Gratitude is perhaps the most primal expression of psychological and spiritual maturity. And that means being grateful for everything. Even struggle. Even pain.
In 2012, when Dennis Pitocco conceived his publishing platform, BizCatalyst 360°, the pandemic still loomed far off in an unimagined future. But when the world shut down in 2020 and deprived us of human interaction, his online network rapidly coalesced into a vibrant virtual community of writers and thinkers. Since then, many of us have come to think of ourselves as friends, and even family.
Last week in Tampa, Florida, 50 participants closed the circle at a two-day conference to share ideas and inspiration. Most of all, we came to meet face-to-face and show appreciation for the colleagues and close acquaintances who have enriched our careers and our lives.
Other attendees will have much to say about our unconference. I want to share one distinctly personal anecdote.
Midway through the first afternoon, Allison Kenny took the mic and invited us to spend a few minutes filling out a worksheet. Her topic: belly dancing.
Allison said she would be back in a moment, then disappeared out the door. That’s when my antennae started vibrating. I quietly crossed the room to Dennis and asked, “Is she going to be dancing?”
According to strict Jewish law, men are not allowed to watch women dancing (especially women clad in belly-dancing attire). At traditional Jewish weddings, a partition divides the banquet hall; women dance on one side while men dance on the other. Some halls are constructed so that men and women celebrate in different rooms.
Dennis responded to my question in the affirmative, which meant that I would have to excuse myself. I briefly explained my issue, then slipped outside onto the patio for the duration of Allison’s presentation. When she finished, I received the all-clear sign and returned to the room, remaining at the back and attempting to appear innocuous.
Although I wanted to support a fellow member of our community, there was no way for me to circumvent the restrictions of rabbinic law. Nevertheless, I wanted to make sure Allison understood the reason for my absence, so I planned to speak to her privately after the program was over. I assumed that the other attendees wouldn’t give much thought to my absence.
NOW HEAR THIS!
Dennis had other ideas. Before moving on to the next phase of the program, he announced, “I think it’s worth mentioning that Yonason had to step out of the room because his faith doesn’t allow him to watch a woman dancing. It speaks well for our community that each of us can hold true to our own principles while still being respectful toward others who have different values.”
He then went on to repeat the rest of our earlier conversation:
Dennis: Would it be a problem if I got up to dance?
Me: That would raise an entirely different set of issues.
The resulting ripple of laughter might have broken the tension. Except that there was no tension to break.
Do I ever experience awkwardness balancing the obligations of Jewish law against the expectations of the secular world? Of course, I do. Female colleagues with whom I’ve grown quite cordial often want to give me a hug; occasionally, their sincere expression of collegiality arrives so unexpectedly that there’s no graceful way to avoid it. Business conversations and meetings may take place in non-kosher restaurants, where I’ll nurse a beverage while everyone else enjoys a meal. It’s happened that I can’t attend events I’ve organized myself because they fall out on Jewish holidays.
That’s not the challenging part.
Simply holding my ground and honoring my principles is not enough. Just as important is doing so in a way that doesn’t cause embarrassment, inflict discomfort, or indicate a lack of respect. That’s why I need to understand the laws well enough to know where they can be bent without breaking them and without appearing inconsistent.
The balancing act can be far from simple.
WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK?
Despite Dennis’ announcement, I assumed the episode would pass without further comment. But I was mistaken. Indeed, what happened next was as gratifying as it was unexpected.
Paul Haury approached me and said, “I so admire you for standing firm in your values.” He went on to share the story of teacher-colleagues who once criticized him for allowing a Muslim student to go to one side of the room to recite his prayers. He and I rolled our eyes at those who find reason to take offense at the cultural practices of others.
A bit later, Mariah Edgington found me and said “As much respect as I had for you before, I have even more for you now. In today’s world, finding people who live their values is so rare and so inspiring.”
When I approached Allison, the belly dancer, she was beyond gracious. She thanked me for coming over to explain myself, asked thoughtful questions, and expressed how grateful she was to be able to discuss the topic maturely and politely with a member of the clergy — which has not always been her experience. We also discovered that she shares my reverence for the late British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and his remarkable ability to remain firm in his principles while exuding grace and respect toward people from every background and worldview.
STAND BY ME
Ironically, and sadly, the progressive drift of modern society has turned many traditionalists into apologists for their traditions. Jews and gentiles alike convince themselves that an increasingly libertine world will think less of them if they openly espouse their commitment to time-honored values.
Countless generations ago, the Jewish sages asserted precisely the opposite: the more we conceal or compromise our foundational beliefs, the more contempt we elicit from the culture around us. Conversely, by demonstrating that traditional values are alive and well, we may provide reassurance to those disaffected souls who feel battered by the winds of hedonism. Rather than responding with disdain, perhaps they will take heart to discover that not all have abandoned the ways of established moral discipline.
When we display commitment to solid principles, when we learn to articulate our values so others can understand even if they don’t agree, when we live lives that project integrity and dignity, then we contribute to a respectful society, a stable culture, and a more harmonious world.
Being sadly absent to the belly dancing event, I much enjoyed your piece, Yonason, with the awareness that you didn’t try to stop anybody else from dancing and, it seems, didn’t lecture them, either, on why this was a really bad idea making them all horrible people.
That, I believe, is the thorn in the side of many – that they are told they are bad for not adhering to the practices of other’s faith’s tenets. (Perhaps reinforced by knowing that often they are not even adhering their own proclaimed faith’s tenets and then feeling they have to push back when others have the integrity to walk their own talk. But that is probably a discussion for another day.)
Thanks for this article and explaining your perspective and how you observed what happened around you. I felt bad first that you had to leave but then realized it is your values and faith that made you take that action and that you were not “sad” or “feeling bad” to leave. No wonder you are our ethics person! IT is so important to talk and share these because we really don’t know what people think and feel behind what actions they are taking in depth.