The prime minister’s yarmulke

A non-political post about Israeli politics

Naftali Bennett’s yarmulke

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

38 thoughts on “The prime minister’s yarmulke”

  1. This is a well-written reflection and it was interesting to read, particularly the part about your own “Jewish journey”. I don’t really identify though. I’ve also lived in places with varying Jewish populations, and I never felt that the presence or lack of other Jews affected my outward Jewish identity expression. I never felt a need to hide it, but I also never felt a need to appear more outwardly Jewish. I also don’t really get the specificity of Jewish/political identity involved in kippah style choice, although I appreciate that it’s human nature and society in general has it’s share of status symbols conveying group affiliation/identity. Then again, I’m a non-kippah-wearing, non-Orthodox woman, so I’m somewhat removed from this.

    1. I also don’t really get the specificity of Jewish/political identity involved in kippah style choice

      What do you mean by “I don’t really get…” ? Do you mean that you don’t relate to it? I mean, you obviously know that there are different Jewish communities that dress in different ways.


      David

      1. Of course I know that. And I get that creating specific dress codes to denote group membership is nothing new and not unique to kippot. We also have the white shirt/black hat of yeshiva learning, the hair covering options for women (where some authorities say that sheitels are the preferred option and some say they are not permitted). Even for me, when I went to a Satmar wedding, I didn’t feel comfortable dressing in a way that would make me look like I was a member of the Satmar community. So I definitely get that this is a reality, but I also think on some level, that attributing this much symbolism to an item of clothing or an accessory is a bit silly.

        1. A lot of what humans do is silly when we get down to it. But there exists a reality that we operate in… As you said. Everything we wear, the ways we speak and act… Everything sends a message, even if it’s just silly symbolism on the face of it.

          For me, choosing to be publicly identifiable as a Jew is very meaningful and positive. The more Jews that can be identified as Jewish, the better from my perspective 😃

  2. I did the same thing (wearing a Kippah so as not to “pass”) when I moved to NH. That was something of a gender-play, too. Plenty of strange comments that used to draw!

      1. Absolutely. One non-denominational synagogue serves about a 50-mile radius. There are a couple hundred families that emerge from the hills for Yom Kippur 🙂

          1. It’s a small, white town and I’m half of an interracial lesbian couple, so I’m used to stares! The reactions were always curious, rarely hostile. Folks would sometimes ask if today was a Jewish holiday. Occasionally, I’d get a random question about Israeli politics. Those ones are never fun for anybody 😬

  3. I enjoy reading your posts because you’re a brilliant poet and I like learning about the Jewish people. Since my Savior is Jewish and I’m trying to study the bible on my own, learning the customs and culture helps.

  4. Very interesting article David. 😊 I’ll try to find the one from “Times of Israel”. I totally understand your opinion and I think you should be proud of your country and your new Prime Minister.

  5. I don’t know. I would support Bennett’s actions, just from the point of view of somebody doing their own thing rather than feeling constrained by the demands of society. Especially when hit own position is so fragile.
    I’m getting a strong vibe of conflation between Judaism and Israel, which, having read you for a while, seems consistent.
    My secular head, though, much prefers the two to be entirely separate. While I feel it is unacceptable to criticise Judaism – people must be free to live how they bwish to live, and good luck to them – I think it isabsolutely valid to criticise Israel when it fails to live up to its stately responsibilities.
    Just as I feel I can say something when the UK goes wrong.
    I think there has to be that separation, for me. It kinda leads me towards thinking that there are subtle differences between fundamental things, like what we think of as a “state”.
    I hope you had a peaceful sabbath.

    1. I would support Bennett’s actions, just from the point of view of somebody doing their own thing rather than feeling constrained by the demands of society.

      me too, Pete.

      I’m getting a strong vibe of conflation between Judaism and Israel

      I would say a “conflation” (not sure I like that word) between “Jewish peoplehood” and Israel. Yes to that. Judaism is a way of life (with many internal streams).

      I think it is absolutely valid to criticize Israel when it fails to live up to its stately responsibilities.

      I 100% agree with this, and I do so all the time.

      subtle differences between fundamental things, like what we think of as a “state”.

      I don’t quite follow this last thought of yours, Pete. Could you please clarify?


      David

      1. It’s just that I got a bibe that you ight see Israel as something different to how I see the UK, say. Not better or worse, just different. Do you see Israel in the same light as you see the US, say? As you know both.

        1. That’s a good question, Pete.

          I consider being “American” the same as being a member of a “nation”. And I am very proud of being American and of America. (not always, of course, but on balance).

          However, my Jewish roots go back thousands of years before the USA existed… so I feel more tied to them than I do to being American.

          Israel is where I was born, and it’s where I am raising my daughter. And both of those are true because I am a Jew.

          I would say that the modern State of Israel, for me, is the actualization of a national aspiration, but that doesn’t mean that it is the only possible version of that actualization, nor do I think that its existence is necessary to preserve the existence of the Jewish people – we survived for nearly 2,000 years without a state of any sort (it was rough, but we survived).

          1. That pinpoints the difference, then. I have been in London and I have been in NYC. Both, ultimately, are just bricks and mortar. I have bo doubt that if I visited Jerusalem, I would say the same.
            I’m not saying either position is right or wrong, or better than the other. My suspicion, however, is that many people with a similar kind of background to me would see the problem similarly to me.
            Which might explain, if Israel feels that nobody else really understands the unique problems that it has to face. If that perception exists, it certainly explains a lot.

            You are fascinating, this is why I enjoy reading you so much.

          2. Thanks, Pete. You’re very sweet and thoughtful – I appreciate our exchanges 🙂

            if Israel feels that nobody else really understands the unique problems that it has to face

            I do think that Israel faces unique problems, but doesn’t every country?

            Also, the unique problems Israel faces have more to do with the region that it’s in than Israelis’ sense of nationality. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Israel was located in the middle of Europe. Do you imagine that we would be facing the same issues?

            -David

          3. Pete, you know, I’ve been thinking about this convo of ours, and I think that if I hadn’t been born a Jew, I would probably have a perspective on this that is quite similar to yours.

            -David

          4. It is interesting though becauise there are certain places where I felt I belonged. For example, Paris. Just that feeling on exhilaration stepping off the plane. Of course, I don’t belong there, but I feel “at home” there nonetheless. I can see it in old photos, even, I even appear to come alive there.
            From everything you have said, “at home” sums up you and Israel.

          5. Especially Jerusalem, yes… I don’t want to raise my child[ren] anywhere else. It’s really hard to articulate this in a way that is fully satisfying to me.

  6. I am interested to hear about a Jewish branch of the Bennett Family. My family name was Bennett and supposedly came from Normandy. It is a very common name with some variants in spelling. There are maybe 1000s here in Australia.

  7. So glad about your clear writing, David.Distinguishing ethnicity, religion, politics. I really do appreciate it. And understand it better. Thank you.

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