Years ago in Seattle I worked for an insurance company with just one Jewish employee, a good friend. He invented Jewish holidays, taking days off several times a year. As the only other employee at all familiar with Judaism, I could have finked on him or kept silent and been disloyal to my employer. I kept silent. Was that the right choice? — WALTER HENRY, DOWNEY, CALIF.
It was an acceptable choice. ... This is not to justify your friend’s actions. He lied to his boss and burdened his co-workers, who presumably filled in for him while he was out cavorting.
So says my head . . . but my heart says mazel tov! This imaginative scheme imposed a tax on ignorance, penalizing an employer for lacking even a cursory grasp of a world religion’s holidays. Such a plan could encourage all of us in our diverse, immigrant nation to learn more about our neighbors, or reward them with extra vacation time if we cling to our provincialism. Diwali — real or imaginary?
I do have some sympathy for your boss. When I was growing up, autumn’s Jewish holidays seemed to occur in such rapid succession that I half suspected our rabbi of inventing them to qualify for some kind of bonus.
Send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a daytime phone number.
Something that has changed over my lifetime is the decline of "Is it bad for the Jews" thinking on the part of Jews about the behavior of other Jews. While "Is it good for the Jews" thinking by Jews about the behavior of non-Jews is going strong, the urge among Jews to chastise other Jews for bad behavior that might offend non-Jews has gotten rarer and rarer. (You can occasionally find manifestations in Jewish publications such as The Forward.)
You might think that Randy Cohen would have written something like, "To my fellow Jews: please do not cheat non-Jews (or Jews, either); especially, do not play tricks that call attention to your Jewishness. It's bad for the Jews." But, fewer and fewer Jews worry about other Jews making a bad impression anymore.
Here's an exception that validates the tendency: I vaguely recall a minor incident from early in this decade in which some British journalist (perhaps Toby Young?) was complaining because the New York Times had censored some phrase of his, such as "for Christ's sake" or something like that. The NYT copyeditor explained to him, roughly, "The New York Times is a Jewish-owned newspaper in a mostly Christian country. Thus, the copyediting policy of the New York Times is to not treat the name of Jesus Christ with casual disrespect."
I thought to myself, "Wow, that's really old-fashioned. You don't see much of that kind of thinking anymore." Of course, copyediting is a bastion of traditionalism.
That kind of prudence-based respect is largely gone. What you see now is a fair amount of public expression of Jewish anxiety about right-wing Christians coming after them with pitchforks and torches and such, but, the psychology is 180 degrees different from the copyeditor's. The people claiming to be terrified of being oppressed by Christians aren't acting like they are. Indeed, they act as if they hold their putative oppressors in contempt for being weak.
The simplest explanation for this sizable change is that Jews in America have gone from being the underdogs to the overdogs. But nobody is supposed to mention this historic shift in public.