So, I asked myself: What had I learned? If I had the chance to confront that barely-remembered, idealistic young man waiting to go into that farher room, what would I tell him?
I hope I would tell him that everything he was looking for was right there at his own feet. I hope I would say there was a vision of being a Jew in America that could be just as meaningful and just as idealistic as the one he desired – though more difficult.
I would tell him he could be a Leather-Kippah (or yarmulke) Jew. A Leather-Kippah Jew is today’s successor to the old Blue-Hat Jew I described in my December 24, 2010 Jewish Press front-page essay “Death of the Blue-Hat Jew?”
Blue-Hat Jews were Jews who were Americans – fully engaged with the society around them while refusing to sacrifice their frumkeit. Similarly, Leather-Kippah Jews are those quietly committed, moderate members of our communities whose kippot signal their commitment to living a fully Jewish life not in isolation but in the world of today.
It’s not too complicated. You can sum it up with two simple statements: First, be a mensch. And then be yourself.
A Leather-Kippah Jew is absolutely committed to a Jewish life infused by the laws of Torah. To be a mensch we must look to the Torah because through its laws and lessons it instructs us on how to be the most outstanding person we can be.
Torah, through its teachings and its practices, shows us how to behave as a Jew in everything we do. It is only Torah that can direct us in being a Light Unto the Nations.
But there is more. You must also be yourself. There is holiness within each of us – holiness that is unique to each person. There are sparks of holiness too in the world all around us – in a lulav and an esrog, in our food, in the tailor’s needle, in a sunset, in trees.
As Jews, as people striving to be outstanding members of our society, we can, through our own personalities, engage with these things – with our food and with our work, with our communities and with society – and draw from them the special sparks of holiness that relate to us, to our own unique souls. And in doing so we can elevate these sparks and fulfill Hashem’s very purpose in Creation.
This vision, I would tell him, is uniquely challenging – and uniquely American. It is challenging because in this vision it is not enough to wield the Torah like a defensive shield, to see the world as corrupt and not worthy of attention or redemption. Torah must penetrate into our very selves and become part of who we are; and when it has it will inspire us to participate in society as full-fledged participants, not as mere pretenders.
And then we can go further and celebrate the unique opportunity America affords us. America encourages everyone to be true to his or her own self, to find work and play and activities that express a person’s uniqueness without affecting his communal attachments.
You can be anyone and anything you want; you can be true to the individual God has made you and still be a fully committed frum Jew.
To those who take advantage of it, the most amazing opportunities become available. You can be a social worker or a biologist, a businessman or a doctor, a butcher or a mohel, an architect or a marine biologist. You can do all of those things not by nurturing a secret identity but through the full expression of your entire being. And if you succeed, you can capture sparks of holiness that are yours and yours alone.
That, to me, is the wonderful challenge of the Leather-Kippah Jew. He is a blessing to Jews and a blessing to America. He is me, I hope, and my friends, and our families. He is truly a Superman – an integrated person at home and in the world.
He is a mensch. He is himself. And perhaps, dear reader, he is also you.
Mordecai Bienstock is a partner in the law firm of Wilson Elser where he practices health care law, government policy, and litigation. He lives in Albany, New York with his wife, Karen, and their three children.