Monday, October 3, 2022

Watch This Space!

More is coming! 


I "discovered" Judaism at 19 years old, which is now half a lifetime ago. I began this blog 12 years ago, but it has been quiet for almost 4 years. I'm nearing my 10th wedding anniversary, have 2 children, and still live in the New York City area. 

What have I learned?


What do you think is coming? And what would you like to see? Tell me in the comments below!


Until then, if you need to find me, try this:

Monday, May 20, 2019

Do I Need a Havdalah Set?

Do you need a havdalah set to "do" havdalah properly?

In short, nope. It's absolutely not required to make a kosher havdalah.

But is it nice? Did I spend years thinking my life would be better if I had one?


But there was never enough money for it. I always needed books (or rent inside the eruv) more. A havdalah set is a piece of art, really, and its price reflects that.

So What's a Havdalah Set? 

The premise of a havdala set is "hiddur mitzvah," beautifying a mitzvah. Doing a mitzvah well and beautifully is a mitzvah too. The purpose of a havdalah set is to beautify your practice of havdalah. That's all.

So what is a havdalah set? Havdalah is the (very short) ritual that marks the end of Shabbat. It requires a multi-wicked candle, wine or grape juice (other beverages can be substituted, but that's a longer conversation), and spices. 

A havdala set just holds each of those pieces. There's a wine cup, a candle holder (doesn't look like a normal candlestick), and what's called a spice box.

There are two traditional designs, one silver and the other ceramic, usually blue and white. Wooden sets painted with bright colors are also quite popular. There are differences among them, but here are three representative, mid-priced sets: 

Silver Havdalah Set:

Ceramic Havdalah Set:

Wooden Havdalah Set:

How to DIY Havdalah

How can you do that yourself, without a specialized set? 

Use your kiddush cup (or whatever you use as a kiddush cup). You can use it for both purposes. 

A lot of people hold the candle, over a paper plate or paper towel or a small plate that you're ok with getting candle wax on. They even make little plates for this purpose if you want something specific to havdalah but have a smaller budget. 

Spices are the easiest: keep them in the container you bought at the grocery store. Cinnamon is my favorite, but cloves is probably the most popular. You could be a renegade and get pumpkin spice or nutmeg! I don't know whether it's required to be set aside the spices specifically for use during havdalah, but I think that's a good idea either way. Just place it with your other Judaica, wherever you keep your kiddush cup (which also doesn't have to be a special cup but I also recommend setting one aside just for Jewish purposes).

Here is the set-up we've used for years, though of course I forgot to include our kiddush cup because it was in the dishwasher. We use the same cup for kiddush and havdalah. Just a candle (like this), something to hold spices, matches, and a havdalah plate we received for our wedding (I don't see anything similar on Amazon).

What Do You Really Want When You Want a Havdalah Set?

So what did I want when I wanted all those havdalah sets? Stuff, quite frankly. Jewish stuff that would prove I was "really" Jewish. Stuff that would make my house look Jewish, make my actions look Jewish. And because I also love beautiful things and the rush of buying something. I'm an American raised on rampant, unbridled consumerism, of course.

Do I have a havdala set now? Yes, actually. I got it secondhand, for free, and only a few months ago. Close to 15 years after I first began dreaming of having one. Would I buy one? If I felt it was the right use of my finances at the time, yes. That's why I feel like a havdalah set is a great gift to give (if that's the price point for your gift). I would have a hard time spending that much money on one for myself, but I would have an easier time purchasing it for someone else. If I'm honest with myself, I always admitted there was a better use for 60+ bucks. Usually books, of course.

I haven't always kept my eye on what matters and turned down the shiny object of my desire when it wasn't the best use of my time and money, but I did here. 

What really matters to you? And what's distracting you from that?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Some Last-Minute Pesach Resources

Time is short, are you ready??

Don't worry if you're behind. Don't worry if you haven't even started. Full disclosure: we haven't started and we never do until right before. Maybe it's ADHD, maybe she's born with it? 

Either way, here are some last-minute resources you might find useful!

Chag kasher v'sameach! Have a happy and kosher Pesach! 

Free Advice:

Some songs you might find useful:

  • Kadesh Urchatz (the order of the seder, sung repeatedly through the seder) by Rabbi Chayim B. Alevsky (there's an odd echo sound but this was the best version I found of the tune I've heard at all the seder tables I've sat at - YouTube suggests there is a lot more variety in tune than I've personally seen)
  • Mah Nishtanah with lyrics in both Hebrew and transliteration by The YouTube Rabbi (a woman, for those men who don't do recorded kol isha)
  • Dayenu by BimBam 
  • Chad Gadya by StandWithUs. This one includes sound effects, just like we sing at our own sedarim (our sounds are a bit different, but it gives you the idea). 

Appropriate Greetings:

Chag sameach!
Chag kasher v'sameach!
Gut yuntif!
Chag Pesach sameach! (less likely, but you might see it, especially in writing)

Thursday, March 7, 2019

How Long Does It Take to Convert? The Real Answer Is There's No Answer

This is probably the most common conversion question out there:

How long is this going to take?? 

(I wish Blogger offered a "scary" font! Letters dripping with blood would convey the feeling much more accurately!)

It's obvious to think about this question when you first get interested in converting. But you rarely realize this question will recur again and again until you're done, finished, converted. This is not a one-time question. This question runs on a loop and often feels like it dominates your life. 

