In Baltimore, as in most American cities, wearing a kippah (yarmulke) is something we do as an expression of our Judaism. Many of us wear one all the time, as a part of our everyday life. Some wear one for specifically Jewish occasions (weddings, funerals, or when praying, learning or entering a synagogue). Although traditionally worn only by men, many women now wear kippot as part of their Jewish practice. But it is rare in the United States for a kippah to be a symbol of protest.
Malmö, Sweden, is a short 10 minute train ride from Lund. The Jewish communities in these two cities are very closely intertwined, by necessity as well as convenience in this country of 20,000 Jews; by comparison, Baltimore alone has a Jewish population of about 95,000. Since Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas, Malmö has seen a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents, mostly perpetrated by first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants who comprise 30 to 40 percent of Malmö’s population. In December 2010, the Simon Wiesenthal Center advised Jews to exercise “extreme caution” when visiting the southern parts of the country due to an increase in verbal, physical and violent harassment of Malmö’s Jewish citizens.
Enter Jehoshua Kaufman, director of a healthcare company and an active member of Malmö’s Jewish community. When he witnessed the community’s Rabbi being targeted, he and other local Jews sat down to discuss the situation. I had the opportunity to speak with Kaufman by phone recently, and he described what happened.
“People were afraid to be seen as Jewish. Typically, when synagogue was over on Shabbat, everyone would take off their kippot or cover them with a hat before going outside. Children were afraid to wear a magen David (Jewish star) to school because they’d be subject to insults. So I said, ‘Let’s all just walk around in our kippot and see what happens.'”
So in December of 2011, Kaufman and several others escorted the rabbi the few blocks to his home still wearing their kippot. When nothing bad happened, they repeated the “kippah walk” several more times, each time venturing farther into the community and attracting more attention- and more participants. They began drawing non-Jewish supporters, like priests, politicians, and even some Muslims who were not happy with the tension in the city.
“Surprisingly, the most opposition to the walks came from other Jews,” Kaufman recalled. “Jews had traditionally kept a low profile in Sweden, even before the Holocaust, and many felt uncomfortable about attracting so much attention. I had not realized that people were so afraid, and many were worried that it would end badly.”
Kaufman also remembers that when he gave an interview to a local paper, he was asked if they could use his name in the article.
“When I asked, ‘Why not?’, the reporter said, ‘Jews never want to have their names in the paper.’ This was typical of the Jewish idea of staying out of the public eye,” he said.
The “Kippah Walks,” as they came to be known, have gained national attention in Sweden, and have also spread to other cities such as Stockholm and even Berlin. Last September a busload of 70 Danish Jews arrived in Malmö to express solidarity with their Swedish brethren, all wearing kippot. Recently the event has taken on a more universal flavor, calling for tolerance and acceptance for all minorities. The latest Kippah Walk in Malmö took place just six weeks ago, and was a large event drawing over 400 participants, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, and many others from all over Sweden and Denmark. When I asked Kaufman how it feels to have the event grow so large, he said, “It’s mainly positive. Of course, when you have so many groups represented, the unique situation of the Jews in Sweden becomes a bit watered down. But with so many people involved, and so much public support, the Jews of Malmö now are less afraid to be open about their Judaism. They can hold their heads high and not hide in the shadows. And that’s a good thing.”
I will be touring Malmö with Jehoshua and other members of the community during my visit to Sweden. I will wear my kippah proudly, as I always do; but this time, instead of blending into the thriving Jewish community of Baltimore, I will be supporting the brave Jews of Malmö, and all our brethren who suffer oppression anywhere in the world.
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