A non-political post about Israeli politics
In writing about Israel’s new government recently, I mentioned in passing that our new prime minister is the first one to wear a yarmulke in public all the time. Former PM Netanyahu wore a yarmulke at special events, but not daily. Upon taking office, PM Bennett also became the first Israeli prime minister who observes the Sabbath and keeps kosher.
Before sharing my personal reflection on PM Bennett’s head covering, I’d like to make two quick notes:
- Yarmulke is a Yiddish word used to describe the traditional head covering you’ll see atop the heads of Orthodox Jewish men and some others in the Jewish community. As a child in the USA, I usually used to refer to my head covering, which I wore at the synagogue, as a yarmulke. Now, I tend to refer to it as a kippah, which is Hebrew.
- This blog post was inspired by an article on the Times of Israel titled ‘Bubblegum and magic tape: How PM Bennett’s kippa stays on, and why it matters‘, which I recommend to you. I do not plan to regurgitate the content of that article – my intention is only to share my personal emotional reaction to PM Bennett’s kippah.
Perspective: my ‘Jewish journey’
For the most part, this post is actually about me, rather than PM Bennett. Given that, I would like you to understand how I relate to my kippah.
As I mentioned above, I only wore a kippah at my synagogue during my childhood. This included my Jewish afterschool program, which was called ‘Hebrew school’, and it included prayer services on those rare occasions when I came to synagogue, which was almost never after my bar mitzvah ceremony (at the age of thirteen).
I grew up in East Brunswick, NJ, an area with a fairly large Jewish population (24,800 in 2008). However, when I was coming of age, the town’s Orthodox Jewish population was very small, and I was not aware that it existed. I mention this because kippot (the plural of kippah) are most commonly worn by Orthodox males, and I pretty much never saw any worn outdoors during my childhood.
After high school, I left New Jersey to attend Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. Cleveland itself has a very sizable Jewish population, but CWRU does not. In those years, there were 3,600 undergraduates, and the student body was 10% Jewish on paper. However, I estimate that only 10% of those 360 Jewish students were active members of our campus Jewish community. In other words, there were less than 40 active Jewish students on campus.
The relative absence of Jews on campus at CWRU came as a severe culture shock for me at age eighteen, having come from such a Jewish area, and I strongly felt, for the first time in my life, that I had to represent my people.
At that time, I was a secular Jew. I knew nothing about religiously observing Shabbat and next to nothing about keeping kosher; but I knew that wearing a kippah in public would make me identifiably Jewish. And so, I deliberately began wearing my kippah everywhere.
Jews can pass
Unlike people of African and Asian descent, most Ashkenazic Jews can pass as Caucasians. Without my head covering and beard, I am not obviously identifiable as Jewish. Somebody might hazard a guess that I am a Jew but could not be sure by looking at me.
Of course, one need not wear a kippah to be identifiably Jewish. There are other potential markers, such as Star of David necklace charms, which are a popular choice. However, kippot are definitely the most conspicuous and widely recognizable sign of a person’s Jewishness.
Some people grow up in religious Jewish families and communities, in which wearing kippot is the norm. Others, like myself, make a personal choice to don them, which, generally, indicates a high level of Jewish pride.
Bennett chose not to pass
There has been a lot written across many media outlets about Bennett’s religiosity and ‘Jewish journey’, but for the purposes of this post, I would like to emphasize one very important fact: Naftali Bennett deliberately chose not to pass.
Bennett’s parents were not always religious, and he started taking an interest in living a traditional Jewish life when he was yet a child. However, even as an adult, there were years of his life when he did not wear a kippah, and, based upon what I have read, of the three boys in Bennett’s family, he was considered the least traditional. (For example: he married a secular Jewish woman.)
By the way, there are plenty of religious Jews in Israel who do not wear kippot but do observe Shabbat and keep kosher. Bennett could just as readily opt to live like that, and his daily life in Israel would not be much different as a result.
Bennett’s religious moderation
Keep in mind that this is not a blog post about politics. It is about Jewish ethnicity, religiosity, identity and pride; and in that context it’s important to underscore that Bennett is a religious moderate. (Politically, he’s very right-wing, but that’s not germane to the subject at hand.)
I don’t want to delve into all the nuances of what the many different styles of kippot signify in terms of community affiliation and religious outlook, other than to say that Bennett’s style of kippah symbolizes his relatively easygoing religious outlook. (It is crocheted, small, and worn at the back of his head, rather than on top).
Bennett and his family are religiously observant, but they are not religious extremists.
In a 2019 Facebook post, Bennett defined his personal religious practice as ‘Israeli-Jewish.’
‘Israeli-Jewish can mean religious, traditional, secular, Haredi-nationalist or Haredi,’ he wrote. ‘Israeli Jews don’t judge each other based on how strictly they observe mitzvot…’-Ben Sales, Times of Israel
Bennett’s image on the international stage
My Mama identifies as a traditionally inclined secular Jew, and so did my Papa, who only wore his kippah in religious contexts. While neither of them were obviously identifiable as Jews by their dress, their pride in their Jewish identities was second to none. My secular parents were no less proud of being Jewish than Naftali Bennett, as are many, many Jews of various religious persuasions.
I feel that I have to emphasize this because I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that Naftali Bennett’s kippah or religious lifestyle make him a better Jew, a more committed Jew, or a prouder Jew than anyone else.
However, the fact remains: unlike Jews who do not wear kippot in public, Bennett’s Jewishness is immediately evident to all who see him. And not only that: those who see him know that Bennett is choosing to make his Jewish identity public.
In this way, Israel’s new prime minister is projecting a message to the international community, which is that he is not just incidentally the Israeli Prime Minister, and Israel is not just a state. Bennett’s love of, pride in, and commitment to Israel are rooted in his Jewish identity – and that is the message of his kippah. That’s the image of our new prime minister, which all the world will now come to see on the international stage.
Personally, that makes me very, very proud.