Two weeks ago, when Andrew Gordon, 39, was the third contestant voted off this season of CBS’s “Big Brother,” his last words were, “’Captain Kosher’ out.”
Gordon, a yarmulke-wearing podiatrist from Miami Beach, joined the reality show in June with his eyes on the $500,000 prize, but also with the goal of demonstrating to his 9-year-old daughter that you can do anything in life and still be a good Jew.
On “Big Brother,” dozens of roaming cameras and mandatory microphones broadcast every move live as the “House Guest” contestants coexist without access to the outside world.
In a phone interview, The Jewish Week spoke with Gordon about being the lone Orthodox Jew in a most unorthodox setting.
Q: The items House Guests can bring into the “Big Brother” house are limited. What Jewish items were essential for you to have during your stay?
A: Tefillin [phylacteries] of course, and my chumash [Hebrew Bible] and a siddur [prayer book].
They let me bring in a chumash because a previous House Guest was allowed to bring the Bible. A siddur, on the other hand, was a problem, but eventually CBS said it was fine. I wished I could have brought in a Gemara [part of the Talmud], but that was pushing it.
In my siddur, I had taped a Post-It with the dates for Tisha B’Av and Rosh Chodesh, so I could keep track of the Hebrew calendar.
I wasn’t able to bring a tallis [prayer shawl] because it was too white for the cameras. But they let me bring a wide tzitzis [fringes], which I was able to wear for davening [praying].
Was keeping kosher hard in the “Big Brother” house?
No. That’s how I got the nickname, Captain Kosher.
I couldn’t bring my own food, but there were plenty of kosher staples like yogurt, cottage cheese, cereal, butter and eggs, and of course fruits and vegetables. They even had hummus.
I brought my own pot, ladle, knife and sponge so I could cook. I’m sure the other houseguests thought I was weird covering the burner with tinfoil, but I did what I had to do.
During my last week, I was a “have not,” meaning I was only allowed to eat “slop,” which is not kosher; and protein shakes, baby food and bok choy. Thank God those were kosher!
How did you observe Shabbos while in the house?
Honestly, I didn’t explain Shabbos to the other House Guests. Most of them have never met another Jew, let alone, an Orthodox one. They wouldn’t get the whole “no electricity” thing.
So, I would go to sleep with the lights on. The people who were still up probably thought I was being polite by not turning out the lights.
If I had to go into the Diary Room, I would ask [someone else] to push the electric button to open the door or I would hang around until someone exited and wait for the door to open.
I had one bottle of kosher wine, and once I ran out of that, I had to say Havdalah [the ritual marking the end of Shabbat] over milk. The situation wasn’t ideal, but before I left to compete, I reviewed Shulchan Aruch to have a clear understanding [of the relevant laws] so I would know what to do when I got to the house.
On the live feeds of the show, and even during a clip that was aired on CBS, the viewers saw you observing Tisha B’Av. What was it like to spend Tisha B’Av in the house?
It really affected me that I wasn’t able to be in shul and that I had to recite Eicha [The Book of Lamentations] by myself. I cried for Tisha B’Av, but also for myself and not being with the outside world. I didn’t participate in the game that day. When they called a house meeting, I told them that I couldn’t attend. I wouldn’t even talk about game play or strategy that day.
When the other people in the show found out I was fasting, they were like, “You’re not evening drinking water?” They thought fasting means you’re on a diet.
You entered the house with a yarmulke and wore it in every competition. Did you ever consider taking it off?
Not at all. Throughout my [medical] residency and externships I’ve always worn my yarmulke. I am used to talking to people about it. It’s disheartening when I see people take off their yarmulkes to go to work. Wearing a yarmulke is who I am. It’s something I’m proud of — I credit my father for instilling that in me.
How did your family and friends feel about your decision to go on the show?
My family was very nervous about the repercussions it could have, but I hope I came across as being on top of my religion and its practices. All my friends who watched the show saw me as a practicing Jew and not as someone who was a flake about it. I think people respected that.