Work in the Kitchen is not Degrading

When I was interviewed for my job with the Internal Revenue Service, one of the questions asked was “If we offer you the job and you come on board, would you tell people that you work for the IRS?”

My answer:  “Yes, I would.  Just because the pay is rotten does not make the job dishonorable.”

[My response to the question of what would I do if I learned that my father was cheating on his income taxes, interesting, clever, and effective as it was, is simply not germane to this blogpost; perhaps future circumstances might warrant telling that war story.].

My grandfather, who was very well-read and knowledgeable about local and world affairs notwithstanding that his formal education might have reached the equivalent of sixth-grade at most, was a scrap metal dealer whose business entailed heavy manual labor.  I once heard my father’s brother, a self-employed plumber, say to my father, “I never worked as hard in my own business as when I worked with Dad.”

Many of the Talmud sages worked at occupations which would not be considered “professional class” in this day and age.  Abba Shaul was a gravedigger, Hillel was a firewood cutter, Yehoshua ben Chananiah was a blacksmith, and Yochanan HaSandlar (as his name indicates) was a shoemaker.  More recently, Eric Hoffer, one of America’s great existential philosophers, spent most of his working life as a migrant farmworker and longshoreman.

The restrictions placed upon economic activity over the past year have quite predictably caused economic hardships to many people, and have exacerbated the financial conditions of those who were impecunious even before the COVID-19 outbreak.  It is not the least surprising that amongst the Jewish people, for whom helping the less fortunate amongst themselves (and others as well), appeals for tzedaka funds have visibly increased.

Like so many others, my e-mail bin has of late been receiving appeals for assistance, a disproportionate quantity from the “insular” Jewish communities [I consider terms such as “ultra-orthodox” or “haredi” to be inaccurate and misleading]; the irony is not lost that the leadership from those same quarters has strongly condemned the use of the internet (and has even rented out an athletic stadium to do so).

I and many others have received multiple verbatim e-mail supplications, sometimes on the same day (can you say “spamming?”).  One of these I consider to have crossed the line from the melodramatic to the abusive.

The shnor title (and subject line of the e-mail) is “A Chosson Was Given This Degrading Job In His Yeshiva.”  The pitch tells the sad tale of a yeshiva learner of severely limited means who has found his soulmate, and needs help with underwriting his wedding and getting started with married life.  Not unusual, and not particularly invalid on its face.  But just what is the “degrading job,” and how does it fit in with this young man’s needy circumstances?

Yehuda works in his yeshiva’s kitchen but he can’t afford to give his kallah the basic things she needs [boldface emphasis in original].”


What about working in a kitchen is so “degrading?”  For a while, my own son was gainfully employed in two restaurant establishments; his experience there no doubt gave him some insight when he became a mashgiach who supervised some industrial kosher food preparation.  Before this CoronaVirus thing, he volunteered as designated cook for various events, including the Thanksgiving dinner for his American expatriate clique in Israel.

During my teenage years, the mother of a friend down the street from us got a job as a cook in the local high school, which she on many occasions told me she enjoyed doing; I am informed that she retained that job for nearly twenty years.

When I went to day camp during my formative years, Minnie the cook was known and esteemed by campers and staff alike.

It was a family tradition when my wife and I lived on Long Island to go to Philadelphia for Pesach; my wife and her mother would spend days in the kitchen preparing for very large seders (my job was to help out by, among other things, moving the furniture and setting up the rental tables and chairs) One year, during Chol HaMoed, we decided to go to a community Pesach meal at one of the local synagogues.  The kitchen staff, called to step out and take a bow, received a hearty applause from the attendees.

Moreover, many publications directed at an insular Jewish community readership regularly feature, in a most positive light, articles on recipes, food preparation, and other culinary matters.

Clearly, working in a kitchen preparing food is not a “degrading” occupation!  So if indeed working in that particular yeshiva’s kitchen is “degrading,” then I, whose MBA specialization was in Management, would say that it must be laid at the feet of the yeshiva’s administration.

Yehuda’s job may well be insufficiently remunerative for his needs, but I seriously doubt that it is “degrading” (unless the yeshiva’s administration has taken pains to make it so).

Full-time yeshiva learners inherently tend to fall well below the mean income levels.  By calling kitchen jobs “degrading” when they are merely insufficiently remunerative, a mixed message is being sent.  The yeshiva learner is being told that while he is on a noble and holy path of Torah study, he will, on account of his low income status, live a life of degradation.  This would, in the long run, discourage people in the insular Jewish community from embarking upon the full-time yeshiva learning path and from facilitating their children to do so (especially with the increasingly common practice amongst the insular communities of working around if not flouting the rabbinical bans on internet usage, thereby being exposed to these beseechments of donations).

Worse yet, the fundraising abuses by those who purport to help people in need may well ultimately discourage would-be donors from helping the very people who need the assistance.

Those of us who are postured to donate even relatively small amounts to needy individuals and institutions are now giving increasingly careful consideration and thought to our tzedaka activities.  Solicitors of such funds must do likewise.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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