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My Son's Yarmulka

My Son's Yarmulka

As a child of Holocaust survivor, it's hard for me to imagine that my child will openly declare his Jewishness to everyone.


My son will soon be turning three, have his first haircut and start wearing a yarmulka. I approach the time with anxious impatience. At every opportunity, I ask Michael whether he would like to put his yarmulka on, trying to get him used to it. But the truth is that I don't really think it's going to happen. It's hard for me to imagine that a product of my womb will openly declare his Jewishness to any and all who see him.

My father can't even imagine wearing his yarmulka outside the home. How could anyone be so foolhardy to expose himself to a world he believes hates Jews so ferociously? Living in a Hungarian village as a child, he would run terrified from his home to school, knowing that there were ruffians waiting all along the route to beat the little Jew-boy up. Then the yellow star, and the darkness that followed.

Even after the concentration camps were liberated, Hungary was occupied by religion-haters, and identifying yourself as a Jew could lose you your job, or a place to live. It's no wonder he taught me to actively avoid exhibiting physical indicia of my Jewishness.

My father still enjoys being ethnically anonymous in a crowd. When he immigrated to the New World, he discovered that people are not very good at judging your racial origins by looking at your face. So that if you do not put out any obvious signs, people will not guess that you are a Jew, and you can listen to work colleagues make anti-Semitic small talk without being afraid.

For my father, wearing a yarmulka means the private world, the home. It means that you trust the people you are with enough to expose yourself to them. To wear a yarmulka outside is like undressing your most private parts in public. When he was in Israel the first time, my father wore his yarmulka in the street. It was an extraordinary experience; he was able to bring his secret private space out into the open.

For a Jewish woman, it is much easier sit on the fence about these issues of identification. The Jewish dress code for women focuses on covering things like elbows and knees; for females there is no outward expression of Jewishness which all the world can see. When I was in college, I fought my fear of publicly proclaiming that I was a Jew and started wearing a Magen David necklace over my clothes. Surprisingly, my father did not object when I paraded around his office with this conspicuous ornamentation.

But after a while, the Magen David no longer satisfied the need to announce my Jewishness to the world: it could be too easily hidden away if needed; and it had no religious meaning. It was just about me volunteering to decorate myself Jewishly.

My husband, Moshe, just about never takes his yarmulka off. His worst memory of a surgery he had as a boy was when the nurse took his yarmulka away, and when he cried out for it in the night, they wouldn't give it back to him. Moshe has traveled through Western and Eastern Europe, never removing his yarmulka, never covering it up. When someone advised him to take it off at work, he said as long as people were coming in with rings in their ears, noses and navels, he was coming in his yarmulka. He's a third generation American and just can't see what all the fuss is about.

My son is named after my uncle, who taught himself French and disguised himself as a diplomat to hide from the Nazis in Budapest during the War. We don't know how he died. We assume that someone recognized him, and then all the Gestapo had to do was strip him, find the circumcision and, as was their practice, shoot him into the Danube. Bodily symbols are very important in our history, our culture.

Three years ago we imprinted upon my son one indelible sign of his Jewishness. In a few weeks he will show to the world another sign. And in doing so, he will announce his allegiance to our people in the public domain. For him, it will be a coming of age. For me, a coming out.


June 14, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 28

(24) Ruth Hirt, June 25, 2013 1:20 PM

HIS ways are holiness: today it will also mean civilized and decent

The outward manifestation of Jewishness is commendable, I respect explicit gestures and the Biblical teachings guided me to comprehend the deep things of the Almighty over our daily living. If we follow HIS statutes and HIS rules, HE proves us the benefits and advantages of HIS words. Here where I live, I see this common sight as well. Though I was born in southeast Asia but in our country, I was brought up by my family, my school with this value of femininity and decency. Should I say, and am I so thankful to declare: Thank G_D you made us know your ways. It is the best way to be and how to live on this earth.

(23) Rivka, June 21, 2013 4:47 PM

"outed" at Walmart

It's interesting that we women think our "Jewishness", especially statements of "I'm observant", is not obvious to others. When I started as a cashier at Walmart, that was the way I felt too. But I have had so many Jewish people come up to me - out of their way - to let me know they're Jewish too. And they definitely recognize me as Orthodox, I guess they spot the sheitel because behind the cash register they definitely don't see my long skirt, and I do wear short sleeves. So now, I've been "put on notice" that I am constantly "outed" as a representative of the Orthodox community. Non-Jews are mostly oblivious, it's true, but not other Yiddin.

(22) scott, June 20, 2013 5:29 PM

For me dressing as a jew is necessarily about other people. But it's about using the though of what other people think to steel my conduct.

When I was in the US Army, the units I was in were very particular about wearing uniforms off-post. When you step into the civilian world in a uniform you represent the Army and everyone in the Army is judged by your actions. If you got in trouble for getting into a bar room dispute that was one thing-you were in trouble...but if you did it in uniform you embarrassed the service as well as yourself and you were toast.

When out and about wearing a kippah and tzitzit I feel identified not only as a Jew...I live in Israel-that's sort of assumed. I feel identified as a man who is representing himself as a religious Jew and whose actions reflect on all religious Jews. There have been times when I'm meeting with non-religious acquaintances who wander into a non-kosher restaurant or bar and it never fails that at that moment I become extremely aware of my dress. And even in my moments of greatest temptation thinking I'll sit but not eat or beer is kosher and it's just one, I can't get past the door. I just can't see myself sitting in that place and misrepresenting the things I have decided to stand for. And if I simply tuck in my tzitzit and put a cap on, wouldn't I feel hypocritical the next morning when I put them back on?

I try to extend this idea in my life to positive commandments as well, not just the negative. If I'm dressed as a religious Jew and don't help the lady pick up the groceries she dropped or tip a generous amount for good service or avoid cutting someone off on the road or wear a smile on my face and greet people warmly...what am I saying about myself and religious Jews then?

The way you dress is a tool to help you make your conduct consistent with your beliefs not be directed by momentary urges....I think I might have read that somewhere before....

(21) chaim dovid rabinovitch, June 20, 2013 4:03 PM

kippah in society

there are only 3 places where wearing a kippah in public will not have an adverse effect
1. most of Israel
2. some parts of US
3. tight little neighborhood in UK

elsewhere, it's not good practice, and it's thus an extreme rarity

this is a reflection on the locations' uniqueness, not on any ethereal or miraculous change

Rivka, June 21, 2013 4:43 PM

what a shame

I think it's a real shame you have that attitude. I live in the Midwest, definitely not a "Jewish town", but there are lawyers, doctors, and businessmen who proudly wear their kippah. Adverse effects? It's in Hashem's hands - your parnassah cannot be negatively affected by a kiddush Hashem.

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