Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cap and Gown and Kittel

This past Sunday, Yeshiva University Canada held a Convocation, honouring three remarkable people - Joseph Lebovic, Wolf Lebovic and Dr. Joseph Kerzner - for their life's work. As part of the ceremony, I marched down and delivered the Invocation, in cap and gown. Friends were kind enough to send me cell phone photos of the occasion; here is the least goofy one I could find, click to expand it in all of its fuzzy glory:

The costume was ridiculously impractical. These gowns have no pockets, so I couldn't keep my speech in a pocket, and I couldn't get to my suit's pockets beneath the gown (the paper is hiding in my right sleeve, and in the photo above I am praying it doesn't slide out as I'm walking). The gowns are hot, of course. What colour sash do you wear, and what does it represent? (Mine: My graduate school career at New York University, since the rental company didn't provide a rabbinical sash. Go figure.) The sash is hooked to a shirt button to keep it in position - but which button, and how do you keep that from messing with the zipper of the gown, and your tie? And of course, the hat raises all sorts of questions: Elastic in back or front? Corner in front or at an angle? Tassle on left or right, front or back - and how do you keep it there? Hat on or off while speaking? And if it's off, how do you get it back on afterward, in the right way, while on stage? And so on.

And yet, people do it. Indeed, according to one my gowned comrades, he had to wear such an outfit while taking exams in university in England. [Hogwarts, perhaps?] It reminded me, actually, of the kittel I wear at the seder, which until Convocation was the most impractical costume I could remember ever having worn in my adult life. Sure - recline at a table for a few hours in a white garment, while eating crumby matzah, pouring and drinking four cups of wine, and consuming a meal. Really? It's not as hot as the gown, but that's about the only advantage.

Of course, one reason we engage in costumes is that they help us to communicate the mood of a moment - the purity and celebration of a kittel, the sobriety of a gown. And perhaps they also serve a basic human need for ceremony, even in our casual generation, for dressing up and following a set of protocols that govern an occasion.

And then there is another advantage: They help us more, at that moment, with the event we are marking, and with similar events we have experienced, than with the rest of our lives. Special costumes link together the times that we are in costume, making those events stand out, more preent in our minds. I imagine that at my seder this year, as we begin to pour the cups, I'm going to remember the Convocation and the gown. But I will also remember the seder of years past, and wearing the kittel then, and what happened on those occasions. They will be more real to me. I will become a person of the seder.

Perhaps it would be good for people to have special, dedicated, year-after-year seder clothes - not as a minhag, just as something they do. Even for those who don't wear a kittel, perhaps a dedicated hat or jacket or scarf or tie or necklace or brooch or something, to communicate the mood of the moment, to dress up, and to link together the identity of each year's seder.

Just a thought.


  1. I believe I was at that university at the same time as your gowned comrade. I still have my gowns. Silly though it may seem (and granted that my tolerance for ritual strangeness was probably higher than most of the other students by virtue of being frum), I actually appreciated wearing suit and gown for my exams. Oxford has a reputation for being a socially elitist university and coming from a state school I sometimes felt disadvantaged, but everyone wearing the same clothes created a feeling of equality and unity at the most important/nerve-wracking moments of our academic career. Or it did for me, anyway. So perhaps that is another reason for dedicated clothing - to inspire unity.

  2. Daniel-
    Interesting - although it sounds more like uniformity to me?

  3. I suppose it could be seen as uniformity and perhaps I would have seen it as such in different circumstances. But I just remember a powerful sense of togetherness and equality, strong enough to have stuck with me over the years.

  4. Thanks for sharing! Your post has been included in Haveil Havalim: a weekly roundup of what’s best from the Jewish / Israeli blog world.