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?"