Jews Can Learn a Lot About America by Wearing a Kippah

Now seems like a good time to talk about anti-Semitism in America. A good time to talk about all kinds of violent hatred in America, like the kind that motivated a white man to mail a dozen bombs to liberals and journalists this week, or the kind that drove a white man on a killing spree against black people this week. But the most recent of last week’s massacres in America targeted people fitting my exact description — mostly Ashkenazi Conservative Jews — and to this I have a personal response.

Be shocked, yes, saddened, horrified, angry, even afraid. But don’t be surprised that this happened. Anti-Semitism, a form of racism, is all over the place in this country. The thing is, many Jews avoid it by passing as part of the white majority. They may do so without realizing it, but since liberal Ashkenazi Jews — which is most American Jews — don’t have any visible markers of Jewishness, their Jewishness doesn’t attract the attention of the people around them. But if their Jewishness can attract attention, it definitely will. Don’t believe me? Start wearing a kippah around in public.

I’ve tried to wear a kippah daily several times, and each time I attract enough attention that I chicken out and take it off again. Then all the attention goes away. That, folks, is called white privilege. See, you don’t have to be in the white majority to benefit from white privilege, you just have to look white. If you can pass by taking off a little cloth hat, you are a beneficiary of white privilege.

As people who have been European for many generations, Ashkenazi Jews are quite capable of this, and since we’ve been surrounded by anti-Semitic white people the whole time, it’s often been advantageous to assimilate that way. But I can tell you from experience, as soon as an Ashkenazi Jew in America (let alone France) stops assimilating, that person is no longer treated as white.

Not with me yet? I understand. It might be uncomfortable to think of hatred of Jews — most of whom can, after all, pass as white in most situations — as comparable to Racism™ defined as full-spectrum discrimination on the basis of skin color. But allow me to quote Robert Bowers (that’s the name of the white man who just [allegedly] murdered 11 Jews with an assault rifle, including one 97-year-old woman who survived the Holocaust): “They’re committing genocide to my people,” he said. ”They.” That’s Jews. As opposed to his people. ”Genocide.” That is, this man is in an us-versus-them existential race war. “I just want to kill Jews,” he said.

What I’m saying is, it’s all racism. People who thirst for race war are targeting all people they identify as different, and all victims are on the same side of this violence. What I’m recommending to American Jews — to show some solidarity and resist the particular flavor of assault rifle racism that tore up Pittsburgh this Shabbos — is to put on a kippah, walk around America’s streets, and see what it’s like.

When I was growing up, I shrugged off the stories my older relatives would tell me about anti-Semitism. My grandfather would gravely tell me about how he was denied entry to his university club as a law student, and I would feel sorry for him, but I couldn’t relate. My father would tell me about the crazy stuff people said to him growing up Jewish in southern Alabama, but that seemed so remote. I had never seen anyone discriminate against any Jews I knew, much less me.

And no wonder. We all read as white people to everyone around us. In my mostly-assimilated family, we didn’t mark ourselves as Jews. It wasn’t until I dared wear a kippah in public for the first time when I was 20 that I started getting anti-Jewish heat from random people on the street.

It started right away. In Providence, where I went to college, local doofuses liked to drive around College Hill yelling out of their cars at students, mostly women. I’d seen it a hundred times by my junior year, when I first tried wearing the kippah. A few weeks later, sure enough, two refrigerator-shaped white guys in a car rolled up on me on the way to class, and one of them yelled, “Hey, what the f*** you got on your head?” and they laughed and drove away.

Well that was interesting, I thought. I’ve never been, like… harassed before! And why should I have been? I had appeared to be a white (and probably straight) guy up to that point. I had suddenly, deliberately made myself into something else. It was kind of exciting, honestly. I was deep in the throes of figuring out my identity, and nothing will get a serious sense of identity going like a feeling of persecution. Getting yelled at from a car once wasn’t enough to shatter the peace of my privileged life. I decided to lean into it and keep wearing the kippah. Of course, later that year, when our visiting Israeli staffer at Brown/RISD Hillel got a molotov thrown into his apartment window, things got a bit more real, and thus ended my first experiment with deliberately othering myself in the eyes of the American public.

A few years later and 3,000 miles west, I fell in love with a future-rabbi, and we moved to Los Angeles for her rabbinical school. That gave us a strong, built-in, religious Jewish community, and since I was seriously considering this lifestyle as a rest-of-my-life sort of thing, I decided to have another go at the kippah. After all, we lived in Pico-Robertson, so at least there would be safety in numbers.

Safety, maybe. The yelling picked right back up again, though.

One day, walking along La Cienega Boulevard, I passed two guys maybe 10 years older than I pushing a shopping cart full of junk. They looked hard up. I made eye contact with each and nodded in acknowledgement. In a slow, West African accent, one of them said to me, “You’re Jewish, huh?”

