October 21, 2019

It’s Time to Take Back the Kippah

The same day that The Jerusalem Post published a game-changing op-ed by Israeli writer Hen Mazzig under the headline “Reclaiming the Kippah,” news reports circulated of a young man in Bonn, Germany, assaulting a 50-year-old Johns Hopkins University professor in a park, shouting: “No Jews in Germany!” Police respondng to the scene then mistook the professor as the assailant, tackling him and punching him  before putting him in handcuffs.

How did the young man, later identified by police as having “Palestinian roots,” know the professor was Jewish? Because the professor was wearing a kippah.The incident could not have underlined Mazzig’s point more sharply: The kippah — signifying our identity as Jews — has been taken away from us. It’s well past time to take it back. 

“To wear a kippah is to publicly declare yourself as a member of a hated minority,” Mazzig wrote. “Our people were always told to be ashamed of something: who we are, our religion, our attire, even the fact that we have national aspirations. … For centuries, [the kippah] distinguished Jews from non-Jews, and at various points in history became one of the strongest symbols of Jewish courage and pride.”

Mazzig is calling for that moment again, not as a provocation but rather as self-identification, when our identity again is being used against us.

Mazzig is not religious. He doesn’t keep Shabbat, and he eats non-kosher food. “But I most certainly am a Jew; I am proud to be a Jew and I am proud to identify as a Jew.”

At a time of in-your-face identity politics, the kippah is subtle, quiet and dignified. The kippah whispers. It has no need to be brash or seek outside validation. And yet its capacity to stir the soul is profound.

Mazzig wants to reclaim the kippah not just from anti-Semites, but also from strict Orthodox Jews, who equate it with following all 613 mitzvot. “Wearing a kippah should not be a symbol of allegiance to a particular sect of Judaism,” Mazzig wrote, “but a symbol of solidarity with one of the most historically oppressed people on earth.”

The kippah has no need to be brash or seek outside validation.

I understand that observant Jews may not embrace Mazzig’s mission as easily as I have. But we are at a particular moment, with anti-Semitism spiking and young Jews in the Diaspora disconnecting. This is a moment to look at the larger picture, and I think Mazzig is onto something.

As a gay Jew who travels the world to speak about Israel, Mazzig believes that wearing a kippah can help teach tolerance and acceptance. “We can be ambassadors for our people, in everything we do, by identifying as proud Jews,” Mazzig wrote.

Mazzig acknowledges that wearing a kippah can be dangerous. “While I do not plan to walk down the streets of France with a kippah, 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,” wrote Mazzig, whose mother is from Iraq and whose father is a Berber from Tunisia. “With a kippah, I am truly practicing what I preach.”  

The kippah as ethnic symbol is a subtle, dignified way for us to reclaim our identity while many are intent on erasing it. I’ve worn my grandmother’s delicate Star of David around my neck for years. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I felt a strong need to wear it on the outside of my shirt, to be seen and accepted as a Jew in a very un-Jewish city.

In New York, I typically keep it hidden. In the past, I did that because New York is so Jewish, I felt no need to show it. But I will be honest: I now don’t feel entirely safe showing it. I’ve bought Israel Defense Forces shirts for my son but let him wear them only inside our apartment. Would I love for him to wear a kippah? Absolutely. Would I be nervous? Absolutely.

But this is where Mazzig’s mission comes in. What if all of the Jewish men in New York wore kippahs? What a beautiful unity — a sacred bond — that would create.

Throughout our history, Jews have been told who we are, leading to every possible tragedy. Enough. We are indigenous to the land of Israel, and we are no longer going to be used as scapegoats, even by our own people. 

The small, elegant kippah can play the role it was perhaps meant to play: keeping us connected, both to God and one another, when every attempt is being made to tear us apart.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic.