It’s my custom when I’m introduced to someone for the first time, to shake their hand and tell them my full name. At this point in my Jewish life, I’m used to giving people whiplash when I tell them. They always try to hide the subtle eyeball-flip from my face to the kippah on top of my head and back. Sometimes I have to stifle a chuckle when they’re multi-flipppers, as if their eyeballs are stuck in the groove of some scratched visual record. Face–kippah—face–kippah–huh?
I began wearing my kippah (yarmulke in Yiddish) as a way to express my humility before God and adherence to Jewish tradition while in synagogue. As my sense of the holiness hiding behind life’s mundane everyday activites grew, I began wearing it all the time, to mark my recognition that the Divine is only and always as close as we allow the Divine to be. Wearing a full-time kippah is a common custom among Orthodox and some Conservative Jews, mostly men. Reform Jews generally don’t adopt the practice, so I’m used to standing out in a crowd of fellow Jews of my chosen denomination.
Still, there is no halacha (Jewish law) that says a Jew must wear a head covering. In the eyes of some ancient sages, it’s equally kosher to worship or go about your day with a bare head. From time to time I re-examine why I wear my kippah, and whether I’m getting out of it the intended effect–humility and remaining mindful of the mitzvot (commandments.) The answer always comes back yes, but sometimes I just want to leave the house without wearing one (I have a small collection) to see how I would feel doing so.
Except that my last name is Doyle. And anyone who meets a bareheaded Doyle automatically assumes one very important thing about them: that they are an Irish Catholic (or at least, a Christian.) Hands up everyone who has non-Christian Irish friends. See? And unless I want to go that extra, creepy yard and tell people I’m meeting for the first time verbally that I’m Jewish, that’s it. There aren’t any first meeting do-overs. I’ll be assumed to be something I am not.
It’s absolutely reasonable for anyone to assume that with my last name I adhere to a specific religion. The problem is that when that happens, I automatically become a Jew in hiding. Although the world got one extra Jew in me when I converted, assumptions like that erase that fact.
And frankly, I happen to think someone with an Irish last name being Jewish is a very important thing to know. Not just because I prefer to be understood as a Jewish man, but because it sends a message that we don’t have to remain tied for life to the traditions into which we were born. If a Doyle can be a Jew, an (insert surname here) can be an anything they want to be.
So for the sake of humility, Jewish pride, and free thinking about one’s own life, I keep my kippah on throughout the day (and now maintain all my online avatars and headshots showing me wearing one.) Admittedly, there are situations where a few people have had trouble getting the message. An example from real life:
Me: “Hi, I’m Michael Doyle. Nice to meet you.”
New Acquaintance: “Wait a second, Doyle? Did you say Doyle? I don’t understand.”
Me: “What don’t you understand?”
New Acquaintance: “Doyle’s not a Jewish name!”
Me: “In my case, it is.”
New Acquaintance: “But how can that be?”
Me: “Because I’m Jewish.”
New Acquaintance: “But, but you have an Irish last name!”
Yes. And a Jewish one, too.