To the Young Man Shouting About Hitler on the #1 Train, et al

The Times of Israel. (June 22, 2016.)

Dear young man on the Uptown #1 train who shouted at me that Hitler should come back for the rest of the Jews,

Dear two friends of that young man who laughed while he shouted,

Dear high school classmate of my wife’s who posted “F**k the Fourth of Jew-Lie” on Facebook this Independence Day,

Dear Neo-Nazis of Twitter who put Jewish names in (((echoes))),

Dear Mahmoud,

Dear Jeremy,

Dear Donald,

I’m writing to thank you for giving me the motivation I needed to keep on wearing a kippah in public.

I’ve been wearing a kippah everywhere I go for more than 10 years, since becoming religious as an adult. But over the past few years, I’ve sometimes been tempted to stop wearing my kippah outside synagogue. Not because I’ve lost faith; I haven’t. I just don’t like wondering whether secular people I meet for the first time are seeing my kippah and associating me with stereotypes about “religious people.” People might think I’m closed-minded, or fundamentalist, or humorless, or anti-gay, or interested only in religion, or hostile to atheists and believers of other faiths. I don’t think those stereotypes are fair to reality, but I do think they’re pretty commonly held, and I’d just as soon make my own first impressions without having to work against them. And while the kippah is a beautiful custom, it’s also (arguably) not strictly required by Jewish law. So I’ve thought many times about taking it off.

But then you came along, and God bless you for it. You see, silent contempt wasn’t going to wake me up to see my actual situation. Subtle disdain wasn’t going to get through my thick, skullcapped skull. I needed your public hostility.

I also needed your hostility to feel like part of a conversation rather than part of a war. I had to see it on a level I can connect with. In that way, real violence is somehow less motivating than you are. After all, terrorism isn’t for me to combat, it’s for police forces and military forces and intelligence agencies to worry about. When it comes down to the moment in which, God forbid, a terrorist is shooting Jews in a grocery store, or ramming random Jews on the street with a car, or breaking into a house and stabbing a young Jewish girl to death in her bed — when it comes to that moment, what difference can it possibly make what I say or what I do or what I wear? When terrorists murder Jews I feel grief, I feel anger, but, ultimately, I also feel pretty helpless.

But when it comes to you, my friends… Well, it’s different. Because you’ve helped me to understand that when we talk about this thing called hate, we’re really talking about our everyday conversations. We’re talking about a billion seemingly inconsequential jokes and snide remarks about Jewish greed and Jewish fraud and Jewish guilt and Jewish money and Jewish power. We’re talking about how the ideas and assumptions that shape those billion little remarks all combine over time to nurture the vile ideologies that inspire those people with the knives and cars and guns and bombs to find a Jew, any Jew at all, and kill her.

The full length of that chain hasn’t been so openly exposed for years. Anti-Jewish hate crime is nothing new, but to find today’s level of open antisemitism in public American discourse (on the political left and right alike) you need to look back decades. In ten years of wearing a kippah in public I’ve never heard anti-Semitic remarks from random strangers — until this year.

And that’s why I’m keeping my kippah. It’s never been more important. Because when it comes to ideas and everyday conversations, you’ve helped me see clearly that all of us can and do make a difference. Culture happens in speeches and newspaper articles, and in political arguments in bars. Culture happens in social media posts and in the space between passengers on the subway. Culture is every encounter we have with other people.

So culture is when you see my kippah on the street, too. When you who have problems with Jews see it, when my fellow Jews see it, and when other passers-by see it, that’s an event that affects our common culture. Just to exist as a Jew in the public square is a political act. And in this cultural climate of increasingly open hostility to Jews, I refuse to pass for non-Jewish.

I’m keeping my kippah. You’ve helped me decide that. I’m keeping it because it is vital to have a society where a Jew can walk proudly and openly without fear. It is vital for Jews to ensure that kind of society, and, as it happens, it is vital for everyone else too. If any Jews are being harassed on the street for being visibly Jewish, I don’t want them to walk alone. If there’s someplace I would need to fear going with a kippah, then I don’t want to be there without one. If there are people who will talk to me more negatively because of my kippah, then I don’t want to enjoy their courtesy without one.

I hope my fellow Jews will join me in my defiance of you. I hope the #1 train in New York — where I got shouted at about Hitler finishing the job — will carry more and more yarmulkes on passengers’ heads. I hope Jews who didn’t dress in particularly Jewish ways before — Jews of all kinds, religious and secular, traditional and radical, liberal and conservative — will start wearing a kippah, or a tichel, or a shiny chai pendant, or a big ring with a Star of David (and, I promise, nobody will confuse it for a “sheriff’s star”).

Because now is the time for Jews to stand up and be counted. We refuse to be intimidated or ashamed of who we are. We recognize that your hate is real, but we welcome the chance to know who our real friends are. Together we, and they, will build a world that rises far above your dog whistles, your slanders, your sneers, and your shouts. In fact, it’s our sacred mission to do just that, and, in a perverse way, you play a role in that.

So for the part you play in the cosmic drama of the Jewish People, for your fevered conspiracy theories and your irrational obsessions, for your aggressive hate and your pathetic envy, for your sheer persistence and your commitment to cruelty, and for never, ever letting us forget that we are Jews — once again, and truly: