Monday, April 27, 2015

How Old Are You Between Your Hebrew and English Birthdays?

Today, I bring a personal question to the blog. Despite over 11 years of being "Jewishly affiliated," I still feel most connected to the secular calendar. Only in the last few years have I made more of an effort to interact with the Hebrew calendar. 

This has created a strange problem, I'm not sure how old I am this week! Last week was my Hebrew birthday, and this week is my English birthday. In prior years, this was more of a theoretical question in my head, but this year...suddenly everyone needs to know how old I am! I have never sputtered more about my age as I have for the last week. Am I still 30 or have I crossed into 31? Am I actually living in The Twilight Zone?

How do you handle this? Does it (should it) matter who asks? For instance, it makes more sense to tell a doctor according to the secular calendar. Does the Hebrew date make more sense when talking to a Jewish friend? Does it matter how cognitively attuned the Jewish friend is to the Hebrew calendar? I'm plenty orthodox, yet I would never call myself cognitively attuned to the Hebrew calendar! It just isn't internalized yet, for whatever reason. So how can I judge how in-touch another person is with the Hebrew calendar? 

We won't even get into the fact that I have four other "birthdays," thanks to my conversions... But we shall never forget halfbirthdays. And that, folks, is how you justify 12 birthday cakes per year. You're welcome.

This should be the worst of my problems. 

So what do you do? 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: Rising Moon: Unraveling the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Moshe Miller

Shavuot will be here soon, and we all know the deep connections most converts feel for the book of Ruth. (Or Rut, as I like to call her.) There's a new book out that'll put a whole new spin on how you read it! 

I was given a PDF of the book in the hopes I would review it, and boy did I learn never to read a serious book in PDF format again. But I digress. I did decide to review it because I think it's a very good book, and certainly one that will make you think. 

Summary: I highly recommend the book. I argued with it to no end, but in the positive, Jewish way. It made me think, and it made me look at Rut with new eyes. I may not agree with all the interpretations the author presented, but now I know a lot more about how Ruth has been portrayed in the Talmudic and rabbinic literature. And I appreciate the book more now, though I still don't "like" it or think it's a beautiful story. (Unfortunately, I think that's the feeling the author wanted me to have in the end...)

I became very excited about reading the book when the first two recommendations on the inside cover were from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Berel Wein (a very famous Jewish historian). In retrospect, I'm surprised at Rabbi Wein's recommendation since I think this book could have used a healthy dose of actual historical context in addition to the "history" provided by midrashim. In general, I felt a very strange dichotomy between the right-wing and the modern. To me (with some exceptions), it felt like the text-based sections could have been written by Rabbi Avigdor Miller, while the essays sound like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Strange, but mostly in a good way.

But let me distract you with its gorgeous cover...


You can buy it from Ktav or Amazon. Both of those are affiliate links, which means I earn a percentage of the price for convincing you it was a good buy (no extra charge to you). Right now, I'm raising money to move this blog onto its own domain and create a "proper" website for this work. Buying anything after clicking these links (or any other affiliate link on this site, which so far have all been Amazon links) will help support my work, which I have done on a volunteer basis for the last 4.5 years. The domain is bought, and the web designer is hired! If you'd like to buy this book anyway, support this blog while you're at it! If you'd prefer to make a straight donation to the site relocation and redesign, you can click the little Donate button on the right sidebar. Every little bit helps!


Now let's go more in-depth...

You saw the "I got a free sorta-copy" disclaimer above, but here's the real disclaimer: I don't like the book of Rut. I don't remember ever meeting another convert who felt that way, though I've met born Jews with similar reservations. Except for the one scene where Ruth stays and Orpah goes, I cannot agree with apparently-everyone that Ruth is "a beautiful love story... until you get to the midrash that says Boaz died the next day" (so well put by my father-in-law).

To me (with my feminist wiles), Rut shows the powerlessness of women in ancient societies (the same powerlessness we are still vulnerable to today: including domestic abuse, rape, date rape, and the "smaller" discriminations we face in the workplace). Having that be the milieu guiding Ruth's actions makes this a book about accepting the reality you face and making the best of it. Not so romantic and beautiful, even though that may make it one of the most gut-wrenchingly true books of the Bible, especially as a female reader. But that's just how I see it.

I feel a little differently after reading this sefer (it is a sefer, not a "popular" book like I expected it to be). Most importantly, I can now see the universal elements in the story, those that tie it to every man and woman and family... even if I don't always agree with those interpretations. I may have said, "Oh come on, that's really stretching it" a couple of times, but to its credit, the book is consistent in its premise and style.

Speaking of style, I was confused by the book's style at first, but really came to appreciate it as the book continued. It's like a play! You may not know this, but I worked in theatre for almost a decade (set design, costuming, construction, painting, and behind-the-scenes work...not acting). It was going to be my life's work. And I was perplexed to pick up a Jewish sefer with a table of contents that looks like this:



What does that even mean?? I expect many a casual bookstore patron will put the book back based on the TOC alone, which is a shame. It's a really clever way to structure a book about a book, and the author used it well. Really well, in my opinion.

So let me explain. The book of Ruth is divided into Acts, sections of the story that make logical sense. And then he divides them further into "scenes," where he goes through the book line by line with commentary, mostly from Talmudic and later rabbinic sources. Some of Rabbi Miller's own commentary is there, but the majority of his content is the preludes and interludes, which are essays on what we've just read and how it fits into the overarching theme of malchut (kingship) and the other themes he develops throughout. He claims that malchut is "the theme" of the book, but I felt like it was merely one idea among many that he developed. This is a dense book, so the switch-up really helped keep me engaged.

Problem: Yes, this is a really dense book. Worse, you can't read it in one or two sittings, but it self-refers back a lot. And I could never remember what specific thing was said earlier, and I was far too lazy to go look for it since it was only referred by section, not page. For example, "See the prelude to this act." Ain't no one got time for that. 

Second major problem: he creates some very dense, academic ideas, like "emergent identity" and "the poisonous advice of the serpent," and I spent a majority of the book wondering what those terms of art mean. More defining needed to happen, rather that giving a new example in different contexts and hoping you could infer the idea from the examples. However, I appreciated the multiple and detailed examples and did find them helpful. Using only examples without a clear definitional reminder created an analysis problem: too many variables in an individual example to choose which one is the relevant one. You cannot learn these seriously abstract concepts from examples alone. I eventually did find a good definition of "emergent" as applied to identity and other words...in a footnote 2/3 of the way through the book. But despite not having his definitions for his themes, I was able to create my own meaning out of the examples given. Maybe they weren't what he wanted me to get from them, but I certainly pulled a meaning from his words, and I found it interesting and meaningful.