I think this question-on-loop is the root of so much of the "let down" feeling many people experience after conversion. We've spent so much time and energy, often years, counting down to some unknown time in the future, that we don't know what to do when that question no longer feels like it rules our lives. My whole life has centered around this question for so long - what do I do now? 

All this is to put the question in a broader perspective and to recognize that the question is far more emotional than it seems on the surface. 

Such a simple question, right? How long does it take to convert? 

But it's far from simple to estimate how long a particular conversion will take, and there are no easy answers even though we can talk about generalities. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. 

Generalities, however, are no guarantee for you as an individual. And getting mad that your life doesn't reflect what you think is (or should be) "average" is rarely very helpful. It just eats at you and your self-esteem instead.

Because after all, when you ask "how long does a conversion take?" don't you really mean, "how long will it take ME to convert?" Those are two completely different questions. 

There are lots of follow-up questions to ask before you can even get into the ballpark of a timeline for an individual person. This is a non-exhaustive list:
  • Which Jewish movement are we talking about? (There are no guarantees even in the non-orthodox movements, despite what people say, though generalities are more likely to be the average experience.)
  • How long have you been learning about Judaism?
  • How deeply have you learned? (You can have years of superficial learning or months of intense learning and be in the same place!)
  • What are your prior connections to Judaism, especially in your family?
  • Were you raised in another Jewish movement and only need a conversion to join another movement?
  • Were you raised with a deep faith in another religion or is this your first "official" foray into organized religion? Do you have a history in multiple faiths?
  • Have you gone to a synagogue yet? Are you a regular attendee? For how long?
  • What relationships, romantic or friendship, do you have with other Jews?
  • Are there outside time factors at play, like a wedding date or you'll be moving?
  • What do you know about Jewish practice in your movement?
  • How much of that practice have you personally put into practice?
A patrilineal Jew (one whose father was Jewish and is not considered halachicly - Jewish law - Jewish) who has a lot of experience in the orthodox community has a very different timeline for an orthodox conversion than the person who just did their first Google search. Same in the non-orthodox movements (and remember that a patrilineal Jew would also need a conversion to join the conservative movement). Further, that same patrilineal Jew would have a very different answer about the timeline depending on whether they're approaching the conservative or orthodox community. 

Now that I've lawyered this up with a dozen versions of "it depends," let's talk generalities. 

Assuming you're new to Judaism, the "textbook" answer for how long a conversion takes is 1 year for non-orthodox movements and at least 2 years for an orthodox conversion.

Is that actually average for our Google searcher? I don't think so. I think this is an average for an "ideal" conversion, not an average of actual conversions. And I think, at best, it's an "average" from the time the person makes contact with a rabbi who actually has the power to get things moving, not from that first Google search. The amount of time between Google search and sitting across the desk from a rabbi ranges wildly. 

What I've found is that, in general, few people take a straight-line path to conversion, aka an "ideal" conversion. Those timelines presume consistent and relatively intense commitment, education, and putting it into practice. The non-orthodox conversion generally involves taking a class that lasts about a school year plus a calendar year of active practice in the community. An orthodox conversion is much harder to quantify in that same way because usually, the education will have to be self-directed, you arranging your own education (few places have organized classes or mentoring programs). 

Is that really an "ideal" way to convert? Not many people maintain the "necessary" commitment and education consistently over a year or two to finish a conversion under these suggestions. Most of us slow down or take a break entirely one or more times during the process. After all, making a decision this important and for life (especially in an age of growing antisemitism) is a huge decision not to be taken lightly. Most of us step away to see if it still feels right, and we may do that several times over several years - I did. I moved to a whole other country to see if I felt I could be happy living a "secular" life! I took another big break when I began law school. Both of those breaks (and the smaller ones along the way) reconfirmed that this is where I need to be, come hell or high water. Don't worry, hell and high water came too. When those challenges came, and they'll continue coming throughout my life, knowing I took those breaks and how I felt during them confirms my decisions and helps me push through the hard times. 

I was very angry at myself when I ended those breaks because I felt like I wasted time, that I put "my life" on hold. But that time wasn't wasted, and I'm still drawing dividends from those times a decade later. Knowing me and my personality, if I had pushed through and finished my conversion at a breakneck pace (as my perfectionist self wanted and judged me for failing to do), I would not still be here. I would question my decisions and wonder whether the grass is greener somewhere else. I know it's not because I asked those questions before I signed on the dotted line. I converted long after the honeymoon period had passed; I knew the people in the Jewish community were human beings with failings. I think having several hits to my idealism about Judaism and the humans who practice it were valuable long-term because, of course, I'm still dealing with these people now. I disappoint other people (as some of you commenters are so happy to tell me), and they disappoint me. Of course, our religion is structured to need the community, and when that community fails you consistently or actively throws you under the bus, I understand why people leave. In my earlier years, even my own negative experiences didn't prepare me to have compassion in those cases. They weren't spoken about as actively as they are now online, and it always looks different when it's the people you love. We have a long way to go as a community, but I still choose to be here. And I understand why other people don't. An "imperfect" conversion process with starts and stops won't answer all these questions for the rest of your life, but I think is helpful for most people. A cooling off time is good for any permanent(ish) question, whether conversion or marriage or tattoos. 

I read online that my orthodox conversion would take about two years. Honestly, I can't even measure how long my conversion took because where do I start counting? I was involved with the Jewish community, primarily the orthodox community, for five years before deciding to seek a conservative conversion. I was told my conversion could have been immediate given my experience and practice, but I had to "check the boxes" so to speak by completing the year course. I converted in about nine months, still converted a little before the class ended (and yes, I had to finish the course). So was Conversion 1.0 six years or nine months? 

