This piece is a very personal one, and one that I decided not to publish when I first wrote it, as a letter to two friends, almost three years ago. Now, with time forging a buffer between me, in the present, and the rawness of this experience then, I have decided I am ready to retroactively publish it, and to see where its resonances land. I reread this with a measure of sadness, and also with compassion for myself then, and also with admiration for those who are able to constantly hold the contradictions that I did not feel strong enough to hold, and also with relief that this is no longer a struggle that tears me up on a daily basis. Here is:
I woke up Thursday morning, the first day of Rosh HaShana, the Jewish new year, a time of renewal and rebirth and reawakening and reevaluating and re-being. I woke up Thursday morning, and I put on my kippah, and I looked in the mirror, and I thought to myself:
“What is this thing I am putting on my head?”
I was jarred by the thought. I started wearing my kippah full-time almost a year ago, exactly, right after Yom Kippur 2010, following a beautiful day of study, fasting, slowness, prayer and nature, a day which culminated in my dear friend, Jacob, and me sitting in two adirondack chairs, watching the sunset and singing a traditional song in a melody that was new to me. It had been an amazingly joyful and holy day, and when I reached to take off my kippah- which I had grown up wearing only on Shabbatot and holidays- I felt a sadness. It was as if I was reaching to take off a level of spirituality and step back into the world of the mundane. If I kept this small piece of fabric on my head, would I also be able to keep a bit of this spiritual aliveness in my weekdays, in the hours of homework to come, in the dance-party interactions or the dining hall conversations? I wasn’t sure, but I was willing to try, especially because Jacob had trailblazed that path, the path of wearing a kippah at Middlebury College and still being a deeply integrated part of the not-Jewish community there. So I started wearing a kippah every day. And from there, it sort of snowballed– the more religiously observant I looked, the more “religious” others treated me as, like the time in which a kind older woman commented on how nice it was that an “Orthodox boy is active in J Street” (Where is he? I thought to myself. And then realized that the woman was talking about me. Ortho-WHAT?! Me!? Wow. I guess that it what I look like). And the more religious I treated myself. I started praying every morning, and kept Shabbat and the holidays more strictly, and started studying a bit more Jewish text and reading a number of books on Jewish theology (well, a few books. Really only one full book, but even that felt like a lot) and I started referring to myself in the third person as “a religiously observant Jew,” and I applied to study at Yeshivat Hadar, and I decided to work for Rabbis for Human Rights through my NIF fellowship…
Now, one year later, I have become so accustomed to this wearing a kippah. Yes, sometimes I have worn a hat over it, when I didn’t have energy to publicly represent Judaism in Vermont, or to be associated with the other religious Jews in New York City. And there was a two week period, right after graduating, when I stopped wearing it entirely, but that felt weird, and my head felt naked, so I found myself wearing hats a lot then too. Not for covering up anything, just for cover… But hats aside, it has become a part of who I am, at least externally, and of how I am seen by others. I have met many people who never knew me as someone who did not wear a kippah full time. I have had countless interactions based on my kippah, from that time in the bar where a woman asked me what my small hat meant, to the street-fiddler in New York who started playing a song from Fiddler on the Roof as I walked by. But this Thursday, as I prepared to begin the new year, it suddenly felt like a foreign object, a costume, a false message, a threat, a cloth laced in vertigo, throwing me violently off balance as I placed it on the back of my head.
I don’t think it’s accurate to say that this unfamiliarity and struggle came in one single sort of “boom.” This last month here in Jerusalem has been -in many ways, but especially religiously- difficult. I have found myself seething with resentment as I look upon the flocks of religious Jewish men in the streets of this city, and then immediately chiding myself for allowing myself to fall into the sort of group-labeling/collectivization that I always speak so strongly against in other cases. And on the other side of the coin, I have found myself quietly celebrating many times upon seeing a young, secular looking person on the streets. Realizing that seeing myself, were I not myself, would probably provoke a negative rather than positive reaction (for myself. The myself that would be seeing the other myself (ha!)) is a jarring realization.
And then the Palestinians. You know, that group of people who just so happen to be having their collective rights stomped on by people who look like me and pray my prayers and speak my languages and share my history. Glibness aside, this has been one of the hardest parts. I just read in a blog, +972, that this Friday, as most religious Jews were starting the second day of Rosh HaShana, a group of Settlers from the settlement of Anatot attacked and injured a group of Palestinian farmers and the Israeli and International activists who were guiding them to their farmland (this story was also particularly disturbing because I am taking groups of Israelis and Internationals to accompany Palestinian farmers to their farmland later this week with Rabbis for Human Rights).
So, I read this, and readjust my kippah on my head, and I think back on the Palestinians who I’ve passed on the street who have given me [maybe imagined? or maybe they’d give them kippah-regardless?] suspicious or resentful looks, and I think: Am I kidding me? Do I really think that I can reclaim this symbol, to take it from the hands of the hilltop prophets of chauvinism and fists? And for me to wear this and really reclaim it, don’t I need to believe that I own this symbol as much as they do?
And then I think: Aha. So is that why you’re wearing this, Moriel? As a political ploy to ‘reclaim’ the kippah, just like you sought to ‘reclaim’ Zionism in some of your blogs over the last few years? Where is the religious basis?
