“Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me!”
I turn around. It’s pandemic springtime, and the Trader Joe’s parking lot is bustling. What does this stranger want from me?
“Do you always wear … [gesturing at my kippah]?” Aged perhaps in his mid to late 60s, friendly but not smiling, he speaks with an Israeli accent.
“I do. I mean, not while I’m sleeping, but yeah. I wear it regularly.”
“Can you tell me why?”
I have been wearing a kippah daily for over a year. In all that time, I’ve never been asked this question so bluntly. People have commented that they noticed, but never asked me to explain myself.
I stammer a moment.
And why is he asking?
Lacking any ability to size him up or assess his motivation for asking, I plunge in awkwardly. “I wear it to remind myself that there’s something much larger than me, to remind myself that this is God’s world, not mine. שְׁכִינָה לְמַעְלָה מֵרֹאשִׁי [God’s presence is above my head, BT Kiddushin 31b] you know?”
“That’s… interesting,” he says, not walking away. He clearly wants to talk.
“There was another attack on a rabbi recently. Why are you tempting fate, wearing a kippah? Are you scared,” he asks.
“I sometimes think I should be, but so far, I’m not.”
When the Chabad attacks happened, I thought about stopping, about putting it away for a while. When the Colleyville synagogue attack happened, I again considered changing my habits, but for now I’m holding steady. I don’t want to be fearful, and I don’t want to lean on the privilege to hide what makes me a potential target, when so many people can’t hide what makes them targets. I am not a Jew of convenience. This is who I am.
A few weeks back I had been in a different part of the country, in a semi-rural area, and I thought long and hard about whether to put it away for the sake of not riling up people I thought might be anti-Semitic. In the end I didn’t, and I’m glad. The locals were friendly and respectful. It taught me something about stereotyping and how it goes both ways.
“What about respect for the tradition?” When his Holocaust-survivor mother came to visit from Israel several months ago, he wanted to show her how it really is here, so he took her to a local Conservative synagogue. She was so offended by the sight of men and women sitting together, all wearing tallit and kippah, that she didn’t speak to him for a week.
“Are you offended by my wearing a kippah,” I asked him.
“No, but my mother probably would be.”
What would she think about me, a woman pursuing rabbinic ordination? Would she even have a box to put me in? I am not Jewish the way she is Jewish, his story made that clear. My kippah would be the least of her objections, or maybe the most. In her world, I am perhaps barely Jewish — a novice Hebrew speaker, who doesn’t know how to keep kosher and who routinely watches a family movie after Shabbat dinner for the sake of sh’lom bayit. She and I have gender in common, and motherhood, but what would we find to share about our respective Jewishness?
“There’s a group of women,” he said. He invoked Sarah Silverman so he could leverage my familiarity with the comedian to refer me to her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman. He seemed surprised when I was familiar with both Silvermans. (I didn’t blow his mind by saying that one of Rabbi Silverman’s children had once babysat mine.) “It’s provocative, who do they think they are, coming to pray, disrupting the men’s prayers?”
He asked if I would come to the Kotel to pray, and I said yes. “Would you come with the disrupters?”
“Of course. I want to pray with my people.”
“But that’s what the women’s section is for!”
I started to wonder about the power of religious symbols. When I wear a kippah, what it means to me and what it means to others varies widely. Who gets to own the meaning of these symbols? Who owns that pile of golden stones, the last surviving wall of our people’s ancient place? Who gets to say who prays there?
We are family and perhaps fellow believers, but we are not having the same conversation, most of the time.
I also wonder, why am I freer to be the kind of Jewish I am, here in the US than I would be in the Jewish Homeland?
“Listen, I hate the ultra-Orthodox,” he says. “Most Israelis do. But let me tell you. If you go to Jerusalem wearing a kippah, they will stone you. Believe me. I’m not even kidding. They will stone you.”
Where does stoning fall, in the rubric of klal Yisrael, I wonder.
If most Israelis hate the ultra-Orthodox, why don’t they speak up? Why doesn’t he speak up? He warns me about them, but he wouldn’t stand up to them for my right to be Jewish the way I am Jewish?
Who’s in and who’s out?
Would he stand up against a non-Jew in my defense? Where are the places where we are the same? What’s the boundary of peoplehood, and does it shift according to who’s issuing the threats?
And what does he expect from me? Do I have a say, since I am not in Israel, facing the dangers that Israelis face on a daily basis?
The man and I have a long conversation, right there in the Trader Joe’s parking lot. Midway through, a friend I hadn’t seen in many months approaches and gives me a hug. “So good to see you!” “So good to see you, too! It’s been a long time.”
I consider saying Shehecheyanu, just to see how he would respond.
I turn back. He’s still there.