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Friday, January 21, 2011

A Kippah in Jerusalem

Israelis wear their ideologies on their sleeves -- and on their skirts, their coats, and, most of all, their heads.

Rabbi Joel Levy, a faculty member at the Conservative Yeshiva and one of my study partners, used to walk around Jerusalem with half a kippah on his head.  Yes, he cut his kippot in half!  "I got tired of people assuming they know everything about me because of what I was wearing," he explained.  Nowadays, Rabbi Joel goes bare-headed on the streets, but at the yeshiva he wears a large, domed kippah, in the style of Muslim men -- though for the uninitiated the Muslim cap can be difficult to differentiate from those of dati-leumi (religious Zionist) boys.

Ok, for those uninitiated who are interested, here is the rundown on the most common Israeli headgear.  (Headgear of "chutznikim" (intentional outsiders) -- like my friend in his half-kippah or the man in ultra-Orthodox garb who attends the liberal Shira Chadasha -- not included.)

Among Jewish men, the larger the head-covering the more right-wing the gentlemen's views.  To denote religious right-wing, one requires a large, black, felt kippah, with or without a black hat on top of it, and, for some of the most right-wing groups, a big fur-lined streimel just for Shabbat and holidays.  The most right-wing political views often accompany huge, brightly colored crocheted kippot, expressing the hippi-ness of settling the land.  In young boys, however, size says nothing about ideology: large, domed kippot are just easier to keep on your head when chasing a soccer ball.  Older Muslim men often wear caps similar to these boys' kippot, but the Muslim cap is a sign of age and social status, and not necessarily religious devotion.  (If you want more detail on Jewish men's hair wear, I recommend this article.)  

Israeli women also express religious views with their head-coverings; or, more precisely, with the quantity of hair exposed by the covering.  The most liberal option is a bare-head, which can denote anything from secular to modern Orthodox.  Moving from left to right, a hat or scarf may be perched on top of hair falling free in the back, cover most everything but the bangs, or conceal every last strand. 

Jewish women always tie their scarves in back, to differentiate from the Muslim headdress which covers the neck (but may reveal varying amounts of bangs).  Muslim girls begin covering their hair when they come of age.  Jewish women begin covering their hair only when they marry, so younger Jewish women must resort to sleeve length, skirt length, and the presence or absence of stockings in the summer, to express their innermost experiences of God. 

Notice what is absent from these lists: a woman wearing a kippah.  That is simply not one of the options in Jerusalem.

Back in Palo Alto I wear my kippah all of my waking hours.  It very occasionally attracts attention, always positive.  But I had been warned by other kippah-wearing women that in Jerusalem I would attract far more attention, almost all negative.  Crossing gender lines makes people nervous.

My first few month here, I wore a nicely ambiguous straw hat over my kippah.  It could have been a sun hat, or it could have been a religious woman's marriage hat.  Only in the safety of my home or the yeshiva did I expose my kippah.

One day, I left the yeshiva in a rush and forgot my hat.  I didn't realize it was missing until a young man stuck his head out the window of a passing bus and yelled derisively: את דתיה?  (Are you religious?)  It was several weeks before I ventured out hatless again. 

But inevitably it happened, I forgot my hat once more.  And this time, I made the entire 30 minute walk home without incident.  A few days later, I intentionally left my hat at home.  When I picked up my daughter from her kindergarten a few people looked at me curiously, but no one said a word. 

Nowadays I walk around almost everywhere wearing my kippah.  Occasionally a young child will point and laugh --  they think it's a joke.  Adults throw me nasty looks, sometimes muttering rude comments under their breathe, but nothing worse.  It probably helps that my kippah is dark against black hair, and is crocheted in a feminine style.

And yet, once a week, when I sit with my son in his third grade classroom to help him with his studies, I again pull out my hat before leaving the house.  Don't think my son is pressuring me to cover-up.  He is oblivious to my state of head.  But my son's teacher exposes no hair, and her world-view well matches her head-covering. 

Am I cowardly, unwilling to proclaim my unorthodoxy inside the walls of my son's Orthodox public school?  Was I cowardly all those first few months, when I refused to remove my hat anywhere in the city?  Well, maybe a little.  But I also believe my feelings of discomfort have been guiding me to the most moral choices in this case.  When I first arrived in Jerusalem, I was a visitor here.  When visiting away from home, we should respect the local idiosyncrasies -- for what group of people does not have idiosyncrasies?

About a week ago, as I was walking to the yeshiva with my crocheted kippah on my head, I passed a middle aged man with a short grey beard and a crocheted kippah on his head.  I smiled and started to say "Shalom" as we passed, but as I met his eye he said in a sneering voice ’אני לא מעונין, מותק’, "I'm not interested, sweetheart."   I was stunned.  I kept walking, kept my anger inside. 

Already the next day, I questioned what had really happened.  Maybe the man was wearing a bluetooth headset that I had not seen.  Maybe he really was talking to his sweetheart, and he hadn't noticed the woman in the kippah who had shared the sidewalk with him.  After all, though I have another home awaiting my return this summer, right now I live here.  This is my city, and this is who I am, and why should I attract special attention?