What Do You Do When Someone Hands You A Yarmulke?
As the Chanukah season approaches, I’m reminded of my regular moments of discomfort when any Jewish holiday approaches.
I get uncomfortable because invariably someone hands me a yarmulke to wear during the recital of some prayer or during an entire ceremony. I’ve been handed skull caps at weddings, Passover, Purim, Rosh Hashanah, and Shabbat.
Just to allay any fears that I might be converting, I should say that my wife and her lovely family are mostly secular Jews, but they still celebrate Jewish holidays, so I often find myself at Jewish homes on those occasions. As more and more of this extended family learn that I am a secular humanist, this issue comes up less often, but the question remains: What should a secular person do when someone hands him a yarmulke?
My gut has always answered that I don’t want to wear this. Yarmulkes are worn as a sign of reverence to the God of Abraham whom I don’t happen to believe in. Judeo-Christians shouldn’t take offense though. My Godlessness extends to all gods, so it’s nothing personal. (I don’t genuflect in church, or face Mecca 5 times a day either.)
The discomfort I sometime feel comes from what my brain tells me. I’m a guest in their home on a day when people are observing a holiday. Don’t be such a goy, my brain says. What’s the harm of popping the cap on for a while? It’s not like I’m converting…
Gut: Ok, you’re not converting, but it feels wrong…and you are acknowledging the existence of a deity.
Brain: No I’m not. I’m just putting a hat on for a few minutes.
Gut: It’s not just a hat – it’s a religious hat that makes God happy. And God doesn’t exist, remember?
Brain: I know, I know, I taught you that! But wearing this will make the hosts happy. Do it for them. It’s no skin off your teeth.
Gut: I really don’t want to offend these nice people after they were kind enough to invite me to their home, but it feels like I’m selling out. I’m a professional atheist for God’s sake!
Gut: You know what I mean.
Brain: You could wear another kind of hat…Technically, it doesn’t have to be a yarmulke.
Gut: I would consider wearing one of those upside-down flowerpot hats that Devo wore in the 80s… or maybe a miter…
Brain: You want to wear a Pope hat to a Jewish gathering?
Gut: I don’t want to wear any hat!
This interior dialogue went on for years. Most of the time I found ways to skate around being handed the yarmulke – a few times I wore one to avoid causing a scene.
Eventually I asked three people I respect highly what they thought I should do. My father, Eddie Tabash, and Paul Kurtz all gave me the same answer: Don’t feel obligated to wear a yarmulke. I was off the hook. My atheist father married my Catholic mother, so he had some experience with being an outsider in church matters. And two of these three wise men (Kurtz and Tabash) were raised Jewish, so I figured I was free of the beanies.
And so I am. I don’t wear yarmulkes anymore – ever. When offered, I smile and say “No thank you, devout atheist.” If someone feels strongly enough to disinvite me from the gathering because I won’t don the little cloth dome, then so be it. I will graciously excuse myself from the affair and occupy myself elsewhere.
Wearing a piece of clothing to acknowledge or pay respect to something that almost certainly isn’t there is just too far from my view of the universe to stomach. My gut (i.e. my brain) was right after all.
It’s too bad really… I’ve got a growing bald spot that a yarmulke would cover nicely.