Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Hijab for the Hostess

Part of wearing the “uniform” of a religious Jew is that you can’t always wear someone else’s uniform.

Let’s take, by way of example, the recent brouhaha at Disneyland over a Muslim woman wanting to wear her hijab to work as a restaurant hostess and Disney telling her she can’t wear the hijab if she wants to work a front-of-house position. Disney’s dress code is very strict, and the hijab simply didn’t fit with their requirements. The question is, then, who’s wrong? Is the woman wrong for insisting that she work her usual job (which she’s had for several years) while wearing the hijab (which she’s only wanted to wear to work for a few weeks)? Is Disney wrong for telling her she can work a back-of-house position and wear the hijab, or she can take one of their costuming solutions so that her head is covered but her outfit still fits with their dress code? Is Disney wrong for having a dress code that doesn’t allow religious expression such as a hijab?

For religious Jews, similar issues might arise. For example, a man needing to wear a kippah or other head covering might not be able to wear certain uniforms that do not allow a head covering. Or, perhaps his tzitzit get in the way or present a hazard by swinging too close to, say, a stove in a restaurant kitchen. (He could probably just tuck them inside, but bear with me.) Or perhaps a woman wants to be tzniut (dress according to the rules of modesty), but the job she wants requires her to wear pants (which are not permitted for women – more on tzniut in another post).

My feeling is this: If you want to work in a place with a strict dress code, you have to either comply with the dress code or choose not to work there, or work with the company to find you a position where you can make a dress-code modification for religious purposes. Disney was willing to work with the woman mentioned above, to give her a position out of public view so that she could wear what she needed to, but she outright refused, preferring to be sent home without pay. That’s her prerogative, certainly, but we can’t say that Disney didn’t give her other options.

I am not willing to say that having a company-wide dress code violates religious freedom, because it would typically prevent ANY type of religious dress, regardless of which religion. Certainly, religious Jews and Muslims have requirements for their dress that are more obvious than other religions’ traditional garb, but that doesn’t mean that the company is discriminating against only Jews and Muslims. The fact is that any company with a public face needs to present a consistent face to the public, in order to maintain integrity and make the customer feel comfortable. Some companies are willing to make modifications to the dress code to allow a hijab or kippah. Some are not. As these are private companies, it is entirely within their rights to make one decision or the other.

In my opinion, it probably behooves the company to make reasonable accommodations so as not to raise the ire of one religious group or another. It's not clear to me if Disney's offers to design a costume-consistent hijab or to allow her to wear it if she works back-of-house could be considered "reasonable." However, if that's the tack Disney wants to take, then it is Disney's right to do so.

A religious person makes sacrifices in many areas of his or her life in order to live according to the laws of their religion. Religious Jews don’t go out to eat with their coworkers unless it’s at a kosher restaurant. They don’t attend company events on Saturdays or holidays. They take time off without pay if they run out of personal days, vacation days, or PTO before they run out of holidays. Or, they find a job within the Jewish community so that they don’t have to make those kinds of sacrifices, but the trade-off is that many fields or types of jobs are closed to them, or they lose out on a higher income, or they end up with a longer commute. And, frankly, there are some jobs that would not be permitted for reasons totally unrelated to dress code, such as cooking and serving nonkosher food!

An Orthodox Jewish woman would not apply for a job at Hooters, because she can’t wear the uniform (in addition to the whole “serving nonkosher food” problem). A religious Jewish man should not apply for a job at a movie theater that requires one to work on Friday nights or Saturdays, unless he could work with the management to be granted a special schedule.

Anyone strict enough to want to wear the “uniform” of their religion should also be strict enough to realize that sometimes their religious uniform will clash with the uniform of the job they have or want. Then a decision must be made: religious requirements, or job duties? I think, in most cases, G-d trumps a human boss.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The “Uniform”

We took the kids to Legoland on Sunday. We have annual passes, so sometimes when we’re looking for something to do to kill a few hours and tire the kids out, we take them there and make them walk. Well, we make the older one walk. Oddly enough, the younger one usually wants to walk while the older one whines that he (at 45 pounds) wants to sit in the stroller. Older boy is almost 4, and tall, so there’s several rides he can go on. The baby is not yet 2 and there’s less for him to do, but fortunately he’s still in the stage where looking at things is fun, too. So he looks at things, and his brother does the go-carts and helicopters and the big slide, and they’re happy.

