I’m open about my Judaism at work, but I also don’t make an issue of anything specific about my observance, which I would categorize as staunchly Reform. So I was taken aback when some co-workers were enjoying obviously non-kosher takeout for lunch the other day, and, when they saw me looking at their food, said something that amounted to, “We were ordering non-kosher food, so we didn’t include you.” I don’t care about missing out on this meal, but I do worry about the larger context. So, how do I communicate about my religious practices to non-Jews in a way that’s low-key enough for work acquaintances but also informative enough that this won’t happen again?
Shrimp and Consequences
Sensitivity to others’ religious and cultural needs and beliefs is a lifelong process, precisely because everyone’s needs and beliefs are different. Telling someone you keep kosher could mean 100 different things to 100 different people. (Upping the ante on the “two Jews, three opinions” quip…) Your co-workers don’t need to understand the particulars of your relationship to Jewish practice, but they do need to understand that it’s better to ask than to exclude or assume.
One approach is that next time someone initiates ordering lunch as an office, you could proactively suggest items that are obviously non-kosher. Either people will intuit that that means your practices are different from what they thought, or someone will ask. If a co-worker says, “I thought you were Jewish,” you have the important opportunity to say, “I am. Not all Jews keep kosher,” or, “I keep kosher at home but not outside my house,” or, “I eat shrimp but not pork,” or, “I eat non-kosher meat, but not milk and meat together,” or, “I have my own way of doing things.”
To a Jew with a strict interpretation of kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), the above comments will all ring contradictory. However, most Jews know other Jews who have a different interpretation of kashrut, or know other Jews who don’t adhere to kashrut at all. If you have any traditionally observant Jews in your office, it may be both more and less awkward to share your dietary practices with them. They’ll likely both get it and not get it. Again, it’s not your responsibility to convince anyone, but being true to yourself is crucial.
But your question was about non-Jews, and there’s a breadth of understanding about observance internally that isn’t shared externally. You could just tell them you don’t keep kosher, and leave it at that. But if you feel like providing a bit of education about cultural sensitivity, then it’s worth sharing that not all Jews are the same, just like not all of anyone is the same.
If you don’t want to wait for the next time food gets ordered at work, you could find another time to say to your co-workers, either one at a time or in a group, “I just wanted to let you know that I don’t keep kosher. I’m happy to answer questions about Judaism in general or my religious practices in particular, but I just want to make sure that no one in the office is getting excluded because of real or imagined religious needs.” OK, you’re probably not going to say all that. But I do hope, and I hope you do, too, that if someone did keep kosher, hiding the non-kosher food from them isn’t that much better than inviting them to eat something they wouldn’t.
I guess, then, the takeaway is this: Figure out what you and your co-workers want the office norms around food to be, and then figure out how to get there in a way that is sensitive to everyone. Guessing is never going to be the most astute way of meeting people’s needs, so talk to each other as respectful adults and accept each other’s explanations, even if they’re not what anyone expected.