I think I can sum up the introduction to my comical and challenging experiences of navigating Orthodox Judaism in the workplace to:
The first day of my first job outside the Jewish bubble.
That day also happened to be the last for somebody else. And, like many farewell office parties that would follow since, someone brought treats to the team meeting. I received a warm welcome as the ‘new addition’ followed by a short speech from the director that started with “it is with mixed emotions that colleague so and so is leaving us to join a great opportunity at…”
And with that, a box lid swung open revealing an assortment of decadent Prairie Girl cupcakes ranging in flavors from vanilla lemon to chocolate peppermint to red velvet cream cheese frosting. Plates and cutlery were promptly distributed and someone made a beeline for the treats.
“Wait, wait! We have a new member on the team. I think we should give SARIT the honour of having the first pick.”
“Oh, no thanks, I’m okay. Thanks so much. Really, thanks.” I stammered.
Bewildered stares from every colleague in the boardroom were directed at me. “Don’t be shy. We’re not shy with food here. We INSIST you have the first pick.”
A quick calculation of:
- being that girl who won’t touch a cupcake
- taking a cupcake and aimlessly mushing it on my plate with the hope that no one would notice it wasn’t devoured
- telling everyone in the room I keep “kosher”
I went with:
“Oh thanks, they look delicious but I keep KOSHER.”
An uncomfortable silence ensued. The box lid dropped down and suddenly no one wanted to take the first pick anymore.
Since that moment, people have reacted differently every time I’ve mentioned I keep kosher. I get everything from an awkward silence to a guilty look, as if they should have known better to accommodate me, to curious questions about what exactly that means – “does the food have to be blessed by a rabbi?”
I’ve been asked if Red Lobster would be a kosher-friendly place to go for a team lunch, how it was possible that I couldn’t find kosher guinea pig during my trip to Peru, and if I’ve ever “cheated,” equating keeping kosher with cutting calories. My responses usually fall somewhere between referencing split hooves and chewed cud and “any restaurant works, don’t worry about me,” meanwhile panic sets in as I imagine myself sipping ginger ale surrounded by claws.
And when it comes to one of the most frequently asked questions – yes, I CAN drink alcohol. Wine though…”it’s complicated.”
So in an effort to break into office cultures in the past couple of years, I’ve dragged colleagues to dine with me in a hospital food court, I led a team building exercise of decorating a Chanukah gingerbread house, and I insisted on planning my own farewell office party (in the end we landed on a list of kosher ice creams and enjoyed a boardroom ice cream party, toppings and all – highly recommended).
With one foot in the ‘real’ world, I try to maintain my values to the best of my abilities. I’m not always perfect. I once accidentally trusted a public announcement that all the holiday party desserts were kosher, when in fact, well, I found out too late that they weren’t. And the cookies weren’t even worth it. Since then, I ask people if they would be so kind as to save the crumpled up wrappers for me – add to my list of peculiar requests.
So between the food restrictions, the perceivably endless Jewish holidays and early Fridays, it’s been an interesting career journey so far. I’ve thought about my own career ambitions and how for 24 hours a week I am completely unreachable in a world that is increasingly driven by digital connectivity. I can’t help but sometimes wonder if the career trajectory for someone observant almost always leads to: working for a Jew or partnering with a Jew.
And so, I am writing this blog, to share my experiences with you and to hear from you on how you’re navigating being orthodox in a non-orthodox world. And whether you keep kosher ‘fully’ or tell people you are a vegetarian and then get caught eating chicken for lunch (happened to a friend), never say the word kosher and starve at your own goodbye party (ditto) feel like a yo-yo in the month of September, or dash out like hell on a winter Friday deeming you the token MIA colleague at socials…share your stories/insights/advice with me or be a guest on my blog!
To close with a parable
The following story, as overheard by a reliable source, perhaps does an even better job than my cupcake anecdote of summing up a dilemma many in the diaspora are facing:
Two individuals were debating the latest Machloket in a place of sanctuary.
“Do I take my client to a kosher restaurant and pay an arm and a leg?”
“Do I go to a non-kosher restaurant and order myself a salad?”
Now that’s food for thought.
Till next time!
-Just another yid in the workplace