When dogs wear kippot, some howl, Is it kosher

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Even a kitty could wear one — if she's willing.

"Obviously, they do really well around the Jewish holidays. But all year long we have a call for them, and we keep them on the shelves year-round," said Tim Lannan, manager of the Berkeley and San Francisco outlets of the George Shop, a designer pet accessory store.

"Not all of our customers are Jewish; a lot of people buy them for gifts. And it's not really [just] young people or old people. The whole gamut of people buy them."

In a store stocked with unconventional doggie fare (i.e., color-coordinated leashes, collars and bowls), Lannan says the kippah bins routinely induce bouts of shocked laughter. And despite some area rabbis' uneasiness with the idea of outfitting a cur in a kippah, Lannan estimates the two stores sell at least five doggie skullcaps a week, with sales tripling during Jewish holidays.

This is no bubbemeyseh. Such a product really does exist. But, the question remains, is it kosher for a dog to wear a kippah? Local rabbis are split.

"I am an egalitarian, my dog is female, but I would not buy a yarmulke for my dog. I would not do it, but at the same time I would not tell my congregant that he or she is totally wrong," said Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley's Reform Congregation Beth El. "Yet, as a rabbi in Berkeley, I can understand that for many people, a dog is like a child. Especially for childless people, I can understand what they want to do and it's fine with me."

Meanwhile, in Oakland, Howard Zack, the outgoing rabbi at Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, was firm in his opposition.

"I think that's disgusting. The purpose of wearing a yarmulke is for a sense of personal elevation and awareness. To make that a chic pet accouterment is, I think, a degradation of its intent," said the rabbi. "I have a good sense of humor, but if we don't take our religious and spiritual side seriously, why should God?"

On the other hand, the executive director of Oakland's Temple Sinai counts herself among those who've plunked down $10.50 for a doggie yarmulke.

"I thought, 'Oh, this is great! My friend's dog has to have this!'" said Margi Brill, who bought a kippah for Deana and Harvey Freedman's cocker spaniel, Butchie. The family lives in Rossmoor, the Walnut Creek retirement community. "I thought it was great for any Jewish family dog to have a yarmulke. I gave it to them and they just loved it."

The skullcap may not be the last word in doggie chachkas. Flytes of Fancy, the Seattle pet costume firm that supplies the George Shop with doggie yarmulkes, also produces tallitot for Rover as well as Kitty, but they are not carried at the George Shop.

Perhaps it's just as well. While some Jewish community leaders can comfortably joke about the doggie kippot, a canine tallit would be no laughing matter. In fact, some rabbis think it's a shanda.

"A yarmulke is a cultural development with no inherent religious significance in it but a tallit is a religious article in and of itself," said Orthodox Rabbi Yair Silverman of Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel. "A yarmulke can be any head covering, and the wearer's association toward it is subjective. But a tallit is objectively a religious object. A dog tallit would not be funny."

Adds Chabad of Berkeley's Rabbi Yehuda Ferris: "If you saw a dog walking down the street wearing a tallit, you would assume the worst. An anti-Semitic act or something like that."

Raj's disturbance at the notion of tallitot-wearing animals hearkens from personal experience. Administering a Brooklyn bar mitzvah in the 1970s, Raj was stunned by the presence of a monkey in a tallit.

"I was not thrilled," recalled the rabbi. "At the same ceremony, there was a statue of the bar mitzvah boy made entirely from chopped liver. You can imagine, coming from Hungary, it was a big shock for me."

While Bay Area rabbis give a unanimous thumbs-down to the doggie tallit, not every Orthodox rabbi shares Zack's opinion on the canine kippah. Both Ferris and Silverman chuckled when they heard about the dog kippah, with Ferris suggesting it might be especially appropriate for a Purim celebration.

"I think it would be a good thing if it would encourage yarmulke use. If the owner puts a yarmulke on his dog and wears a matching yarmulke of his own, at least the owner is wearing a yarmulke," he said. "I'm not against a dog wearing a yarmulke if a dog wants to. If a dog asks me to wear a yarmulke, I'll let him."

Brill, who enjoys purchasing chapeaux for her friends' dogs, has yet to receive a canine's request for a kippah. Maybe that's why she chooses headgear from a variety of styles, in keeping with the dog's image.

She opted not to buy a yarmulke for a friend's massive mastiff, instead picking up a leather Harley Davidson hat à la Marlon Brando in "The Wild One."

Her own dog, a Tibetan terrier named Mikey, is not currently sporting a skullcap either. "He looks better in a sun visor," said Brill. "He's more the sun visor type."

Marin Wynne, Flytes of Fancy's founder, admits that she spent years mulling over the decision to produce doggie kippot and tallitot for fear of "stepping on anybody's toes." Four years after deciding to get into the dog yarmulke business, she is shocked by her success. She sells more than 2,500 canine kippot a year.

"I'm not affiliated with any religion so I was very hesitant," she recalled. "But I have been totally surprised. I did not know there were so many Jewish dogs in this country."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.