Sunday, July 10, 2011

Me and My Kippah

I gave this as a talk in my Homiletics class in the Spring of 2007. For the initiated, homiletics is “the art of preaching or writing sermons.” Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to “preach” as I speak – sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not. In this case, it seems to work out just fine.

My next several posts will be about “me and my Kippah.” In actuality they will be about the process I underwent when I decided to cover my head and how it has changed over the years. What is interesting about about this particular process is that several other important Jewish issues in my life seemed to be intertwined with this one particular issue – my comfort level in Israel (not about Israel, mind you, but being in Israel); my Jewish identity, particularly the Reconstructionist part; and finally, how I was able to sort out my relationship to halacha (Jewish law). That’s quite a bit to place “on a little round bit of fabric” as I mention later on in the piece. But it is very strong fabric….

Me and My Kippah
As a woman who wears a kippah all the time, I’ve been subject to the same question over and over - from Jews and non-Jews alike: Why do you wear a kippah? Or more bluntly: what are you doing with that thing on your head?  From non-Jews unfamiliar with a kippah I get asked to explain what the little round thing on my head is.

Sometimes I’m asked quite politely and other times - not so politely - especially in Israel! But I’ll get to that later.

Interestingly, I don’t remember the first time I put on a kippah for real. I say “for real” because as a child I would play at wearing a shmata on my head and a cape or towel around my shoulders and make pretend I was wearing a kippah and tallit like all the boys and grown men did at my day school. At one point I snuck into the principal’s office at the orthodox day school that I went to – looking for potato chips actually – and instead found a kippah, one of those big black ones, lying on his desk.  I tried it on for a minute – and then threw it back on his desk and ran out petrified. It’s a good thing we Jews don’t believe in hell or that would’ve been one of the first times I would have been sent there! For days I was sure Rabbi Cohen could read my mind – or fingerprint my head – and that he knew I had tried on his kippah. Luckily he never did find out – I was safe. 

Fast forward about 15 years. I was in my early 20’s, newly married and faced with a dilemma. What was I going to wear on my head when I went to synagogue now that I was a married woman? I had always assumed that I would wear head scarves – really I have no idea why as no one in my family and few of my friends actually wore head scarves. I was not yet ready to wear a kippah – so I began wearing a hat to shul. I don’t remember when the hat morphed to a kippah, but it was a fairly gradual transformation. A time came when I realized I was wearing a kippah in synagogue fairly often. 

I moved to Maryland in the mid 1990s and began learning to read Torah. I enjoyed reading Torah, practiced diligently and would read regularly. Anytime that I practiced reading Torah or practiced leading a service I would put a kippah on. Then I’d take the kippah off to go back to work (I often practiced layning during my lunch hour), put the kippah on again the next time I practiced, take it off to do whatever, put it back on… you get the picture. One day I just forgot to take it off and it was hours later before I realized that I’d been wearing my kippah all day – and in public!

After that I began wearing my kippah nearly all the time.  Wearing the kippah at home, in shul, in the Jewish agencies in which I worked  or at my childrens’ day school was (fairly) easy; wearing the kippah in public took thought.  I eat in non-kosher restaurants – do I wear a kippah there? I drive on Shabbat – do I wear my kippah when I’m driving or do I take it off? Does Marat Eyin really apply? In other words, will people get the wrong impression if they see me wearing a kippah while I’m driving on Shabbat? And does it matter to me if they do?

Well, it does and it doesn’t.  It’s taken me a long time to understand why I wear a kippah and that dictates when I will wear it. I do it for myself, not for what others may think of me, though I will take appearances into account when warranted.  I wear a kippah because it reminds me that I, as a human being, am not the be all and end all of the universe. There is an awesome power up above me – or perhaps all around me and through me -  and that awesome power is the reason for my being. My kippah keeps me humble when I need to be humbled and grounds me when I need to be grounded.

Some call this Yirat Shamayim – fear of heaven. In fact, in the Talmud, in tractate Shabbat 156b it states Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you.  Translate fear of heaven as awe and wonder – and it works for me.   In another part of the Talmud, tractate Kiddushin 31a it states that Rabbi Honah ben Joshua never walked 4 cubits (2 meters) with his head uncovered. He explained: "Because the Divine Presence (Shekhina) is always over my head." And in still other places, the Talmud associates covering one’s head with humility. So I guess my reasons are bound up with all of these.  

