eulogy

This is what I said about Jim at his funeral:

When studying to be a rabbi, I learned a tradition that says one should begin every public discourse with a jest. So here?s Jim?s and my very favorite shared joke ? at least, the one that?s suitable for mixed company:

A man who had studied much in the schools of wisdom finally died in the fullness of time and found himself at the Gates of Eternity.

An angel of light approached him and said, “Go no further, O mortal, until you have proven to me your worthiness to enter into Paradise!”

But the man answered, “Just a minute now. First of all, can you prove to me this is a real Heaven, and not just the wild fantasy of my disordered mind undergoing death?”

Before the angel could reply, a voice from inside the gates shouted:

“Let him in – he’s one of us!”

The ironic thing about my best friend dying is that he’s the only one with whom I want to discuss it.

This is my first visit to Griefland, and I’m still finding my way around. But “Sputnik” would see the black crushing horror part of it AS WELL AS the intensely spiritual aspect. And know that the one does not preclude the other.

Jim and I were psychic twins for life, even though our 1980s-era experiments at roommate-hood proved that we would viciously murder each other in our sleep if we ever tried living together again. We were that much alike, and when you love someone that deeply it gives them leave to annoy you mightily. And annoy each other we did, though never intentionally.

But what really annoys me is that Jim finally won the game we’d been playing ever since we met in 1978. You see, he now knows something I don’t.

For Sputnik and I, the Alpha Male game was measured not by how big our toys were but by how big our brains and hearts were — and how well we used them. Our serious quest for the Sourceless Source meant we couldn’t afford to mess around with anything less — and even though we freely acknowledged that our quest was ultimately unachievable, we wanted it to be real.

An anthropologist’s skepticism, saint’s reverence and anarchist’s sense of humor, coupled with his amazing memory, made Jim fingertip-familiar with numberless and little-known facts, theories, theologies, philosophies, ontologies, epistemologies, epiphanies, chemical interactions and their results, and strange doings of mutual friends and secretly-famous personalities. As Jim’s psychic twin, I can tell you that this paved the way for inevitable and mutual quasi-macho posturing.

Now, one of the great joys of sharing unshared information is making the other fellow say, “Wow! Where’d you hear that?” During our quarter-century together, I could probably count on one hand the times that actually happened instead of the usual “Right. And have you thought about this or that correlation?”

This unspoken but obvious competition kept us both on the Path, which — for the two of us — was the exact same path with the exact same curves at roughly the same time, exquisitely tailored to our individual hands, accompanied by headshaking laughter at our unswerving devotion to something so obviously arbitrary and wordlessly meaningful as our different religious traditions ? his Christian, mine Jewish. But Jim was always a practical guy, living both in the moment as well as in its multiple interpretations, cheerfully accepting the Mystery even as he poked at its manifestations.

Well, that Mystery is cleared up for one of us. And now that Jim’s life is a closed book, I’m really beginning to see how much we actually were a part of each other — and how much a part we all are of everyone we know, especially if we let each other all the way inside.

None of us will never “get over” Jim’s death, because we will never get over Jim’s life. We can’t help it, because we ultimately live in each other. And while it may take a long time for the pain of Jim’s death to lessen, if it ever does, it won?t take nearly as long for us to understand that he is, and always will be, still with us.

Happy trails, my friend. I hope I’ll see you later.

Two Towers, Two Tasks

FOR SOME REASON, THREE SIGNIFICANT dates fell out fairly close together recently: Sonoma’s first (?) 9/11 commemoration, Simchat Torah and the autumnal equinox. The first marks the end of American innocence; the second, the annual restarting of the synagogic Torah cycle; the third goes on regardless of human observation (unless, of course, Time only exists for those of us who count it). I was privileged to say something public about this in the pieces which follow; the first at Sonoma’s first 9/11 commemoration, the second at a service I led not long after:

D’var 9/11 – Open, Closed, Open (title borrowed from Yehuda Amichai)

I’m Neal Ross Attinson, a lay leader at Congregation Shir Shalom, and first I’d like to ask for a show of hands – On this day last year, how many people felt somewhat unable to get through the day, let alone the coming year?

