Her Work — and Ours

DSC_2260I was at the Ohalah conference shuk, rearranging the kippot that still left on my table, and noting, as I do every year, a marked preference for all shades of blues and purples. Over 200 rabbis belong to Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. Our annual conference brings together rabbinic pastors, cantors, rabbis, and students of all three professions for several days of davening, workshops, and programs.

A woman I did not know stopped to look at a kippah I had made from raw silks in soft shades of heather and hunter green. She was wearing exactly the same pale green as I had used in the kippah. She looked at the kippot quietly.

“Is there one calling out to you?” I asked.

There were two she liked. One was aqua, with an applique in the form of a thistle. The other was the kippah of greens. She picked up the one, then the other. She made no move to try on either one.

The rabbinic pastors, rabbis, cantors, teachers and students who stop at Not My Brother’s Kippah to look at my kippot or tallitot are looking for how they want to pray – with exuberance or quiet certainty; with joy or with deep, rich, attentiveness. The kippah each chooses is the one, I have learned, that I made for exactly that person.

The kippah with the thistle was important for my new guest. She works with an organization that has a thistle as its symbol, an organization that aids women who have been abused and enslaved.

I learned about her as she spoke. Finally, I discovered the reason for her shyness.

She was not Jewish. She was attending Ohalah as a conference presenter at one of the many sessions held on interfaith work.

That morning, our keynote speaker, Rabbi Arthur Green, had emphasized the need to respect and honor traditions of other religions. He had also warned, gently, against trying to appropriate them. Though she was attracted to the kippot on my table, she didn’t feel she had a right to wear one. DSC_2266

“You know,” I said, “This is how I feel wearing a kippah. I feel like the hand of the Holy One cups my head. I feel blessed.”

She could imagine that feeling, she said. Still, she would hate to offend anyone. She would not like for people to feel she was doing something false.

“Well,” I said, grinning, “you could always say that a rabbi made you your kippah. It would be the truth.”

To be fair: I’ve known my fair share of people who found Jewish traditions and rituals exotic and interesting, and who adopted those practices in ways that felt, at times, invasive to me. I’ve known what it is to be “observed” for the sake of learning about how Jesus might have lived. I have had to explain why the Passover celebration and its rituals cannot be turned into a reenactment of the Last Supper.

But I have also known what it is to speak to a Christian woman in spiritual direction with me about her deep attachment to the poignant image of a cross crowned by thorns. To speak to her heart, I had to speak in her language. I did not sacrifice my tribal identity. To communicate in someone else’s language is a learnable skill, but it does not make that language your native, natural one.

This minister’s work was the work of all clergy who try to bring God’s compassion into this broken world.

Mysterious things happen at the Ohalah conference every year. I didn’t tell my quiet visitor what I had noticed.

DSC_2264She tried the kippot on. In the end, she decided to buy both.

Then it was time to tell her.

At each Ohalah conference, there is a large, glass bowl filled with many slips of colored paper. On each slip is a name of someone attending the conference. Anyone can choose to take one of those slips of paper. Whoever’s name you choose is whoever you pray for during the conference.

Of over two hundred possibilities, I had chosen her name. I realized that as she was trying the kippot on, when I glanced at her name tag.

I told her; she smiled. Then I blessed the kippot, and I blessed her work, and I blessed her.

A rabbi had made kippot for a non-Jew – still a person who had needed those blessings.

May they aid her in her work. It is also mine. And ours.

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.