Commentary  My kippah and me

A kippah-wearer on the Charter of 'Quebec values'

As a kippah-wearing person, I have been incredibly heartened by the McGill community’s almost univocal rejection of the Charter of ‘Quebec values’ that has recently been unveiled. But something strikes me as a bit odd. All these bareheaded people fighting for my freedom of religion and expression – do you really know what my kippah is? What it means to me?

I wrote this piece to give you all a glimpse into the life of one ostentatious headgear-wearer. Of course, my experience doesn’t necessarily reflect anyone else’s and in fact, is only a tangent to the real story here, which is one of rising Islamophobia in Quebec and the rest of Canada. I know the discrimination I’m facing is just a byproduct of discriminating against someone else, but I’d still like to discuss my experience.

To be honest, the kippah is an ambiguous sort of hat. You won’t find any kippahs in the Torah, the Talmud, or much else of Jewish law or literature until the Middle Ages. Jewish men began to wear special headgear as a way of differentiating themselves from their Christian neighbours or reminding themselves that they answer to a higher authority. This means that wearing a kippah is not really a matter of halachah, religious law, but a deeply entrenched custom. I wear a kippah because at some point centuries ago, European Jews started wearing them, and the custom never stopped.

For me, [wearing a kippah] is a way of wearing my identity on my sleeve and displaying my difference with pride.

But some communities did stop. As certain European countries started becoming more secularized and less outwardly antagonistic towards Jews, some Jewish reformers advocated the removal of the kippah, as part of a movement to be ‘a Jew in the home and a mensch in the street’. Even my parents’ generation seems pretty ambivalent about the kippah. A lot of the older observant Jewish men I know don’t wear their kippah to work. This isn’t a matter of principle – I think they are concerned about exposing themselves to anti-semitism, or are worried that people will judge them for what’s on their head, not what’s in it.

I wear my kippah all the time. Except in strong winds (I lost a great kippah to a gust of wind once in Berlin, never again) and in certain places like Egypt or Palestine where I was told that it could attract unwanted attention. But I’ve worn my kippah everywhere else: in North America, Europe, India, school, work, at clubs, bars, and restaurants. For me, it’s a way of wearing my identity on my sleeve and displaying my difference with pride. It’s basically a magic hat that transforms me from an invisible minority to a visible minority, like Clark Kent’s glasses. One moment I am part of the white Canadian majority, the next I become a part of 3,000 years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax.

It isn’t always easy wearing a kippah. You get the feeling that, because you are actively identifying with your faith, you represent it as well. This is a lot of responsibility. For instance, when I am driving in a hurry and in a less-than-friendly manner, I might remove my kippah. I wouldn’t want someone who I had just cut off to associate, heaven forfend, my peculiar driving methods with Jews in general; when you see me driving bareheaded, you should probably watch out. But at the same time, when I do something awesome and I’m wearing a kippah, I feel twice as good, because I hope that those actions do reflect the religious upbringing and ethos that has led to them. In the Jewish tradition, this is called kiddush hashem, sanctifying god’s name, and it’s the sort of thing that makes Jewish mothers very happy, even if you didn’t end up becoming a doctor.

The kippah is a way to show to the world that I am different, and proud of it. That I can be a mensch and a Jew, all at the same time. I imagine that every person who wears a visible religious garment has a different story of its symbolism and meaning. I appreciate to no end the many voices that have been raised against the Charter of Values by those Quebeckers who are not personally threatened by the law. But as you advocate on behalf of all of us ‘ostentatiously dressed’ religious people, I think it’s important that you understand why it is we let our freak flags fly.

On October 20, there will be an interfaith panel featuring Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish leaders at Temple Emanu-el, 4100 Shebrooke West at 2:00 p.m. The panel will be presented by a number of different groups including the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. Let’s keep this conversation going, and rally for an inclusive Quebec!

Menachem Freedman is a third year law student. He is also a member of the board of the Ghetto Shul, the independent student Jewish community of McGill and of the Montreal Holocaust Museum Centre.