On that Tuesday afternoon, I put an American flag on my car antenna as a sign of mourning. I’m removing it tomorrow, and I’d like to tell you why.

Jewish tradition recognizes the first year of mourning as an important stage of grief. During that year, we say a special memorial prayer every day. But at the close of the year, we stop – and only say it on each anniversary of the death thereafter.

This doesn’t mean we stop thinking about the person who has died – just as none of us here tonight will stop thinking about what happened a year ago. It means that we have integrated the person’s death, and our own grief, into our lives. We have not put the person behind us. What we have put behind us is the first year of grieving. In effect, we have closed one door and are ready to open another.

The central statement of Jewish faith, which the Torah commands us to say twice daily, is called the Sh’ma. The word “Sh’ma” means “listen,” and the first six words in Hebrew are “Sh’ma Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” My favorite interpretation is, “Listen, you who wrestle with the Divine and with yourselves. G-d is simply G-d. G-d is One.”

I’m going to recite the first six words of the Shema, just as we recite it in synagogue – feel free to join me if you know it. As the echoes of this Shema die away, let’s take a few moments to listen – to our hearts, to the sound of our own breathing and that of those here with us – listen to the sound of the future through the open door before us all.

“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad…”


Dvar Haazinu 5763

An old rabbi once said to a young scholar, “Sogt mir a posek – give me a verse of Torah – tell me what you know.” “But Rabbi,” the student said. “I only know a little Torah.” The rabbi replied, “That is all anyone knows of Torah.”

This week’s Torah portion finds Moses about to die, exhorting the Jews not to forget their heritage when they pass into the Land. “For this is not a trifling thing for you,” Moses says. “It is your very life; through it you shall long endure.”

It’s a fitting portion for this Shabbat – Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Shuvah means return, and on this Shabbat Shuvah I’d like to challenge us all to do just that.

Sunday, September 29 is Simchat Torah. We reach the end of the Torah and immediately begin again at the beginning, just as we’ve done for more than 2,000 years. We’ll then read a little bit each week until October 19, 2003, when we start all over again. We do this because the Torah is THE core document of Judaism – it’s not the only one, but it is why we have all the others.

Here’s the challenge: On September 29, why not come along for the ride?

If you accept this challenge, I personally and absolutely guarantee that three things will happen: You will be profoundly bored by some of what you read. You will be profoundly moved, maybe shocked, by some of it. But most importantly, you yourself will know what the Torah actually says. And using Torah as a door, you may travel a little further down the road to understanding Judaism – and maybe also yourself.

Some things to remember: Don’t get hung up on the “right” way to read the weekly portion. Many people like to read a little every day. Others read the whole portion a couple of times during the week, or on Saturday morning. You also don’t need to agree with or even believe what you’re reading – in fact, you probably won’t – you just have to believe it’s important.

Obviously, you also need a good translation of the text and a schedule of readings. If you don’t have the text, or – worse – if you only have the King James version (a notoriously bad translation), talk to me after the oneg; it’ll be easy to get one before the 29th. There’s a schedule of readings in each temple bulletin, but I will also post them weekly on our congregational email list – and give you any other help you ask for.

So there’s the challenge: Read one book, over the course of a year, a little at a time. What have you got to lose?

Think Globally, Fight Locally

First, a message from a friend (posted in another forum) which I want to put “out there.” It’s timebound, but also timeless:



From: Micha Berger http://www.aishdas.org
Subject: 23 Elul

Tonight begins the 23rd of Elul.

What is 23 Elul, you may ask?

Last 23rd of Elul, at around the current time of day, I was dodging
peices of building in a thick cloud of smoke in some picture of downtown
Manhattan as portrayed by Dante.

23rd of Elul is the yahrzeit of every person who died last September 11th.

We'll be lighting a yahrzeit candle before my wife makes the
blessing on the Shabbos lights.

Those of us on this list who don't normally light Shabbos candles may
find lighting two candles tonight a fitting gesture. Just a thought.

