Being Sensitive With Using Jewish Metaphors In The Workplace

Got a question? Fill out this form to submit your anonymous question to be answered in a future column.

Dear Miriam,

I only know of a handful of other Jewish co-workers in my large, mostly remote workplace. In communicating with one of them this week, I wanted to use a metaphor from Jewish tradition that perfectly illustrates something we’re working on. I stumbled on writing the email, though, because I didn’t know whether to explain the metaphor (and risk insulting his knowledge) or not explain it (and risk insulting his knowledge). In general, what’s the best way to handle using a reference that is very obvious to some people and may not be so obvious to others?


Metaphorically Speaking


Dear Speaking,

In relationships, and work, and in life in general, it’s best to avoid insulting people. I think we’re all in agreement there! But when explaining the thing can be a problem and also not explaining the thing can be a problem, I have to advise against the thing in the first place. That is, you might have the very most perfect metaphor ever, and I think you’re still better off avoiding sharing it if you can’t do so in a way that is definitively both work-appropriate and respectful.

Knowing you have a Jewish co-worker and knowing his level of comfort with Jewish customs and familiarity with Jewish concepts are two different things. You don’t sound like you have an outside-of-work friendship with him, so I think it’s best to avoid references to religion in the context you describe. Find another, similar, secular metaphor. Describe what you want to describe in another way. Tell your parents or your partner about this perfect corollary you couldn’t use because it was at work, and let people who will appreciate it congratulate you on making that connection. 

However, just to be sure you don’t think I’m advocating for hiding your Judaism at work, at the right times of year, I do think it would be nice to close an email to your Jewish co-workers with “Shana tova” or “Happy Hanukkah,” or to ask, “Did you have a nice holiday?” in the week afterwards. Unless you have some specific conversation about your range of Jewish practice, though, I wouldn’t add a regular “Shabbat shalom” to your Friday afternoon sign-offs. That’s just not the relationship you have with this particular set of people, and that’s ok.

If you can’t let this go and you simply must share this reference that’s eating away at your psyche, I’ll offer a few options. One, maybe there’s a reason to include other non-Jewish co-workers on this thread, in which case you’re not singling anyone out for an explanation. You could say something like, “There’s a great Jewish metaphor I grew up with that says… and it feels like it applies perfectly to this situation.” If it only makes sense to be in communication with this one person about it, you could say, “I’m not sure if you’re familiar with X story, but I keep thinking about it in relation to this situation,” and link X to a brief online explanation. Or, you could mention the reference, explain the connection, and leave it up to the recipient to google it, or not, and to judge you or feel judged, or not.

This is, on one level, a minor question about a work email. On another level, I recognize that it is a much larger question about identity and being fully who you are at work and wanting to understand your co-workers and who they are. This one email isn’t going to solve the larger questions, but if you want to explore them, consider whether there’s a way to reach out to the other Jews at work outside the context of a work email and establish a deeper connection because of who they are and not just because of what stories you know.

Be well,