Most of the things I learned included how crazy midrashim can be sometimes. I don't know enough about the availability of midrashim on Ruth to verify this, but I suspect that the author chose only certain midrashim. There is very little conflict between the midrashim presented, and there are conflicting midrashim on almost any event in Torah (in my experience). I know for sure that one very popular midrash was left out: that Boaz died the day after impregnating Ruth. This book prefers to end on a "And they lived happily ever after" feeling. 

Worse, he seems to take the midrashim very seriously as though this is actually a fact that happened. Maybe I'm an apikoros, but I take my midrashim with a grain of salt. Most were written hundreds of years later, many in the middle ages. We are still writing midrashim today! They should not be treated as history. (That's why I believe it is very important to learn what's Torah, what's halacha, what's midrash, what's chumrah, and what's minhag - they're very distinct things with discrete purposes and meanings.) This is where I often groaned, "Seriously? That's really historically/psychologically unlikely." (I told you, I argued with the book a lot. I think of this as the "good" kind of Jewish arguing.) I would have liked to see more influence from a historian like Rabbi Berel Wein. Does it matter whether midrashim happened in real life? No, because that's not the point of a midrash. Perhaps that's the author's perspective, but if so, I would have appreciated that being pointed out. Or perhaps he's of the camp that believes all midrashim are historically true, even though many of them physically cannot exist or have competing midrashim that are in direct conflict. It could be either way, based on the writing of this book.

Let's look at an example that struck me really wrong: The author spends a lot of time citing sources that demonize Orpah. According to various sources, Orpah may have kissed Naomi goodbye, but she immediately develops a strong hatred of Naomi and Yisrael and sets out to destroy all the Jews (though I admire the author's very creative suggestion that this hatred could be caused by what is essentially a de-programming from a self-imposed cult obsession with Naomi).

Ruth Rabbah (a collection of midrashim) has this to say about it: 
"The entire night after Orpah separated from her mother-in- law, she slept with a company of one hundred soldiers. . . . R. Tanhuma said, there was a dog as well."
Wow. Stop right there. Let that sink in for a minute. Orpah acts like any normal woman should have and went back to what was familiar... so we slander the hell out of her for not making the hard choice Ruth made. I was disgusted by this treatment of someone who is presented kindly in the text as a real human being with reasonable limitations. (If I only had a dollar for every time a born Jew told me, "I could never make the choice you made to convert!") We can discuss another time how Rising Moon apparently conflates anal and doggy-style sex as the same thing and prohibits both according to halacha, despite the several Talmudic sources that say any form of consensual sex that respects both partners and is intended to eventually lead to procreation is absolutely fine. And that is how we rule on the issue (unless you're Gerer chassidim). I just had to share that very frustrating section, but here's the real point I want to share about midrashim and why we needed more of Berel Wein's historical influence:

Apparently Orpah is the great-grandmother of Goliath, just as Rut is the great-grandmother of David. Coincidence?? I think not! But let's look at this seriously. Rut and Orpah are from Moab. Goliath is a Philistine. Those countries are in opposite directions from each other with Yehuda in the middle, so what is seriously the likelihood of this happening? The Philistines lived on a thin strip of land along the Mediterranean, approximately from Gaza to Lebanon. Moab is a mountainous region of Jordan. Yisrael live in between. So Orpah "turned back" (in fact, her name means back, which is why we apparently assume she has a lot of back-facing sex) to her home in Moav, and then she later crossed over Yehuda to birth Philistines? Right. 

Likewise, do I agree with the midrashim that "prove" that Boaz and Naomi and Ruth all knew the immense historical import of every single action they took? No. That argument gets me pretty annoyed. Here's the example that sent me over the edge:
"With the giving of this gift [measuring out 6 barleycorns in Ruth 3:15], Ruth and Boaz return to the intense historical awareness that permeated their relationship at their first meeting. Once again Boaz hints to Ruth that she is destined to be the mother of malkhut. The six hours spent together between midnight and dawn are embodied in the six grains of barley, which represent their future: six outstanding descendants who will be described as possessing six exceptional virtues."
Did they really feel or think that? I don't believe so. As a general rule, I don't think it serves us well to put our Biblical forefathers on pedestals (like the common effort to "prove" that none of our forefathers sinned... the honest grappling of fallible humans with Gd's commands is one of the things that attracted me to Judaism over Christianity in the first place!). So that midrash got a good, old-fashioned "puh-lease" from me before moving on.


So I've shown you several of my issues with the text. (Honestly, I could debate this book and its contents with you for days. It was hard to pick which ideas to highlight!) But didn't I say I liked it? Yes, I enjoyed the ideas that emerged from his reading of the text, even the challenging and problematic ones, but especially the ones related to conversion. Overall, I most enjoyed the author's own commentary. Hashkafically (philosophically), I agree with it (can't lie there), but it was also far more in-depth and developed than any line-by-line textual analysis ever could be. It was a complete argument rather than a collection of individual arguments, and that made it more enjoyable to read.

Most importantly, I am in love with his statements that Ruth's past matters and should not be ignored. As a convert, one of her many strengths is that her past experiences are a "unique contribution" to Yisrael and should not be assimilated away. That's been on my mind a lot lately (remember how I said this fit my hashkafa?), as I have been considering writing a post about whether the goal of a convert should be "full assimilation" so that no one would guess the person is a convert. I'm tired of seeing that bandied about in Facebook conversion groups as the goal we should be aiming for. Who says? If that's your goal, fine, but don't say that has to be every convert's (or candidate's) goal too. It sets a nearly-impossible standard, and I'm not sure it's a good standard in the first place, either for converts or for Yisrael, for exactly the reason the author gave: we have something special to contribute.

This was one of my favorite passages from the book (despite my hesitation to believe that Ruth actually knew her actions would have any effect on Yisrael achieving the purpose of Creation): 
[author had just cited Pesachim 87B: "God exiled Yisrael among the nations so that they would ingather converts..."]
"Ruth now understands that if Yisrael is to embody what Creation is meant to achieve, it must include the entirety of humanity. There must be room for the assimilation of converts. She realizes that she can actually offer something that Naomi cannot. The purpose of geirut is to bring the world to Yisrael; the convert is not to leave the world behind. Therefore, it is no longer 'And the two of them went.' Instead, it is Ruth of Moab who has returned from the fields of Moab. And it is as the Moabite who has returned that Ruth makes her enduring contribution. She remains Naomi’s daughter-in-law. She is still 'with her' (imah). But she is now independent of Naomi, having grown fully into her own identity and history." p109 [emphasis mine]
Preach!

