Thursday, December 08, 2005

Without my yarmulke

Caught Bareheaded

A kipa wearer since childhood makes the decision to go without

By ELLIOT JAGER

The thump to my skull came quick and hard. My Manhattan-bound “D” train had been idling in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park station waiting for the Franklin Avenue Shuttle to pull in, when a black youth snatched my yarmulke through an open window behind me just as the train doors closed.

That was the first time I found myself bareheaded – in public.

This mid-1970s memory came back to me a few months ago after I decided to stop being a full-time kipa wearer.

Frum from birth, I wore a yarmulke on the tough streets of the Lower East Side – mostly without thought, or choice, though sometimes defiantly in the face of nasty remarks from my Puerto Rican neighbors.

I continued to wear a kipa for the 23 years I worked in New York City government. I attended meetings on behalf of my agency in some of New York’s worst neighborhoods, wearing my yarmulke.

Only when I began adjunct teaching in New York area colleges, a part-time job I did after work, did I occasionally remove the yarmulke. I told myself that I wanted my students to concentrate on my lectures not my headgear.

It used to be you could fudge matters.

Prior to the 1960s, most men sported hats, like in old Humphrey Bogart movies. Now hats are passé. Still, plenty of Diaspora Jews wear caps of different kinds to enjoy a small degree of anonymity.

Granted there is also a trend in the opposite direction.

Never before – in New York and London – has ultra-Orthodox garb been more ubiquitous. And increasing numbers of non-haredi Orthodox Diaspora Jews are choosing to wear yarmulkes in public. Chalk that up to multiculturalism – acculturation is out, ethnic pride is in.

Had I remained in New York, especially if I had stayed in my old neighborhood, in my old job, inertia would have kept me from goings sans kipa.

Paradoxically, moving to Jerusalem liberated me from my kipa.

Still, it was awkward to go bareheaded the first few days. At work several people asked me what was going on? None got a straight answer. Mostly I made a joke and changed the subject.

SO WHY? “This above all: to thine own self be true,” wrote Shakespeare.

In my spiritual self, I am no longer Orthodox. So wearing a kipa is misleading. I don a kipa when I daven or have a significant meal and on Shabbat. That’s it. Not a perfect solution, but a solution of sorts.

Dropping the kipa is foremost a statement. I often feel God has hidden His face from me and keeping my kipa in my pocket is a form of jejune protest.

It is also belated rebellion against my spiritually wasted yeshiva years. And it is a silent protest against those in my orbit who defame God’s holy name by behaving badly with little thought to the yarmulkes on their heads.

My decision leaves me uneasy. In the Diaspora, yarmulkes are partly intended to identify Jews among gentiles. Here, they are more like bumper stickers. Israelis are defined by whether they wear a head covering or not, and by the style of their kipa – velvet and large for the ultra-Orthodox; knitted for the national-religious; endless variations for the in-between.

IN POST-BIBLICAL times, Jewish custom demanded men and women cover their hair: women for the sake of modesty, both sexes as a sign of God above. The Kizur Shulchan Aruch codified that “a man ought not walk four cubits” bareheaded because doing so “suggests overbearing pride, ignoring God’s omnipresence.”

By the 17th century, Jews made it a point of covering their heads in contradistinction to Christians, who even prayed bareheaded.

Rabbi Isaac Klein’s Guide to Jewish Religious Practice opens with the warning that “The theoretical approach to the regulations regarding the covering of the head will lead us to a controversial field.”

Klein instructs: “Thereare sources that make covering the head by a Jewish male a special practice of the pious, and there are sources indicating that it is mandatory for all.”

While he doesn’t say that going bareheaded is halachically acceptable, he also doesn’t explicitly forbid it.

Klein’s conservative Conservative position – the approach I now embrace – is to wear a kipa in shul, when davening or learning, when performing a ritual and when eating.

Losing the kipa has its complications. Does it seem I am aligning myself with those who don’t give the spiritual sphere a second thought – with Israel’s secular majority? It must seem so to some.

And what about the “D” train Jew-hater? Have I given him a post-facto victory?

I don’t think so.

I’ve cast my fate as solidly as I can with Jewish civilization by living in Eretz Ysiroel.

But what about God?

My hunch is – and it’s just that, because I don’t know God’s truth – the Creator isn’t bothered.

As Carl Jung pointed out, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”

(Originally published in Inside: Jewish Life & Style in Greater Philadelphia, Summer 2004)

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