Monday, February 9, 2015

Why We Ask: "What Do You Do?"

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg recently wrote a thoughtful post entitled "Don’t Confuse Earning a Living with Living", in which he relates a story about an encounter he had with a stranger sitting at a wedding.
At the meal, I found myself sitting at a table of people I had never met.  In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?”  He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living?  I earn a living as a plumber.  What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.”  His answer remains etched in my memory as he taught me a profound lesson that day in that short, but poignant answer to my simple social question.
Culturally, at least in the United States, "What do you do?" is the first thing you ask to someone that you don't know. It's an ice-breaker; a way to start a conversation. Tell me about yourself. Yet, after I made aliyah, I noticed that Israelis almost never ask this question. They ask different questions: "Where are you from?" "Where did you serve in the army?" To Anglos (like me), they'll often ask, "You're from America, right?" (It's a game where they try and identify you from your accent. It's not hard.) But they don't usually first ask about your profession.
That got me thinking about the differences between cultures and countries, and wondering why people in the States ask about and identify a person through his or her profession.
I think, at least subconsciously, "What do you do?" is also a question about money and social status.
When you ask, "What do you do?" you're also asking another question: "How much do you earn?" Because if you're a lawyer or a doctor, I can place you in one social sphere. If you're a plumber, you're in another; a teacher or social worker? Yet another. (When they asked me the question and I told them that I was the rabbi of a shul, people would inevitably ask me the obvious follow-up: "Really? How many families?" It's the same question: Are you the rabbi of some small shtiebel, or are you an "imporant" rabbi of a significant community?)
We assess people by their earning power, and extend to them social status commensurate to that financial wherewithal. It's sad, but too often true. Think about the shul you attend: how do people relate to the doctors, compared to how they relate to the physical therapists? It's not a question of how many aliyot a person gets, but a question of voice, deference, and communal authority.
In Israel, people earn far less money, and doctors and lawyers don't really earn much more than teachers (which is one reason why it's so hard for American doctors to make aliyah). There are very few truly rich people, at least where I live (to the best of my knowledge). I have no clue how much people do or don't earn.
This type of subconscious assessment is only natural. The people with greater means do get a greater say. We need them - at least externally - more than we do everyone else. Their donations keep the lights on; they pay for the kiddushim we enjoy, and for the rabbis' salaries as well. We have to give them a voice, especially in the decisions of the institutions that they support. Yet, this unspoken preferential treatment alienates those who don't fit the bill: the teachers, the marketers, the plumbers (although plumbers do fine, from what I hear).
I'm sure that Rabbi Goldberg meant none of this when he asked the plumber "What do you do?" Yet, in some part of his mind, I'm also sure that the plumber heard a different question: "Hello. I don't know you. Are you an important person? Does your profession make you someone I should respect?" To this question, instead of answering, "Actually, I earn a living wage by putting my hands in people's waste all day long," he chose a different path - an understandable one from that point of view. I wonder whether the plumber would have had the same reaction had his chosen profession been to own a chain of plumbers which served six states. Perhaps yes, although I doubt he would have reacted so sharply to the question.
Throughout the school year at Orot, we invite groups of young women serving in Sherut Leumi (National Service) for in-service days (yemei iyyun). Often, I give a seminar called "Finding the 'Me' Among the Masses" (מצאית ה"אני" בתוך ההמונים), in which we speak about balancing the need to actualize our individuality with the needs of the community and the country. I always begin this seminar by doing an exercise called "Why Do You Do What You Do?" (or WDYDWYD), a seminar that's given in business and school settings around the world. I do a little exercise where I ask the students to spend five minutes drawing a picture that explains "Why they do what they do." 
It's harder than you think, because before you can answer the question "why", you first have to ask yourself, "What do I do?" - a question that can be as narrow as "Why am I sitting in this room?" and as broad as "Why am I serving in Sherut Leumi?" It's always an incredible exercise.
Each time I give the seminar, I also draw a picture. During the first years after our Aliyah, I always drew a picture of my family. I interpreted the question to mean, "Why are you giving this seminar in Orot today? Why did you leave the rabbinate and make Aliyah?" The answer, to me, was always for the sake of my family and my children. Yet, each time I drew that picture, it forced me to ask other questions: If I really am doing it all for my kids, why don't I spend more time with them? (This actually prompted me to take a day off from work and take them on a tiyyul.)
Perhaps the question we should ask people when we meet them for the first time isn't "What do you do?", but instead, "Why do you do what you do?" 
That question would lead to a much more fruitful and interesting conversation.