Basic gentile etiquette
January 10, 2017 12:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm a non-Jew and will be part of the staff at a bar mitzvah event (it's outdoors and involves cooking) but I have almost zero cultural awareness of Judaism aside from what I've gleaned from movies. Please help me avoid any really obvious faux-pas. Answers from those with knowledge of British Judaism will be especially helpful, most of those movies I watched were American.

So I'm going to be assisting at an outdoor party type event for a bar mitzvah pretty soon. I'll be one of a number of instructors working with groups of parents and children. Part of the event involves cooking food, so we've had a brief about kosher food and a few of the rules about what we can and cannot touch etc.

However, I'm from Scotland where there is a very small Jewish population that I have had almost zero contact with in daily life. I've had a look online for some basic primers about working with/interacting with various different groups and sects within Judaism, but they are very heavily focused on the US Jewish population and ultra-orthodox communities, neither of which I believe applies here.

So - are there any resources online that cover (or can you tell me about) things I should know when working in this context? I mainly just want to avoid really obvious faux pas and make sure everyone I come into contact with has an awesome day. To be clear - we're not having anything to do with any ceremonial aspects - we will essentially hosting the party afterwards. I'm really looking forward to this and I'm sure the people attending will be very pleasant and forgiving, but I would prefer to be aware of the basics beforehand. The party will be down south near London, if that affects your answers.
posted by Happy Dave to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are you sure the meal is Kosher? I'd be surprised if Kosher catering needs were outsourced like that because keeping Kosher includes keeping separate kitchens (or prep areas, at least) and separate sets of dishes. On preview, it's not clear to me that the reception is being held at the synagogue so yes, more information is helpful.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:28 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


Seconding Room 641-A -- nobody who really cared about kosher laws or strict observance of Judaism would hire a non-kosher company to cater an event. Think of this as a birthday party for a 13-year-old.
posted by phoenixy at 12:34 PM on January 10, 2017 [11 favorites]


We are of limited help without some additional information. You should find out what observance level the hosts are.

This is exactly the sort of detail I have no idea about! I've asked the person managing the event about their observance level.

Are you sure the meal is Kosher? I'd be surprised if Kosher catering needs were outsourced like that because keeping Kosher includes keeping separate kitchens (or prep areas, at least) and separate sets of dishes. On preview, it's not clear to me that the reception is being held at the synagogue so yes, more information is helpful.

We're not actually making any food - we're demonstrating outdoor cooking and the family and guests are cooking themselves. All our gear is separate and there will be separate cooking areas etc.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:34 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


You might not be cooking the food, but are you providing the food? What kind of food is it? What do you mean by "separate cooking areas"? (Are there separate cooking areas for milk vs. meat? If so, they are probably very observant.)
posted by phoenixy at 12:41 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


is the meal you are teaching/they are preparing vegetarian? dairy-free?

As pointed out above, if they were keeping strictly kosher it is incredibly unlikely the event would be happening as planned. They may be observing a less strict form of kashrut by just entirely avoiding one of the two classes of unmixable goods (meat/dairy). The (reform/liberal) jewish day school I attended did this by barring meat in parent-packed lunches - to some this wouldn't be "kosher" in the sense that the goods were still prepped in potentially contaminated/unblessed kitchens, etc, but it did avoid the appearance of unkosherness, at some level.

I think you'e coming at it with an appropriately cautious attitude, but really, if there were some massive potential faux pas in your future it would sort of be on the folks who hired you to let you know in advance, no? they are aware that you are not jewish and are okay with it, right? Without knowing many more specifics (which vary not just by subgroup but also sometimes between individuals) its hard to give you detailed advice - things like shaking hands with women/wearing leather etc. which im assuming you are worried about are also things your employer should sufficiently communicate to you beforehand. If it would help your anxiety, perhaps just a response to them saying youre getting ready for the event (not mentioning the jewish-ness) and asking a final time if there are any special instructions or considerations which you may not have incorporated in your usual preparations?
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:43 PM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]


