09 Jan Rules in the Hasidic Workplace
A reader asked: Are there any particular rules I need to be aware of when working with Hasidic Jews?
I’ve worked in the Hasidic (Satmar) community since I was seventeen. Not to give my age away, but that’s some fifteen years and counting. These are all the Hungarian Hasidim from Williamsburg and sattelites; not the more AmericanizedHasidim.
There are some Hasidic men with whom I’ve had a professional relationship for my entire adult life, and yet I’ve never had a significant personal conversation with them. Ever. It’s pretty startling. I never said “I’m getting divorce” or “I’m moving.” I just notify them to change my exemptions and reporting address.
When I was first hired by a Hasidic company I was still Hasidic, and as one of its members my employers naturally felt they could expect more from me. I had to sign an agreement in Yiddish as follows: (note, no outsider would ever be told anything like this)
Some of the translation:
From the Organization that Guards our Barriers – Important Laws for Workplaces:
- It is forbidden for a man to talk extra words with a woman, and of course not to get into a friendly conversation, or god forbid to kid around (make jokes) or laugh, etc. It is permitted to talk about things that need to be done, and it is also permitted to say “good morning” or wish “mazel tov” etc. One needs to be careful, however, not to say it in a friendly way.
- If a woman needs to say something to a man, she should not stand too close to him, only at a distance.
- It is forbidden to address a woman or girl by her first name, only by her family name.
- It is forbidden for a man and a woman to compliment each other “personally”, for example to say “you did a good job. It is only permitted to say “the job” was well done. In the event that a man gives a compliment to a woman or vice versa, then the other person must pretend that they didn’t hear.
- It is forbidden for a man and a woman to speak about themselves as “us.” For example, instead of saying “we need to talk to them” one needs to say “they need to be talked to
The above, was the contract from one company that was very stringent. Over the years I’ve learned that there is a great spectrum of religiously acceptable behavior among Hasidic professionals. But I’m showing you what expectations in one company were because it can never hurt to go in understanding that on some level, the ideal of piety in workforces look like that: strict, strict separation of the sexes.
Here is my advice:
- Don’t try to act like an insider. I watch my Hasidic workmates squirm uncomfortably when our secular business partners try to bond over being “Jewish”. My Hasidic workmates have a very different sense of what’s Jewish, and they feel patronized or confused when someone who clearly doesn’t look like them tries to act like them. When someone shows up to a meeting looking like they’d borrowed Hasidic shtreimels from a costume shop, no one thinks “ah, Chaim Burich Mordche, you’re vun of us!” People think: tatte in himel! (which is a Yiddish version of WTF!)
- Know the basic rules of sexual separation. Avoid the dreaded erect handshake. Among almost all Orthodox Jews (not all, but many who look Orthodox) men don’t shake hands with women, and vice versa. Make it easier by casually avoiding the whole shpeil. It can easily be skipped without everyone fiddling with their fingers awkwardly. Eventually, as you know more about that person’s preferences, you might figure it out by either observing him/her or asking directly.
- Also: men and women aren’t supposed to be friends.
- Also: men and women aren’t to pass items directly into each other’s hands.
- Know that there are a ton of degrees of piety. Don’t study one company and then hope to replicate its laws elsewhere. As I write this I already hear the critical voices of each Jew with three opinions telling me that “no, we are doing it like this, we are more pious, we are less pious, no one is like this, everyone is like that, etc.” My default is to never initiate any rule breaking. (That, even though I left and I’m the bad girl! still can’t help many, many years of modesty training.)
- Don’t be their Satan. Don’t try to ask big questions and get your coworkers to simplify when they do what they do. Most people don’t need you to “enlighten” them. Hasidic culture is radically different, and most comments are lost in translation. All you do by trying to critique is show disrespect.
- Don’t be their Rabbi. I have a friend who is what’s called “A Hasidic Double Lifer.” That is, he is a secular thinker, but because of familial obligations is committed to living his life externally as a Hasid. He told me recently that he went into a restaurant in Israel, and tried to order – let’s say – falafal. The woman at the counter was a secular Israeli, and she answered “zeh loh kasher”; it isn’t kosher. That friend tried to insist, and again the cashier said “but it isn’t kosher.” I can imagine that this woman tried to be helpful, but she wasn’t. Never try to impose on Hasidim expectations of piety. Some Hasidim deal with complex scenarios of trying to protect a fragile place in the community for their entire family, but also not always being able to drag around its shackles. Don’t check their compliance, thank you.
- Don’t get shocked when they resemble people. When I was Hasidic and I wore the whole headgear, people consistently gasped if a word of even mediocre intelligence left my mouth. The patronizing gasps! Don’t hold Hasidim to different standards than your average goy. They are born with the same brain. Remember that many Hasidim are ordinary folks who were born into the sects, they did not choose it. Some are bright and self taught in various fields, some curse, some have secret interests.
- People are people. Take your cues from them and ask openly if something is okay. Want to have lunch? Good. What are your dietary specifications? Kosher? What kind of kosher? Good. I’ll look up a place online, unless you want to suggest one. See you soon.
- Give friendships a chance, but don’t fetishize. Here’s my tip: watch out for how someone might open up when they are alone. Hasidim are a very social group; there’s a lot of social penalty for acting “not normal”. Be sensitive to repeating what someone told you in private, even if it seems harmless.Will this help? I hope so. I hope it won’t make you fall over yourself.Hatzluche rabbe! (means good luck in Hebrew, as used by many Hasidim.)