Sunday, August 20, 2006

being a duck in public

Like many Jews (especially men and Reconstructionist women), I wear a yarmulke whenever I'm in shul. Lately I also wear one on Holy Days, including Shabbes, even if I'm not in shul.

It's a little bit ironic to wear a yarmulke all day on Shabbes, while I'm skipping shul. I never run into anyone else who's wearing a yarmulke, because of course, they're all in shul.

I do it not for religious reasons, but out of a sense of personal and political obligation to make myself visible as a Jew. Several generations of my family have worked hard not to be visible as Jews, and I'm trying to break that habit.

Being publicly Jewish on Shabbes gets me into a lot of - let's say interesting - conversations with gentiles (non-Jews). For example:

"What's that on your head?"
"It's a yarmulke."
"A what?"
"A yarmulke."
"Oh, a yarmulke. Are you Jewish?"

...which reminds me of the old camp game, "Do you want to buy a duck?" "A what?" "A duck." "Oh, a duck. Does it quack?" and so on.

Or this one, with a guy in a laundromat just a few weeks after the last Pope died:

"Is that a yarmulke you're wearing?"
"Yes ..."
"Are you Jewish?"
"Did you see the Pope's funeral on TV?"

...which made me think, maybe we mean different things by "Jewish"? Maybe he's confused about why the Cardinals wear skullcaps? Maybe he think's the Pope's expression of sympathy for Holocaust victims makes him every Jew's best friend? Maybe he forgot that Polish Catholics on the whole were never friends to the Jews, since long before Hitler.

But this latest wins the prize. I was sitting on the Commons with two gentile friends. Out of nowhere, an older guy approaches, rubbing the top of his head and saying in halting English,

"You Jewish?"
"I have most sympathy for the Jews. Number one."
"You know Matisyahu?"

Oy vey.

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