Arnold D. Samlan
Jewish Educational Leader, South Florida

Wearing my Judaism in public – Germany and America

In an interview published on Saturday, Dr. Felix Klein, Germany’s Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism, stated “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany”.  This started an uproar in Germany and beyond:  How can anyone suggest that today that it might not be entirely safe in certain places and at certain times in Germany to wear a kippah (or, by extension, any sign that publicly announces that you’re Jewish)? Have we just accepted that anti-Semitism remains alive in Germany? In Europe?

The only people who were not surprised or even offended were those who, like myself, wear a kippah most of the time [or a tichel, a woman’s hair covering, or a chai necklace, etc]. Know why were weren’t? Because it wasn’t a news flash, and it’s certainly not just about Germany.

I’ve been wearing a kippah most of the time for the past 47 years. Guess how much of that time I’ve thought about whether it’s perfectly safe to wear a kippah where I’m going during the course of the day?  47 years. Every single day. Everywhere I’ve lived:  Chicago, Jerusalem, Atlanta, St. Louis, Providence and the New York area.

Generally, I get it right. The vast majority of times that I’ve decided that its safe to wear a kippah publicly, I have not had negative experiences. But there was a road rage incident in Chicago, where someone blocked my car in, ran over to my car, yelled anti-Semitic slurs and threatened me. And the time in Warsaw where someone gave me a “Heil Hitler” salute. But these were exceptional, probably because just about every week, there was at least one location in which my good judgment led me to either don a baseball cap or simply to go bareheaded.

The idea that observant Jews would wear a kippah at all times in most parts of the United States was limited until the Six Day War in 1967 led to an explosion in Jewish / Israel pride. Until that time, Jews were largely guided by the recollection Charles Silberman writes about in his book A Certain People. There, he talks about leaving a funeral while still wearing his kippah and his aunt reminds him to “take your yarmuka off…it’s not nice.” The Orthodox American Jews I knew, at least in the 60’s, typically took their kippah off when leaving the house for work and put it back on when they returned home. In this, they actually had the support of a number of prominent American rabbis. For that reason, many of us committed Jews kept a kippah in our glove compartment or in our pockets, should we need to dash into a minyan or kosher restaurant.

Now, it’s very nice for Germany’s Bild newspaper to print a kippah and encourage Germans to wear it as a sign of solidarity. It is a beautiful, symbolic gesture. It will not change any prejudices that exist in Germany, Europe or for that matter, America. And it will not make a difference when I leave my home for work or play. I will still think about where I am going and the likelihood of encountering anti-Semitism on my day’s path.

So, Dr. Klein didn’t acknowledge anything new:  Germany and much of the world is a tough place to be a Jew. I wish it wasn’t true and will gladly work to try to change that reality. In the meantime, I’m going to heed his advice and stay a little bit safer.

About the Author
Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Chief Jewish Education Officer of the Jewish Federation Broward County, Florida, Is a rabbi and Jewish educator whose work has impacted Jewish learners, community leaders and professionals across North America. All blog posts are his personal opinions and are not meant to reflect viewpoints of the Jewish Federation.
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