Speaking of preaching.... As a convert and advocate, I took great exception to the fact that all the citations in the endnotes are listed in Hebrew only. As the author says in the introduction, "The endnotes generally provide further sources, many of which are given in Hebrew on the assumption that a reader looking for primary sources would be familiar with that language." I don't think that's a good assumption to make anymore, as English translations are widely available on the internet to anyone willing to search. As someone personally weak in Hebrew texts (but getting a little better every day), this prejudice is a pet peeve of mine. It takes years of dedicated effort to become proficient in Hebrew texts (and women have far less opportunities to become proficient than men do, especially outside Israel). When so much is available in translation (understanding that no translation is perfect), this unfairly and unnecessarily cuts a large percentage of Jews off as too unsophisticated to understand or dig deeper, so they should just rely on this person's interpretation instead. You see this very commonly in halacha books, where the alternatives, leniencies, and other mitigating factors are often only mentioned in Hebrew footnotes or facing text because someone who can't read Hebrew obviously can't be trusted with anything less than the most machmir opinion. (Two books shown to me have said this explicitly in Hebrew, but most aren't that brazen.) This is a serious problem caused by our near-monopoly orthodox publishing industry, and they should feel shame for creating a problem when there doesn't need to be one today. It is disheartening for those of us who didn't benefit from a thorough Jewish education, it makes us feel less-than as Jews, and it's also a great deterrent to trying at all. Because of this kind of talk, many people even don't realize these sources are available in English and other translations. And even when you are developing your proficiency, the pervasiveness of Hebrew-only citations makes it overwhelming. There is a middle ground here, but I have not seen a single orthodox sefer stand on it. I look forward to being proven wrong. 

Rant over, back to the book...
Earlier in the story of Rut, the author focuses on the total lack of religious practice being part of the conversion of Rut (according to the text), and the very little religious practice education required by the Talmud, and comes to the conclusion that "There is no provision for accepting a convert who searches for religion. There is no law that states that it is even permitted to accept an applicant who claims a philosophical belief in Judaism. The only basis for accepting applicants is if they claim that their life will be complete only if they join Yisrael."

Pretty provocative, right?! Should it be? I don't know. The question is how you understand "joining Yisrael" and what that should entail.

There is no shortage of other interesting debates, from the conflict between chesed-dependence and mitzvah-coercion (super interesting!) to jealousy to the meaning of malchut (I found this less interesting, but maybe it's just me) to the role of humanity to yibum as a reconciliation for Cain and Abel (mind blowing, to me). 

I love a book that stretches my mind and my assumptions, and Rising Moon does that. (But could he please explain where the name Rising Moon comes from? I assume it's about the coming of David? Just say so. I hate loose ends; blame the OCD.)

Let me share one area that really challenged me... a question I never thought too much about:
What does Gd's curse to woman, "you will desire your husband, but he will rule over you" (Genesis/Bereishit 3:16) mean

I never really thought about it. As a modern woman cognizant of the struggles women face and have always faced, it made intuitive sense. The author creates/cites (and of course I can't find it now...stupid PDF) the idea that the curse means that woman will want to initiate sex with her husband and be unable to (timidity, fear, social expectations, I forget why), while her husband will rule over her as a baal (master). Very interesting, and something that remains very relevant today. I can buy that, and I've added it to my personal understanding of this pasuk.

But the discussion got me thinking about this idea and what it could mean in the larger sense, and how this curse has grown into the feminist struggles we still have today. I have to admit that I have a weird love of post-apocalyptic fiction. Mostly books, but I also enjoyed the show Revolution and now am catching up on The Walking Dead. It's one thing to think about the physical vulnerabilities of women in ancient (or even near-modern) times, but post-apocalyptic fiction reminds me that there's only a tenuous protection for women in our society. In any war zone, even today, women's constant threat remains rape, gang rape, and murder. Even during small scale riots like we sometimes see in the United States, rape is a real threat for women caught in the crossfire. Savagery smolders right below the surface of our modern lives, and that is why I find post-apocalyptic fiction so frightening: it feels realistic. That is why I can't ever believe Ruth is a "beautiful" story. It's a woman (actually 2 women) doing what she has to do to survive: attach herself to a strong male who can protect her from society and starvation. That is why we are halachically commanded to protect the widow; who else will protect her and care for her? Once I sat down and thought about it, this is what I always assumed the Torah meant when it curses Womankind. And what a curse it is; I think about it every time I walk alone at night.

Rut is smart, strong, loving, loyal, and has an admirable acceptance of grim reality. There's beauty in her... And there's even beauty in Boaz and his efforts to do the right thing with the limited reality they have. But in the circumstances Ruth faces and the decisions she must make? There is no beauty there. No amount of midrashim saying they were madly in love will ever convince me that that love existed, and even if it did, whether it was an important factor in deciding to do yibum. Boaz can do the "right thing" with kindness and compassion and respect, and is that any worse than doing it because he was so turned on by her (yay shocking midrash - really, you can't unsee it)? 


So you've heard my take on Rising Moon. But maybe you'll come to a different conclusion. Go read it and tell me what you think! You can buy it here from Ktav or Amazon

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Conversion Crisis" Panel Discussion on May 17 in Manhattan!

If you're near NYC or can get here on Sunday, May 17, there's a three hour panel discussion you don't want to miss. 

Conversion Crisis: Is the System Broken? will host two of the biggest names in conversion, in addition to the President of the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ):
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Rabbi David Novak

Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Angel have done a lot for conversion candidates and converts, and I'm personally really excited to get to hear them speak for the first time! 

Did I mention it's technically free? ($10 suggested donation.) Go to the event page for more details and to RSVP.

UTJ may sound familiar. It did to me, and that brought up a few warning bells in my mind, so I think it should be addressed in case this history is important to you. As I understand the history, the UTJ was originally formed as a "right-wing" conservative movement, so to speak. Some people were concerned about the increasing lack of dedication to halacha as the conservative movement has traditionally defined it. Personally, I was really impressed with a lot of the writing they used to put out because I believe it reflects what the conservative movement is supposed to be, and I used to be conservative. (I was already conservative at the time of reading most of those materials, if I remember right.) 

I hadn't heard anything from them for a couple of years, and when I saw this post, I thought maybe I was remembering the name of that organization incorrectly. A friend confirmed that is the same group, but their FAQ and other documents now describe themselves as "trans-denominational" and emphasize a break from the conservative movement and from all movement labels. I'm throwing this out here in case you are opposed to supporting the work of such a group (better to warn you now than find out when you arrive) or if as a conversion candidate, you're afraid of how attending one of their events could harm you. I personally believe this would not harm you, especially given the respect generally accorded to Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Angel (even by those who disagree with them). Nothing's a given, especially when rabbinic politics is involved, but I think no one would be penalized for attending this event. If you were to be punished for attending, I'd see that as a red flag that something is off and perhaps you should consider a new rabbi(s). But if you're really very worried, get approval in advance from your sponsoring rabbi. 

So come. We'll hang out and maybe even learn something! 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Plan for Next Year's Pesach RIGHT NOW

You've done it. You've survived Passover. Cue tearing open the cabinets and returning life to normal!

But wait! There's more! 

