I have worn a kippah for most of my teenage and adult life. I started at the end of my sophomore year in public high school and, except for a few interludes, I have worn it ever since. Whenever I speak to non-Jewish groups about Judaism, someone inevitably asks about it. I respond with a standard spiel. It goes like this:
I stand five feet, five and a half inches tall. Most of the time, however, I go about my daily business acting as if I am the center of the universe. This is true for most of us. We tend to be pretty self-centered. By wearing a kipah, I remind myself that my existence ends at exactly five feet, five and a half inches from the ground. In fact, there is an entire universe above and around me, and a Creator of that universe Who places demands upon me. A kipah should remind me to act accordingly, with humility.
In addition, wearing a kipah in public identifies me very clearly as a Jew. That means that my actions in the world do not just reflect on me. They reflect on the Jewish people, Judaism, the Torah, and God. If I am paying proper attention, that awareness should affect my behavior. If I do something positive in public, it reflects positively on Judaism. On the other hand, if I do something improper, it reflects negatively on the Jewish people. Wearing a kipah raises the stakes on my actions and helps me to be a better person.
The word kipah means a “domed cover.” A human head is roughly dome-shaped. Anything that covers it, therefore, qualifies as a kipah. The word yarmulke, by the way, is Yiddish. The best explanation that I have heard about its meaning is that it is a contraction of the Armaic words Yirei Malka, which means “Those who fear the King.”
That is my spiel.
I have always felt safe wearing a kippah in San Jose. Never once has anyone said anything inappropriate about it to me, which is reassuring.
The kipah has been in the news this past week because of a recent comment by the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, Dr. Felix Klein. It is a new position, having been created by the Bundestag last year over concerns of growing anti-semitism in Germany. In an interview published last Friday, Dr. Klein, who is not Jewish, said, “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany.” He added that he had “changed his mind (on the subject) compared to previously.” He went on to describe the need to educate police officers, teachers, and officials about the nature of antisemitism and its dangers.
What happened next is what seems to happen a lot these days. Everybody went nuts and took his comment out of context. The Jerusalem Posts’s headline was German Antisemitism Officer: Don’t Wear Kippot in Public.
That’s not what he actually said. He pointed out that there are some places in Germany where it is not safe to be visibly identifiable as Jewish. We already know this. When I was traveling in Europe a few years ago, I did not wear my kippah for the same reason.
The fact that Dr. Klein’s government position exists is proof that the German government recognizes the rise in anti-semitism in Europe, and specifically in Germany, and is trying to take it seriously.
Parashat Bechukotai features one of two great tokhehkhot, rebukes, in the Torah. They are presented as blessings and curses which are conditional to our faithfulness to the God’s mitzvot.
But more than just a carrot and stick, these blessings and curses tell a story of rising, falling, and rising again. We start with blessings. All the good stuff an ancient Israelites would want. Rain in the right amounts at the right time, strength, peace, abundance. The curses are the inverse of the blessings, although they are presented in much more grisly detail.
The story continues. The land itself kicks us out and we are sent into exile, where those of us who manage to survive continue to suffer persecution under the oppression of our enemies. We look back with nostalgia and regret for what we have lost, and the mistakes we have made.
But God does not forget, and the covenant remains in effect. There will come a time when God will remember and restore us.
Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God.Leviticus 26:44
Already in the days of the Talmud, our Sages recognized the rising and falling cycle of Jewish history. A baraitta interprets this verse as referring to God sending messengers to save the Jewish people from their under various oppressive regimes: Babylonia, Greece, Persia, and the Romans.
Our collective fate will continue to rise and fall. But there is hope for the future. Looking ahead, “I am the Lord your God,” predicts a time when no nation will be able to subjugate us.
We are a stubborn people. For all of the mistakes and imperfections, we have remained faithful to our history and our covenant for thousands of years. God is as stubborn as we are. In the meantime, history continues in cyclical fashion. We are now witnessing rising levels of antisemitism. And it makes no sense.
Right wing antisemites attack Jews for being too liberal, allowing foreigners to infiltrate the country. Left wing antisemites attack Jews for being racsists and declare Zionism to be white supremacy. In Germany, the neo-Nazi party called The Right, endorses BDS, which is typically associated with the far left. The one thing that unites antisemites is that, whatever they think is wrong with the world, they all agree that it’s our (the Jews’) fault.
Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, issued this statement: “We acknowledge and appreciate the moral position of the German government, and its commitment to the Jewish community that lives there, but fears about the security of German Jews are a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admission that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil.”
Unfortunately, he is correct. Anti-semitism is rising in Germany. In 2018, there were 1,646 anti-Semitic crimes in Germany, which represented an increase of 10% over the previous year. 90% of those were classified as coming from neo-Nazi groups. Anti-semitic crimes committed by Muslims in Germany are also rising.
Where will things go from here? For better or worse, Dr. Klein’s provocative comment last week has created dialogue. A few days later, he walked back his statement and issued this declaration: “I call on all citizens in Berlin and everywhere in Germany to wear the kippa on Saturday, when people will agitate unbearably against Israel and against Jews on Al-Quds Day”
Al-Quds Day, was established by the Iranian government to coincide with the end of Ramadan. Al-Quds is the Arabic word for Jerusalem. It generally features parades with lots of Hezbollah flags and speakers demanding the destruction of Israel. This year, German politicians are calling for large counter protests to oppose the hate-filled antisemitic demonstrations.
The Bild, Germany’s top-selling daily newspaper, put a make-your-own kippah on its front cover on Monday and published a front page commentary titled, The Kippah belongs to Germany. Thanks to Miriam Leiseroff for translating the article from German, which I’d like to read in full.
Actually, we must be eternally grateful that Jewish life flourishes in Germany again. We must resolutely defend what may be considered a historical miracle and gift to our country.
But the reality looks different and is expressed in the appalling (and unfortunately correct) warning of the Antisemitism Commissioner, who discouraged Jews from wearing a kippah all over the country.
Anyone who is a Jew still must hide this fact after seven decades since the Holocaust in order to be safe anywhere in Germany.
To this we have only one answer: No, this cannot be! If it is so and if it stays so, we fail before our own history.
Therefore the newspaper BILD is printing a kippah to cut out. Assemble, dear reader, this Kippah. Wear it so your friends and neighbors can see it. Explain to your children what a Kippah is. Post a photo with a Kippah on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Go out on to the street with your Kippah.
If only one person in our country cannot wear a Kippah without endangering himself, the answer can only be for all of us to wear a Kippah.
The Kippah belongs to Germany! Die Kippa gehört zu Deutschland!https://www.bild.de/politik/kolumnen/kolumne/kommentar-die-kippa-gehoert-zu-deutschland-62202206.bild.html
Actually, the kippah belongs to us. But we can certainly appreciate the sentiment, and the support. I cut out one of the kippot and made one for myself, which I am proud to wear.
We are blessed to live in safety, in a place where Judaism thrives openly. May it continue to be so. And may our brothers and sisters in Germany and around the world experience a day, soon, when it is possible to openly and proudly wear a kippah anywhere and everywhere.