“Yeah,” I replied and smiled widely. I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I was determined to make a good impression on behalf of my people.

“Oh, okay,” he said nonchalantly. “You guys killed Jesus Christ, huh?”

Oh. I began to walk away, and over my shoulder, I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?” he called after me. “Read the Bible!”

I don’t imagine it would have helped if I had said, “The Bible didn’t say any of that crap until y’all started adding to it,” but that’s the kind of scenario I always imagine starting as I walk speedily away from the person yelling at me. This was 2014, though. The ambient fear level was still pretty low for white-looking American Jews. I wasn’t not scared during this encounter, but the possibility of violence didn’t come to mind.

That took another couple years.

I went back and forth on the kippah thing for a while, but 2017 was a big on-period. You know, there was the whole president… thing. Tribalism was in vogue. Then people started desecrating Jewish cemeteries in America — Pennsylvania, in fact — and that did not escape my notice. We lived in the Bay Area for the summer of 2017, and that was the first time I’d ever wandered around there with a kippah on. Big mistake.

One night on BART back from SF to Berkeley, I had my (quite large, noticeable) kippah snatched off my head by a bunch of young male humans whose skin color was different from mine. They all looked back and laughed as they walked away. To them, I’m sure it was just some dude in a dumb hat — that is, I don’t know if they marked it as a Jewish hat — and I don’t care why they did it. Wasn’t a very neighborly thing to do, though.

Some days later, walking to the BART station in the legendary liberal paradise of Berkeley, California, I was glowered at by a 40-ish-year-old shaven-headed white man in a baseball cap in with his rather muscular arms crossed. “Viva la Palestine,” he grunted at me in the whitest accent of all time. This guy really did look like he would punch me in the face if I rose to his provocation at all, so I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was this:

Why did you say that to me? Oh, is it because of the kippah on my head? Did you see my marker of culture and make some assumptions about my politics based on your stereotypes? Did you figure, oh, he’s a Jew, so he believes XYZ? And I assume you believe XYZ is morally objectionable, so you thought you’d let me know. Do your part to fight for the cause, winning hearts and minds one at a time, something like that. Is that right? So do you do that to everybody you stereotype for their politics? Or is it just Jews?

But yeah, didn’t say that. Instead, I kept walking, but to perplex him, I said, “Cool, man. Right on.” That sounded like something white people would say to one another in Berkeley.

It worked, too! He kinda wrinkled up his forehead into an expression of utter mind-blown confusion and replied, “Right on, man?” That’s not a question, but he inflected it like one.

Now, I wasn’t harmed — or even clearly threatened — in any of these incidents. I believe the systemic, institutionalized forms of racism in this country are far more oppressive — far more malicious — than the kinds of small-time prejudice I’m describing, and I and all other Ashkenazi Jews who can pass for white in systems of power are the beneficiaries of that racist system, not the victims. It needs to be pulled out by the roots by an overwhelming political coalition determined to correct the injustices of racism, repair the damage it has caused to communities everywhere, and build new, equitable, just relationships in governance, business, health care, education, law enforcement… everything! Jews — whose singular contribution to humanity is a story of liberation from slavery — should march in that coalition as we always have.

But when 11 people are murdered on Shabbat by a white man screaming “All Jews must die!”, there’s an important signal here. Jews should not be anti-racists merely for lofty moral reasons. We must be anti-racists for existential reasons. We are targets of racism. We have to resist racism. Trying to assimilate and hide does not work. We have learned this time and again in our history. Look what happened last Shabbat in our own home.

The elephant in the room: Two of the encounters I’ve described were with people of color. One was a mindless, juvenile incident, and like I said, I don’t even want call it anti-Semitism necessarily. It’s just part of the radioactive background noise of a racially charged society. But in the other, I was accused of “kill[ing] Jesus Christ,” which is basically the original version of the kind of Jewish globalist conspiracy theory harbored by the man who murdered the spiritual leaders of the Tree of Life shul in Pittsburgh. This — minorities tearing each other down — serves the racists. It enforces their racist mythology. We need solidarity, and we need it immediately.

Put on a kippah. Feel what it feels like. Most minorities don’t get to decide whether or not to be seen. To understand the dire predicament this society is in, neither should we. And right now, in the wake of an unspeakably racist crime against Jews, it’s important that people see us out here continuing the fight for justice.

And for God’s sake, go to shul. Be with your Jewish community in this time and show them you’re here for them. We defied the Romans to gather and pray for liberation, and we’re still here. Met any Romans lately? These alt-right internet-readers are no Roman legion. We can beat them just by being Jewish and not going away.