In an interview that went public on Saturday, Dr. Felix Klein, Germany’s Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism, stated that “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany”. This started an uproar in Germany and beyond: How can anyone suggest that today that it might not be entirely safe in certain places and at certain times in Germany to wear a kippah (or, by extension, any sign that publicly announces that you’re Jewish)? Have we just accepted that anti-Semitism remains alive in Germany? In Europe?
It seems that the only people who were not surprised or even offended were those who, like myself, wear a kippah most of the time [or a tichel, a woman’s hair covering, or a chai necklace, etc]. Know why were weren’t? Because it wasn’t a news flash, and it’s certainly not about Germany.
I’ve been wearing a kippah most of the time for the past 47 years. Guess how much of that time I’ve thought about whether it’s perfectly safe to wear a kippah where I’m going during the course of the day? 47 years. Every single day. Everywhere I’ve lived: Chicago, Jerusalem, Atlanta, St. Louis, Providence, and even the New York area.
Generally, I get it right. The vast majority of times that I’ve decided that its safe to wear a kippah publicly, I have not had negative experiences. But there was that road rage incident in Chicago, where someone blocked my car in, ran over to my car, yelled anti-Semitic slurs and threatened me. And the time in Warsaw where someone gave me a “Heil Hitler” salute. But these were exceptional, probably because just about every week, there was at least one location in which my good judgment led me to either don a baseball cap or simply to go bareheaded.
Throwback: The idea that observant Jews would wear a kippah at all times was limited until the Six Day War in 1967 led to an explosion in Jewish / Israel pride. Until that time, Jews were guided by the recollection Charles Silberman writes about in his book A Certain People. There, he talks about leaving a funeral while still wearing his kippah and his aunt reminds him to “take your yarmuka off…it’s not nice.” The Orthodox American Jews I knew, at least in the 60’s, typically took their kippah off when leaving the house for work and put it back on when they returned home. In this, they actually had the support of a number of prominent American rabbis.
Now, it’s very nice for Germany’s Bild newspaper to print a kippah and encourage all Germans to wear one as a sign of solidarity. It is a beautiful, symbolic gesture. It will not change any prejudices that exist in Germany, Europe or for that matter, America. And it will not make a difference when I leave my home for work or play. I will still think about where I am going and the likelihood of encountering anti-Semitism on my day’s path.
So, Dr. Klein didn’t acknowledge anything new: Germany and much of the world is a tough place to be a Jew. I wish it wasn’t true and will gladly work to try to change that reality. In the meantime, I’m going to heed his advice and stay a little bit safer.