David Schoen and I used to live in the same Atlanta neighborhood and we bumped into each other plenty of times – at the grocery store, at the airport, at synagogue. Each of those times, we were both wearing yarmulkes. For modern-Orthodox men like me and Schoen, one of President Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyers, covering our head is as natural as putting on a shirt. The yarmulke is always there.
So it was with a mixture of amusement and confusion that I watched as something Schoen did during his opening argument on Tuesday made national headlines. Google “David Schoen” and you’ll find the world seems less interested in his defense strategy than in why he reflexively put his hand on top of head each time he took a sip of water.
My guess in all seriousness is that he normally wears a yarmulke and this was reflex. Schoen is modern Orthodox so that would make sense. But I defer to @jacobkornbluhhttps://t.co/MkKx6W03v2— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) February 9, 2021
When a Jewish person wears a yarmulke, it serves as a physical reminder that God is above watching over every action we take. While the head covering can be taken off for a whole host of reasons, it is especially important to wear it while eating and praying.
As many modern-Orthodox Jews do when in public, secular, professional settings, Schoen had decided to leave his yarmulke in his pocket while speaking on the Senate floor. I can relate. I often take off my yarmulke, or cover it with a baseball cap, when I’m running errands around town. After all, I now live in the mountains of Appalachia. People here in Morgantown, West Virginia, are more likely to have seen a bear than a Jew.
Schoen explained his decision to CNN: “It’s just an awkward thing and people stare at it.” Irony of ironies, his not wearing the yarmulke is what caught the public’s attention.
When Schoen grabbed his bottle of water, he instinctively made sure that his head was covered. The internet was all aflutter: Was he trying to use his hand – or even the bottle cap itself – as a makeshift yarmulke? Would wearing an actual yarmulke have been less conspicuous?
As someone who has worn a yarmulke all of my life, I might imagine there was a third option: When you wear a head covering the majority of the time, you just assume it’s on. So when a thirsty Schoen was leaning back to take a swig, I think he might have been reaching for his head to ensure the phantom yarmulke didn’t fall off.
On Wednesday, Schoen simply chose to don his yarmulke during the trial.
For a book project about faith in the Bible Belt, I spent a year visiting Christian houses of worship. Growing up in an observant Jewish household, with a father who is a rabbi, I was taught that it was verboten to visit churches – especially during Sunday prayer services. And so, before I set forth on that church-hopping adventure, I asked a rabbi for permission.
And here’s what he told me: You can go on one condition — wear your yarmulke (and your press pass).
If you’re wearing both, he said, people will know that you are Jewish and there to observe and not to participate in prayer. He wanted me to stand out like a sore thumb.
I’m a 5-foot-2, bespectacled, bearded, nerdy-looking guy; I’m about as Jewish-looking as they come. Like Tevye eating bagels and lox … while reading the Forward. But a yarmulke, the rabbi said, would be the proverbial cherry atop my head.
I entered my first Sunday service nervous, trepidatious, anxious – like the way of my people. It was a megachurch with 15,000 congregants, mostly African American, in Lithonia, Ga. Me and my yarmulke were the most conspicuous religious items on display that Sunday, and that’s including the 20-foot cross that hovered above the stage holding a band and 100-person choir.
An usher noticed me, grabbed my hand, and rushed me, unwittingly, to the front of the sanctuary. He whispered into the ear of someone on stage and, before I knew it, the pastor was telling the band to stop playing, the choir to stop singing and the throng of thousands to stop dancing. He had a special announcement to make.
He grabbed the microphone so the crowds on the balcony could hear: “We’d like to welcome our Jewish friend to services today!”
The video camera operators zoomed in and there was my shocked face, underneath the yarmulke, up there on Jesus’ Jumbotron for all to see.
Suddenly, a sea of people surrounded me, bridging the gap between our two religions. They were poking and prodding at me like I was an alien from outer space. I had come to learn about Christianity but, to my surprise, all they wanted to talk about was Judaism.
The first question they asked: Why do you wear that beanie on your head?
I had been in church for less than five minutes, and I was already outed as The Jew. My rabbi, with his prescription to don a yarmulke in a Black Baptist Bible Belt megachurch, couldn’t have planned this better.
But the experience left me a little traumatized. I saw, firsthand, what happens when everyone spots you as the Jewish guy, when your skullcap becomes a homing beacon. It’s one thing to wear it while going about your normal daily activities (it’s barely visible on Zoom calls!), but to put it on and walk into such a public setting is another matter entirely.
Sometimes, it’s easier to just remove it beforehand. At least that’s what Schoen likely thought before Tuesday’s water-sipping situation. I’ll have to ask him the next time I bump into him.