Observations of a Malcontent: Declaring Independence in a Religiously Structured Context


The University’s policy is designed to insure that recruitment, hiring, training, promotion, and all other personnel actions take place, and all programs involving students, both academic and non-academic, are administered without regard to race, religion, creed, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, veteran or disabled veteran status, genetic predisposition/carrier status, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or citizenship status as those terms are used in the law.

Well, that’s Yeshiva University’s policy on discrimination.  I was fired from my job as a waiter, kicked out of morning classes by a school administrator, granted an “F” on my transcript for a class I wasn’t allowed to attend, and have had to deal with, generally speaking, a decent amount of very, very hateful social pressure for refusing to wear a kippa.  So, here’s the story, the scoop, the inside source.  Welcome to the horse’s mouth.

I was fired in late September for refusing to wear a kippa as a waiter in the YU cafeteria on Shabbos.  Without the kippa, however, I wore tzitzit.  Why is it the kippa, and not tzitzit, which is the only indicator between whether someone’s allowed to be involved in the community or not?  Why aren’t tzitzit, a law which is de’orita, meaning from the Torah, not the indicator between extraction versus acceptance?  The kippa is not regarded by anybody as a law which is de’orita, meaning from the Torah.

Having had long hair at the time, however, it wasn’t quite socially apparent to everybody that some guy in the café’ wasn’t wearing a kippa.  It was all just conversational fodder, whispers under the table.  I was instructed by the waiting staff to put on the kippa, then yelled at, berated, and forced to oblige “or else.”   They told me I’d be fired if I didn’t put on the kippa, then gave me some time to think it over.  This wasn’t some accidental miscalculation, some random aberration.  I was on my way out.  I chose the else.

That’s when I shaved my head.

Well, almost.  I kept the peis.  Curly peis.  So there I am, walking around the Yeshiva University café as a Shabbos waiter, no kippa, buzz cut, and peis sticking off the sides of my head.  Some people said I looked like one of those kids from Meya Shearim with the suit pants and bamba crumbs all over their face.  I could hardly disagree.  So now, it was quite obvious to all there was a man in the cafeteria with a shaved head, with peis, and not wearing a kippa.  You could call it socially apparent.

So, they fired me from my job as a waiter.  My rabbi in BMP refused to allow me into class from then on as well for refusing to wear a kippa and I was instructed by a Dean of the program not to attend morning classes.  Through the various offers the rabbis came up with for my supposed best interests, none of them fit into the success I had achieved in the class they now refused to allow me to attend; my BMP GPA combined from 2 years in Yeshiva College?  1.4.  My grades in the BMP shiur I had been kicked out of for refusing to wear a kippa?   Straight A’s.  What was the difference now between my learning capabilities the day before I took off my kippa and the day after?

There was no basis for why I shouldn’t be allowed back into the class I was previously in other than not even religious discrimination, but the discrimination of religious appearance.  So, I sat around, waited it out, and finally on January 11 2012 saw the big fat “F” next to “BMP” on my transcript, GPA destruction.  At the beginning of the semester the Dean of BMP informed me of my possible expulsion from the school because this is my third semester which I have received below a 2.0 in the morning classes, the most recent being the “F” from a class I wasn’t allowed to attend, and the first which came from the class they tried to switch me into after I was disallowed from attending the only BMP, or morning class at all, I had ever done well in.  I don’t know about you guys but I’m sure having fun.

Through my encounters of refusing to wear a kippa people have continued to ask me the same question:  Why?  Why pick on the kippa?  Can’t you just wear it around people when you need to and take it off otherwise whenever you please?  Isn’t it so simple and easy to do?  Aha!  Exactly.  The kippa is actually such a powerful tool because of its simplicity.  Because it is such an easy task to complete, as well as the likelihood that the individual wearing it has been convinced at an infantile age, the rationale and reason for wearing it has been built so deeply into one’s core and is so communally expected that by not wearing one a person would almost immediately be created as an outcast (ding ding!).  Anywhere you are societally forced to wear a kippa you will likely feel more socially awkward by not wearing one than by complying and doing so.  Because of its simplicity, as well as societal expectancy, it would seemingly make no sense for any individual to cause any disturbance over something so small and easy to do.