-mi


In other news: My eye appointment is set for Sept. 5. Thank G-d I still have eyes, however imperfect, and a body with which to use them, and people to love with all three and more…

Oh, yeah ? funny story: While waiting for my ride home from school, I was hassled for the first time EVER about my yarmulke by some beefy 18-year-old jerk in the back of a Ford Explorer who thought he’d impress his pals by calling me “a f—–g Jew.” I advanced on the vehicle and asked him what his problem was; he opened the door menacingly and repeated his opinion of me. We growled at each other in primate language as his friends drove slowly out of the parking lot, with me advancing on him every time they pulled away. As he was incapable of uttering other phrases, I expressed the ultimate in domesticated primate contempt: I flashed him the Universal Digit and turned my back on him, walking away (while listening for the sound of pounding feet behind me). I am not a confrontational fellow, at all, at all, but had I somehow got it in my head that Jews Don’t Back Down From A Public Fight. Ann is proud that I stood my ground, and even advanced. My rabbi and I are engaged in a discussion about the Right Thing To Do. Her argument is that there’s a difference in fighting for self-defense and egging someone on — my argument is that, “Just because he doesn’t know that he’s made in the image of G-d doesn’t mean I have to put up with his crap.”

Shema Echad, Shnei Regalim

Couple of random recent things:

1.) An amazing and unexpected side effect of daily prayer (which, last night in the shower, I have decided to call “Jewish text-guided meditation”) is the feeling of expansion and contraction. This occurred to me… a week ago? when I was davening in the morning. The morning before, I felt that my prayer-session contracted me into a single still point from which I could then go forth into the world. The next morning, I felt it again — with the added fillip of feeling that I was at the point between the waves, so to speak. I’m not sure I’m explaining this well, since it’s more of a visual impression than anything else. But it gives me something *ELSE* to shoot for.

2.) During a Shabbos walk-discussion with Ann (one of our great Shabbos joys), I was able to put into words soemthing that had been bugging me for a while about treading the rabbinical path — the balance between humility and self-aggrandizement. In other words, the paradox between seeking the center of attention in order to remove yourself from it. “I like being the center of attention,” I told Ann, “but I don’t like liking it.” She looked at me with her wise and playful eyes and said “There’s your problem and solution right there.” (She’s the one who really should be getting s’micha.)

Strange Connectors

After covering the fire training Sunday, I came home and showered before writing out the sermon/message I was asked to deliver at that afternoon’s annual interfaith Service of Remembrance, sponsored by one of the local hospices. They do a lot of important work, and I’ve written stories about their events every year I was a reporter. Everyone I talk to describes them as “angels of mercy who take over your house and help you more than you’d ever imagine.”

One year, they asked me to represent the Jewish community at the remembrance service by delivering the kaddish. The next year, they asked me to speak a few words at their annual tree-lighting ceremony in Sonoma Plaza (after I had written about one of their client families). Here is what I said this year:
—————————————
D’var Aveilut – 28 April 2002

Today I’d like to tell you about one of the scariest things I ever did.

I write for the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Two years ago, I also began assisting Rabbi Bridget Wynne in her duties at Congregation Shir Shalom here in Sonoma. I think religion and reporting have the following in common: both can make us pay close attention to the world in order to help people make sense of it.

Jewish tradition describes two early stages of mourning, respectively called aninut and shiva. Aninut describes the period between death and burial; shiva encompasses the first seven days after burial, when grief is the most intense.

One of the traditions of shiva to hold the three daily worship services at the mourner’s home, so that they can say the obligatory prayers without having to go out. Judaism is mostly a religion of law, so any community services are required to have at least 10 people, called a minyan, in order to be legal. From a psychological perspective, this also means that, in a shiva minyan, the mourner is never alone.

Last autumn, one of our congregants, Gail Lutolf, died after a long illness. Our rabbi conducted the funeral, but wasn’t available to lead the shiva minyan. So she asked me to do it.

At this point, I had led a variety of services, but never in a house of mourning. But this is one of the things I have pledged my life to do. So with a pounding heart, and a sense of being in way over my head, I drove to Gail’s small but spacious house off Arnold Drive and knocked on the door.