Sit down and write down everything you need to remember for Pesach 2016. Before you forget, before all the carbs make your brain fuzzy, before you throw away something you should keep for next year instead. 

It's tempting to rampage through the kitchen and put life back in order (I know because I started doing that!), but don't act so fast.

  • Clean your Pesach stuff before you put it away. This is the hardest part because you just want. it. gone. Be patient, grasshopper. 
  • Pack it in some kind of reasonable order that will at least keep things from breaking. It doesn't need to be pretty or alphabetized. Make sure you mark the box "Pesach" so that non-Pesach things don't accidentally get mixed in. I prefer a giant, clear plastic box with a locking lid.
  • What will be left out to "become chametz" and be used from now on?
  • Consider what might be reusable next year, even though you'd normally throw it away. (Maybe your counter covers?)
  • What did you eat a lot of? What needed to be replenished or replaced over chol hamoed? 
  • Which recipes went well, and which were a flop?
  • What did you run out of?
  • What didn't you touch at all? 
  • Did you accidentally discover some chametz over Pesach? Was there kitniyot that wasn't put away (if that applies to you)? Make sure those places gets a better cleaning next year. This happens; don't beat yourself up about it.
  • Did you discover during Pesach that something is chametz or kitniyot that you didn't realize beforehand? Note it down so you don't forget next year. Again, this happens. It'll be ok.
  • Did you discover during Pesach that something wasn't a problem and doesn't need to be put away next year? Make a note.
  • What was actively gross, disgusting, or disliked and shouldn't be bought again?
  • How did your preparations work? Maybe you need a stronger counter cover next year? 
  • What should you buy next year, and will you buy it now or later? Maybe the paring knives you bought are too short? Maybe a pizza cutter would be great to cut your matzah pizza?
  • What do you want to upgrade next year? Maybe get a proper dishrack instead of the one from the Dollar Store?
  • Do you want to use permanent pieces next year instead of plastic and paper goods? Watch for sales over the next year and put them away with your Pesach goods.
Remember that you're not obligated to make these changes next year, especially if you note a lot of things you want to buy. It just exists to help you prioritize your preparations and spending next year. Those decisions don't have to be made now. Brain dump and walk away.

Kosher on a Budget suggests doing this in a note on your Google Calendar (or other electronic calendar of choice) so that you'll automatically be reminded of these notes. Personally, I've started keeping a Word (Pages, actually) document/timeline, and I made a reminder to check it in my to do application, which happens to be ToodleDo. What's even better? Do both! Whatever works for your brain.

Your future self will thank you. Imagining the calm look on your face and the peace in your day next year can help motivate you to take action today for the benefit of tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

#ProTip: Go Get a Haircut Before Pesach

Here's the best practical tip you'll get this close to Pesach: go get a haircut, hippie. Don't forget. Someone always forgets, and that someone will probably be you.

In all seriousness, don't forget to get your hair cut, especially if you're a guy. Otherwise, you might start looking like a hippie over the next few weeks, and no one wants that.

On the second night of Pesach, we start counting the Omer. During this 50 day period, it's customary not to get a haircut. Different groups measure the custom differently, but they all agree that it counts between now and Lag B'Omer. (To my knowledge, if there is a correction in the comments, I'll update this.) That's a little over a month. Most of you can live without a haircut for a month if you have to, but why put yourself through the inconvenience? It's also nice to go into chag feeling so fresh and so clean-clean. In fact, it's a mitzvah to get cleaned up before a chag! Haircut, new clothes, do something special for yourself as a way of bringing honor to the holiday. (But don't use that as an excuse to justify bad financial decisions.)

The men: According to custom, no getting haircuts and no shaving during the Omer (well, the applicable period of the Omer, according to your custom or community). That's not absolute, but it's a strong custom. Many men do shave during this time for either professional or "shalom bayis" reasons. I have found these "excuses" (heters, to be more precise) to be relatively common among the normally-clean-shaven modern orthodox. Many wives hate beards in our society, and they can create a real shalom bayis issue. Shalom bayis is far more important than this custom, so custom yields. The question many ask (usually men) is whether a wife should just accept the importance of this custom and "suck it up," so to speak. That may be the practice in some communities, whether they say so or not. For whatever reason, the rabbis have pretty consistently held that we womenfolk are not required to "suck it up." Why? We want you guys doing things that create babies, and that's unlikely when the woman is grossed out. #Fact. That seems to be the reasoning, from my perspective anyway. 

Interestingly, I have seen men cite shalom bayis when in reality, their wives don't care either way. (This brings up the excellent question of why someone would ask another why he is clean-shaven, which seems like a very rude question to ask in the first place. Best case scenario: you get a answer that shows why it's halachically allowed. Worst case: you embarrass the man and "out" him as someone violating halacha/custom/practice, and what gives you that right?) These men just don't want the itchiness, feel self-conscious, or any other number of reasons for not wanting to have a beard. Whether that's right or wrong is not the discussion; I'm just sharing what real people are doing in real life. 

As a whole, more men are growing beards during the Omer because Lumberjack Chic has become popular and professionally acceptable. However, that is only if the man can grow a beard in an "attractive" way, according to our society's style. Those who are patchy or scraggly or will grow a long beard very fast may encounter more resistance from a professional job standpoint. Of course, if you work with food, you will have a different set of considerations and regulations to deal with if you choose to not shave. If that's the case, sit down with your boss before you start growing the beard. It may be just as problematic for your boss as you. For instance, if she or he needs to order beard hairnets (yes, those exist!). 

Can you clean up the beard or trim it? I don't know the answer to that question, but my guess is no, since haircuts are also verboten. This is why men with Lumberjack-worthy testosterone levels may run into problems in the office. No one wants to play "co-worker or hobo?" Many workplaces have a written policy with beard-grooming standards, so check your beard before you wreck your beard. 

What about the women? Most women follow the custom to not get haircuts just the same as men do. The question is whether women have actively chosen to take on this minhag or whether women believe (mistakenly, according to nearly everyone if not everyone) it is obligatory on both sexes. If you're female and you have this custom, I have seen at least one tshuva (written ruling) that said that married women should get a haircut during this time if it affects (or will affect) their haircovering. For example, if your hair will get too long and be unwieldy under your haircovering choice (wig, hat, whatever), then you should get a haircut regardless of custom. From what I remember, the threshold for discomfort was very broad and inclusive, perhaps as low as an inconvenience. The mitzvah of haircovering trumps the custom, according to this teshuva. Whether haircovering is a mitzvah (and if so, what the parameters are) is a different discussion, but this position allows a haircut even for haircovering women who hold it is obligatory. (In fact, the argument is less strong if you believe haircovering is not a mitzvah or is a mitzvah that is not mandatory today - then it's custom v. custom, and which trumps the other?)

