“You walk around freely with your kippa on?”
Oped by Rabbi Uzi Levian | October 31, 2019
On the night of Yom Kippur, following a moving prayer service and a reunion with Gothenburg’s Jewish members, some of whom I had last seen exactly a year before, we walked out of our community building and headed home.
I say “we” even though I was actually alone, because, fortunately for me, I was suddenly joined by Michael who kept me company until the nearest square. Is there anything better than two Jews walking together on Yom Kippur, engaged in conversation?
And yet, although I consider myself a pretty good conversationalist, Michael wasn’t interested in a word I was saying. In fact, Michael is one of the regular community security guards, and although it took me a while to understand what was happening, he finally admitted that for a few weeks a new security procedure had been in place wherein the community rabbi must be escorted out of the community building to ensure that he remain safe and unharmed, at least until the square.
Before I go on, allow me to clarify that the city of Gothenburg is the second largest in Sweden. It’s home to Volvo’s main headquarters. The local hockey team took the championship last year after a series of exciting games. The city boasts the largest harbor in Scandinavia, connecting between thousands of small islands that give the place its unique charm.
Yes – it’s exactly as tranquil as it sounds. A quiet and peaceful city; even a tad boring.
Which is why you can understand why I would make light of the new regulation and give a slight eye-roll. As an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem when buses were blowing up every other day, who has built his home in Gush Etzion, which has had its fair share of stabbing attacks and terrorist incidents, I look around me and see a nice quiet city with pleasant, pretty people going about their business with no malicious intent.
For quite a while now, we have been the most well-guarded civil location in the area; we have become accustomed to close inspection, security cameras on every corner and security guards performing their duty, in an impressive manner if I may say. “Relax,” I said, “Hakol beseder – everything is fine.”
And then the news from Germany arrived.
A synagogue. Yom Kippur. Casualties.
And Jewish life in Europe is once again under threat.
Since arriving in Sweden a few years ago, we are always happy to answer the second question posed to us: How is it going for you guys there?
But that’s the second question. There is hardly anyone who doesn’t lead with the disconcerting question, “You walk around freely that way, with your kipa on?”
The question is not out of line. Bad old anti-Semitism is back – the same kind that brought about the atrocities of the last century, and definitely makes an appearance here and there. And alongside that is a new type of anti-Semitism: an anti-Israeli version filled with the age-old hatred of Jews, which comes from native Europeans, but with the widespread support of Europe’s new residents from the Middle East and surrounding countries.
So what do I answer when asked the first question? I answer simply: yes. After taking the basic precautions, I can’t recall a single place where I walked and had to hide my Jewish identity.
I love my kippa, especially what it represents and the connotation it carries. I view wearing it with great importance as it makes a statement both to the Jewish community as well as to the general public. Is it really possible that one cannot walk in this peaceful city as Jews have been accustomed to for hundreds of years without fearing sudden attack? That’s unfathomable! When the police gently suggested to me that I consider replacing my kippa with a hat, I asked them whether they also suggest to people of color to replace their skin with one of a lighter hue in order to avoid being discriminated against. Not to mention that anyone knows that if a man wearing a casquette is seen roaming the streets of Europe, he is most probably Jewish, so really – what does it matter.
Wearing a kippa is a matter of principle, especially because it is in no way a provocation but rather a basic Jewish custom. I share this opinion with many of my Jewish congregants, many of whom are not classically observant of Torah or mitzvot per se, and yet they still view the kippa as a most basic Jewish symbol, especially in a non-Jewish environment. It is unfortunate and disconcerting to know that there are those who now feel they must take extra precautions and lower their profile in their work environment or activities, making sure that their Star of David pendant is well-hidden under their shirt – just to be on the safe side.
By the way, most of the reactions to my kippa from strangers on the street have been positive and supportive, such as: “We must to make sure that you may continue walking the streets with kippot on your heads!” It seems to me that those who were not happy about my kippa kept their opinions to themselves. I also fear that the latter group is growing in number.
So is it unsafe to walk around with a kippa in Europe?
No, I don’t think so – at least not everywhere. Obviously, one must take seriously the various safety precautions, and of course one should be extra careful in the places across Europe which are known to be problematic. But one should also remember that also in Jerusalem there are neighborhoods where Jews refrain from entering.
The bottom line is that what truly disturbs me is the thought that it’s always the first question we are asked. And I’m beginning to worry that at this rate, our answer may have to be re-examined.
The author, a graduate of the Ohr Torah Stone network’s Straus-Amiel emissary training and placement program, is the city rabbi of Gothenburg, Sweden