A Token Kippah

You can tell a lot about a person from the kippah they wear.  There is the 4-panel suede kippah.  It’s fairly inexpensive and comes in a wide variety of colors, so it’s commonly given out at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration and used by institutions that put their name and logo on it.  There’s the black velvet kippah worn mostly by the ultra-Orthodox.  There’s the black satin-like kippah (white on the High Holidays), given out by synagogues and funeral homes to people who probably didn’t bring their own to a religious service.  I like to wear a kippah s’ruga, a crocheted kippah made with thin yarn and small stiches.  The kippah s’ruga is worn by modern religious Jews.  In Israel, it’s worn by religious Zionists who are proud to be Israelis, are interested in being religiously observant, and want to engage in politics, academics, science, technology or business.

While in Israel last week, I stopped to buy a new kippah at one of the shops on Ben Yehudah in Jerusalem.  The store has every color and design of kippah imaginable.  There are kippot with personal names, names of sports teams, colleges, television shows, cities and more.  I was looking through piles and piles of kippot for just the right color and shape when another customer entered the store and began looking for a kippah.  “Yesh l’cha kippah asimon?” he inquired.  He was asking the vendor if he had a “kippah asimon,” an especially small kippah about the size of a silver dollar pancake, perhaps two or three inches in diameter, barely bigger than the clip needed to hold it in place.  The kippah gets its name- asimon- from the Hebrew word for token (before everyone had a cell phone, Israelis had to put “asimonim,” tokens, in pay phones because the cost of a making a call fluctuated so frequently and the price of an asimon could be changed more easily than recalibrating the phone to take more coins).  The man next to me chose a dark green kippah asimon, paid his 20 shekels and left.

The kippah asimon doesn’t meet the minimum size requirement according to Jewish law for a kippah (one quarter of the circumference must be as long as the span of three knuckles on the upper part of your hand).   So why would someone wear something so small?  It turns out that the kippah asimon is a message kippah, an item worn to send a message about being both religious and a Zionist.  Someone who wears a kippah asimon is saying that they reject some of the principles espoused by religious Zionists in Israel today.  They’re just about ready to distance themselves from that segment of Israeli society, found among many religious Zionists, that embraces religious values but also includes a particular view of Zionism.  They want to wear a kippah, in keeping with religious values and practice, but they want to send a message that they are not aligned with some of the positions and actions taken by religious Zionists, so they wear a kippah asimon.

Being a Zionist means actively supporting the right of the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel in safety and security.  Zionism, especially when nested in Jewish religious values, also means espousing compassion and justice, not only for Jews but for all humanity.  Yet some of the statements and positions of some religious Zionists reveal a different view of Zionism, one that is unyielding in its nearly exclusive emphasis on the rights and needs of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.  When I was in Jerusalem last week, one event that made headlines was a protest against the Kerry peace initiative held at the Western Wall and attended by numerous people who identify as religious Zionists, including Knesset members.  It’s one thing to have reservations about some of the proposals and ideas in Secretary of State Kerry’s framework for a peace deal.  But it’s something else altogether to portray Zionism as unconcerned with the dignity, rights and future of an entire people.  The heads of certain Yeshivot, who spend their days teaching Torah to their students, simultaneously hold views that do not take into account any moral concerns about occupying another people.  I wonder about religious leaders who love the people of Israel and the land of Israel but whose Zionist views limit that love exclusively to Jews.  If religious leaders won’t stand up for justice, who will?

I am a proud Zionist who loves the land of Israel and the State of Israel.  I recognize that Israel faces some genuine threats from those who wish to undermine or destroy her, and I am concerned.  The BDS movement and initiatives to delegitimize Israel are gaining momentum.  Anti-Israel campaigns on college campuses are getting stronger and more popular.  There is no doubt that Israel must be cautious in the current negotiations.  But the occupation of the Palestinians who live in the West Bank is itself a threat to the future stability of the State of Israel, and every government of the State of Israel for the past 20 years has said as much.  Shouldn’t it be that religious leaders say so as well, not only because it serves our needs but because it is right?  If they don’t, it may be time to switch to a different kippah.