My son wasn’t thrilled about attending public school.
“I won’t make any friends.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“There won’t be any Jews.”
“The neighborhood is full of Jews. Not all go to day school.”
“I don’t want to wear a uniform,” he complained. His old day school didn’t require them.
“Think of it this way. No more struggling with dyslexia in Hebrew class, extra time to have guitar lessons, new friends, and a lot more money in our bank accounts. Now I can maybe even pay for your college. Or my own student loans.”
In a fit of anxiety, he’d stayed up nearly all night crying before the first day of school, eventually falling asleep on my shoulder. But 7AM eventually came, and it was time for breakfast. I offered up a sugary favorite – French Toast – figuring the damage from lack of sleep was already done. He gulped it down, then complained of a stomachache.
“I should stay home.”
“Not on your life. Get your backpack; it’s time to go.”
He nodded, grabbed his backpack, and headed for the door. As I was about to lock it behind me, he yelled, “Wait! I forgot my kippah!”
“You don’t need a kippah. Judah, we have to go. Now.”
“No, I need it. I always wear a kippah to school.”
“Whatever. Hurry up.”
At 2:45pm, I was outside, pacing, waiting for the final bell. Did he have a good time? Did he play with anyone at recess? At 3pm sharp, it rang, and kids came pouring out of the double doors onto the playground. My eyes scanned the crowd, frantically seeking my son. In a school where kids pretty much dress the same, they were all starting to blur. It used to be hard to spot him in a sea of brown-haired boys with kippot, but now that kippah was going to come in handy. My goodness, this school was huge. Where is he?
And there he was. With his skinny jeans, slightly-out-of-my-price-range trendy shoes, and a brightly colored Bucharian kippah, my kid was giving me the thumbs-up sign and grinning from ear-to-ear.
“Hey! How was it?”
“I made a friend! And he likes Pokemon, too!”
I smiled. “Did you have fun?”
“Maybe…a little bit,” he admitted. “Oh, and some kids asked if I was a Jew.”
“Yeah, like in a mean way?”
“Kind of rude, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to play with the kids who liked Pokemon. Plus, there are other Jewish boys in our class.”
“Told you you’d be fine. But why did you insist on the kippah? You barely remembered it when it was required, and you never pray unless someone makes you, or it’s a holiday or Shabbat dinner.”
I used to sew his kippot in the early years, spending hours searching for Pokemon or MarioKart fabrics, sewing all into the night, cussing at my machine as I struggled to get the right fit. I can’t count the times he’d get busted for losing them. By third grade, I’d given up and resorted to buying the extra-large ones that would fit his head. If he lost it, he had to pay for a new one.
“I don’t know. It’s my reminder of day school. And I guess, it’s like, it’s like a stuffie you carry around with you to make you feel better. It’s just…it’s my head, okay?”
I shouldn’t be surprised. This is the same thoughtful rebel who came out as an atheist last year and doesn’t find anything wrong with eating cheeseburgers but refuses to touch pork. His kippah wasn’t a matter of religious observance, but rather, his pride in his identity – similar my Star of David necklace.
I’m sure there’s a theological objection to Jews who wear kippot as fashion accessories, but I’m not going to argue with him. My son, who casually sneaks in comic books during High Holiday services — pausing only to belt out Unetanneh Tokef or bug me to use the restroom — clung to his kippah as a lifeboat in sea of change.
Leaving day school hurts. There are no more sukkot to decorate, no more Hanukakh songs to drive me nuts, no more Rosh Hoshanah sweets to fill his schoolbag in the fall, no more Purim parties. At least, not during the school week. These things will now only take place in the home and during religious school on weekends. I know it’s the right decision for his education, but in a way, I almost miss all the Fs he used to bring home from Hebrew class. (“Mom, just put the Haftorah on my iPod and I’ll memorize it. I am so over this.”)
Today marked the fourth day of his new school. As we headed out the door, I stopped.
“Yudah! You forgot your –“
“KIPPAH!” he yelled, running back to his room to grab it. “Oh kippah bippah,” he says, giving it a kiss before putting it on. “Hey mom, is my hair messed up now? Can you check?”
“It’s great. So, I was thinking, do you, like, want me to make you a custom one, like I used to?”
“Nah, I’m too old for that. But thank you.”
I smiled wistfully. He’s gonna be just fine.