Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Edon Pinchot, 4th of July, and the Jewish American Dream

EDON PINCHOT, A 14 year old singing sensation from Chicago has been winning on ABC’s hit show “America’s Got Talent”. I’m proud of Edon’s march to victory, not just because he’s Jewish, but because he wore a kippah.

Of course, Jews have always felt proud when their co-religionists have “made it”.  Whether it be Louis Brandeis being nominated to the Supreme Court or Bess Myerson winning the Miss America contest, there’s a sense of belonging Jews feel when one of their own wins. Each achievement is a further reminder that the United States has fulfilled George Washington’s promise to be a place “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”. The U.S. has been a country where Jews can take their place as equals.

But it’s Edon’s kippah that gives me true pride. Many Jews have been able to achieve prominence in Europe and the U.S. for the last 200 years.  But have they been able to do so as Jews?

Many of the Jewish successes during the last 200 years have been Faustian bargains. Jews could attain prominence, provided that they left their Judaism behind. This pressure to assimilate into the local culture in order to succeed has a long history; even in the Bible, Joseph hides his origins in order to succeed in Pharoah’s court, and Esther conceals her identity in order to become the Queen on Persia. But even then, there were a courageous few who were able to achieve success without sacrificing their Judaism; Daniel and Mordechai cling to their Jewish heritage, and after enduring danger, are elevated to high positions while proudly asserting their Jewish identity.

Since Jews were granted equal rights in Europe 200 years ago,  the question they have confronted is whether they will act like Esther or like Daniel; will they keep their Judaism in the background while climbing the ladder to success, or will they be proudly Jewish no matter what the consequences?

This dilemma still affects every observant man interviewing for a job in North America; does he wear the kippah for the interview, or does he take it off?

There was a time and place that even the very observant wouldn’t imagine wearing a kippah in public.  In German Jewry, many Orthodox Jews followed contemporary custom and removed their head covering while indoors.  Sometime in the late 1860’s, Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman went to visit the famed Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the dean of German Orthodoxy, at Hirsch’s school, and he was rebuked by Hirsch for not removing his kippah upon entering his office. Hoffman wrote in a responsa (Melamed L’Hoil 2:56):

The first time I came to meet with Rabbi Hirsch with my hat on my head, Rabbi Hirsch said to me that it is proper respect to remove one’s hat when visiting an important personage. [Rabbi Hirsch] explained that if one of the non-Jewish teachers would see me [Rabbi Hoffmann] with my hat on while speaking with the director of the school, they would assume I am lacking the proper respect.

It is hard not to imagine that for Hirsch, wearing a kippah outside of prayers and Torah study would be too overtly Jewish. Napoleon had made it clear that Jews could be equals, provided that they do so as Frenchman, not as Jews. And Jews more or less accepted this as a given. Western European Jews, even Orthodox ones, tried to fit in.

And that’s why I’m proud of Edon. Aspiring lawyers still deliberate whether or not a kippah will get in the way of their career, yet this 14 year old charged ahead with his kippah on. And he's winning! Perhaps tomorrow a few more job applicants will show up with their kippahs on, hoping to win like Edon.

But I’m not only proud of Edon; I’m proud of the United States, as she celebrates her 236th birthday. A kippah wearing man could not compete in a similar contest in Europe; frankly, he couldn’t have won a similar contest in the U.S. 40 years ago. But the United States, which has been a haven for Jews throughout its’ history, is now a place where Jews are fully accepted. It’s a place where a national show can have three judges, all of whom are Jewish, and have a contestant who wears a kippah.

It’s a place Jews can call home.

Happy Independence Day!

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is a rabbi in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiChaim.