Trying not to be the token…

As a religious Jew, I was so excited to start working in a Jewish agency. I quickly learned that not only was approximately half of the staff not-Jewish, about half of my Jewish coworkers are twice-a-year-Jews.  I am easily the most observant person in my office and only one of my colleagues is even close to being in my realm of religious living.  This woman is quick to point out that while her husband is frum (religious) she is definitely a work in progress and not there.  So while she is a phenomenal woman and really spiritual and in-tune with a religious life, she has not set herself up in the same visual way as my clothing and food choices do.

Once upon a time, there was a Chabad woman who worked there though, so many people learned things from her.  This however only leads to more questions.  She was married, and as such wore a sheitel. So my hats/scarves have made women’s head covering a question. I also get asked many questions about kashrut, shabbat and holiday observance, and anything else that you may think of! I try not to be the token and set the example of being an observant Jew – however it seems to have become my life.

When Jessica and I decided that this would be the perfect topic to bring RR on, I was so excited, yet I discovered that I cannot articulate what this experience is like. I do not think of myself as an expert on many things, and certainly not about Orthodox practices across the board. I find myself between a rock and a hard place as I get cornered and questioned on a regular basis.  While I love teaching and having conversations about Jewish topics, being expected to know every answer and having people believe whatever I tell them unequivocally gives me way more power than I feel comfortable with.

For those of you who are religious Jews in secular Jewish work environments – what would you say about the experience? How do you avoid being a token, or do you embrace it? Give me some feedback, because I am struggling here – as evidenced by the rambling nature of this post!

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17 thoughts on “Trying not to be the token…

  1. When I was in high school, and was visually observant, I simply said what I felt warranted in saying. If ever I were asked a question, I candidly and frankly answered according to my knowledge, and I was equally candid and frank in admitting my ignorance, indicating how much or how little I honestly felt my answer should be relied on.

    And whenever there was a discussion about any topic, such a political one, for example, I brought Jewish sources whenever I felt they added to the discussion. I was not embarrassed to be citing Jewish sources to non-Jews, any more than I felt a non-Jew should be embarrassed to cite Greek or Latin sources, for example. Everyone has his authorities, and I had mine, and I was not embarrassed to frankly and unabashedly cite Jewish sources as being personally authoritative. “I will speak of your statutes before kings, and not be embarrassed.” Towards the end of high school, one of my friends, an agnostic, told me that if he were any religion, he’d be Jewish, because thanks to me, he knew it better than any other, and he thought higher of it than any other.

  2. I am not sure how this is any different from being the only Jew in a workplace. For example, whenever anything, and I mean anything, happens in Israel, all my colleagues ask me about it–as if I were the diplomatic spokesperson for an entire nation rather than just a school teacher!

    • I have also been the only Jew in a workplace, and for some reason I cannot describe, it just is different. Perhaps Jessica will be more articulate about it tomorrow or I will revisit it with more clarity after a longer time in this new setting.

      • Understood…. but still, when people say things like that, I tend to call them on it. That’s just me. I also have my “bad Jew” theory because it bothers me when people feel the need to justify their actions by calling themselves bad Jews. Walking (or driving) past a shul on Shabbat while carrying your shopping bag (or on your way to brunch, or whatever) doesn’t make you a bad Jew. Missing services on a holiday doesn’t make you a bad Jew. Eating cheeseburgers doesn’t make you a bad Jew. Bringing Manischewitz or Mogen Dovid wine to someone’s house as a gift…well, there you crossed the line. Bad. Jew. 🙂

  3. just one clarifying point: people are Jewish year-round, no matter their observance or synagogue attendance. Calling them two-day-a-year Jews minimizes their Jewish experiences and suggests (inappropriately) a sense of superiority when one’s shul attendance sheet is lengthier than that of another.

    • thanks caroline. that was definitely not my intention and i apologize to anyone who may feel offended by my use of that catch-phrase. however, i have had coworkers and friends use it to describe themselves – and since the former are who i was writing about, it felt appropriate in the context. these people use it as a self-description just as others would identify themselves by the movement they affiliate with.

  4. Hmm – I’m at this from a different perspective – the very visible convert in the shul! Because ir shul isn’t that big and for one reason or another, I have ‘risen the ranks’ (for want of a better phrase) from very new attendee, to student, to convert, to senior shul member who now (apparently) weilds rather a lot of power in the community, I get a lot of attention. I am ‘known’ – not only in my shul, but, as I am only really beginning to discover, in the wider community of which my shul forms a part. It’s really quite an honour, and yet also an obligation. I’ve been wearing this ‘hat’ (figuratively, not literally), for a little whle now, and it still feels odd. It makes me think before I speak – which I think is a good thing. But also, it makes me realise that when I am in a shul or wider community environment, I am, or should be, always ‘on’, as I am a representative.

    Something to think about, nu?

    • I have many friends who can commiserate with you on this point, and it is definitely something to think about! If you would be interested in sharing more, I think it could make a great guest post here.

  5. When I was in high school, non-Jewish kids often wondered why I was, for example, keeping Pesach or keeping kosher when the other Jewish kids weren’t. I found the questions irritating. And my youthful, non-filtered response? “Better you should go and ask them why THEY are breaking God’s Commandments rather than asking me why I keep them.”

    In retrospect, I see that I could and should have responded more gently.

    When I worked in a community agency, it was assumed that my observance-style was because I am a rabbi. What they never understood is that it was because I am a Jewess.

    • I cannot held but laugh. When I was in high school, and became frum halfway through, no one noticed. I mean, really, no one noticed. Just once, I would have liked someone to ask me what those little black boxes I wore every day before first period were, just to reassure me that everyone was still alive. On Yom ha-Atzma’ut, I’d wear an Israeli flag as a cape, and no one asked me why.

  6. Pingback: Haveil Havalim #285 — Back to the Beginning « Frume Sarah's World

  7. I live in a dati community, but I’m from a different sort of Jewish home. Over the years I guess I got used to people from my past feeling they ought to explain, defend their observance or lack of.

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