On the other hand, I've known many non-orthodox converts who took far longer than one year, and they've been shamed by others or themselves that they didn't finish in the "right" amount of time. Our journey is our journey and no one's journey is the same as another's. This attachment of personal virtue to a certain timeline only hurts people.

My orthodox conversion process started almost immediately after that conversion, thanks to various factors. Do we start measuring from when I made the decision? Or when I began working with a beit din? Or from the time I began working with the other beit din that actually did my conversion in the end? From the decision, it was a little over a year and a half. From my first beit din meeting with my final beit din, four months. From the time I "discovered" Judaism? Eight years. If you had told me that I wouldn't convert for six or eight years, would I have continued past that first Google search (technically, it was a dive into the Yahoo database)? Maybe not. Does that mean I shouldn't be telling you this story for fear of discouraging you? Maybe. But the premise of this site has always been to help conversion candidates understand the unwritten "rules" and practices and get honest answers to hard questions. Without good information, we can't make good decisions. And too many people believe they're bad or inadequate or a failure because they don't measure up to these timelines people parrot as though they actually mean something. They don't. 

My advice: as immediate and practical as questions about the timeline are, they're not actually that helpful. If you convert in less time that "suggested," yay! But resist the urge to feel superior to the people who are taking longer than you. Your factors and their factors are completely different (even more so if you're converting with different rabbis and batei din, which introduce their own factors). 

But if you take longer than "suggested," and it will be longer for most of you, that question often makes you feel bad about yourself. Like you're a failure. Like your life is on hold. Certain parts of your life may be on hold (particularly romance), yes, but this is still your life. I wish I'd remembered that - I was living my life even while I thought it was on hold. I focused on what I couldn't do and not on what I could do. I missed a lot of opportunities. 

Timelines aren't the right question to ask - ask what you need to do to get to the next level. What do I need to focus on next? Where are my weaknesses and how can I strengthen them? What relationships can I build with friends and mentors and teachers? What should I learn next? What practice should I take on next? How can I do a current practice better? Those questions to the rabbis overseeing your conversion will be a lot more practical and useful than "how much longer do I have left?" And the answers will be a lot more empowering because it gives you something you can do. When you're told a time (and you usually won't be able to get a rabbi to say a time), everything remains out of your power. You're a powerless bystander watching things happen to you, just logging your time. Focus on being an active player in the process and let the time fall where they may. This approach, ironically, will probably get you to the finish line faster and with more of your self-esteem intact. 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dressing "Frum" at the Gym

I think I've always been surprised how commonly people (usually women) ask about halacha and going to the gym. But especially about headcoverings and the gym. Yet I don't see men asking about their yarmulkes at the gym 🤷

In short, your mileage will vary considerably. Ask people in your community. If you're in the conversion process or recently converted, err on the side of more conservative. #BecauseDoubleStandards. You'll probably still face double standards as a convert even if you converted long ago, but it's easier to claim the right to follow "only" the community standard when you've been in the community a longer time.

As always, I'm not a halachic advisor. I'm not telling you whether anything is right or wrong, simply sharing the variety of answers I've seen other people live out in their daily lives. Communities and individuals within those communities have a wide range of practice, regardless of whatever Internet Rabbi tells you is "the halacha." I can assure you there is no one "halacha" answer to these questions for "the orthodox community" (nor is there to most Jewish questions). And people being people, they may not conform to what their community would say is "the answer." This is why you need to understand your specific community.

Here are some of the questions you might consider and some of the answers you might see:

Do I need to go to a single gender gym?
If you're male, this option doesn't exist for you, so no. You're stuck with gyms where there may be women exercising. Just as you would if you chose to exercise in a public park. I've never seen a man ask for such an option, but I don't know whether that's because they know they don't exist or because it's not something that would even occur to them to ask for.

That said, it seems very standard that men keep their shirts on while exercising, and often while swimming too (though less common in swimming). People don't often talk about it, but there are "tznius" clothing standards for men too, often cited as being mid-bicep to mid-thigh. Whether or not a community officially "holds" by that or another definition, it's not something that is commonly discussed, so I don't think many men even know there's an idea out there that they should wear a minimum amount of clothing. I could be wrong, but that's my impression, and my impression is certainly colored by the obsession with speaking publicly about what women should or should not be wearing at any available opportunity. #NoNotBitterWhyDoYouAsk 

Women, you have this option, and honestly many chose it for reasons of sexism, not religious reasons specifically. Women who don't want to worry about being propositioned, stared at, touched, or harassed. Or who want to wear clothing they find more comfortable for exercising but worry would attract more male attention (especially the bustier ladies). Many orthodox women choose a female-only gym so they can wear clothing that doesn't comply to their "public" standard of tznua, since those rules only apply in mixed gender scenarios (according to most, I'm sure there are people who say you must be fully dressed to tznius standards 24/7). The reality is that even most female-only gyms often have male trainers and instructors. Some women treat them like doctors, physical therapists, and other professionals who see us in less-than-full-dress for health reasons, and that means they wear whatever they think is most appropriate for working out.

Many women (like myself) end up a co-ed gym. I purposely considered the fact that even the "women's only" gyms I had access to were not actually single-gender. Orthodox women wear a whole range of things even in a co-ed gym. Just like with swimming, some wear clothes that comply with their normal standard of tznius and some wear what is considered "normal" in those situations either for safety reasons (more fabric, more that can get caught in a machine or tripped over) or because they believe that avoiding standing out too much is also part of being tznua.

