On our trip to Spain this Hanukkah, my two sons debated whether they should wear their kippot openly, as they usually do, or cover them with baseball caps. The ensuing family debate stirred many compelling Jewish identity dilemmas. Ultimately, their decision worked for them and us. Wandering around Christmas-time Barcelona with their kippot naturally, proudly, perched on their heads added Jewish magic to our family vacation.As an American and a Jew I have long been ambivalent about Europe. As an American, I often feel judged by Europeans as a loud, crude, grasping cowboy. In return, I confess, I can be a bit judgmental myself, wandering around Venice, Florence or other sites, dazzled by their medieval majesty, but wondering, “what have they done lately?” Of course, as a Jew I am all too aware of what some Europeans did lately, both six decades ago with the Holocaust and most recently with their New anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yet, as a Jew I also acknowledge how modern Judaism benefited from its creative symbiosis with Europe. I feel positive resonances of Jewish history throughout Europe, even the relatively Jew-free zone called Spain. And, as a human, I appreciate how much of the cultural, intellectual, and ideological forces I most cherish in Western civilization bear Europe''s imprint.As a modern Jew I also have my issues with kippa-wearing. Reared as an achievement-oriented Queens-boy in 1970''s New York, I was raised to fit in. Fitting in was America''s great welcoming gift to us, the European Enlightenment’s promise finally fulfilled in the New World. Fitting in was also the key to getting ahead, the Holy Grail for all us middle class wannabes -- and a kippa did not fit the plan. It was always about standing out.
Blessed with a name like Gil Troy, I could get great service at Greek restaurants - balancing out all the jokes about whether my mother was Helen-of.... and, joy of joys, I sometimes was even mistaken for a WASP. When I was a teaching assistant at Harvard in the 1980s, a real White Anglo-Saxon Protestant who like me had a last name that also can function as a first name, said to me: "There are so few WASPs like us left at Harvard nowadays." Putting on my thickest “New Yawk” accent, I retorted: "even fewer than ya think!" Enjoying my malleability, I joined the kippa-ba-kis, the kippa-ever-present-in-the-pocket, crowd -- keeping it rolled not folded to avoid telltale creases, but ready to don it for religious ceremonies and in more 24-7-like Jewish contexts.
By contrast, my two sons have a delightfully healthy and natural relationship with the kippa. They wear it all the time. Whereas their dad might feel uncomfortable if "caught" wearing it in the "wrong" context, outside the Jewish bubble and frankly in more secular Jewish contexts too, they feel uncomfortable if they don''t wear it. My son Yoni, now 14, started wearing a kippa fulltime when he decided at the age of four that he was "awthodox." He didn''t have his “r”s yet but he had his theology intact. For Aviv, 11, it has always been a part of his daily uniform, like wearing a shirt and pants.
We visited Italy in October 2001 just weeks after 9-11 and at the height of Arafat’s war of terror. In those tense days, when people told us we were crazy even to fly, our hosts in Italy were so uncomfortable, they did not want Yoni wearing his kippa under his baseball cap, lest he somehow be exposed. I felt terrible having to explain to my four-year-old and his six-year-old sister about anti-Semitism and terrorism, initiating them into the ancient Jewish neurosis based in the reality of unfair targeting and enduring vulnerability.
Ten years later, the day we left for Spain, I received an email singling it out as Europe’s most anti-Israel country last year. I told my kids. We had a short to-cap-or-not-to-cap debate. But the boys decided quickly and definitively that they were who they were. They would do the Jewish Full Monty in Spain without cowering behind a Yankee logo.
I am thrilled to report that their kippot served as a friend magnet, bringing out the best in Barcelonans and serving as a homing signal for fellow Members of the Tribe. Aviv did feel stared at once or twice but, the first time, he said “I stared right back, and their super-gelled hair was much weirder than my kippa.” The second time, he just imagined them wondering, “Hey, what are you doing here? We thought we got rid of you in 1492."
"You see the kippa’s magic," Yoni said. "It made us new friends. It attracted one rapper who rapped to us about Jewish-Christian friendship, two mah nishmas -whats up -from non-Jews, three chag sameachs from Jews, and four Israelis who said ‘hi.”" Yoni also noted that, thanks to their kippot, we were able to steer a French family who asked us, to the kosher market.
The Zionist revolution promised normalcy. My sons and I experience normalcy differently. To me, normalcy is the ability, after centuries of ghettoization, to blend in, to pass, to be accepted. To them, normalcy is the ability, despite the enduring curse of anti-Semitism, to stand out, but to feel completely at home about their uniqueness.
Not all European adventures for kippa-wearers end happily. But the few disasters make the headlines while the many magical moments don’t. When I told Aviv that Yoni found the kippot magical, he corrected me – “they are not magical, they are holy.” Then, pushing his dad, he asked: “After this, maybe you’ll consider wearing one all the time too?”
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”[email protected]