“I go to shul in the mornings, take my kippah off when I get to work, then put it back on when I get in my car at the end of the day,” said Aaron. “I feel hypocritical at times, but it’s a level of comfort and anonymity that I now can’t live without.”
Aaron, who describes himself as modern Orthodox, is a lawyer at a prominent personal injury law firm in Ontario and has been practising for more than four years. He’s asked that his real name be withheld, so as not to inform members of his synagogue and local Jewish community about his habits. He said he wore a kippah for the first six months of his career, but found that it often became a distraction.
“Almost every conversation at a lawyers networking event, deposition or mediation ultimately turned into a conversation about Judaism or Jewish geography,” he said. “All the other lawyers got to freely discuss movies, Hollywood gossip, weather, sports … but I got different treatment.”
“I feel hypocritical at times, but it’s a level of comfort and anonymity that I now can’t live without”
Aaron said there was another motivation behind his decision to stop covering his head at work: “I felt a burden to sound more intelligent, to be artificially nicer and to refrain from speaking my mind, for fear that people would generalize and judge all Jews by what I said. It was a self-imposed, but very real, limitation.”
Aaron is not alone in his experience. Where Jews once removed or hid signs of their religious identity for fear of being denied opportunities in the workplace, they now mostly seem to be doing so to avoid uncomfortable conversations, or being perceived as representing all of Judaism.
Rabbi Yirmiya Milevsky of Congregation B’nai Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Toronto, acknowledges that there are circumstances when it is acceptable to take off one’s kippah. “Clearly, a person should not have one on his head if he is walking in a place where a person with a Jewish symbol would be attacked,” he said, providing the example of a pro-Palestinian rally. “So too, in a workplace where the kippah would create difficulties, a lenient approach can be followed.”
However, Rabbi Milevsky cautioned that, “In general, rabbis would try to verify the reason why a person would find a need to remove it, before giving the green light, since in some situations, the kippah can greatly assist a person in establishing proper boundaries in the workplace.” He added that, “The workplace environment has created challenges for people committed to Torah values. Any symbol that reminds a man of his oath to God is quite beneficial.”
The custom of wearing a kippah dates back more than 1,600 years, when it was adopted as a sign of piety. “The Talmud states that the mother of the great Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak made her son cover his head so that ‘the fear of heaven (would be upon him),’ ” said Rabbi Milevsky. “In addition, the Talmud states that great rabbis were careful not to walk even a short distance without covering their head. Over the years, this badge of humility became the norm as a minhag.”
While Aaron said that he’s aware of the purpose of donning a kippah, he admitted he mostly does it because it was how he was raised, and that to do otherwise would be frowned upon by other members of his community. “I was brought up in a modern Orthodox home, went to modern Orthodox schools and even to yeshiva. It is understood that a kippah must be worn in these social strata. Beyond kindergarten, I don’t think it’s even explicitly stated that it must be worn, because it’s so taken for granted as a basic practice of our religion,” he said.
While the talmudic basis behind the longstanding tradition isn’t lost on Yonatan Oliver, either, the Toronto native who now lives in New York conceded that he has been wearing a kippah for so long that he “would feel naked without it.”
Rather than removing his kippah, however, Oliver opts to cover it with a hat. “It is still important for me to fulfill the tradition of my community,” he said. “This allows me to get the best of both worlds.”
Oliver, who is the only religious Jew in his office, said that his decision to cover his kippah also insulates him from potentially sensitive topics of discussion at work, such as Israel and Jewish philosophy.
“In a previous job, one of my co-workers commented that the Holocaust never happened, based on claims that I had never heard before. If I was forced into an argument with him at that moment, I would have lost. Instead, I got to approach him later, (after) I did my research.”
Zale Tabakman – the president of Local Grown Salads, a Canadian indoor farming technology company – also chooses to cover his kippah while he’s working. “I almost always wear a baseball cap. I do it because I just don’t want to get involved in conversations that don’t have to do with business,” he said. But Tabakman’s decision can result in some questionable fashion pairings.
“When I was in Bahrain, I was wearing a business suit and the baseball cap,” he said, noting that this unconventional sense of style has become a kind of trademark of his.
The issue of altering appearances to hide obvious signs of one’s Jewish identity is also faced by many women, even though the custom of wearing a kippah was traditionally adopted only by men.
“I definitely don’t like patients in our school clinic knowing I’m Jewish, if I can avoid it,” said Rachel, a dentistry student at a Canadian university. Rachel has asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals relating to recent allegations of discrimination at her university. “I’m afraid of potential anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or conversations about Zionism,” she said.
