Sunday, June 17, 2007

Is my bar too high?

This is a particularly long post, so I'm going to just tell you the topics that I address in this post: representing Jews as a whole, fitting in at work (how to go about getting coworkers to like you), and being in a situation (for me, a highly coed atmosphere) where your standards for yourself are challenged.

That being said, I commence:

My program had a Shabbaton this Shabbat, and Friday night we had a roundtable discussion about being a Jew in a gentile environment. Of course, since we are interns working on Capitol Hill, a goyish place if there ever was one, the questions raised were particularly germane. The underlying question of the discussion: How much of your Judaism do you "flaunt"? Should you be openly frum in your office, or keep your customs/faith to yourself?

The discussion veered in the direction of asking how much of our role in our office is as an ambassador for the Jewish people. Personally, in the office, I feel acutely aware that I am an Orthodox Jew, and so any time someone asks me a question about Judaism, I really think about what I say, so that I don't misrepresent things or mislead people in any way. A few of the other interns disagreed, and told me that I should relax, since non-Jewish people are much more open and accepting of Judaism. But this isn't what I'm worried about - if someone is open to learning about Judaism, they'll ask me a question; if they're not, then they won't - but I am nervous about saying the right thing, nervous that I will make Judaism sound antiquated, not the vibrant, alive religion that I believe it is. I don't think that this is too over the top. If I'm the only Orthodox Jew that someone knows or has access to, I want to be the best possible representation of Orthodoxy and Jewry in general.

I don't quite remember what was said next, but someone suggested that in order to fit in more with your co-workers, if they are all discussing the latest news on Paris Hilton, to contribute to the conversation so that they'll realize that you're "normal." No! I argued. Why do I have to ingratiate myself with my coworkers on those terms? Why should I stoop to the level of having to discuss TV and movies in order to gain their respect and liking?

Now, I used to watch a lot of TV. However, since I spent a year in Israel, during which I did not a have a single TV-show related conversation with anyone in seminary (except to mourn the amount of TV I had watched over my lifetime), I realized that actually you can have fun with people and have good conversations that don't have to hinge on a commonly shared liking of a TV show. As a result, I am trying to cut back on the amount of TV that I watch, and the TV/movies-related news that I see. Now I pride myself on being clueless about celebrity developments and what movies are coming out when. I also avoid watching movies if I can.

So why, when I am entering a summer FULL of challenges to the sensitivities that I've developed, do I have to go backwards and start educating myself about pop culture? That's not my definition of "normal."

When I started interning, one of my biggest worries was fitting in with the other interns. Unfortunately, all the interns I work with currently are boys. The guys reading this might not understand what a big deal this was for me, but I RARELY hang out with boys. And no, boys are NOT the same as girls - it's much different to talk to a boy than it is to talk to a girl. It was extremely difficult for me at first to be able to talk to them, so I kind of just didn't. I would ask them questions about their schools or something neutral, but mostly I didn't participate in any of their conversations. Also, it should be noted that they spend an awfully long time talking about going drinking and hitting on girls - two activities I don't have much of an interest in.

I'm not quite sure what happened - maybe the conversation about Orthodox dating we had and their realization that I would only marry someone Jewish - but the tension I felt lightened considerably. While I still am not best friends with the guys, I find it much easier to talk to them, although there are still some funny moments.

What's my point? I guess it would have been easier for me to "get in" with them if I had just gone out to a club with them, or participated in their conversation about the merits of jailing Paris Hilton. Going clubbing is out of the question. Period. Admittedly, celebrity gossip is more innocuous and innocent, but since I developed the sensitivity of not wanting to know about these things, I prefer not to join conversations about celebrities. However, this does put a sort of barrier between me and the rest of the people in my office - because it's one less thing that we could have in common.

But I don't WANT commonality to be on those terms.

I'd rather share the same values.

Am I setting the bar too high for myself?

Wow. This post is very long-winded and rambly and somewhat incoherent. Am I making any sense? Do you understand my dilemma? Although, to be honest, it's not really a dilemma, since I am sure that I don't want to regress in my sensitivities to pop culture and being around boys casually.

This weekend, I was feeling particularly down in the dumps about the intensity of the coed situation that I'm in, and so basically spent almost the whole day alternately crying or feeling very sorry for myself, neither of which helped to make me feel better. Someone advised me to understand that while I have standards for myself, because I'm in a situation that I've never been in before, I need to adjust my standards, because otherwise I'll go nuts trying to keep to the gedarim that I've made for myself.