Keeping me humble and grounded places a lot of responsibility on a little round bit of fabric. Yet I dare to pile even more on to this responsibility as I require my kippot to match my outfits or my moods –
So… when I am happy I wear a bright colored kippah to reflect my mood, when I’m sad I might wear a bright colored kippah to get me out of my funk – of course, since I can’t see the kippah once it’s on my head I’m not quite sure how this works, but I do it anyway. To continue:  in a silly mood I wear my purplish/pink kippah that has bananas on it – in a serious mood the black kippah, on high holidays the white kippah.

When I need a little extra help or comfort – I wear the grey kippah with white trim.  This is the first – and only – kippah that I ever crocheted; I made it back in 1982 when I was a student in Israel. I originally made it for my then boyfriend/ now husband – but we temporarily broke up so I never gave it to him.  Instead I gave it to my Dad who wore it for over 20 years. He returned it to me just before his Alzheimer’s got to the point that he couldn’t recognize anything anymore. I guess it’s my good luck piece. (*see update below)

I also have my grandfather’s fancy black kippah decorated with silver and gold thread that I have worn on occasion, and that my son wore the first time he read Torah. So kippot also have an intergenerational component to them for me.

In his book  "Guide for the Perplexed," Maimonides states that the early Sages were repelled by a bare head.  Using a twist on Maimonides observation, I will admit that when I am having a bad hair day I will forsake my kippah for a hat. I’m not repelled by a bare head, just by really bad hair!

As we all know, it has long been the tradition that only men wear kippot. In recent times this has changed, but it is still not the norm to see a woman out and about her business with a kippah on her head. In shul, in school – yes in most but not all liberal circles, but not in the street and especially not in Israel.

I have been very fortunate. For most of my time wearing a kippah I have been met with good will by those around me – friends and strangers – non Jews and Jews alike, both liberal and Orthodox. I might get some funny looks and the occasional question but usually I have been treated with respect. When someone – Jew or non-Jew - would ask me why I wear a kippah I’d respond with Yirat Shamayim – fear of Gd and humility, and then say that I am studying to be a rabbi (which technically I have been doing in an informal way for as long as I can remember.) In truth, saying that I am studying to be a rabbi often feels like the coward’s way out– but I am not always in the mood for detailed discussions about Gd or the place of gender in religion.

I do get the occasional dirty looks or snide remarks, usually from someone who is orthodox – but it is rarely from an adult – usually it’s a yeshiva student. I will either ignore them or tell them to treat people with derech eretz, respect.  Luckily for me they are the exception rather than the rule. A good friend of mine gets this reaction all the time when she wears a kippah – the rarity for her is to be ignored or respected with her kippah on. We have yet to figure out why we have such different experiences.

I recently was at Baltimore Washington Airport airport. I took the shuttle bus from the long distance parking lot to the main terminal. An elderly black man was driving the bus that day. He looked at me quizzically when I got on the bus but didn’t say anything. As I was leaving the bus, he asked me “what is that thing that you are wearing on your head?”  I replied that it is called a kippah, a Jewish ritual headpiece. He asked why I was wearing it. I explained that I am a rabbi. He asked what a rabbi is. I said it was a Jewish clergy person – he looked puzzled so I clarified – a Jewish priest.  “Oh,” he replied “I ain’t never heard of that!”

I move in such a defined space, my own little world, that I forget sometimes that there are people who don’t know what kippot are, don’t know what rabbis are – may not know any Jews. Another lesson in humility.

In general, my kippah has not prevented me from doing something that I wanted to do.  I might take it off, or wear a hat over it, temporarily, not because I am ambivalent about wearing a kippah but because I’m not sure of the message that I would be giving at that moment.   

However, there is one thing that my wearing a kippah full time prevented me from doing for far too many years - and that was traveling to Israel.  It troubled me that I was comfortable wearing a kippah in the States but uncomfortable with the idea of wearing one in Israel – the Jewish homeland. Dealing with reactions in the States is one thing – at least there are other women around who wear kippot – even in my own community there are a few other kippah sporting women. But in Israel – well that’s another story. I didn’t know what to do – so I avoided the issue and never went.

It would 18 long years from my last visit to Israel until I went again. And I struggled the whole time about whether or not to wear my kippah “ba-aretz.” I even wrote about it in my admissions statement to Rabbinical school which I wrote just before I left for Israel in the spring of 2006.  I interviewed at RRC just a week or so after I returned from my trip. The first question the interview team had for me was – Well, what did you decide – did you wear a kippah in Israel or not? The answer was yes.

As I explained earlier, I wear a kippah for me, not for what others will think of me. And I have to be myself, regardless of the country I happen to be in at the moment. So I wore my kippah in Israel.  The decision and the experience may have been a bit easier for me than it might have been, because I was with a group of Jewish Educators from the States,  but it was a challenge, none the less. I wore the kippah the entire 10 days I was there, even at the Wall – though I did cover my head with a hat during a walk in one of the more religious, haredi, neighborhoods in Jerusalem – out of a fear of violence.

