ABOVE THE FOLD: Wear the kippa with pride

The kippa has a long history. It has no real legal foundation within Judaism, but is instead a perfect example of how a tradition takes on the power of law.

May 9, 2018 07:50
4 minute read.
A MAN wearing a kippa waits for the start of a demonstration against antisemitism at Berlin’s Brande

A MAN wearing a kippa waits for the start of a demonstration against antisemitism at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 2014. (photo credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)


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When I was in undergraduate school, several of us wore kippot. One student, however, stood out from the rest of us. I saw him at the kosher dining room and, naturally enough, assumed he was Orthodox. He was at all Zionist events, but I seldom saw him at religious activities. One day I asked him about what I considered to be a curious discrepancy. This was his response: I wear my kippa as an expression of Jewish pride. My fellow student was a proud, non-observant, Jew.

He wanted everyone to know he was Jewish and the easiest and most obvious way to do that was to wear a kippa. It was that straightforward and easy.

That simple conversation has stuck with me all these years. We could never have had that conversation today. The world has changed. What we once took for granted – the simple act of wearing a kippa in public places – is now fraught with menace.

Wearing a kippa in the Diaspora is dangerous today. Certainly, this simple, often unobtrusive head covering has, for many years, sometimes triggered dirty looks and slurs. But now, wearing a kippa in public carries the risk of the wearer being physically attacked. This horrible fact has become more and more apparent in European cities. After the Kippa March in Berlin this past month, it became impossible to ignore.

The terrifying antisemitic events leading up to the Berlin march should send chills down the spines of every sensible person – no matter your creed, color or religion. Thousands of locals Germans donned kippot in solidarity with regular, religiously observant, wearers. The irony is that it all came about because of an experiment undertaken by a Palestinian Christian who did not believe in the danger and discovered the truth the hard way. After donning his own kippa he was beaten and whipped in the street, and he filmed the entire event.

Berlin is just one place, one example. The danger exists throughout Europe and is spreading within the United States.

There are several disconnects between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry. This is one of the biggest. Israel is the place where Jews stand tall and proud. In the Diaspora, often Jews need to lower their public profile to avoid antisemitic attacks.

Most people wear kippot out of obligation and respect. Even those who do not normally wear kippot place one on their head when it is warranted by the situation – funerals, prayer services, Passover Seder at the home of a grandparent.

Joseph Schuster, leader of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, suggested that Jews stop wearing their kippot in public and instead start wearing baseball caps. He told the Jewish German community that he was “against showing themselves openly with a kippa in a big-city setting in Germany, and wear a baseball cap or something else to cover their head instead.”

Many Zionists were incredulous. Many Zionists were incensed. Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau announced that Jews should continue to wear kippot – and to wear them with pride.

This expression of Rabbi Lau was a modern version of the spectacular essay written by Robert Weltsch, a Zionist leader in Germany, in response to the Nazi law that Jews must wear the yellow star. He wrote that “Jews should wear the yellow star with pride.”

The kippa has a long history. It has no real legal foundation within Judaism, but is instead a perfect example of how a tradition takes on the power of law.

The Talmud instructs that one cover their head for fear of heaven. That is probably the derivation of the word “yarmulka,” a contraction of the words “yarei malka” – have fear of the King (God). “Kipa” means cover or dome. Jews covered their heads as a way of showing reverence to God.

But there were also societies that required Jews to wear special hats. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 required all Jews to wear the Jewish hat. That hat was yellow. Most of us are familiar with it from the famous sculpture of the Maharal of Prague – a hat that looked like the quintessential magician’s hat. In Venice, in 1528, Jewish doctors were exempt from wearing the Jewish hat.

Fast forward a couple of generations and our grandfathers wore caps, they called them “keskelahs,” “koppels” and just plain hats.

Granted, it was an era when hats were commonplace and a standard accoutrement for men. But it was also a way for them to insulate themselves from antisemites and protect themselves from antisemitism. Many Orthodox men who worked in the New York City public school system went so far as to cover their heads with toupees rather than kippot.

Wearing a kippa is a symbol, a powerful Jewish religious symbol. It is a reminder to the wearer to honor God.
Tragically, the consummate Jewish symbol has become a lightning rod for antisemitic vitriol.

The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.

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