Diary of An Office Rabbi

By Nancy Brenner

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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As Rosh Hashanah approaches, the number of questions regarding my religion intensify and increase.

No, I’m not ordained, nor studying theology, but at work, I’m often consulted as the “Office Rabbi.” Since I’m “out” at work about my religion, I’m regularly queried by Jews and non-Jews alike. It’s part of the new diversity openness in the workplace.

Questions include:

Do I know Matisyahu, the 26-year-old Lubavitch Billboard-ranked hip-hop/reggae vocalist who sold more than 450,000 copies of his album “Youth”? Do I study at the Kabbalah Center with Madonna? Am I fan of “Munich” star Daniel Craig, the newest James Bond? (Who isn’t ?) Do I know the new Mets player Shawn Green? And the one that doesn’t die: What do I think of Mel Gibson’s antisemitic tirade and “apology?”

As soon as a CNN news alert hits on a “Jewish” topic, colleagues and clients call for an opinion on the matter. I became the local daily katyusha rocket tally-board keeper, the direct connection to mission control in Tel Aviv, and the odds maker on the question even Condi Rice can’t answer: “When will Israel withdraw from Lebanon?”

Here’s the oddest one, though: “Do you eat matzo every day for breakfast?”

In some strange way, I’ve become an analyst on the topic of the moment, the Charles Osgood of Jewish affairs. Of course, I don’t have any particular qualifications for this role, other than my 13 years of yeshiva education and my observance. I try to make the most of my unofficial role by dispelling myths such as, “does the rabbi really bless the food to make it kosher?” (No.) I also try to explain the basics of keeping kosher at business functions . This reduces my choices to a fruit or vegetable platter; some colleagues just think I am a very healthy eater.

At other outings, I take a riskier road and request a catered meal ordered in from a kosher restaurant. The food often arrives in a protective double-wrapped, aluminum-foil plate — a guaranteed conversation starter as one pokes through the foil to get to the mystery fish or chicken.

Even without the room service, there are more than enough questions to keep me busy. A frequent one at this time of year is where I can find memorial candles to light in commemoration of the death of a close relative. (In the detergent aisle of most major supermarkets.) Another tried and true one is why I need to leave work earlier on Fridays during the winter. (Because the sun sets earlier and I need to be home before the Sabbath starts at sundown.)

At times I’m torn between being flattered for being seen as an expert on these matters. At others, I am concerned that my personal interests are viewed as limited in scope.

When someone gives me a pop quiz on Yom Kippur, I’m worried that I’m not totally qualified to dispense information. After all, I may have become a tad hazy on the particulars since the last high school or synagogue lecture on the topic de jour. If I don’t know the response to a query, I try to oblige by researching answers on the Internet or asking a better-informed friend for an assist.

Some of my hesitation stems from the fact that I’m afraid to relay information different from those whose backgrounds are less observant. Their memories of the letter-of-the-law may differ from my own. And then there’s always the truth: I’m really not a rabbi, not even of the office variety.

Anyway, to those of you who care to know, I haven’t seen the off-Broadway shows “Jewtopia” or “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” but I have seen “The Producers.” What did I think of the “Springtime for Hitler” number? It really shouldn’t matter — go see it for yourself.

Nancy Brenner works in a public relations agency in New York, where she anticipates fielding questions about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

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