And then I think: I don’t know. What is my religious basis? Do I believe that God has commanded me to wear this kippah? No. No one believes that, really. It’s something communal for everyone who wears it, a sort of symbol to the world, both Jewish- and non-, that under this piece of cloth sits a man (and in a few rare, brave cases, a woman) who is a religious Jew, who has chosen to be physically identified as a religious Jew, who has chosen to cast his lot with the other religious Jews. But… but… Take out the word religious, and wouldn’t a star of david necklace, which I wore for much of my late teenage years, serve the same purpose?
So why the kippah? Is God a part of it? God?
I don’t even know what I think about God. I’ve read some interesting theology lately, but I am feeling way too frazzled to quote it, and to get into whether I think that God is a transcendent being or a force or a oneness on an energy or a word or a silence or a song. What is a God? Who is God? Where is God? Should God be written as god? Or as G-d? Or should I just put a second “o” in the word? Is God just a shorthand I have chosen to accept for what I see as “Good” (and “good,” here, with a capital “G,” as Good in the transcendent form, in a way that does not crumble under the stern gaze of relativistic academia)?
Or is it more of a classic story of me wanting to find meaning in life, or being way scared of death, both my own and my family members’ and my dear friends’, that led me to want to be religious, because who the heck knows maybe it’ll help in one of the above fields?
Or do I practice religion because of some unnamed, ancient pull of tradition? Or do I wear I kippah because I want to be part of something bigger than myself? Am I lying to myself, though? Am I wearing a symbol meant for certain religious people with certain religious beliefs, even though I feel so far morally, and “Good-ly” from these people, and from their beliefs? Is there a certain baseline of belief that one must have to honestly wear this thing? Am I wearing it now because its comfortable? Or because it’d be weird to work at Rabbis for Human Rights and not wear one? Or because I think it might help me to get up and pray in the morning, something I think that I think is something that I would like to do consistently, although I’m not sure about that either these days?
And while I’m at this slew of thoughts that has totally strayed from the cogent-coherent-ness of the earlier part of the letter (and I am typing much faster right now eeeeeeeek): what about romance? Does this symbol make me less attractive to the type of women whom I’d want to be attracted to me, especially here, in this country of polarization and splits and instant judgments and walls walls walls walls walls? And does wearing an earring work with my kippah? Does that detract from my attempt at being seen as religiously legitimate? Who am I trying to be seen as religiously legitimate for? Myself? God/Good/god/G-d? The Settlers? The Palestinians?
The rest of Rosh HaShana was generally nice, and I especially enjoyed one liturgically-light, meditative/chanting service. I also had one experience on Thursday night which felt like an answer for about twelve hours, and then I started getting confused again. The experience was this: Jesse and I went over to dinner at an new-ish Israeli friend-ish. Her dad is American. We got into politics, by accident, because it seemed like it’d be fine, as everyone seemed to be basically liberal, but then it ended up being the Americans (Jesse, me, friend’s Dad) versus the Israeli post-army youth (new-ish friend-ish and her brother), arguing about the wall and checkpoints and whether the Dad had justified Palestinians shooting soldiers and checkpoints and whether there was a difference between shooting soldiers at checkpoints and bombing a Palestinian house with kids in it, and then new-ish friend-ish got sad, and I felt guilty and a bit sick with myself and politics and this place. And then, on the way out, the dad said to Jesse and me:
You two are doing “avodat kodesh,” (holy work).
Because we are fighting for justice? I asked
Not only that, he said, but also breaking stereotypes.
Because we are American? I asked
Not only that, he said, but also because you are religious.
Take that part of Mori who thinks that maybe he shouldn’t wear a kippah!
And then, the next day, I had a conversation with another new-ish friend-ish (also leftist, also wears a kippah) over dinner, and he told me that he thinks that maybe there is no Jewish conception of “rights,” (although there is one of “honor”) and that maybe Rabbis for Human Rights doesn’t do a deep enough job about talking about this issue, and I felt myself agreeing with him, and instead of wanting to dig deeper in the texts, I found myself shrinking away, wanting to just be a human rights activist. But then that felt shallow. And not authentic? I don’t know what authentic means for me these days… And that’s the other thing: I’ve just been feeling confused, and sometimes shallow, and lonely, and off-balance in general, religion and kippah only as a part of it.
I do desperately want to love everyone.
And I do desperately want to fight for justice.
And I do feel deeply a part of the Jewish people.
And those things, I think, make up the basis of my religious identity. And I feel pretty sure about all of them. But does this symbol help or hinder me in those things? Does it enhance or lessen the contradiction I sometimes feel between wanting to love everyone and seeing some people act so hatefully and cruelly– for example, can I love the settlers who beat the people outside of Anatot? Does it help or hinder me feeling like me? Does it help or hinder my love? My ability to fight for justice? My ability to be or feel fully a Jew?
That’s all for now. I am tired.
It was good for me to write this (I think). Struggle is good, and it enhances this little life. I do feel very alive. Maybe being off balance helps me be alive? Blah blah blah. Anyway. I need to start writing poems again. This place has kind of sucked the poetry out of me– being in a place that has too many poems about it already is weird. What do I have to add to the staggering canon of Jerusalem poems?
I am a small American kid
I have small existential issues
I have a small piece of fabric on my head
It causes me a small crisis
[Soon after writing this piece, a few months after I moved to Jerusalem, I stopped wearing a kippah full time].