Not My Brother’s Kippah

I make kippot.  It was a hobby until last weekend. Before I left for the annual Ohala conference, my husband, Ralf, suggested a name for my new business (see title, above).

My business’ name is not simply a clever joke. It’s an answer.

Like so many Jewish women, I know what it is to have Judaism used against me, to crush me and make me small.  I have been told to cover my elbows.  I have been the victim of angry demands: How dare I continue singing when he walked into the house?  Didn’t I know that a woman’s voice seduces?

His brand of Judaism was enraged, extreme.  He was, when I knew him, so far right that some family members joked about where he might have been the night Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, was assassinated.  He wanted to kill every Palestinian, and said so.  He made me want to run screaming in any direction away from anything Jewish that wasn’t academic, and therefore, safe territory for me.

How could I make teshuva when coming back would mean accepting humiliation I had known when I was young?

And yet.

And yet, when we were first married three decades ago, Ralf took my grandmother’s prayerbook out of the discard pile and brought it back to me.  In the late 1990’s, my then six-year-old son took to davennen as if he were born inside its cadence when I dared attend services at a nearby havurah.  Now and again I’d remember – with a kind of longing – my grandfather’s davenning  the Maxwell House haggadah.

What is all that about the journeys that begin with tender, tremulous steps?

The sign on the trail: “Jewish Renewal.” While walking I found men and women opening up the world of halakha and making it more than safe – a source of delight, in fact.  I listened to women singing without restraints, teaching with power and humor.  We all stood together at Sinai – many of us, women and men, with our elbows uncovered.

I had begun making kippot for friends.  I vowed I would only make a kippah when I knew whose head would wear it.  I deviated just slightly, making some for my congregation so that children and adults could choose one as they entered services.  A kippah with a penguin?  Beads and butterflies?  Glittery gold fabric?

For years, at every Jewish Renewal event I attended, women asked me if I sold my kippot.  I would explain, see the sadness, and persist.  I would not sell.  I would only give.

Three years ago, Rabbi Nadya Gross, mentor, teacher, and friend, began bugging me.  “There are women out there who need your kippot,” she said.  “What’s out there for them?”

There are hats that can get too warm and scarves that can look like shmattes. For a while, kippot of beads and wire were in fashion.  Pretty, but insubstantial. Frankly, I want to feel my head covered.  My kippah is a manifestation of sorts, the hand of the divine cupped over my keppe to bless it.

I gave in and began sewing for people I did not know.  My son designed some of my work – making my beadwork asymmetrical, surprising.  My husband matched fabrics and flowers I would not have put together.  I sewed until I woke up at night with my fingers raw and sore.

Then I left for Denver, and the annual conference run by Ohalah, a trans-denominational association of rabbis, cantors, rabbinic pastors, and students of those professions.  Later, I will tell you stories.  Stories of the way women crowded around the table, the way men bought kippot for female friends.  One of the kippot my son designed went to a woman just waking from a coma.

I will tell you the way those men and women nearly cleaned out my stock and asked me for a website, please.  I will tell you stories that made me cry with relief and gratitude.  Stories of women sitting in rows with feathers, flowers and beads on their heads, walking the hotel corridors wearing the kippot I’d made in ways I had never imagined – rakishly, in different directions, with grace and charm.

I want to thank everyone at Ohalah, in Jewish Renewal, for helping me manifest a peaceful, colorful, gentle answer to any who would crush Jewish women and make them small: These are not my brother’s kippah.

May the palm of God’s hand cup the beautiful keppes they adorn.  May those women grow surer and stronger wearing them.  May Jewish Renewal’s path widen in yet more welcome, and may we give answers of love and healing to all who walk even the smallest step with us.

11 thoughts on “Not My Brother’s Kippah

  1. Jane just spent 15 minutes trying to choose which of the two I brought home with me she wanted for herself.

    We’ve decided to share them.

    all love to you!

  2. Two things. One, I surely feel the blessing when I wear your kippot. Is it God’s hand on my head? I like to think it’s yours (or Ginger’s or Robbin’s or Leta’s or any and all of the people Judaism has gifted into my life) — the part of you all that smiles/speaks/sings/dances Ya. When I wore the blue, Angela-sized kippah in Illinois….well, you know what a gift it was for me. In that place. On that day. I felt you all there with me, and yes, I was surer and stronger. So, that’s one: People need your beautiful kippot for their woefully under-protected keppes.

    Two. Ask and you shall receive; the website maven lives to make the Internets prettier (and also to ceaselessly promote her rabbi). Tell the kid he needs to build us another clever logo, and I’ll go from there. =)

  3. Until you’re hobbling onto the bimah in your seriously bedraggled hippie clothes and both our voices are gone. Since you’re the rabbi, I’ve kindly given you the next-to-last word on the subject. =)

  4. Would my kippah be a hope for future possibilities or a sign of who I am now? I don’t know. I am not yet worthy of wearing something that symbolizes so much for so many. I have no history to pack into its threads. I don’t want it to be a decoration or a costume piece, but a shelter, a haven. You will know when that time is right. Maybe we will both know it when that moment stands still.

    • Charlotte – first, I want to say that this is EXACTLY how I felt about wearing my tallis before I was “official.” Second, I want to say that — whether you know it or not — the whole “hope for future possibilities” thing is also (I hear) kind of a Jew thing, particularly when it’s done in the way of naming, but I would also think in this way. For me especially it works, because when I wear kippot, I think I take on my Hebrew name in ways that I don’t when I’m not wearing them. But I also like to think that I become (or try to become) a truer form of myself when that little reminder is there on the crown of my head. Of course, I’m sure it works differently for everyone, and I agree that you will know when the moment has arrived, and when it feels right. But I don’t know that you have to wait for the “history” to be there. Or if you do, maybe it’s just a matter of claiming that history as yours in some way. See you tonight!

  5. I would like to weigh in. In the past a Kippah was not only an item worn by males but it was also rather nondescript. When I returned to Judaism a few years ago, I was delighted at the fact that these are worn by woman and there were feminized versions available. Your Kippahs Rabbi brought an additional dimension to my path of re-discovery; it introduced the notion that Judaism and individuality are not incompatible. Contrary to my earliest experiences in Judaism, one can feel a sense of belonging and retain one’s own perspective on practices, beliefs and what is appropriate to don on one’s head.

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