...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.