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How My Yarmulke Helps Me Connect to Others

How My Yarmulke Helps Me Connect to Others

Ivory and blue knit yarmulke pinned to top of dark haired head

Recently, I visited Israel as part of an intergenerational group of American Reform leaders, thanks to the hard work and generosity of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and several partner organizations, including ARZENU, the WZO, and KKL

One day, we stopped at Sarona Market in Tel Aviv for a quick lunch. I found a vegetarian pasta stand and perused the menu. The person at the cash register, I presume because he noticed my kippah (yarmulke), kindly let me know the restaurant did not have a kashrut certificate (indicating the restaurant adheres to Jewish dietary laws). “I understand,” I said. “I’ll take the cheese ravioli with beets.” He smiled and handed me a receipt to bring to the chef who would start my order.

As I walked to hand the chef my receipt, he abruptly stopped me and said, “We’re not kosher.”

“I understand,” I told him. “I’m a Reform rabbinical student. I eat vegetarian food without a hechsher (rabbinical certification indicating food items conform to Jewish dietary laws).”

He just stared.

“Is that a problem?” I asked.

“A problem for whom?”

“Ummm...I don’t know. Anyone?”

“For Jews, yeah it’s a problem,” said the chef.

“Well, I’m Jewish and it’s not a problem for me.”

“You’re Reform. It’s not the same.”

He grabbed the receipt and turned away to begin to prepare my pasta.

The person at the cash register saw this exchange, looked at my face and quietly said, “You have to understand. It’s different here.” He told me that there is a lot of animosity between religious people and secular people. He told me that he was queer and a drag performer. He asked me if I had heard of Shira Banki, the teenager murdered by an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man at the Jerusalem Pride Parade in 2015. He told me the divide is just too strong.

I told him I was queer, too. I told him that I think about these issues all the time – every time I wear my kippah and hold hands with my husband as we walk down the street. I told him that it’s important for me to show the world that my religion and my sexuality are compatible, that there’s more than one way to practice Judaism.

“I heard once that there’s even gender fluidity in Jewish texts,” he said to me. “Is that true?”

We had a conversation about the midrash in which God created the first human as an “androgynous,” a person with both male and female sex characteristics. He told me to let him know if my seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, ever needed a lecturer on drag culture. I got my ravioli and said goodbye.

Since I began to wear a kippah, I’ve been conscious to take it off when I eat in a non-kosher restaurant, so as not to accidentally mislead someone into thinking that the restaurant is certified kosher. Although I fully understand the reasoning behind my action, my heart pulls every time I do it. I wish I could say I felt fully comfortable reclaiming my kippah and the spiritual significance it brings me. I wish I could say it didn’t matter to me how I am perceived by others when I wear it. I wish I could feel comfortable knowing that my Shabbat practice, my kashrut practice, and my kippah wearing practice are my own to determine. But, at this point in my life, I’m not quite there.

At the same time, if I hadn’t been wearing a kippah at Sarona Market, the cashier and I would never have had our incredible conversation. He might never have met a queer Reform rabbinical student nor considered how all of those identities might be able to flow together. For the secular drag queen cashier in Tel Aviv with a slight curiosity about midrash, I’ll keep this kippah on my head for now.

Andrew Oberstein is a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and incoming rabbinic intern at Columbia/Barnard Hillel. He is a Wexner Graduate Fellow, a T'ruah summer fellow in human rights, and an ARZA/HUC-JIR Fellow. Originally from Los Angeles, he now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his husband, Nick.

Andrew Oberstein
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