Public Jew

April 6, 2011

I began wearing my yarmulke to school towards the end of November 2010. That decision was difficult in the beginning, as one can imagine. Everyday I was emotionally and physically challenged. Schoolmates would throw coins in front of me as I passed them walking down the corridor; I would be called derogatory words associated with my identity as a Jew. For what purpose did such torment and lack of sensitivity serve? Change. When opting not to assimilate into the “American” way of life, then one becomes an outsider looking in, undeserving of equal treatment and respect, disregarded as too different for tolerance or coexistence.

You might assume I knew beforehand that wearing a yarmulke in such an environment would result in daily harassment from my peers; so why did I choose to put myself in such a position of vulnerability? Like most choices we make in life, there were multiple factors that influenced my final decision to don a skull cap upon my head in public. A relative ten years my senior had long been a role model in every aspect of my life. When he started running high school cross-country, I aspired to be a cross-country runner; when he became increasingly interested in living a Jewish life; I dreamt of one day observing the Sabbath, and only eating kosher. When he turned his own life upside-down and discontinued his growing attraction towards Orthodox Judaism, in order to “have fun”, I found myself in conflict. By the time I realized the true quagmire and position in which I’d placed myself, I was well into my sophomore year of high school. Up until that point, I had become mainly assimilated into mainstream culture and never planned on destroying the place in the hierarchy of being “popular” that I had built for myself.

The year before I discovered my predicament (freshman year), I had begun attending NCSY-the National Council of Synagogue Youth, which is the Orthodox youth group sponsored by the Orthodox Union. From convention to convention I made new friends, met advisors, and in turn, gained a deeper understanding and a stronger connection to my Jewish roots. The true desire that my newly found role models had in teaching me to be an independent thinker was the most heart warming and loving act that I had ever, personally, experienced.

There was an event that took place on the first day of my public display of pride at a Kenmore (Buffalo, New York) public high school. At a band concert that night, as we were preparing for our stage performance by practicing in the band room, a classmate walked over to me while I was conversing with a group of friends. Rather than give me the casual “high-five” one would expect before a performance, I found him disengaging the clips that connected my yarmulke to my hair. Imagine. His succumbing to peer-pressure, in what I found out later was a “dare”, caused such embarrassment. All of his friends, all of my friends, and all of our mutual acquaintances watched as he made a mockery of my religious beliefs.

Naturally, these stories must be connected in some way or another. Here it is: I came to the conclusion, after simultaneously living a life of religious observance and a life of disobedience, that only one option was available and it was a personal choice to determine which path stemming from this fork-in-the-road was correct. I still wear a yarmulke, so obviously modern Orthodoxy was the life decision I made on my own. There have been two primary factors influencing of my life’s journey so far…the idea that my most significant hero had been so weak in reality (religiously, among many other commitments in which he failed) and the authenticity I found in the Upstate New York NCSY advisors’ voices when it came to belief in G-d and in one’s own self.

The most complex aspect of being a solitary open Jew in a public high school is carrying the weight of an entire nation upon your shoulders. It must be difficult to understand for anyone who’s not in a similar position, but believe me when I tell you that every action I take is seen as a generalized overview of the Jewish people. If one is to call me a “dirty Jew” (as has been done in the past), or threatens my life (as has also been done in the past), how am I supposed to fight back? I can talk to a teacher, I can ignore him, or I can throw punches. All three are unacceptable; they only solve short term bullying when what I need is a solution that can last for a lifetime. And I hit on one: witty remarks.

I have found that responding back to an insult with a funny comment destroys the pleasure an antagonist has in being callous. For example: I was walking down the stairs the other day from one class to another when a well-known senior yelled down to me, “Hey you (unsuitable-for-print) Jew, why don’t you have a yarmulke for me?” I simply called back, “oh, I forgot yours, but I’ll bring you one tomorrow and we can wear them together!” Even though it may seem entertaining to think of bellowing such things in school, I would much rather just be accepted for the person I truly am on the inside.

Personal experiences and NCSY have both lead to the major change I chose to undergo in order to be the person I am today. Now, I am more confident, filled with love for the Jewish people and the land of Israel, and hope never again to be influenced by the negative forces in this world. I have learned that it is vital to remain true to one’s own self above the opinions and goals of others, because if we all give in to assimilation, the world will be a much darker place. It is my dream that one day I’ll be able to walk down the corridors of my school, or anywhere for that matter, with my yarmulke atop my head, feeling proud instead of threatened by the ongoing hatred towards the children of Israel. At this time, sadly, there are still many people in the world who are just not ready… to accept “Juden”.

Ben is a graduate of Kadimah Hebrew Day School and currently attends Kenmore West HS (Buffalo, New York). Ben is the president of his NCSY chapter and Upstate New York NCSY’s regional treasurer. Ben’s other interests include varsity cross country running, tennis, chess and piano.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.