I should have mentioned that I think it's great you are asking the question!
posted by Room 641-A at 12:52 PM on January 10, 2017 [7 favorites]


Yeah, as a Jew I want to echo what others are saying: if they're the type of Jews you'd need to be careful around (like re: Kosher laws, male/female issues) they would never be using your company. So you won't go wrong just treating everybody the way you usually treat guests at events you organize, don't wear any particularly revealing outfit (I'm sure as a caterer you never do this) and, like, don't ask anybody what they're planning on doing for Easter. You'll be fine.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:54 PM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]


All the food and cooking gear is being brought by the guests. They won't be using any of our equipment or food. We may, apparently, help with moving equipment (some of it is very heavy), but cutting tools, for example, that we will use to cut wood to be used for toasting things over fires has to never have been used for non-kosher food purposes and we won't be lighting fires for them etc. From my briefing notes it looks like at least one of the dishes will include meat.

So I'm guessing they are toward the more conservative end but with some relative allowances? Like I said, this is completely unknown territory for me.

I think you'e coming at it with an appropriately cautious attitude, but really, if there were some massive potential faux pas in your future it would sort of be on the folks who hired you to let you know in advance, no?

I'm pretty sure this will be quite a relaxed event and there is no real stress that I haven't been briefed on something critical. It's more that I'm honestly curious and want to be as respectful as I can be, but without giving the impression I'm walking on eggshells or terrified of offending.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:56 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


Don't touch food stuff if you're not sure you should touch it and you'll be fine :)
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:59 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


As a Jew, I don't see anything about this that I'd want you to be aware of anything special. Everyone's different, but approaching me like I'm some sort of exotic is what really puts me off. We're newly acquainted strangers. Both humans, living in the 21st century. Both with our own unique backgrounds that might seem strange to the other.

I wouldn't worry too much, they'll never be able to understand your Scottish accent.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:09 PM on January 10, 2017 [6 favorites]


In a similar situation, I would have one of my Jewish friends review most basic food rules: what is meat, what is dairy, what is forbidden, etc., just to increase my own comfort level. However, I agree with consensus: they know you don't know, and they will tell if you anything you need to know.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:35 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


The only faux pas you're likely to make under the circumstances you describe is, as you suggest, to act awkward because most people there are Jewish and you're not. (Also the obvious stuff that you're not going to do, like making inappropriate jokes or what have you.)

Really, relax; there's nothing you have to do here that's different from what you would do if you were working a regular, non-religious party.
posted by holborne at 1:36 PM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]


We may, apparently, help with moving equipment (some of it is very heavy), but cutting tools, for example, that we will use to cut wood to be used for toasting things over fires has to never have been used for non-kosher food purposes and we won't be lighting fires for them etc.

I don't know enough about what your outdoor-cooking service entails to grasp what the event is or what your role will have to do with the cooking, but this statement plus people bringing all their own utensils, pans and food (plus you've been told there are things you can't touch) makes it sound like they are making an effort either to be kosher or to allow people who keep kosher to participate.

Assuming that's the case, it is likely there will be someone there who is in charge of overseeing all the food prep to make sure no laws are being broken. He (or she) is called a mashgiach (kosher overseer - pronounced mosh-ghee-ach with the gutteral ch at the end). This may very well be the person who went over the rules with you in the first place. This is sometimes just the rabbi.

Assuming there is one, he will be the person to ask all these questions of - and if someone comes to you with a question, he'll be the one to direct them to. The only rule I can think of that you might be in a position to overlook out of ignorance would be to try to stay conscious / aware of whose pots and foods belong to whom. If someone drops something or picks up something - make sure it's theirs and don't assume since the food's all the same that the person won't mind just taking someone else's.

The other issue might come up is if they're serving wines. Some kosher wines are "mevushal" - they can be opened or poured by anyone, and others are "not mevushal" (bottle might say "Lo mevushal"). I'd err on the safe side and not refill anyone's glass or open a new bottle unless you've been told to do so by the mashgiach.

