As many of you know, several weeks ago, Marian and I took a seven-day cruise to Alaska, and I was able to set foot in my 50th state. Whenever I travel, whether I wear my kippah or a hat is an issue. On the one hand, I identify as a religious Jew; on the other, that identification can trigger comments or attitudes that I do not want to encourage or experience. (I should point out that, although some disagree, wearing a head covering is not required by Jewish law, unless one is making a berachah.)
There were over 3,000 passengers on our ship, but I did not see any other person wearing a kippah. But soon after we boarded the ship, we came upon a tableau with Hebrew writing, displayed in the hall of a central entertainment deck. Someone named “Chayim” signed the bottom – merely a list of events, meeting places, and times. I now knew there was a Hebrew-speaking group on board, and since I love speaking Hebrew, I privately hoped that my kippah would provide an opening.
My first kippah-stimulated encounter was with a non Hebrew-speaking woman who came over to me and told me that she and her sister, Jews originally from South Carolina, were with their father, celebrating his 90th birthday. Another woman came over to me on Friday afternoon and said she had been looking for me! She wanted to know if I knew anything about the religious service scheduled for that evening, though since I had no official role, I could not help her. As the days continued, several Israelis did come and speak to me and we had the usual Jewish conversations. It was a big deal to make even brief connections, even though nothing long-lasting was likely to come of it. We found mishpachah even on an Alaskan cruise.
It seems, from what the waiter who was assigned to us told us, that we were the only other people who had ordered the kosher meals. My only other kosher culinary cruise experience was a disaster--the food options and the quantities were limited, and most of the dishes were inedible, likely having been freezer-burnt. But on this excursion, the double -wrapped airplane-like food from Meal-Mart was pretty good. It probably was not of the same quality as what the other diners received, nor was it fancy, but most of it was tasty, and the quantity and variety was more than enough, even as we occasionally ordered multiple meals.
So I was surprised when about 65 people showed up for Friday night Shabbat services. I could not personally participate in part because it was very early (5:15 PM, when Shabbat did not arrive until about 8:30 and I did not want to bring in Shabbat that early), but also because the service was radically abridged. But 65 Jews came to affirm Shabbat, came to pray together, to sing together, and to share their Jewish identity triggered by Shabbat.
My overt expression of Jewish religious identity through my kippah had another affect – to the non-Jewish world. One elderly gentleman sat next to me and told me of his affection for Israel. A woman who observed Marian and me playing Scrabble on Shabbat, engaged us in a conversation, and seemed somewhat knowledgeable about Jewish practice. She revealed that she was a writer, not Jewish, but that her Jewish friends regard her as more Jewish than they. She was thinking about writing a story with significant Jewish elements and explored some Jewish understandings with me.
Finally, as we browsed in a jewelry store in Juneau (there are dozens in each of the Alaskan port cities that operate only during the cruise season), the saleswoman and later the owner participated in the give and take. The owner told me he was from Turkey, a non-Moslem, with family back in Turkey; the saleswoman was from Lebanon. Obviously my kippah played a role. He told me that he once studied for the Eastern Orthodox (Christian) ministry. We also spoke about our family (Marian showed off pictures of our new granddaughters, of course!) and by the end we all wished our families, and the world, a better future. As we were walking back to the ship I remarked how the conversation perhaps added a small drop to the cause of friendship across cultures.
Undoubtedly, openly identifying as Jews incurs some risks. But when we proudly and openly identify ourselves as Jews, it serves as an opening to connecting with other Jews, reminding each of us of our family throughout the world. And we become ambassadors of Jewish identity to non-Jews. As we enter the year 5777, let us not forget to remind ourselves of the proud heritage that is ours.
Marian and I and our (growing!) family pray for a year of peace, for each of you and for our families all over the world.