I have been wearing a kippa (or “yarmulke”, the head covering that Jews wear) my entire working life. It’s a big statement: “This is who I am”. Living and working outside of Israel, it was often quite a challenge.
How much simpler it would have been to blend in, to be like everyone else; without the expectations, the stereotyping, the questions, the awkward glances, and many other feelings — both real and perceived — that kippa-wearers experience.
I made Aliyah six months ago. I thought that here in Israel, it would be different. Well, it is…and it isn’t.
I’m one of a handful who wear a kippa at my awesome offices in Tel Aviv and little did I expect that this would become a topic of conversation, never mind go on to highlight one of Israeli society’s biggest challenges…
It started when I had taken off my kippa while sitting at my desk (I do so occasionally, cue lightning bolts from Heaven), and forgetting, went to collect some papers on the other side of the office.
Soon after, a female colleague sidled up to me and whispered, “Michael, everyone wants to know: are you religious, or aren’t you? We all want to know if we can joke around with you, if you’re normal or not!”
I was deeply concerned by this comment.
Does wearing a kippa make one “religious”? Is it more difficult to relate to me, to be my friend, if I define myself as such? Is this separation really so vast?
I found this question particularly jarring, not because it comes from a bad place (it doesn’t), but because it highlighted for me the extensive and often self-imposed divide between certain groups in Israel (and indeed throughout the Jewish world), particularly between the “religious” and the “secular”.
Even terms such as “religious” and “secular” divide unnecessarily and artificially. Who is to judge the religiosity of anyone? Two people, one considered “religious” and one “secular” might have so much in common, might have so much to learn from one another, but they will not connect because of this great rift.
Some concerns are legitimate; both “sectors” fear losing their identity, fear coercion either way. This often results in a hardening of one’s position, a retreat behind safe walls.
This very notion of “sectors” however, is a deep gash in the body of the Jewish People.
Coming from a relatively regular Jewish community outside of Israel, where many people would define themselves as “traditional”, this gap of “either/or” in Israel is extremely painful. Moreover, in my community outside of Israel, one would often see “religious” and “secular” Israelis really connecting (maybe because they were focusing on their commonalities, rather than their differences?). They would remark, “We would never be friends like this in Israel”. This is so sad!
Such labels also encourage the “everything or nothing” approach. With this approach, both sides end up losing. If someone defines themselves as “non-religious”, they are arguably less likely to have anything to do with the commandments or “religious” life, and by extension, their rich Jewish history and heritage- and future. For someone defining themselves as “religious”, this could mean missing out on forging deep connections with people who are different; learning and growing in other spheres of life; meeting great people who embody Jewish values, or even deepening their connection to God. For the nation, this “two ships passing in the night” phenomenon is a massive loss.
There is so much that we have in common. We should be engaging, not avoiding! Let’s not be the original “Sneetches” of Dr. Seuss. We should be learning together, growing together.
Perhaps even, by constantly using such labels, “religious” Jews are in part responsible for increasing the divide and pushing other Jews away.
I’m so passionate about this because I believe that this issue is a root cause of many of the challenges Israeli society faces today. Solve this, instead of going after the symptoms, and I am convinced that we’ll see an enormous, positive change, one that we couldn’t imagine in our wildest dreams.
I know that if I want to see this change, my own attitude has to shift. I have to ask myself why I identify as “religious”, and as an outward manifestation of this, why I wear a kippa.
Is it to identify with a “sector”? To show my belonging to the “religious world”? Is it because it is a positive mitzvah, a commandment?
To be honest, my answer isn’t only the classic halachic one (cue fireballs from On High).
I wear a kippa because I’m proud; because I believe in God; because there are Jews in the world who could be beaten (or worse) for wearing their kippa in public; because I’m in love with the Jewish People and our continuing, amazing, story.
Most of all, I realise that whether or not I identify with a sector, whether or not I wear my kippa, I still have these same powerful feelings. I also suspect that many people reading this article, from all walks of life, feel these too.
It might be expressed through a decision to make one’s life in Israel, or perhaps in joining the army; maybe in defending Israel on social media, or in Rabbi Cardozo’s fantastic example of young people thinking about God in a café, and so on.
We — I — have to look past the external. It sounds puerile and obvious, but I sincerely believe that by internalizing this, we can bring about that revolutionary change to society.
In Hatikva we sing about our hope, “Lehiyot am chofshi be’artzenu”, to be a free people in our land.
We’ve achieved part of the dream. To truly be a free, united people, the challenge for each one of us is to do our unique part to draw this incredible nation together.