The Quest Begins

I’m a bad Jew. I’m also a skinny Jew, an arrogant Jew, a neurotic Jew, an erotic Jew, and even a dirty Jew—at least I’ve been called each of those names more than once in my lifetime. But now, at … Read More

By / November 15, 2006

I’m a bad Jew. I’m also a skinny Jew, an arrogant Jew, a neurotic Jew, an erotic Jew, and even a dirty Jew—at least I’ve been called each of those names more than once in my lifetime. But now, at 35 years old, with one book of fiction under my belt and a couple manuscripts in the can, I’m on the verge of having a son. And for the first time in my life, I want to be called a good Jew. (Or at the very least, one who’s trying to improve.)

I’ve been bad in all the familiar ways. As a child I sat on Santa’s lap and hunted for Easter eggs. In school, I slavishly dated Ukrainians, Latvians, Czechs, and Croats to the exclusion of Sarah, Rachel, and Esther. I’ve even worked for minimum wage on Yom Kippur. For years I neutered my family’s last name, chopping it in half to form Pape, somehow unaware of the papal connotations.

Judaism for me has always been a buffet where you decide to celebrate the feast of Passover but not observe the Fast of Gedalia; you give your son a bris, but not a bar mitzvah. I’m a pick-and-choose Jew, and for the most part, I’ve chosen not to pick.

By now I’ve outgrown Santa’s lap. I married a Jew, and I suffer through Yom Kippur services nearly every year, seeking some sort of community and belonging. So far, all I’ve found is hunger and crushing tedium. But the upcoming birth of my first child has me asking why I’ve turned away from the accumulated wisdom of my forefathers—and wondering if returning to that wisdom might make me a happier man, a better man, a good Jewish dad.

In Stars of David, a recent book of interviews with Jewish luminaries, New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier wrote, “I can respect heresy, I can respect alienation…. I don’t mind renegades or apostates… My point is that American Jews aren’t renegades; they are slackers.” He goes on to condemn secular Jews for not bothering to learn about the Judaism they are rejecting. I hadn’t been rebelling at all, according to Wieseltier: I was just lazy.

My mission was clear: to attempt to become the best Jew that I could possibly be—for me and for my child. Esquire ran a column in the 1990s called “The Perfect Man,” in which a poor schmuck named Carl Fussman attempted to reinvent himself from the studs up. I decided to follow his example and become the Perfect Jew. To succeed in this quest, I would have to bury long-held biases and open my mind to incomprehensible, spooky rituals. I would have to learn how to pray, how to dress, how to purify myself at a mikveh and how to honor the dead, how to negotiate like a macher, and how to respect my mother like a good Jewish son. I would have to disassemble the old me and build myself up again from the dust. Even if I don’t succeed in becoming a better Jew, at least I’ll be making an informed decision.

Wearing a kippah seemed an appropriate place to start. Growing up Reform, I’d never covered my head at services. In fact, I found the idea of placing an itchy cloth disc on my head so embarrassing that I didn’t even wear one at my wedding. But if I was faintly ashamed to announce my Jewishness with a kippah, then how could I become a Perfect Jew?

So I devised a test. I would wear a kippah for two straight weeks. Everywhere I went, everyone who looked at me would know instantly that I was Jewish. I’d immerse myself in the experience of public Judaism. And, as I soon found out, I’d learn that a kippah isn’t just a fashion statement—a lot is bound up in the act of wearing one.

To lead me on this quest, I chose Sam Tarlin, the longtime manager of Kolbo Judaica in Brookline, Massachusetts. Sam has outfitted many of Boston’s Jews over the years and used to wear a kippah himself, until the sheer bulk of his Jewfro got in the way. His store carries a dizzying array of headgear: There were simple leather kippahs in muted grays and blues, flat knitted kippahs that looked like my great-grandmother’s doilies, silken embroidered yarmulkes, large boxy multicolored caps, bowl-shaped felt skullcaps with silver stars sewn into the fabric, and Spiderman-festooned kippahs that brought product placement finally into the synagogue.

