A friend once told me, with some pride, that although her uncle had done his “exploration” thing as a young adult, he never left off the levush.
(Side question: has it become a normal thing for chassidish guys to go off the derech for a few years between their teens and twenties? Like the Amish right of passage?)
My reaction was not exactly what she’d been expecting. I was horrified.
“You’re saying he was in strip clubs with his peyos and yarmulke and tzitzis hanging out?” What a splendid representative of our people. I argued that to the contrary, he should have disguised himself as a non-Jew, so he might recognize that he was not behaving as his garb demanded. And at the same time, he won’t be giving others the wrong impression of what religious Jews are like.
A colleague once tried to wheedle me into trying some non-kosher snack. “You don’t really keep it seriously,” he said knowingly. “I know. There was this guy – with the thing on his head and the strings - who used to come into my uncle’s store and buy this high end Dutch yogurt. It wasn’t kosher. He told my uncle he kept kosher for everything, but he had to have his yogurt. Don’t you ever do that?” I heartily wished the man had taken off his yarmulke and tucked in his tzitzis before buying his yogurt, and kept his mouth shut to boot.
Of course, that technique isn’t always perfect. Some guy got mad about my driving in Boro Park. The details aren’t important, because when it comes to driving, the other guy is always the idiot. Anyway, he pulls up to the red light, gets out of his car, and comes over to harangue me. I gaze at his livid face impassively until he gives up and gets back in his car. That’s when I noticed that his hand, which was behind his back while he delivered his diatribe, was holding his yarmulke. He had enough shame to try to hide his Jewishness while being a jerk. I appreciated the gesture, though it would have been more effective if he could have removed his beard, and maybe changed from his white shirt and black pants.
But that’s the thought process we should be going through whenever we start to do something not completely straight. “Do I need to take off my yarmulke for this?” is a good question to ask when planning a new escapade. And if the answer is “Yes,” then please, do yourself and your nation a favor - drop it.