By Sam Glaser
Someone once asked me how my skullcap stayed put on my head. I replied: “peer pressure.” Wearing a yarmulkah 24/7 was something I said I would never do. Even though I sent him to yeshiva in the first place, my brother Yom Tov started wearing a kippah full time before I did. I remember the conversation clearly: we were riding mountain bikes in Joshua Tree National Park. As we flew down the sandy trail we narrowly avoided the cacti that lurked around every bend ready to sabotage our ride. Somehow we managed to have a conversation on the way and I shouted, “I will NEVER wear that thing all the time!”
I should have learned from my month with Dennis Prager at Brandeis Collegiate Institute. Quoting Franz Rosensweig, Dennis taught us “never say never.” Better to say “not yet.” I repeat this every time I hear a fellow Jew say “I will never ______!” (Fill in the blank with keep Shabbat, keep kosher, set foot in that synagogue, etc.) At that point in my life I had no interest in being identified as a Jew wherever I went. The fact is that I readily divulged I was Jewish to any stranger I would meet. But to be singled out before someone even knew my name? No way!
All that changed when I discovered a community in LA where I could celebrate being Jewish on a full-time basis. It’s like the Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches who had stars upon thars. Moving to Pico-Robertson, our beloved shtetl in the middle of urban LA, I was surrounded by kippah-festooned men of all stripes. Not that I took on the custom to fit in…it’s that I now had living examples of young men just like me who were proud of their heritage and ready to take on whatever challenges the rabbis sent their way. I was starting to perceive the world through spiritual lenses and for the first time I felt the “yids with the lids” were the real players.
I soon found that wearing this black six-inch circle on my head has fringe benefits. It serves as a unique conversation starter. In fact, I found that I couldn’t go long without someone approaching me and telling me about every Jewish experience he had since his Bar Mitzvah. I have patiently fielded endless rounds of twenty questions by Jew loving gentiles. I get grabbed for a minyan in places like the airport, Disneyland and movie theaters. Most importantly, a yarmulkah forces one to behave like a mensch wherever he goes. God forbid someone see a member of the tribe cut in line, utter a curse word or order treif food. I even drive more nicely now. Can’t flip someone off and risk desecrating God’s name when they can see you’re a Jew.
My oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah portion was Tetzaveh, about the clothing of the priests. It was a perfect match for my young Max who is obsessed about what he wears and has been since he was two years old. This portion coincided with my scholar in residence weekend last week in New Jersey where I quoted the concept that the priests’ clothes were supposed to represent honor and glory, both on the inside and outside. Similarly, wearing a kippah (and tzitzit for that matter) serves as a constant reminder that we are in a battle to make good choices and to try to have our internal qualities match our outside appearances. You have to maintain your “balance” to keep it on your head, literally and figuratively. Just like you put on a good suit for an interview and feel like a million bucks, so too can a kippah make you feel like you are walking with God.
Allow me to share a few “stories from the road” that only happened because I wore my kippah. The first happened when a flight to Youngstown, Ohio was forced to land in Pittsburgh due to freezing rain. We sat at the gate for over an hour as the storm grew worse. Eventually I saw the pilot pick up and leave. I approached the attendant and stated that I was a Sabbath-observant Jew and had to get to Youngstown immediately to lead a Sabbath program….would she consider putting all of us on a bus? She didn’t have the seniority to make such a decision but you’d better believe that I found someone who did. The plan was that we were to form groups of three or four and take cabs paid for by the airline. I noticed that there was an elderly couple on our flight that was moving very slowly. I opted to avoid them so that I wouldn’t be slowed down on the long walk back to the curb. Sure enough, they waddled over next to me so that they would wind up in my cab. I later learned that they saw my kippah and felt confident that I would look after them.
Next thing you know I was pushing their Smarte Carte through the airport at .5 miles per hour. I remember trying to deal with my stress level by reframing: I thought to myself, “perhaps the whole reason God put me in this mess was so I could help out these nice people.” As soon as we boarded the cab I introduced myself. “Oh, I used to be a Glaser, I was in the glass business,” the man replied. Then his diminutive wife added, “I was a Glaser too!” “Oh really,” I said, “you were in the glass business?” “No,” she stated, “that was my maiden name.” I then learned that she was from Glod, the hamlet in Transylvania from which my ancestors hail. That’s right. We’re cousins. And my Uncle Max, for whom my son is named, helped them emigrate from Cuba to the States after the war.
