Keren David

I wish the Jewish holidays would fall only on weekends

Negotiating time off for chagim at non-Jewish workplaces and schools can be infuriating


Jewish man in tallit blowing shofar outdoors. Rosh Hashanah celebration

August 17, 2023 13:04

The festive season is still a few weeks away, but for many the preparations are underway, with plans for who will be where and what is everyone going to eat. And — even this year, when most of the chagim fall at weekends — that’s likely to involve booking time off work or school. And learning one more time that the outside world is pretty oblivious to the very basics of what it means to be Jewish.

Take the time my husband was invited to an important meeting, a gathering of a hundred or more executives from all over the world. But it was scheduled in New York for the day after Yom Kippur. What was he to do? He either had to travel before the fast began and spend Yom Kippur on his own, or miss the first day of the meeting.

So he missed the first day. When he suggested to the organiser that the timing wasn’t great, she said, “Oh, I understand. But this was the only day that fit into the calendar for senior management.” She was working in the human resources department of an international bank, in New York. And what’s more, she was actually Jewish herself.

This is not a classic case of Jews Don’t Count, as defined by David Baddiel of this parish. This is a classic case of the Jewish Religion Doesn’t Count — even for other Jews, like the woman who organised that meeting.

Back when I worked for a national daily newspaper, I requested a day-and-a-half of leave for Yom Kippur. My boss decided to quiz my secular Jewish colleague Matt to find out if I was, as it were, over-egging the pre-fast lokshen pudding. Thankfully Matt was a mensch, who stood up for my right to stuff myself with roast chicken and get to shul before nightfall. But I felt undermined, that I wasn’t trusted, and my relationship with my boss never really recovered. And I was also well aware that it could have gone very differently if Matt had been a certain sort of Jew, the sort who doesn’t understand or respect the needs of the (slightly) more observant.

When my daughter was at primary school in the Netherlands, there was an annual event for her year group. The much-anticiapted treat included a cycle through the forest and a picnic for kids and parents. Yes, it was scheduled for second day Rosh Hashanah, a day when even three-times-a-year Jews tend to show up at shul. British ones like us, anyway, but not the Israelis who tended to represent Jewishness at the international school.

In vain, I argued that the school’s entire ethos was based on respecting difference.The headteacher wouldn’t budge. The Israeli parents thought I was mad. What could be more appropriate for Rosh Hashanah than a bike ride, one mother asked me? So my child missed out.

It all brought back memories of my school days when almost every autumn term meant disrupted weeks — weeks in which friendships were made and vital educational concepts were taught. Or so it felt. One year, the school photograph, something that only happened every five years, was taken on Rosh Hashanah. Missing it seemed to symbolise my invisibility as a minority within a minority, because the handful of other Jewish girls at the school did turn up.

Surely now things have changed? Well, my daughter has followed her dad into the world of international banks (both of them working in Human Resources, a discipline you might expect to be aware of the diverse needs of a diverse population). Last year, Yom Kippur was the day they chose to hold a big social “welcome back to the office” event after the pandemic. When she mentioned it at a diversity meeting some time later, her bosses said they’d never considered putting Jewish holidays into the planning calendar. They thanked her for the idea.

The feeling of awkward embarrassment, the knowledge that you’re missing out (not FOMO but JMO) is a central part of being Jewish if, like me, you grew up as quite Orthodox in an almost completely non-Jewish world. Feeling odd, isolated, different: that’s what made me Jewish. But for others, cushioned by Jewish schools, it can be shocking to realise that universities are happy to hold crucial induction sessions on Yom Kippur, or that bosses expect you to attend essential training sessions on Rosh Hashanah.

I’m writing this about the kind of traditional Jew who takes time off for New Year, Yom Kippur and Pesach, but isn’t quite so bothered about other chagim. For the more observant, the annual leave conundrum can make life incredibly stressful, if not impossible. And that shouldn’t be the case. So, assuming the religious authorities want us to celebrate our festivals as they should be, I have an idea. Can’t they make every year like this one and fix the chagim at the weekend?

August 17, 2023 13:04

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