Caught bareheaded

Moving to Jerusalem liberated me from my kippa.

kippa 88 (photo credit: )
kippa 88
(photo credit: )
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 several years ago after I decided to stop being a full-time kippa 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 kippa 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 passe. 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 kippot in public. Chalk that up to multiculturalism - acculturation is out, ethnic pride is in. Had I remained in New York, especially in my old neighborhood and in my old job, inertia would have kept me from going sans kippa. Paradoxically, moving to Jerusalem liberated me from my kippa. 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 kippa is misleading. I don a kippa 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 kippa is foremost a statement. I often feel God has hidden His face from me, and keeping my kippa 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 covering 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 kippa - 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 to walk four cubits" bareheaded because doing so "suggests overbearing pride, ignoring God's omnipresence." By the 17th century Jews made 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." He instructs: "There are 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 kippa in shul, when davening or learning, when performing a ritual, and when eating. Losing the kippa 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 Yisrael. 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." A version of this essay first appeared in Inside: Jewish Life & Style in Greater Philadelphia. [email protected]