Over My Head

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.

24 comments on “Over My Head

  1. Professionally, I think you’re wrong. “Competence” is a heavily-charged, big ego word in many fields (yours included). I’ve worked in several with similar machismo attitudes toward performance — whatever measure of which is most desired. Not everyone can be fabulous at everything everywhere (even us smarty-pants jews). I’m great at what I do… when I’m doing what I’m great at. Other times? Not so much. There’s still a bell curve, and the bottom 80% isn’t desecrating the Name by being human. That’s a jewish cultural affectation, not Torah. Character & ethics

    A good attitude, proper comportment, courtesy, sensitivity and manners are not dispensible commodities in ANY field. Aggressive representation doesn’t mean the opposite. But, I am glad that’s your struggle, and not mine. Some of us are ‘less glorious’ than others. Would it damage Hashem if I wore my kippah at work on the back of a garbage truck? Or while standing on a street corner begging for tzedakah? Sounds more like jewish guilt… I feel you, pal.

    I’ve given many of your courtroom thoughts plenty of thought (from a jury waiting room). What am I going to do about it? Not be a jew for a day because it makes someone uncomfortable (of frightened) to see an obviously religious person in a jury box, judging some heinous crime they [allegedly] committed? Others judgments are not my problem.

    But perhaps bigotry against a litigator from the jury box IS a client’s problem. Doesn’t give me pause. My sympathy is with a jew on trial himself, if that’s the case.

  2. To Ron #19: I don’t believe that wearing a yarmulke makes a government attorney any less effective. I’m always on the opposite side from them anyway. What’s more of a problem is when female attorneys in the summer time interpret standards of court dress a little too liberally.

    By the way, I am zero judgmental about your choices. You have to make a parnasa, and you have your own local Orthodox rabbi to posken for you. Nobody has any right to wag an accusing finger in your direction.

  3. Shame on you, Ron. At this stage in your career, you should not be so self-conscious about wearing a yarmulke at work, especially in Manhattan. Your essay is just a rationale for doing what I believe you are not really comfortable doing – forgoing the yarmulke. I am an attorney like you are, and I have had my share of non-Jewish clients who LOVE the fact that I am Orthodox. I have discovered that there are cultures – particularly some Asian – that especially respect Judaism and/or being religious. Your whole attitude on this issue, I believe, is an outdated one. There is perhaps a generational aspect to this issue as well, and you will find many younger attorneys who wear their yarmulkes at work. We are now living in a time when some of the top lawyers in New York, such as the Chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell are well-known to be Orthodox. I urge you to drop the psychological baggage that you are carrying over from another era, put the yarmulke on, and have a little more bitachon that it won’t make a difference – because it won’t.

  4. Actually, Judy, if a government lawyer is doing something that may undermine his effectiveness it is “my problem,” because he is a public servant. A lot of government employees have forgotten that.

    Yes, when my hair was dark brown my dark yarmulke was much less noticeable… a lot has changed since then!

    Bob, it’s interesting that you met a Sikh at that level of management. I have never encountered a Sikh lawyer, and that after more than 20 years practicing commercial law in the New York metropolitan area. I am sure the fact that the company was, as you say, “international” was helpful for him.

  5. Judy,

    1. My hair is likewise gray now, but my kippah is still black.

    2. I once interviewed with a Sikh in charge of a department at a major international industrial gas company, and then did some consulting for him. I never saw him not wearing his turban.

  6. What is interesting is that one day in lower Manhattan I saw a Sikh in traditional turban and beard handing out leaflets for a notorious so-called “gentlemen’s club” and bar. He seemed to have no problem with the incongruity of an openly devout individual (who probably leads a very moral personal lifestyle) working for such a disreputable establishment. I’ve met other personally moral Hindus with wives and children who run “adult” bookstores and movie theaters. The attitude among them is that it’s all just business, and as long as nobody is breaking any laws, who really cares. The Jewish concept of “maris ayin” or even the Christian idea that “a person who outwardly professes to be religious just doesn’t do certain things” does not seem to be a concern for Hindus.

  7. To Ron Coleman #12: I have dealt with government lawyers who not only wore yarmulkes but were bearded; they were comfortable with it, and if you had a problem with that, it was your problem, not theirs.

    To David Linn #14: Years ago, my husband Ira was advised to wear a black leather yarmulke to job interviews (part of the whole “dress for success” advice, like buying an inexpensive but new white shirt for every job interview). Against his (then, now gray) dark hair, it looked almost invisible, and it was supposedly more professional looking than a knit or velvet kippah. Sort of like the difference between wearing a suit and tie to the office and relaxing at home in a polo shirt and casual slacks.

