Reclaiming the kippah

Our people were always told to be ashamed of something: who we are, our religion, our attire, and even the fact that we have national aspirations.

A child wearing a Kippah (photo credit: REUTERS)
A child wearing a Kippah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the best-known symbols of the Jewish people is the kippah (yarmulke). For centuries, it distinguished Jews from non-Jews and at various points in history became one of the strongest symbols of Jewish courage and pride.
To wear a kippah is to publicly declare yourself as a member of a hated minority.
It is an action that, while small, may even put you in danger today. Our people were always told to be ashamed of something: who we are, our religion, our attire, and even the fact that we have national aspirations.
Sadly, the situation today is not much different from the past. It is precisely for this reason that I am taking a stand and wearing a kippah in Israel and abroad.
I am not a religious Jew. I do not keep Shabbat, I eat non-kosher food, and I don’t observe all of the Jewish laws. But I most certainly am a Jew; I am proud to be a Jew and I am proud to identify as a Jew.
Amongst Jewish religious groups there is still a debate over the idea of wearing a kippah at all times. According to Maimonides, Jewish law dictates that a man is required to cover his head during prayers and it is strongly suggested that a Jew will cover his head at all times. However, according to Israeli Jewish authorities such as the rabbinate, it should be worn to show affiliation with the religiously observant community. But who are they to decide that this Jewish law is only for them? That one of the most publicly identifiable characteristics of a Jew is primarily a sign of affiliation with a certain sector of the religious community rather than to the overall community? The power that was given to the rabbinate (by no one but itself) has always been infuriating to me and many other Israelis – both religious and secular – not necessarily on account of how they decide how they want to practice Judaism, but because they force their interpretation of Jewish law on others, interpretations that sometimes go far beyond what the religion of Judaism stipulates in the Jewish holy texts.
Who is the rabbinate to say whether or not I can get civilly married in Israel? Why do all of Israel’s secular Jewish citizens have to serve their country while the ultra-Orthodox do not? Why are they the ones to exclusively decide who is Jewish and who is not, going even beyond the requirements put forth by the Torah itself? Why should they decide who is worthy of wearing a kippah and who is not? Does any kippah-wearing Jew practice all the 613 mitzvot required by Judaism? Why are they considered the authority on which laws are more important than others? MANY RELIGIOUS communities have major problems with sexism, corruption, even domestic violence, and yet these violations of Jewish law are not a priority for the religious authorities in the rabbinate.
It seems that they are more concerned with outward appearances than with actual Jewish law; and yet, the fact remains that even a Jew who keeps none of the 613 mitzvot is still a Jew, and would still face discrimination from enemies of the Jewish people.
Wearing a kippah should not be a symbol of allegiance to a particular sect of Judaism, but a symbol of solidarity with one of the most historically oppressed people on earth.
Today, I feel more Jewish than ever before. Because of my work, I travel frequently and I have experienced firsthand how antisemitism is alive and well. While I do not plan to walk down the streets of France with a kippah and go live on Facebook, I do want to be visible. I often speak about how we should be proud to be Jews, but it is easy to say that when I look Arab, when I get people speaking Arabic to me, and I can answer in Arabic. With a kippah I am truly practicing what I preach.
When I travel abroad, I do not spend my days in the synagogue. I go out, I party in gay bars, I have brunch in cafes with friends, and I believe that it is important that society learns to accept me as a Jew, wherever I may be. Friends from around the world are always surprised to learn that I am Jewish. The Jew that they think of is a stereotypical ultra-Orthodox Jew, because they are the most visibly Jewish sect by outward appearances. I want to change that. Just wearing a kippah to a gay bar in London recently got the attention of a drag-queen host who wished to share how much she loves Israel. It is important that people know that there are different kinds of Jews.
My reasons for wearing a kippah are not to offend religious communities or those who choose to be more observant. They are based on my love for the Jewish people and for my country. It comes from my desire to make a change, to teach tolerance and acceptance of the other. I want others to do it not as a provocation, but as a symbol of unity and pride. We can change perceptions in Israel and abroad, by doing something minor, but meaningful. We can be ambassadors for our people, in everything we do, by identifying as proud Jews. It is time to take back the kippah, for all Jews.
The author is a writer, public speaker and digital communications consultant from Tel Aviv.
Twitter: @HenMazzig