The Kippah question, “To Wear or Not to Wear”, is not limited to Germany, France or the rest of Europe. That question has dogged Jews in the United States for decades and is still asked today. So, why do you think Jewish youth, and adults for that matter, are reluctant to wear a Kippah in public even though they live in the freest country in the world?
Paradoxically, there’s something sad about seeing many of our American youth wearing a Kippah in public while visiting Israel. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not against them doing so; I am gratified by it. The reason I think it saddens me is because the vast majority of those same kids will not wear one publicly in America. For example, they have no problem wearing their Jewish identity openly when going to synagogue, attending religious school or participating in a Jewish event, but wearing one at a ballgame, concert or on the street, well that’s a different story.
Although we live in a free country, yet when it comes to wearing our Jewish identity openly there seems to be a reluctance to do so. Granted it is not uncommon to see Jews wearing the Star of David, a Mezuzah, a Chai or a Hamsa in public but it is not the same thing as donning a Kippah. The first three objects listed are ornamental, typically worn around the neck, discretely declaring your religious identity, while a Kippah broadcasts it. A Kippah announces that you are not only Jewish but that you are a proud and observant one.
So, I repeat this question to you. Why do you think Jewish youth, and adults for that matter, are reluctant to wear a Kippah in public while living in the freest country in the world, The United States of America?
Whenever I ask that question of my coreligionists, I receive the resounding sound of silence. I suspect the reason my question falls on deaf ears is because to answer it honestly it would shatter our illusion that we are regarded just like every other citizen of the United States. But unfortunately, that is not true.
Granted, in the eyes of the law all citizens are to be treated fairly no matter to which group we are members. And as Americans we are encouraged to embrace and celebrate diversity, but like many other minorities, Jews are often more tolerated than celebrated. We are not alone in that undesirable position; historically Blacks in America know that all too well.
Increasingly, we see head coverings worn in public such as the Turban which identifies the wearer as a practicing Sikh, the Kufi as a Muslim, and the Kippah as a Jew. Today those coverings are not removed when entering a building, as once was the practice of the citizens in many Western countries. However, the practice of removing one’s hat persists to this day upon entering a church or listening to our national anthem,. When observant minorities such as Sikhs, Muslims and Jews do not abide by that custom, in accordance with their religious beliefs, they are often looked upon by fellow citizens with suspicion.
I was told more than once by fellow Jews that we are partially to blame for the anti-Semitism heaped upon us because we act with an air of superiority, by proudly pointing out how many Nobel Prize winners we have produced and other achievements which occur in numbers way beyond our percentage of the population. Of course, those reasons for anti-Semitism are nothing more than fabricated excuses. The truth is that throughout history Jews have been hated and persecuted even when we were lowly slaves in Egypt, powerless denizens of European ghettos, Dhimmis of Arab and Muslim governments, and victims of the genocidal Nazis. During those dark days of history, Nobel Prize winners and high achievers, we were not – but anti-Semitism flourished nonetheless!
Although it is human nature for people to want to be liked and accepted by their neighbors, the very nature of Judaism discourages inclusiveness. In the past Jews were very different from Gentiles. Our differences manifested in stark contrast from the rest of our countrymen: from the foods we ate, the clothes we wore, the holidays we celebrated, and the Sabbath we observed. We prayed in a foreign tongue, we went to synagogue, not to a church or mosque and strongly discouraged intermarriage. Coming of age was marked by a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and we were never Baptized. Some of us could speak Yiddish, more understood it, and many of us learned to read and write the language of the Bible, Hebrew. As a landless people, we were accommodated by some friendly host countries and tolerated in other not so friendly nations.
Not until the establishment of the State of Israel, have Jews been the majority religion in any country in the world, since before the time of the Diaspora two-thousand years ago. For over two millennial our people have been referred to as, ‘Wandering Jews’, a people exiled from their homeland. Historically Jews have chosen to keep themselves apart from the majority culture, not because of a sense of superiority, but because of the practice of a different lifestyle. And the non-Jew was more than willing to help keep us apart. For centuries church and mosque leadership preached anti-Semitism because of the refusal of Jews to incorporate Christian and Muslim theologies into the canon of normative Judaism. Those reasons coupled with Jews being a distinct minority made us an easy target for mistreatment and exploitation. We were often regarded as strangers in the land of our birth, the ‘other’, the outsider, the Jew. It was the price we paid because of our self-imposed separatism coupled with the willing and often enthusiastic intolerance of our fellow citizens.
Unquestionably, the Kippah brings out the beast in the anti-Semite. Its message is clear: like it or not, it’s our choice, not yours, whether or not we wear our religion on our sleeve by wearing a Kippah on our head. Some of our apologist coreligionists caution that unless we Jews start acting and thinking like everyone else in our prevailing societies, anti-Jewish feelings will persist as products of suspicion and resentment. Granted, even non-practicing Jews, gentiles, agnostics and atheists can adhere to the important social, ethical and moral values promulgated by the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam while enjoying a good bagels and lox breakfast. But if we assimilate to the extent that we become indistinguishable from the majority society, we would become at best new ‘Marranos’ or at worst – just opt-out of our religion altogether.
It is understandable that Jews wanted to be more like everyone else; it’s human nature. So, we began the process of ‘blending in’ by dressing, eating, behaving and thinking like everyone else. During the waning years of the Nineteenth Century, to conform with the majority Christian culture, Reform rabbis shed the Tallit and Kippah in favor of the clerical collar and thinned prayer shawl imitating the vestments of priests and ministers. The Reform Movement even went so far as to host a non-kosher commencement dinner, infamously dubbed The Trayfe Banquet, celebrating the Hebrew Union College’s first graduating class. We adopted more Americanized versions of our family names, altered the expression of some prayers, introduced increasing amounts of prayers in English and abandoned some outer trappings of our uniqueness as Jews. For many assimilation has been the unfortunate consequence of their efforts. The Kippah question, ‘to wear or not to wear’, is a metaphor as to whether we choose ‘to be or not to be’ like everyone else. Our choice will determine to what degree we maintain the values, characteristics and practices which uniquely define us as Jews, or abandon them to the point where we become – no longer us.