Express Yourself- Jewishly
Leora and I moved to Jacksonville 11 years ago, one week after our wedding. There was a lot to get acclimated to during that first year: living outside a mass-transit city like New York, renting and eventually buying a house, moving far away from family, finding the balance between work and home. On seemingly minor scale, I got used to wearing my kippah everywhere I went. As a student living in New York, I may have gotten away with wearing a baseball cap when eating at an unhekshered restaurant, given the rabbinic concept known as maarit ayin, which states that certain actions which might seem to observers to be in violation of Jewish law, but in reality are fully permissible, are themselves not allowed due to rabbinic enactments that were put in place to prevent onlookers from arriving at a false conclusion (thanks Wikipedia). Living in Jacksonville, when at the time we had no kosher restaurants to speak of (also known as the Dark Ages), wearing a kippah became a connector, an identifier to those who saw me. Rather than have someone think “what is the cantor eating?”, they would say “oh hey Cantor, how’s it going?” Despite an occasional uncomfortable comment about my headwear from someone who may never have met a Jew before, wearing my kippah and living in Jacksonville have been a symbiotic relationship.
When I took a group of congregants to Germany on a Cantors Assembly Mission in 2012, I didn’t think twice about walking around by myself while wearing a kippah. Fast forward a few years we find the climate rapidly changing. This past summer, German government officials warned Jews to not warn a Kippah in public for fear of anti-semitic attacks. A German newspaper responded by printing a picture of a kippah and urging readers to cut it out and wear it in solidarity. All of this came on the heels of my Cantors Assembly Mission to Uganda. While we were warned not to wear our kippot in public, the 11of us were greeted in Entebbe by our guide and head driver, wearing colorful, oversized kippot with pride. And so we, in turn, felt proud to wear our kippot throughout our trip. There is a tension between the fear of being outwardly Jewish and the pride we feel when showing off our wearing very Jewish accessory. Which brings me to this high holiday season. Given that I face the ark most of these Days of Awe, you’ll notice a special kippah. This was purchased from a young man, Samuel Kyeyune from the Uganda Abayudaya community, so moved by the Tree of Life tragedy that he created his own Kippah design to send to the synagogue in Pittsburgh, to proclaim that we are a people that are strongly rooted in our heritage, that our tree will continue to bring forth life in this world for generations to come. May we all have the opportunity for growth. In the year ahead, I encourage you to look inwardly so that you might express your Judaism outwardly in whatever way you find meaningful. As the great Kabbalistic sage Madonna once put it, “Express Yourself.”