A Heady Political Debate


Public opinion polls indicate that Hillary Clinton has built a comfortable lead over Donald Trump in the national vote and in several key swing states in the looming presidential election. But Trump is surging in one area — the front counter at J. Levine Judaica.

Since the primary season earlier this year, the Midtown Jewish gift shop has prominently displayed yarmulkes embossed with the names of the Democratic and Republican candidates.

When the leather kipot first went on sale, those with Clinton’s name greatly outsold the ones for Trump, said Daniel Levine, the store’s fourth-generation owner.

Since early August, after the parties’ nominating conventions, with Trump confirmed as the GOP’s standard bearer, the Republican nominee has closed the gap, Levine said.

Available are a variety of kipot with the candidates’ names in Hebrew and English; produced by firms in Illinois and Brooklyn, they sell for $15-$18. An unadorned leather kipa costs $6.

“I have the most extensive collection of political kipot,” Levine said. And Hillary and Trump buttons.

Levine’s been offering such uniquely Jewish statements of political affiliation since Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman was named Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in the 2000 election. As the first Jew on a major party’s presidential ticket, Lieberman was a source of ethnic pride – reflected in kipot that bore his name in Hebrew and English.

Since then, political yarmulkes turn up in each presidential election year.

Each year, they’re curiosity items.

This year, Levine said, they’re a reflection of the current, vituperative climate. Backers of each candidate show open hostility to the other side.

Levine estimated that he’s sold a total of 200-300 political kipot this year, by far the most since 2000.

In earlier years, Democratic kipot greatly outsold their Republican competitors, Levine said. “Because the majority of Jews are liberals and Democrats.”

Trump in recent months has cut into Clinton’s early lead, Levine said – the number of kipot backing each candidate is “pretty much even” by now.

Some customers buy the kipot as a statement of political preference; others, as a “gag” to annoy friends. Some buy in bunches, to pass out to friends or in shul.

No one – especially the Trump supporters – has worn the kipa on his or her head when leaving the store. “A person would be scared to walk with a Trump kipa on the streets” of New York, Levine said.

Some people see the Trump items on the counter and “storm out and slam the door,” Levine said. “It really gets heated.”

On the other hand, other irritated customers ask how he could sell Hillary yarmulkes. “Millions of Jews are supporting her,” Levine answers the critics.

Levine, who wears a non-partisan black velvet kipa, does not indicate his political leanings to customers.

The demographic breakdown of kipa buyers is predictable – Orthodox Jews, of a conservative bent, buy the Trump ones; non-Orthodox Jews, usually liberal, buy Clinton.

After the election, Levine will hold onto this year’s crop of political kipot. “They’ll become collectors’ items,” he said. “They’re part of history.”