Quebec has a kippah problem. A proposed “Charter of Values” will prohibit public employees from wearing hijabs, turbans, kippahs, and bizarrely oversized crosses. Apparently, our government believes religious symbols worn by less than 1% of the population threaten to turn Quebec into a theocracy.
The Jewish community has united in opposition to the Charter of Values. This threat to minority religious rights is unsettling, and Jews of all backgrounds feel a sentimental tie to the beleaguered kippah.
But as Jews, we have our own kippah problem. Our attitudes towards the kippah reflect our ambivalence about being a Jew in the non-Jewish world.
After the Jews were given political rights in Europe, many chose the route of partial assimilation. Their motto was “be a Jew at home, and a mensch in the street”. In their desire for acceptance, Jews modified their public image.
The tradition of wearing the kippah was quickly tossed away. At the turn of the century, the kippah was discouraged by the Reform movement as an ancient relic; one historian remarked that “worship with an uncovered head” was a “hallmark of Reform Judaism”.
Other Jews saw integration as dangerous. They followed an ideology of “shalem”, of being distinct. They spoke Yiddish, wore a shtreimel, and used their Hebrew names on official documents. These Jews insisted on being a counterculture, and defiantly refused to integrate.
Most Jews fall between the poles of ghettoization and assimilation. We know how to fit into the larger culture, yet still want to be profoundly Jewish as well. And so we wonder: how different should we be?
And that is the Jewish kippah problem. We want to be serious Jews, but we also don’t want to stick out that much. It’s a simple psychological fact: people want to fit in with the majority. Even Orthodox Jews are sometimes uncomfortable wearing a kippah. It’s not uncommon that when I’m in remote venues with few Jews, I’ll meet a modern Orthodox friend who’s chosen to wear a baseball cap instead of a kippah, so that his head covering is less conspicuous.
And this kippah problem is our greatest challenge: how to be comfortable while being different. A new Pew study shows that 32% of American Jews had a Christmas tree. (By contrast, only 22% kept kosher). Christmas is ubiquitous; to resist it is difficult, because it’s difficult to swim against the stream. To put it directly, kippahs are awkward while Christmas trees are comfortable: that’s our kippah problem.
I wish I had a magic solution for this, but I don’t. Being a Jew in North America means having the courage to of your convictions, and proudly be different. And that’s not so simple, even for a Rabbi.