For historical reasons, French people tend to refrain from speaking about religion, especially their own, unless they know the people they are addressing quite well.
Since I work in a state school, I am no exception to the rule. I don’t really hide the fact that I am an observant Jew either. Or at least as observant as my job allows me to. For instance, I formally ask every year not to work on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. I fill in a form every september soliciting permission to be absent for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since the law makes it possible (an official list is issued every year which states when we, non-Christians, are allowed to be absent from school for our specific Holy Days). In addition I often exchange on different more or less Jewish topics with one of my older collegues who used to live with a now-deceased Canadian Jew. I also remember explaining once to a collegue why I did not eat at school every day and why I only ate cold salads and salmon on the only day I share a meal with the other members of staff on the first day of school, when the head invites all the teachers.
However I must admit that religion is rather taboo in the staff room. I often have the feeling that any level of religious observance is immediately equated with being some sort of ayatollah. As religious culture is not taught in French schools, most people (even teachers, unless they teach history or languages) don’t have a clue about religion, even less so if it is Judaism.
Last week was the first time I spoke about my observance at length. It all happened when a collegue mentioned that she was not quite sure how she could help her husband follow the rules of Pesach efficiently this year. Especially since he wanted to eat kosher meat during that period.
Hearing about this set me going and I explained what I have been doing for the past years to observe this Festival. She seemed to be glad to get some anwsers and was particularly grateful when I provided her with an address for frozen meat and added that one of the local stores was ready to help for Pesach. I told her about learning Hebrew, about he books I had read, the different shuls I sometimes attend. We went on talking about what her husband had started to do. His father is Jewish while his mother isn’t and he is seriously considering conversion.
There were other teachers around us and I was glad to be able to “come out” as a Jew. I believe I rather welcomed the opportunity to be seen as what I am in a natural, unexpected and spontaneous way.
For a much better account of a similar experience, read Rochelle Krich’s Coming out of the Orthodox Closet.