On November 9th, 2016, I woke up after a pretty sleepless election night, and when I finally found the energy to leave the house and walk to work, I went outside intentionally wearing a kippah in public for the first time.
It was a gut-level decision about how I wanted to show up in the world, but over the past three months I’ve been unpacking the multiple layers of my decision. Why is wearing a kippah in public an intentional choice that I’m choosing to make over and over again, every day?
I was ordained as a rabbi last May, and during my entire time in rabbinical school, I rarely wore any kind of Jewish ritual headcovering. Wearing a kippah isn’t commanded by Jewish law – even for men, it has the force of an incredibly strong custom. There isn’t just a single reason why Jewish people have worn kippot. One common explanation is that wearing a kippah is about wanting to acknowledge the divine presence all around us at every moment, or about acknowledging God at particular spiritual moments during the day. Some people will wear a kippah all the time, or a hat or other head covering, and others will only put one on when they’re praying, or eating, or learning Torah.
For me, the clearest purpose of the kippah seems to be to signify one’s Jewishness to the rest of the world. In Israel, you can tell which sect of Judaism one belongs to by the size and fabric that their kippah is made from – it’s a cultural and religious marker. Living in New York City for the last four years, I’d have this funny, incompatible feeling when I’d see kippah or black-hat wearing Orthodox Jewish men on the subway – a simultaneous feeling of “you’re my brother!” and “Don’t you see me too? You probably have no idea that I’m observant too – but in ways that could look totally different from your practice.”
For women, the practice of wearing a kippah is still pretty new, and there was a wide range of headcovering practices among my female classmates in rabbinical school. Here were a few of the justifications I’d tell myself for why I didn’t wear one:
- Wearing a traditional kippah felt overly masculine.
- Wearing a feminine kippah was way too feminine – I wasn’t into the beads and flowery designs.
- Other ritual ways of covering my head worn by Jewish women, like thick headbands and hats and headscarves made me look married and Orthodox.
- Some of my anti-kippah, pro-headcovering female rabbi friends would wear headbands regularly instead of kippot – but headbands messed up my hair. Ugh.
- I already wore a tallis and tefillin when I prayed, so I didn’t have a need to add a kippah to the prayer garb to feel even more spiritually connected.
- And maybe most strongly: I liked being anonymous in public. I’m an observant Jew, but I didn’t need to wear that on my sleeve (or head). I wanted to move through the world with ease, without attracting attention or stares, without people making assumptions about the kind of person I was or wasn’t because of the kippah on my head.
I’m not super proud of any of these justifications, but I wanted to share them because in the era of Trump, a time of growing social and political consciousness for many of us, the excuses lost most of their significance. Many of them were rooted in concerns about judgment and public image, of not wanting to let others define me or box me into a certain classification, and so I chose to remain anonymous.
But that lack of outward identification was in itself a choice. If I do nothing, if I wear nothing, if I say nothing, I appear to be another white woman walking through the world with immense privilege, liable to be lumped in with the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump and ostensibly support his policies and administration. If I do nothing to complicate my public identity, I continue to benefit from the privilege of being white in America – the ability to move through the world with less fear and anxiety than people of color, who cannot shed their identity as easily as removing a hat. As a woman, I’ve known some of that fear and vulnerability, but thank God, I’ve been relatively safe from harm throughout my life. I wonder how that may change in this new climate. I’d be fooling myself if I convinced myself that just by laying low and keeping quiet, I’ll remain unscathed.
With a kippah on my head, I don’t suddenly stop being white. But the kippah is a boost to help me show up publicly in a fuller, truer way than I was before. To not merely hide and blend in. To not act in ways that make me complicit with systems of racism and oppression. Not only is it a signal to others that I too am part of a minority group here in America who has been targeted by white supremacists and those who wish to erase our stories – it is also a challenge to myself to show up in the world with moral courage.
The kippah isn’t just a symbol of Jewish identity. It is a marker of moral commitment. I now have to ask myself every time I’m calculating how big of a tip to leave my waitstaff, or deciding whether to intervene when witnessing someone being harassed, or whether to risk arrest in protest of the travel ban: Am I acting with moral courage? Am I acting in a way that is a kiddush hashem, literally a sanctification of God’s name – a way that will elevate the moral reputation of the Jewish community as a community who stands for justice and righteousness?
The kippah is a religious and cultural symbol that is already laden with so many meanings and valences, some of them positive and some of them in need of rehabilitation. For me, the election was a catalyst for shifting the kippah’s meaning as a way of publicly showing up in my commitment to social justice. I have heard from other liberal Jews in the Mishkan community and around the country who recently began wearing a kippah for similar reasons to mine. I want to hold this choice up as a possibility for all of us, and as a challenge:
How will you choose to live your moral commitments out in the world?
What tools will keep you accountable and help you rise to the occasion to act justly when opportunities present themselves?
(Feel free to respond in the comment box below.)