The next tale occurred at the America West ticket counter at LAX. I was on my way to do a Christmas day Chanukah party for Chabad of Scottsdale. The youthful Hispanic guy checking in my luggage saw my kippah and asked if I had seen the movie Ushpizin. (If you haven’t seen it, rent it!) He was confused by a few scenes and asked if I minded clarifying things. Like, why was the protagonist screaming at God in the forest, and why was the old man carefully doing an accounting and then giving away his money. I explained to the best of my ability and I remarked that this guy, Raul, seemed to know a lot about Judaism. He remarked that he was very curious and had learned much from Aish.com. I asked him which
columnists he liked best and he said, “Well, I bought the mp3 player.” I then asked how many of the lectures he had listened to (the Aish mp3 player comes stocked with 40 hours of lectures) and he replied, “all of them!” I then responded that he has learned more Torah than just about every Jew alive.
By now the line had grown behind me and I realized we needed to end this conversation (remember that I’m the guy with the kippah and want people to get the impression that Jews are courteous.) But Raul was in no hurry. He had many more questions and wasn’t going to let a live Jew out of his grasp so easily. At that point I was teaching my weekly Seasons of Joy conversion class for the LA Beit Din. I suggested that Raul sit on a class and to get more questions answered. I handed him my card and my Kol Bamidbar CD. His eyes brimmed with tears as he said “You are Sam Glaser!? I listen to your music all the time with my daughter! You are the reason I started this search!” No, he never showed up to my class.
A final tale just happened a few weeks ago. My boys and I played hooky for the day to do some local skiing. I felt a twinge of pain in my back when I was getting on my ski suit upon arrival. Sure enough, on my second turn my back went into spasm. I haven’t been through this since my twenties but I know the feeling and I knew that my ski day had just ended. I limped down the slopes and spent the day on a gurney in the ski patrol office, barely able to move. Now I had a dilemma. I was two hours away from home and couldn’t drive us back. I waited until lunchtime when I knew there would be a crowd in the lodge. After a Cup-of-Soup with my concerned kids I limped around the lodge with a handmade sign that said “need a driver to take me to LA.” People looked at me like an alien and Max sneered, “Dad, you look homeless. This is never going to work!” I said, “Watch kid, we’re going to find an angel.”
I then decided to abandon the sign and query the tables where there were several adults. I asked each group if they were from LA, a simple yes or no question that would at least get a conversation started. I had a good feeling with one particular table. Yes, they were going back to LA. I told them my story, that I was a nice guy and had a nice car for them to drive…no monkey business. They seemed unmoved by my story and dismissed me by saying, “We’ll think about it.” Well, I was hurting and couldn’t stand anymore. I gave them my cell phone number and sat on a nearby bench. Just as my kids walked over to commiserate, one of these people approached us and said, “I’ll drive you home. I noticed your kippah. How could I turn down a fellow member of the tribe?” To make our angel story even sweeter, this unaffiliated Russian Jew moved to the States when he was two and is presently in the business of helping people who have back injuries find ergonomic solutions for their offices.
Passover is around the corner and we are focusing once again on the saga of the Exodus from Egypt. We are supposed to read the Haggadah as if it’s actually happening to us now; it’s not just a recounting of an ancient tale. Therefore this period is prime time to be asking those important questions about present state of the Jewish People: do we merit redemption from the Diaspora, from worldwide terrorism, from the renewed threat to the Jewish people coming again from the Persian Empire. According to the Midrash, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt for four reasons. Evidently we didn’t completely assimilate into their hedonistic culture and maintained our Hebrew names, language and clothing. With this in mind I have appointed a few friends to call me Shmuel to keep my soul name alive. I work on my Hebrew, both biblical and conversational so that I can navigate our texts in the original tongue and attempt conversations with my Israeli friends. FInally, I may love my t-shirts and blue jeans but I fly my freak flag kippah and tzitzit for all to see.