The Jewish kippah problem
Quebec has a kippah problem. A proposed “charter of values” will prohibit public employees from wearing hijabs, turbans, kippahs, and bizarrely oversized crosses. Apparently, the government believes that religious symbols worn by less than one per cent of the population threaten to turn Quebec into a theocracy.
The Jewish community has united in opposition to the proposal. This threat to minority religious rights is unsettling, and Jews of all backgrounds feel a sentimental tie to the beleaguered kippah.
But as Jews, we have our own kippah problem. Our attitudes toward the kippah reflect our ambivalence about being a Jew in the non-Jewish world.
After the Jews were given political rights in Europe, many chose the route of partial assimilation. Their motto was “be a Jew at home, and a mensch in the street.” In their desire for acceptance, Jews modified their public image.
The tradition of wearing the kippah was quickly tossed away. At the turn of the century, the kippah was discouraged by the Reform movement as an ancient relic. One historian remarked that “worship with an uncovered head” was a “hallmark of Reform Judaism”.
Other Jews saw integration as dangerous. They followed an ideology of “shalem,” of being distinct. They spoke Yiddish, wore a shtreimel and used their Hebrew names on official documents. These Jews insisted on being part of a counterculture and defiantly refused to integrate.
Most Jews fall between the poles of ghettoization and assimilation. We know how to fit into the larger culture, yet still want to be profoundly Jewish as well. And so we wonder: how different should we be?
And that’s the Jewish kippah problem. We want to be serious Jews, but we also don’t want to stick out that much. It’s a simple psychological fact: people want to fit in with the majority.
Even Orthodox Jews are sometimes uncomfortable wearing a kippah. It’s not uncommon that when I’m in remote venues with few Jews, I’ll meet a modern Orthodox friend who’s chosen to wear a baseball cap instead of a kippah, so that his head covering is less conspicuous.
This kippah problem is our greatest challenge: how to be comfortable while being different. A new Pew study shows that 32 per cent of American Jews have a Christmas tree. Christmas is ubiquitous. To resist it is difficult, because it’s difficult to swim against the stream. To put it directly, kippahs are awkward while Christmas trees are comfortable. That’s our kippah problem.
I wish I had a magic solution, but I don’t. Being a Jew in North America means having the courage of your convictions and proudly being different. That’s not so simple, even for a rabbi.
Recently, I was on a CBC panel debating the charter of values. I left just before sundown, at the last moments for the afternoon prayer. The vigorous debate left me feeling a bit leery of public displays of religion, and I wondered whether I should pray covertly while sitting in my car. I sat for a moment in my car, then reconsidered. I then stood outside in the parking lot and prayed. Those moments of prayer inspired me to realize that yes, you can be both a mensch and a Jew, both in the street and at home.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz