Dressing Jewish in Public — A Call to Arms
With antisemitisim arising in France, England, and in Europe as a whole, Jewish leaders have been debating the removal of the yarmulke (skullcap) in public. This is to prevent provocation and antisemitic acts against identified Jews.
The quandary of being identified as a Jew by wearing a yarmulke is an old one, and I thought it was resolved by the rabbis years ago. Come to think of it, the rabbis, after the Holocaust, insisted that Jewish boys should never remove their yarmulkes and they should wear it with pride and dignity, making a statement that they are always a Jew and that G-d is always looking after them and protecting them.
Why, now, do the Jewish leaders think differently and recommend the removal of the yarmulke in order to protect themselves? It seems that they have the message all wrong.
When I was a child, my Rebbe told me the following story:
In 1835 the Jews of Russia were subject to all kinds of terrible persecution. Every few years, Jews were accused of violating the government laws. Antisemites in the Russian government convinced the Czar of Russia, Nicholas I, to allow pogroms against the defenseless Jews. Hundreds of Jewish families were killed. Countless Jewish businesses were destroyed. Men were arrested and never seen again.
In a Russian town, Slowieta, there lived two Jewish brothers, Shmuel Aba and Pinchas Shapiro. They ran a printing press. The brothers were very religious Jews and produced the most elegant printing. Their printings of the Jewish books were of outstanding quality. They were the most famous printers in Europe.
The antisemitic Russian government officials were jealous of their superior press and schemed to destroy it.
In 1835, the following horrible incident took place. A Jewish worker, Leizer Protogeen, was found hanging in the synagogue. Leizer was the bookbinder for the Shapiro brothers and had been extremely depressed. In desperation, the poor man hanged himself.
This was the excuse needed for the antisemitic officials. The brothers were arrested under charges of killing Liezer. They were accused of taking revenge on Liezer for his report to the Russian government of the printing of anti–government propaganda.
The charges were proven false but that did not help the Shapiro brothers. They were kept in a Kiev jail and subjected to daily tortures and awful cruelties.
The brothers were separated and asked to confess, but they would not confess to a crime that they did not commit.
In the hot summer of 1841, the verdict was passed. Both brothers would have to admit their guilt or run the gauntlet. The brothers chose to stick by their story — to tell a falsehood would be against the Torah. Their hands would be tied down at their sides. Five hundred soldiers, each holding a leather lash, a strap, would strike each brother as he was pulled through the gauntlet of soldiers.
The punishment was of unheard of proportions. No one had ever survived such a terrible ordeal.
The brothers were stripped to their waists. Two long rifles were tied to their sides. The soldiers in front of each brother would pull him. As the unfortunate victim passed by, a soldier would whip him with the leather lash.
This happened three times. During the third time of being pulled through the gauntlet, the black yarmulke fell off Pinchas’ head. The man stopped moving. He refused to be led on. The soldiers kept on lashing, striking the poor man, but he would not move. A religious Jew does not walk with an uncovered head. Pinchas stood bleeding, his back completely raw, blood pouring from him, but he would not move.
Finally, an officer felt moved by the proud but suffering Jew. The officer picked up the black yarmulke, placed it on Pinchas and he was dragged onward.
Somehow the two middle-aged men survived. During the horrible punishment they kept praying to G-d. Never had soldiers seen such courage or strength. They were taken to the Kiev hospital and nursed back to health. When they were well enough, they were sent to Siberia. Czar Alexander II freed them seventeen years later on June 1, 1856.
We, the children of the Yeshiva, were impressed with the courage and stamina of Pinchas Shapiro. We all promised our Rebbe that we would never, ever, remove our yarmulkes. For months afterwards we would speak about the story. Many a time I awoke in the middle of the night dreaming of the story.
Whenever I thought of removing my yarmulke I would imagine seeing the face of the proud Pinchas Shapiro waiting for someone to give back his yarmulke. I would never remove my yarmulke. I just couldn’t. It’s my proud uniform.
Our Jewish leaders must take a real strong look at this most destructive recommendation of removing the yarmulke. Remember, even in Egypt, during the slavery, the Jewish people didn’t change three important things — their speech in Hebrew, their clothing, and their Jewish names. If anything Jewish leaders should impress the youngsters to be even more proud of their Judaism by trusting in Hashem and wearing a Yarmulke at all times and in all places. Hashem will surely protect them as He protected the Shapiro brothers in the above story and the Jews in Egyptian bondage.
It is only politically correct to speak the truth, and those leaders who think differently should, with all due respect, reevaluate their positions. Let’s not play into the arms of the antisemites by trying to hide our Judaism. If anything, our strength is our resolve never to change.