Women who want to wear "skirts and sleeves" to the gym have many options. A common choice is a long-sleeved exercise shirt, leggings, and a running skirt. I've found a cotton-elastic pencil skirt works just as well. I use a plain one from Old Navy that I bought almost 10 years ago. Here are some items I've personally used or similar if they're no longer available: Underarmour long-sleeved shirt, Columbia 3/4 length sleeve shirt (beware the collar bones! The horror!), leggings, running skirt, pencil skirtskirt with leggings attached. Again, be very aware of the potential safety risks of wearing more clothes while exercising, especially loose fabrics (which is why I prefer a pencil skirt). Also, you need to consider how comfortable you are with your skirt blowing up in the wind, riding up, or blatantly falling up, like in a yoga class. Pencil skirts and some other skirts can also limit your range of mobility, especially in weight lifting and classes. If you can't safely do an activity in the clothing you choose to wear, please choose another activity rather than trying to "make it work." 

For swimming, you can find a wide variety of "burkinis" available. Or if you can pronounce it (I can't), it's called a shvimkleid in Yiddish. I don't know of any other names for them, but I'd love to hear if you do! They come in many options: Full-length skirt, knee-length, and mid-thigh skirts all with leggings included underneath. Long-sleeved and 3/4 sleeve, and t-shirt style shirts. Mix and match! As someone with a high risk for skin cancer, I appreciate these swimsuits even more! I even took the "plunge" and always put my kids in a rash guard and board shorts. My only criticism is that the skirt is a LOT of fabric and it (not surprisingly) doesn't stay down in the water very well. Apparently some burkinis marketed to the Muslim community have buttons to help hold the skirt to the leggings, which seems like possibly a good idea. On the other hand, my friend is a swim instructor and rightfully points out that the skirts (buttoned or not) can be an added safety risk, especially since many of us in communities where wearing these is common have not been raised to be strong swimmers. Use burkinis with caution and stay aware of their risks to mitigate them as best you can.

What kind of headcovering should I wear to the gym? 
Whatever makes you comfortable. 

As I said, I've never heard a man ask this question about a kippah, but it would be a reasonable question to ask. Baseball caps are the most common choice I've seen, but beanies/knit caps/toboggans/whatever you want to call them are also common. 

I've also seen men who just don't wear anything while running or playing a sport. This is an understandable and accepted reason in many communities. They keep the kippah nearby, often in a pocket. This is analogous to unexpectedly windy days, when you'll often see men carry a kippah in their pocket or hand to get home still owning a kippah.

Married women who cover their hair is a more complicated question. I've seen very few sheitels, none that I can remember honestly. However, I don't know how that plays out in communities like Chabad, where sheitels are considered the halachically superior method of haircovering. You will see a wide range of decisions here, depending on the person and the community. I've seen:
  • Normal tichel, like any other day, even including a shaper
  • Baseball hat
  • Baseball hat with a simple tichel underneath
  • Pre-tied tichel or other simple tichel
  • Bandana
  • No covering at all (more common than you might expect)
  • Swim caps for swimming
As always, keep safety in mind when deciding what kind of headcovering to use. If you lose it while running across an intersection, you could stop and get hit by a car before you think twice. It could fall into the parts of an exercise machine. And more prosaically, it could be blown away by the wind and then where would you be? Try to focus on methods of keeping your choice on your head. A velvet headband under a bandana or tichel is very helpful, for instance (Amazon or Wrapunzel). I would recommend skipping shapers/volumizers/whatever you want to call them.

Try also to choose fabrics and styles that can be washed because of sweat and grime.

A last heads-up about hair coverings for women. People seem to forget that haircovering and clothing are two very different areas of halacha/minhag. They're based on completely different things. So they don't always "match." You may think it's weird to see a woman wearing pants and a tichel, but that's a perfectly reasonable possible outcome if you've studied the Jewish teachings on these ideas. On the other end of the scale, you could go to a womens-only beach and see a woman wearing a bikini and a fully-covering tichel. These are the outcomes of different approaches to the ideas of haircovering and tznius and are not contrary, though many of us do a double-take when we see "levels of observance" (as we think of them) that "don't match." I tell you this because it's easy to get judgey when you see something like that and don't understand why (ask me how I know!).

These are just some of the options you might consider with the gym. Be aware that people can and do change over time and as their exercise regimes and locations change. We do the best we can within the options we have and with the various safety concerns in mind. But if you take nothing else away from this, remember to consider the safety concerns for more modest exercise wear and take appropriate precautions. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Friendships When a Liberal Convert Goes Orthodox

I came across this question on social media again recently, and it has been a frequent concern over the years:

"I converted in one Jewish movement and now want to convert orthodox. What will happen to my friendships and my relationship with my former rabbi(s)? Will they hate me? Am I betraying them?"

First, I'll counter with another question: What if everyone abandoned you and thought you were an awful person - would you still want to convert orthodox? 

Because that's basically the worst case scenario. Guilt, shame, gossip, and being rejected by the people you care about. No laughing matter. 

But on the flip side, if you are living your best life and your friends take it so personally that they would reject you and gossip about you, do you really want them as your friends? 

I'm no armchair quarterback here. I've faced this. Twice, arguably three times, in fact. And that's just the friends. We're not even talking about my romantic relationships, which was its own special mess.

