A Jewish Story about a Skull Cap



   
    Issue Number 24, August 1999          
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A Green Yarmulke

By David Jacobson

As I was sitting at the bus stop at the end of a long school day, with my head turned to the side, as I spoke to a friend, I heard a loud voice – obviously that of a local farm-boy– calling from behind me: "Hey kid! Ya know ya got a green thing on yer head?" Realizing he was talking about my green suede yarmulke, I pretended to freak out, yelling crazily, "OH MY GOSH! WHAT IS IT! GET IT OFF ME!??!?!?!" He ran away screaming, apparently terrified of the "green thing."

A different time, I was at the bank, and another person took note of that same green thing. My teller, a heavy black lady, said to me, "Hey, I bet you're Jewish…Do you gotta eat that kosher food?" Replying that, yes, I did in fact have to adhere to the set of Jewish dietary laws, she immediately expounded on the benefits of eating kosher: "Yeah, sometimes I buy my kids that stuff…It's so good fo' yo' body! Especially the chicken…WOW IS THAT HEALTHY!"

Yet another person, walking in the opposite direction on campus, noticed my yarmulke and said, "Could you explain to me the difference between the Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Modern Orthodox Jews?" I didn't give him a very thorough answer – he had caught me sprinting after the bus I had just missed – but it still made an impact on me that a total stranger, in the middle of the prairie, would stop me and ask a question about religious Judaism.

All of these incidents made me think – not about the differences between the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox; not about the health benefits of kosher food; but about the "green thing" on my head, about being an observant Jew in the middle of Jewish nowhere.

My parents moved to Illinois from New York City in the late 60's, expecting to stay until my eldest brother, Mike, reached elementary school age, when they would leave for a larger Jewish community that could supply a religious education for him. They liked it here, though, and their plans worked out differently: a quarter century later, they're still here, the last of their four sons soon to complete his Champaign-Urbana education (hopefully). I, that son, have been educated in Jewish disciplines by my father and mother, and have been an active participant in the Champaign/Urbana/campus Jewish community for a good portion of my life.

It is difficult being one of the only members of any specific group. I am one of two religious Jewish high-school-age males in the county. Therefore, the social group I find myself in is not an overly Jewish one. The many laws, customs, and restrictions to which I am bound, they are completely exempt from. When my friends go out on campus for lunch, my "lunch" is either Baskin-Robbins, the only kosher "restaurant" on campus, or a brown bag lunch from home. When my friends party on Friday nights, the beginning of the Sabbath, I stay home. Every morning, I have to wake forty-five minutes earlier than I otherwise would to pray. These things used to bother me tremendously. I would enter the fast-food place with my friends, smelling the savory odors of grease and food that was not kosher, and wanted just to be able to order. I would sit home Friday nights with my family, and constantly in the back of my mind was the refrain: "What am I doing home when my friends are all out?" in the annoyed tone reminiscent of the Corn Pops ™ television commercials of the early 90's. Some mornings I would fall back asleep instead of praying, annoyed that I had to be the one to wake up early.

But all this changed. People would walk up to me and ask me questions, which made me think about my role as a Jew in a community with few Jews. I began to actually enjoy the nightly hour spent learning Hebrew with my father. In the summer of 1997, after I completed my sixth year at a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, I took my first trip to Israel, the land of my birth, in over twelve years. Although the program was advertised primarily as a basketball camp, it was much, much, more. Lectures in Judaism took up a good part of every day, and at least two weeks were spent touring Israel. The lectures were about topics that had never been presented to me before, topics that interested me and provoked questions in my mind. I toured many of the holy places in Israel, learning about my heritage and experiencing my history. Before my arrival in Israel, I had thought, "The trip should be fun, but I doubt I'll be inspired or anything…." I couldn't have been more wrong: I came home inspired, with a new, better understanding of Judaism and, for the first time in years, an actual feeling of privilege to be a Jew.

Immediately when I got back, I started to try to apply a concept I had become very familiar with in my studies in Israel: Kiddush Hashem, the "sanctification of the name" (of G-d). By being a Jew, a member of the "chosen people," I realized, I represented my entire religion in whatever I did. By wearing my little "green thing," as others saw it, my actions not only reflected on me, but on my religion. In a city such as New York, where every third person is a Jew, one's actions are seen as reflecting on oneself more than on all of Judaism. But in little Champaign, where I may be one of the few religious Jews my acquaintances might come into contact with, I am not only a Jew, but in their eyes, Judaism. Before my experience in Israel, I would have brushed this off, saying "I know, I know," but afterwards I had realized that it is a big deal, and that it is my responsibility, whereas before, had I taken it seriously, it would have been my burden. Likewise, all the other laws and customs that I had before dreaded became responsibility. When I walk into Garcia's Pizza now, the pizza looks just as good, but there is no temptation for me to eat it. It might as well be rat poison. I enjoy that same Sabbath which I used to sulk my way through, perturbed that I couldn't be out partying. Now I think of it as a nice rest. I enjoy the responsibility.

This is not to say that I am completely religious, that I never violate any of the commandments, that I know every single Jewish law by heart, that I do not make an occasional joke about stereotypical Judaism, or that I always, or even the majority of the time, conduct myself according to all laws of Jewish ethics. But I take the religion seriously. And I realize that in a town such as Champaign it is my obligation, as well as my privilege, to act according to Jewish laws, to make a "kiddush Hashem," and most of all, to be a religious Jew.

~~~~~~~

from the August 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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