I Give Up When Quitting Your Job Is the Answer to Everything
The email some anonymous stranger had sent to my boss was an agonizing reminder of how I lived, the choices I made, and the priorities I held close.
This is I Give Up , a new series from Catapult magazine on the things—habits, expectations, jobs, ambitions, futures, and more—that people have let go of in the past few years.
It was less a coincidence than an inevitability that, when my boss Chana rage-texted me, I had just been complaining about her. Nothing unusual, bog-standard boss complaints. “She’s up my ass constantly,” I had been saying. “If it takes me longer than an hour to do anything , she bitches about it. And speak of the devil, she’s texting me right now!” Then I opened the text, and my stomach fell through the floor.
Chana was asking me, in effect, why someone had emailed her a “heads-up” about my online activity. I read the attached email and decided it had to be a rhetorical question. Why did some anonymous stranger email her screenshots of me joking about how much I hated my job? Why did that same person tell her I posted slutty pictures of myself online and that she shouldn’t keep me as an employee? Why the hell did she think?
If I worked at any other office, the fear might have felt less icy and immediate. But this was Chana’s office, where approximately a dozen people worked, where most of those people were Chana’s immediate family members, and where, perhaps most importantly, nearly every employee other than me was a Hasidic Jew.
I was a much more casual kind of Jew, the kind that my coworkers usually (and not jokingly) referred to as a goy. Yet I’d grown accustomed to the unusual rhythms of life in a religious office. I could tolerate Chana’s insistence on explaining even basic Jewish observance to me as if I were a toddler. I appreciated leaving work at 2 p.m. on Fridays and taking in the Hasidic neighborhood’s pre-Shabbos frenzy as I walked to the train. I had developed a Stockholm syndrome–like taste for even the foulest kosher lunch options on our block, particularly the pizza , which despite my affection for it chewed like raw dough and tasted like salt. Yet none of these little pleasures could distract me from the fact that working for Chana caused me pain—not the ordinary pain of toiling away at a boring job for bad pay, but something deeper and older.
I heard her yelling at her clients and then heard it a second time later, in my dreams at night.
Every day I had at least one moment of hating, really hating , my job. Not just feeling bored or cranky but wanting to take a match to the entire job so that not only would I never have to do it again but neither would anybody else in the world. I liked my coworkers but rarely got to deal with them directly. Instead, I sat in Chana’s office less than ten feet away from her, our desks facing each other. I heard her yelling at her clients and then heard it a second time later, in my dreams at night. Chana had a gift for waiting until I was busy to start a conversation with me, regardless of how busy I looked or whether I was on the phone with a client. As soon as I was focused on something, she suddenly remembered she wanted to talk to me about her weekend or ask whether I’d seen A Star Is Born . And I wrote all her emails for her—if you thought you were emailing Chana between 2018 and 2020, you were in fact talking to me, and I had to pull all the answers to your questions out of my ass because she had no patience for them.
None of this is unusual for a workplace, and none of it is really why I hated my job. Drudgery, frustration, and having other people take credit for your work are all universal prerequisites for wage labor. No, I hated my job because I had also taken on the secondary job of proving myself as a Jew to my coworkers and boss, and not only did I make no money at that secondary job, but I was also failing at it.
Some Hasidic Jews don’t recognize the legitimacy of less-religious forms of Judaism—particularly my own form, which entailed a steady diet of meatball pizza and Friday-night phone use. Whether my coworkers recognized me as one of them or not didn’t matter. I was convinced they didn’t see me, and I wanted to make them. The problem was that I had no interest in emulating their restricted but spiritually meaningful lives. At the same time, my own life didn’t have a substitute for what they had in Judaism. When I was sick, nobody brought me soup or a kugel. When my father died, nobody sat at my side, gritting their teeth through the boredom of spending time with a person who’s in mourning. I didn’t want to live the way my coworkers lived, but the more time I spent absorbing their customs and listening to them joking around in Yiddish, the less I wanted to live the way I lived, either.
This email some anonymous stranger had sent to my boss was an agonizing reminder of exactly how I did live, the choices I made and the priorities I held close. Why did I joke online and in public about how miserable I was at my job? What was the point of posting all those scandalous photos? Hell, what was the point of anything I used to fill my time? That’s how I thought of it: filling my time . As if the time I had on this earth was this ugly bucket to be filled and refilled until it was spent .