What about non-head hair? Women can definitely shave/trim/wax any non-head hair during the Omer. Yes, any. I don't know a definitive answer for men, but I believe the customary restrictions only apply to the head. What you do with the hair on the rest of your body is between you, Hashem, and possibly your wife. So if you're Michael Phelps, you're probably a-ok, especially since then swimming would be your profession. As you saw above, parnasah matters when making these rulings that affect your personal appearance.

So pick up your phone and call your hairdresser for an appointment right now, before you forget. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Best Pesach Guides on the Internet

It's that time of year again... Pesach. And that means cleaning. Yay, right? 

Preparing for Pesach can feel overwhelming, but thankfully, we're not reinventing the wheel around here. You too can stand on the shoulders of giants!

There are a lot of Pesach guides on the internet, but what they say varies widely. If you've never made Pesach before, how do you know which one to listen to? 

Pesach does not have to stress you out. If you're stressed out, listen to the thoughts you're telling yourself. Usually, you're your own problem. Sit down, make some tea, and then make a checklist. Then evaluate whether your checklist is a) reasonable and b) necessary. Then remove some of the things on your list. You probably let some spring cleaning sneak in.

Here are some really great guides to making Pesach without losing your mind:
Clean for Pesach and Enjoy the Seder (known on the internet as "the Rav Scheinberg letter")

As a bonus, I liked the "pep talk" aspects of these two very different articles: 


Personally, I think I'll take Auntie Chaya's advice and include more wine drinking in my Pesach prep this year. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Can You Use Your Hebrew Name Before Conversion?

Yes! (But in some communities, it may be discouraged or even "not done.")

But doesn't a name need to be official before you can use it?

Nope. That's true both under the secular law and Jewish law. Well, in the sense that neither prohibits you from calling yourself whatever you want whenever you want. Want to call yourself Beeblebop MacShoe? No one will stop you except to help you put on that straightjacket. 

Should you use your Hebrew name before conversion? Or ever? Maybe, maybe not. 

It's unlikely that a rabbi would ever preemptively tell you not to start calling yourself by a Hebrew name, but you may get a talking to after the deed is done, if the rabbi disagrees. If conflict makes you uncomfortable, it would be best to get a green-light to use a Hebrew name pre-conversion. If anyone other than your sponsoring rabbi or beit din rabbis tries to tell you you "can't" do it, ignore them. They're probably just yentas. Be thankful when yentas and haters out themselves. It's much easier to ignore them going forward.

Remember that you are not, nor should you ever be, required to use only your Hebrew name as your name on an everyday basis. It's your name, and you're free to use it as frequently or as infrequently as you like. While most converts do use their Hebrew names in some way, it is not required. (Of course, in some communities, not using a Hebrew name may be seen as a kind of rebellion or as an unwillingness to fully join the community. Even there, it won't be a "rule," it's just "not done." Not my cup of tea, but maybe it's yours.)

In almost all cases, you will choose your own name. It's an intensely personal decision and can take a long time or be blindingly obvious. Only in a very few communities will a rabbi choose your name for you, and those communities are usually Chassidic (though probably only a small percentage of Chassidic communities). Personally, I'm suspicious of situations where one person is given that much power over his followers' lives, and I would view that as a serious red flag. Others disagree with me and feel this is superholy and the name is drawn down from heaven on your behalf. I don't think any rabbi on this earth today has saintly superpowers ("ruach hakodesh"), but as always, others disagree. 

As I say in that blog post, there's a difference between "Your Hebrew name is going to be Y." and "Have you considered the name Z? I think it might be a good fit for you and your personality." One is likely to be seen as forceful and intimidating, and one sounds really thoughtful.


Reality Checks
Your English and Hebrew names are both you, and probably one will speak more to you on a daily basis. For me, that's my English name. However, I am a rare person who converted and still uses her (obviously) English name. People try to say that it's not a "Jewish name" to me, but neither was Alexander or several other names until it became popular. In my case, my name isn't commonly used even in the secular world, but I have a great comeback: "It's very popular in the London frum community, actually." (Or so I've been told. It has since caught on in Northern NJ too.)

Most diaspora Jews have a "secular" name on the paperwork, and many use those names at work. In fact, it's very confusing to do business with people I know in the community because I often have to learn a new name so I can get the secretary to transfer the call to the right person! I tell you this so that you'll realize it's not an all-or-nothing decision, whether you're a convert or BT or frum-from-birth. Almost every person in the community has to deal with this issue at one point or another. Often, we confront these questions multiple times in our lives.

And...you can always change your mind. I happen to love my English name and am very attached to it, but I chose a Hebrew name I could see myself using if I lived in Israel. People who don't speak English natively tend to mangle my name, and I'm unreasonably bothered by that, so I probably wouldn't use my English name in Israel. Our self-definition is malleable and always open to re-definition. 

Contexts

So let's cover some potential scenarios: 

You can be Chaim in shul and Greg in the office.
You can be Chava to everyone new and Elizabeth to everyone who already knows you (unless they want to call you Chava too).
You can be Sarah Leah to everyone else, but always Kara to your mom or other family members. 
You can be Ezra to everyone, but still Mark to the cashier at the liquor store who checks your ID. 
You might be Erica on your job application, then ask everyone to call you Ilana instead when you get the job. 
You can be Kochava online, and Skylar in the real world.
And you'll always be "Mr. Ackertonson?" to the telemarketers. 

Life's funny, and people are weird. Embrace it or you will become very bitter.

If you do choose to go by your Hebrew name in one or more of these contexts, you'll always have someone who gets it wrong or refuses to change over. You have to consider whether you can live with it, whether the battle is worth it if not, or whether this person needs to be in your life at all.

Cautions

But should you really do all this before conversion? My only caution is that once you start going by a name, you should stick with it. It gets too confusing, and it hurts our games of Jewish geography if you change names a couple of times. People might start getting Judgey McJudgerson about it and wonder if you're right in the head or noncommittal about this conversion business. You might start looking like a poser, and everyone hates posers. 

If you're not sure about your name (remember that it's a lifelong commitment), don't use it yet. Ask your friends whether it fits you, ask your family how it sounds, say it out loud in the mirror a few times, but don't start putting it on job applications. 

You can even ignore the question of a name altogether until it gets closer to your conversion. Or only delay the decision on whether to use it or not. Procrastination is ok, and the beit din is unlikely to ever ask you how you plan to use your Hebrew name. On the other hand, they might ask you those questions if you start asking people to call you by your Hebrew name.

A note on last names: unless you intend to legally change your last name, I don't suggest using a "Jew-y" last name just to "fit in" better. If you get caught, people will think that's weird and suspicious. You might even be viewed as a security threat.

Once you've converted, you're pretty much stuck with the name, so you can use it or not as you like. Before then: kick the tires, but don't commit until you're ready. 

More about Hebrew names and legally changing your name can be found on the Hebrew Names page!


