Once upon a time, there was a television program called The Cosby Show. (We won’t go into why it was called that. We don’t talk about B*ll C*sby anymore.) For most of its run, which lasted from 1984 to 1992, it was the show to beat. The Cosby Show was the #1 sitcom for five consecutive seasons, a record only matched by the venerable All in the Family. All eight seasons of The Cosby Show were in the top 20.
The second season introduced actor Geoffrey Owens as Elvin Tibideaux, boyfriend of eldest daughter Sondra Huxtable, portrayed by Sabrina Le Beauf. Originally a recurring character, Elvin was promoted to regular cast member status as of the fourth season, as Sondra’s husband. Owens would retain this distinction for the rest of the series run.
As you can imagine, being a regular on the highest-rated show for multiple seasons is no small thing. For this reason, it was surprising when a shopper recognized Owens as her cashier at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey. So she did what any of us would have done: she surreptitiously took his picture and sold her story to British tabloid The Daily Mail.
Okay, so that’s not what most of us would have done. I, for one, would have asked for an autograph and left it at that. In fact, Owens subsequently reported that “People recognized me every day and they were very, very cool about it.” So, actually, lady-whose-name-I-prefer-not-to-reveal-here, choosing to shame Owens in the media is just you. (She subsequently said that such was not her intent.)
Happily, most people on social media are more along my school of thought (and, hopefully, yours) than that of the shopper-cum-photographer. The Twitterati castigated The Daily Mail for work-shaming Owens, rightly pointing out that no honest labor is disgraceful. (For the record, Owens has held jobs in entertainment, including teaching acting at Yale. But most jobs in entertainment don’t pay as well as The Cosby Show. He chose to work at Trader Joe’s because it better enabled him to support his family. So what’s wrong with that?)
We also fall into the trap of job snobbery. Stereotypically, the only acceptable jobs for a Jewish child are doctor, lawyer and, if you absolutely must, accountant. (“Rabbi? What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?”) There’s a joke about the first Jewish president being elected. When his mother tries to get into the inauguration, she’s stopped by the Secret Service. “Do you know who I am?” she says. “I’m the mother of the doctor whose brother is being inaugurated.” That may be an exaggeration but we can sometimes be job snobs, especially when it comes to shidduchim.
My eldest son loves working with his hands. He attended a yeshiva high school that offered a vocational program, which he was looking forward to attending. When the time came, we had to fight for him to be able to take plumbing, electrical and carpentry classes. The school didn’t want him to take the vocational classes because his grades “weren’t low enough.” They eventually had to work out a schedule that enabled him to take both Regents and vocational classes. But why is the expectation that such things are only for students who aren’t good at math, science or English? My son now holds a desk job. He works with computers and manages people. But if he had his druthers, he’d have been a plumber. There’s no shame in that.
My son with good grades wanted to be a plumber. Geoffrey Owens chose working at Trader Joe’s over teaching acting at Yale. I happen to love what I do but you might hate it. The Talmud in Brachos (43b) tells us that God made all sorts of professions and people who would enjoy each type of work. So why should we all be doctors or lawyers?
Our ancestors were shepherds, which is a humble profession. They were subject to job-snobbery on the part of the Egyptians, who looked down upon that occupation (Genesis 46-47). The Sages of the Talmud held a wide array of jobs, not all of them glamorous. A partial list: Hillel was a woodchopper. Abba Oshiya was a laundry man. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah was a blacksmith. Abba Shaul was a gravedigger. Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta was a tanner. Rav Huna was a farmer. Abba Chilkiyah was a field hand. Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar was a shoemaker. There are many others. There’s no such thing as disgraceful employment. The Talmud in Baba Basra (110a) tells us to take whatever job is necessary to support ourselves: “Flay a carcass in the marketplace for pay. Don’t think that you’re too important and this work is beneath you.” (See also Pesachim 113a.)
Despite The Daily Mail’s attempt, Owens refused to be shamed. “There’s no job better than another,” he said, unintentionally echoing the sentiment of the Talmud. “Every job is worthwhile.”
Owens’ story has a happy ending. Being thrust back into the spotlight has led to a deluge of acting offers, so he now has options, should he choose to pursue them. One of the more prominent offers came from filmmaker Tyler Perry, who was inspired by Owens’ attitude. “I know a lot of people in the business, in Hollywood, that refuse to go to work when they’re between acting gigs,” Perry said. “(W)hen I saw that, I was moved by him. That’s the true measure of a man, the true measure of an artist.”
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.