Tamar Lindenbaum (Teaneck, NJ)
The truth is that if at any other time in my life I had been in a situation similar to this one, I probably would have turned and walked out without an answer. But this was Bronfman, situations like this were wont to occur, so when the stocky, bald souvenir shop owner asked me in thickly accented English if he could borrow my hat, I said yes. I handed it to him and he placed it on his head and proceeded to take an apple from his pocket. “Baruch ata hashem…” Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the trees. He took a bite, and then gently placed the hat back on my head and thanked me. No problem, I replied, and smiled. It takes all kinds, I thought, and my mind turned to the event four weeks earlier that began my Bronfman experience.
It was orientation and we had to choose a chavruta [study partner] to learn a text with. I sat down next to a then-unfamiliar Grant, and asked him if he’d prefer I read in Hebrew or English. He laughed. He’d never learned with a kid who read in Hebrew, he said. I’d never learned with a boy who wasn’t wearing a kippah, I replied.
The week before that, I could’ve walked down any street in Jerusalem and told you who the Jews there were by their head coverings. The furry shtreimel? Chassidish. Black hat? Chareidi. Big black kippah? Yeshivish. White one? Yeshiva bachur. Nachman kippah? Breslover. A woman wearing a kippah? Feminist. Kippah with a sports logo? Modern Orthodox. (These are all, clearly, vast generalizations. Of course there are people who do and don’t fit into these categories without the mentioned gear. I do not mean to offend anyone.) But I had never stopped to contemplate the significance of a bare head.
The bare head, I guess, had too many options; it didn’t fit into my smooth, diagnostic, erasing boxes. It didn’t let me declare, with a single glance at a person, how they practiced and what they believed and who they were. It left me searching, contemplating the identity of the unidentifiable.
It took me five weeks to synthesize the experience I had on the very first day of the trip and the souvenir shop kippah episode into a message about how I defined myself and others, and how I should define them.
My art teacher warns my class of “name calling”- that in our effort to tell ourselves and our viewers what it is we are depicting, we force it into a box. It’s a chair, it’s a chair, our pictures say, the Aristotelian accident, and we miss out on what it really is – the essence, Aristotle would say – of the chair.
I was concentrating on the accident of a head covering, or lack thereof, and letting it take away the essence. A kippah may not mean observance, and a bare head may not mean secularism. They both mean you need to look a little deeper. I’ve begun to embrace what Da Vinci called sfumato - a willingness to accept ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. I can look at the boy on the street in the varsity basketball logo kippah and wonder what he believes, and know that I just don’t know. I think I realized that I can’t necessarily identify people, or identify myself.
When we applied to Bronfman, we were asked to check off a box describing how we identified in terms of our Jewish practice. There were options there: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular, and more (I wrote “Orthoprax”… a conversation for another post.) But what I realized this summer is that I’m done with calling myself names. I don’t want to let things define me. I’ve decided to identify as non-identifiable; to denominate myself within the non-denominational.
When I saw the store owner put his “kippah” on for the blessing, it reminded me of the people I had met on Bronfman, and the myriad of ways in which they practiced. And how some of them are strange or contradictory or downright irrational… and it’s alright. Sometimes my practices are Orthodox, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes my beliefs make sense, sometimes they don’t. Sfumato – I can take off a kippah and I can put it back on and I can look beyond it. Because a kippah doesn’t define me and neither does a bare head. It un-defines me. So look at my head and wonder who I am and where I come from and realize that you may never understand and neither will I.