Women's Whispers: Mourning at the Trianon Palace

How do you explain Halacha to a non-Jewish, manic-workaholic boss?

OfficeWorkers311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When my boss offered me the sole US ticket at an international finance boondoggle, I was so flattered that I accepted immediately. Then he divulged the details: The meeting was in Versailles the week of Tisha Be’av, followed by a gala event in Manhattan on the day of the fast.
I cringed at my impetuous acceptance. The challenges were formidable: (a) Shabbat ended late and there were no flights from New York to Paris that would get me to the meeting on time; (b) I was breastfeeding and Halacha would force me to stop nursing the baby after he turned two if I boondoggled away from him more than 72 hours.
How do you explain these things to a non-Jewish, manic-workaholic man? “My brother’s Jewish and he travels on Saturday,” was Tom, my boss’s, first reaction. I didn’t dare raise the breast-feeding conundrum: He would have fallen out the (sealed) window.
There was one way to do it all: Fly Concorde to Paris on Sunday morning, and return by Tuesday night. If I flew Concorde, I could meet my obligations to my son, my boss and my God. But Concorde was the superfast aircraft of the superrich and absolutely forbidden fruit at our firm.
So I screwed up my courage and went straight to the CEO, a man presiding over the fate of 100,000 workers. In an e-mail, I placed before the big boss all the gory details including nursing, Shabbat and Jewish law in both areas. I reminded him of the firm’s sensitivity initiative regarding women, minorities and other oddities. I also offered to pay the difference between Concorde and the common-all-garden travel price.
The CEO wrote back warmly, wishing me a safe trip on the supersonic aircraft and assuring me I wouldn’t have to pay for anything.
At a painfully early hour on the Sunday of the week the Temple burned, I mingled with a rarified crowd at the Concorde terminal. Four miraculous hours later, I arrived in Paris where a waiting limousine took me to the Trianon Palace in Versailles. It was palatial indeed: The bathroom of my suite was the size of my Manhattan apartment. The furniture was all period antiques, and in my window was a vision over the Versailles Palace. My hardened city eyes winced in the face of so much beauty.
Out on the palace terrace, my group was sipping cocktails. Tom politely asked about my flight but gave me a grim stare when I mentioned the Concorde. Ignoring him, I worked the crowd, introducing myself to the financial chiefs on the Continent. A five-course meal followed, and for me – a lettuce leaf. (Yes, I assured my mother, I did tell them about kosher. Isn’t lettuce kosher? they asked.)
Monday morning, the program began in earnest. Sitting in the room in which the Armistice was signed in 1919 were representatives from 15 European countries, many created out of that conflict. All were listening to the dividends of peace delivered from the mouth of an Indian-born Australian lecturer. Unfortunately, the multicultural element was the only wondrous part of the experience. After the second lettuce leaf at lunch, weak from hunger, I slipped out to explore the royal French town.
Walking dreamily through poplar-lined boulevards, I came upon a railway station. And as if still dreaming, right next to the platform, I saw a kosher butcher! Not only were there exclusive cuts of meat, but Parisian pastries as well. I terminated my involuntary fast.
By lunchtime the following day I had to leave. The business-class flight home was interminably long compared to the Concorde, but I was grateful for the quiet time, because 71 hours and 17 minutes after I had last nursed, I was once again feeding my squalling infant. The baby had survived those hours with the help of a freezer of pre-pumped milk; I had not been so well provisioned and only had a few hours to refuel before Tisha Be’av descended.
It was a different kind of suffering that year: I was taking a lead role in the New York leg of the boondoggle. For several hours, I regaled the audience with the US tax consequences of financial transactions. All day I stood, entertaining the crowd, making connections, trying to sound coherent. Tom was thrilled to hear about the fast: He thought others might join me and he could save on catering. Generously, he invited me to attend a dinner for visiting dignitaries. I declined, explaining I would neither be visiting nor dignified by dinnertime.
Soon after the boondoggle, I told Tom I was leaving him for the government. He was aghast, “But we’ve just reimbursed your trip!” I smiled sweetly and dreamed a response, “Next time you organize an international financial boondoggle and want a Sabbath observant, fasting, breast-feeding lawyer to participate, perhaps you should ask if the arrangements suit her first!”

The writer (vivahammer@aol.com) is a partner at KPMG.