So... when did you start using your Hebrew name, and why then? If not, why not?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

How to Use a Hot Water Urn on Shabbat and Yom Tov


Hot water urn. Electric kettle. Hot water pot. Coffee urn. Hot water heater (not to be confused with the one for your sinks and showers). Water boiler. Hot water dispenser. Pump pot. Whatever you call it, it gives you hot water.

Before I entered the Jewish community, hot water urns only existed in hotels and conference centers. In fact, I didn't even know what they were called. Now I've got one in my own kitchen, and so do most of the other people I know. 


Do You Need a Hot Water Urn?
No. You don't. 

Some people will try to tell you it's a (almost-mandated) custom to have a hot drink on Shabbat. It comes from the battles with the Karaites and is the source of the custom to eat hot food at Shabbat lunch (for example: cholent). Whether or not you believe there is a "requirement" to eat hot food on Shabbat, there is no such "requirement" for a hot drink. If you don't want or can't work out hot food on Shabbat, a hot drink is a great alternative. You can also "fulfill" the custom at someone else's house. There's nothing that mandates you need the hot items in your own kitchen, so there's nothing to worry about if you're eating out.

You only "need" a hot water urn if you want to drink coffee or tea or another hot beverage on Shabbat. I haven't seen it done personally, but I suppose hot chocolate is fine. Don't see why not. Making a soup with it...probably not, even if it were technically allowed. (And I don't know if it is.)

Many people don't even use the hot water urn, but always keep some water available in case a guest wants tea or coffee. Even if no guests are planned! It's common to offer these drinks after a meal, but not a faux pas if you don't. We just like being fancy. It's much more common in the winter, and much less common in the summer. Common sense, ya know.


How to Use the Hot Water Urn:
We talked about making tea before, but let's go over it again and in a more expanded fashion:

As a fundamental halachic principle, you should know that this water is (should be, if working properly) hot enough to "cook" things according to halacha. It is hotter than the level of yad soledat bo. In other words, it's really hot. It will burn you. And that means it will "cook" anything it comes into contact with that is capable of being cooked, so be careful to not spill it on foods. Which foods are capable of being cooked is a bigger and more difficult discussion that really isn't relevant to most of us, so just try to avoid spilling it on any food to be safe. 

This only applies on Shabbat because "cooking" is allowed on yom tov.

  1. Put hot water from the urn into a cup. This is the kli sheini, the second cup. The hot water urn is the kli rishon, the first cup, the heating element itself. 
  2. Pour that water into another cup. This is the kli shlishi, the third cup. Pouring into yet another cup lowers the temperature so that the water is ruled halachically incapable of "cooking." However, it may still be really hot. Be careful. Everyone eventually does the science experiment to see whether it really does feel cooler in the second teacup, so don't feel shy when you do it.
  3. Most Americans use instant coffee or a tea bag. You can even get instant coffee in tea bags! People differ as to whether the instant coffee or the tea bag should be added to the kli sheini before or after the water. 
  4. Alternatively, if you're British or machmir (stringent), you may use tea essence instead of a tea bag. This is the traditional method. It's essentially concentrated tea that you water down with the water from the urn. Again, people differ whether the tea essence should be placed in the kli sheini before or after the hot water.
  5. Let's talk about tea bags. Allowing the use of a tea bag instead of tea essence is a famous ruling from Rav Moshe Feinstein. 
  6. There's also a potential problem with borer, separating. Removing the tea bag from the cup would be separating bad from good, which isn't allowed. You can always choose good from bad, so you can pour the perfectly-steeped tea into yet another cup if the tea bag bothers you. Most people just leave the bag in (I'm not cultured enough to taste a difference). My understanding is that some people hold you can remove the bag with a spoon, so long as you also remove a little tea with it and don't squeeze the tea bag in the process.
Fun note: instant coffee is easy because it's already cooked. There's debate on whether tea leaves can be cooked, but everyone seems to agree we avoid the dispute and accept the kli sheini solution.

If you're a French press nut, Chaviva has a great discussion about them. I had no idea real coffee could be fine! The more you know. 


Alternatives to a Hot Water Urn:
  • Teapot or kettle on a blech or Shabbos plata. Be careful of the rules for putting it back on the heat. Review them with your rabbi because they can differ significantly from community to community.
  • Use a thermos. If the hot water is from a thermos, there's no need for a kli sheini. The thermos is the second cup from the heat source!
  • Heat a pot of water on a blech or Shabbos plata. Again, this leads to the issue of replacing the pot. It can also be a serious safety risk.


Potential Halachic Issues with the Urn Itself:
Best practice: buy the simplest one you can find. The more bells and whistles, the mo' problems. Thankfully, it'll also be the cheapest!

The heating element. Most hot water urns immediately boil the water once it's turned on, and then it has a separate temperature to keep the water hot. Some use two different heating elements, some use one with a temperature adjustment. Both should be fine. It's a problem if the temperature changes based on the amount of water left in the urn. Then, your actions are changing the heating elements. This is an uncommon problem, but you should be aware of it. Buying the cheap and easy water heater should ensure you don't get this kind of feature.

Timers. This one is a question for your rabbi if you really want to put the heater on a timer. It's easier to just boil the water before Shabbat and leave it on for 25 hours. Like a crockpot, you can use a timer to turn it off after you're done with it. However, there's a huge risk the timer messes up and it turns off early and you're left without. I eventually stopped trying after ruining too many cholents. It might be possible to arrange a timer to turn it off at night and back on in the morning, but I don't see it. Your savings on the electric bill and the earth would be small, so try not to feel bad. One of my favorite finance blogs, The Simple Dollar, even did a sample cost analysis for you!

Dials. If your hot water urn has a dial, don't adjust it on Shabbat. Authorities differ on whether you need to "disable" the switch in some way, such as putting tape over it or covering it. As for yom tov, you should be able to adjust the temperature up (not down), but you should talk to your rabbi because it's a complicated area and it depends on your specific machine. Fancy water heaters with a "Shabbos mode" will disable any switches for you. But why pay extra for that?

Water level indicators. Even a stringent view on the relevant halachot apparently leads to the conclusion that a water level indicator is fine. No less than Rav Ovadia Yosef permitted it, so you have plenty to rely on if you want that feature.

Lights. Are there lights that go off or on in reaction to something you do? For instance, does a light come on when you push for water? That's a problem. If it turns off and on according to the heat of the water, that might indicate there's a halachic problem with the heating element (as discussed above). Most urns have a light that simply indicates that the heater is on. That's fine.

Outlet placement. Be careful that you don't trip a breaker and knock out your power. That would be inconvenient, to say the least. Test the outlet you want to use more than 10 minutes before Shabbat, especially if you live in an old house.