My secular Jewish friends were fine with me being Jewish-adjacent and just interested in Judaism. Then when I began seriously working toward my conservative conversion, I lost almost all of them. I became "too Jewish." Remember, I wasn't orthodox (yet). This problem doesn't just exist for orthodox converts, but it's usually only expected when people go orthodox. I've never seen anyone ask the question without framing it as an orthodox question, but this is not an orthodox-only problem. I would have expected this if I'd gone orthodox, but it shocked me when I was "just" going conservative. 

Then the "maybe it counts, maybe it doesn't" is when I became serious about my conservative Judaism. In my experience, even many conservative Jews don't know that the conservative movement holds by halacha. Many people only see superficial differences between the reform and conservative movements, when in fact they're based on very different philsophical/religious foundations vis a vis halacha and obligation. Again, I was "too Jewish" and ostracized. People stopped talking to me except to make jokes about me taking things too seriously. 

Stopping there for a minute, you have to consider whether this behavior is chicken-or-the-egg. Did I begin acting self-righteously? Did I lecture other people that they should be doing these things too? Did I do these things in a showy, arrogant way? Did I preemptively cut them out because I feared they would reject me, so I rejected them first? 

I don't think so. But I've found that religious matters are touchy, and even if I didn't intend to do any of those things, it's possible I still did or that others perceived me as doing so. The outcome is the same.

The second/third time came close on its heels: becoming orthodox. I lost almost all my new non-orthodox Jewish friends. A few stuck with me, and are still here now! This one hurt the most, perhaps because it was a more active rejection and struck into my professional life as a law student. I was an officer in the Jewish student group. They moved all the events to Shabbat so I wouldn't be able to attend. Then they voted in someone to replace me without telling me. It cut me to the core because these had been people I considered close friends, and that was one of the few places where all my worlds came together. I didn't have to explain the law stuff or the Jewish stuff or the student stuff; it was a place where I felt fully understood, at least on some level. 

So here's the bottom line: you can't control other people. They'll stick with you or they won't. You can't control who has serious religious baggage and will view any religious action on your part as a judgment of them. Some people will take your life choices personally when you leave their community (or move to the right or left in that community). That's just people and there's nothing you can do about it. They may even try to punish you or make your life miserable. Bullies are out there.

You have to do what's right for you, treat others the way you'd like to be treated, and let the chips fall where they may. No one becomes orthodox (or Jewish generally) because they hope to be popular. You will inevitably lose someone, perhaps someone very close or someone you highly respect. You'll often be surprised by who it is.

You're not betraying anyone by doing what's best for you, no matter how much they've helped you. No one has the right to ask you to stifle yourself for their own comfort. Everyone grows, all the time. No one should hold it against you that you grew in a particular direction they didn't. They may hold it against you anyway, but they have no right to. It's not your fault.

On the other hand, being perfectly honest, you may face different issues by staying in touch with your old non-orthodox community. I know of two instances when a beit din rejected conversion candidates for staying friendly with the people in their former non-orthodox community. It's possible both cases happened in the same beit din, but I don't know. The rabbis claimed it showed they "weren't serious." I'm intimately familiar with one of those cases, and it involved multiple levels of rabbinic bullying and emotional abuse, and I believe the beit din involved had (has?) a pattern of abusive behavior that I doubt has been resolved given the power structures in place. I believe this was emotional abuse, to dictate who you can be friends with. Especially when there was no warning given. However, I know people in the same beit din who maintained non-orthodox friendships, even with some of the same people, and did not suffer any consequences. The beit din didn't look for this issue, but they swooped down with hellfire once a bully brought it to their attention. It's possible the friendships were just an excuse and certainly weren't the whole objection, and that nothing at all would have happened without the determined effort of a bully who wanted them kicked out of the program. It's possible the bully made allegations beyond this, but this was the only piece passed back to the candidates involved.

You can't control the beit din any more than you can control anyone else, and I don't want you to reject your friends based on fearing this. Those actions by the beit din were wrong and abusive (not to mention the bully who instigated the whole balagan). But I also think you should be aware that things like this have happened, and if they happen to you, don't think this is normal or ok. These are red flags of abuse. Fight back. You have resources available to you, here online and even the RCA ombudsman (though I question whether an RCA ombudsman can ever truly be independent given the hierarchies of orthodox society and the powerlessness of conversion candidates). Being Jewish is also fighting for what's right and loving our fellow Jews. Holding batei din accountable for abuses of power is one of those responsibilities, as much as I know you want to fight a beit din as a conversion candidate. It's easier to take the conservative route, but know this: if someone wants to abuse you, they will find a way. It's a power trip, not a reasoned reaction to something you did. Limiting your life because you fear the beit din is no different than me being told as a woman that I shouldn't wear certain clothes or go to certain places or drink alcohol because someone somewhere could rape me. Rape is the fault of a rapist, just as abusive practices by batei din are the fault of the beit din, not the conversion candidate. (I use an extreme example for clarity's sake, but let's not forget that a beit din asked me incredibly detailed inappropriate sexual questions. Ironically the "white knight" in that story was Barry Freundel...the irony would be hilarious if it weren't disgusting.) Love your fellow Jews and maintain your friendships with the Jews you love. 

Well, that was a cheerful discussion and trip down memory lane. Good riddance to bad "friends," amirite?

"I'm in a glass case of emotion!"

