But I had a friend who yelled at me on a daily basis, in the most friendly way possible, about how my kippah did not match my shirt, how I couldn’t wear those two greens together, or how my two color choices were hideous and I was an embarrassment to be walking around with. There were also debate tournaments, where I had to look more professional, so for the heck of it, I’d start to match my outfits.
Where did you get your kippah?
I got kippah as presents from friends; I found some in my house; there were some around temple that no one wanted. There was a point when I was worried that matching my kippah to my outfit was making a mockery out of Judaism, but I talked to my rabbi who said, “You have no reason to stop what you’re doing. You’re wearing a kippah to respect Jewish values. What difference does it make if you wear a different one with a certain shirt.”
Do you get a lot of comments about your kippah?
I will get comments here and there. If someone knows its called a kippah or a yamaka and they’re not Jewish, they’re usually very eager to express that they know what it’s called. I’ve also had Jewish girls who start to flirt with me by complimenting it. And there are occasions when people don’t know what it is at all. I was the only one at my high school who wore a kippah every day, and I’m the only one at this school who wears one every day. Back home I did get some questions like, “Oh, are you Muslim?” And just as funny and confusing were the people who would come up to me and start speaking Hebrew. Unfortunately I don’t know Hebrew yet, but I do plan on taking it.
Were these just people on the street who started speaking in Hebrew to you?
Yeah. People see me and go “Shalom!” I was working at a frozen yogurt shop and there was an African American woman, so I was expecting this even less from her because there’s a very small population of African American Jews, and she started speaking Hebrew because apparently she was a Portuguese Jamaican Jew who spoke Hebrew, Ladino (a mix of Yiddish and Spanish), Spanish, German, Italian, French and English. And she was a little disappointed that I didn’t know Hebrew and was only slowly learning French. That was something my family did warn me about. People were going to make assumptions about me, and I wasn’t going to be able to live up to their expectations and I might piss some people off. But so far, I haven’t run into any negative comments because I was wearing a kippah.
How big of a role has Judaism played in your life?
Well, I always missed school on the two big holidays, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. That made me feel like I was set apart from an early age. Driving by school and seeing all my friends at recess was really weird. In second grade I taught my class to play dreidel. In third grade my mom cooked latkes for my class. But I wouldn’t say I was the token Jewish kid in my class, if there was any such thing, because there were certainly other Jewish kids in my classes. I don’t associate just with other Jews by any means, but I am very deeply tied to the Jewish community and my synagogue. I started to explore my Jewish identity in high school when I started going to youth events more often. Eventually I became president of the Jewish youth group. My family has had four generations of Jews in the U.S., and that identity remains strong.
So, going back to your style, how would you describe your clothes now?
I would say I’ve shifted into a more formal style, which I’m proud of. I used to wear plain shirts because I had work everyday after school. But during my senior year in high school, I had an internship that required me to be formal at least two days a week. So, I started to match my kippah to my formal outfits. And because of all the debate tournaments ,I had amassed a fairly large amount of dress shirts, ties, bowties and kippot to match them. I have silly kippot too. My assortment of kippah designs include Sesame Street characters, Batman, and bananas. I have one designed to look like a watermelon. I’m just as comfortable wearing formal clothes as I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt. When I came to Macalester I decided not to bring any T-shirts. I also bought a tie rack.
What’s your favorite outfit to wear?
I don’t pick favorites. I do have a few combinations that I’ll wear more often than others because they’re easy and neutral. I have a black kippah with a white Jewish star, a black one with a white rim, two gray ones and a multicolored one. Those are the easy ones that go with anything. I do, of course, have a soft spot for the green one that I got at my Bar Mitzvah.
How many kippot do you have?
Roughly 30 with me. Some of them are kind of similar. I have two that are blue and gray patterns, one that is solid blue. I have two different shades of purple.
Where do you get the crazier kippot from, like the ones with Sesame Street characters?
The internet. I also have a kippah made entirely out of duct tape.
Oh cool! Where’s that from?
I made it myself. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of wearing it the first day to school my junior year in high school. I didn’t get laughed at per se, but it was very shiny. I could be seen very easily throughout the halls.
What are some of the more interesting kippot that you’ve seen?
I’ve seen some with political candidates. I’ve seen ones with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman. There are some with a rim which is supposed to represent Jerusalem.
Does your kippah fall off easily?
No. I have two bobby pins that hold it on. They work pretty well. I can go upside down with it on.
Do you ever find it inconvenient to wear a kippah?
Yes… a time when it’s inconvenient… probably when I’m showering.
Do you not take it off?
I do. But, sometimes I forget. There have been at least four times at Macalester when that’s happened. When it’s on my head all the time, I don’t remember that it’s there. It’s kind of just a part of me. And sleeping! If you forget to take it off and crash somewhere, my hair just gets… not good. You do get kippah hair when you take it off. Also, sometimes people will ask if I have a bald spot under it. I’ll kind of want to take it off just to show them that I don’t, but I also just don’t really want to deal with that.
What happens to the kippah if you wet it by accident?
Well, this one time I was going to wear one of my kippot to my grandfather’s wedding. I was at my dad’s place showering, when I realized I forgot to take my kippah off. So this was about an hour before we have to leave and we’re trying to figure out how to dry this off. We were worried that a blow dryer might shrink it because it’s knitted. Being two stupid men, we decided to put it in the microwave for 20 seconds, which did nothing to dry it off. The kippah just warmed up a bit. So I ended up wearing a wet kippah the whole day.
Do the kippot come in different sizes?
Yes. They also come in different materials and patterns. Basically, there are no regulations because it’s not a part of Jewish law to wear one. It’s a cultural tradition/Eastern philosophy to wear a hat to show respect for God. That also means there’s no real limit to the content on them. I’ve seen a marijuana leaf on one. My rabbi had one that he wore every Shabbat. It was a normal velvet/felt one, but with a Boston Red Sox symbol. Universities make them too. The U of M has a gopher kippah.
Does Macalester have one?
No, it doesn’t.
What are some of the stories behind the clothes that you wore today?
Well, some of them I bought because I already had a kippah that would work with them. Others I had and then bought a kippah to go with it. With the plaid one, I didn’t have a kippah to go with it but I bought it because I had a matching tie. The bowtie was made for me by my girlfriend, Michaela, which is wonderful, she is very sweet. The blue and orange shirt I bought because I was coming to Macalester.
Do you have more ties or more kippot?
I’m not quite sure. If I include my bowties, I might have more of those. But they’re pretty evenly matched.
Where do you see your style going in the future?
I see myself still dressing formally. I don’t see any reason to dress down. I’ve become very used to putting on a button- down and tie. I can tie a bowtie with no mirror in under two minutes. I like looking nice and feel comfortable doing so. It works for me.