Is it Time to Re-Think Wearing a Yarmulke in Public?


Last night, I had an experience that has never happened to me before, and I’m just not sure what to make of it.

Ever since I became observant in the mid-1980s, I have worn a Yarmulke/Kipah/Head-covering pretty much wherever I go. I have worn it out in public all over the US, in Canada, Costa Rica, Poland, Belarus, Cuba and Israel. I am a personal trainer and I wear my Kipah when I work out, when I train and when I teach a class (I have one I only use when I work out).

Pretty much the only time I don’t wear one is when I go to a non-kosher restaurant. This is based on an old concept: Marit Ayin, which is Hebrew for “the way something looks.” I do eat out in non-kosher restaurants where I can get dairy or vegetarian meals, but wearing a Kipah inside might lead someone to think the restaurant is kosher. Someone walking by might see a person with a Yarmulke and assume the restaurant is something it is not because of “the way something looks.”

Sometimes–especially when I’m on vacation–I may wear a baseball cap because I want to travel incognito. Sometimes, truthfully, I may not even cover my head, but that is rare.

So here is what happened last night. My wife and I went with some friends to an outdoor concert in Cleveland. I was not wearing a baseball cap–although I had meant to. I wore my Kipah and really did not think that much about it. Our seats were on a kind of aisle and toward the end of the concert an older man came by and said hello to me and told me how much he likes the Jews. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I am not unfamiliar with this kind of attention; people who say “Shalom”–it doesn’t bother me. Then he said this: “I made a lot of money with the Jews.” I was dumbfounded and I said something like, “I’m not even sure what to say about that.” I think he was sincere about his statement, like he thought he was speaking my language. He then made his way back to his seat.

What had been a very delightful evening got weird real fast. My wife mentioned that she actually thought she had met this guy before and back then he had asked if she was Jewish. This was in front of a hardware store. He made a similar statement to her. I am guessing he just doesn’t get how offensive a comment like that is, and I didn’t have the words to express that myself at the time.

The whole thing got me thinking about just how vulnerable it has begun to feel wearing a Kipah in public. On the east side of Cleveland there is a huge Jewish community–many of whose members are quite religious–so seeing a Kipah is not unusual. But many in the community stick to themselves; I, on the other hand, get out a little bit more. Today I did a prison visit in Marion, Ohio, and wore the my Kipah…but thought about it at the gas station as I was refilling my car in a small town.

Chants of “send them back,” may not be directed at me and the Jewish people (yet), but there is something going on in our country that I have never experienced before…and it is unsettling. Last night, I realized just how vulnerable I could be making myself. In this case, this was an old man who just didn’t know any better. To those who are real anti-Semites, though, I identify myself as an easy target.

For now, I will continue to wear my Kipah. I will be vigilant, though, and consider and re-consider as the days ahead unfold. It just saddens me. I have always felt at home in the US, but that home seems to have changed quite a lot…

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