Only other thing I can think of is that for celebratory meals, it's generally traditional to ceremoniously wash hands and eat some bread before the meal. So it's possible there will be a washing station set up somewhere at the event for those who wish to do so. These are not always easy to find, and staff members may be asked where it's located. So if there is one, be sure to know where it is. It's also traditional not to talk between washing hands and eating bread, so if there's no bread at the washing station, people may be heading from it to their eating area or waiting until the bar mitzvah boy cuts the challah (if they're being extra formal) (doubtful, but I've seen it happen) before speaking. So don't feel weird if you ask someone a question and they can't answer you.
posted by Mchelly at 2:50 PM on January 10, 2017 [8 favorites]


If you are bringing anything that will come in contact with the food, I would just bring a second set, in order to be safe. That's about all. I think any other "mistake" you might make will just be considered cute. For example, my step mother, with no exposure to Jewish culture came to a brunch my grandmother threw one time. She was asked to cut the bagels in half, and she cut them in half top-down instead of side to side. Nobody was mad, they just thought this was adorable. You'll be fine!

The very basics of keeping kosher are:
No shellfish
No pork
Meat & dairy are not to be served together (this doesn't include fish, which is why we have the almighty best food combo on earth, the lox & bagel with delicious cream cheese)

I feel like these are the things that most people even slightly familiar with Jewish culture know -- anything deeper than that I don't think anybody would hold against you for not knowing. Just don't bring a tray of bacon wrapped shrimp, or serve up a cheeseburger and I think you'll be fine!
posted by pazazygeek at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


Oh - one other thing if it turns out this is supposed to be a kosher-friendly (or outright kosher) event. Don't bring your own food for yourself. This includes gum or mints. Assume you are going to be fed there, or that you will eat afterwards elsewhere. You may want to eat before you arrive so that you're not hungry. Bottled water is fine. If you're in regular communication with the person running the event or your employer, this is something they should be able to tell you in advance.
posted by Mchelly at 3:14 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


So my suggestion is, directly ask your party host point person if there is anything you should know about. I am Jew-ish (half Jewish, non-observant family) and don't know what I'm doing at Jewish events half the time. Recently we were at a Bar Mitzvah at a conservative synagogue and I felt like a dork that I didn't realize until halfway through that everyone was covering their heads but me. (I ran out to the lobby and grabbed a kippah to wear.)

I think it's actually totally Ok to say, "I'm really excited to be participating in your event next weekend! I've never worked at a Bar Mitzvah before. Is there anything I should know about in terms of respecting the traditions of the day?"
posted by latkes at 3:24 PM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]


Also, Judaism for Dummies is a good book!
posted by latkes at 3:26 PM on January 10, 2017


Meat in the kosher laws does include poultry, but not eggs. You can't have chicken with milk, but you can have eggs with milk.

The beef or chicken you buy in the supermarket probably isn't kosher. There are additional rules on how animals have to be killed and what has to be done with them afterward. But fish (from kosher species) that you buy from the supermarket probably is kosher, as are fruits, vegetables, and eggs, unless you're talking about someone who keeps really strictly kosher. Rabbis don't have to say a special blessing over food to make it kosher- the rabbis are generally involved in making sure no prohibited foods get in with the kosher food.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:29 PM on January 10, 2017


American Jew here, but I hope this is helpful anyway!

*If you're helping with the food at all, note that kosher meat has already had some salt added by the time it's packaged, so go easier on the salt than you would otherwise.

*18 is a lucky number in Jewish culture (when it's written in Hebrew letters it looks like the word "life" or "living") so things like gifts may come in increments of 18 rather than 10 or 50 or other expected numbers. (When I worked at a Jewish organization I had a non-Jewish coworker who was really confused about why we kept getting donations of $18, $36, $180, etc. until someone explained about this.)

*Some people may keep their hats on in situations where other people would take them off -- for example, I know that in a Christian context it's expected that people will remove their hats in a house of worship or during a prayer, but Jews don't do that. This is normal and not considered disrespectful.

