Thursday, July 06, 2006

On Being Separate

Over at Beyond BT, David Kirschner writes about the experience of wearing a kippah at work:

...Last week, my office held its annual picnic (which we must pay for and is mandatory). There I was with my kippah and tzitzis, along with my boys, amidst an entire office of people, most of whom were dressed immodestly, drinking booze and eating treif. Oh, there was plenty of good kosher food. And I must say, to their credit, that their behavior was appropriate at all times. And that is precisely the point. Something just didn’t seem to be right, but not because it was like Sodom and Gemorrah. It wasn’t. What was strange was that despite not identifying with them, I had little difficulty being among them. Yet, clearly, there was a pronounced barrier. But why? Was it the kippah, the tzitzis, the kosher food or none of the above?

All this was clear to me. What was not clear is that when I am in the office, I don’t seem to have any difficulty “fitting” in. You might say that’s because I’m there to work and accomplish specific work-related objectives and that’s true. But that doesn’t explain why I am perfectly comfortable socializing and shmoozing with my colleagues while at the office, but much less so when outside. The fact is, thankfully, the people that I work with are absolutely wonderful and I believe they feel the same about me. However, they are well aware that I am different. They know and accept that I do not eat their food at office events. Nor do they appear to be offended that I do not go out drinking or socializing with them (except for official office events).

Within the office, it is necessary for people to establish strong professional relationships with each other. Certainly, it promotes shalom, which is always a good thing, but it also facilitates a cohesive team and is probably a kiddush Hashem. But that usually means developing social relationships as well. Interestingly, maintaining a proverbial fence doesn’t seem to have impeded my ability to do that. In fact, they will often alter their dress, speech and conduct in my presence. Women know I will neither hug nor kiss them before a holiday or upon the conclusion of a successful case. A few days ago, as I walked into a female colleague’s office, who was wearing a sleeveless blouse, she put on her suit jacket. And a few weeks ago, another female colleague told me she had wanted to call me on Father’s Day to wish me a Happy Father’s Day, but didn’t because she didn’t think that I would find it appropriate. Yet, these same women don’t think twice about such issues with other male colleagues. It appears to me that intuitively, they respect me precisely because of who I am. And that doesn’t seem strange at all.

I was moved by this post, but I had some trouble putting my finger on why.

At first, I was wistful. I once (briefly) had been that kippah-wearing Jew at the office, friendly with my coworkers, but maintaining a distance. People do treat you differently when you wear a kippah. Women perhaps become a little more reserved and people may tone down their language or humor. Now that I'm on the other side of the divide, I recognize a similar reaction in myself when I encounter an obviously religious Muslim at work, for example. (My feelings towards religious Jews are of course more complicated -- I still feel a kinship and my behavior around them is strongly colored by my inside knowledge of their world. Sometimes I try to figure out a funny time to bust out some Hebrew or a Yeshivish expression in order to surprise them.)

There's a certain dignity and honor in the religious figure who holds himself to certain pre-defined standards of appearance and behavior, whether it's a kippah-wearing Jew, a habit-wearing nun, or a Tibetan monk. But it's not just a religious thing -- secular or "normally" religious people may communicate many of the same signals through their speech, dress, and manner. Think, for example, of Laurence Fishburne's character in Boyz in the Hood. Living in an LA ghetto, he separates himself by dressing conservatively and speaking with a professorial manner. Interestingly, when Fishburne's character is speaking to a crowd, one of his son's friends turns to his son and says, "Is he a preacher?"

So much of Jewish law and behavior stems from the desire to build fences around oneself in order to prevent perceived misconduct. In practice, most of it seems to be intended to prevent assimilation and pre- or extra-marital sex. There's no doubt that it's relatively successful. Setting aside for now the difference in what they consider misconduct and I would, it's still easy to see how looser behavior can lead to some problematic situations. Perhaps an analogy can be made to racist jokes. The jokes themselves aren't necessarily directly harmful, but in an environment where such jokes are common, real racism is more likely to emerge.

