Last week, Rabbi Daniel Alter of Berlin was on his way home from picking up his daughter. He was approached, asked if he was Jewish, and then attacked when he responded yes. Among the many responses to this attack was one from Gideon Joffe, who heads the Jewish community in Berlin, who stated that he would “not recommend that any Jew go around in parts of Berlin with a kipah.” Additionally, the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam has advised students to choose something inconspicuous to replace the traditional Jewish kippah. The rector of the school has explained that it is safer to not appear to be a Jewish person.
My immediate instinct was to start wearing my kippah full time. In solidarity with every Jew who is afraid to wear one. In honor and acknowledgment of the fact that I live a privileged life in which I don’t have to be afraid to wear mine. I wear my Magen David every day without a second thought. I rock a Magen David tattoo where it is practically impossible to miss.
After all, bodies are political. Every time we step out of our doors, people read our bodies to find out who we are. Our clothes, our jewelry, our manner of walking — everything we embody says something about what we hold dear, what we fight against, what we are, and what we want to be. The wearing of a kippah, particularly in my wealthy suburban neighborhood, is in some ways a political act. It states, in a way that tattoos don’t, that I am a Jew — not just a Jew with a tattoo, but a Jew who identifies, a Jew who practices, a religious Jew, a Jew you cannot ignore by pretending not to see the other markers.
But I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing the irony of donning a kippah as a political practice because it marks me as a religious Jew. I have no problems with religious acts being political — they frequently are. But they should not only be political. If I am to don the kippah, it must be a spiritual act as well as a political one. For me, there is no way to move forward without balancing the two.
This complicates things. Women are not required (or even asked) to wear the kippah. From a biblical point of view, only the priests are required to cover their heads (Exodus 28:4). For men it is traditional, because of the law codes, which suggest that one should not walk four cubits without their heads being covered. Any wearing of a kippah, for a woman, is in some way a political act.
How then, does it become equally as spiritual? Talmud tells us that we wear a head covering because it reminds us of G…d, who is the Higher Authority “above us” (Kiddushin 31a). Problematic for a Jew who sees G…d as immanent as much as transcendent. But the truth of it remains, I think. The kippah reminds us, at the most inconvenient times (when playing sports or when a lover tries to run fingers through your hair, just to name two), that the joyous moments of your life are a gift. It’s a reminder that you are who you are, and that G…d is who/what/where/all the glorious things that G…d is. It’s a reminder every day that you are observant, in whatever ways that observance takes you.
It may be, as I am hoping it will be for me, a way into a more fully spiritual and observant life. As I struggle with the mitzvot, as I struggle to work more and more observance into my daily Jewish life, the kippah can act as a step out the door — a small thing that reminds me daily of who I am and why I struggle for the things I want in my life.
(See the referenced news stories here: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/german-jews-warn-against-yarmulkes/2012/08/31/ and http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/159526#.UEPpNaNB33A )