Thursday, August 16, 2012

Standing Up or Standing Out?

I've written about experimenting with wearing religious headgear previously, as well as some of the issues its raised with my family. I (mostly) understand where they're coming from, but I think they still don't really have a sense of what I'm thinking. They don't understand why I want to "single myself out," "make myself a target," or be so visibly identified as Jewish if I'm "not religious."

While reading through some op-eds over the past week written by Sikhs in response to the shootings in Wisconsin and their thoughts about wearing visible markers of their identity I saw many of my own thoughts reflected in their words. As Rajdeep Singh put it, "devout Sikhs express their religious commitment by wearing a turban, which signifies nobility and a willingness to promote justice and freedom for all peoples," adding that the turban is a "declaration of Sikh identity." In short, the act of wearing identifiable clothing establishes a commitment to identify with-- and live up to the ideals of-- one's religious/cultural group.

In another article I was reading, this one about kashrut, identity reared its head again:

Keeping kosher is “a way of asserting that you are a conscious Jew,” explains Rabbi James Ponet, chaplain at Yale University and a family friend, “when you join friends out for dinner but decline the lobster, shrimp, oysters and all the meat entrees [or] when you ask the waiter if the tomato soup” is made from vegetarian stock. 
Echoing Achad Haam’s pithy observation about Shabbat observance, one might hold that more than the Jews have kept kosher, kosher eating has kept the Jews. A Jewish atheist’s children might grow up with a learned distaste for pork and thereby call themselves Jewish.

For me, the twist here is not that one would specifically want to cultivate a dislike for pork in children (much less the pseudo-scientific silliness claiming that one absorbs the "nature" of animals one eats-- who wants to be like a cow or a chicken?) as much as impart a deep respect for traditions and culture of one's ancestors. It's not that non-kosher food is bad, it's that this is part of our heritage and one way of connecting to it and others in our communities.

For me, that shift in perspective is key: it's not about being observant or religious, per se, at least not in my father's way of thinking. It's about being conscious, serious, and engaged. It's about finding more ways to connect yourself (on your terms), not less. To me, the visibility and accountability-- to oneself as well as others-- are part of that process, whether I meet certain people's litmus tests or not. If there was a particular visual identifier that read, "Jewish but not Orthodox," I'd be all over that. But so far it doesn't seem like that's really a choice. By taking on the visual aspect, the tradition's "vote" becomes a little stronger, a little less easy to just shrug off. That's not to say that I think that wearing a kippah would make me Orthodox, but I think you have to grapple with the tradition a little more once you're no longer invisible-- to a degree, you lose your deniability, let's say. That's part of what intrigues me about wearing a kippah and being identifiable to myself as well as others, and I think that's also part about what drives my parents crazy-- the idea that I would want to be thinking of myself, and having others think of me, in those terms, nearly all of the time.

Today's society seems to be somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to identity and differences. On the one hand difference and diversity are understood to be valuable and worthy of respect, but at the same time there are great pressures to conform and homogenize with one's peers. Visibly identifying oneself with one's culture can be kind of scary, as in some ways it's a limiting act-- I am not "just" like everyone else, because I am identifying with this group, as opposed to all of you, who don't. It's not bad, but it can definitely be an act of setting oneself apart-- of standing out, of isolation. I think that's part of my parents' fear, that I will be somehow limiting myself or restricting myself by identifying myself as Jewish in so public a way-- and also, potentially, setting myself up to be viewed either negatively or exclusively as "Jewish."

But I have to say, I don't think that's all that likely. The people I live and work with are supposed to be exemplars of tolerance, and if the mere act of visibly identifying with my heritage and identity winds up stirring up latent antisemitism, I'd rather have that be out in the open than not. It seems incredibly backwards to use the specter of possible abuse or discrimination as a rationale to avoid identifying with your culture, and again, I don't know whether to place the majority of this hostility on my father's personal baggage or his generational experience of not going against the grain (even as he claims to be oh-so-counter-cultural).

I don't see why the onus should be on Jews or Sikhs or anyone else to hide who they are, "or else." Amazingly, when I speak about this with my father, the burden always gets placed on me as if I'm inviting trouble by merely putting a kippah on-- "Why would you want to do that to yourself?" he always asks, as if my goal is to be mistreated, as if a kippah is a legitimate stand-in for a kick-me sign. He's also said, "You don't need to rub people's face in it!" To me, the subtext to all this is, "Do you need to be so damn JEWISH?", as I'm proposing dressing up like a Hasid. (To be fair, I did do that for Halloween one year as a kid-- the costume was recycled from my Amish costume the year before. I know, I like beards.)