As I've become accustomed to my new life out here in "the real world" (as we Orthodox half-jokingly called it) I've come to respect a different kind of figure as well -- the man who lives "with" others rather than "among" them. Although he holds himself to a code of ethics, he would rather err closer to possible transgression than accept the high cost of building fences between himself and others. There are of course archetypal religious models for this lifestyle as well -- Abraham, who welcomed "idolators" to his tent, and Jesus, who walked among the prostitutes and "sinners."

I don't necessarily spend time with criminals or people who are just plain mean, but I've come to see the upsides of not limiting the people I let into my life to those from a single background. I still miss my community, but the lack of barrier between me and any person has gone a long way towards making up for it. I've written before about the sense of family and belonging I've felt as a Jew whenever I visit Israel. As I've expanded my horizons, I'm happy to say I've started to feel similar feelings towards all people rather than towards only my tribe.


swurgle said...

Interesting post. As an athiest Jew living in Teaneck among a growing Modern Orthodox population, I've been on the flip side of that equation - where I feel like some kind of strumpet for wearing a short-sleeved shirt when it's 90 degrees outside.

Is anyone else as bothered as me by the arrogance of the notion that the Jews are God's chosen people?

I guess I'm most bothered by it because I don't believe it. It's just a cultural conceit that affects how Jews perceive themselves and, in some instances, how they act toward others.


Ezzie said...

btw, I meant to comment before. This was a very good, interesting post.

Jewish Atheist said...


Is anyone else as bothered as me by the arrogance of the notion that the Jews are God's chosen people?

Yeah, it's a common complaint both from within and without the community. There are some explanations people make as to how "chosen" doesn't really mean what you think it means, etc., but I haven't found them too convincing.


Thanks, and thanks again for the link.

Stacey said...

Beautiful post. Diversity is where it's at. Not isolationism.

Stacey said...

Beautiful post. Diversity is where it's at. Not isolationism.

Flippy said...

When I lived in San Francisco, I worked at a law firm with a totally obnoxious self-righteous (converted - to me, it makes difference in this situation) Orthodox Jew. She went out of her way to be different and contrary.

About halfway through my time there, they hired a new lawyer and assigned both of us Jews (we were paralegals) to her. She was Palestinian-American. I'm not sure if she'd even ever been there, just like the Orthodox Jew hadn't been to Israel. Anyway, the OJ was rude and nasty to the lawyer, as if she represented anyone other than herself. The lawyer, however, was awesome. She was one of the best, nicest, and smartest people I've ever worked with. I was disgusted with how she was treated.

You know, I'm not sure how I would've felt if the OJ had been born in Israel and had actually encountered Palestinians who wished her ill. But, she hadn't. It was like she took on an identity of religious fervor and thought it was appropriate to add new prejudices to top it off.

Except for the OJ, that office was the most incredible mix of people from different countries, backgrounds, races, orientations, and religions getting along. Sure, it was in San Francisco, so it's expected, but it was cool. Also, it was fascinating to me that the only Jew in the office (there were a bunch of us, as you can imagine in a medium-sized law firm) to have a problem with a Palestinian was a convert.

I guess this is only tangentially related, but it was a situation that I'd forgotten about over the years. Everyone was respectful to the religious person, but she in turn couldn't be respectful in return.

David Kirschner said...

Jewish atheist - I must admit that although I hoped my post would inspire some and move others, I didn't expect you would be among them. I am, however, gratified, that it not only moved you but did so in a positive way. I should also tell you that after reading your posts and comments the past few weeks, I’m impressed with your intellect and your temperament notwithstanding my disagreeing with many of your views. you remind me of several of friends with whom I differ politically but still enjoy really good deep conversations about religion, politics and just about everything else. Plus, I really admire your handling of SLA.

swurgle - you hit on a really big problem and I agree with ezzie's take. I depart with ezzie though on one explanation that I’ve found helpful. Being "chosen" doesn't mean superior. It is merely a distinction which connotes the Jews responsibility to keep and practice the mitzvos of the Torah. Frankly, I think it is humbling. While many other religious philosophies include the belief that theirs is the only way to achieve closeness with Hashem, the Jewish philosophy doesn't. Indeed, Jewish philosophy believes not only that all humans are Hashem’s creations and should be treated as such, but that Hashem specifically doesn't want the entire world to be Jewish or keep the Torah. So, it isn't a matter of being better than everyone else, just different.

