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.