Jerry Isaak-Shapiro
Jerry Isaak-Shapiro
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Do I wear the kippah or switch to a baseball cap?

We can be proud demonstration-walking, flag-holding, stand-together Jews-and-Zionists and also worry about everyone else who deserves that worry
Illustrative (iStock)
Illustrative (iStock)

It really, really bothered me — but I did it anyway. On a not-unusual-enough drive through Pennsylvania en route to Newark Liberty, I had thrown a baseball cap onto the passenger seat, nestled next to my two bottles of Diet Mountain Dew (essential for the long drive). It wasn’t to keep the sun off my neck for the 450 miles; it was a just-in-case move on my part — just in case I felt the need to wear something on top of my kippah when making a couple of leg-stretching, gas-filling stops.

Some head-covering background: I didn’t grow up in a kippah-wearing house (though if I did, it most likely would have been a yarmulke-wearing house). Like most of my male relatives, mine came out of the drawer for occasions — synagogue outings and Seder at Aunt Libby and Uncle Harry’s (all the way across the street). As I got older and developed my own sense of Jewish self (mostly courtesy of youth movements and camps and Israel), my head was covered more and more often. When teaching (a sacred act), when learning (ditto), when davening (nu?). All throughout Shabbat, even between those more actively Jewish moments.  In Israel. Of course.

I have our son to thank for asking me a question that led to much more than additional head-covering time: “If you’re wearing it more and more, why are you taking it off?”

He may not have known it at the time, but this was so much more than a wardrobe question. I’m sure that many who were raised with this seemingly simple act do not take it for granted; and I’m sure that some do. I don’t. Every time I use those little hair clips (so much better than the bobby pins we used in the day), it occurs to me that I’m wearing a sign — a sign that certainly means different things to different people, but a sign nonetheless.

Just as reading the same parasha means something different when one reads it at 18 or at 30 or at 60, not because the Text has changed but because the reader has — the significance of placing that small item on my head is subtly different today than it was years ago.

Today, it’s an all-day, everyday act. Halacha is in there, but so is sociology and psychology and politics and a dash of tribalism. And pride. And a sense of connectedness across geography and time (yes, I know that Moshe didn’t come down the Mountain with a kippah srugah on his head). That little knitted thing clipped onto my hair doesn’t make me Jewish, and it certainly doesn’t make me “more” Jewish than someone who chooses not to wear one. It does however remind me in a very tangible way of who I am. It’s also a signal to others who I am — all others.

End of head-covering background.

I tossed that baseball cap onto the seat next to me after having read far too many articles chronicling antisemitic attacks in the US in the last couple of weeks. “American Jews Have Been Attacked on Their Own Streets. That Should Worry Us All” was the headline in The Arizona Republic. NPR’s contribution was, “Officials Say Hate Crimes Against Jews are Growing in the Aftermath of Gaza Violence.” From The Hill: “US Sees Startling Rise in Antisemitic Attacks.”

You know an issue has arrived when there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to it. “List of antisemitic incidents in the U.S.” is now an official Wiki source, complete with a handy spreadsheet with six-column headings: Date — Type — (Number of) Dead — (Number of) Injured — Location — Details. “Type” could include the following: vandalism, gang attack, arson, stabbing or shooting.

Truthfully, I have never been a fan of this ubiquitous, non-validated “people’s encyclopedia,” but there was a Wiki-caveat on this page that was one of its more painfully accurate statements: “The list is incomplete…”

Interspersed between the news articles about the attacks (“incidents” is a bit too antiseptic) have been plaintive and painful pieces from American Jews, trying desperately to describe what so many of us are feeling right now. “Dear American Progressives: Your Jewish Friends are Terrified” (Boaz Munro wrote in Medium); “Why Can’t My Progressive Friends Understand What Israelis are Going Through?” (Roxana Honowitz, for The Forward). Add to those the hundreds – and those are only the ones I’ve seen – of posts and tweets and intra-communal emails and letters. Written with angst, in fear, with anger.

Personally, I’m moving more toward anger. Dean Phillips, a Democrat representing Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional district, tweeted that the “silence has been deafening,” referring to the crickets heard from self-identified progressives about these attacks.

While I worry about the physical violence done to those in our own community, I’m also acutely aware of the harm done to our collective Jewish psyche. There are plenty of social media voices implying — or saying explicitly — that if “they” (fill in the blanks) can’t be there for us, then we won’t be there for them. One recent post (and I’ll paraphrase): social justice is Jewish suicide.

I reject the premise that we can’t stand up for ourselves and for others at the same time; that we can’t be proudly assertive Jews-and-Zionists (sorry — the hyphens are purposeful: there’s no distinction) and worry about those who deserve that worry.

Over decades, I’ve seen a handful of understandably frightened American Jews who have worried about their children wearing sweatshirts with Hebrew writing, or who have wondered if attending a day school — or a synagogue — or an Israel rally — was smart, or safe. Those conversations continue, and no one ever has the right to question a parent’s very personal decision about the safety of her/his child.

That said, the ones who have chosen not to wear that sweatshirt or not to attend the rally have been in the minority. What I’ve seen are proud demonstration-walking, flag-holding, stand-together Jews. All the allies and partners and coalitions we can muster won’t mean anything if we’re not walking and holding and standing together.

About that drive and that cap on the seat: it stayed on the seat, along with the two (empty) bottles of Mountain Dew. That kippah stays on, un-covered.

About the Author
Jerry Isaak-Shapiro has a Masters's in International Affairs, specializing in Middle East history and U.S. Foreign Policy. He has been a teacher, madrich, camp director and head of school, and is convinced that nearly everything can be seen through the lens of leadership. He's a lifelong Zionist and adamant pluralist.
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