So after getting married – when she would traditionally be expected to cover her hair in public, whether with a wig, a hat or a headscarf – and returning to university, Rachel chose to exclusively conceal her hair under a wig. “I strictly wear a sheitel … to school for consistency, so that my classmates don’t ask me why I sometimes cover my hair with a scarf and sometimes with just a headband (to hide the seam at the top of the wig). Many know I cover my hair in some way because of my religion and marital status, but I’m not excited to explain that when I’m not wearing a headscarf, it’s actually a wig,” she said.
Nonetheless, Rachel is unsure whether men have it any easier. “I know men who remove their yarmulkes at work; men whose wives would never consider uncovering their hair at work. On the other hand, many men choose not to do this and are stuck with being openly identifiable as Jewish,” she said.
This potentially overt display of Jewishness is what drives some people to hide their religious identity, afraid of involuntarily being considered the embodiment of all Judaism.
“I’m in the business of negotiating and brokering deals and I was worried that if I pushed for more money for a client, people would think I was being a penny-pinching Jew,” said Aaron.
Oliver cited a similar misgiving, stating that he didn’t want to give his religion a bad name if he were to “accidentally slight someone who doesn’t have a lot of interactions with Jews.”
“I know we don’t like to think that others make decisions about entire groups of people based on individual interactions,” he added, “but they often do. I want people to just judge me as me.”
The concern about casting a pall over all of Judaism through an individual’s actions may stem from childhood lessons warning against causing a chillul ha-Shem (desecration of God’s name by acting immorally in the presence of others). The kippah, as both a conspicuous symbol of one’s Jewish identity and a reminder of a higher spiritual power, is supposed to steer the wearer away from poor decisions.
Even so, Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, senior rabbi of the Conservative Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, noted that covering one’s head is not obligatory and wearing a kippah in public only became the prevailing practice among the Orthodox in the last few decades. “I recall many observant Jews who did not wear kippot in public, outside of prayer or study. But that began to change post-1967,” he said. “The Six-Day War led to an upsurge in Jewish pride and overt displays of Jewish identity,” including the wearing of kippot.
After that, there was a kind of domino effect. Once “Jews began to wear kippot in public, there began to be greater public acceptance,” said Rabbi Frydman-Kohl. “As more observant Jews moved into higher-level occupations, they were part of a more public expression of Jewish practice. Greater acceptance of Jews in mainstream society … made it easier for Jews to bring their personal identities into public.”
Despite broader public acceptance, persistent fears of workplace discrimination endure.
“I am afraid of the small chance that someone will not hire me or use my services because they know I am Jewish,” said Rachel. “I’m also often afraid of being associated with Zionism, which can bring up a lot of hate. This might be irrational, but I’d prefer not to take the chance.”
“I suspect that being openly Jewish in job interviews would affect my chances of getting a job,” said Oliver, adding that while he does not believe he has experienced this himself, he has heard of it happening to friends and family members. “My wife was once asked on a job interview, ‘Oh, so you’re the kind of Jewish that has to leave early on Friday?’ ”
While Aaron, who began removing his kippah in various
workplace settings due to his gradually increasing feelings of discomfort, said his habits would “definitely” differ if he were exclusively working with Jewish clientele, as taking off his kippah can cause problems when he’s dealing with his religious peers. “I occasionally bump into Jewish lawyers I know who wear kippahs in public and there’s an unspoken tension in the air,” he said.
“They glance up at my head, then back to my eyes, and there’s a split second of awkwardness.” In that moment, Aaron said he supposes they’re wondering why he’s not wearing his kippah, given that they see him wearing it in shul. But he is able to shrug off these experiences. “I’m entitled to my own form of expression and it’s none of their business,” he said.
Though he considers it a “deeply personal decision” and has not consulted a rabbi about his choice, Aaron has discussed it with close friends and family members and said that, “People understand.”
Aaron added that he believes the need to feel camouflaged among the general public is universal and not just restricted to Jews. “I think there’s people from every religion, culture and creed who prefer that their background be whitewashed in the business world. It allows people to be seen for their merits, rather than being given a label from the get-go, regardless (of) whether that label is good, bad or neutral,” he said. “In fact, I have a lot of clients (who) would probably prefer to see me wearing (a kippah), because of the stereotype that Jews make good lawyers. But it’s more about subjective feelings – about how I feel I will be perceived – than about what is objectively perceived.”