How Brave Would I Be - Wearing a Kippah in Germany
I have had a safer, more privileged, unconfined, and all around freer upbringing than any previous Jewish generation before me. As someone who is obsessed with Jewish history, learning the ins and outs of the Jewish story over the past two-millennia, I often wonder to myself:
How brave would I be?
We study stories in the talmud of rabbis who risked their lives to continue teaching Torah after it was outlawed under the Roman occupation of Israel. We read about Sephardic families who, throughout the Iberian Peninsula, spent generations pretending to be Christians under the threat of certain death and yet clung onto Jewish practice and heritage. We are told heroic stories of holocaust victims who, in the depths of the concentration camps, risked everything to retain their commitment to Jewish law and holidays.
This is all, of course, barely even scratching the surface of Jewish bravery throughout the generations.
My great grandfather, for whom I am named, Rabbi Moshe Levine, was a teacher in a small Jewish school in Minsk after fighting for Russia in World War 1. As Russia became increasingly anti-semitic, even outlawing the public teaching of Torah, Rabbi Moshe Levine continued to covertly teach a group of young schoolchildren in an attic multiple times a week. When caught by the authorities he was sent to Siberia for several years - forced to leave behind his wife and three small children.
Like my great grandfather, I too am a Jewish educator. One who, instead of doing it at great peril, does so and receives a bi-monthly paycheck, vacation days, and frequent trips to Israel.
But if I was in that same position, what would I have done? Could I really say that I would do the same?
Last week news broke that the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany advised Jews to leave their Kippot at home for their own safety. There are currently 100,000 Jews living in Germany, many of whom are probably undergoing this exact same internal debate.
Now this may not sound like such a big deal. One could just wear a hat, saving their Kippah until they are safely inside the house or synagogue. After all, the prominence of a Kippah in Jewish life is anyways a relatively modern phenomenon.
But for many wearing a Kippah is a primary part of their Jewish identity - for me it is something that tags me as a member of the Jewish community wherever I go. It is not due to any sort of halachic allegiance that I keep my head covered - on the contrary - I strongly advocate for Jews to wear a Kippah at all times even if they are openly breaking Halacha. For me, wearing a Kippah at any given moment means that I am making an active choice to broadcast to the world that I am a proud member of the Jewish community. Take it off and it’s as if one is making a temporary decision to reject their fundamental identity.
As I sit here safely in a bougie coffee shop in southern California, I’d like to think that if I lived in Germany I would continue to wear my Kippah - just as I like to think that I would act in a similar manner to my great-grandfather if I had been born in Russia 100 years prior. What I actually would have done is anyone’s guess.
This summer I’ll be spending a few days in France on my way home from a fellowship at the Jerusalem based Hartman Institute. Every time I divulge my travel plans one of the first questions I receive is “do you think you’ll wear your Kippah?”
To be completely honest as of a few weeks ago, heeding the recommendation of multiple family members and friends, I wasn’t planning on it. Why risk my safety while I solo-travel through cities known for their recent uptick in anti-semitic activity? However, after this recent news from Germany broke I changed my mind. It’s nothing compared to the trials and tribulations that Jews before me have gone through in order to protect and preserve their Jewishness, but it is a small start nonetheless.
So if you see a guy with a large backing bag, skateboard, and Kippah roaming through Paris in late July, come say hi.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
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Is it better, if one is going to gamble or do other shady ethical activity (and yes, I know it is better not to do it at all, but whatever), to remove signs of Jewishness like a Magen David or a kippa before? Or is that worse?
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