Up to that point I had been arguing with myself over the most appropriate way to conduct the service. I mean, I knew the liturgy inside and out. But I didn’t know what to say to the people inside. What words of wisdom or comfort could I offer? For one thing, I’m not very wise, and for another, words aren’t all that comforting. For this reason, Jewish tradition teaches us that when we visit a mourner, we don’t say anything – we let them say something first, if they want. But when I knocked on the door, that all sounded trite to me — and all I could feel was afraid.

But Gail’s family – her husband, brother, mom, sister and assorted relatives – welcomed me warmly into the house. Some of our fellow congregants were there, too, to help make the minyan. They didn’t seem to know any more than I did what we should be doing. So we did what we thought best – we got out the prayer books and began the service.

I had never met Gail. And after the service, I didn’t speak – I listened. I learned a lot about her that night – her love of dogs and people, of writing, of her husband and family. Her infectious laugh and broad sense of humor. What sort of impression she made on the world of those who knew her – and what sort of hole remained when she left. By turns, we all laughed, and cried, and sat thoughfully, and then finished the service and said our goodbyes. When I went back the next night, it was like meeting old friends. And when I left again, I felt that I too had lost a friend – one that I had never known.

Let’s take a moment to look around the room.

We may not know each other, but we all have something in common. All of us have been touched by someone who isn’t here any more. We can see it in each other’s eyes, hear it in each other’s breathing, and know it in each other’s hearts. We don’t need to speak it in order to know it – we just have to be here.

In that way, I think the lives which touched us individually also touch us as a community. We learned something from these people – we carry them with us wherever we go – and whether or not we’re aware of it, we pass a part of them along to everyone we meet.

As I said, I never met Gail Lutolf. But she taught me two valuable lessons about connection.

The first is that, like an endless chain of relay racers, we are the link between those who came before us, and those whom we ourselves will leave behind. We stand in the center, holding hands with the future and with the past. And this is true whether or not we see it.

The second is that those links are easier to spot than we may think. In fact, they’re as close as the person sitting next to us – if only we learn how to listen.

Trial By Fire Trainer

The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t see or hear anything. And on top of that, I could barely breathe.

My knees and hands already hurt from the rough steel floor. The hose I was helping to drag weighed a ton, despite that the two other guys in front of me knew what they were doing and were holding up their end better than I was. When I tried to lift my head, my helmet smacked against the top of the airtank cinched on my back, forcing me to look at the floor or squat back on my heels. But I was previously told to stay as low as I could, so that didn’t seem like a good idea. In any case, my face mask was halfway fogged up, so all I could see — and that dimly — was a dull red glow at an indeterminate distance ahead.

The man closest to me, who had previously told me to stay an arm’s length behind him, turned his head in my direction. “Flaghhh! Flagghhn!” he shouted above the muffled white noise of fire and smoke generators and the clicking whine of my airtank.

“What? I can’t hear you!” I replied.

He gestured me forward, then put his mask close to mine. “Flagghn toff the fire!” he said urgently, and crawled forward.

I scooted forward along with him, crawling past a sheet of flame under the stairs to my right and toward the further glow which resolved itself into an upward-licking fountain of fire boiling up to and against the ceiling.

The man in front of him aimed the hose nozzle at the fountain. Through my soaking leather gloves, I felt the canvas tube jerk softly as he opened the nozzle, sweeping it in an arc parallel to the floor.

My breathing became labored and painful. I felt like I was trying to suck the whole airtank into my mouth with each desperate breath. My chest hurt and I fought the urge to claw the constricting mask from my face.

“I can’t breathe!” I shouted.

No one heard me.

I tapped the shoulder of the man in front of me. He leaned toward me, a caricatured shadow against the leaping flame behind him.

“I can’t breathe!” I repeated.

I’m not sure what happened next. I think he managed to hear me, and communicate my distress to the man in front of him, then pointed behind me. Somehow or other, I found myself crawling toward the door by which we’d entered, keeping my right hand on the wall so I wouldn’t get disoriented. The safety officer opened the door for me, and I stood up and outside in one motion, trying calmly but desperately to reach the fresh sweet air millimeters away on the other side of my protective headgear.

Succeeding with careful dignity, I inhaled deeply and walked over to sit down on a low brick wall edging some bushes behind the Valley of the Moon main firehouse.