But isn't the point of standards is that you draw lines for yourself that you won't cross? Although, I think that this person was right, because if I persist in attempting to isolate myself from the coed situations (which are basically all the time), I will end up very lonely. But when I think about spending so much time casually with a big group of guys, I shudder.


What have I gotten myself into?


Rebecca said...

I understand your pain, because I am in a similar situation. And I will tell you this, on no uncertain terms: No way (!) you should lower your standards. Not now, not ever.

Remember seminary? Remember how you worked so hard to build those gedarim? Remember how much you promised to yourself that you would never bring them down? Remember the real world? Because, that is the real world, no matter what anyone here says. Why should you trade in that real world for some lowly celebrity who will die out of pop culture in a few years or less??

Like I said, I understand your pain. I'm in a similar situation, although it's not full-time. I just kinda space out at the lunchtime conversations. But I still try to relate to them when there are other issues being discussed, and I do try to seem attentive otherwise. You don't want to fall out of the crowd? Fine. I guarantee you that they don't talk about Paris Hilton all day long. If you are really oratorily gifted (if that's the right term), then try to steer the conversation a bit if you can. If you can't then do not join on any circumstances. One slip can cost you more than you would have ever wished for.

Remember that you are an Orthodox Jew, and that you are a member of am segulah and are proud of it.

Please keep us posted.

Rebecca said...

And oh yeah, if you don't like eating lunch with your co-workers, no one said you have to necessarily. I use lunch as an example, of course. If you really don't want to join, make up an excuse not to come. There are ways of getting around this problem.

I recommend this site:


Rebecca said...

And this site:

Ezzie said...

Balance. :)

Actually, I agree completely with Rebecca - you should *not* be lowering your standards. But you should be aware of which standards you have and why, and how different situations do or don't fall into those.

You seem to have a good handle on them, so I'll use your example: While celebrity gossip may be trash, I think that lots of people (Jewish or not) would agree with you on that. You don't need to join those conversations, but you can crack jokes about them if you can do it right about why they care about a dumb rich blonde girl who never did anything of value. (Okay, not a great example.)

But I don't think that when the person suggested knowing about Paris Hilton they meant Paris Hilton per se, but rather the idea of being somewhat aware of current events. I still remember a story that happened to me in HS: A friend and I were doing a crossword puzzle during Seder on the bimah as always [err, long story], and as usual, the Rebbe in charge of Hachana [preparation] was nearby. We were trying to figure one out, and as often happened, he would pipe in the answer. But this time, we were a bit surprised - the answer he gave? "---", he said softly. "Huh?" A little louder, he said "J-Lo." How'd he know? No idea. But he at least listened to the headlines, and picked up a bit on the names, if not the details, of who was in the news. That doesn't mean wasting time on celebrity gossip, but while listening to the news headlines, hearing the little tidbits, too.

Personally, I would actually likely not even do that. I'd find current events issues that I *am* interested in and think are worthy of discussion, and if you need to find ones that other people care to talk about, find ones that they do AND you do. I think people basically respect that not everyone has the same interests, period - that has little to do with Judaism and more to do with personality and interests.

Often, the real garbage conversations are more in the beginning, when people don't yet know each other's interests. I'd guess that as y'all get to know each other a bit better, you'll find more worthwhile things to talk about. The only thing I'd warn about now is you don't want to be 'out of it' where you and the others aren't aware of each other's interests because you never took part in the discussions. You can take part without lowering your standards, though.

(Hmm, that was kind of rambling. Hope it made sense, I'm too lazy to check. :) )

Scraps said...

I agree with rebecca and Ezzie--don't lower your standards, but remind yourself why you have them. You don't have to act like someone you don't want to be just to fit in; it's not worth the price. That doesn't mean you have to seal yourself off from all human communication for the duration of the summer (cuz that'll make for an awfully long 3 months), but you don't have to participate in conversations and activities that make you uncomfortable.

jackie said...

I can totally understand your predicament--reminds me of how I felt at the beginning of high school and in various job contexts since then.

If you're as conscious of your standards as you seem to be, then you'll probably be fine. Even when/if you do toe the line of your standards, you'll feel so guilty that your values will not change.

If you think that getting chummy with the guys in your group is beneath you, don't do it.

At the same time, being the anti-social religious fanatic in the corner isn't so much of a kiddush Hashem either. You can be yourself--be respectful, fun, and easy to get along with--while still sending along the message that you don't exactly view yourself as "one of the guys." And people will respect you for that.

Rebecca said...

