Latest update: July 15th, 2013
We recently marked the secular new year, and while there’s nothing inherently Jewish about it, perhaps one of the practices associated with January 1 can help ameliorate a shortcoming not at all uncommon among Jews in the workforce.
Throughout the month of January, many of us are asked questions about our new year’s resolutions. We can simply respond that we don’t celebrate the holiday and leave it at that, or we can use this time of year as an opportunity to demonstrate the Jewish impulse to doing teshuvah.
As Jews, we are – or at least should be – in a constant state of self-examination geared toward self-improvement. With that in mind, January just might be an excellent time for a cheshbon hanefesh – a spiritual accounting – on the part of otherwise observant Jewish men who, even in the year 2007, are still reluctant to wear a yarmulke to work.
The reasons for eschewing a yarmulke on the job range from fear of anti-Semitism to general embarrassment at appearing different. The latter was always my rationalization or excuse – one I now wish to refute.
My career happens to be politics, where everything is about first impressions. Those who meet you want to believe and trust in what you are representing or advocating.
My first political employment was at a Miami-based law firm that specialized in lobbying Congress on a myriad of issues. It was in this environment of advocacy that I consciously decided not to wear a yarmulke. I was worried about fitting in and felt that wearing a yarmulke would prevent me from becoming part of the political-social network, thereby impinging on my ability to adequately represent important causes.
Later, working for Congressman John Doolittle (R-CA), I was unable to reconcile the notion of publicly displaying my faith with the strong political image I was attempting to project. The funny thing was, I couldn’t explain to co-workers why I kept Shabbos and kashrus but yet didn’t wear a yarmulke.
I went on to work for Congressman Chris Cannon (R-UT) and at the time was very involved in my Jewish community. I often found myself being asked by friends and acquaintances if I wore a yarmulke in the office. My response had by now undergone a process of evolution. I’d tell them I didn’t wear one because I wouldn’t want people to think I had a secret agenda regarding Israel or the Jewish people.
Talk about rationalization – I had actually convinced myself that the decision to forgo my yarmulke was some sort of noble choice on my part.
I left Congress a few months ago to start a political public speaking program with my (Democratic) father and to head up The Conservative Coalition for Israel. At first I was sure I’d continue with my bareheaded approach, but this time there was a difference. I had, by now, a more spiritual group of people in my life, including my dear wife, and they deeply affected my thinking. It was time, I knew, to try wearing a yarmulke at work.
I’ll admit it was a scary thing to wear a yarmulke on the job that first day, especially after I’d gone so long without one. And it is still a little embarrassing when I meet Congressional staffers and former co-workers who always knew me without the yarmulke. This embarrassment, however, is starkly different from the embarrassment I’d felt before at the thought of putting on my yarmulke. I now was embarrassed that I hadn’t had the guts to put on the yarmulke from the beginning.
Politics can be crass and painful, but now that I wear my yarmulke at work I try harder than ever to reflect the positive attributes of a Torah Jew, and it’s an immensely rewarding experience. I am much more careful with my language, am more truthful, and my work ethic is the strongest it’s ever been. I believe people expect more of me because I am visibly observant – but I also now expect more of myself.
I constantly hear observant businessmen lamenting their inability to learn as much Torah as they’d like to. The fact of the matter is that not all of us are at the place in our lives where we can spend as much time learning as some of our peers. The yarmulke, however, is an important tool in living a Torah lifestyle. With a yarmulke, it is easier to remember what separates us from God and what brings us close.
Perhaps at some point God will want me to learn Torah 12 hours a day, but in the interim I am going to make a Kiddush Hashem throughout my workday and try to live Torah in each and every one of my daily activities. My yarmulke is a visible sign to others – and an ever-present reminder to myself – of that commitment.Maury Mordechai Eliyahu Litwak
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