The Kippah Drawer
By Rob Granader
The drawer was stuffed.
When he tugged at the wooden knob, a fluff of velvet and satin bulged out. It always happened when he opened this drawer, one of only two drawers in his small dining room. He never emptied it. He’d only overstuff it, which required him to kneel down, his eighty-nine-year-old knees crackling like dry twigs as he picked up the escaped yarmulkes, kissing them gently before packing them back in the drawer.
Except for the one he had on his head for that evening.
Yossi lived alone and only wore his yarmulke on the Sabbath, but his drawer runneth over with not one or two or three of these skullcaps worn by Jews to show their reverence for God. He had dozens upon dozens, his drawer a time machine of simchas, happy occasions.
There were nights, now more than before, when he couldn’t sleep. He’d been alone for so long, but he had felt it more keenly in the past year. He wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was his bladder, waking him in the middle of night, now frightening him in some way. Or maybe that large bed that he once shared with his wife was getting bigger as he got smaller, and so when his leg stretched to the vast emptiness on the other side, the chill from the untouched sheets would startle him and jerk him awake.
On these nights he would lie there hoping, praying, that he would fall back to sleep. When it did not happen, he’d get out of bed and tread the cold floor of his apartment to the drawer. And with the thin light that hung above, he’d dive his hand into the drawer and swim it around as if he were picking out a raffle ticket. He’d open a yarmulke and hold it up to the light, stretching his arm and pulling it close to read the names and dates of the people imprinted on the inside.
There was only one that needed no reminding. One navy blue kippah with gold trim and the date June 26, 1950. It was the lone remaining artifact from his wedding day. It was the one he wore most often and the one he could find, by feel, in the dark.
When a Jewish child turns thirteen, the family buys a set of one hundred kippot and imprints them with the name and date of the event. Every time a Jewish couple gets married, another hundred or so get printed. Sometimes Yossi wondered why he didn’t go into the kippah business instead of the accounting business. Some guests would take the head coverings and wear them for the service, others dropped them in a box outside the sanctuary when the service was over, and some never picked them up. Still others, at the end of the service, absently left them on their heads or stuffed them in pockets to be found the next time they put on a suit.
Yarmulkes come in many flavors. Soft knit ones that only stay on with a clip. Others are velvet, hemmed in by a lace border, grabbing the head whether covered in hair or freshly shaven.
And while Yossi and Malka never had children, thereby never having the extra seventy-five or so yarmulkes from a simcha of their own, he had not missed a Shabbat service in fifty years. He had seen hundreds of b’nai mitzvot as boys and girls walked across the bima and made their case for being an adult in the eyes of the Jewish people. He’d pocketed dozens from weddings.
So each week as the guests filed out of the sanctuary for the free food, sweet wine, and small cakes on doilies, he’d put a skullcap in his coat pocket.
And his collection grew.
“This is what you decided to collect?” Malka said one night as he filled the drawer. “Fabergé eggs wouldn’t work?”
But for him the collection was a symbol of many things: his Judaism, his friendships, his years. For Yossi the filled drawer was like a collection of mitzvot, of good deeds, that built on itself over his life. This was the physical manifestation of all those prayers which made his life worthwhile.
“How do your fancy friends measure their worth?” he’d once asked Malka after a service where the bar mitzvah “theme” was some kind of video game. “Do they know how ludicrous they look standing in the sanctuary dressed as a Martian making Star Wars puns? Are they proud that their grandfather can’t get through the Hamotzi without notecards?”
“Their assets, is that the measure? Their bank accounts, their houses? The vacations, the deals from long ago? They don’t tell their story,” he’d said.
They couldn’t go into a dark room and watch the movie of their lives in a way that was as fulfilling as sitting on the floor recalling all the days of his life in synagogue. Maybe others had some ledger of good deeds, but for Yossi there was his drawer. It wasn’t just that he’d attended all these events, but they represented days he’d spent in prayer, words he’d chanted over hundreds of hours of ancient texts. This was a visual representation of all he’d done.
“But none of them are ours,” Malka would say.
“They are all ours,” he said. “We’ve been to every one of these.”
“We didn’t matter,” she said.
“Without us maybe they wouldn’t have had a minyan,” he said.