Jackie, I agree with everything you say--except the "toe-ing the line of your standards" thing. There's a saying in Chazal I'm sure you know--that once something is done, it becomes easier the second time around, and the third time it's almost mutar. In the ideal world, guilt would prevent us from doing bad things--but that doesn't happen. I'm sure that someone who's a first-time smoker doesn't get it right the first time--they probably put the cigarette in backwards and inhale the smoke--but they get used to it. We get used to a lot of things, which can be good or bad. Getting used to our standards is no different. Like I said, one slip makes all the difference--because while the first slip might seem like a terrible fall, the second slip might be just a baby step down the ladder that is almost comfortable. By the third slip, it's not even a slip--it's a deliberate descent.

But like I said, I agree with everything else you said. I also think it's important not to play on that "super-frum" Jew image and be aloof to the rest of the environment. Like you said, it's good to blend into the crowd without actually blending in your standards. Yasher Koach!

the apple said...

Thank you, everyone, so much. It feels so good to know that a) I'm not the only person who struggles with this b) I won't be the last and c) you all have the same message: don't lower your standards!

FYI, this week, the office situation got much better. Whenever they talk about TV (which isn't too often anymore) I just kind of listen and don't participate - I think they think I'm kind of cute and naive for not knowing too much. That's fine with me. Also, they're very friendly - I know that I'm part of the group and they like me. Of course, I won't join them in drinking or anything. My excuse is that I'm underage (which I am). If someone asks me, I'll gladly give them an explanation of my religious reasons as well.

Rebecca, do I know you? From your comments on Chana's blog, I understand you go to Stern. I wonder if we were ever in class together. And thanks for the links.

Ezzie, I think you put it perfectly when you wrote: you should *not* be lowering your standards. But you should be aware of which standards you have and why, and how different situations do or don't fall into those.
Of course, the key is to understand the situations, and that can be a bit more tricky . . .

And of course, like you said, I don't want to alienate myself to the extent that I end up "out of it." I think that now though I'm good - the guys like me, they talk to me, they joke around with me - I feel part of the group without compromising my conversational and recreational standards.

Scraps, precisely.

Jackie, your advice is, as always, so wise. Your caution about not becoming the lonely religious fanatic is totally apt in this situation (both in the office and at home) and I do need to remember to put it in perspective.

Thanks so much for commenting, everyone! It's good to know that there are people out there who have been in similar situations and can give me advice.

RaggedyMom said...

It helps that since you're in a setting of intellectuals, the level of crassness is likely less than it would be if your environment were different.

It is definitely good to try to strike a balance, as Ezzie said. When I started teaching in an out-there public school district, and simultaneously attending a Catholic grad school, I was for the most part the only Orthodox Jew around. I vacillated between being very different and trying to jump in during those topics/conversations where I wasn't all that different - a little too enthusiastically sometimes!

Lots of hatzlacha as you navigate your own balance during the program! It is our real life, and it's only the beginning - but you sound like you're doing very well with it.

SephardiLady said...

Not being from the same background as you, my dilemmas were less. But I did not grow up watching much TV and as an adult didn't take much interest in it in favor of other pursuits.

During my first "real job" every water cooler conversation was about a certain reality show that had debuted. The show didn't interst me in the least, but it was super popular and was all the rage. But there is so much more to discuss and oftentimes I just asked about co-workers families and kids and learned a lot and still have come off as social.

The challenge is finding what to talk about. I think talking about TV is "parve" even if crass because you don't end up in the awkward position of having to express a contrary view on child rearing, or hot political issues, or the like.

Sometimes just asking questions about college experiences, job experiences, life experiences, etc is best. I had one co-worker who used to own a window cleaning businesses and married young and had his 4th kid. He had a lot to share in casual conversation and it didn't cross lines that I did not want crossed. (Incidently, he was a water cooler reality show pundit too).

the apple said...

RaggedyMom, great observation - it's true that since it's a more serious and focused environment, people do behave in a more refined manner. That isn't to say that the language isn't foul (oh my goodness, what I have HEARD people say!). Thanks for the encouragement.

SephardiLady, yeah, I try to stick to more neutral topics like asking people about school. I've even asked them about their girlfriends/dating history - I'm not a threat to their relationships and sometimes I find that people will wax happily about their pursuit of girls. I actually find it sort of amusing to know what happens in the "outside world" firsthand ;).

D'varim P'shutim said...

I once heard in the name of a great gadol (he said this in reference to boys). That even though he does not encourage 'mixed' settings someone that finds himself in that situation can't hide behind his 'frok' (long black coat). I understood this to mean even though we try to stay away from certain situations they do come up and we must deal with them in the correct and proper way.We have to be sociable,& at the same time keep to our standards. I think
it is very commendable that you have made gedarim for yourself (you are one step ahead) and wish you much hatzlacha !