So, why cause the disturbance?  What does a kippa symbolize to me?  I’d written a 4,000 word piece I spent four months writing based around religious cultural expectations, social conformity, appearances and images undignified importance in religion over actual actions, rules and restrictions which are De’orita (meaning from God), like tzitzit, versus rules which are De’raban (meaning from the rabbis), the way people use religious societal positive reinforcement all over the world as a means of reinforcing their own personal religious actions, the need for Jews to accept personal responsibility and accountability in the battle versus religious educational tactics shading the definition between the terms “respect” and “obedience” and how it all plays into our Judaic need to question our own religious authority’s and societal forms of positive reinforcement to be some kind of positive religious example…but.  But.  It’s too long!  People just want the quick easy story, the image of simplicity, sustaining comfortability.  The simple comfort.

The kippa.  Because people just want to be able to walk through the café on Shabbos without having to think about all the problems and tribulations, all the hidden suppressed religious vulnerabilities people face and pretend its all A-Okay and swell, the image and appearance on the outside for the whole community really matching the goodness on the inside.  Everyone’s keeping Shabbos and kosher, wearing tzitzit and putting on teffilin every day, shachris mincha maariv, tzdaka, kindness, good will, tikkun olam, volunteering and community service, thank you’s and please’s, appreciation and assertive good will– we’re all doing our very best to be the best we can be, right?  We want the easy answer.  Wearing a kippa doesn’t symbolize the religious indignation to merely support the image of religiosity, but in actuality often breed the content mediocre observance of religious restrictions enabled through sustaining appearances, does it?  Well jeez how would I know.  I’m just your average malcontent, rebel without a cause.  Nothin’ to see here folks.  Angry Yeshiva University student spurns wearing kippa because he’s uninformed, uneducated, out of control.

I have one question for all the people who will read something like this, if they’ve made it this far, and spurn it, disparage it, throw it away.  I, personally, don’t know anything, I’d admit that.  I wouldn’t win any halacha discussions or gemara tests based on the true intricacies of religious Judaism.  But if a kid who grew up in a religious day school from the age of 4 years old, went to Yeshiva in Israel, attends Yeshiva University and still doesn’t know anything…how much you think the rest of the world knows?  Should we as Jews really be enforcing religious restrictions through enforced obedience, with the backdrop of social extraction, under the guise of being called “respect” for religiosity and rabbis?  Aren’t those type of educational tactics, combined with the backdrop of overwhelming community pressure, the kind of mentality and society which can lead to supremely dangerous situations?  Is that being an “or lagoyim”?

I’m going to cheat a little here because I happened to get a sneak peek at the response to my article, to which the person writes something regarding how my actions would be no different than my “going into a classroom and eating a cheeseburger in front of the classroom.”  The whole point of this endeavor is actually that this person who responded to my article would naively assume I would eat a cheeseburger simply because I do not wear a kippa.  The whole point of this entire project is that I would not eat a cheeseburger.  The responder has only further enforced the idea that image has become more important in religious Judaism and Yeshiva University than the actions we actually commit.  Is that true?  Decide for yourself.

But.  What’s the hardest part?  Outside of losing the steady paycheck I’d received for a year and a half, kicked out of a morning class I was cruising in, threatened with possible expulsion and having had to deal with a very, very, decent amount of hateful social pressure?  What’s the saddest thing I’ve found through the whole ordeal?  Why will people continuously conform to comply to regulations without understanding, conceptions without individual examination?  It’s all just American conceptualizations and external influences that can’t be trusted right?  But really, maybe, it’s that behind all the laughs and smiles, all the times of enjoyment and philosophical debates, behind the torah learning and gemara classes and halacha sermons and Thursday night mishmors, your friends are just as ready to turn you into someone just like me.  The outsider.  The bad guy.  The Rasha.  Disparaged, tossed to the side, thrown to the trash heap.  Do we really care about each other?

 Or is it “each other,” the fact that it’s another person taking the place of the being we expect them to be?  Are we really then individuals, united, which form a community?  Or are we just a community filled with arbitrary people?  Replaceable, expendable…numbers we add to reach the totals we need?  Aren’t we all just as easy as me to throw away?  Extracted for one thing: not wearing a kippa.  Has anybody ever talked about my actual actions and not the clothing I wear?  What are our priorities?  Does this show we really care about each other?  Is that community?