Did you catch the latest “America’s Got Talent?” It’s the one with the adorable kippah-wearing Jewish kid, Edan Pinochot, singing One Republic’s “Good Life.” Is it a moment of pride for the Jewish community when Edan is chosen by the judges, Howard Stern, Howie Mandel and Sharon Osbourne, to move on in the competition and “go to Las Vegas?” Or is this phenomenon emblematic of all that is wrong with American Jewry?
A cute Jewish kid with talent — what could be wrong? All right, a little Howard Stern, a little Las Vegas. But let’s indulge ourselves in a little Jewish pop culture temperature taking. Let’s take this short video and slide it, if you will, under the microscope, slowly narrowing our gaze as we zoom in on the intricate facets of our specimen: The kippah, the youngster, the comfort level we have attained with American culture, and maybe even that most curious of marvels — talent.
First, that lavender kippah affixed ever so securely by its “kippah clip” is the epicenter of the attention that our short video instigates. The collective pride washing over Jewish middle schoolers from coast to coast when first catching a glimpse of that pastel sphere perched matter-of-factly for all to see as Edan crooned on stage was palpable. Is that a kippah? That’s a kippah — no mistaking it. There he was, a pretty typical clean-cut, standard-issue American kid, but for that skullcap.
But wait: Have we not been to this Matisyahu-esque movie before? Have we not already experienced this complicated squirminess made up of equal parts—muddled pride and complicated chagrin? True enough, though in this case the statement seems to be less about a conspicuous costume and more about the commonplaceness of Edan’s Judaism. For other than that kippah, there was nothing “Jewish” about the performance. This stands in contrast to what one might argue in regard to Matisyahu’s music, which seemed to be all about a Jewish spiritual quest that, at times, went rogue.
Edan’s kippah, perched blithely atop his head, would have garnered nary a turned head in most of America’s big cities, though up there on stage it was a neon light flashing for all to behold — a differentness. His was a bold adherence to the ancient custom of covering one’s head, a gesture of humility before the Lord.
A kippah, known also as a yarmulke (from the Hebrew words “yoreh Malka,” in awe of the King), is the ritualistic covering for the seat of our intellect, indicating a symbolic self-effacement. It says: “My cerebral prowess is capped, limited, before the All-knowing One.” This is in line with the Talmudic tradition that the haughty, arrogant individual, when standing, pushes away the Divine Shechinah hovering delicately over our heads.
Edan, our valiant contestant setting aside fears of bias or concerns of being not the same, brandished his kippah with aplomb, connecting him powerfully with kippah-wearers everywhere and a people who hopefully walk humbly before the Lord. Though his is not the intense martyr’s gauntlet-walking of the kippah-wearing hero of Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz’s classic short story “The Three Gifts,” it is nonetheless a 2012 act of Jewish pride and self-assurance lending many a kippah wearer a healthy antidote to self-consciousness that sometimes accompanies the donner of said apparel.
What thoughts have we of this display of talent born of such extreme cultural comfort? Could he at least have sung “Hava Nagilah”? What of this engagement and ease with the quintessential of American pop culture? Decry it as much as we may, but folks, that ship has sailed. Edan’s lavender suede, kippah-bedecked head would never have been featured on the “American Bandstand” of yesteryear. That we know.
We are in a new reality. Dr. Steven M. Cohen, sociologist of Jewish modernity warns us:
Jewish identities in the United States, as elsewhere, are constantly undergoing change. The dynamics of how American Jews conceive of and express their diverse ways of being Jewish inevitably pose new challenges, constraints, and opportunities for Jewish education. Accordingly, an understanding of the changing configurations of American Jewish identity should inform the theory and practice of Jewish education.
Simply put, in what ways can we take a look at this episode and learn something from it that might inform how we can best engage our youth? That slide under the microscope of Jewish discernment tells us that our kids are the most comfortable of Jewish American generations. So nimble are they with their Judaism that they belt out the music of the times while wearing the no-longer-for-Sunday-school-only kippah on the epitome of the most pop culturey of pop shows ever, “America’s Got Talent.” The times are surely a changin’ and we have got to keep up. The Judaism that will speak to our Edans is one that is less of guilt and dire omens and more of pride and confidence.
Though there will always be those who see this cup half empty, I cannot but celebrate the delight that the sight of Edan brings to our kids. They see their flavor of normal up there on stage, and that can only be a good thing.
Ironically, the words of the psalmist declaring the oath of those of Zion captured, “How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?” seem long ago and far away. The question of our generation will be more aptly put: “Lord, how shall we sing the song of the foreign land?” With a lavender kippah, of course!
To see the clip with Edan’s performance, visit bit.ly/EdanP.