I am reluctantly resigned to the Jewish-American reality that Chanukah is our complement to Christmas. There is nothing in Jewish tradition to suggest that an orgy of largely inappropriate gift-giving should accompany the recognition of the Festival of Lights. Of course, there is nothing in Christian theology that offers a similar rationale for the commercialization of the observance of the birth of Jesus. At this time of year, I find myself surprisingly sympathetic to the somewhat outré fundamentalist group in Texas that several years ago noted that “Santa” is an anagram of “Satan.”
Ordinarily, I would reserve this rant for evenings of quiet December bibulousness, when the effects of holiday drinking (a more appealing ritual with little or no religious foundation) have doused my inhibitions. However, just before December began, a press release crossed my desk that raised the issue in a most immediate way.
The headline was straightforward enough: “Announcing The World’s Most Precious Yarmulke (Skullcap): Encrusted With Over 3,500 Swarovski Crystals And A 2 Carat Diamond (@ $167,000/ £125,000/ €140,000).” (I have left the idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation intact.)
This hefty bauble — how would you like that sitting on your head all through Yom Kippur? — was created by Toks Daniel, a “celebrity artist” whose specialty is tatty bling-encrusted designer goods made for the likes of soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo (a crystal-encrusted soccer boot, of course).
Asked why a non-Jew would design a kipa for his first religious piece, Daniel said, “Whilst I was a youngster in Nigeria, Jews had a rather exotic image. The more I have since been exposed to Jews and Judaism, the more I have become enamored with its rituals, principles and aesthetics. My yarmulke design is a manifestation of my enchantment with the religion.”
Interestingly, both the press release and subsequent coverage in the media have struggled to describe the kipa, alternating between “the world’s most precious” and “most expensive.”
Let me offer a little help here.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines precious as “of great value; not to be wasted or treated carelessly,” or “greatly loved or treasured by someone.” Expensive, on the other hand, is simply defined as “costing a lot of money.”
In a way, the distinction is profoundly apt. Swarovski crystals are, to my mind, the perfect equivalent of one of Daniel’s semi-famous clients, Jermaine Jackson, who, while talented, couldn’t be mistaken for Michael Jackson, the real thing. Adding a two-carat diamond merely draws more attention to the tackiness of the entire enterprise.
The press release describes Daniel as “cause conscious.” One assumes that this, combined with his “enchantment with the [Jewish] religion,” explains the provision that for each purchase of one of these items, “a $1,330 … donation will be made Chabad Lubavitch of Nigeria.” It might be a better idea to drop the whole $167K on various Lubavitcher projects. At the very least, you might want to consider tithing to Chabad or another Jewish organization; that would be a ten-fold increase over the paltry donation on offer, and you wouldn’t have to wear the hideous thing.
It could be argued that wearing a crystal- and diamond-studded yarmulke is consistent with the exhortation that Jews should beautify their observation of mitzvot. For the sake of argument, I’ll put aside my aesthetic objections.
Rather, I draw your attention to a famous passage from Isaiah 58:5-7: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
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At the very least, the existence of this gaudy object calls to mind the upside-down ethic, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” and stands it back on its feet by asking, “If you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart?”
George Robinson covers film and music for the paper. His column appears monthly.