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Kippah Grip Redux

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.)


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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion


15 replies

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post! It was about 6 months ago when I felt the tug to cover my head. At first it was hats, with hair still showing but that still did not feel like enough, then it was a few scarves and as I began to purchase more scarves and looking for resources on tying them I came across the websites of some wonderful orthodox women and discovered tichels and how to tie them with flair. I have covered my hair during almost all not wet waking hours for about 4 months now. First and foremost, for me, the hair covering is more about a feeling of G-d’s hand on my head, not about tznuit – heck I look WAY more attractive in a tichel than I do without!

    All of this served to awaken the Jewish Soul that I really believe has always lived within me. I am so excited to be on this journey. I expect that I will continue to cover my hair for the rest of my life, and when I am formally accepted as a (reform) Jew (G-d willing) I am sure it will be an issue for some – but I only know that I am doing what I believe in my heart that G-d wants me to do.

    Thanks for your encouragement 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Elizabeth. What a wonderful story. I remember when I first wore a kippah in public–in a downtown garden next to the Art Institute, no less, several months before I officially converted. It felt…right. Weird at first…but right. I can remember wearing my first kippot at all times…except taking it off when i entered synagogue during the week because I felt funny about my rabbi finding out I was wearing it. And the one day I left it on, and that was that. His response when he saw it: “Where did you get that nice kippah?” 🙂

  2. In all fairness I would imagine a lot of Jews would be thrown off by seeing you wear a kippah while eating a pepperoni pizza…even us more liberal sorts. Since I already know one person who does it (you) I’d just go on about my business but if I hadn’t known you, I would probably be VERY confused. Heck, I’ll admit I’m still a little confused. I’d never have the nerve to say something though. I generally don’t question people in public even if their behavior confuses me. If we all did that we’d be in everybody’s business 🙂

    I am curious, on a recent post you made a reference to perhaps being more Conservadox. I did wonder when I read that post if you were also taking on kashrut observance. Here you reiterate your are indeed Reform. Are you still considering Rabbinical school and what type of school you’ll choose?

    1. I know plenty of Reform and Conservative Jews who just don’t keep kashrut, though I can see breaking kashrut with a kippah on might be confusing. But the only reason it would be confusing is because those Jews would be making an assumption about who wears kippot and who doesn’t, and it’s a false assumption. No stream of Judaism “owns” Jewish rituals, ritual garb, or mitzvah observance. In my experience, which is admittedly two-years long, liberal Jews make this assumption because it fits into a comfort zone of not actually having to think about unfamiliar practices. That’s fine, but I’m in no way beholden to inaccurate assumptions made by fellow Jews.

      I actually referenced being Reformadox, not Conservadox. By that I meant that I have a more personally commanded take on and experience of the mitzvot. That doesn’t mean I hew to Orthodox or even Conservative understandings of what being shomer mitzvot might look like, but it does mean that I take seriously the commanded nature of the mitzvot which I do keeep, and consider halacha and minhag to be important elements when defining and guiding community norms. Another way to look at it might be that in some ways, I am a God-positive Reconstructionist.

      I sometimes eat and aim for kosher-style meals or days. But my personal experience of kashrut (no kosher kitchen, but at various points avoiding pork and shellfish and not mixing milk and meat) served to separate me from friends and associates in ways that I didn’t find religiously valid or spiritually positive, so I eventually chose to respond to kashrut by letting it go.

      Rabbinical school depends on a lot of factors: my readiness emotionally, mentally, and spiritually; employment and financial resources; whether to remain in Chicago or leave for school; and where I think I might fit in, both in terms of denomination and school, given the previous few paragraphs. My sense so far is that a liberal or non-denominational program might fit me best. On my “explore further” list are: RRC (Reconstructionist) in Philadelphia and a very strong “Hmm…”; Aleph (Renewal) which would be largely a distance program and is also a strong “Hmm…”; Hebrew College (non-denom.) in Boston at the suggestion of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as a good non-Orthodox text-based program; and AJR (non-denom.) in Los Angeles.

