Campus Anti-Semitism: The Low-Down on Wearing a Kippah at UC Berkeley

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I am a Kippah wearing Orthodox Jew at UC Berkeley and I am not afraid.
I am one of 2 undergraduate students who regularly wear a Kippah around UC Berkeley. 2 out of 40,000 undergraduate students. I made the decision to start openly wearing my Kippah at Cal during the second semester of my freshman year (this August marked the start of my junior year). The first semester had consisted of my employing the classic Modern Orthodox “hat trick” - wearing a black snapback stylishly emblazoned with a tie-dyed “P” in the center. The Tzitzit didn’t matter, because my family’s Sefardi Minhag (custom) dictated that we tucked those strings in.  The “P” stood for Primitive, and this was the second time I had purchased the exact same hat because I absolutely loved the fact that the “P” could also stand for “Prophit” - the second part of what was then my hip hop stage name. The second part of what was then, and is now, my identity. America. The secular. The – gasp – unorthodox.
But that’s a story for another time. That hat was swaggy and certainly gave voice to the more colorful elements of my personality, but it also represented a critical lack of self-acceptance. As a religious Jew who prayed three times a day, kept Kosher and Shabbat, set times for daily Torah learning, and maintained a nightly dialogue with God through Hitbodedut (introspective meditation practices) Judaism was, and is, an absolutely core part of my identity. But regardless of the pride I felt for being Jewish, I still couldn’t bring myself to wear a Kippah on campus. It felt as though I was immediately “othering” myself - as though the first thing anyone would notice about me would be the fact that I’m a Jew, and my expressive clothing and carefully calculated walking cadence would be relegated to the background of other students’ perception of me. I wanted people to talk to me because we both liked the book we were reading in class, not because I had a Kippah sewn with music notes on my head. I was rooted in a deep conflict - was I ready to allow other parts of my identity to be diminished in order to more fully embrace my Jewish identity? More than that - was I ready to openly display the fact that I’m a Jew to everyone in a school notorious for its “anti-Israel” protests and anti-Semitic incidents?
I started wearing the Kippah after spending two weeks in Israel, my mother’s virtual birthplace (she was born on a ship carrying her family of 8 and a boatload of other Jewish refugees leaving Morocco, but again - that’s a story for another time). I had spent those two weeks relishing the freedom of exposing my Kippah to the world and not having to wear that snapback, which was really starting to cramp my style. Those two weeks in Israel reminded me that a Kippah is not a statement about how religious I am - its a statement of who I am. Not in the same way that my obsession with hip hop is a part of my identity, or my deep appreciation for attention grabbing fashion, or even my underlying American urge to chase after money and live the good life. The Kippah is just a reminder to everyone of who I ethnically am - a half-Ashkenazi, half-Moroccan Jew. Some days I look really, really Jewish Moroccan - some days I look really, really Jewropean. But as long as I have that Kippah on, nobody has a doubt in their mind of who I am at the most basic level - before my other interests and their influences on my identity. I shifted wearing a Kippah from an element of my “religious” identity to an element of my ethnic identity - my Jewish identity. The customs of my grandparents, the customs of my people. In every country they’ve been in across the world, essentially until their introduction to America’s cultural melting pot/abyss.
And so, for the past 18 months, I have worn my Kippah to every single class I’ve been to. Every single engagement on campus - library, social event, hip hop club meeting, Jewish event - I have my Kippah on. And not only that - I wear my Kippah to the bar. I wear my Kippah to the club. I wear my Kippah to vegetarian restaurants that aren’t Hekshered but that I eat at anyway because I rationalize it to myself, somewhere between my debilitating IBD and my general distaste for the unnecessarily strict interpretations of Halacha towards which my native American Jewish Orthodoxy has found itself increasingly inclined. The point is - I wear my Kippah to places where I wouldn’t necessarily be as a religious Jew, but that I would necessarily be as a millennial. A millennial who grew up at the very summit of Western culture’s sinking into the obsession with decadence, and who bears its mark as distinctly as the Jews of the second temple destruction exile period bore theirs. I wont let my Kippah bar me from going out and having a good time. But I wont let going out and having a good time bar me from my core identity. And part of staying in touch with my core identity involves looking the part. Involves having to constantly remember that others are perceiving me differently because of my appearance.
Now get this. In my 18 months wearing a Kippah at UC Berkeley, I have never been targeted by anti-Semitic violence, or even anti-Zionist angst. I have never had a conversation initiated with me on behalf of my Kippah for any negative reason whatsoever. Sure, people come up and tell me they’re Jewish, they tell me their mother’s mother was Jewish and I tell them they’re Jewish, so on and so forth. But I have not had a single occasion to fear wearing my Kippah around this campus, or in the Bay Area as a whole. The associations I was taught to make by the Orthodox Jewish community in Southern California between anti-Semitism and the Bay Area were completely unfounded. In fact, I experienced far more moments of anti-Semitism growing up in San Diego - from being called “Jewcob” in public high school (I wasn’t even wearing the Kippah!) to having a bag of dog poop thrown at me and my brothers as we walked up the hill back to our house from Shul on Shabbat. Until about a year ago, my parents and members of their suburban San Diegan Jewish community were harassed by a white nationalist who openly addressed them with a lamentation over Hitler’s failure to have finished the job. Police didn’t make him stop - it took members of the community going to his workplace and telling his boss directly to make any impact. Like so many elements of life, the surface layer peeled back to expose the deeper truth - the place I grew up in is actually the place where I might need to have second thoughts about wearing a Kippah. Where I might need to bring along the trust Fedora I bought in France, because I knew full well that wearing a Kippah there could endanger my life.
But in my country, where they speak my language (nobody in France did), and they’re living my culture - even if it isn’t the culture most central to my identity - I’m going to keep wearing my Kippah. My enemies can shower my campus with anti-Semitic fliers, blend terms to ensure that a protest against Israeli occupation is actually a protest against Israeli existence - they can even come up to my face and say what they will. In fact, I dare them to do it - every single day. But they don’t. Because anti-Semitism at UC Berkeley is fundamentally different than anti-Semitism in San Diego. In San Diego, you as an individual are being personally attacked for being a Jew. In Berkeley, ideological attacks are made on the Jewish people, but I don’t get poop thrown at me or a raving unshaved white man telling me to go “back where I came from.” As my Rabbi said to the fist shaking neo-Nazi, “I was born right here, two blocks away.” And even as I wear this Kippah I remember that fact acutely. And every year, in sync with the arguments of my English papers, it seems like my split identities become less of a binary, and more like complimentary elements of a complete, chaotic whole, that I accept with a whole heart - for lack of any other option. I’m Jewish, I’m American, and I’m wearing this Kippah - and I’m doing it at exactly the place where people are saying not to. And I’m here to tell you that if you can explain to yourself why you wear your Kippah, and you believe it with all your heart and soul - you have absolutely nothing to fear. Fliers and all.

.   Jacob Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
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