Chana would never have tweeted those profane things or taken those slutty pictures. The rest of my coworkers wouldn’t have either. The very impulse to do so was unrecognizable to them. All my coworkers had taken religion for their guide to some degree, some with total piety, some more casually, but all of them had taken it, and the reward was that they knew what they were supposed to do in any scenario, or knew a rabbi who knew. In situation X, Hashem expects Y. How restricting, yes, but also: How comforting!
I had no such guiding force. I was flailing from one poorly managed impulse to the next, ignoring the chasm of consequences that spread out under my feet until it swallowed me. I showed off my body online because I thought it looked good. I joked about Chana’s flakiness online because I thought it was funny. My math was as simplistic as an animal’s: Have impulse, do thing, forget. When Chana sent me that text, the ice in my gut wasn’t fear of losing my job. It was fear, for the first time, of what could happen when I fulfilled an impulse. The impulse had circled back on me. It wanted its due.
In situation X, Hashem expects Y. How restricting, yes, but also: How comforting!
I suspected that Chana didn’t plan to fire me. It would have taken months to train a new admin to do everything that I did for her, and with all employees working remotely during Covid, the last thing she needed was a trainee’s clumsy labor gumming up her operation. She wanted an apology. My goose was not necessarily cooked.
I considered the prospect of staying. Most of my coworkers were Chana’s relatives. If they didn’t already know about the email, they would by morning. Did I want to be the object of this tightly knit, religious family’s workplace gossip? I did not.
And then there was the fact of my book deal. I had, at that point, sold my manuscript less than a month before. I had a little money coming in (a very little money, which won’t surprise you if you’re familiar with the way the publishing industry treats paperback essay collections). I would no longer have health insurance, but I would also no longer have Chana’s voice in the foreground of all my dreams.
The answer seemed obvious. Obvious, but sad. In the two years I’d worked at Chana’s firm, I never managed to convince anyone, including myself, that I was worth much as a Jew. I didn’t have the observance, the rituals, or the community—and now I didn’t have the workplace. What did I have, as a Jew? A bagel with cream cheese, a beginner’s grasp on Yiddish, and, if I quit, a COBRA payment that was almost as much as my rent.
Quitting was another hot, bubbly impulse. It was what I always did when backed into a corner. I responded to some stranger’s attempt to publicly humiliate me by sidestepping it the only way I knew how.
It was an awful job, but the world is full of much awfuller jobs, and at least Chana’s checks always cleared. That was the breezy way I phrased it to people when they asked me why I quit, because I couldn’t tell them that working for Chana had given me cover for the fleeting religious impulses that otherwise embarrassed me. No, I didn’t want to wear thick pantyhose in the summer and cut the meatballs off my pizza, but I did want a more solemn and contemplative life than the chaotic one I lived. In Chana’s office, I had found a pleasantly purgatorial alternative: I could remain the apostate I’d always been but still fuse some ancillary religiousness into my being. I worried that without the office, I could absorb no further spiritual benefit—from the office, obviously, but also from the larger Jewish world.
After a couple months of unemployment, though, I began to see Chana’s office as a red herring. I was a Jew before I worked there and I’m a Jew now. Working in an environment of ambient piety had only ever driven me to covet, so to speak, my neighbor’s wife—to envy the Jewishness other people seemed to just have . Now, I see that nobody in that office had Judaism. My coworkers embraced Judaism, made it a part of themselves every day in their clothes and diet and prayer. They stifled their impulses toward self-destruction (if they did stifle them) not because they were Jewish and not because they were inherently better than me, but because they worked at it. I could work at it, too, if I wanted to.
And I knew then that I did want to, and also that there was no rush. Judaism had survived nearly four thousand years without me and would be there for me when I decided it was time. It was a strange thing to know—I’d always been in thrall to my impulses, a cheater, an addict. For the first time in my life, there was something I knew I wanted to do slowly.
In the meantime, I’d submitted to one last impulse—to quit this job before it could worsen my life any further. I never regretted it, though I still miss the health insurance. Still, it’s worth paying for it myself to have escaped that unwinnable daily psychic battle. Never again will I feel the need to prove my Judaism to a dozen polite acquaintances who don’t care one way or another. It’s as much a part of me as my temper, my recklessness, and my ongoing desire to show off for an audience of strangers.