October 28, 2004
From the beginning, even before it was famous, "The Apprentice," Donald Trump's reality TV show, had piqued my interest -- but not enough
to make a standing engagement with my TV set whenever it was on.
But then one Friday night I had Shabbat dinner with a few friends, and it turned out that one of the women there, a friend of a friend, was working on some reality programs. I said that I'd never want to be on any reality show, "Except maybe 'The Apprentice,'" I conceded. As a businessman and entrepreneur, I thought I could make it through the process.
"There's actually going to be a casting call in a few days," she said.
Immediately I began to picture myself on The Donald's show and, of course, winning the apprenticeship. Hey -- I'm no supermodel, but I'm not a bad-looking guy. And I'm as smart, aggressive and ambitious as anyone else who's been on the show. I've got all the qualities it takes to win the prize.
There was only one little issue. Should I wear my yarmulke to the interview?
As a traditionally observant Jew that toes the line between the Conservative and Orthodox world, I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. Not only do I wear my yarmulke in public and for business, but I also proudly wear my chosen Zionistic declaration of Israeli citizenship and volunteering in the Israel Defense Forces on my sleeve.
I didn't always dress this way. When I first started my business, I was choosy about when I decided to wear my yarmulke. Because of anti-Semitism, I didn't want to risk losing a client. I figured that if all I had to do was remove my yarmulke, I'd do it to get a client. (People of color don't have it as easy as yarmulke-wearing white men: I can take off my kippah, but they can't change their appearance).
Then one day I had met with a very successful Orthodox businessman who wore a black yarmulke and sported a long beard. He said he had never taken off his yarmulke for any business reason.
"If you believe in your identity, you don't want to do business with people that don't respect your religion and culture," he said.
I haven't taken it off since (except to shower and sleep).
I didn't know what to do for "The Apprentice." Wearing a kippah in New York business is one thing, but wearing it to get on national television is completely another.
I started filling out the application at midnight the night before interviews, and arrived at NBC at around 4 a.m. There were already 337 people there before me. But I was lucky later when there were even more behind me. On that line, we were all equal. We all believed that we had a shot at the title -- or at least getting through the door. We stood outside in the freezing wind. I was bundled up, hat and all.
Five hours later, when I got inside, I took off my hat and revealed my secret: I wore my yarmulke. Why? Because I decided that my only chance to shine, to stand out from the hundreds of others, was to show off how different and diverse I was. Out of 16 people -- eight men and eight women -- surely not everyone could look exactly the same.
For the interview, they sat 12 people around a table and had them face the casting director. During introductions, I told everyone that I was a Web developer and ran a Judaica store over the Internet (www.judaicastore.com). Then the casting director suggested a topic of conversation.
The theory was that if you can rise above the others with intelligent thoughts and could express yourself clearly and speak well, they would notice you as good material for the show. As most of my colleagues and friends will admit, I certainly have this skill. I, along with one or two other people, dominated the conversation at the interview. After five minutes, the interview was over and they thanked us all for coming.
I never heard from them again.
Did my yarmulke matter in the end? I think so. Maybe they just didn't like me --although I can't imagine that. I think that national network television is not ready for an observant yarmulke-wearing Jew from New York. I'm not sure that the show wants someone so strongly identified with the Jewish community, Israel and all of its current politics -- even if that person were "fired!"
Maybe I shouldn't have worn the yarmulke. But I'm glad I did. Now I have my own version of reality.
Raphi Salem, CEO and president of SalemGlobal Internet, lives in Manhattan.