It was a small kipa, satin white and sky blue, and it was supposed to make a statement about my Jewish identity. I bought it at a Judaica shop in Jerusalem on my first visit to Israel, a 10-day trip for American journalists in late autumn of 1975. Not religiously observant then, I was 25 and not a kipa-wearer outside of synagogue. I decided to wear the yarmulke as a sign of pride, as a statement of Jewish identity, during the time I was in Israel. I clipped it to my head then forgot about it.
In Israel, no one notices someone wearing a kipa. On Shabbat, someone noticed.
A sports fan, I had decided to watch a soccer game in Jerusalem. I didn’t know anyone there to invite me for a Shabbat meal, didn’t feel like going to services, didn’t know enough Hebrew to find my way through an unfamiliar Orthodox siddur. I followed directions to the Jerusalem stadium, cheered with a mostly Sephardic crowd for unknown teams, tasted a bit of Israeli culture, then made my way back by bus to our group’s hotel.
When I stepped off, one of my fellow journalists spotted my kipa and told me to take it off.
“If you’re riding a bus on Shabbat,” he scolded, “you shouldn’t be wearing a kipa.” It gives people the wrong impression, about me, about observance of Shabbat, he explained.
I was perplexed more than embarrassed. I didn’t know any better. I knew more about soccer than I did about religious propriety or about Israel. The kipa made the statement that I was either an ignoramus or a phony. And so the kipa came off — for a while. I didn’t want to confuse people, to pretend I was something that I really wasn’t.
The kipa was my first lesson about what it means to live, and openly identify, as an Orthodox Jew. It was my first spark to becoming a baal teshuvah, someone who returns to an observant life — or embraces the lifestyle having previously never lived it — and is entitled to wear a kipa 24-7.
Back home in Buffalo at my new job editing a Jewish newspaper, I embarked on a process of self-education. I didn’t know much about Judaism or Jewish life, but set out to learn. To get to know the community, I made the rounds of the area synagogues, attending Shabbat services at each, all 10 of them. I drove, usually on Friday night, parking in the open lot of the non-Orthodox congregations, leaving my car several blocks from the Orthodox ones.
A combination of exposure to rabbis from all the denominations, and a friendship with Protestants who had become devout in their own faith, led me to start studying Judaism seriously. I picked up a copy of an English-language Tanach — the Hebrew Bible — at one temple’s book sale. I read. And I resisted.
Though everything in the Torah made sense, I couldn’t see changing my life. Years of Reform religious school had taught me to take on the practices — we translated mitzvot as “good deeds,” not as “commandments” — that I found “meaningful” or “relevant.” That made sense.
So, increasingly, did the Torah. A middle-aged Orthodox Jew I knew, a baal teshuvah for several years, straightened me out. “If you pick and choose,” he said, “you’re not following Judaism. You’re following ‘Steveism.’”
I started changing, both my way of thinking and my way of acting. Gradually, I shed some practices (foul language, non-kosher food, Saturday afternoons at the mall) and took on others (daily prayers, usually at home; a kosher diet, with the help of my cooperative mother, with whom I lived; Shabbat at the home of Orthodox friends).
Years before, in high school, I had flirted with halacha, wearing a kipa to my family’s Reform synagogue and to meetings of its youth group. Later, I maintained a semblance of kashrut, eschewing non-kosher meat, only to jettison that practice when I discovered the joys of an Arby’s roast beef sandwich and the difficulties of rigorous kashrut in a small-town setting. Even when I began to become interested in what the Orthodox call Torah Judaism, I would initially drive to shul on Shabbos, leaving the radio off to minimize blatant violations.
I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. By college my only contact with Judaism was when I hung out at Hillel, which I did regularly, or attended an infrequent Friday-night service.
Gradually, after the Israel trip, I started to identify myself as “observant.” I hated the term “religious.” It smacks of hubris, of sanctimony, of a holier-than-thou attitude. I don’t consider myself holier than anyone.
By outside appearances, I became a fully committed davening-three-times-a-day Orthodox Jew.
Not one of the frum-from-birth (FFBs) “black hat” Yiddish-spouting variety, but a frum Yid by any objective standard. I didn’t look significantly different than before. A little neater, perhaps. I didn’t start wearing a kipa. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t demonstratively act differently. I still read my favorite books and magazines, and followed my local sports teams.
Within a few years my schedule changed. I made sure I was home Friday evening, or Friday afternoon in the early-sunset winter, for the kosher Shabbat meals that my mother graciously prepared; or I’d spend Shabbat or yom tov at my expanding circle of friends in the Orthodox community. A workaholic, I didn’t miss the 24-7 work regimen.
That was the easy part, the external part. I simply became another type of square, Jewish style. A loner to the core, instead of avoiding non-kosher restaurants and parties of mixed-religion vintage, I now avoided kosher eateries and Jewish-only social events. Different ethics, same personality.
The hard part was more subtle, more internal. Inside, I had philosophical, existential, fundamental questions about faith and belief, about the chain of rabbinic authority, about the latitude and minutia of Jewish observance. In my ever-present notebook, I carried a list of questions: Why keep kosher? What do the detailed rules about every act, every movement, every step we take, mean? How do we know that the extant canon of kashrut laws is authentically based in Jewish tradition? I weighed each choice I made.
