(RNS) — Was it really that slow a news day — that a lawyer putting his hand on his head commanded the headlines and the Twitterverse?
I am referring to David Schoen, one of former President Donald Trump’s attorneys and an Orthodox Jew, covering his head while drinking water.
It’s everywhere. So is the need to explain, interpret and, yes, ridicule the practice of an observant Jew covering his head in an expression of piety.
Full disclosure: I also cover my head when I do certain acts:
- Learn Torah
- Teach Torah
- Conduct services
- Eat Shabbat or a festival dinner
- Eat in a kosher restaurant
- Visit the home of an observant family
- Go to the Western Wall
- Perform a wedding or attend a wedding
- Do a brit ceremony or a baby naming, or attend one
- Conduct or attend a funeral
- Visit someone in the hospital
That is just a short list. I am not an Orthodox Jew — just a Reform rabbi with a healthy respect for tradition and for those who observe tradition.
As for why Schoen was not wearing a kippah/yarmulke in the first place in court, this is how he responded: “I just wasn’t sure it was appropriate, frankly. I didn’t want to offend anyone … It’s just an awkward thing and people stare at it.”
You see, here is what Schoen is saying.
For decades, Orthodox Jewish men did not wear kippot in public. They would more typically wear a fedora, like many other men.
The venerable late Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, one of America’s most prominent Orthodox rabbis (as is his son, Haskel), taught that the yarmulke was an indoor garment. You wore it at home, not on the street — and not at work.
The kippah became a public garment during the Soviet Jewry movement, when Jews donned the head covering as a visible demonstration of Jewish pride, and even defiance.
Schoen’s kippah-challenged moment locates him in a long line of publicly identified, observant Jews who were likewise bareheaded. That list includes Jared Kushner and former Sen. Joseph P. Lieberman. It is simply an older style of doing Jewish and living in the world.
Yes, Jews are accepted in American society, and have been for decades. Restrictions against Jews? Mostly history — in neighborhoods, clubs, professions, colleges, etc. Want proof? Check out the intermarriage rate.
And, also yes, there are elements of Jewish culture and behavior that are now accepted parts of our national discourse. Cuisine, Yiddishisms, humor, the whole deal.
But also, yes: There are rising numbers of anti-Semitic incidents in this country.
And also, yes: Public forms of Jewish ritual behavior are not considered “normal.” Which is to say: Such acts raise eyebrows, and require comment, and sometimes elicit giggles. Those ritual moments are “remarkable” — which means we are able to remark on them, because they are alien to mainstream American culture.
News flash: The default setting for American religion is Christianity — white, mainstream Protestantism, to be precise. Everyone else is a religious stranger.
Yes, we believe in religious diversity.
But, here is a hard question. Are Jews included in the religious diversity thing?
Consider the Schoen-directed snark on Twitter. Would such snarkers have made similar comment about a Muslim woman lawyer wearing a hijab? Or a Sikh lawyer wearing a turban?
From all sides of the societal spectrum, the visibly pious Jew is still the Other. Even, and sometimes especially, among other Jews.
And, this is important — why?
Because many of my fellow Jews are angry a publicly visible Jew like Schoen is on Trump’s defense team. They think it is a shondeh, a shameful thing.
No, it’s not. It’s called the legal profession. It is called doing your job. It is called recognizing that however despicable Trump is, he still warrants legal representation.
If we Jews cannot handle a publicly identifiable Jew in that role, what does that say about how we think about the place of Jews in this country?
Schoen put his hand on the back of his head to demonstrate his piety?
That is the least of our problems.