Shedding the Skullcap
Updated: Dec 20, 2018
Editors Note: This essay is a recollection of my feelings towards how I dealt with my childhood relationship towards my community’s need to appear differently. It is not intended to be inflammatory or a spewing of hatred. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.
Do you guys remember how for most of its life, kale used to be something that rested underneath deli platters and went totally unnoticed for years? Decades passed with nobody caring about the thick leaf that rested beneath the bagel shmear and pickled lox, but then one day, someone randomly decided that it was the healthiest thing in the world and everyone needed to have it in their lives. Overnight, everyone unanimously agreed and suddenly what used to be a boring leaf miraculously became the answers to all our problems.
I’m hoping I live the same destiny as kale.
I’m currently the dense leaf hiding underneath the cold-cuts at your nephew’s bris, waiting to rise from the ashes and have everyone realize I am the Kim Kardashian and not the Paris Hilton of delicatessen cuisine.
This feeling of insecurity stems from my childhood — as the myriad of all my issues do.
Buckle up, folks, we’re going down that road again!
As a kid, I always felt worthless. My self-esteem was missing for the majority of my life and is often times still absent. Living with chronic anxiety is a Russian Roulette game of never knowing if you’re gonna wake up and see yourself in the mirror as Tom Brady or Danny Devito after he’s had a paralyzing stroke.
Part of what made my esteem so low as a child was the factor of when someone comes from a Yeshivish world, they tend to ALWAYS feel like an outsider whenever they leave the small confines of their community. But even more so, being a Fagel who didn’t fit into the norms of my shtetle, I felt like an outsider within that outsider community-and that stung worse than intentional exclusion.
I grew up looking much different than the way I do today — and by that I mean I didn’t always look like the love child of Chris Hemsworth and Zac Efron. No, as a child I had long payos that splayed out two inches below my temples; my tzit-tzit clung to my hips like toilet paper I missed after dropping some dukes in the porcelain thrown; and worst of all, I adorned a velvet yarmulka that took up most of the real estate on my head and was forever lopsided above one ear. I looked like a kid you knew was annoying. The one you want to horse-kick in the face because all they do is wine as they cling to their mother’s shopping cart in the kosher grocery store, as they knock the boxes of Leiber’s Aleph Bet cookies off the shelves.
And I was annoying.
I was a fucking horrible kid who had no concept of self-awareness or the fact that other people in life could possibly dislike me. I must have embarrassed my parents to an unbearable level, and I now understand the concept of unconditional love, because I don’t know how they didn’t lose their shit and take a nail-speckled bat to my face when I endlessly pushed their buttons.
What’s even worse is if you look at the pictures of me from before my upshering, with my long hair trapped in my snotty nose and the smug look of thinking I was important. Someone should have run over me with a garbage truck, doing the world a favor by smearing my brain matter across the pavement.
But I’m digressing —
In my adolescent years, I never entered a store feeling like I could be unnoticed. I felt insecure as I knew that everyone was staring at me in my religious garb. My mother would tell me that our regalia was a badge of honor to show that we were the proud, chosen people of Hashem and that he was always watching over us. But I didn’t feel proud. I had nothing but shame to feel with the way I dressed. All I wanted to do was blend in and not stick out like boner at a funeral.
When I was nine years old, I can recall going to a park with my family and trying to make friends with two girls who carelessly played in the sand. When doing the dance of trying to get into their noticeable periphery, I sat on the slide hoping that I could overhear something notable to bring up and initiate conversation with them. From behind my back, I overheard one of the girls whisper to the other, “My mom told me why he looks like that, it’s because he’s Jewish.” The word ‘Jewish’ rang in my ears — like when you accidentally shart yourself during yoga class — as she diagnosed the reason for my abnormal appearance with a cynical connotation. I instantly felt humiliated, my dreams of making friends with outsiders immediately crushed.
I had no chance in befriending those two goyim.
As children, we were taught that Jews were superior to all others and that people like these girls were beneath us in the ranking of world importance. They were lesser by default because their people didn’t accept the Torah like we did.
Even though it was an ingrained entitlement, I still wanted to befriend the people my teachers taught me were underdogs of society. All I wanted to do was make friends with people who didn’t see me as a weird fanatic of some heebie-jeebie cult.