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Review: Conversion to Judaism: Choosing to Be Chosen by Rabbi Bernice K. Weiss

I'd be lying if I didn't say I came into this book with a lot of...cynicism? I mean, really, this is the cover:

Conversion to Judaism: Choosing to Be Chosen: Personal Stories by Rabbi Bernice K. Weiss with Sheryl Silverman

And each chapter starts with a clipart graphic of a bouquet. I wish I were joking.

I couldn't help reading this book from two different angles. One from today and one from 10-15 years ago, when this Jewish stuff was all still new to me. No lie, I have a lot of cynicism, born from bad experiences and the many friends and acquaintances I've seen struggle post-conversion. But at the same time, I would have loved reading this book early in my journey because I was starved for personal stories.

Maybe today we're drowning in person stories (or at least pieces of them), especially on social media. I've had Facebook for the entirety of my Jewish journey, but it just wasn't used that way for many years. Things were different back in my day! Get off my lawn!

Despite everything I'm about to say, most of the stories are pretty pedestrian and about what you'd expect. I do think it's interesting that a lot of the stories, maybe 1/4, involved a very fraught upbringing, often abuse. Some very serious abuse. My personal experience suggest that abuse survivors of all kinds (including myself) are probably disproportionately represented in the conversion community. As someone told me once, it takes a lot to reject how you were raised. It's easier if you want to reject it already or you've already rejected it. Once you've done such a major rejection/emotional disengagement, it's less hard to do again. That makes sense to me, but maybe that's just me. Maybe the author could have addressed the high rates of abusive parents, since someone without my experience might find it odd. One story in particular was very extreme and today would probably be labeled with a warning. I felt blindsided by it. And it was the last story, so it was a very disturbing place to end. Left a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak.

Though I'm not wild about this book cover, it's an accurate representation of the book and its goals.  This is a book of about a dozen stories that is almost entirely couples where one partner converted during engagement or after marriage to a born Jew. They end up in every movement, and I did not find this book to be biased for or against any movement (though certainly aimed at the non-orthodox community). 

Since I spend every conversation about conversion trying to explain that marriage isn't the only reason people convert and that many of those people actually lose their partner in the process, I wish the title were reflective of its emphasis on marrying couples rather than presenting a title that implies "this is only what conversion to Judaism is." It confirms every single bad stereotype. I get this book is trying to do good things and might be good for relevant couples, but I also feel like things like this make my life harder by justifying the harmful stereotypes and judgments, even before they open the book. Many of us come to Judaism because of a Jewish partner. I did, though he checked out pretty quick and I didn't meet my husband for almost another decade. But my journey was my own, and no one is served by symbolizing conversion with a wedding given these widespread and pretty hateful biases.

The book is written by a liberal movement rabbi (she doesn't specify a movement), and she's very clear that she does not pressure anyone into converting. Each Jewish partner states the same. But guys, she founded an organization called The Washington Institute for Conversion and the Study of Judaism (apparently it still exists!). Could any spouse walking into that building or coming to her website really believe, "I have no vested interest in their converting. However, if they choose it (almost all do), I will arrange it for them." (That's really in the book, as are many other statements about her disinterest in the outcome.) It's ok to have an agenda here. It's ok to say you want to help people build Jewish families, whether or not both parents are Jewish. It's ok to say, "I hope you convert, but I know it's not for everyone. I'm just here to help you make an informed decision or help you raise Jewish kids even if you personally don't want to convert." Especially since so many of the profiles go into detail about how they think raising kids with two religions is actively harmful to children with no one taking the opposite stance, I assume that's her position too. That's a perfectly acceptable position to take, but take it. Don't pretend you're disinterested.

Also, can we take a minute to discuss how strange it is that the Foreword was written by the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury? Weird foreword name-dropping in a book about converting to Judaism sounds familiar. That said, at least this Foreword is on-topic and not antisemitic-sounding. It's just not who I would have found relevant. 

Likewise, I saw so many red flags that weren't identified as red flags, and I think that was... less than helpful. A Japanese woman and a Black woman both had profiles, and the writer interviewed each of them about "fitting in." I didn't see an explicit reference to racism. I'm white, but I know that I have heard more than enough stories from Jews of color about issues they face in our communities, and I think it's irresponsible to not warn people that racism can and does happen. This book was published in 2000, but this rabbi has worked with hundreds of couples as of the time of writing. Did she really not know that racism in our communities (and many batei din) is alive and well, and these women didn't feel like they could share it? Is it possible she found only two people of color and they really never had issues? I guess it's possible. 

Further, I think it was irresponsible to not have a single case where the conversion process ended the relationship. That is incredibly common, and many (most?) people decide to continue the conversion. This happened to me, more than once!, and it has happened to many other people I know. Sometimes it's just too much for the born-Jew, and it's not what they're interested in. One person becomes very excited while the other begins to go in another direction. It might happen early in the process or it might happen the week before the mikvah. This is so common and so underdiscussed. It's not exactly the thing people want to share over Shabbat dinner, so many conversion candidates feel isolated and like failures when they shouldn't.

In another red flag, I think I saw the beginning of someone's divorce. A woman converted while married to a non-Jew and now feels like it has created a huge gulf in her marriage to not be married to a Jew. And the story just stops there. It felt invasive to read, especially to be left on a cliffhanger like that. Such a negative and hard struggle to face, left without comment by the author. I wondered how much her husband knew about this internal struggle that was now being published to the world. This was some great RealBooking, as we middle-aged folks say (cross-reference the conversion breaking up couples above comments), but I don't think it should have passed without comment from the author to put it in perspective. I'm glad this was included, it just seemed thrown out there and left on the table.