It was 8:30 a.m., Sunday, April 28, 2002. I had just had my first real taste of structural firefighting, and I felt like a wuss.

Cut to a month or so earlier…

When I first returned to the Index-Tribune and was heartily reacquainting myself with the “fire guys,” I was discussing what I’d missed with a longtime and close contact who had since become the training officer for the entire Valley fire service. He’s one of the local “old-timers” hereabouts, one of four or six with whom I used to chat (frequently and happily) and who exude the quietly confident competence that’s particular to people who have done what they love for so long that it’s first nature to them. The annual Valley volunteer fire academy was just starting up, and as I love to write the stories behind the stories — especially about the fire guys, who before Sept. 11 were commonly perceived to be doing nothing all day except waiting for the alarm to ring — I asked him if there would be anything particularly interesting to tell people about.

“Well, we’ll be having the fire trailer come down here,” he said. “How do you feel about putting on turnouts and an SCBA and doing some live fire training?”

I replied as I usually do (and as he and everyone else in the Valley fire service expects) when a similar suggestion is made.

“Cooooool!” I breathed. “When?”

The arrangements were made, and we spoke again a day or two beforehand.

“Should I bring my yellows?” I asked, referring to the wildland turnouts (Nomex protective clothing), emblazoned “PRESS,” which I wear when covering big grass fires.

“No,” he said. “Structural firefighting is a whoooole different ballgame.”

Something in the way he said that sent a tickle of apprehension through my brain. He asked me if I was claustrophobic and if I’d ever done any scuba diving, then when I said “no,” asked if I felt okay about using a SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus, or airtank and mask) with only five minutes’ instruction.

“Yes,” I said, wondering what I was getting into. Then he asked me for my shoe, pant and jacket sizes, and said he’d also get me some gloves and a helmet.

I arrived at the VOM station around 8 a.m. to find a couple of dozen men standing around the main engine bay in various states of firefighter undress, checking airtanks and other equipment and making small talk. My contact introduced me to one of the fire captains (we both felt we’d met before, but couldn’t tell) who proceeded to suit me up and briefly train me in the art of how to stay alive and breathing inside a burning building.

First I tried on the boots, then the jacket, then took off the boots and jacket so I could pull the boot-tops up inside the pants and put both on in two smooth motions. This is why the protective gear is called “turnouts” — you keep them at the foot of your stationhouse bunk so that when you turn out to answer the alarm at 3 a.m., you can slide into the boots and pull the pants up to your waist, slipping the suspenders (yes, they’re red) over your shoulders. I donned the coat, slipping my thumbs through the loops in the ends of the sleeves which keep the sleeves from riding up and exposing bare arm-flesh to the flame’s tender kiss. Everything fit me as though it had been tailored. I told the firefighters that Ann wanted to know if I could borrow the turnouts for the evening, and they laughed heartily and knowingly.

Next, a white Nomex hood went over my head and bunched down around my neck. The breathing mask went on, held by netting and straps and surprisingly forming a tight seal despite my short beard. Then the Nomex hood was pulled up over my neck and the top of my head, slightly obscuring the edges of the faceplate which had already begun to fog slightly.

The fire captain explained the workings of the SCBA tank — how to turn it on, how to connect it to the mask, how to disconnect it without losing any of its 20-minute air supply. After a quick run-through, we left the bay and walked toward the Mobile Live Fire Trainer parked behind the station.

This was a huge blue semi trailer with a six-foot by eight-foot hut sitting on top, which I later learned was one of the simulator’s three rooms — the upper “bedroom,” connected by internal stairs to a “kitchen” and “hazmat storage area” (think “paintcan-filled garage”) below. Propane jets and peanut-oil burners provided the fire and smoke inside the non-flammable trailer. As explained by the man in charge of the simulator, the captain and I and one other firefighter were to be a team which would go inside the “house,” crawl past a burning wall to knock down the fire in the hazmat area, pull back, climb the burning stairs to quench the bedroom (after passing our hands under the “bed” to check for “victims”), then reverse course downstairs and douse the kitchen.

