There is nothing more unpredictable than the irreligious Jew. Their wide-ranging knowledge (generously peppered with gross blank spots) and an amused approach to halacha can lead to some entertaining and tricky situations.
Entertaining I: Joe derides his irreligious relatives for getting star-of-David tattoos and refraining from eating pork on Saturdays. Then, he double checks that there’s no ham in the meat-and-cheese salad his friend offers him. I give an astounded snort but decide that there’s nothing to be gained by arguing the logic.
Entertaining II: Joe locks horns with Joseph on the matter of heaven and hell. He claims the Jewish God is far more benevolent than the Christian because there’s no Jewish hell and you can get a second chance after you die. “For me, afterlife is about how close or far I am to God,” he boasts. “None of that gruesome Dante stuff.” Then he details to me how likely it is that the Torah was written by aliens, and the events therein occasioned by an extraterrestrial specie. I suggest that he watches too much TV, and maybe he should try reading “the good book” in the original, for once. He tells me that he has a gold-inlaid copy in his room, but can’t read a word.
Tricky I: Joe rests his hand on my USB flash drive when I reach to take it out of the computer.
I learned in Israel, when trying to get on the bus to Tel Aviv, that it doesn’t pay to let obnoxious irreligious guys use shomer negiya against you. It is important to very quickly let them know that the playing field is still level. So I reached for my metal thermos and held it casually by the cap. “Three options,” I said sternly. “You give my my drive, you move your hand so I can take it myself, or I hit you over the head with this and then take it.” He eyed the bottle and withdrew his hand. I only had to do that twice more before he gave up the prank completely.
Tricky II: Joe leans back, looks at me speculatively, and says, “Gosh, we’ve been working on this together for four weeks already. We should be best friends by now.” The obvious tack is to make a joke out of it, which I do: “Nope – I’ve never become best friends in less than six weeks.” And “Send in your application – I’ll have my secretary look at it.” Problem is, he does want to be friends. I’ve received casual invitations to purely fun outings, so it would be best to put things straight right off the bat and avoid any misunderstandings. So when six weeks are up and he asks if we can be best friends now, I give a little smile and say, “I’ve only got room in my circles for one male best friend, and he’s got to give me a diamond ring.” Well, that set him back a bit, but only temporarily. “How about just friends, then?” he asks. “Only as candidates for best friend,” I answer. He looks terrified. “You do realize I’m kidding, right?” he asks.
“Getting scared when I call your bluff?” I taunt.
That settled, he turns the matter over in his mind. “So you don’t have any guy friends?!”
“You don’t have anything to do with guys?”
“That’s just…wild! How do you manage?”
“From what I’ve seen of men,” I retort tartly, “I don’t think I’ve been missing much.”
He knows I’m referring to some of his more repulsive and peculiarly male habits, and is silent for a moment.
“Well, what does that make me – an acquaintance?”
“A colleague.” Then, because he looked so down, I added, “A valued colleague, a useful colleague, and a colleague whose company is pleasant, but a colleague nonetheless. I’ve never treated you any differently, have I?” With the possible exception of offering to brain him with a metal bottle, this was categorically true, and he acknowledged it. “But you’ll still be around after the summer, right? I mean, you’re a good person to know,” he said.
“And you’re a useful person to know, so, yes, of course I’ll keep you around.”
That seemed to leave things on good terms, and the topic was only revisited when Joe commented that a diamond ring was pretty cheap; most of the women in his community want cars, swimming pools, and vacation homes. I decided it wasn’t the time or place to explain kollel standards.
That little chat turned out to be the right move – it’s handy to have someone around who understands some of your weirdness. Only a few weeks later, a few of my summer “colleagues” were planning a group outing. Joe, realizing that I would rather not attend, jokingly informed me that I was not welcome to join. I retorted that I wouldn’t want to spend the afternoon with him anyway. The other students looked confused, but were too polite to ask any questions. So I retired to the library, saved from the necessity of quick thinking, and they hit the Big Apple without me.