We always notice the Jews wherever we go. It’s natural to seek out your own kind. I always realize almost too late that the others might not realize I’m actually one of them. You see, I know they’re Jewish because they’re wearing the “uniform.” The men and boys have kippot and tzitzit, and the women are wearing long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, even in August, and many have head-scarves. When you see a family dressed that way, you know you’re looking at Orthodox Jews.

We specifically noticed on Sunday because our dinner plans were to go to a local Chabad’s weekly summer barbecue. It occurred to us that the tourist-Jews might be interested in a convenient kosher dinner, as Legoland is not even 10 minutes from this particular Chabad.

But, because we don’t wear the “uniform,” the religious Jews would not know to look at us that we are also Jewish, and I couldn’t think of a way to approach them that wouldn’t seem weird to me. In all honesty, it might not seem weird to them to be approached, but I’m not the salesperson type, so it felt weird to me. We were coming up with all sorts of ways to get them to overhear us about the barbecue so that they would ask, like getting in line behind them and speaking loudly about our dinner plans, but we didn’t follow through because we felt silly. It came to the point where I wished we had t-shirts or something to wear that designated us as representatives of Chabad or something, even without the “uniform,” so that we’d have a starting point. In retrospect, “Hi, I thought you might be interested in knowing that there’s a Chabad barbecue not far from here, if you’re looking for an easy dinner” might be a good starting point, but, as mentioned above, I’m just not the type to go up to someone and say that.

Which brings me to WHY we don’t wear the uniform.

When you wear a uniform, it serves to identify you to other members of your group, but it also designates to outsiders that you belong to a particular group, whether it’s private security or Hot Dog On A Stick employees or an army. Thus, whatever you do while wearing that uniform represents your entire group as behaving this way. That’s why most stores have their employees remove their nametags or other uniform pieces when they go on break, and why acting inappropriately while in uniform, even if off duty, can be punishable in some arenas.

Since we do not keep Shabbat and holidays or kosher particularly well yet, if we wore a uniform announcing ourselves as members of the Orthodox Jewish Group, people who are not part of the group might see us do something like go through the McDonald’s Drive-Thru or stop at Starbucks on the way to shul on Saturday morning and think that it’s okay for Orthodox Jews to do that. It would make all Jews look hypocritical, for saying that they don’t do “that,” when here are two Jewish-looking people doing exactly “that.”

Perhaps at some point our level of observance will merit us to don the uniform. Then when we meet others of our kind at Legoland, we can unabashedly advertise the Chabad barbecue. In the meantime, though, we'll remain fairly anonymous to both worlds.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where's the Beef?

We are not strictly kosher, but we do try to keep to some semblance of the laws. For example, we don’t bring any non-kosher meat into our house and avoid eating meat at all that isn’t kosher. We never eat meat from a non-kosher animal. We never eat non-kosher seafood. But, we do buy things that don’t have a heksher (a mark designating the food as kosher), and we do eat out in restaurants, but we stick to vegetarian/dairy. The goal is to continue moving toward being more kosher, so that at least in our house we only have truly kosher food, but we’re not there yet.

The other day, we had dinner at Souplantation. For the benefit of those who may not know, Souplantation is a buffet-style restaurant that is basically a huge salad bar. They also have several different kinds of soups, some pastas, and a few other hot things such as pizza and baked potatoes. It’s all-you-can-eat, and there’s a lot for us to choose from there, which is why we like to eat there. They clearly mark all items as “Vegetarian” or “Non-vegetarian,” which is very helpful when it comes to foods like cream of mushroom soup, that may or may not be vegetarian depending on the stock they use.

Anyway, back to the other day when we had dinner there. My husband chose a soup that was clearly marked Vegetarian. As he got toward the bottom, he felt like he was tasting beef, and, sure enough, he found bits of ground beef in his soup. Those were not supposed to be there, and if he had known it was there before he started eating, he would have thrown it away. So, he told the manager about it, and the manager was very apologetic and gave us free cookies, which, well, who could argue with cookies? He said that the soup was absolutely supposed to be vegetarian, and it looked like some of the chili that was in the next tureen over probably spilled into this one. They tossed the whole pot of soup! The manager thanked my husband for pointing it out so they could take care of it.

