Navigating Between Two Worlds

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

When my friends and I entered our synagogue for Shabbat services or for Hebrew school during the week, we were required to cover our heads. A pile of yarmulkes was kept in a large wooden bin standing by the door to the sanctuary.

Back then we didn’t call them kippot but yarmulkes, a Yiddish word meaning skullcap, which linked us more closely to our roots in Eastern Europe than to the new seeds that had been planted in Israel in the 1940s and 1950s and were beginning to sprout in America in the 1970s. Yarmulkes were made of soft velvet or scratchy nylon. They sat perched, rumpled and creased, on top of my head and on the heads of my friends as we bent over our Hebrew primers or sat bored out of our skulls waiting for junior congregation services to conclude. Yarmulkes looked like small rags or tiny handkerchiefs that my grandfather might have taken out of one of his dresser drawers. Kippot, on the other hand, were usually small, round, knitted or crocheted head-coverings that fit snugly to the back of one’s head, often held there by two or three bobby pins.  Young, modern Orthodox Jews wore kippot, while mostly older men wore yarmulkes. We weren’t modern Orthodox Jews, so my father and my brother wore yarmulkes, and I wore one, too, no matter how silly I thought it made me look.

The only other time during the week that I wore a yarmulke was on Friday night. We gathered in our dining room around a table set with fine china plates and crystal glasses. Mom lit the candles to welcome Shabbat, and Dad raised his wine goblet to recite the blessing over the wine. Standing at the head of the table, his prayer book open in one hand, a silver Kiddush cup filled with wine in the other, his reading glasses balanced at the end of his nose, Dad would read the Hebrew words with the slightest of accents, a holdover of the Eastern European-accented Hebrew that he’d learned as a boy. I’d watch his body tilt slightly forward, as if in the shape of a question mark, and noticed his hand tremble slightly. My eyes were fixed on the Kiddush cup. I watched to see if he’d accidentally spill any wine onto the white tablecloth.

On those Friday nights, the yarmulke on top of my head felt odd. It made me feel like an alien. How could a flimsy piece of cloth perched precariously on the back of my head make me a better Jew? Besides, it was distracting. How could I concentrate on the words of the prayers if I was worried about the yarmulke falling to the floor whenever I shifted my head from one side to the other? Even though I sat perfectly still while Dad recited the Kiddush and then the motzi, the blessing over the challah, I had trouble thinking about anything besides how foolish I felt wearing the yarmulke. I don’t think that I ever felt comfortable wearing one, but I never considered removing it. I’d been told that wearing a yarmulke was a sign of respect for God, and I wanted to be a respectful Jew, even if I didn’t fully understand all the prayers or rituals, or why wearing a yarmulke was a sign of respect.

Each time I reached into the bin as a boy to select a yarmulke and set it on my head, I felt as if I’d found a magic talisman with mystical power, a symbol of being Jewish which made me feel as if I’d stepped inside Jewish history, linking myself to all the Jewish men who had covered their heads throughout our people’s history to show their faith and loyalty to God. Someone—a teacher, my father, or a friend—must have told me that I needed to cover my head when observing Jewish rituals or stepping inside a synagogue. At baseball games, though, when we sang the National Anthem, we had to remove our hats. In contrast, in temple we kept them on. It was confusing, this business of being Jewish. Each time I put on a yarmulke, I felt this confusion. It was disorienting to make the transition from one world to another.

As incredible as it may sound now, I wasn’t fully aware of living in two different worlds as a boy, except during the month of December. Every year, from kindergarten through sixth grade, I dreaded the week after Thanksgiving when the custodian placed a 6-foot tall, freshly cut pine tree in the school’s central foyer signaling the start of the Christmas season. The tree gave off the sharp, tangy scent of a far-away forest, and I loved that smell but felt guilty for liking the tree so much. Over the next month the scent of its pine needles filled the hallway and classrooms, and, like my non-Jewish friends, I became excited at the sight of the red-and-green lights blinking on and off in its branches. On the night of our school’s Christmas concert, shiny gifts wrapped beneath the tree made it look as if Santa Claus had just dropped them off his sleigh.

Our music teacher was a skinny woman with toothpick-thin legs, eyes the same shade of blue as a robin’s eggs, and hair as straight and silky as the gold tassels that hung from ears of corn in July. Each year she lined us up in rows according to height on the half-dozen shallow steps in front of the tree. And every year I felt more and more uncomfortable standing next to the tree in the back row, worried people in the audience might mistake me for a Christian singing Christmas songs, afraid God, in his disapproval, might see fit to punish me for not standing up for my faith.

During those concerts I barely opened my lips to sing. I trembled with the certain knowledge that if I sang the name of Jesus aloud, God might send a bolt of lightening to end my life. Instead, I stood in the back of the choir pretending to sing, and hoped none of my friends standing on either side of me, or any of the adults sitting in the audience, would notice my silence. Nobody seemed to care about my Jewish identity or about my feelings as a Jew singing in a Christmas concert. For weeks after the concert, long after the last notes of the songs had faded away and the tree had been taken down and tossed into the incinerator room, I felt as if I’d betrayed my people and my God.

As a young boy, I didn’t realize how many seemingly inconsequential choices, such as putting on a yarmulke or singing in a Christmas concert, I had to make to navigate through the shoals of forming a Jewish identity. Nor did I recognize the larger, more significant choices that I had to make to help solidify my connection with Judaism and my link to the Jewish people. Somehow I made these choices—keeping kosher, attending Hebrew school, preparing for my bar mitzvah—without resenting them, even though I must have offered some resistance. Was it my father who insisted that I attend Hebrew school? Or was it my mother who gently pushed me into making these decisions? Or perhaps I was nudged quietly by my own conscience?

Now I can see how these choices added up to create in me a sense of being Jewish. But then, as I was making these choices, I was confused, uncertain about which path to follow. I had no way of knowing, except for some internal compass that was nearly impossible to read, which choice would lead me closer to my heritage and which might take me further away.

Bruce Black is the founder of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in The Jewish Week, The Jewish Exponent, Reform Judaism Magazine, and The Reconstructionist, as well as in The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. You can read more about his book, Writing Yoga, here:

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

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