      That said, I also want to be more open minded about HUC (Reform), not the least reason being because I could potentially attend the Cincinnati campus and not be far removed from Chicago–or the L.A. campus, and be not far removed from Disneyland, which I am not ashamed to admit, would be a plus.

      Finally, there is also the Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf in Skokie, in Chicago’s northern suburbs. That would allow me to travel to school on the ‘L’, but I need to learn more and it’s a small program with a specific focus that I don’t know whether I can wrap my heart around in the manner such a program would require.

      1. I’ve looked at Aleph and thought it looked interesting, though I have no intention of going to Rabbinical school. FYI, I live in Cincinnati. I’m 10 minutes from HUC. They do require a year in Israel though, correct? That has to be a big issue for people who are in serious relationships. I’ve heard some students will go while their partners stays here but that has to be SO difficult. I think Aleph does not require it?

      2. Hi Michael,

        I have attended the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf now for four years and I am unaware of any “one specific focus” of the school, other than the opportunity to study by achieving the Hebrew and Aramaic skills to engage always in the primary texts. Our Hebrew “Professor” (Dr. Bernard Grossfeld), is a renowned scholar with a PhD in Biblical Aramaic, our Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Goldhamer, has smicha from both Telshe Yeshiva and HUC and a Phd in Islamic mysticism and is an incredible scholar in Kabbalistic texts and Chasidut among other things, and all of his classes are taught with original texts. Our Talmud program, taught by Rabbi Benay Lappe is extremely rigorous and has provided me with the skills to pick up any Mishnah or masechet of the Shas and be able to get what is going on in the gemara. We have learned Midrash, and Mishneh Torah and trope and liturgy with Cantor Michael Davis; again primary text only. I could go on and on about my many other teachers (Rabbi Larry Edwards, Rabbi Pinchas Eisenbach, Rabbi Rachmiel Hayyim Drizin to name just a few), and we are a small school as you mentioned (though it is the hope of all of the school to be expanded as it is an amazing program) yet as you can see there is a wealth of educators investing their time and talent despite a small group of learners.

        Oh… by the way, we also learn ASL in addition to the many courses I mentioned and the ones I didn’t mention. And I should also note that we are a trans denominational school, our teachers coming from the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox movements, so that when somebody asks me what “kind” of Rabbi I am going to be, I can answer: I hope a good one.” and when they press and say: You know what I mean….”, I can reply and say: “a Jewish one.” So maybe that… is the “specific focus” of HSD.

  3. There’s much in this story to which I can relate! I also wear a kippah (not all of the time, but much of the time); I also often dress in a way which exposes parts of my body which more traditionally-tzniut-minded folks would cover; and I’m also coming from the liberal end of the Jewish spectrum in which this kind of practice is absolutely ordinary, but I know that for my friends (and strangers) at the more Orthodox end of the spectrum, these things make me an oxymoron. (Not to mention the part where I’m female, so in some folks’ estimation I shouldn’t be kavod kippah at all. The summer I was in Jerusalem I got into the habit of mostly wearing a baseball cap atop my kippah when out and about, because I got tired of strangers harassing me about it.)

    Kol hakavod to you for sticking to your principles — pepperoni pizza and kippah both!

    1. Thanks, Rabbi Barenblat. I’ve considered a baseball cap from time to time, too (for example, when driving through rural Indiana with Ryan and getting out at rest stops, etc.) So far, though, the only time I take off my kippot is at Six Flags while on rides–so I don’t lose them 🙂

  4. Michael, thank you for your wonderful blog. My name is Rina and I am going through Reform conversion in Russia. I also had a similar situation sitting in the Italian restaurant and eating a pizza without any meat with some cheese only. I was wearing a magen david and hamsa. My friend asked….how Jews can go to the Italian restaurant and how can eat from plates where previosly were both milk and meat. I read a whole lecture for him explaining a such situation.

  5. Oh Michael you so need to move to Tasmania. With about 100 Jews in the whole state nobody knows what a kippah is let alone what constitutes kosher. You would get some looks for wearing a knitted frisbie on your head though.

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