Our son just turned three. As he reached this milestone, we decided it was time for him to start wearing a kippah on a regular basis. As we have begun his education on this front, it has inspired me to think about my journey regarding kippah-wearing as well.
My relationship with wearing a kippah changed forever when I was at university. In my first year at Columbia, I was part of a black/Jewish dialogue group. As the year began, we discussed all that our respective communities shared in common and how we have traditionally supported each other. One aspect of our lives presented was that we are both part of minorities that can feel persecuted by part of the larger society.
One of the African-American members of the group acknowledged that fact, but added there will always be a difference between our two groups on that front because she would always be identifiable as a black woman, while Jews are not instantly identifiable as Jews by appearance alone. When we walk down the street, no one necessarily knows that we are Jews.
I interjected, suggesting that by wearing a kippah, people always know that I am a Jew. The group reminded me that I can always take my kippah off, while for them, their skin cannot be cast aside so easily.
That reality shook me. I began to think more consciously about how few Jews wear a kippah in public. Many Jews who are reasonably observant do not wear a kippah to work or on the street. Jews, who proudly serve on boards of Jewish organizations and wear their Judaism on their sleeves, do not wear it on their heads. People will wear a kippah in the synagogue as they are in the presence of the divine, but would never consider wearing one at other times and places when God is equally present.
So, for me, that day changed my life. While I have worn a kippah since childhood, from that point it meant something more. That day I recommitted myself to wearing a kippah everywhere I go. Before that moment, I wore a kippah because it is a Jewish tradition. But, from then on, I wore it so that my Judaism would always be known. I would never hide who I was nor try to pass as someone other than who I am.
I must admit that wearing a kippah all the time has had consequences. When I am out, there are Christians who come up to me and want to talk about Judaism. There are people in the supermarket who check my cart or ask where certain foods are. And there are moments when I am inclined to act differently because everyone knows that I am a Jew. I am less likely to cut someone off in traffic because they will know it is a Jew doing it. I am more likely to give to panhandlers on the street because it is not simply an individual choosing to give or not give, but a Jewish person making that choice. Wearing a kippah has inspired me to be a better person and Jew because I know that by wearing it proudly, my actions are not only my own, but representative of a larger peoplehood. The kippah serves as a constant reminder to be the best person and Jew that I can be.
For me, wearing a kippah is a critical piece of who I am, and I am proud for everyone to know that I am a Jew. I hope many more people will choose this path and wear a kippah or another identifiable Jewish symbol. Then we will be encouraged to be our best selves not only for our own sakes, but for the Jewish people’s as well.