When they were younger Yossi and Malka would invite friends to their Friday night table. Malka would prepare the same dishes her mother had cooked from some recipe brought from the old country, scrawled on small slips of paper and stuffed into notebooks. And Yossi would pass out kippot to his guests, trying to find ones that might interest them. He’d find the wedding of a mutual friend or the bar mitzvah of a child they once knew. He wasn’t sure if people ever noticed this planned coincidence, but sometimes it made for good conversation. Occasionally guests would walk away with a kippah by accident; it was the only time his drawer ever got smaller.
But inevitably he’d find these guests and remind them that he wanted the kippah back.
Now Yossi stood at the synagogue Shabbat table with his thimble of Manischewitz wine, looking at the faces, as he had for years. He and his friends used to congregate near one end of the long, sweets-filled table. They would edge out the children who reached for handfuls of cakes.
But slowly his group dwindled. Yoni stopped coming when his wife got sick. Isaac had been missing since he fell six months ago. Moe had stopped driving. But most of them just died.
And now he’d go to the end of the table, less interested in pushing the kids out of the way. He felt the distance from everybody, even the rabbi, who would come over and shake his hand, saying, “Good Shabbos.” But it was the new rabbi, not the one he knew for all the years. Not the one who buried Malka. He referred to this new rabbi, who always looked past him, spending more time with the people whose names graced the building’s walls, as the CEO of the synagogue.
Yossi looked down at the carpet between his feet and the long, white tablecloth, remembering the mark his friends had left. The big, faded stains from where his friends had spilled wine or crumbled a cookie under their feet, or where frosting was driven into the carpet. There was nobody left in the room to remember these men who built this synagogue not with their money but with their attendance. And one day they would replace the carpet or get new linens, and there literally would be no sign left of the people who stood in these places for all those Saturday mornings.
At the other end of the table, away from the wine, was a group of kids, friends of the bar mitzvah boy, all with matching yellow corduroy yarmulkes, the ones that the family had given out that morning. And they were dropping them on the floor without kissing them, spilling grape juice on them. One used it as a napkin to wipe the frosting from his mouth.
And it was at this moment that he knew it was time. He knew those kids would never have a drawer because they didn’t understand the power of ritual, the respect of the velvet, corduroy, or knitted, cloth.
And so he put his small cup down and walked to where the boys were roughhousing. They stopped when this old man stood in the middle of their pushing. Yossi knelt before them picking the yarmulkes off the floor, kissing them and placing them on their heads. But there were six boys and only five kippot. So he reached into his inside pocket and took an extra one he had brought, and gently planted it on a boy’s head.
The boys said nothing, then slowly walked away, but not before grabbing another piece of cake.
Later that day as he ate his lunch alone at home, Yossi reached for his kippah, but it wasn’t on his head. It was June 26th, and he was looking for the blue one with gold trim. His own private anniversary celebration. He reached into his pockets, then looked at his drawer, but nothing. His chest tightened, he grabbed his glasses and looked again, tilting his head to one side then another to let the light pass him by and illuminate the darkened corners of the drawer. But it wasn’t there.
The sweat formed on his forehead and dripped into his eyes. He got up, a bit too quickly, banging his head on the opened cabinet. He reached for his head and couldn’t tell if it was sweat or blood, but he didn’t look. He hurried to his room, thrusting his hands into his jacket pockets, first one, then the next. It wasn’t there.
He feared that in his moment of generosity he had given it away. He grabbed his tallis bag from the counter, and there he found the kippah.
Yossi went to the bathroom to check on his forehead and the damage he may have done.
Late that night he couldn’t sleep and found himself on the floor in front of the kippah drawer. He dug down to the bottom and played with the oldest ones. He opened them slowly as some had not seen light in years. He realized that most of the kippot were of people he no longer knew or who had died some time ago. He remembered not so much the specific event, as they all ran into each other after a while, but his memory and these mementos of his friends and the couples who used to grace his Shabbat table were all he had. The only thing he had to spark their memory was this piece of cloth resting at the bottom of his darkened drawer.
These were his photo albums, his home movies, all waiting just for him. What a waste to sit in the dark for all these years. He realized that one of the only things that would spark a memory of him, or of Malka, might be this blue kippah he held in his hand.
It was time to empty the drawer.
It wasn’t sad thoughts that drove him to this decision. It wasn’t the empty bed or the quiet Shabbat table. There was no diagnosis, no threat, external or internal. It didn’t happen in a doctor’s office or a hospital waiting room. Standing over this drawer he found the strength to dispose of his one remaining asset.
