As a butch lesbian, wearing a yarmulke connects me to my people—and to myself
By Olivia Swasey
September 9, 2019
The first kippah I ever bought for myself was blue. It came in the mail with the mezuzah for my new apartment, and I held the skullcap in my hands, turning it over and over. It was silk, with a border of embroidered date palms. The blue was even prettier in person, rich and deep with a hint of green, like a Mediterranean sea. It was perfect. And I was petrified.
I had asked the rabbi at my new Reform synagogue in Akron, Ohio: Do women wear kippot to shul here? How socially acceptable would it be for me to try wearing one? Kindly, he told me that it wasn’t unusual in progressive Judaism for women to wear them, and that if it would bring more meaning to my prayer, then I was welcome to wear one. I tried it out, wearing a black satin kippah from the basket by the door to the sanctuary, overly conscious of it while I davened, my bowing growing hesitant out of fear that it would fall off. I spun a worst-case scenario in my head in which my kippah would fall off during the Aleinu, causing everyone around me to turn and laugh. But it didn’t happen. Even when it did fall off once, no one said anything when I picked it up and put it back on. I started keeping hair clips in my pocket anyway, just in case.
Wearing a kippah from the basket slowly became a little less nerve-wracking, and I began to enjoy incorporating it into my practice. But I spent less time at this synagogue in Akron than I did at the Hillel at my university 20 minutes away, and there, I was still hesitant even to borrow one for a service. I had decided that if I was going to wear a kippah at Hillel among my peers, I wanted it to be my kippah. But to me, owning my own kippah instead of just borrowing one felt like a huge leap—by buying one for myself, I was committing to wear it all the time in services. It was a commitment that I was willing to make, but it was also a decision I didn’t make lightly.
Here, at Hillel, in a room full of my peers whom I saw multiple times every week, I was terrified of what people would think. Most of the men wore kippot, but no women. I would be the only one, and I knew that I would stand out. Even though everyone knew who I was, knew what I looked like, knew that I was gay and liked it that way, I was deeply afraid of being rejected by my community.
I should be clear here: I was not raised Jewish. Neither of my parents was involved in organized religion, so my sister and I were raised completely secular with only partial knowledge of other people’s religious practices. Their point, I have been told, was that they wanted my sister and me to make our own choices, rather than having belief thrust upon us. My mother, a spiritual woman, impressed upon us the importance of respecting the life within all things, and the existence of a higher power. Because I didn’t attend a church, synagogue, or mosque growing up, I didn’t feel the traditional pressures that young gay people like me often feel from their religious communities. But for me, something was missing. I wanted to find a religious community—I was searching, as it is sometimes called. And then I went away to college, and I found a community that clicked. I decided I wanted to convert to Judaism when I was 19, and I completed my conversion a week before my 22nd birthday.
Something big happened that first year I was at college: I had a sudden revelation about my sexuality, owed completely to the inimitable Leslie Feinberg and hir novel Stone Butch Blues. I came to the realization that I was butch—not an incorrect woman, but a different kind of woman, one whose understanding of womanhood was actually a subversion of it. At college, I was finally finding the freedom to be the person I always knew myself to be, able now to dress the way I had never felt comfortable dressing before, and to at last be open to finding love as my true self. As a butch lesbian, I strongly prefer to wear men’s pants, shirts, and ties; to keep my hair in a masculine style; to not wear makeup; and of course, to date women. After I began dressing differently, people treated me differently, too. Everywhere, people were just a little less friendly, a little less talkative. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to change for anybody. I was finally me, and no amount of homophobia was going to change that.
Continue reading at: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/289824/what-my-kippah-means-to-me