*I think this is pretty unlikely from your description, but if they are Orthodox, it's possible that some of them will refrain from physically touching people of the opposite sex they're not related to. Basically all this would mean in context is that some of the women wouldn't shake hands with you when you meet, so don't be offended if that happens.

I promise they're VERY used to explaining all this stuff when it comes up, though.

P. S. Coming from Scotland, you already have an advantage in Hebrew over your English coworkers if you can pronounce guttural "ch" sounds :)
posted by ostro at 9:15 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


Thank you everyone for your answers. There's some very useful bits and pieces in there I had no idea about, so this is very helpful. Stuff like the bread-cutting and silence observations will be very helpful, should anything of that nature happen through the day. And not bringing my own food is a good point - the outdoor nature of the work means I sometimes carry snacks, but I won't on this occasion. Plus the primer on kosher food is both fascinating and useful, even though we won't be directly cooking the food.

As a Jew, I don't see anything about this that I'd want you to be aware of anything special. Everyone's different, but approaching me like I'm some sort of exotic is what really puts me off. We're newly acquainted strangers. Both humans, living in the 21st century. Both with our own unique backgrounds that might seem strange to the other.

Please be assured that's not my intent at all. This is half curiosity and half a personal preference to heavily research everything in advance that I apply to pretty much everything in life. I'll also be dealing with large groups of all ages, so it's not really going to be a one-on-one getting-to-know-you situation, more just wanting to do the best I can for that group.

P. S. Coming from Scotland, you already have an advantage in Hebrew over your English coworkers if you can pronounce guttural "ch" sounds :)

Hah, very true. L'chaim!
posted by Happy Dave at 1:52 AM on January 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


Don't bring up Israel's politics or foreign or domestic policies. There are places online where you can debate that to your heart's content (or until you've had all you can stomach). This isn't the time or place for that. Same applies to debates about Judaism versus other religions or versus no religion.

General rules of interacting with people from a minority culture apply:

Don't bring up any stereotypes of Jews that you may have heard. Positive or negative.

They probably don't know any Jewish celebrities, any more than you know all Scottish celebrities.

Don't ask them why Jews do X. Don't ask why they don't eat pork, for example. If they wear yarmulkes, don't ask why. They're there to celebrate a kid turning 13, not to explain Judaism or Jewish culture to you.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:20 AM on January 11, 2017


Thank you - I had not intended, or even considered, doing any of those things. Please bear in mind I'm not some dude going to a bar mitzvah, I'm going to be working. All of the above would be out of my personal bounds in a work context regardless of faith or politics.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:15 AM on January 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


I think the world would be a much better place if everyone observed boundaries like that in work settings. Unfortunately, not everybody does.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:09 AM on January 11, 2017


Re: personal snacks - If you change your mind and you do want to bring some food for yourself, whole fruit is a safe bet. Until it's cut, all whole fruit is kosher - so anything you can eat by hand is definitely safe and anything you'd want to cut is fine as long as you're using an event-okayed knife (whatever knife you're already using there is fine - milk or meat).

I promise as members of a religious minority, anyone there is comfortable anticipating when they might need to explain something unusual. For instance, anyone I know that observes the tradition of not touching the opposite sex has a reflexive recoil and a clear, concise explanation ("I'm sorry, I don't touch") whenever someone sticks out their hand to shake.

Since it's a Bar Mitzvah, it's likely that many in attendance won't be Jewish themselves. If anyone else makes a mistake and, say, contaminates a piece of cooking equipment - don't help them try to cover it up, just talk to someone in a supervisory position about what to do. They'd far prefer to have to dispose of something contaminated (it's fine, there's procedure) than unknowingly use and eat off of contaminated equipment.
posted by R a c h e l at 1:36 PM on January 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


Hello all! The event went very well and the answers in this thread were a great help to me and others on my team, mainly just in knowing what was happening and why. It was very relaxed and fun and I think everyone had a great day, despite a lot of drizzling rain. Thanks again for all your responses, I appreciate it.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:21 AM on January 17, 2017 [4 favorites]


« Older Thinking about a career change that would require...   |   Looking for an 80's cartoon with a robot saying... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.