The Company Picnic

Years ago (like eighteen), when I first decided to wear a kippah at work, something seemed strange also. At the time, I felt self-consciousness about wearing it in public. But then it occurred to me that in New York City, people aren’t pretentious about going out in public with purple-dyed hair, a chain as a belt and piercing in their eyes, nose and mouth. I realized that if I had some physical or psychological barrier, it was of my own creation, not anyone else’s. But upon showing up at work wearing it after a two-week vacation, no one said a word.

At first, I thought my friends and colleagues, all of whom I had been working with for at least a year, all knew that I was Shomer Shabbos. I wondered whether they thought it looked strange but were just too polite to say anything. After a few days, two of my colleagues asked if they could ask me a personal question. Of course, I said yes to which they asked, “Have you always been wearing a kippah or did you just start?” After telling them that I started several days before, I asked, “Why do you ask, wasn’t it obvious when I showed up after vacation the other day with it on?” They told me that they had a bet. One said I just started and the other said that I had been wearing it all along.

Strange? Not really. 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.

15 comments on “The Company Picnic

  1. Bob

    We learn in Pirkei Avos that a wise person is someone who recognizes that there is something to be learned from everyone. We’re all Hashem’s creations and although it may not always seem like it, every one of us can learn something from everyone else.

    I must say, having written the piece, that I am always gratified when readers are inspired or moved by what I wrote but was deeply touched that what I said made such an impact on the Jewish Atheist. I went to his blog and read his comments. I have also read his writing on non-religious issues as well and, although I don’t always agree with him, have found him to be intelligent, articulate and very respectfully of others.

  2. Bob

    I hear what you’re saying about focus, but deciding who can or should comment here is a very difficult process with a multitude of considerations, with one of the major ones of course being Ahavas Yisroel.

    For now, it probably makes most sense to email us privately with any concerns you might have.

  3. No. I started reading this blog because of the input from BT’s and teshuva facilitators like Rabbi Horowitz. When the atheist is inspired to rejoin us, I’ll consider his input.

  4. Do we need advice from atheists?

    We can learn lessons from anyone… particularly those who – despite no longer being Jewish – are able to write beautifully about the idea of wearing a yarmulke et al at work. If he can see it, surely you can.

  5. It’s inspiring to other Jews who are interested in yiddishkeit to see a Jew who takes on a visible mitzva mid-stream. When I was starting out, I wanted to cover my hair but felt odd if I would just suddenly start wearing a hat all day at work. It took a lot to overcome that, but I think it gives chizuk to others who are starting out,when they see it is possible to change an established pattern without suffering.

  6. I found that most non-Jewish co-workers/friends
    tend to have respect for those of us who behave the same way when we are in the office and outside work as well.

  7. I don’t act at all frummy at work, and I’m just myself as I would be anywhere else. Still, the Jew sign on my forehead is always there and always will be. It’s just the way it is.
    I’ve noticed this as well – apologies for language that the person in question uses without thought in casual conversation, for one. And a few co-workers who were interested/intrigued about the details.

  8. This post is an inspiration to all of us who aspire to be middle managers in corporate America, but not give up our “purple-dyed hair, a chain as a belt and piercing in their eyes, nose and mouth.”

  9. David,

    I can relate to you wholeheartedly – minus the kippah and tzizit thing, of course. When I started working as a young 21 year-old girl out of college in the business world, I used to feel the barrier between me and my coworkers very deeply and was saddened by it. Over time I realized that the sense of respect co-workers gave me (whether I felt worthy of it or not) was a source of kiddush Hashem and pride. I don’t act at all frummy at work, and I’m just myself as I would be anywhere else. Still, the Jew sign on my forehead is always there and always will be. It’s just the way it is. Once I embraced it and allowed others to see me as the JEW in the office I was so much more comfortable. I know they know, and they know I know they know, so who’s kidding who? I also found that coworkers were were so interested in my life – as though being religious added some sort of mystery and elusivness. Overall, while being frum at work will always be a struggle at times, and sometimes unfair-feeling, it usually is a special experience, as long as I can accept it myself and roll with it.

  10. There is a very fine sparkle dust glitter line when it comes to concepts like being respected or rejected for any given traits of individuality and marked differences. It’s definitely more of an end user specific kind of experience and obviously definitely varies from workspace to workplace.

    The same respect that you could be eliciting from office co workers with regards to stuff like minimal or no affection and no random father’s day wishes to men you love – could also elicit responses like what is wrong with you with corresponding perceptions of said individual bordering on the not so respectful with undertones and subtexts of ludicrous lacings.

    I’m not so sure that being respected for differences based solely on religious practices as opposed to fashion trends would be a universally respected concept. Which is why IMJO using purple hair and assorted random piercings as a comparison/analogy to kippah wearing in the workplace is not really comparing passion fruit to passion fruit. As even the soils used for the cultivating of the fruit are of different genetic makeups.

    It definitely is a really hard concept trying to balance being religious and disciplined when working in a not religious and potential for not disciplined environment. I guess this is the part where one needs focus on what they think is important in addition to cultivating spirituality and maintaining or avoiding intense connections with the wrong connectors and connections . Cuz connection is really what every human being craves on a constant basis.

  11. Reminds me of my office. However, I’ve been spared the picnics because they haven’t had one in a long time, and when they have, they’ve always been on Shabbos.

    However, I do find myself shmoozing a lot less with some coworkers then I used to because of the yetza hora I had when the conversations got mildly “inappropriate”. Sometimes the old-me would rear her head (or mouth), so there was one year before Rosh Hashannah I decided to limit hangin’ with the girls in the office, and even explained to them why I found it personally necessary. To be honest, we never socialized outside the office together anyway, having nothing to do with my observance, but because our lifestyles and places in life are just so completly different. I tend to chat with the other moms here because we have much more in common. As long as you’re consistent, I find that people respect you for who you are and what you sincerely believe in. The only person who ever gave me a hard time was a woman (now retired) who was sort of Conservative and once started yelling at me because I said (in answer to her inquiries) that I don’t answer the phone on Shabbos, and B”H, even with parents and in-laws who were ill, never encountered an emergency. She also didn’t like it (again in response to inquiries) that Frum Jews don’t shower or bathe during Shiva.
    Oh well, different strokes for different folks.

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