Then the worst red flag of all. This one story was presented as beautiful and great. It was not. "I made the decision to become a Jew; this is the path I chose to pursue. I feel like I'm converting not for Rob, but for us, for our future family.  I felt it would take a toll on our relationship if I didn't.  He would be very disappointed. This means a lot to him, I know it. He's very appreciative and supportive." RED FLAGS ALL OVER THAT. 

18 years after publication, either that woman is divorced or is a passive-aggressive martyr. Unless they're one of the few people who started really badly and successfully corrected course mid-marriage.

I have two young children, and I'm around a lot of other mothers in real life and on social media. There is so much pressure, especially in a perfectionist high-achieving professional woman like this one seems to be (and especially in the 90s "Power Feminism" phase), to sacrifice ourselves at every turn for our family, and that our needs are always "unfortunately" mutually exclusive from the family's needs. Being the perfect wife, the perfect mother, requires absolute self-negation in our society, and that is what this profile felt like. When it doesn't work (and it won't), we blame ourselves. We should try harder. We should be less selfish. We could have done more, given more.

It continued into more red flags: "I don't fully think of myself as a Jew yet. I'd say I'm in limbo right now, like the man without a country. I think when I formally convert it will really hit home." I am going to be the bearer of bad news: that is unlikely. Most people don't feel hit by the lightning of life purpose coming out of the mikvah, even those who find the mikvah a very beautiful and meaningful experience (and many, like myself, didn't find it to be beautiful...either conversion). 

And it continues a little further down: "Sometimes when we're in synagogue, though, I wonder if people know I'm not Jewish yet, that I haven't converted yet. When I'm there, I'm more apt to say "Hi," not "Shalom." That kind of thing might give me away. But I think I'll feel differently when I go through the conversion process." I don't know anyone in America who says Shalom instead of Hi, but I'm sure there could be people who do. Hi is perfectly acceptable. Maybe she's thinking of Shabbat Shalom?? I cringed in self-recognition and pity at "that might give me away." After all, helping you avoid that feeling is exactly why I created this blog. Because I felt like that, and there was no need for people to keep feeling that way. My mistakes (and yours) could save others from making the same ones!

But here's the real lesson: don't count on a mikvah dip to suddenly make everything feel "right." Maybe it will. Usually it doesn't. And that's ok. It's not a sign that you made a bad decision or weren't ready. Most people never get a sudden "I MADE IT." It comes slowly, over time. Some of us will probably have Imposter Syndrome until they day we die at 120. I wish she had been told that. I want to make sure you know that.

Doesn't the author know these are huge red flags? Instead, the author makes some pretty annoying (to me) statements in the introduction to the story: "She really loves him and will do whatever it takes to make the relationship work [because she knew Judaism is so important to her fiance]."  She goes into detail about her rigorous work schedule, traveling between California and Mexico for months at a time, doing her classes each week by phone: "She could have decided that it was just too much of an effort, but she didn't. She did her assignments, and she and Rob went to services together (she found the places to go). I admire her for that. I have no doubt about her sincerity. The investment of her time is the indicator of her commitment." But her commitment to what? Sounds like she's really good at emotional labor already and is willing to sacrifice a lot for a goal. That doesn't tell you what the goal is. The goal may simply be to marry Rob and live a perfect Instagrammable life. She reminds me of many high-achieving professional women I've known, ones who will pull all-nighters and a lot of other unhealthy things to remain "perfect" in school or work. I think just about all of us feel the pressure to be perfect, but it's the people who can get close to perfect who are the most harmed by it. Mediocre people like myself give up or pretend they're countercultural and don't care about perfection. (I still care, for the record.)

And speaking of the perfectionist drive to please others rather than consider her own wants and needs, she chose her Hebrew name because it was the name her dead dad wanted to give her but her mom vetoed it in labor. "Now my father will have his wish. He'll have his Rebecca." I honestly shivered when I read that. This was just a creepy way to say it.

Very interestingly, in her profile, she actually asks him whether he would consider Christianity if he wants her to consider Judaism. He said no. "I felt I had to ask this question, even though I already knew the answer I would get. It has to do with the desire to preserve the Jewish people. It's very important to Rob's family that he carry on the Jewish tradition. I kind of shrugged my question off. If I had pressed Rob on it, I doubt we would be where we are today. I simply asked the question, got the answer and moved beyond it." 

Then this profile goes into how the future-husband's family is orthodox but forgot to mention to him until after dating this woman that because he's a kohen he can't marry a convert according to orthodoxy. He says he was shocked and surprised. Though because of this, I learned that the Conservative movement (what his family was when he was growing up) allows kohanim to marry converts (I knew the Reform movement did). My annoyance at this isn't with him or his family, really. Or even those rulings. It's at the larger issue that the Reform and Conservative movements "protect" their children from halachic positions they have rejected but other movements still hold by and that may affect their children. Patrilineal descent is my usual soap box here, but apparently now I need to add kohen-convert marriages. If you want to hold by patrilineal descent and allow kohanim to marry converts, that's your decision. But don't fail to prepare your children for this to come up later. when they come across Conservative and Orthodox Jews. All it results in is a 20-something year old crying on a Birthright bus, or in an Intro to Judaism class, or in a Jewish studies classroom, or in a meeting with a rabbi because he just found out that many Jews don't consider him Jewish. It is your job to prep your kids beforehand and give them a framework to keep things like this from destroying them. This man was not prepared for a completely predictable heartbreak that could have completely severed his relationship with Judaism, which I've seen happen more than once. /rant

Cynicism aside, let's get back to an actual book review. The underlining in this book could have been written by me a decade+ ago. Whoever it was, the underlining clearly favored every story detail that could be put on a to-do list. I could hear the question echoing: "Where do I start? What should I do?" Cooking dinner for Shabbat, attending a community seder, not driving on Shabbat... this person just wanted a clear path forward. This book doesn't provide that path forward (that's not its purpose), but it gives ideas. But mostly, it can help people imagine their own journeys. 

