It has been my practice to wear a kippah (or yarmulke, as most non-Jews know it) during all non-watery waking hours for more than a year and a half now. As I’ve blogged, I wear it all the time because with a name like Michael Doyle I feel it’s my responsibility to ensure I’m not mistaken for a non-Jew when I’m introduced to people I don’t know. That and, frankly, I’m proud to be a public Jew.
While I was still on my conversion journey, it unnerved me when people would start conversations with me just because I was wearing a kippah. One Saturday after synagogue, my wearing one sparked a heated confrontation with a more traditionally minded Jew. But times have changed in the year since I became officially Jewish.
A few weeks ago, Ryan and I ended a mad late-evening clothes-shopping dash through the north side of Chicago and the northern suburbs with a quickie meal from the Pizza Hut in the food court of the Target store on West Peterson Avenue. The store sits not far inside the eastern border of West Ridge (called West Rogers Park by many)–a far north side Chicago neighborhood heavily associated with traditional (read: Orthodox) Jews. I was wearing a kippah. I was eating a pepperoni cheese pizza.
Can you see where this is headed?
Setting the scene, it was around 10 p.m. The store was doing a fair amount of business for the hour, but we shared the food court with just two other people. Two mid-twentysomething men sat at a table across the food court from us, one interviewing the other for what sounded like a tech job. Loudly. Even louder when they decided to have a speaker-phone conference call at their table.
We thought their loudness was obnoxious since they obviously weren’t alone in the food court, but we were too tired and hungry to care about anything other than our pizzas. Halfway through mine, Ryan noted that the two kept staring over in our direction. I didn’t notice it and just kept scarfing down my late dinner.
When we stood up to head into the store and finish shopping, though, I did notice. Not even trying to hide it, they both gaped in our direction with an enormously puzzled look on their faces. I saw the rest of this blog post coming.
“Hi,” I said to them.
“Hi,” they replied. Then the interviewer of the pair said, “Can I ask you a question? Do you know what you’re wearing on your head?”
My mind said, “Well No! Oh my! How did THAT get up there?!” Because you know how common it is to be walking through a Jewish neighborhood and suddenly somebody pops a yarmulke on your head when you’re not looking.
My mouth, however, more politely answered, “Yes, I do.”
The gaping continued. I could tell a kippah-clad man in shorts mixing milk and meat in a West Ridge food court just didn’t compute for them.
The interviewer continued. “Oh, OK. We were just wondering, you know, this isn’t a kosher place to eat and sometimes you forget to take off your kippah, or forget you’re wearing it.”
For these two somewhat (they were in a non-kosher food court, after all) traditionally observant Jews, the concept of marit ayin, or refraining from giving the wrong appearance, dictates that one doesn’t wear a kippah during activities that might make other traditionally observant Jews think those activities are kosher when they aren’t. Activities like mixing milk and meat (prohibited by kashrut, Jewish dietary law), or really, eating in a non-kosher establishment at all. Also, very possibly, my t-shirt and shorts topped off by a kippah didn’t jibe with their sense of tzniut, or physical modesty. Given the neighborhood and the questions, this would all make perfect sense.
From my perspective as a liberal Jew, though, all of my actions made sense, too. Reform practice leaves it to the individual to make personal decisions about Jewish law. Ryan and I considered going kosher but eventually made a considered decision to not observe kashrut at all. I have my stated reasons for wearing my kippah at all times. And my sense of tzniut is not offended by elbows and knees. I also share in the concept of marit ayin. But as a Reform Jew I’m interested in ensuring that my actions are in keeping with the customs and traditions of liberal Judaism, not in helping individuals who live by a different understanding of Judaism to abide by customs that don’t jibe with my own stream of Judaism (which I think is an unfair expectation in the first place.) So as far as appearances were concerned, my religious conscience was clear in that regard, too.
I thought the questions were kind of cute, though, the way they were tip-toeing towards the things they really wanted to ask. But before they continued, I figured I’d let them off the hook.
“I’m Jewish,” I said. “I wear my kippah at all times, and I don’t keep kosher.”
“Oh, OK,” they both replied. But their continued gaping told me my sentence was totally not OK with their personal Jewish sensibilities. That’s both fine and too bad at the same time. Fine, because as a liberal Jew I don’t expect everyone to share the same relationship with the mitzvot (commandments.) Too bad, because their questioning in the first place told me they do have that expectation.
But that’s how it is in the great, eternal debate between liberal and traditional streams of Judaism. Raising my voice, or getting distracted from the dress shirts I needed to buy before the store closed wasn’t going to help anyone. Least of all me.
I did think it was marvelously pushy when the interviewer added, “So…are you from around here? Where’s your shul?” I almost chuckled at the chutzpah. I’m an ex-New Yorker, after all. We cut our baby teeth on pushiness and nosiness there.
But instead, I just smiled and said, “Yes, I am,” as I ended the exchange and navigated Ryan back into the store. He spent the next several minutes telling me how rude and obnoxious he found the pair’s questions to be. I told Ryan from their point of view–and I really believe this–they were just trying to be helpful. Trying to keep a fellow Jew out of trouble. I can respect that, as much as from my perspective I can find it maddening, at times.
Really, a conversation like that is nothing more than par for the course of being Jewish. No, not that Jewish, but this Jewish. Well wait, maybe I meant a little less this Jewish, but let’s add in a little more from the Jewish over there. Hold on, wait, wait. What kind of Jew did you say you were?
When it comes right down to it, sometimes, you just have to set your priorities. I have a lifetime to debate the many ways to be Jewish. But no matter what, Target still closes at 11.
(Photo credit: Mayaworks.)