“ARE YOU A PRIEST?” ASKED the workman as I passed through a local condoplex.
“No, just a Jew,” I answered, smiling.
“That’s good,” he said, also smiling, and went back to his repairs.
He was not the first person who asked me about my yarmulke (in Hebrew, “kippa”), but he was one of the most affable. I have been wearing a small, knitted skullcap pretty much full-time since 2000, when my increasing religious observance (and a local anti-Semitic incident) seemed to call for it. It has sparked many conversations between myself and various onlookers, including a Muslim attorney interested in how kosher food differed from its halal counterpart; “the only Jew in Auburn, California;” an Iraqi Christian expat, owner of a local 7-Eleven, who spoke fluent Aramaic; an Iranian mechanic with whom I shared an intensely deep conversation about G?d; a one-sided diatribe from an ignorant racist in the Santa Rosa Junior College parking lot; a handful of embarrassed co-religionists apologizing for “not being more Jewish;” a fervently Christian grocery clerk asking if I was offended by people wishing me a Merry Christmas; two readers of a newspaper column I wrote about why I was wearing a yarmulke in the first place; two angry-eyed Palestinian clerks in a Pismo Beach convenience store; and a mostly genial assortment of the curious and bemused, with a few asking if I was a rabbi.
Wearing a “yarmie” doesn’t make me feel special or exceptional (that’s a topic for another post). It does, however, keep me on my best behavior — the perception is that what I do reflects on all Jews someone else may encounter. And I also wear it as a reminder that there’s something bigger than myself; it helps keep me humble. Frankly, it’s like wearing a lighthouse on my head, as though I am standing on the shore to welcome passing travelers. I wonder who will wash up next?