My Kippah Connundrum
All around the world, people define themselves and are defined by others according to the clothes they wear. In Israel too. Except in Israel, you don’t just think about jeans or chinos, sneakers or loafers, suit or sports jacket – you also have to think about that particularly and peculiarly Jewish article of clothing: the kippah.
And I have a kippah problem.
The kippah (also known as the yarmulke, the kuppel, the skullcap, or, amongst young British not-so-philosemitic gentiles, the “yid-lid”) has for many centuries been worn by traditional Jewish males. It’s not Jewish law per se that one must wear a kippah (there were some traditional Jewish communities in which it was not the custom to wear a kippah), but it is a deeply ingrained custom.
The problem is that in Israel, there are many types of kippah, and each type is strictly identified with particular religious groups. So ultra-orthodox Jews wear black velvet kippot underneath their big black hats; new-age Bresslaver hippies wear big, domed, white, thick-weave kippot; modern orthodox right-wing settlers wear regular knitted kippot, often quite large; young modern orthodox Jews who want to be seen as free-thinking and cool wear knitted kippot too, but (here’s where it gets tricky and increasingly absurd) they don’t wear them on the usual part of the head, they wear them on the front of the top of the head, often dangling to one side; and so it goes on. Anthropologists of modern Israel have no doubt written doctoral dissertations on the phenomenon.
Now here’s my problem: I like to wear a kippah, but I don’t fit into any of those categories.
Here’s what I am: I am a politically left-wing, Conservative, egalitarian, pretty-observant Jew. And they don’t make a kippah for me. The left-wing thing is the first big problem. It’s sad but true that the majority of religious Israeli Jews are right wing and don’t support a two-state solution for the peace process. I remember walking the streets of Jerusalem in the weeks after Rabin was assassinated, with a kippah on my head and a Peace Now badge on my shirt, and being stopped, time and time again, by both religious and secular people, asking me how on earth I could wear both of those items at the same time, because didn’t they contradict each other?
The Conservative egalitarian thing is also a problem. I can’t stand 99% of Israel synagogues: I can’t stand the sociology of putting women behind a mechitza, and I can’t stand the orthodox theology that justifies it. When I wear a kippah, it marks me as someone who supports and lives that sociology and theology.
So maybe I shouldn’t wear a kippah at all? (That would certainly make my mother happy). Trouble is, I quite like wearing a kippah. I like the idea that it symbolically marks off and separates me from the world above me, suggesting the notion that there is something greater than us (even if I don’t believe in God). I like the idea that it identifies me as Jewish when I’m in the Diaspora – not only because it encourages me to strive to be more polite, but also because it leads to some great conversations in airports. And for me, there is also something powerful about the kippah as a particularly Jewish tradition: when Christians see something holy, they take their hats off; we put ours on.
I’ve considered various options over the years, none of which has stuck. A good friend of mine cut his kippah in two and wears a half-kippah, symbolically attacking the ridiculous state of affairs in Israel where you have to choose to be either secular or religious. I love that idea, but my wife won’t let me do it: she says it makes me look stupid. A recent TV show played with the idea of a “transparent kippah” but I can’t find one made of see-through plastic. I would love to wear a kippah with the Peace Now logo woven into it, but when I phoned to check if they sold such a thing, they laughed at me. Not a big enough market, I guess.
So meanwhile, I wear an ordinary kippah, walking through the streets of Israel, knowing that everybody thinks I am something I am not. It is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the cross I have to bear.