Sunday, August 7, 2011

How Do You Spell the Word "Yarmulke"?

This post is by Daniel

On the first day of rabbinical school, I started wearing a kippah. Having grown up at Jewish summer camp, the tradition of wearing a yarmulke always felt a bit formal. While working at Hillel, I would wear a kippah for Shabbat services, but would usually take it off for dinner. It just seemed like another article of clothing to have to straighten.

During HUC orientation, we listened to a talk from the VP of Academic Affairs, Dr. Michael Marmur. He spoke about his difficulty answering students when they ask: “Will we be expected to know (blank)? Will there be a test on (blank)?” As future leaders of the Jewish people, he says, we will be expected to know just about everything. We’re taking on the responsibility of bearing a 3,000-year-old heritage. It is important for us to realize, Dr. Marmur notes, that there is no way a five-year program could ever teach us the entirety of Jewish tradition. For exactly this reason, we can never take off our Judaism. That is to say, we can’t live a life divided between what we need to know and what we don’t.

HUC asks us to come to Shabbat services at the College a certain number of times throughout the year. That doesn’t mean that during the other weeks, we have Shabbat off. It isn’t as if the College has a certain quota of Shabbat services they expect us to fill. Rather, there’s a certain life they hope we’ll choose to live. Dr. Marmur wants each of us not to be a “bifurcated person”—a person who is divided. As Jewish leaders living Jewish lives, we must strive to be a whole person—to be as wholly ourselves as we can be in all situations.

It’s a natural tendency to for a person to act one way in certain groups and act another way in other groups. For example, when spending time with family, I have a tendency to revert to old behavior patterns, based on historical family roles. I become the youngest child again, the baby, quietly watching the action unfold around me, often irritable when I don’t get my way. When I act this way, I usually regret it and wish instead that I could at all times be “my best me.” I’m working hard on this balance.

For this reason, I really connected with Dr. Marmur’s words. I came home that afternoon and told Leah I was thinking about starting to wear a kippah full time. A couple days later, I was talking with a classmate who wears a kippah and mentioned I was thinking of starting. The next day, we passed each other on the way to class. He stopped me, reached in his pocket and pulled out a kippah. “I thought you might want to have this.” That was the start.

I have a dark-colored kippah for everyday use and a white one for Shabbat, holidays, and special occasions. I wear the dark one so as not to attract unwanted attention. In Israel, a kippah is often a religious or political statement. Various groups wear their kippot in different positions, colors, and sizes. (For more on this topic, see the film The Transparent Kippah.) In some neighborhoods and on some occasions, I choose not to wear one at all. I'm not wearing a kippah to make a statement. I'm wearing it for me.

I recognize what a growth opportunity this year in Israel and this rabbinical training represents. The way I see it, I can sit back, take everything in, and let the change happen to me. Or I can reach out and grab it, embrace the change.

Several folks have asked if I plan to keep wearing it when I get back to the States. As of now, I don’t know. Other folks have asked me how it’s going so far. It has its ups and downs. Unsurprisingly, putting on a kippah didn’t suddenly make me self-actualized. It does, however, serve as reminder to strive to be my best me, while at home and while away, when I lie down and when I rise up.

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