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Menachem Kaiser

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Why I (Sometimes) Don't Wear A Kipah*

Posted: 07/29/09 12:32 PM ET

*Also commonly known as yarmulke (or variations thereof) and kapul. More secular versions include skullcap and jewcap. Often confused by the uninitiated with the religiously insignificant beanie.

When I made my twice-deferred move to New York, to finally matriculate at Columbia University, I did so with a confident, if nuanced, religious pride. I wore my kipah without much thought, felt almost silly without it – much in the same way a man might feel naked without his belt. It's been there since my long blond curls were snipped at age three, and if I ever even stopped and thought about it, there was little obvious impetus to remove it. It had become a natural fit, a minor, agreed-upon dress code.

But New York and university environment were a far cry from Jerusalem. The kipah began to weigh heavier and heavier on my head, and I was increasingly more aware — and wary — of its implications. The religious contingent on campus is enormous. They're very visible and vocal, especially when it comes to contentious politics (i.e., Israel/Palestine). Often, I didn't side with them — or at least saw way more shades of gray — but seemingly, the choice wasn't mine; I was wearing their uniform. It's not as if I experienced anything resembling anti-Semitism or even remote hostility. It was an internal discomfort, an agonizing realization of self-identity – or lack thereof. Open, visible identification with any group whose rules and/or opinions are stated or implicitly assumed is a responsibility, or, conversely, a burden.

So the kipah came off. In the classroom, on subjects commonly thought defined and determined within Orthodox Judaism (think sexuality, morality, religion, etc.), I could offer my two cents autonomously. I was disconnected from the party line and could freely state an 'unorthodox' position without exuding bitter contrarianism. And my semi-departure from Jewish law was all the smoother. But still, I missed my kipah. Though my Jewish pride may have shifted from a religious base to a more expansive cultural/historical one, it wasn't gone. And now, aside from my circumcision, I had lost my most vital affiliative sign.

And I'm far from the only one. The kipah is being tossed at a quickening rate by many of my peers. The reasons given are as varied as the kipah designs available. Teenagers may be rebelling against their parents' cherished ideals, and the kipah is undoubtedly the epitomic representation of traditional Jewry today. Or, more subtly, one drops halacha (Jewish law) and views the kipah as a bit-more-than-mildly discordant with his new lifestyle. Or one simply thinks it will help his chances with non-Jewish women. (Unlikely.) Whatever the case, the underlying thread is not difficult to locate – these kipah-droppers no longer (permanently or momentarily) wish to identify with the fairly rigid Kipah Standard.

But need it be so? In my neighborhood, you can occasionally glimpse a kipah-clad head munching happily in a non-kosher establishment. I've even seen kipahs in pizza shops on Friday nights. Most religious Jews will label them as hypocrites. I think they represent the future of the kipah. Or at least what I hope it becomes.

To the religious folk, a question: Why do you perform whatever religious actions you do? I doubt it's solely because you believe God asked you to, if at all. More likely it's a strongly secular conglomerate of tradition, continuity, community, etc. So why not allow the kipah-wearing the same sort of a-religious pass?

Yes, I realize that the kipah is, by its very nature, public, and somewhat declaratory. So? A conspicuous cloth on the head may be a badge of some sort, but that shouldn't connote a statement. And it certainly should not be a theological assertion. Perhaps it is even an identification symbol, but yet – it is one in dire need of redefinition.

The kipah-wearer needn't identify as a religious/traditional member of the tribe, but with them. An ally, if you will. The effect of such a change, if pervasive, would be two-fold. Firstly, the kipah is no longer a statement or proclamation about the beliefs/opinions of the wearer. Theological, philosophical, political, whatever: I'll no longer assume you believe in God, support Israel, keep kosher, or, for that matter, anything at all (aside from your obvious and harmless and infinitely respectable affinity towards Jewish tradition). This works both ways, for the wearer and the observer are in tacit agreement of what the kipah means (i.e., not much). So people who would otherwise, for whatever reason, be uncomfortable wearing a religious statement on their head can rest easy, and observers/critics don't find themselves in the unenviable and compromising position of explaining/distancing/criticizing the kipah-wearers who publicly flaunt Jewish law or tradition.

Secondly, and only slightly less significantly, a communal admission of the kipah's lowered meaning/symbolism would do much to alleviate the severe internal kipah divisions. Velvet, suede, knit, colored, etc., have all come to represent various sub-groups and affiliations and loyalties. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, go and ask an Orthodox colleague.) But the subsections the different kipahs pretend to represent are just structure-less scaffolding, propped up by our idiotic insistence to magnify tiny diversions in the face of overwhelming similarities. Again, the kipah — and its material, no less! — has come to mean too much. It's time it was reigned in.

I understand that my hope to liberate the kipah is a mite utopic, certain to face criticism and scorn and apathy, and overwhelmingly likely never to be embraced. But few movements are voluntarily assumed; they gradually creep up on a mostly unwitting audience. So until the kipah is more independent from traditional thought and values, I'll leave mine off.

 

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