The girls most likely assumed that when I returned home, I went back to a house absent of electricity and running water, with a family who all sat around churning butter and singing songs from the Sound of Music soundtrack. When we were honestly much more normal than that and only sucked blood from babies dicks and spun chickens over our heads to remove our sins…
Another time when I was already in the throes of puberty with a heightened sense of awkwardness and insecurity, my family was waiting in line for our passport photos to be taken at the post office. For reasons unknown, we needed to switch lines and wait at a different one for those photos. Walking out of the queue, we were immediately greeted with shouts cast at us from the other members that assumed we were cutting the line. I felt the instant flush of warm embarrassment spread over my face, as I knew the people immediately registered that we were Jews. My velvet yarmulka was a flashing disco ball in sensory deprivation tank screaming, “Look at me! I’m different!”
Kiddush Hashem is a concept strongly emphasized in religious lifestyle, where we make a conscious effort to be seen carrying out good actions towards others to further enhance our ‘good reputation’. In actuality, we should encourage our frum children to dress like everyone else, because I find frum people to have no regard for others who are not Jewish. They are never taught how to properly communicate with people who don’t understand the life or limitations we grapple with.
If I had a dollar for every frum woman I witnessed yell at a non-Jewish cashier for something as banal as letting her packaged chicken touch the wrapped cheese, I wouldn’t be writing this blog for money.
There is this expectation that the world needs to change for us, rather than caring if the non-Jewish population understands our requirements. There needs to be empathetic explanations rather than the instant frustration and assumptions that outsiders are trying to sabotage our faith.
By default, we live our lives as frum people making Chilul Hashems with showing the lack of regard the community has for people who don’t hold memberships to the frum club.
Even the concept of Loshon Horrah is taught that it is unforgivable to speak ill of a fellow Jew, but talking shit about a non-Jew is somehow pardonable. Someone needs to take a good look at religious doctrine because if this is acceptable behavior it needs to be bitch slapped in the face.
Habits of a superiority complex are hard to break free of — do it now, or do it never.
Moving on from my rant-
When I moved to the Big Apple everything changed.
I was able to be a new person and shed any remnants from the person and lifestyle I previously had. It felt so liberating. So easy to take off the cloth that sat on my head for so many years. I no longer felt self-conscious walking into a store or restaurant, being the target of everyone’s gaze.
But with my new lifestyle, suddenly new affections towards the yarmulka sprung forward that I was not anticipating.
In New York, the land is so densely populated with Jews wearing yarmulkas that it isn’t out of the ordinary. The outsiders are so acclimated to the sight of our appearance that it becomes background noise and doesn’t stand out any more than the people who collect glass bottles out of the garbage cans lining out building fronts.
Ironically, during a time I finally didn’t feel self-conscious to look like the masses of Jews in the city, I made up my mind that religion was not for me and that I couldn’t view it as anything other than a human invention.
And that was confusing for me.
Because I so badly want to stay part of this community and uphold the values that I was raised with. I still wanted to identify as a Jew with my cultural practices and small habits that made up my character. But suddenly, not wearing a yarmulka meant that I looked like everyone else and Jews were no longer drawn to me. There was no longer that feeling of a familiar comfort we experience when we recognize other members from the tribe.
Off came the yarmulka, but on went the Magain David chain around my neck.
I suddenly wanted to feel part of something, instead of trying to deviate from a world I loathed since the beginning. I found myself wanting to draw other insiders towards me, rather than impose myself on the outside world.
And eventually the necklace went too, and I looked like everyone else. I dressed like everyone else, talked like everyone else, and most of all, had a lack of a belief system like everyone else.
But the feeling of being an outsider remained.
So I wondered if we all feel like outsiders for the entirety of our lives? Is it a chronic condition that as individuals, we forever feel like everyone else is somehow this great entity of normality who know how to handle life with ease, while we are rattled with our anxieties and insecurities?
Or are we all hiding from our fears and pretending that none of us feel like outsiders?
It’s been four years since I shed the skull cap, but I still have this instinctive feeling whenever I help an elderly person carry bags up the subway stairs or give a homeless person a sandwich, that I wish I was wearing a yarmulka. I get this ingrained desire to show a Kiddush Hashem to make the Jewish nation proud of my good deeds.
But no, I’m just like everyone else, aren’t I?
Or are none of us like anybody?