It’s been twenty-five years since I wore my kufi for the last time. It was a long hard road that I probably could’ve avoided traveling, three years and three months of constant stares, awkward moments and social isolation. By the end of the summer of ’83, I had stopped believing in the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing. I saw it as the reason for our family’s plunge into poverty, the reason that my idiot stepfather could justify abusing me and my mother and the barrier between me and every person who was a part of my life.
In the months before I became a Christian, I thought about the prospect of not wearing the kufi to school anymore. At least I wouldn’t get weird looks, have kids laughing at me, and draw unnecessary attention to myself. This was a cop-out, a cowardly way of solving a problem that was about more than a piece of clothing. Wearing the kufi every day was just as bad. Not so much because of others’ reactions. If I didn’t believe in the religion of my mother and stepfather anymore, that meant that I didn’t believe in anything else. If I turned away from their version of Yahweh, who would I turn to as The One? I’d been defined by what I wore on my head, what I ate for lunch, what holidays I celebrated, and what I looked like to others for almost two and a half years. Now I was questioning whether I believed in any God at all. If I gave up wearing my kufi now, I might as well have said that the last few years of my life were a waste of time, a denial of things and foods, peoples and cultures that I could’ve embraced all along. If I continued to wear it, I was a hypocrite, someone who’d rather go through the motions of a dead and bizarre religion than stand up for his spiritual well-being.
Darren, meanwhile, had decided that “the day of atonement” and all things Torah went against his digestive tract right from the beginning in ’81. I frequently watched him take his kufi off as he boarded his bus for school. I thought about doing the same thing, many times, in those years. But it wasn’t until after I became a Christian, after trying out for football in August ’84, that I took my kufi off in public for the first time.
On the first day of school, as I was about to walk out of the house with kufi on head, I got really pissed. I couldn’t live another day like this, pretending to be something I wasn’t. I took the symbol of my oppression off my head and threw it on top of the refrigerator by the front door and foyer. I knew that I’d have to answer to Maurice when I got home that day. But I didn’t care anymore. Maurice or not, I was going to live my life as a Christian, on my own terms.
My whole first day of school was spent hearing words like “Congratulations!” and “Wow, what happened?” and other exclamations of pleasant surprise. No one was happier for me than my eventual Crush #2. She gave me a brief hug. It was the second time in less than a year that my classmates had come out in force to support something I’d done. I felt euphoric, like I’d been on-stage performing at a concert in front of a sellout crowd, giving me a standing ovation in the process.
Most of my teachers had no idea why my presence in class had caused such commotion. I knew some people would be surprised by my religious coup d’etat. I even knew that a few folks might be happy for me. But almost to a classmate, it was as if I’d escaped the gulags and defected from the Soviet Union. Five years before the Berlin Wall fell, my Shalom Aleichem wall came tumbling down. If my idiotic mouth was a reason for some of my first problems with my classmates, my kufi and all that it represented must’ve created a permanent sense of separation between me and them. I felt overwhelmed, like I’d won a prize that I wasn’t expecting to get. I also felt ill-at-ease. They might’ve been a few months older, but weren’t these the same folks who hardly talked to me this time the year before?
When I arrived from school that afternoon, my mother was practically waiting for me at the front door.
“You forgot your kufi this morning,” she said, looking as if she knew what I was about to say.
“I didn’t forget. I’m not wearing it anymore. I’m a Christian now,” I said. My mother pleaded with me to wear my kufi when I left for my regular grocery run.
“You know what Judah’s gonna do when he’s see you left it?,” my mother said, almost begging me to put the kufi on again.
“I don’t care!” was what flew out of my mouth as I left for the store.
That evening was when I faced Maurice’s anger. Apparently someone in the neighborhood who went to MVHS told him about my transgression.
“Boy, where’s your kufi?”
“Where it belongs. Off my head.”
“Why didn’t you wear it to school today?”
“Because I didn’t want to. I’ve converted to Christianity.”
“Listen here. I’m gonna whup yo’ ass if you don’t wear it tomorrow.”
“You can kill me if you want to, but I’m not ever going to wear that thing again! I’m a Christian now, and if you kill me, at least I’ll go to heaven!”
At that point, my mother stepped in. “Leave the room,” she said as she got in between me and Maurice in the middle of the living room. I went into my old bedroom, which wasn’t my bedroom during our Makeda days. Even with the door closed and the TV on, I heard them.
“That boy’s defiant. I won’t tolerant it in my house!,” my stepfather half-yelled and half-whined.
“You lost, Judah. If someone’s leavin’ this house tonight, it’s that woman or you!”
About five minutes later, I went back in the living room. Maurice had left, presumably to get some kosher pork fried rice, one of his favorite after-dinner meals. My do-or-die stance had caught Maurice completely by surprise. I never heard about kufis or yarmulkes again.
That kufi was as much as symbol of oppression when it came to my stepfather and family as the N-word would’ve been if I wore that on my head. It symbolized a bizarre religion, our family’s stupidity, my own stubbornness and unwillingness to embrace other people’s ideas, cultures, emotions and intelligence. My teenage years were years to be amazed, but had begun as my years of shock. Maybe, just maybe, I could begin to be a teenager again, without the kufi.