| Family Diary |

Close to Home: Chapter 14     

My friend looked at his retreating back in horror. Had she lost her job before it even started?


Nechama Norman with Batsheva Berman


friend Faigy trained to be a social worker. Once she graduated, she found a job in a clinic. Her very first client, on her very first day, was a man in his twenties with OCD. He entered her office, and she stood up to greet him. Immediately, he put out his hand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “but I don’t shake hands for religious reasons.” She was nervous, so she began babbling. “This has nothing to do with you. I respect you as a person, I just can’t shake hands with someone of the opposite gender.”

The man blew up. “That is so disrespectful,” he yelled. “I came here for some understanding and compassion, and your behavior shows a total lack of both!” And with that, he stormed out.

My friend looked at his retreating back in horror. Had she lost her job before it even started?

The secretary saw her standing at the door of her office, clearly shaken. “Hey, what’s the matter?” she asked.

Haltingly, my friend told her the story. The secretary didn’t bat an eyelash.

“If he can’t understand your religious needs, he can just leave,” she said loudly. “I don’t shake hands either. Not for religious reasons, but for sanitary reasons [this was long before Covid hit], and if he can’t accept my feelings and sensitivities, then he can go somewhere else. You have every right to stick up for what’s important to you!”

The secretary was firm and confident. And Faigy realized that if this woman could be so comfortable in her own skin, so secure about her own boundaries, then she should feel the same surety about her religious needs.

Being a religious woman (or man) in the secular workplace can be challenging. But so much depends on how you approach it.

When I first started out, there were those who told me that there are possible heterim regarding shaking hands in a business context, and I should ask my rav. But it wasn’t a question I even wanted to ask. I will not shake hands with a man.

Still, I can’t say it’s always been easy.

Ed and Sue Murphy* had been referred to me by former clients. We made up to meet at their home. I knocked, and the door was opened by a massive guy in a police uniform.

“Hey, you must be Nicky,” he said in a deep voice, and he thrust his beefy hand in front of me.

Gulp. “I’m so happy to meet you,” I said, my usual script suddenly sounding inadequate. “I’m a religious woman and don’t shake hands with men.”

Slowly, he lowered his hand. This sale is busted, I thought.

He took me inside and introduced me to Sue. I shook her hand extra warmly. They showed me the house, and I left. The very next day, Sue called.

“We so enjoyed meeting you. We’d love to go ahead with listing the house.”

Apparently, the awkwardness had only been in my head.

Yichud is another potential pitfall an agent has to be aware of. If a man is the one to make the call, I always ask that his wife be there when I come to the house.

When I came to Steve O’Brien’s house, he seemed to be alone, even though he’d assured me that his wife would be there.

Thinking quickly, I said, “My husband, who works with me, will be joining us shortly. I’m just going to leave the door open for him.” And I left the front door ajar.

Steve showed me the ground floor and the second floor. Then he led the way to the basement. Once downstairs, we entered a large room — and he closed the door and locked it.

“What’s that about?” I asked.

“Oh, this is the music room, and it’s temperature controlled. It’s bad for the instruments if too much moisture gets in. So I always keep the door closed.”

That explained the closed door, but why was it locked? I looked at my watch, gave a little gasp, and said, “Wow, it got so late! I gotta run. We’ll be in touch.”

I unlocked the door and bolted.

When you’re in sales, you need to be personable and friendly — that’s an inherent part of the job. There’s a very thin line between being friendly and being too friendly, between being solicitous and being flirtatious. I watch myself constantly to make sure I don’t cross that line.

For a long time, I didn’t have a picture of myself anywhere — not in our ads, not online, nowhere. Then we discussed the matter with our rav, and he gave us guidelines regarding where and how I could use my picture. A huge element of having healthy boundaries is having a rav with whom you check in all the time. That helps you stay true to yourself and your values.

Back when I had no pictures, one client asked, “Are you a ghost agent? There’s no picture of you anywhere!”

“I most definitely exist,” I replied, “but I’m in the business of selling houses, not selling myself. You’re hiring me for my knowledge and negotiating skills and my relationship with other agents. My looks are immaterial.”

I often have people ask me, “Aren’t you so hot in those long sleeves?”

And I say, “Well, I’d be hot in short sleeves too. It’s hot. But I want to be valued for what’s inside me and not for my body.”

“Can I ask you a personal question?” people often ask.

I always say yes. I’m glad when I get questions. It means my clients both feel comfortable with me and see me as a source of knowledge, someone who can help them understand a foreign culture.

The top question is, “Are you wearing a wig?” And then there are others: I know you don’t hug men, but can you hug your dad? Do Jewish people swim, or should I just close my pool? Do Jews prefer male babies over female babies?

Some questions, though, should not be asked. The Zimmermans were an older couple, Jewish but completely secular. After I showed them around a potential home, Mr. Zimmerman turned to me and said, “I’d really love to have my grandson marry a nice Jewish girl. Are you available?”

His wife gasped. “Eric, she’s married!”

“How am I supposed to know?”

“She’s wearing a wig!” she screeched. Then in an aside to me, “Not only does he pick out a married woman for my grandson, he picks out a religious woman! Men!”

to be continued…

Nechama “Nicky” Norman is a licensed real estate agent servicing greater Lakewood, New Jersey. She focuses on residential property and loves to educate people about buying and selling by hosting seller events.

Keyed In

Preempt difficult situations. Have a talk with your rav or mentor and plan the correct approach before the situation happens, so you’re fully prepared. A friend of mine works in the corporate world. She never joins happy hour — something she put in place from the get-go. And her colleagues respect that; any business that needs to happen with her present isn’t done then.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 812)

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