flippy - interesting experience. I can't speak to the palestinian issue, because I’m biased. I’ve never been Israel, yet, but indeed I identify with the suffering from the daily terrorist acts of those people. I’m sorry, but whether that palestinian is or isn't part of that, I will undoubtedly associate him/her as such. This is especially so in light of their educational and religious institutions who literally preach abject hatred of Jews - not just the facade of anti-semitism they label anti-Israeli or anti-zionism - when arabs incessantly preach that Jews are pigs and monkeys kill babies to use their blood for matzos. Not a week goes by where rabid anti-Semitic rants are broadcast all through arab & muslim lands. Add to that that the Palestinians voted 80% to elect a terrorist organization as their leadership. justify it anyway you want, but they knew what they were getting and a far as I’m concerned, I just can't look at any arab or muslim the way I do everyone else. Maybe that's wrong, but I’m just betraying to be intellectually honest. Having said that, however, and I’ve had this issue at works - I have worked closely with 2 arab muslims and it hasn't affected my professional relationship. I am certainly polite and respectful. I have also socialized with them at office functions. So there's certainly no excuse for treating them improperly - for all I know they don't harbor any anti-Semitic views at all. It’s just that with all that's happening, I just can't approach them the way I do others.

As far as you viewing your orthodox coworker as obnoxious and self-righteous, is it possible that what you perceived was perhaps an immature way of maintaining a separation from secular values rather than looking down at others. I say that because I hear the exact same complaint from orthodox people about reform, conservative, or other variations affiliated and non-affiliated Jews towards orthodox. This is an issue that all of us Jews need to work very hard on - because we're all Jews. I usually make an even greater effort to reach out and be friendly with non or lesser observant Jews so that shouldn't feel uncomfortable. Of course, I wasn't there. I’m just suggesting that maybe that's what happened.

Ezzie said...

Quick note... I interpret "chosen" the way David does. I don't interpret it the way swurgle understands it.

David Kirschner said...

Ezzie, I figured that. I hope I didn't inadvertently imply otherwise. I just think that many people find that explanation convincing.

Jewish Atheist said...

Sorry everyone, been really busy this week. David: thanks for your kind words. :) I've always been inspired by BTs. I'm sort of a BT myself, just in reverse. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I posed a question over at Orthomom that sort of touches on this issue and got hardly any response from not only Orthomom herself, but her readers as well.

The entry delt with racial steering in Long Island and how upset she was by it. I explained that I too find it reprehensible r but I also found her response to be somewhat hypocritical.

I posted that I felt that her Orthodox approach to Judaism perpetuates not only an "us and them" mentality, but also does nothing to achieve or aide what this nation strives for- an integrated society.

I asked her and her readers what would this country be like if EVERY ethnic/racial/religious group did just some of the same practices that they adhere to- what if EVERYONE sent their kids to their "own" schools and their "own" camps, only married their "own" kind, and ate in their "own" restaurants?

A pretty frightening picture, I'd say.

I also explained on the other blog(only to hear the sounds of crickets chirping)that I have friends completely across the board and that we are all fully integrated into each others lives on all levels. We mourn and celebrate with each other and we are all truly blessed because of it.

On the other hand, I have a close friend who's brother is "Black Hat". It is amazing to me what this has done to their relationship. It's completely and utterly insane. To me, it's no different than losing a family member to the moonies or some other cult.

All of this makes one wonder just how many wonderful relationships and, potentially wonderful relationships, were stunted or never allowed to flourish in the first place all in the name of religion?

Thoughts, anyone?

Jewish Atheist said...


Excellent point. Exactly what I'm getting at.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for validating what I feel to be an undeniable truth.

To be honest, I feel an Orthodox or any "over-the-top" approach to any kind of religion is not only sad, but off-putting as well.

When you were more observant, did you ever ask someone how they would feel if every group had the same practices? What, if any, was the response?

I would be extremely interested to hear their response. That's why I posted my question over at Orthomom.

Unfortunately, as I stated before, I did not get much feedback.


Jewish Atheist said...

When you were more observant, did you ever ask someone how they would feel if every group had the same practices?

Actually, I don't think I ever thought of that when I was Orthodox.