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November 30, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

When Judaism isn’t invisible

By RABBI NATHAN FARB Congregation Schaarai Zedek

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a restaurant for lunch with a congregant. As we were chatting, a woman from a nearby table approached us to ask if we were Jewish. It was only a week or so after the deadly Pittsburgh attack at Tree of Life Congregation, and she wanted to express her sympathy and solidarity with us. She sat with us for a minute or two chatting and listening to our pain.

This interaction was made possible due to a simple and unassuming object: a kippah.

Although I started wearing a kippah in temple as a kid because my parents put it on me, I eventually came to understand that it is a sign of respect when entering God’s presence. The thing is, like other Jews, I believe that God is everywhere – or at least everywhere we let God in. So perhaps I should wear a kippah everywhere, too. Orthodoxy offers precise answers with little room for interpretation in these matters, but for progressive Jews, it’s not so easy. We must wrestle with questions of personal practice.

I don’t always wear my kippah. I tend to do so if I am in a synagogue, at a Jewish community function, or participating in a Jewish ritual. When I am at home or out shopping, like many Jews, I am often bare-headed. I make these choices not as a rabbi, but as a Jew. You don’t have to be a rabbi to think about how you represent your Judaism in public. We all think about it.

Yet, when the ugliness of anti-semitism emerges in visible – and sometimes painful – ways, we find ourselves at a crossroads between safety and defiance. To one side is the quieter path of keeping our heads low, while reaching out to the safety of community and bolstering our internal strength. To the other side is the defiance of displaying our proud heritage … and the potential risks that exposure brings.

As a Jew, I often feel invisible in the secular world. Strangers regularly wish me a “Merry Christmas,” folks who talk about religion in America usually mean “Christian,” and I even had a jury summons this past Rosh HaShanah (they graciously dismissed it no questions asked). There is a part of me that cherishes that invisibility at times of increasing tension and violence against the Jewish community. The vulnerability and anxiety I feel in public is lessened when I think that at least I am not attracting any additional attention. Lately though, I have found myself wearing my kippah more and more, despite its distinctive visibility. Or maybe because of it.

There is something empowering about wearing a kippah into a restaurant, gas station, or grocery store. The moment that I walk into a public forum, Judaism is no longer invisible. Suddenly, people encounter a visible and authentic face of our people. How I represent myself is a choice that I have made, and not a stereotype that is imposed on me by the media that still too often portrays Jews as nebishy and feeble.

We are not what the outside world may think. We are not relics of the 19th century, or adherents to an ancient tribal rite. The world should see that there are Asian, Hispanic and other Jews of color in our Tampa community. The world should see that we are not a faraway and foreign people – we are their neighbors, coworkers, customers, and friends. We get stuck in traffic, and we forget to bring exact change, and we come to the rescue when our neighbors are in need, just like all good people do.

Of course, there are many ways to show your Judaism publicly. Perhaps it is a kippah or a Magen David necklace that you wear. In a world that is too often steered by hate and division, walking into a restaurant with my kippah opened a door to understanding that brought people together. For me, it was a moment of affirmation and healing. I say a prayer of gratitude for such moments.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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