Can you move the urn around? That's an excellent question: is it muktzah? Well, you're already touching it to dispense the water, so my gut feeling is that it can't be muktzeh to touch a different part of the urn. However, your mileage may vary. Why do I even bring this question up? When the water gets low, you may need to tip the urn forward to get water out the spigot. You might also want to slide the urn farther back on the counter so that the spigot doesn't drip on the floor.

Can you drink all the liquid in the urn? Related to the question above, can you drink enough of the water than you need to tip it over? According to the interwebz, some poskim hold that if an urn would be damaged if it were emptied, you aren't allowed to use it at all. That doesn't make sense to me, but I saw several people mention it. On the other hand, I'd think it would be a problem if the urn has a safety shut-off when the urn is empty (which many do). However, I saw that it was permitted to finish the water even if it would turn off, which also surprised me. I'm zero-for-two here. Either way, it seems to be a good idea not to let the urn become empty on Shabbat or yom tov. Cut off your guests before it becomes a problem, either halachically or ruining your nice appliances. 

Should you throw out any water left after Shabbat? There is a halacha that uncovered "standing water" left overnight (only when beside your bed?) is a halachic problem. Bad mojo (for lack of a better word; the same stuff you wash off your hands after sleeping), snakes leaving poison in it... there are a couple of reasons given for it. Ask your rabbi if this is a problem for you and if so, what the parameters are. Many people do throw the water away (try "recycling" it in your garden or to cook or wash with) just because they don't like the taste of "stale" water. It's not a halachic thing.  My initial thought when I saw this argument: the person said you have to throw away the water after Shabbat because the water sat overnight. However, with that logic, you couldn't use the water at all on Shabbat day because it sat overnight on Friday. Obviously, that's not what people do. Also, the water is not uncovered (there is a lid), so it shouldn't fall into this issue in the first place, and I believe it only applies when the glass of water was beside or under your bed. Why would you put it under your bed? Who knows. Personally, my water urn often chugs away through Sunday night before I turn it off. 

Toveling the urn. We're all afraid of toveling electric stuff. It's a common concern. Here is a great and simple breakdown of how to tovel an urn, and even better, they acknowledge that some poskim hold that items that could be damaged by toveling don't need to be toiveled. Ask your rabbi if you're really concerned about toiveling an electrical appliance, but be assured that pretty much all electrical items for sale in the U.S. can be safely toveled thanks to increased safety standards. A very short-term exposure to water is planned for in safety testing, but there is always a risk it could damage the item. It will probably also void the warranty. 

Health and safety. The sides of a hot water urn are very, very hot. It's tricky to place it somewhere that is both convenient and keeps children from being able to touch it. The spout often needs to hang over the edge of the counter, so don't burn your feet... or a child or pet running under you. You can apparently get an insulated cover for the urn, but "completely enclosing" it may be a halachic issue even if you put it on before Shabbat. Talk to your rabbi about the specifics if that interests you. The interwebz say that pump pots are safer around kids, so perhaps just go with the easier answer. (But they also say pump pots aren't as durable.)


#ProTips for Owning an Urn:
  • Use filtered water, Brita or otherwise. This will help prevent some of the buildup on the inside of the urn, and you'll be able to clean it less often. 
  • It cleans easily with water and white vinegar. You can 1) turn it on and boil the vinegar water or 2) let it sit in a stronger solution of vinegar water for a half hour or so. Either works fine. Rinse once or twice and you won't taste vinegar, even if there's a little vinegar smell left. If you hate the smell of vinegar, Google will give you 300 other ways to clean a water urn. 
  • If your spigot dips a little, make sure to place a plate or something underneath. In this case, I would slide the hot water urn off the edge of the counter when you need it rather than putting a plate on the floor. 

Happy drinking! (Is it St. Patrick's Day already??)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Is Yoga Allowed?

It's World Yoga Day! Maybe you think yoga is just for Indians and hippies who idolize Indian culture. Maybe you've tried it, and maybe you haven't. Or maybe you love yoga. 

As you become more religious, can you continue to do yoga? Or maybe you'd like to try yoga for its scientifically-proven benefits to health and wellbeing?

Answer: it depends. It depends on whether your community forbids it outright or whether your community allows the practice when done in a tznius manner. I'm not aware of any major groups who say it's totally ok in every context, though there are certainly people who treat gyms differently in regard to tznius (like going to the doctor - this can play out in several ways as we'll mention below). The opinions probably differ whether you're a man or woman, given the potentially-suggestive nature of the movements and the tightness of most people's clothing. (In case that's not clear: the men are going to have a harder time getting "permission.") So whichever way you go, and you can change your approach over time, you'll find other people doing it too. Whether that's right or wrong isn't for me to say.

The best advice I can give you is don't ask a shailah (halachic question) if you aren't willing to abide by the ruling. If you feel strongly toward yoga and will find it hard to give it up, you shouldn't ask unless you know the answer you're going to get. "But that's rabbi shopping!" you might say. No, I'm saying don't ask the question; I'm not advocating that you look around for a rabbi who will give you the answer you want (though you wouldn't be the first or the last to do that). In theory, just because you're not ready to abide by a negative answer now doesn't mean you won't be ready one day. And then you can ask. Can ask; I'm not saying you should ask. I can't answer that for you either. 

Whatever you do, don't set yourself up for failure by asking a shaliah when you're not ready; it can snowball into disregarding other rulings. More immediately, it can lead to a lower self-esteem: Why don't I have more willpower? Why am I not pious enough to give this up for Gd? Have I made a horrible mistake with this Jewish stuff?

A major problem is that most rabbis know nothing about yoga, how it's practiced, what the practice is actually like, how the types of yoga differ (which could make a difference), etc. If you ask a question and the rabbi responds too quickly, be wary. He should certainly ask follow-up questions about the specific situation, and he should probably ask another rabbi who is more knowledgeable on the topic. 

So let's talk about some options. 

Beware of religious stuff. There are many yoga customs and practices that involve Hindu religious practices, and Hindus are polytheists, so we get into real old-school Biblical pagan problems. I didn't know much about them (and you're not liable for punishment if you don't know what you're doing) until I read the book Wrestling with Yoga by Shelly Dembe. However, most people believe there is a danger in subconsciously exposing yourself to these things, even unknowingly. She writes extensively about how she encountered these problems as a baalas teshuva and yoga teacher. Some of the things that can be problematic, as I remember it: the bowing (watch out for idols in the room!!), "Namaste," and the Sanskrit names of postures. Maybe you find teachers who don't use those practices or ignore them when they come up. Just because the class bows and says Namaste doesn't mean you have to too. (And no one cares that you don't, speaking from my practice years ago.) Some authorities believe it is beyond redemption and is exclusively an idolatrous religious practice. I'm not sure anyone could possibly leave a Bikram hot yoga class with that opinion, but that was my experience.

You're fine by most people when you're in your home with a DVD or other video class (well, maybe not men). Depending on how you normally dress inside your home, you may be able to wear as little clothing as is comfortable or familiar for you. Of course, that also depends on your practice during niddah if you're married, and around roommates if you have those.