As narrated at the beginning of this piece, I didn’t do so well. But our team was one of several cruising through the simulator in various rotations, so I vowed to do better on the next session. (The captain and other firefighter, who had completed their rotation without me, graciously told me I wasn’t at all a wimp and asked me if I wanted to be nozzleman on our next attack. I told them I’d think about it.) Meanwhile, I had caught my breath, and walked around doing my reporter thing, talking to some people I knew and a few I didn’t. (I always enjoy that part, and sprinkled with the interviews were quite a few “Welcome back!”s from people I didn’t know I had missed when I was away.)

The next rotation was a slightly different scenario: We were to climb an external ladder to the bedroom, carefully enter it (“There’s a foot-and-a-half drop that’ll knock you on your ass if you’re not careful,” warned the trainer), knock down the flames against the far wall, then proceed down the burning stairs, make a hairpin right into the corridor leading to the garage, douse the garage, then double back into the kitchen and put out the fire there. The captain asked me again if I wanted to be the nozzleman, and I heard myself saying, “Sure.”

I climbed the ladder, connected my airtank to the face mask, and stood waiting while the other members of my team flaked out the hose on top of the trailer. Now that I had been through this already, and had learned of the simulator’s fool-proof safety features, I was a bit more prepared. I realized that my earlier breathing problems weren’t caused by panic so much as ignorance — I had never used an airtank or been in a situation where I had to regulate my breathing, so I took steady, deep breaths as we prepared to go inside.

I pushed open the door to the burning bedroom, stepped over the edge and crouched low on the deck, clutching the hose and nozzle with my right arm and hand while my left grasped the nozzle-release lever. Take that, I thought as I opened the hose.

The water blasted into the base of the flame-wall on the other side of the room. “Sweep it!” came the muffled yell from the fire captain behind me. I slowly swept the nozzle from side to side, quickly dousing the fire.

Wow, I thought. That’s pretty cool.

“Down the stairs!” shouted the captain over the omnipresent din.

I crawled forward and paused at the brink, seeing flames licking a foot or two below me. “Just go ahead!” he shouted, barely audible.

I slowly descended the stairs, dropped to hands and knees, and, waved on by the safety officer sitting in the corner, turned right 180 degrees and dragged the hose with me.

This time I paid attention to my breathing, which while still labored was a lot less difficult. Approaching the flaming garage like Charles Atlas’ reborn 98-pound weakling returning to face the beachfront bully, I braced against the wall to my left and opened the nozzle.

“Closer!” shout-whispered the captain behind me.

I scooted a bit closer, directing the water jet toward what I thought was the base of the flames slightly above the garage floor. But I couldn’t see through the thick smoke! I could see my hands holding the hose, and I could bloody well see the fire, but the water jet might as well have been invisible. I swept it back and forth anyway, but nothing happened.

The captain’s hands reached around me, pulling the nozzle sharply upward. I saw the flames billow back against the aqueous intrusion, nodded, and swept with gusto. The flames flickered, hung on for about 20 seconds, then went out. Gotcha, I thought, shutting off the nozzle.

Then a fresh sheet of fire broke out about three feet above the first, washing the ceiling in lambent scarlet. I swore, then attacked it in calm fury.

When that enemy had been routed, I swore again when the lower bank re-ignited. But I grimly set to the task a third time, wondering if this was one of the unpredictable conditions faced by firefighters when they’re doing this for real.

Slowly, I became aware of a burning sensation at two points on my left cheek. With alarm, I realized it was the metal buckles on my face-mask straps beginning to heat up. If they don’t get any hotter, I’ll be okay, I thought. Uncomfortable, but okay. I continued spraying the burning garage wall.

They began to get really hot. Painfully so.

DAMN IT! I screamed to myself. Here we go again. I continued sweeping the garage wall, and when it was finally out, I motioned to the captain. “My face is burning,” I shouted calmly, tapping my face. “I think I need to leave.”

He nodded, then shouted “Back out and up the stairs!”

I didn’t know he meant that literally. The flames extinguished, I dropped the hose (breaking rule #1, as I learned later) and turned my back on the now-smoking garage (breaking rule #2), headed down the corridor, climbed the stairs and went through the bedroom to the sunny Sunday morning outside.