And they all made a different statement. The colorful Bukharan caps were usually favored by left-leaning, crunchy, Birkenstock-wearing types, and the felt ones were usually worn by yeshiva bochers, or seminary students. The knit kippas were popular with both Conservative and Orthodox Jews. I pointed to one with the much-despised (in Boston) New York Yankees logo and asked if it was kosher. “It doesn‘t matter what’s written on it; what matters is that your head is covered,” Sam told me. “Some people wear baseball caps.”

For a moment, I brightened at this loophole, but that would be missing the point. We were in Boston, where virtually every button-nosed Irish Catholic college kid within a hundred miles has at least one Red Sox hat.

Finally, I chose a simple blue knit with gray and white embroidery around its perimeter. Looking in the mirror, I couldn’t even see evidence that I was wearing one, perched as it was on the back of my head.

Thus clad, I began firing questions at my kippah guru. “Does Jewish law require me to wear a kippah? Do I sleep in it? Do I have to take it off before going to the bathroom?”

No, no, and no, Sam patiently answered. Believe it or not, there’s no Jewish law saying that you need to wear a kippah. It’s a custom, but it’s not a rule. As the Talmud explains, wearing a kippah is the sartorial equivalent of tying a string around your finger—it’s a constant reminder of the spiritual world. It also reminds us to behave. “When you are wearing a kippah,” said Sam, “you are representing world Jewry. So you are going to want to think twice before you act, before you shout at somebody in line at the bank or drive on the Sabbath or eat something that isn’t kosher. This is called marat ayin, causing someone to misunderstand Judaism.”

Out in the street I felt as if I had come out of hiding. My Semitic good looks notwithstanding, I always felt I blended nicely into my surroundings; in jeans and T-shirt, I was just one of the crowd. Now, everybody would know with absolute certainty that I was Jewish, and I wore the kippah with an unexpected mixture of pride and shame.

At my mega-big-box gym, as I hung upside down in the Roman chair, abs straining, kippah clipped stubbornly to my head, I felt that I was a fraud, a joker wearing a Halloween costume. I was no more connected to God now than I had been a week earlier. I was a bit player from Central Casting who didn’t even know his lines.

In my own paranoid mind, I imagined that people saw the worst in me as a kippah-wearing Jew: the rampaging Jewish settler, the crooked Washington lobbyist, the sickly Torah scholar. What built-in biases led me to assume that others would see me in the most negative light? Were they guilty of marat ayin, or was I?

As the days wore on, I realized that it was not enemies of the Jewish people who were singling me out, but Jews. In the supermarket, in restaurants, at the Target store, they nodded at me, just a subtle, wordless signal acknowledging that we were members of the same tribe. It was as if I had finally learned an elusive secret handshake. Were they quietly thanking me for seemingly upholding the tradition that was simply too much for them to deal with in their busy lives?

At dinner, my cousins Carol and Lewis laughed for a solid five minutes when they saw me in my knitted kippah.

“Just don‘t embarrass us and order pork,” patrician Lewis quipped, as he sipped his Dewar’s on ice.

I‘d never planned on keeping kosher as well; that was too much to take on all at once. Wearing a kippah, I realized, wasn’t just one item on the buffet, but part of an endless prix fixe menu full of expectations and responsibilities. As long as I wore it, I would have to tread carefully; no sarcastic comments to shopkeepers, no flipping the bird to idiot drivers, and no pork. The reputation of world Jewry depended on my good behavior.

It was a relief to take off my kippah at the end of the week. I tucked it away in my sock drawer until the next time I go to synagogue; at least then I’ll look the part, and my child will know that I’m trying,

I can’t say that I felt a greater spiritual connection to a higher being with my head covered, but I was conscious every minute as I wore the kippah that I was part of something bigger, that I was responsible to a greater community. I wouldn’t say wearing it made me a better person, but I was guided by the better angels of my nature, the way a muzzle keeps a junkyard dog from biting.

The next quest: Ritual purification in a mikveh.



Do: Do you feel self-conscious about wearing a kippah? Let us know in the Comments section below. Go: It might be easier to decide to wear a kippah if you personalized one. Read: When did Jews start wearing skullcaps and just how necessary are they to remain pious?

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