In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, I sent an email to a colleague letting her know I would be out of the office for two days this coming week. She has what I consider a typically Jewish last name, but I don’t know her well and have no idea if she is Jewish. She wrote back to my email and said, “Happy New Year.” I wrote back, “Thanks,” but now am wondering if I should have said, “You, too.” What’s the right thing to do if I don’t know if someone is celebrating?
I get variations of this question a lot around Christmas regarding how to respond to a greeting that doesn’t apply. Of course, in those circumstances, the dominant non-Jewish culture often imposes the same holiday wishes on everyone, whether they celebrate or not. You, however, are trying to avoid misidentifying someone as part of a non-dominant culture. It’s complicated.
Saying happy new year in September to someone who thinks that means Jan. 1 is a little like wishing someone happy birthday a month late, or thanking someone for a gift they didn’t give you. It’s awkward, maybe a little embarrassing, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Fortunately for you, this happened over email with someone you don’t know well, so there’s not a lot at stake, plus, you didn’t even say it. So with that in mind, let’s play out the possibilities.
Suppose she isn’t Jewish. You handled this absolutely appropriately. You said you’d be out of work, you and she both responded with pleasantries, there is literally nothing out of line or strange about the interaction. What a relief.
Now suppose she is Jewish. If she is also missing work for one or two or three days coming up, she could have offered that information to you. She could have said shanah tovah rather than just happy new year as an insider-y way to indicate her own familiarity. Since she didn’t say those or any other identifiers for herself, she didn’t invite you to engage with her about the holiday. At that point, saying you, too would have been presumptuous, and you were right not to.
As long as we’re speculating, though, there are other options. Maybe she’s Jewish but not taking off work. Maybe someone in her family is Jewish, hence the last name, but she herself isn’t. Maybe she’s a private person and prefers to keep any and all personal information to herself. Maybe she was in a hurry and just wrote the quickest most polite email response she could. Still, in any of these cases, you haven’t done anything out of line.
As for the more general question about how to approach people if you don’t know whether or not they’re celebrating Jewish holidays, continue on this trend of not doing anything awkward. If a colleague or friend of unknown religion says, “How was your holiday?” answer as honestly as you like then say something like, “How is your week going?” For better or worse, the best way to know someone is celebrating Rosh Hashanah is to see them in synagogue, so feel free to save all your specific greetings for that setting, and continue on being polite and respectful to everyone else.
Be well, and shanah tovah,