By Steven Philp
Considering the cultural significance of the kippah, it is safe to assume that an individual who chooses to wear one on a regular basis is Jewish. But what happens when a non-Jew chooses to don the iconic skullcap? This week a man filed papers at a federal court claiming that he became the subject of ridicule when he decided to wear a yarmulke to work. Ciro Rosselli is a 29-year-old Italian-American who lives in Queens, NY—and is not, by descent, choice or self-identification, Jewish. According to an the New York Post, Rosselli is a practitioner of theosophy—a philosophical tradition founded in the 19th century that seeks to reconcile scientific and religious knowledge through the pursuit of a unifying truth. According to his lawsuit, Rosselli started to wear the kippah as part of his spiritual exploration. Yet when he showed up to work wearing a yarmulke, his peers at McKinsey & Company—an international business consulting firm—explained that his choice in headgear was not, in their opinion, kosher. His supervisor demanded that Rosselli take the yarmulke off, stating: “You’re creeping me out.” Later his boss, Gina Denardo, sent him an e-mail with a subject line that read “Madge Rosselli,” paralleling his appropriation of the yarmulke to pop superstar Madonna’s controversial embrace of Kabbalah. Another coworker accused him of wearing a kippah “to hide his bald spot.”
In an interview with the Post, Rosselli explained that he adopted the practice of theosophy in 2007, the same year he was hired as an executive assistant at McKinsey. Inspired by the works of Helena Blavatsky, theosophy took root in New York at the close of the 19th century. It ascribes to the motto, “There is no religion higher than truth,” and included broad anti-discrimination clauses in its founding doctrines. This embrasure of cultural variety is what inspired Rosselli to adopt the practice of wearing a kippah. “It is about finding truth in all religions,” he explained. “I’m still learning all of the different facets.”
Yet it is the fact that Rosselli is not, as one coworker put it, a “real Jew” that he received such strong criticism. According to the lawsuit, when he showed up to his office wearing the yarmulke in question, one of his peers stated: “You can’t be Jewish if you’re Italian.” This statement draws forth several important questions for the Jewish community. First, it shows a general ignorance of the diversity of world Jewry; Jews of Italian decent have a history dating back to the 2nd century B.C.E. Second, regardless of the fact that Rosselli does not identify as a Jew, what is a “real Jew?” This question has been debated for centuries, and has led to both broad and narrow definitions of Jewish identification, yet it gets to the heart of the matter, which will be asked in the official consideration of Rosselli’s case: does one need to be a “real Jew” to appropriate aspects of Jewish culture or faith-practice? From an American legal standpoint, no: One does not need to be a Jew to engage in the Jewish customs.
Yet from the perspective of our community, how comfortable are we with allowing non-Jews to adopt elements of our identity? Do we fear that they will misrepresent us, or dilute our unique cultural identifiers? The fact of the matter is, Jewish culture has already seeped past the bounds of our community. From words like “klutz” or “mensch” to delicatessens and kosher salt, there are pieces of the Jewish community embedded deep within the common property of American culture. Rather than resist curious minds who are trying on a new hat—or yarmulke—perhaps we should welcome individuals like Rosselli as opportunities to share more of our heritage, explaining its significance, and adding it to the broad composition of national identity.