In the Spring of 1997, as I bid farewell to my dear friend Bobby Vance, I made a promise. One of the few Cherokee elders still living on the land of his ancestors, Bobby lived the Indian Way completely. Rather than suffer through chemotherapy treatments his doctors knew would be ineffective, he faced his lung cancer only with prayers. And he never pretended he would live forever.
Bobby knew little about Judaism, but as I prepared to leave Tennessee for Israel, I told him about the Western Wall and the prayers we place there. “I will leave a prayer for you,” I promised. “It’s said they go straight to heaven.” He closed his eyes and smiled, and I knew he was pleased.
But this isn’t a story about dying, or about American Indians or even about promises. It’s about the different ways people find God and divinity.
Bobby and I said our last goodbye, and I boarded a plane to fulfill a dream. I set foot onto one of the holiest places on earth and, in that instant, unwittingly entered an explosive struggle over the rights of women to express their connection to the divine, free and unencumbered.
Whether I would wear a kippah in Israel was not something I ever contemplated before I went. I have always covered my head during prayer for what has seemed an obvious reason: It is good to show humility before God. So, when I began studying at Israel’s only egalitarian Talmud-based school—the Yeshiva of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism—of course I covered my head. If it’s meaningful to sanctify prayer in America, it’s certainly meaningful to do so in Israel.
But a woman wearing a kippah (a skullcap traditionally worn by men) on the streets of Jerusalem is a rare sight. Of the few of us who feel compelled to do so, most are intimidated out of it. Or worn out of it. We are trained to whip them off and tuck them into our handbags the moment we leave synagogue—as if we’re hiding some secret shame. To wear a kippah in public means committing yourself to constant questions, comments or harassment. I am approached an average of two times an hour in the street. About half of the encounters are supportive or inquisitive. The others range from angry reprimands to hostile “questions” to outright taunting. To my surprise, it’s not always the Orthodox who make the most public ruckus. Often, it’s secular-appearing teen-age boys waiting at bus stops or sitting on school steps. And though women constitute about half of the supporters, they make up a third of the verbal assaults.
Regardless of whether people’s remarks are made with hostility, I do my best to explain. To wear a kippah, incite emotion and refuse to answer people’s arguments would appear as though my only purpose is to rebel. And of all the women I know who wear a kippah, this is not what motivates us. We never believed showing humility to God was a political statement. It is everyone else who makes it political—and makes us accidental activists.
When men ask why I wear a kippah, my first response is ask them why they do. If they answer that it is to show humility to God, I explain that this is also why I cover my head. But sometimes they answer that the Torah or Talmud says so, but in fact this isn’t true. Kippot are not mentioned in rabbinic law; they evolved in some regions as a custom. Thus, men are not halachically required to cover their heads and, for the same reason, it is not forbidden for women to cover theirs.
Historically, Eastern European women covered their heads upon marriage. Today, Orthodox women in Israel still do so, using hair nets, hats or wigs. But this act of covering is different—its purpose is to appear sexually “modest.” So, in effect, while men are encouraged to contemplate their relationship with the infinity of God, married women are forced to focus on their role as sacrilegious temptresses to men.
Some men assume my kippah is a perverse expression of this form of modesty. My reply: The notion that women’s hair is any more sexual than men’s hair is offensive—an ugly remnant of Judaism’s patriarchal roots. Second, whether I am married is irrelevant to my relationship with God.
The only halachic argument against women wearing kippot (the plural of kippah) is in Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment.” But what is men’s or women’s clothing is determined by culture—and cultures change. It was only 60 years ago, I remind people, that women didn’t wear pants.
“But women’s pants are made specifically for women!” several men have said.
“Look at my kippah!” my friend Beth Frank-Backman answers, pointing to her head, laughing. She is a rabbinical candidate at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College. Beth’s is a particularly feminine-looking kippah, knitted in white and rose. “Do you know a man who would wear such a thing?”
Of course, whether a kippah is frilly or not, the fact it’s on a woman’s head makes it women’s clothing.
Like me, Beth never intended to become a kippah-crusader, but she now feels she must do all she can to support other women. “That we are staying true to ourselves is so important,” she said to me once, when I was depressed after a particularly ugly confrontation. “The most powerful social change doesn’t come from protests or petitions. It comes when people who are just going about their business get hurt. Look at Rosa Parks. This is how change happens.”
Several of my female friends wear kippot all the time. They subscribe to the beautiful, mystical idea that to wear a kippah out into the world is a way of spreading light into the world. For me, I prefer to wear one only on days when I’m praying or studying Torah. At the very least. I believe all Jewish men and women should cover their heads when they pray. Covering our heads reminds us of the One who is above. It is, as another woman in my yeshiva explains it, a way of separating the secular from the sacred. Here, I go about my business, but here I commune with God.
It is a meaningful and powerful Jewish tradition. And it is a tradition women have been excluded from the same way we have been excluded from so many rituals and roles in Jewish life. Whether the language is “prohibited” or “exempt” it’s really all the same: The holiness of women is forgotten, and even plundered.
But a woman shouldn’t wear a kippah to make a statement. She should wear one because this is an expression of her heart. Because—just as men have found true for centuries—using visible, concrete symbols helps her remove her mind from the material and focus on the eternal. Because it makes a transcendental, at times elusive God more eminent.
So it was on a brisk December day that I went to the Western Wall. Wearing my finest clothes, I prepared to fulfill my promise. Bobby had died a few weeks before, but I had just received the news.
Sitting on the ledge by the women’s section, I took out a piece of paper and wrote a few words. Just as I was finishing, I heard the voice of a soldier above me. My Hebrew is poor, but with the word “kippah” I knew what he was saying. I tried to explain that in America women often wear kippot and that I felt uncomfortable praying without one; he answered that he didn’t want trouble—and that I might cause a riot if I didn’t remove it.
It’s difficult to describe how horrible I felt the moment, after fruitless arguing, I finally reached up and unclipped the kippah. Already at the emotional edge thinking about Bobby, I collapsed into tears. I sat there numbly for several minutes, wracked by indecision, fingering my kippah, before a woman sitting nearby approached cautiously.
“I was wondering,” she said, barely loud enough to hear, “I was wondering—why did you take it off?”
I wiped my eyes and looked at her. Unsure where to begin, I asked if she had heard about what happened to the Jews who had tried to pray, men and women together, at the Kotel last year. She said she hadn’t. “Well, those people go to my yeshiva,” I told her. “Over there is where they tried to pray, and by the end, maybe a thousand Orthodox Jews were screaming at them. Someone even threw shit on the Torah. I guess it all just seems so hopeless.”
We talked a few minutes more, and she told me about how she was doing her military service and was training to be a tour guide. “He can’t make you do it,” she leaned over and whispered as she got up to leave. “You know, he can’t make you!”
At the time, I could scarcely respond. Now, I wish I could tell her how much her words meant. Until that moment, I had nearly decided to just put my prayer in the Wall and leave. I was simply too tired to fight over a five-inch kippah. But this woman—this “secular” Jew—cared enough about the fate of Judaism and the place of women in it to embrace a stranger. That was more inspiration than I could have ever asked for.
My kippah back on my head where it belonged, I approached the Kotel for the first time in my life, recited Kaddish and fulfilled my promise. And beside me, a woman in full Orthodox attire—skirt, wool stockings, hair net— sobbed and sobbed. The source of her heartache I will never know. But in this moment we were not Orthodox or non-Orthodox Jews. We were simply Jews. Each humble and searching in our own way.
Joysa Maben Winter is a journalist, massage therapist and Hebrew school teacher living in Denver, Colorado.