I couldn’t become an authentic Orthodox Jew, one thoughtfully committed to Jewish belief and Jewish behavior, by just going along with my new crowd, by automatically talking and thinking and dressing like they did. A theological free agent, I took to questioning everything they did and that I did, sometimes out loud — to some people’s consternation — and sometimes in my mind. Raised an iconoclast, I had no problem living as an accepted insider and as an inquisitive outsider. If anyone minded, I didn’t care. It’s my life, my afterlife, my soul.
One question remained: what kind of Orthodox Jew would I become?
Growing up “out of town,” in a city exempt from New York’s tribal division into Modern or chasidic or yeshivish or further subdivisions — our local outreach group invited out-of-town guest speakers from various Orthodox groups, unthinkable here — no one suspected how blessedly unusual that was.
I quickly learned. Visiting New York City on business trips (I then moved here in 1983), making friends in the city’s various Jewish neighborhoods, I was called upon to define myself and defend myself. “Are you X?” “Do you ‘hold by’ — a frum usage I soon learned but never adopted — “Rabbi Y?” “Why?” “Why not?”
My answer: Why does it matter?
The tacit answer — it did matter, at least, to the devotees of a particular rabbi or a particular group or a particular approach to Judaism. Sans label, they didn’t know how to treat you. What box should they place you in? Are you really one of us?
Eventually, I took to wearing a kipa more often out of the house. My preference changed frequently — light-blue cloth, plain knit-brown, brown-knit with white clover leaves along the side, dark knit-blue. I forget how many styles I put on and took off. I still felt self-conscious, a rare kipa-wearer in a largely gentile area, never forgetting my obvious sign of self-identification.
If I was Orthodox, I figured, I had to show it.
Now that I walked the walk, I had to talk the talk. Emotion alone wouldn’t carry me. I lacked an intellectual foundation. I understood that Orthodox Judaism entailed more than not ripping toilet paper on Shabbos. I knew some of the small details; I needed to see the big picture.
The occasional class at night, a lesson squeezed into a Shabbos afternoon, would not suffice. Some serious learning was in order — some time at yeshiva. It was time for me to go “sit and learn” — the Hebrew word yeshiva is rooted in the verb “to sit.”
My choice was Ohr Somayach, a then-15-year-old baal teshuvah yeshiva in upstate Monsey, an independent institution with loose ties to the Jerusalem yeshiva of the same name. I knew its reputation as an intellectually rigorous but accepting and nonjudgmental institution. I spent an entire summer there.
Yeshiva education, I found, is a curious combination of law and ethics, inspirational stories and hermeneutic principles, general examples and sweeping rules. Remarkably, all the parts seemed to fit: the laws about a “kosher” lulav and the fine points of biblical Hebrew grammar and the tales of rabbis from centuries ago. Slowly, I crossed out my answered questions. There was no “eureka” moment. Slowly, I began to understand. Slowly, the big picture came into focus, and everything made sense.
My hardest test was a restaurant a few blocks from my parents’ home. Open only in the summer, it specialized in what I considered the world’s best roast beef sandwiches and soft custard ice cream. In summers past, I would grab a snack there almost every day, standing in long lines with customers who shared my taste. When I returned from yeshiva, the roast beef and custard weren’t a temptation. Though delicious, they weren’t kosher; they weren’t for me.
I didn’t make any dramatic changes in my halachic behavior, didn’t accept any of the stringencies that some students had, didn’t grow a beard, didn’t start wearing a black hat, didn’t start to display my tzitzit strings, didn’t take on the chumrah of eating cholov Yisroel dairy products of Jewish-only origin. I didn’t adopt the reactionary politics or the all-goyim-hate-us attitude espoused by some Orthodox Jews. I didn’t pepper my speech with the “Baruch Hashem”-ish expressions of Orthodox life.
I made no effort to fit anyone else’s image. I remained religiously — as politically — a registered independent. All my marks of individuality, I felt, were matters of style — my substance of actions and belief were safely within the acceptable spectrum of normative Orthodoxy.
I did make one change: I switched to a medium-sized suede kipa, its hue aligned to my garb of the day. In the culture of identity through dress, a suede kipa is ambiguous. Deliberately, in my case. It was neither decorative knit kipa of the Modern Orthodox, nor black velvet of the yeshiva-haredi crowd. I couldn’t — and still don’t — fully identify myself as affiliated with a single segment of Orthodox Judaism, and a suede kipa subtly sends that message. No one demands that I sign onto his or her theological team. I spend time in many Jewish worlds, but I am not fully a part of any.
My friends, across the Orthodox spectrum, freely accept and support my position of skeptical respect. Occasional encounters outside of my like-minded friends remind me that narrow assumptions still remain. I’m a “liberal” or a “fascist,” strangers from respectively different backgrounds tell me at Shabbat meals. In my dating days, my lack of black hat or proper kipa blocked certain shidduchim, or marriage possibilities. I once explained to a non-Jewish friend that my social life was limited because I didn’t wear a hat, and she looked at me astounded, as if I had just arrived from Saturn. Residents of the haredi world sometimes assume I’m an ignoramus because I don’t wear the uniform. Once, I wore a pair of cargo pants to an interview with a rabbi from a prominent yeshiva; he seemed astonished that I knew its name.
It’s a price I’m willing to pay. No apologies for my nonconformity, or for my beliefs.
I feel totally comfortable wearing a kipa wherever I am. I went for a haircut one recent afternoon, and my young Jewish barber had to remind me to take off my kipa before he started clipping.
I forgot it was still atop my head.