I’m an Orthodox woman and pretty soon, I’ll be wearing my first kippah (skullcap). Well, sort of. My son turns 3 in November, and along with a new pair of Jordans, he’ll be boasting a navy knitted kippah that says his name–in Hebrew, no less–on his first day of school. For the first time, he, and I, will be publicly identifying ourselves as religious Jews. I’ll be frank: I find it terrifically daunting.
Until now, I have enjoyed the anonymity that is concomitant with being a bareheaded woman. There is something both thrilling and peaceful about the ability to get lost among (most) peoples of the world without anyone knowing, or caring, about my religious identity. I have been free to behave as I wish, without bearing any theological, cultural or religious connotation.
But as I prepare to accompany my son while he sports his new symbol, I know we are entering the grounds of involuntary Torah ambassadorship.
No matter the color or texture, wearing a kippah invites projection and transference from those around you. Whatever Jewish stereotype exists, prepare to represent it. If you’re self-conscious, you’ll try to prove that stereotype wrong, and, more taxing, you’ll try and seem like you’re not trying.
To the outsider, four tiny inches of material means I represent Benjamin Netanyahu, Bernie Madoff, and Kiryas Joel (a village of Hasidic Jews in the town of Monroe, New York)–all at once.
To this end, I will likely find myself embroiled in explanations about Judaism and Israel. In public places, the “don’t make a chilul Hashem” (public embarrassment) chide will likely be ringing in my ear, like a pocketbook Aish HaTorah (an international Orthodox organization) rabbi. I’ll think twice before correcting a waitress’ wrong, asking for clearance items at the Gap, and reviewing a receipt in the supermarket.
Like it or not, to make a statement of particularity like wearing a kippah, comes hand-in-hand with an increased social awareness. And maybe that’s a good thing; I’m just not sure I’m ready yet.
I’ve always tried to be a socially-conscious person, respectful and helpful to strangers I meet. But my behavior has never been influenced by how I look, dress, or identify myself.
I know the first kippah is a moment many Orthodox parents wait for. It’s yet another halachic (pertaining to Jewish law) and cultural marker in a Jewish boy’s life of belonging to the Tribe, and far less throbbing than the bris.
Indeed, we’ve been trying different variations on my son’s head since well before he could muster up the word “Mama.” But now that it comes down to making the transition from closet Jew to public Jew–overnight–I’m wondering what sort of responsibilities the new uniform will bring and whether I’m adequately armed.
In truth, my Judaism is something I’m very proud of. I celebrate our history, culture, philosophies and legal system. But my connection to God and alignment with tradition has always been private. If others discovered my devotion, it was through a small action or conversation, rather than an outward mark of piety.
As we prepare to emerge from our religiously anonymous cocoons, I can’t help but thinking of my great-grandparents. The few pictures that survived shipment from Poland to Canada reveal frail Ger Hasidim (a Hasidic dynasty from a small town in Poland) who were proud, despite Nazi contempt, of their roots. As the story of my maternal great grandfather is documented in the Staszow yizkor (memorial) book, when the town’s Jews were summoned to the square to be murdered, he put on a tallis (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) and was murdered in his home praying, al kiddush Hashem (by sanctifying god’s name)—a proud, obvious, Jew.
As I set sail on my journey from closet Jew to Torah ambassador, there’s a whole lot I don’t know: how I should behave, if it’s “fair” that I should care or that I have to care, if my behavior is less genuine if it’s influenced by motivation to correct stereotypes, and so on.
What I do know is that I am a proud Jew who descends from a line of people who were public (and probably less self-conscious) about their religious identity at a time and in a place when doing so implied giving their life. So, until November, I will be doing a little introspection and a lot of warming up of these very cold feet.