And so he set out to give away a kippah a week. But his small synagogue didn’t have enough events. It would take him years, which he knew he didn’t have.
Each week The Jewish News arrived at his apartment, and he’d find the announcements, and then he would show up, whether he knew the family or not. And then he would plant a kippah on the heads where they were needed.
He no longer went with one extra kippah in his pocket. Now he walked around, his pockets full.
As usual he would show up early, find a seat, especially in these unfamiliar synagogues, participate in the service, watch the ceremony — the baby naming, the bar or bat mitzvah — and maybe stand and say Kaddish for somebody, for anybody who had nobody saying Kaddish for them. And then he would wait for his chance.
Yossi was content being there, “in the bleachers,” as he would say, apart from it all. Happy not being the “entertainment.” But when Malka was alive and they would attend events, it always bothered her.
“I don’t like being part of the chorus,” she would say. He had no interest in being center stage. The stress of pleasing all these people, the expectations were too much for him. He never understood why it was important for her to mingle with these fancy people who turned sacred services into social events.
So instead they would go to the service but leave before the Kiddish or the reception. Yossi felt disconnected from this world, but for Malka, during the three hours of the service, she felt like she was one of them. And isn’t that what these special occasions were meant to do? To make you believe you are who you want to be? So in shul she wanted to be them, and could be. He didn’t possess the power to fool himself.
But now, all alone, he was a guest of the best. He was at the biggest ceremonies and sometimes even stayed for the most lavish parties, mingling at the buffet, walking through the ballroom with a glass of red wine, a handful of challah he’d pulled from the middle of the loaf.
No one questioned the old man in the dark suit. He knew it would have made Malka happy as he walked the floor, his wedding kippah on his head.
And he’d look for his opening, finding a boy with his head uncovered. Yossi would grab a kippah from his pocket, kiss it, and place it there.
For months he would go to events to which he wasn’t invited, landing kippot on the heads of unsuspecting children. He did not know where these kippot would end up, who would drop them on the floor, who would let them fly off their heads in the parking lot. But there were some young men in that group who might reach for them one time, or see them in the mirror when they went to the bathroom that night, maybe even put them in a drawer in their home as a reminder of an event they’d never attended. These kippot were less time machine than eternal life. As long as someone wore that kippah and saw the names inscribed, then those names mattered. Week after week Yossi would dispense the kippot around town at every event where he could find a barren head. All throughout the summer and fall, and into the winter, he followed this pattern as his drawer emptied. Soon he could open the drawer without anything jumping out, and finally he was digging around the bottom finding old, faded ones.
On Friday nights he would open the drawer and decide which ones he’d give away the following day. In some way he was saying goodbye to these old friends before he sent them to a new head, perhaps a different house and an empty drawer.
The morning after he got the diagnosis, he stuffed into his pockets all the kippot that were left. Into the pants pocket, the outside jacket pocket, the inside pocket on each side, and he put the blue one on his head for the last time. He walked a little faster than usual, and maybe a little faster than a man his age should, that morning.
The Beckendorfs were having a bar mitzvah. When he arrived he saw a spread of lavender kippot on a wicker plate. Yossi took the plate and shook out all the lavender kippot into the wooden bin by the door. And then with great care he took the remaining kippot from his pockets, looking at each name before he lay its kippah on the tray.
Eternal life, he thought — that’s what he was giving these long-forgotten members and their moment in time before iPhones and Snap stories recorded everything, when the only memories were in the minds of the people, most of whom were gone. But now someone might take these kippot with them and perhaps read the name and at least ask the question: Who were these people on these dates so long ago?
Yossi sat in the back and could feel his heart grow as he watched the rows of children, their heads covered with the random kippot from his drawer.
When the service ended Yossi made his way to the Kiddish, but not before stopping at the wooden bin to take for himself one of the lavender kippot the Beckendorfs had so carefully chosen.
Instead of standing in his usual spot, away from the partygoers, Yossi stood amid the bar mitzvah boy and his friends.
The young boy who was now a man stumbled, tripping over one of his friend’s feet, his lavender kippah frisbeeing to the floor. The boy reached down, but Yossi was faster.
“Let me help you,” Yossi said. And with one move Yossi placed a blue velvet kippah with gold trim on the boy’s head. He held it there in place for a moment and closed his eyes.
The young man looked up at the old man but said nothing.
“Thank you,” Yossi said.
And the boy ran off, one hand holding the kippah in place.