    To Mr. Cohen #13: I have heard that years ago Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal gave heterim to male school teachers in rough public schools to not wear yarmulkes (I don’t know whether they were advised to wear toupees or not, as to have some kind of head covering, but not be overtly Jewish for pikuach nefesh).

  8. Bob, I noticed that you used the word “leather” when writing about the yarmulke you wear at work. My assumption is that you wear a different type of yarmulke in your non-work life. Since I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting you in person, I don’t know for sure. If that is the case though, I’m curious as to your reasons for the switch.

  9. My head used to be uncovered in the office.
    More recently I wore a baseball hat, and nobody complained.
    There are heterim to not wear a kipah, but I am not a Rabbi and this subject is very complicated.

  10. The whole intersection, Hersh, of the criminal law and Jew in galus is rife with problems.

    I also don’t think any government lawyer should wear conspicuous religious garb if he or she is involved in advocacy.

    I could go on.

  11. Thank you for your kind comments. Some thoughts:

    Yes, Judy, in immigration law I would absolutely agree that there would seem to be little concern on this score.

    Hersh, what do I think of a criminal prosecutor wearing a yarmulke on the job? Well, since you asked… I have a pretty big problem with it.

    AJ, you make a nice point about “skill related professions.” No, I do not mean to suggest what you said. I didn’t suggest what anyone should do (until the paragraph above!). I just said I felt the pressure and I concluded it wasn’t working out the way it should. Incidentally I do not know anyone other than Jews who practice in my professional “space” — business and commercial litigation — who wears obvious religious headgear or garb other than Jews.

    Indeed, Mark, one of the most successful corporate lawyers I know wears a yarmulke. It works for him.

  12. The more I think about it, a trial lawyer really shouldn’t wear a kippa, especially in light of implicit/cognitive bias research of juries. Can we really expect jurors and judges to turn a blind eye to the attorney’s outward religious expression?

    Doubtful (Eisav sonei es Yaakov).

  13. Although I am not competent to comment on the law related aspects of not wearing, I would argue that the competence issue would hold true with most white-collar professions. So, is the author saying that no one in skill related professions should wear their kippah at work unless they are confident that they are the best at what they do?

    Wearing a kippah all the time is not something I am always comfortable with (e.g., I travel to some parts of the state where it is not exactly a “melting pot” but unless I felt actual danger I would keep it on) I often looked for excuses not to wear, especially in the early part of BT but I really couldn’t find too many legitimate ones.

    My other thought here is that other religions (Muslims come to mind) don’t seem to have that unease with overt expressions of their faith.

  14. In my own area of the legal profession, immigration law, all of the Orthodox Jewish male attorneys whom I know (and have known) have worn yarmulkes. Nobody has ever made a big deal about it.

    With the clients being so many diverse people of different religions, such as Sikhs in turbans, Muslim women in the traditional headscarf or hijjab, Hindu females from India in saris, even Tibetans wearing their unique mode of dress, having a tiny skullcap on one’s head is not extremely noticeable.

  15. I think Ron’s logic makes sense. Are they any highly successful legal professionals who always wear a yarmulka? What’s their reasoning?

    It’s interesting that when the yarmulka is off there is less opportunity for Kiddush Hashem (and Chillul Hashem) because you are less identified as a frum Jew without the yarmulka.

  16. Excellent post-as a fellow member of the profession, I also have worked with the same modus operandi as Ron-when you deal with adversaries, fellow workers, judges, etc, the focus has to be on how well you present yourself as a professional, in a manner that comports with being a Kiddush HaShem at all times. Anything that detracts from the same can’t be beneficial. For those interested, RMF disucsses working without a Kippah on in the office in the first Teshuvah in one of the later volumes of Igros Moshe.

  17. Every profession and workplace has its own people and “traditions”, so we can’t tell others what to wear there, except that it can’t violate Jewish law.

    I’ve been wearing a black leather kippah to work since I took a new materials engineering job near Allentown, PA in 1983. This hasn’t caused me any grief as an engineer. Being the only orthodox Jew, and typically the only Jew at all, in my various departments since then, I didn’t have to deal with what other Jews were or weren’t wearing.

  18. If I ever had to not wear a kippah during a job, my greatest fear is that I wuld get used to it and it wouldn’t bother me. On the other hand, you can’t let it bother you since there’s a job to do.

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