What Yarmulke says Duluth all over it?Robin Washington, Duluth News Tribune, April 14, 2013
SAN FRANCISCO - For four days each May, I wear a yarmulke pretty much continuously. Not because it's any Jewish holiday (they tend to run one, two or eight days) but because I'm celebrating my indentity among others doing the same.
Maybe it's just part of the uniform for our conference. The Be'chol Lashon (Hebrew for "In Every Tongue") International Think Tank is an annual meeting of racially and ethnically diverse Jews from around the world. I've been attending for years - including in 2011 when I heard someone say "Duluth." I looked to see Steve Krenzen, who had moved from the Zenith City to the Bay Area and somehow managed to make his way to the same international gathering of barely three-dozen people that I did.
But back to yarmulkes and, in particular, brown and black people wearing them. One year, our event was held at the tony Fairmont Hotel while a wedding also was going on. I overheard a middle-aged man in that party comment after seeing us: "Everyone's wearing a kippah!" His use of the lesser-known Hebrew word for skullcap suggested that he was one of the tribe.
You don't have to be Jewish to know that. Nor to say "Shalom," as one of a group of three women I presumed to be Japanese-American said to me last Sunday in an elevator at the Kabuki Hotel in Japantown, where the Think Tank is now held.
"Shalom" I answered back, and she beamed as if she had just successfully welcomed a visitor to America.
Or she could be Jewish herself. The main point of our conference (of which she was not an attendee) is that Jews come in all hues.
The yarmulke asserts that, trumping my skin color and features that otherwise might lead people to correctly identify me as African-American, or incorrectly as Middle Eastern or Hispanic, or if they're not sure, as ... somethin'.
An hour or so later, I ran into the trio again on a bus. I was taking a break from the conference and had decided to go bareheaded. This time they didn't say anything; maybe they just didn't see me.
But the next day, I didn't take it off until I got to the security line for my flight home. On the way to the airport, it elicited another comment when I stepped off the bus in Union Square.
"Shalom" a woman said, her smile growing widely. "Did you get that in Israel?"
"No, it's from Africa," I replied. "The Abayudaya community in Uganda."
"I haven't heard of them, but we're Jewish and we've been to Israel and have seen yarmulkes like that."
And that led to the inevitable where-are-you-froms, my answering "Minnesota," her comments about too much snow, and then: "My mother's from Minnesota."
"Really? What City?" I ask.
Her mother would be Beverly Bergen, daughter of the late Louie and Molly Bergen. Confirming that was Duluth genealogist Joanne Sher of Adas Israel (Third Street Synagogue), who also discovered that Beverley's late sister, Shirley Sher, married into her husband's family.
None of which we ever would have known if I hadn't been wearing my kippah.
Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.