I don’t “wear” at work.
A yarmulke, that is.
Oh I wear it. Everyone who works in my office has seen me in my yarmulke. I wear it when I make a brocha [blessing] on my coffee and when I wash for lunch. You might see me in the corridor muttering something when I come back from the men’s room. My office is full of family pictures with me and my male family members all neatly capped on top. I’m not hiding anything, really. But the “modality” of my everyday interaction with colleagues and support staff and the rest of the professional world I inhabit is secular.
There is a little irony here. On my own blog, I used to describe myself as an “‘award winning’ ‘journalist.'” Lots of quotes, lots of irony, but the journalism I won an award for was an article I wrote for a magazine called Student Lawyer in 1988 called “A Lawyer and His Sabbath.” It traced my experience of becoming more religious during the time I was in law school and starting out in a big law firm. Despite its title the piece uses not Shabbos but the wearing of a yarmulke as a unifying theme. I describe how I concluded, way back then, that the right thing for me to do was to “wear” back when pretty much nobody “wore.”
I don’t think it was really journalism, being entirely first-person, but the award was from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. It’s called a Stick-O-Type Award and they make you a little stick o’ type describing what you won, your category, and your name, of course. I still have the award. I don’t still have the yarmulke.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. But it wasn’t. It was an awful idea, for a number of reasons, though they only became really clear much later. Each reason could justify its own Beyond BT essay. I will spare you that, however. In brief, here’s what happened:
First of all, while I was very cognizant of the moral responsibility I bore as an assertive, strongly identified orthodox Jew in the workplace, and I think I acquitted myself decently well on that score, I failed to appreciate an aspect of “representing” that was no less important: Competence. And while given half a chance I will try to demonstrate to anyone interested that I am a decent city lawyer at age 48, at age 27 I was a pretty mediocre big-firm associate. In an environment where you are the only one “wearing,” beware: You have to be more or less the best at what you do, and pretty much have to be the best at it to everyone who beholds you. That was a burden I failed adequately to bear.
Secondly, even at one’s best moments, in 1990 if you wore a yarmulke in a Park Avenue law firm, the message was, “I’m a rabbi who doesn’t really want to be here. But, you know — parnassah [the need to support myself]” It’s even worse when it’s almost true.
Third, internally, in the “Jewish” law firm where I worked, this yarmulka idealism went over like a lead balloon. I mean with the orthodox lawyers. They didn’t wear a yarmulke. Now this young guy living in Brooklyn who deferred his starting date by two years for yeshiva even comes in and he’s turning the firm into a bais medrash [talmudical study hall] with his black-velvet yarmulke?
And finally, there was the question I really should have thought through first: I do litigation. I go to court. I appear before judges, juries, court personnel. I interact with adversaries, witnesses. And I do so on behalf of a client — not myself. Not even, if I may be permitted, HaKadosh Boruch Hu [the Holy One, Blessed be He].
That’s not what I’m paid to do.
And if clients, especially, as it was at the time, clients of my employer, wanted “a rabbi” to represent them, that’s who they would have hired.
I tried. It didn’t work. That was then, that was there, that was me. I’m not telling anyone else what to do. But sometimes people who know me “wearing” are stunned to see me bareheaded. Others, even orthodox clients, have been utterly unable to recognize me when they meet me at a wedding, not only “wearing” but wearing a hat, too. And it all came, um, to a head when a frum magazine carrying my column accidently ran my law firm head shot — bareheaded. The calls I got from my kids when that hit the streets!
So now I’ve written it all down in one place. I don’t “wear” any more.
Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Confusion.