What Happened When I Dared to Wear a Kippah by Ivy Helman

20171203_124919Last 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.  

IMG_6686Knowing 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 20171203_131317over 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.

20171203_132212By 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.  

Categories: Abuse of Power, authority, Gender and Power, General, Hierarchy, Identity Construction, Jewish Feminism, Judaism, Patriarchy, Sexism, Violence, Violence Against Women

Tags: , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. Toda Raba – this is so touching and emotional!!


  2. What an awful and alienating experience. I can’t believe that man was so physical with you. He obviously doesn’t realise what is in the synagogue bookshop! Sadly, I’m pretty sure you’d get the same experience in any shool here in Liverpool UK.


  3. You’ve been physically assaulted, now to protect yourself against the psychic effect of those men’s hateful prayers against you. Any prayer, with any intent, is powerful stuff. Look out for yourself. Much regard for your courage.


  4. Wow! Well done. I have never heard of a Kippah but I have now! I intend to research it and possibly make myself one!

    This post comes on a day when I attended my local church of England church and dared to hand out a photocopy sheet of an article about the role playing of the marriage ceremony amongst primary school children in church.


  5. I realise now that another name for this is skullcap – but you’ve certainly caught my imagination – thank you.


  6. Symbols are so powerful, and so revealing. As R.C. I was brought up with “females cover their heads, males don’t” – just the opposite but still another way of saying males are more holy, more god-like, more everything good, than females.


  7. Good for you, in your efforts to change patriarchal religion from within. It is a big job. I prefer to abandon all patriarchal religion, since to me it is all based on false bases. We women are all working for equality, but in different ways.


  8. Good for you. All the standard-brand religions are patriarchal, but strong women like you (and the author of the children’s book) can make changes, one little step at a time. Hooray!


  9. I’m a Jewish woman and I wear a lovely beaded kippah that matches my tefilah (Jewish prayer shawl). They do make special ones for women. Both are forbidden to women under orthodox law. But, I’m a masorti Jew. We believe in keeping tradition. But, only if it can be brought into modern life as is. The reform Jews may modernize tradition.

    It is believed within Judaism that women are holier and closer to G*d than men. The kippah is supposed to be a constant reminder of who is above us. The prayer shawl is used to minimize distraction during prayer and seen as G*d’s protection over us. For every Jew, except observant orthodox women, these are options if we feel like we need them. (I write G*d like this as we believe it is part of respecting the holy name.)

    Orthodox men are the most pushy about things they view as sacred and especially when it involves a non-Jewish person. They even gave women a small section at the wailing wall all for themselves and get angry if they sing or make noise. Women are kept separate in orthodox churches and either on a balcony where they can barely hear or see the service or unseen behind a curtain…..because women are distracting. Ultimately, they should be at home cooking, cleaning, and raising the next generation of Jews. After all, it is only a requirement for men to pray. This is not so where I attend synagogue. I can sit by my husband.

    Most Jews encourage us to practice in a manner that feels right to us as long as we keep in mind the 13 principles. Most Jews, including myself, don’t even believe in regular synagogue attendance because what is done at home and in private are most important. Most Jews don’t believe it is right to judge others. We should be seeking justice for all! Judaism can be quite a beautiful religion! I should know, I converted.

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks, Ivy, for your courage and your persistence. We need to get rid of patriarchy and your wearing of a kippot is one small action on the road to that change.


  11. If you do a quick look on YouTube, wearing a kippah is a way of humbly showing others, AND YOURSELF, you are not embarrased to be Jewish. If it rouses violence please be careful. During WWII the violence was so bad that many Jews did not wear it to protect themselves and their families. When it comes to walking down the street NEVER be afraid to wear the kippah , it changed my life when I was ready to don a kippah. When I wore it I felt proud. Use your experiences to create change. But don’t get hurt. We need you to spread this experience because in reality you, as a woman wearing one in that kind of situation, know truly the meaning of wearing the kippah in that way. I don’t believe woman are closer to god anymore than men. I don’t support misogyny and I don’t support misandry. We are equal !


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