Is It Still Safe to Wear My Yarmulke?

The world has changed and I refuse to accept that

A Word Before: Everyone comes at the discussion about race and ethnicity from their distinct personal perspective. It is unavoidable. I am Jewish and grew up in a secular family outside New York City. In my neighborhood you were either Jewish or Italian Catholic. Everyone I knew was a Democrat. In fact, I don’t think I knew Republicans existed until I was about 16 years old.

I am also a second generation survivor of The Holocaust. In 1944 in the Hungarian town of Tiszafured, my grandmother’s 5 brothers and sisters and all of their children were rounded up with the other Jews and stuffed onto a transport train bound for Auschwitz. All of them except two of my father’s cousins either died enroute or were killed upon arrival at the death camp. This is part of my history and obviously colors the way I see the world. We all see the world through certain lenses.

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religions, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe. (Elie Wiesel)

Recently I was sitting at an auto dealership in Denver waiting for my car to receive its 5,000-mile maintenance. I usually enjoy these outings — the dealership offers free chair massages, serves good, hearty coffee, and sometimes even has a chef on-site to make custom omelets for customers.

This day was uniquely different. I may remember it until the day I die, if my memory holds. I sat within earshot of two men — white, mid-30s to early 40s, well built. I would guess they were craftsmen of some sort — electrician or contractor or construction worker. The conversation quickly went to politics and their appreciation for Donald Trump as President.

The volume and tone of voice changed as they agreed on their ideology. And then they started talking about blacks … and gays … and Jews.

Then I heard this: “Those kikes have too much money and too much power,” one man proclaimed to the other.

The other responded, “Ya, those Jew bastards.”

All at once I felt vulnerable, self-conscious. I was brought back to my childhood on Long Island, when I heard the word “kike” more than a few times. In the moment I was relieved that I could blend in as a “white guy” rather than being identified as a Jew. I was not wearing a yarmulke, I don’t have distinguishing features of many Jews (such as a big nose), and my name does not give away my ethnicity (my last name is not Cohen or Goldberg or Silverstein, for example).

I was able to hide.

And that made me feel safe.

And that made me feel sick to my stomach.

Identifying as a Jew

In the mid-1930s in Europe, Jews were forced to have a physical symbol worn on their clothes so that everyone knew they were Jewish. A mustard-colored Star of David was sewn onto every piece of outer garment worn by every Jewish man, woman, and child so that the broader population would know them. They were “marked” people.

If this was the 1930s I would be forced to wear this.

This allowed the Nazi regime in Germany to control the Jewish population — it forbade Jews from owning shops, or buying goods in certain places, and it eventually allowed the Nazis to herd the Jewish population into ghettos such as in Warsaw and Budapest.

And then Jews were shipped to concentration camps.

And then many of those Jews were incinerated as if they were refuse.

The Star of David, which was a symbol of religious and ethnic pride, became a symbol of imprisonment and existential threat to the Jewish people. If you removed the symbol it would certainly result in imprisonment and a Jew to lose his or her life over it.

These days I wonder if other symbols are slowly starting to serve the purpose of the Star of David in Western culture. Is it the yarmulke worn by Jewish men? Or is it the hijab worn by Muslim women? Or clothing worn by an African American?

Wearing the Yarmulke

People have warned me to “keep my head down” and not identify myself as a Jew today. It is not safe to do so in some places in America I am told.

In the Dutch language there is an expression for this: Act normal; that’s crazy enough!

I guess I am crazy because I have chosen to wear a yarmulke regularly in these days of uncertainty and dramatic tension in our country. I realize that people might look at me differently, and there is the odd chance of someone with antisemitic views calling me a “kike” or something worse. But isn’t this what America is about, what is enshrined in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The question for me is whether a Jewish person wearing a yarmulke in the United States in 2017 is part of the phrase “all men”?

Consider the symbol of a yarmulke (or other religious coverings) and its import to a Jewish person.

First and foremost, it reminds us that God is always present and that we are always under his sovereign gaze. The yarmulke is not only a head covering; it prompts me to humble myself in knowing that God is God and I am not. This is the very best of a symbol.

It also makes a statement of my ethnic identity as a Jew. To be clear, this is a secondary identity for me, as much as I appreciate my heritage. My first allegiance and identity is to God, who I know in the person of Jesus Christ. I desire for my other identities to always be subordinate to my identity as a Christian — a “little Christ” as early followers of Jesus were known. Only once I embrace this primary identity can I speak of being a Jew, an American, and a Democrat or Republican.

So many of us who claim to be “Christian” have juxtaposed our allegiances. Nationalism and racism is rampant in America, as much among Christians as among everyone else. We have pledged allegiance to our flag while subordinating God to get us to heaven at the end of our lives. Partisanship and ideology has supplanted faith for us. Until Christians get our identity priorities straight we will be a core part of the existential problems facing the United States.

Finally, the yarmulke is my statement of determination that external characteristics or skin color or clothing will not prejudice me toward another person. It is my statement of hope that our divided culture will begin to take steps (even baby steps) toward reconciliation. The yarmulke reminds me when I encounter a Hispanic person, or a Muslim, or some “other” person that that individual is under God’s covering and care just as I am. We may be different in belief or appearance or ideology, but that diversity can serve to bring us together rather than pull us apart.

Standing Up to Evil

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”(Ghandi)

We have a long way to go because our culture is experiencing dramatic violations of our values. Many of us have resorted to “fighting fire with fire,” which of course only leads to a larger problem as more is destroyed. We cannot fight bigotry and prejudice by reacting and becoming bigoted toward those very people who hate us.

The Jewish people have reacted to persecution in this manner for centuries, to the point that we have a long and detailed list of our enemies and who is out to get us. This leads to a certain level of collective paranoia. Ironically, we can feel as vengeful toward these enemies as they feel toward us. And where does that get us? Fearful, isolated, and protecting ourselves against real and perceived threats.

I confess that this is a tremendous challenge for me, especially as I look at faces of rage in white nationalists in Charlottesville.

While I oppose their ideology to the core of my being, I must find the person behind the torch and the fury. He is someone’s son, with a unique history and personal story. He is thoroughly wrong in what he is doing, but I must not lower myself to desire his destruction as he would otherwise want to destroy my culture.

This is the very place that God must be present in my life, because I am woefully incapable of such compassion. None of us are capable of such compassion. But God is. He shows compassion (called mercy) over and over again in our lives. He shows compassion supremely in the person of Jesus, who suffered and sacrificed for the sin and brokenness of our world.

Finding Our Moral Bearings Again

America must rediscover our moral bearings, which seem to have been misplaced or misappropriated in recent days. There is no place for white nationalism in this country, nor for neo-Nazi and supremacist expression. We must speak out and speak up about such bigotry, while refusing to write off or demonize the person who would even perpetrate such prejudice.

The people of God (first the Israelites and now also the Church) are called to be conveyors of peace, to welcome the foreigner or alien, and to show compassion even to our enemies. Every day I must decide how I will be part of this high calling.


The Isaac Ishmael Initiative seeks to promote peace (shalom) between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. You can learn more at

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