Last week Sunday, my partner and I were in Budapest, Hungary. We stopped at the Dohany Street Synagogue, the second largest synagogue in the world and the largest in Europe. After we bought our tickets and proceeded through security, we decided to go into the synagogue first and then the museum.
We walked into the synagogue. A younger man (maybe 20) was handing out paper kippot (yarmulke in Yiddish). My partner and I both put our hands out but were refused. There was an elderly man there who said that the kippot were only for men. That didn’t surprise me initially as I take my students to the Jewish Museum in Prague and I often argue with the elderly ladies over the right and acceptability of women wearing kippot. They begrudgingly give my female students kippot saying “only as souvenir,” which boils my blood. Usually, by the time they give the women kippot even those who traditionally wear them are too shamed to do so.
Knowing my semester after semester struggle with the staff at the Jewish Museum in Prague, my partner tried to take a kippah anyway saying “only souvenir.” The elderly man covered the box of paper kippot first by wrapping his arms around it and then placing his chest on top of it. My partner walked over to the younger man thinking he’d understand. He repeated that the kippot were only for men, but we could have one as a “souvenir.” During that process, the elderly man was distracted. Somehow, I managed to wiggle a kippah out of the overprotected box. The man realized what I had done and tried to take the kippah out of my hand. I pulled away and put the kippah on my head.
As I put the kippah on my head, the elderly man continued. This time, he upped the physicality of his attempts to control my behavior and tried to pull it off my head. I held the kippah to my head. Again, he made a number of unsuccessful attempts to take it off my head. I tried to move away from him. Nonetheless, he persisted. He grabbed my upper arm and tried to muscle me toward the entrance while trying to get the kippah off my head. I’d had enough and said loudly, “get off me.” He stopped.
Instead of finding awe, the opportunity to pray or perhaps a little peace, I was boiling over with anger. The synagogue wasn’t beautiful anymore. I don’t think I even really looked at it. My heart was pounding in my chest. Nonetheless, I held my kippah-covered head up high while I walked slowly, defiantly and purposely to the bimah at the front of the synagogue and then back.
What happened sunk in during that walk. I had just been physically assaulted, and, rather violently all over a piece of paper on my head. The actions of that elderly man were in-your-face sexist attempts at controlling my behavior as a woman and a Jew. The man believed he had the right to enforce the rules and to use violence to do so. This is a quintessential power-over mindset at the very heart of patriarchy, and, shamefully, it was religiously motivated.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of it. When we went into the museum side of the synagogal complex, we again were met with opposition. A young Czech couple were, unbeknownst to me as I was a number of steps in front of them, making comments about my kippah. My partner overheard their conversation. The next thing I knew, I turned around and saw my partner was speaking to them. Why?
She finished the conversation and then told me this: The 20-something man had said, while looking at me, that he thought women should not wear kippot; they are only for men. And his female partner agreed saying that women look stupid wearing them. After what I’d just went through in order to wear one and upon hearing their conversation, my partner defended my kippah and me. She explained that most Jews around the world (upwards of 90% even though she said 75%) had no problem with or actively encouraged both women and men to wear them. The young woman said she didn’t know that most Jews gladly welcome kippah-wearing people.
By chance as we were leaving, we spotted an English language children’s book in the synagogue’s store and began turning the pages. We found a page which said that boys and (sometimes) girls wear kippot to express their Judaism, including the belief in G-d and one’s religiosity. This page expressed the freedom of all Jews to practice Judaism as they see fit. It was also about equality.
It was vindicating. This is the Judaism I know and love. This is the Judaism I will stand up for again and again. This is the Judaism that embraces a variety of practices and forms of religiosity independent of gender, sex or identity. This is my Judaism. This is why I wore that kippah despite what I experienced. And, why I will continue to wear it.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.