While I was riding the subway home from school yesterday, six very large white men stepped onto the subway together. There was no act of violence, no hate speech, no physical sign of them having any leanings towards white supremacy, but I was immediately scared and watchful. I wondered if they had seen my yarmulke.
As the men stood there chatting it was a moment of revelation for me. I could have quickly and quietly taken it off and secreted it into a pocket, and for all intents and purposes they would have seen me as a smaller, less masculine version of them. I chose to continue wearing it. Why, I wondered, in the face of even just a psychologically invented fear, did I continue wearing it?
In the moment, my brain fired off a series of answers. I like that it reminds me, and others, of who I am. I like that it represents my connection to the Jewish people. I like that if I do something good, or kind, people will associate it with Jews at large. I like that the folk etymology (which is almost certainly an ex-post-facto invention) is a Hebrew-Aramaic mashup meaning something to the effect of “Fearer of the King.” And fear I do feel.
Very recently, for the first time, fear for my safety almost drove me to remove the little crocheted piece of cloth from my head. Blocks from HUC-JIR in New York, at my partner’s workplace, someone had defaced the New School’s student dorms by spraying swastikas on the doors of Jewish women and women of color. The same day, a friend of mine from college was walking through Washington Square Park, also just blocks from the campus of HUC-JIR in New York, and was accosted by a man who stopped and stood directly in front of her, stared at her, laughed in her face then said, “You’re funny looking, Jew. Ugly Jewface.”
Hate crimes have been on the rise for the past year, and sharply in the past week. It’s undeniable, even though some may try to argue that they aren’t any more prevalent, but are just being reported by the media more often. I haven’t seen any reports of physical violence against Jews during this spate, but there certainly have been on other people targeted by the newly emboldened white supremacist masculinists (or, as others refer to them, the alt-right).
Americans are living in a fear right now that has been a lifelong reality for many due to institutionalized homophobia, misogyny and white supremacy. It is time that we as Jews do some heshbon haemunah. Do we really believe in tikkun olam as a theological principle? Is yirat ha’shamayim (or, yirat hamelech) something we give lip-service to, or an idea we take seriously? To put our theological money where our mouth is in relation to these concepts is to look at the new reality we are facing in America with a gaze set well beyond parochial interest. It is to reclaim who we are in this place and in this time. If we are the Nation of Israel, and our God is the All-Powerful force which created Heaven and Earth, and all of humanity, we must accept that our partnership in this project is to fix that which has been broken in the universe, not just in our own enclaves. In other words, as the prophet Micah said, we must “preserve justice and do righteousness.” To do this is to put the fear of God above other fears, which is to see the forest for the trees, and to realize that our action (or inaction) today has an impact well beyond the life and time we are currently inhabiting.
So I will leave my yarmulke on, and it will serve the purpose its folk-etymology intends. I will wear it, and use the fear I feel to remind me that there is much work to be done to fix that which has been broken. Even though we may not see the task completed, and the process will be hard and scary, it is incumbent upon all of us to never stop working.
Andy Kahn is a fourth year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He also served the CCAR as an intern during the last two academic years.