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What My Kippah Means to Me

As a butch lesbian, wearing a yarmulke connects me to my people—and to myself

Olivia Swasey
September 09, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
This article is part of LGBTQ+ Voices.
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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.

At my university’s Hillel, I had integrated rather nicely. People were accepting of me, both for my adoption of Judaism as I studied with my rabbi in Akron, and for my queer way of dressing. But in rural Ohio, even at a liberal college, gender deviance is an aberration. I am often stared at in more formal social settings for the way I’m dressed. I’ve been called things like “dyke” and “he-she,” and I have occasionally been shouted at from moving cars. There are very few women who look like me in my little world. Even in Jewish spaces, I am very different from other young LGBT women, who are mostly conventionally feminine. At Hillel, I was regularly the only mannish woman in the room, for Shabbat, for holidays, even for casual gatherings. And still, people accepted me. But I wanted to take another step in my observance.

I had always thought kippot were rather dashing—there’s something very dignified about a person wearing one. To me, they convey a kind of seriousness, as a display of religious dedication. I felt drawn to the idea of wearing a kippah, as a way to put my own seriousness about my faith on display as well. I liked the way most kinds of kippot looked, but in particular, I loved the kind made from raw silk, with rich colors that highlighted the texture of the fabric. When I went looking for one for myself, that was the kind I was after.

I had come to realize what wearing a kippah meant for me after spending some time wearing the borrowed ones at my synagogue. It elevated my prayer—I felt more in touch with the Divine, more present in the room while I prayed. I wasn’t required to wear one, but I wanted to out of reverence for God, and as a butch, it felt very right to adopt this masculine symbol of Judaism and use it to connect myself to the tradition and history of my people. It felt as natural as slipping into my loafers or knotting my tie—another expression of who I was, who I wanted to be, and what I believed.

I started wearing my blue kippah with the date palms every week for Shabbat at Hillel. At first, I would only wear it in the sanctuary during the service, then took it off when we moved into another part of the building for dinner. But slowly, I started gaining confidence and began to leave it on for the whole evening. I didn’t get any angry comments, and only a few strange looks. Several times, people asked me about my choice to wear it and I explained, but no one had a problem with it—or if anyone did, they never told me. I was so happy that I had found the courage to wear my kippah, that it had brought so much meaning to my practice, that I had been accepted in spite of my divergence from the norm even in this small community.

Being gender nonconforming, being butch, can be a scary thing. To deviate so harshly from society’s ideas about what women should look like, what women should act like, is to invite criticism, contempt, even violence. There is a social attitude that, for every way in which a woman is not traditionally feminine, she must make up for it in some other way. I’ve often heard, “Oh, you know what goes well with a shaved head for us girls? Big hoop earrings!” If I wanted, I could wear my kippah with a skirt, or choose to wear a beaded or lace kippah instead of the more masculine silk or suede. But the point for me is to reject femininity in its entirety, to appropriate masculine symbols and turn them into representations of my own unique variety of womanhood.

In Judaism, even as it becomes more acceptable for women to adopt practices mainly reserved for men, there is still a stigma attached to it, no matter what movement you belong to. I know only one woman who even occasionally wears a kippah to pray. I don’t have any female friends who wear a tallit for services—and I don’t either, though it’s something I’d like to try soon. For many people, a woman expressing her faith in a masculine way is a transgression. In Deuteronomy 22:5, it is forbidden for one to wear the clothes of the opposite gender. But even this is not set in stone, as this verse has been interpreted in the Talmud to mean that one should not conceal one’s gender with the intent of tricking or harming someone. And to be gender nonconforming, whether cis, nonbinary, or binary trans, the intent is never to trick, or to harm. Gender nonconforming Jews are not disobeying God by wearing clothes that represent our true selves.

This past spring, I spent 10 days studying in Poland with a group of my peers. I brought my blue kippah with the date palms on the trip with me, wearing it when we entered Jewish cemeteries, when we went inside synagogues, when we shared Shabbat dinner with locals at the JCC in Krakow. I chose to wear it on the day we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I was wearing it when I led our group in the Mourner’s Kaddish as we grieved the victims of the Shoah. My kippah is a symbol of my Judaism. It is a symbol of my love and devotion to God, and to the Jewish people. My kippah is a symbol of Jewish strength and resiliency. I wear it proudly, as a Jew, as a woman, and as a dyke. And I won’t let anyone take that away from me.

Olivia Swasey is a poet and writer from Cleveland. She has work forthcoming in Poetica Magazine, Breath & Shadow, and Sinister Wisdom. Follow her on Twitter @oliviaw_swasey.