Billboard Judaism: Week 1: A (too brief) Review

I’ve had the kippah on for a week. And in that week, some interesting things have happened. Here are two. More to follow.

– A taxi driver in New York launched into a ten-minute, mostly one-sided conversation with me about how his rabbi wanted him to drive him to tashlich, how he loved old Jewish music, and how he wanted to wear a kippah also because he thought it would make him more moral and a better person, but wasn’t sure how to start. I smiled and told him you can really just start, but that it’s not a magic talisman. Or maybe it is.

– At a pub last night, a burly guy in overalls and a tank-top – clearly drunk – sauntered up to me and yelled above the music “Shana Tovah, eh!” This guy would have terrified me normally. I would have avoided him on the street. But now, I was able to smile and say thanks. He yelled “What are you doing here?” I replied, “It my buddy’s birthday!” His response? “OH! Well tell him yom huledet sameach, eh?” He walked off. A brief interaction, but something that would never have happened if it weren’t for the billboard on my head.

To summarize: Wow.

With the kippah, I have attracted attention. And I like it. I feel a little more communal. A little more a part of a whole. What intrigues me – really what delights me – is that the attention I’ve received comes from people who I wouldn’t otherwise have known were Jewish. We’ve had brief connections, been able to smile in something shared that was previously hidden. I’ll unpack this more next week after Yom Kippur.

In keeping with the theme of yom kippur, I will briefly confess that I’m hesitant when walking around some streets of New York, extremely self-conscious about what friends and others think, curious about what goes through peoples’ minds at work, and worried that I’ll be judged any random group of people – Jews or otherwise – walking around.

I still like it. It keeps me on my toes. Keeps me thinking about what being Jewish should mean on a daily basis. And that’s the whole point, eh?

If it’s your thing, have a meaningful fast. G’mar Chatima Tova.

Billboard Judaism

Required reading:When a Kippah is not just a Kippah

Background story: It’s 1999. I’m fifteen years old and in grade 10. At the NFTY Northeast Lakes Debates event, I’m dressed in a suit and speaking as eloquently as a geeky fifteen-year-old with a cowlick can. I don’t remember what the topic of the debate was, but I distinctly remember one of my arguments. It went something like this:

The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as ‘a specific fundamental set of beliefs.’ Therefore, religion is based on what you think, not what you do. Judaism is a matter of personal beliefs, not actions…

Oops. I’ve learned a little bit since then. Like not to use dictionaries to support your theological arguments. Fast forward a few years to the 21st century, and I’ve embraced the notion that Jewish religion is based almost entirely on actions, not catechisms. I’m repeatedly struggling with the action of wearing a kippah full-time. It’s quite literally an on-again off-again love affair.

Two years ago, I commented on this blog that if you’re going to wear a kippah (or really any religious article), you need to accept the fact that you’re essentially erecting a giant billboard on top of your head with an arrow pointing down that says “JEW!” Moreover, I argued that if you’re going to put up a billboard, you damn well better know what you’re advertising. While Chabad’s outreach efforts may sometimes make you think otherwise, Judaism isn’t an infomercial – you can’t just spew out as much advertising as possible with the hopes of catching someone’s attention. I would argue that – borrowing some more advertising parlance – if you’re going to wear a kippah 24/7, you need to have a pretty comprehensive marketing plan. You need to know what message lies behind the “JEW!” billboard. Why do you wear a kippah? What does it stand for? What do you hope to gain by wearing it? What does it mean to you to wear it? How does it fit into your life’s mission/vision? What do you say to others who ask you about it? With whom are you casting your lot by wearing it?

And on that note – my struggle has primarily been with how to deal with the Orthodox hegemony vis-a-vis the small, round, knit item. When a non-Orthodox Jew wears a kippah 24/7, it can be like Reebok switching their logo to a swoosh. How can I take part in an important Jewish action without getting lumped in with an ideological group that I have no desire to be conflated with?

Tough questions. Important questions. I don’t have the answer to them yet, but I’ve recently realized that I’m not going to find the answer to “what’s on the billboard?” if I don’t even put the billboard up. In that light, I’m giving myself a new project:

The challenge: Billboard Judaism. This weekend, after leaving shul on the second day of Rosh Hashana, I’m going to keep that kippah slapped on my head. For at least a whole Jewish year. And I’m going to use this blog to record all of the shit that will inevitably roll around in my head by doing so: What I feel like when people look at me. What I think of when walking into a seedy bar. What I think of when I need to remember one more thing when heading out in the morning. And so on and so on…

What I hope to get by the end of this is my Jewish marketing plan. And I hope to be able to distill it down to one simple thing: the answer to the question, “what’s on your Jewish billboard?”

Musings forthcoming…