When a Kippah is not just a Kippah

This article popped up in my inbox today, courtesy of KOACH, the Conservative Movement’s college arm. It’s by KOACH associate at U of Florida Sherri Vishner. It’s part of a series of articles on gender in Judaism, but as I read it, I couldn’t but help have a reaction to it that had nothing to do with gender.

… while we are in fact in the ‘21st Century’, it is still not common for women to wear kippot.

Like many girls who are currently growing up in the Conservative Movement, I was given the opportunity to wear a tallit and kippah when I celebrated becoming a Bat Mitzvah. About five years ago, I made the decision to wear my kippah all the time- minus showering and sleeping of course. I made this decision because I believe I should have my head covered while praying. I didn’t want to limit my prayers to a few times a day and I didn’t want to keep taking my kippah on and off, which I had been doing for a while…

…As immediately as the first day I wore my kippah, Jews and non-Jews alike approached me asking me what I was wearing and wasn’t that something that men wore. I continue to explain that while the kippah has traditionally been worn solely by men, it need not be a ‘man’s garment’. I wear the kippah for the same reasons a man wears one- to show that God is above us and to remind them that I am a Jew. I believe that these concepts are not limited to men. I believe in God and appreciate the daily, visible reminder of my Judaism.

I know a lot of women who by other people’s standards would be considered feminists but don’t put themselves in that camp. I have a hard time putting myself there as well, especially when it comes to my wearing a kippah. I don’t wear my kippah because I want to be a man and I also don’t wear one because I think all women should- though it would be nice to have some company!

The article resonated with me in such a different manner. While I read the words, my mind was already replacing them with my own narrative. This is how it read to me:

while we are in fact in the ‘21st Century’, it is still not common for Reform Jews to wear kippot [all the time].

Like many Reform Jews who are currently growing up in the Reform Movement, I was given the opportunity to wear a tallit and kippah when I celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah. About five years ago, I made the decision to wear my kippah all the time- minus showering and sleeping of course. I made this decision because I believe I should have my head covered while praying. I didn’t want to limit my prayers to a few times a day and I didn’t want to keep taking my kippah on and off, which I had been doing for a while…

…As immediately as the first day I wore my kippah, Jews and non-Jews alike approached me asking me what I was wearing and wasn’t that something that Orthodox Jews wore… I wear the kippah for the same reasons an Orthodox Jew wears one- to show that God is above us and to remind them that I am a Jew. I believe that these concepts are not limited to the Orthodox. I believe in God and appreciate the daily, visible reminder of my Judaism.

I know a lot ofReform Jews who by other people’s standards would be considered “Orthodox” but don’t put themselves in that camp. I have a hard time putting myself there as well, especially when it comes to my wearing a kippah. I don’t wear my kippah because I want to be aOrthodox and I also don’t wear one because I think all Jews should- though it would be nice to have some company!

I’ve wrestled with wearing a kippah full-time in the past. After returning from my first Jewish camp experience, and then from my first trip to Israel, it felt appropriate and I donned one each morning. But then the assumptions of my orthodoxy got in the way of the connection I was trying to forge through the garment. And yet, as I wear one at all times when doing something Jewish, it still feels a little contradictory to assume that I can just walk away from parts of my Jewishness. Sure, you go to shul and pray at specific times, but it’s not like you can compartmentalize your Jewishness. The emancipation is long gone, those ideals don’t stand any longer.

Even this past Shabbat, as I had on my knit “religious zionist / modern orthodox” kippah, surrounded by others who were wearing polyester kippot (no doubt collected from many a bar mitzvah), I was asked if I wore my kippah all the time. Just the fabric and design of my head-covering was enough to elicit assumptions.

I would like to find a way to wear a kippah without having people pigeon-hole me into a category based on it. While that sounds a little like I’m being too focused on image and what other people think of me, it’s an important factor. It’s an outward display of one’s Jewry, and it needs to be considered carefully. If I’m displaying something, I don’t want to display what I’m not.

Perhaps something similar to eco-kashrut needs to arise to deal with this issue. If Reform Jews want to wear kippot all the time without automatically being assumed to be Orthodox, does something need to be done? Or is this an internal, self-defining issue?

This also all rests on the assumptions that the highly definitive nature of the Movements is something that is important and necessary. I still haven’t figured that one out yet.

Apparently neither have these people.

Or these.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “When a Kippah is not just a Kippah

  1. davidamwilensky says:

    I might just replace the word kippah with tzitzit for God’s sake! I’m not in the least bothered by the assumptions people make about me based on them. I encourage people glaring at my fringes to just go ahead and ask. It’s never the answer they’re expecting and amongst Reform Jews the answer can often expand their idea of what Reform can be.

  2. Encouraging people to ask is important. And allowing that conversation to take place is a wonderful thing – it can expand minds and open doors… hopefully.

    But essentially, when you put a giant billboard on top of your head with an arrow pointing down that says “JEW!”, you’ve got to think a little about that, no? Do you really have no concern for what people walking by think/assume? If not, then bravo, you’re a better person than I am.

    In a world where (no matter how unfair it is) the kippah is “owned” as a symbol of observance by the orthodox — how do you say outright (without erecting a separate billboard) “Hey, that’s fine, but I’m not orthodox” ?