There are frum yoga teachers who teach single-gender classes! However, the men are probably out of luck. These teachers are hard to find because they're usually private teachers who host classes in homes, rather than in a studio. Ask around. Facebook Pages is usually a good place to search for individual yoga teachers. Yoga by Leah is one teacher popular among my friends.

Some people are able to find public single-gender yoga classes. In my experience, this has been surprisingly harder in NYC than the other places I've lived. And there's a lot more demand from men here than I've encountered before. Of course, the frum men are out of luck yet again. I've never seen an all-male class. Here and with the frum teachers I mentioned above, your experience will vary based on your interpretation of how you can dress in a single-gender situation outside your home (some follow all the same rules, some say anything goes, and there's plenty of middle ground too). Haircovering can be a sticky issue in these situations, depending on how you interpret the mitzvah/custom. That's a problem in any exercise situation, but yoga is more problematic because of how much your head moves. 

Some people attend regular yoga classes. Some hope that no men will show up, and some don't care. Some dress like everyone else, some dress tznius, and some dress more modestly but perhaps not to their normal tznius standard. Some start the class tznius and will lose some clothing (and/or a headcovering) if no men show up. Potential problem: windows and glass doors exposing you outside the yoga room.

Overheating can be a real concern if you do yoga while tzniusly or modestly dressed, so stay hydrated and invest in great wicking exercise clothing. If you always cover your toes/feet, make sure you buy socks with grippy bottoms to prevent sliding. Safety first!

Now here are some Jewish books about yoga!
Wresting with Yoga is the only one on this list I've read. It's a spiritual memoir about a frum woman's Indian-influenced past colliding with her now-orthodox present and how she tried to reconcile the two. I wish it had gone into more detail, particularly about repeated mentions that her rabbi prohibits blank-mind-meditation without ever saying why it might be a problem. 
Mussar Yoga: Blending an Ancient Jewish Spiritual Practice with Yoga to Transform Body and Soul I love Alan Morinis' mussar books, so I'm sure this is a great book.
Torah Yoga: Experiencing Jewish Wisdom Through Classic Postures I don't know anything about this book, but it sure looks interesting!
Alef Bet Yoga: Embodying the Hebrew Letters for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being Now this one is just fascinating-looking. It reminds me of acting out letters in Kindergarten, which explains why there's also a kids' version of the book


Are you curious about yoga? If you are already a yogini (look, another religious word!), has your yoga practice changed as you progressed along your spiritual journey? Did you give it up when you became religious or are you thinking about starting a practice now? Have you had unexpected run-ins with yoga in your community? 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Are You Near NYC? Join the Meetup Group!

In a way that was unimaginable when I started this blog 4.5 years ago, there is such a powerful online community for converts and conversion candidates. I'm very proud to have been a part of that, though it still boggles my mind that so many people know this blog. (I've had a few awkward experiences of celebrity lately!)

So what's missing? An in-person conversion community

In a stroke of genius during such difficult times, the DC convert community pulled together and created a Meetup so they could be there for each other. By all accounts I heard, the Meetup has been a great success and a blessing to those who attended. Several of us in a Facebook group discussed growing this model to other cities, including NYC. I didn't really have time because of work and some personal things, so I waited to see what would happen.

A couple of months went by, and nothing happened. So because I'm a sucker for pain, I created the NYC Orthodox Conversion Meetup Group

I originally intended to create a Meetup specifically for the Queens and Five Towns area because that's where I live, but it turns out that Meetup groups are very expensive! ($120/year! I have clearly not appreciated my other Meetup groups enough!) Because of the unlikelihood that we'll create 5 separate Meetup groups at that cost level, this group covers the entire NYC area, including Northern New Jersey and the Five Towns (just over the Queens border into Long Island, if you're not familiar with it - and yes, it's actually five separate towns). 

That means the Meetups will rotate among these areas:
  • Manhattan
  • Brooklyn
  • Queens
  • the Five Towns
  • Northern NJ (most likely staying in Teaneck)
Even though the events are locations-specific, you can attend any event that interests you and is convenient for you. Don't feel that you can only attend the Teaneck event if you live in NJ or the Manhattan event if you live in Manhattan. That is not the case! Come to as many events as you can! (And if you're coming into town on vacation, contact me, and I'll see if there's a Meetup while you're in town!)

There are currently 5 Meetups scheduled between this week and late March. Once you are approved to join the group, you'll be able to see specific information about the dates and times.

An important caveat: the group is limited to orthodox converts, orthodox conversion candidates, and people considering an orthodox conversion. The goal is to connect converts within the orthodox community; that way, we can deal with the special challenges and celebrate the special joys of living as a convert in the orthodox community. If you've left orthodoxy or converted outside the orthodox community, this group probably wouldn't be helpful or relevant to you unless you're considering joining an orthodox community. 

Converts and candidates from all communities are welcome: modern orthodox, Yeshivish, Chassidic, Open Orthodox, and everything in between. I will do my best to schedule events at places that are acceptable to everyone's interpretation of halacha, and I may need help doing that. If you have specific requirements other than glatt kosher and chalav yisrael, please contact me to let me know. (Other than yichud and the food, I'm not aware of any halachic problems meeting in someone's home - please correct me if you know of any other concerns.)

Privacy is a key goal of the group, but nothing is perfect, especially in a community as large as NYC. My goal is that this will be a safe place to share your struggles and challenges and to celebrate your joys. An in-person community should have existed long before now, and I'm sorry I didn't think of it earlier. But then again, I'm a hermit, so perhaps this is all a terrible idea ;)

The first group of meetings are simple "meet and greets" where we'll meet for dinner and conversation and to discuss what you want to see from this group. I need ideas for events and locations, people! 

However, there is one conversion group Meetup open to the public! We're going to watch the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amselem at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Sunday, February 22. Because the schedule is only released one week at a time on Thursdays, I can't guarantee the time until later this week. I anticipate we will attend the 2:40pm showing. Meet out front at 2:30pm so we can grab seats. If you arrive later, we'll meet you after the show is over! Dinner afterwards to discuss the movie is optional but encouraged! (Give me restaurant suggestions! It seems that the pretty-universally-accepted restaurants I knew near there have closed, and I'm not sure how far people are willing to walk.)

Get denial should be a topic near and dear to the convert's heart, both because it's flat-out wrong and because get denial reflects the same powerlessness and abuse of power that can (and does) affect converts both here and abroad. Get denial and conversion abuse are cut from the same cloth. If both groups support each other, we can affect change for individuals and also for the whole group.

I hope you'll join the Meetup group, pass it along to the converts and conversion candidates you know, and/or join us to watch Gett and support Israeli cinema! And while you're at it, support ORA: Organization for the Resolution of Agunot!