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My son wore his new kippah publicly, like a billboard announcing his heritage. I didn’t want him to stick out.
My eldest son tore open the package, his excitement palpable. He pulled out his new yarmulke and immediately asked me to help him pin it. A navy blue number with a silver Magen David, my son had picked this kippah out to be his “formal” one. I watched him dash off to the mirror to admire himself with a mixture of pride and amusement.
I was surprised, however, when he elected to wear it while accompanying me to work that evening. I was on a photojournalism assignment to cover the dress rehearsal of a local dinner theatre. The rehearsal was in a church we’d been to many times and which many of his friends attend. As we walked in the door, I realized that my son had never worn a yarmulke publicly in our town. A familiar feeling of uneasiness settled around me.
In our small town of seven churches and no synagogue, sticking out is always a little uncomfortable. We are open about our Judaism to those who are interested, but we certainly don’t advertise it. For us, faith is a private and exquisite thing centered on our relationship with God. And as I watched my son walk into the rehearsal space, I realized he was practically wearing a billboard announcing his heritage. I’ll admit for a moment, I wished he hadn’t worn his kippah. I didn’t want him to stick out.
My son’s friends greeted him and I settled into the task of simultaneously photographing and documenting the rehearsal. The play took place in an imaginary Middle Eastern town and was loosely based on the birth of Jesus. With the semi-exotic setting, most of the kids and adults were wearing costumes including headscarves and robes, as well as fake beards, stiff as steel wool and (judging by the itching) just as comfortable. I felt relief as I realized that my son and his yarmulke were among the less noticeable sartorial choices in the whole room.
Then it happened. A younger brother of one of my son’s close friends saw the yarmulke. This boy, only eight years old, was naturally very curious about it. He walked up, tapped my son on the shoulder, and said “Hey, what’s that on your head?”
As my son turned around to answer him, a woman appeared at the boy’s side and pulled him away so quickly, it was like watching a magician remove a tablecloth from underneath a fully set table. I was surprised not to see a puff of smoke follow the movement. I watched her from my seat near the front. I was surprised overhear the following, related sotto voce, “You shouldn’t ask people things like that! He’s wearing it because he is a Jew,” and then her voice became inaudible.
I watched, feeling saddened, both by the choice she made and the opportunity she denied my son. Her pulling the boy away so aggressively for asking a question made being Jewish and wearing a kippah seem shameful and secretive. If my son had been allowed to answer, it would have been a learning opportunity both for him and for his friend’s brother. I was half tempted to discuss the matter with her after the rehearsal or perhaps to reassure the boy that his asking my son was actually a sign of respect and interest. But, like most mothers of many children, I let it go and headed for home, the demands of my household intruding on my inclination to educate.
What a missed opportunity. What a chance that passed by. Imagine if we were all like that eight year old boy, interested and questioning, fascinated and open to the explanation of what makes others unique? And then I realized: I was no better than that woman, with my fears about the reactions of the town.
My son is due to get another new yarmulke this week, his “casual” one. It is as vibrant and colorful as a Rastafarian cap and he can’t wait for it to arrive. I am no less eager. I hope he wants to wear it around. And I hope people ask him about it.
He will stick out, yes. But he already sticks out due to his warmth and his spectacular personality. His kippah is just the proverbial icing on the cake.