This, then, is the problem with eating out. If you’re ethically/morally vegetarian but not bound by any sort of law, then a problem like that would merely leave a bad taste in your mouth (literally), but you didn’t eat the meat on purpose, so you’ll just know to be careful. But, when you keep kosher, this is exactly the reason you don’t eat in a non-kosher restaurant, even if you only eat vegetarian. You never know what has touched what. For example, you can’t guarantee that only vegetarian soups have ever been cooked or ladled using those particular tureens and utensils. There’s plenty of crossover. According to the laws of kashrut, you can’t eat food that was cooked in a utensil that has been used for treif (non-kosher food). So, vegetarian or not, it’s not actually “kosher” to eat it.

I say this only to point out some of the more “hidden” problems of keeping kosher in a non-Jewish world. The short answer is, of course, to simply not eat in non-kosher restaurants, which is really what we’re supposed to do. We make compromises so that we can be more comfortable living amongst our non-Jewish friends, but it is incidents like these that make us remember why keeping kosher is so much more complicated than just “don’t eat pig.” The “extra” laws are there for a reason. You never know when you’re going to get tripped up like that.

I was telling a Catholic friend about the incident, and he asked if we keep kosher. It was hard for me to say yes, because we don’t really keep kosher, but we still try to make some kind of separation between our eating habits and those of our non-Jewish neighbors. We try to acknowledge that we do have this massive body of laws that we’re sort of only doing some of, but I think it’s a step in the right direction that we can admit that we’re not doing it quite right.

I do think that making some kind of nod toward being different is better than totally ignoring the issue. Even if it makes me look hypocritical, I still think it’s meaningful to do something over nothing.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bend It Like Beckham

There are movies I’ve seen that if they happen to be on TV while I’m channel-browsing, I’ll almost invariably stop to watch. One of these is “The Princess Bride.” Another is “The Fifth Element.” But the one I want to mention specifically today is “Bend It Like Beckham.”

I mention “Bend It Like Beckham” not only because it is a good movie, but also because of the theme. Jessminder is a teenager in modern London who comes from a traditional Indian Sikh family. Part of her upbringing, in addition to attending traditional ceremonies and religious services and respecting her elders, is that she should marry a nice Indian boy and settle down into a traditional Indian marriage. Unlike many girls in her situation, her parents have not arranged a marriage for her but would like her to make a love match that meets their expectations.

We the viewers know that Jess is secretly playing soccer on a local women’s team. Her parents certainly would not approve of this activity. To make matters worse, she has a major crush on her white, Irish coach, Joe, and he seems to reciprocate.

That’s enough information for now. I do enjoy and recommend the movie if you want to rent it or happen to catch it on TV.

I always feel torn when I watch this movie. We’re supposed to root for Jess as she bucks tradition and continues to play soccer, continues to fall in love with Joe, and works to convince her parents that not only should she be allowed to date (and potentially marry) Joe, she should be allowed to travel to California with her friend to attend college there on a soccer scholarship. That much is clear.

I hope by now you understand my point of view well enough to understand why I’m torn. If this movie were about Orthodox Jews instead of Sikhs, I would not want Jess to date Joe. I would want Jess to find a nice Jewish boy to settle down with and live a traditional Jewish life.

There are movies that have a similar theme that deal with Jewish families, but they are usually darker and less forgiving toward the traditional side. Off the top of my head, I can think of “A Price Above Rubies” with Renee Zellweger (of all people), which hardly paints Orthodox Judaism in a positive light.

The point here is that Jews are not the only ones who face this difficulty of assimilation versus traditionalism. Many cultures have found themselves being slowly absorbed by the majority. Some fight it, while others welcome it. Some have enough influence that some of elements of the minority culture become integrated into the majority. See, for example, the way many pagan rituals were absorbed into Roman Christian culture in the early years of the Church.

Unfortunately, many cultures, religions, and languages have been lost to time due to this assimilation/absorption. It is for this reason that traditional Judaism fights so hard to maintain its separateness from the majority. It’s not out of fear or racism. It’s out of self-preservation.