  3. Ben Z says:

    You know, since wearing a kippah IS like a giant billboard… maybe you should have one made with stitching in it that says… “I’m not orthodox damnit!” or “if I am orthodox, you must be a pagan” or “shut the f$@% up and mind your own business”

    It could work… right?

  4. Yasher koach, Jesse. Your rhetoric really got me thinking. Back in the day when I “took on” kippah, this was precisely the struggle I went through.

    Perhaps, the question really is how we can get past the pigeon-holing that labels creates. The assumption that identities based on monolithic similarities is itself orthodox. Others will always impose their own neuroses on us; we too internalize our perception of their assumptions.

    But, in the end, each one of us is nothing more than a simple Jew trying to reconnect to that moment at Sinai. Screw what “they” think, or whether it looks Orthodox or Sephardi or girly or gay (happy, of course).

    Is it authentic Jewish expression? Does it bring me or my people closer to God or mitzvot? These are the questions that matter.

    But, regardless, thanks for thought-provoking post!

  5. rtol88 says:

    Jesse, you might find this amusing…. I was walking through the exhibit hall last night at Biennial and I heard a snipit of a conversation at a booth i was walking by and stoped to ask what it was about and it turned out that the people at the booth were takeing bets on the question of if I was Orthodox( I was wearing my tzit-tzit at the time) and I was thinking at that point god what idiots your at the URJ Biennial and you still assume that someone is orthodox because they are wearing tzit-tzit.

  6. BZ says:

    You know, since wearing a kippah IS like a giant billboard… maybe you should have one made with stitching in it that says… “I’m not orthodox damnit!” or “if I am orthodox, you must be a pagan” or “shut the f$@% up and mind your own business”

    I know someone here in Israel who wears a kipah that says (in Hebrew) “I believe in separation of religion and state.”

  7. Courtney A. says:

    “I know a lot of women who by other people’s standards would be considered feminists but don’t put themselves in that camp. I have a hard time putting myself there as well, especially when it comes to my wearing a kippah. I don’t wear my kippah because I want to be a man and I also don’t wear one because I think all women should- though it would be nice to have some company!”

    Well, this is just silly. Being a feminist isn’t about wanting to be a man, nor is it about thinking that ALL women SHOULD do anything. And if one is going to take advantage of the rights women have in our society because previous generations of devoted feminists earned them for us, why distance oneself from the movement?

    “And yet, as I wear one at all times when doing something Jewish, it still feels a little contradictory to assume that I can just walk away from parts of my Jewishness. Sure, you go to shul and pray at specific times, but it’s not like you can compartmentalize your Jewishness. The emancipation is long gone, those ideals don’t stand any longer.”

    This is challenging. I always wear a kippah when I’m wearing a tallit. The tallit is the bigger deal for me; I wear one whenever I can, and I wear the kippah out of respect for the fact that I am wearing a tallit. I sometimes wear a kippah at evening services. If I am attending a Jewish event — a conference, for instance — I may even wear a kippah all through Shabbat. I am not consistent about it, though I AM consistent about other aspects of my Jewish practices.

    Here in North America, I choose to wear or not wear a kippah based on what I want to do in a specific circumstance — and I think this is a good way to decide. However, when I lived in Israel, my decision to wear or not wear a kippah was often motivated by other factors. If I chose not to wear one, it might be due to fear. If I, as a woman, wore a kippah in public, would Orthodox men yell things at me in the street? Might they even throw things at me? If I accidentally strayed into the wrong area of town, it could happen. On the other hand, if I chose to wear a kippah, it might be due as much to my politics as to my desire to wear a kippah. By wearing it, I was stating that a woman has a right to wear ritual garments, and that there is a middle ground between ultra-Orthodoxy and complete secularism.

    I think everything we wear, whether or not it is explicitly religious, makes a statment. To give another example from my personal life, I usually wear pants — slacks or nice jeans — to services. I did this even in Israel. At the Reform synagogues I attended, it wasn’t a big deal. However, I got some interesting (though sometimes unwelcome) comments as I walked down the street on Friday evening in jeans (and sometimes a kippah as well). One Orthodox man yelled at me in Dutch that I was a “loose woman.” I only know what he was saying because my friend from Holland happened to be walking with me at the time. If she hadn’t reacted to his comment, I may not have even realized it was aimed at me, since there were several people on the street and I didn’t understand the language. When I wore a kippah, I knew it might be controversial, but I didn’t realize that blue jeans would be such a big deal. I wear jeans to services because they are comfortable and because I like the way I look in them. Instead of being distracted by wearing clothing that feels awkward or uncomfortable to me, I can concentrate on praying. I don’t wear jeans to offend anyone, shock anyone, or advertise my politics or religious identity. Still, people interpret — and misinterpret — my clothing choice in all sorts of ways.

    “I would like to find a way to wear a kippah without having people pigeon-hole me into a category based on it. While that sounds a little like I’m being too focused on image and what other people think of me, it’s an important factor. It’s an outward display of one’s Jewry, and it needs to be considered carefully. If I’m displaying something, I don’t want to display what I’m not.”

    Yeah. As I said, I think everything we wear invites people to pigeon-hole us, often inaccurately. I think the choice to wear nothing at all would have the same result, though to a greater degree. There seems to be no way to win, so I try to just wear what I want and shrug off the fallout — Dutch insults and all — as well as I can.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s