Postscript: As I told a couple of longtime fire service contacts before I left the VOM station, “I’ve been covering the fire beat for three years, but I don’t think I really understood it until today. It’s one thing to know this stuff from the outside — it’s quite another to be engulfed by it. And even though I’ve pretty much understood why you guys do this, I didn’t understand how. Thanks for shooting my personal learning curve through the roof!”

Yids With Lids

A recent poster to soc.culture.jewish.moderated was soliciting opinions from full-time kippa wearers for a paper she’s writing. I contacted her, and submitted the following responses to her questions:

: Why do you wear a kippa?
I began wearing a kippa full-time about two years ago — it’s 98% part of my ever-deepening religious observance, and 2% politics. I started to become a “progressive ba’al teshuva” while working as a newspaper reporter, and took to wearing a kippa all during Shabbat. It felt too weird to take it off, so I wrestled with my commitment to Jewish tradition as well as to not spooking or distracting my sources. Then, in March 2000, a Jewish Petaluma businessman’s truck was graffiti’d and set afire. Not being a big believer in community invisibility, I donned a kippa and have been wearing it ever since.

: What does your kippa look like? How did you choose it?
I actually have about a dozen. Some are too small, which I discovered only after wearing them as “garments” instead of occasionally at services. I might rotate wearing eight or nine of them on a regular basis.

I favor the kippa sruga — crocheted or knit — to the velvet or suede varieties. I have a plain black one I wear while “on the job,” since I have dark brown hair and the black kippa isn’t very noticeable. But the others are of various colors and patterns. I’m vain enough to want to coordinate them with what I’m wearing, even though most of them don’t match my somewhat limited wardrobe. I do have two blue ones which I alternate for Shabbat, and a red-white-and-blue one which I reserve for Election Day and the Fourth of July.

As for choosing them, it was whatever was available at the local Jewish bookstore/Sisterhood giftshop/online Judaica store when I stopped/clicked through.

: What meaning does it have for you? What message, if any, do you think it communicates to others?
For me, it is a constant reminder that there is Something bigger than I am, as well as an ethical standard of behavior to which I should adhere at all times. Not being others, I couldn’t tell you their reaction. However, I have been approached by more Jews than I can remember who are glad to see a “landsman” when they least expect it! I have also explained the laws of kashrut to an Egyptian man one morning at my local coffee shop, and discussed the differences between Hebrew and Aramaic readings of Genesis with the Samaritan manager of a nearby 7-Eleven. I have yet to encounter any animosity, G-d forbid, although I have had encounters with philo-Judaic types who want to tell me how awful the matzav is and how they stand with Israel because Jesus said to. I smile and thank them.

: What impression do you form of a stranger wearing a kippa? Does it matter what the kippa looks like?
My first reaction is usually, “Hey! Me too!” I’m not hip enough to the subtleties and nuances of kippot to be able to do more than that, although I’ve noticed that most neo-mystical vegetarian types go for the really big, loosely crocheted kippot.

: Do you feel any (special?) connection to a stranger wearing a kippa? Would your answer be different in Jerusalem vs. Podunk, USA?
I think I do, at least in a first-impression, superficial way. As I’ve not yet been to Jerusalem but live in Podunk about an hour north of San Francisco, I’ll have to plead insufficient data. I bet it would be, though.

: How do you feel about non-religious Jews who don kipot on certain occasions (e.g., in synagogue, at a brit or a seder)? Is it respectful? Hypocritical? Something else?
Personally, I think it’s kind of sweet. It’s hard for me to imagine it being hypocritical or disrespectful.

: What are your (kippa-related) opinions that I haven’t asked about?
I guess the only thing that comes to mind is that I am much, MUCH more careful with what I say or do when I’m out in public. It’s very interesting to wear one’s identity on one’s head — to know that someone’s first impression of me potentially isn’t “affable, brown-haired guy” so much as “JEW.” It has also made me more aware of the ways in which I am apt to (mis)judge others based on personal appearance. Much like life, wearing a full-time kippa is a continual learning experience!