I'm not sure he'll ever understand that for me, this growth process is somewhat akin to coming out-- it's part of wanting to be comfortable in my own skin and finding my own way of expressing myself and who I am. And I think there's something very wrong when your basic message to people, be they kids or adults, is, "Why can't you be yourself like everyone else?"


Antigonos said...

Watch out -- you're becoming a Reconstructionist! :-))

Jews have traditionally, when in goyish society, kept a low profile for reasons of safety: "don't give the goyim a reason to persecute us; they'll find one easily enough anyway". To a point, the generation that came from Europe, no matter when, carried a fear with them that their American-born children found difficult to understand. The reality of America is that the immigrant Kowalsky can be a Polish Catholic, or a Polish Jew, no one knows which UNLESS he does something to distinguish himself as one or the other. This was a freedom unknown to the parents, and like a lot of freedoms, it is a double-edged sword because it allows you to STOP being something you have negative feelings about.

And, in general, when children begin to do something that the parents abandoned, it makes the parents feel somehow rejected. On Givat Haim, a kibbutz where I worked as a volunteer, the generation which had grown up in the children's houses decided to have their own children sleep at home -- and their parents, who'd come to Israel convinced that the kibbutz's total socialism was utopia, were shocked and hurt, when their own children told them of the trauma of crying all night in a dorm where there wasn't any adult. [Even psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim didn't pick up on that].

My mother saw Orthodoxy as a religion of the poor and ignorant. It was Asiatic, primitive. Her own mother, of course, had a Yiddish siddur -- Hebrew wasn't taught to girls -- and she really only knew how to keep a kosher house and light Shabbat candles. My mother wanted to be AMERICAN!! so much she Anglicized her first name, never let anyone she worked with know she lived on the Lower East Side. Her entire generation fled from expressing their Jewishness as much as possible -- and then the second generation began looking for roots, to their parents' amazement. BTW, exactly the same thing has happened, in a shorter time period, here in Israel. It's the "immigrant syndrome".

I was never subjected to overt anti-Semitism in the US. But there were plenty of subtle signs. It's the ones who don't think they are anti-Semites who can be the worst, and nowadays they will tell you, when trotting out some pro-Palestinian rubbish, that they like JEWS, it's just Israel that commits atrocities, etc.

Antigonos said...

It occurred to me -- are you teaching in the public school system? Will there be any problem with wearing "religious symbols", such as the controversy that erupted when an airline check-in clerk was censured for wearing a cross on a chain around her neck? Or if you are teaching in a predominantly Hispanic/Catholic school district?

Friar Yid said...

Nope, private! Not sure about the student population yet, but given the tuition and the area (about an hour away from the city), my guess is that it's not overwhelmingly Hispanic-- less sure about the Catholic thing, though.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Well the kippah as the definitive piece of Jewish headgear isn't that old. A hat, baseball cap, turban, etc. does the job just as well. You can express your Jewishness by covering your head any darn way you like (although a bishop's mitre would look stupid). You don't need a kippah.

Friar Yid said...

True- And over the past 5 years I've used wide-brimmed hats as a stand-in (amassing quite a collection in the process). Since I've decided not to wear a kippah all the time, I think for now I'll stick with hats. The benefit to hats is that they aren't as explicitly tied to clothing identity politics-- but on the other hand if that's something I'm becoming more interested in expressing, a hat starts feeling like some kind of cop-out.

Can you tell I'm still working through this one? :)

Anonymous said...

Friar, I read that the Vilna Gaon said that wearing a kippa all the time (ie. even when not praying or studying Torah) was only a chumra, and not required.
I personally do not wear a kippa all the time. I have the excuse that since I am Sephardic, my minhag is to only wear a kippa while praying or studying Torah. However, I think wearing some form of tzizit is actually more important, and one day when I remarry and have enough nerve, I'll wear tzizit and a baseball cap all the time. Dave.

Friar Yid said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for writing in! It's good to hear from you.

Yeah, it's interesting; though I still fantasize about wearing one 24/7, I think I may adjust my expectations for myself for now. I definitely have enough on my plate starting my new job without adding a kippah to the mix right now-- though I still think that my parents are putting way more emphasis on it as an "exclamation point" symbol than it really would be. For now I'm happy to wear my hats and to work on working the kippot in more during my free time.

Yes, minhagim are funny. I once had an online convo with a frumie who threw out the line, "What would your great-grandfather think if you did/didn't do such and such?" My response was, "Well, since he was a secular Yiddish Communist, I would think anything I do would be an improvement."

I got a tallis katan over the summer but I got so darn hot I couldn't stick with it. I'll keep trying though.