Barbara Aiello
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What happens when the kippah comes off?

Following an attack on a fellow rabbi, going bareheaded in public may make me safer, but it also diminishes me

Since the October 7th Massacre and the protests, some of them violent, that followed, many Jews, including rabbis are cautioned not to wear a kippah in public. Some are defiant while others reluctantly comply. For those who no longer wear the kippah, what happens when it comes off?

In 2004, when I arrived in Milan as Italy’s first woman rabbi, my apartment was a brisk 15-minute walk to our synagogue, a “passeggiata” I made every day, tote bag in hand and kippah on my head. After several months, the elderly women in my building decided it was time to corner me and speak to me face to face.

Silvana, my self-appointed, four-foot “auntie” lived one floor below me. She led the encounter. “Carissima,” Silvana began. “You’re a nice girl. We like you but we fear for you. Please take the “cosotina,” (“little thing” referring to my kippah) … take the cosotina off of your head and if anyone asks, say you’re Canadian!”

That was 20 years ago when I politely declined my neighbors’ well-intentioned precautions and continued to wear my kippah. On two occasions, my kippah caused concern – not to me but to a woman in a local kosher grocery who loudly proclaimed that a woman wearing a kippah was a “shunda,” (a shame) and another time when a traditional Jewish man spit on the sidewalk as I walked toward him. Both incidents were disconcerting, especially since my harassers were fellow Jews, but neither encounter was threatening.

Chaim Cipriani is my friend, colleague and fellow Italian rabbi. He is founder of Judaism without Walls, an organization that permits him to travel to serve congregations in both France and Italy. In late November, Rabbi Cipriani was walking through Genoa’s old city center when he was assaulted by a vicious antisemite wielding a screwdriver and threatening murder. As reported by Times of Israel, Rabbi Cipriani said, “I am very shocked, but I am not surprised. As a Jew, I know that these situations can occur.”

Cipriani went on to add that, “Antisemitism has worsened and [it] is widespread throughout the world, even in Italy.” Because Rav Cipriani was wearing his kippah when the attack occurred he was asked by Italy’s Pagine Ebraiche if he might have been targeted because his kippah indicated that he is Jewish. Cipriani concurred but responded “I will continue to wear it [the kippah]. We cannot hide.”

I contacted Rabbi Cipriani because I wanted to know more. He was adamant that although he had experienced several other harassing incidents including two in France where he was “chased by Arabs,” my colleague was determined that his kippah remain on his head. When I voiced my concern about wearing my own kippah in public, Rabbi Cipriani encouraged me to do what I thought was right.

Several years ago in a town not far from our synagogue, two Islamic extremists were arrested for operating an explosive factory in their apartment and recruiting radicalized young men via the internet. Couple that with the fact that I am seventy-six years old, five feet two inches tall and a two-time cancer survivor. I weigh 112 pounds. For all of these reasons, it is with great reluctance that I no longer wear my kippah outside of the village where my synagogue is located. The decision was a difficult one and one that I examine daily, especially since, in addition to the obvious emotional price, there is a practical price to be paid as well.

In the days before October 7th, when I wore my kippah publicly every day, it was not unusual for complete strangers to approach me in the pharmacy, dry cleaners or on the pedestrian mall and introduce themselves. Because I was easily recognizable as a rabbi, these men and women often would ask if they could speak about their family traditions and how their grandmothers entrusted them with the family secret that their ancestors were once Jewish. Many of these encounters led to my extending an invitation to visit our synagogue or to join our congregation for an outing or special event.

Then there were others who quietly whispered in the grocery store check-out line that their husband or daughter or parent was ill and would I make a prayer for healing – another encounter prompted by the kippah on my head.

I recall a sweet exchange when a mother saw me in the parking lot of the shopping mall. Racing toward me with her little girl in tow, she apologized and said, “I just want my daughter to meet a rabbi!”

It is impossible to calculate the number of lost opportunities that might have resulted in yet another Jewish connection, so important to a remote congregation like ours that is determined to grow. Even more tragic are the relationships I might have made with individuals who might have seen my kippah as a spiritual handshake that would open the door to dialogue, sharing and friendship.

Today Rabbi Cipriani’s kippah remains on his head. He has decided that he will not hide. I pray each day for his safety as I try to come to terms with the conflicting emotions that are the result of my leaving my kippah in my desk drawer, especially since the sense of loss is tragically pervasive and remarkably profound.

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots
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