Last week my father remembered an Orthodox classmate from law school who got an interview at a prestigious Baltimore firm that had no Jewish partners or employees. “How’d it go?,” my father asked.
“I had to tell them about September,” he said.
This came up in a discussion, provoked by a lecture in my Ethnic Studies class, of whether or not retention of ethnic markers important to one’s self-image could get in the way of surviving and thriving in the U.S.A. I was arguing that it could; for example, in a job interview – what if you’re wearing clothes of your home country, giving the unintentional suggestion that you won’t relate to American clientele? What if you eat kosher or halal, and you have to tell a potential employer even before you meet that you can’t be taken out to lunch in any of the usual places?
When I left dayschool for public school, I was inducted into the annual chagrin of inevitable first interactions with new teachers: “Hi, you don’t know my name yet, I’m going to be missing many more days than appear as holidays on the school calendar, and it’s really hard for me to make up the work during this time, especially on those holidays for which it’s imperative that I reunite with the rest of the family in New Jersey.”
In general, I boil a pot of Righteous September Indignation and leave it to simmer all season. Giving a test on Yom Kippur is against school rules! I can’t attend class until 8pm because the “night before” Rosh Hashana is Rosh Hashana!
It didn’t occur to me until this summer – when I was in China, dodging pork, of course – that part of my wide-sweeping indignation stemmed from a personal resistance to coming out as “religious” to people I barely knew. My discomfort with that, I think, stems from a basic disconnect between how I see my Jewish observance (completely normal) and how someone else conceivably could (utterly wacko). In high school, I explored this middle territory in mischief – telling a gym teacher, when I’d forgotten my sweatpants, that a Jewish holiday required skirt-wearing, and so forth – but the motivation for this joking around was a sincere uncertainty. (As, I find, is usually the case.) Am I “religious”? Do I get to decide that, or do others judge it? It’s not a tag with particularly positive associations among my friends and teachers and at this liberal school. No wonder I get all tied up in knots trying to explain it to strangers.
In China, a combination of things – announcing daily, “I do not eat pork, I cannot, my religion”; occasionally professing to be Muslim for simplicity’s sake (Islam being common where I lived); and being in a position of scrutinizing, constantly, another culture’s idiosyncratic, centuries-old traditions – opened my eyes, ta da!, to the fact that other people might think of me as religious. Ergo as weird as other religious people. And that they might be right.
This was huge for me. While I’ve spent, in sum, probably a years’ worth of hours drinking in the spectacle of the weirdest religious elements of my tradition – “In eighth grade, I had an entire test on what to do if a mouse brings leavened products into your house during Passover, ha ha ha,” etc. – I had actually failed to process what it all looked like from the outside…partly because I lacked perspective, and partly because it would have hurt to imagine non-Jews and less observant Jews seeing my observance as weird.
Complicated, eh? What do you think?