I thought I’d end my discussion of “Me and my Kippah” with a few kippah related vignettes from my time in Israel.

Not a day passed when I wasn’t asked – lama at loveshet kippah? Or some Hebrew equivalent of what the heck do you think you are doing wearing a kippah on your head? I usually answered that I am studying to be a rabbi and for most that was sufficient. It was a great way to practice my Hebrew. But there were others for whom no answer would satisfy –

The 2 orthodox girls at a rest stop outside of Beit Shemesh who told me it was unnatural for a girl to wear a kippah and I’d never find a man to marry me. When I told them I was married and had been for 20 years – well, they impugned my husband’s reputation (I never told him that part of the story!)

Then, there was the food concession owner across from Nachalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv who got so angry at me because I wouldn’t buy shwarma from his restaurant. I had been going up and down the street looking for a place to buy kosher shwarma – and I couldn’t find one! This particular man became more and more irate as he insisted his meat was kosher even without a t’u-da – the kosher certification. As I politely and quickly backed out of his store – he and a female customer started berating me and my kippah and talking about “those kind of women” – to this day I have no idea what kind of woman they were referring to!

My favorite story though took place in our Jerusalem hotel. An Israeli tour guide was waiting for some people to meet her as our group gathered in the lobby. She began by giving me suspicious side long glances. Then finally she barged into our group and began peppering me with questions: why do you wear a kippah? Oh you’re American? A rabbi student? Which kind – reformi, conservativi? I never heard of reconstructivi – are you sure they are real? You should be careful where you go in Jerusalem – it will be dangerous for you in many areas, you will be stoned – I know, I am tour guide (envision woman with purple-er hair than mine beating her chest as she says this).  As my group stands around me with their mouths hanging open, I politely try to simultaneously answer her questions and rebuff her. She finally glares at me, hurumphs, and walks away – only to return again and say – in Hebrew mind you – what are you anyway, transgender? And then she walks away for good.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Not everyone I met in Israel was mean to me – for the most part, as I said, they were quite nice. My favorites were the older couple I met in the elevator of our hotel. They were thrilled when I told them that I was studying to be a rabbi. They didn’t know of Reconstructionism but were very happy for me. The gentleman asked when I’d have smicha because they could use me on the local rabbinic council! Whenever we would run into each other after that they would give me encouraging smiles and nods.

When I finally made the conscious decision to wear my kippah all the time, instead of just at the more obligated times of prayer or study, I knew that I was not choosing an easy path. There are still details of daily living to be worked out – in particular those decisions about wearing a kippah at what could be called “questionable” times such as in a non-kosher restaurant or while driving on Shabbat or a holiday. There may come a time I no longer need to wear a kippah to keep me humble and grounded – that I will find another way. But until then, if then, it’s just “Me and my Kippah.”

[*Update 2011 : That kippah literally flew off my head during my 6 month stay in Israel in 2009 when I made some important decisions regarding head coverings. More on that in a later piece of writing.]

Let me conclude with a quiz – what mood do these kippot represent?  (more pictures coming...)

2017 Update
A few things have changed since this was first written. I still cover my head the majority of the time. However, I am now equally comfortable wearing a kippah, hat, or scarf/tichel. I studied the laws of kisui rosh (head covering for women) at the Conservative Yeshiva back in 2009 and at that time decided that it didn’t matter what I covered my head with as long as it was covered. The reasons – yirat shamayaim and anava  still hold true regardless of what type of cloth covers my head.

My final confession – given the political climate of our country at this time, I find myself wearing my kippah almost exclusively. I realized that for the first time I was actually using my kippah as a political statement and not the one that I expected to be making. I always thought that I would be making a feminist statement by wearing a kippah but I find that I am making a religious statement : I am a Jew. And I’m proud of it.


  1. Quite a story! First time I've read something about a woman proud of wearing a kippah! Hope to hear more from you!

    Jasper @ Best Kippah

  2. Thanks for your comment. Read your post about kippot. Interesting that the kippah you posted a picture of is a woman's kippah! There are many (but not too many) women proud of wearing a kippah - but it does get quite complicated, especially in Israel. kol tuv.

  3. Even the young children are taught at an early age this custom of wearing a Kippah at all times and that reinforces the practice further. It is prohibited to go about bareheaded at any time and hence a strictly followed ritual. With such a heavy demand and sale naturally there is a big demand for Kippahs.

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