I guess this is a very long way of saying I don't know whether I can recommend this book or not. I know some people are starved for such first-person accounts, and I know I jumped all over getting this book as soon as I saw it. But is it worth the downsides? Probably not, but I'd still read it if I read this review because that's the kind of person I am.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

And Now for Something Completely Different

And now for something completely different than yesterday.

Something fun! A holiday parody!

In all seriousness, this is one of the best adaptations of a song for a holiday that I've ever seen. Maybe just because I love Queen, but definitely worth a watch!

And if you're looking for some interesting new latke flavors to try, check out these 5 Vegan-Friendly Latke Recipes! Mozarella stick latkes, Indian latkes, Spanish latkes with chipotle mayo, Greek latkes, and Chinese 5 spice latkes!! 

Monday, December 3, 2018

Being a Maccabee Is Harder than It Sounds

Chanukah...a celebration of the courage to fight our enemies. 

It sounds so much nicer on paper. It is not nice in real life.

I have always taken self-defense seriously...on paper. I never actually followed through on getting an education in it, not even a basic class when we had one every few weeks on my college campus... 15 years ago. Maybe I thought it would feel too real. Spoiler alert, that's exactly how it feels. (To be fair, I have taken a gun education class, but that was focused on "hunter safety." Human safety is a different beast.)

I was taking self-defense more seriously in the wake of #MeToo (especially given my own experiences with it) and trying to find something, then the Pittsburgh shooting happened.

So when I saw a shul offering a self-defense class, I jumped at the opportunity. Even better/scarier, it was a self-defense class specifically about active shooter scenarios. I figured it would be an hour about where to run and places to hide.

It was not.

So I put my babies to bed on a motzei Shabbat, and went to the class.

It was two hours (2.5 in the end) entirely about how to disarm someone with a gun if running and hiding is not an option. 

The first thing we learned was a basic move to build upon: someone holding a pistol (a handgun) to your chest. First, you move out of the line of fire then move to disarm. In the struggle, it is almost a given that the gun will shoot because they'll squeeze harder to try to hold on to the gun. 

A thought occurred to me as I watched, so I raised my hand: 
I have little kids, and when they're scared, they hide behind me. When I move out of the way, it will put at least one of them right in the line of fire. 
His response was less than reassuring (paraphrasing because I can't remember the exact quote):
She may get shot. But maybe the rest of you won't.
He later spoke about how many people survive one gunshot, even many. He reassured(?) us that if it's our time to go, it's our time to go, but that if Hashem is going to make a miracle, it will be using "derech hateva" - the laws of nature. It's our responsibility to do our part, and he's right, and that's why I took the class and why I'm going to take another one.

But I saw the angle we were working with. For my 2 year old, that angle went right to her head. When I move out of the way and make that gun go off, the bullet is going right at my daughter's head.

That's why, as a Jew, a mother, a lawyer, a human being, (and as someone who has volunteered in a domestic abuse shelter), I support common-sense gun control. We regulate freedom of speech, to a degree that I think the average person doesn't think/know about. I'm tired of shuls being shot up. I remember the multiple Jewish preschools and schools over the last few years that have been shot at. I remember Sandy Hook. I remember Parkland. My shul had a lockdown drill this Shabbat. We've had a member-based security force for a while, but now we're adding armed guards. I previously belonged to a shul that was firebombed about ten years before I attended. I take the rise of hate groups and hateful people seriously.

Governments should be a social contract, where we come together to sacrifice some possible rights for the greater good so that we can have the largest number of rights, but that our rights end where another person's rights begin. The absolute failure to treat the Second Amendment like every other Amendment, treating it as though it cannot have any limitations even when it encroaches on the rights of others is ridiculous. These what-about arguments to change the topic to "he could use knives or cars" or mental health or something else are a smoke screen. Don't let other people do it. The discussion is about guns, what guns can do, and that the lack of gun control in our country allows them to kill lots of people in a minute or less. In Las Vegas, the gunman shot over 1,000 bullets in 10 minutes. We can't stop all mass murders, but we can sure lower the number of people they kill and increase the possibility that law enforcement can arrive before he finishes. This isn't a hard question, it is an epidemic of violence and murder, and it will only get worse as these hate crimes continue to grow thanks to the emboldened alt-Right neo-Nazis. There is clearly bipartisan majority support on at least some measures, and something would be better than nothing. 

Contact your representatives and tell them you support common sense gun control because you don't want another Pittsburgh. (What to expect when you call a Congressmember and a sample script for speaking to them on any issue is included here.) Our lives depend on it. My children's lives depend on it, and I just saw that in the most visceral way as I spent hours role-playing and visualizing how my self-defense actions will almost certainly result in my toddler being shot. Sure, she could be shot anyway by a madman, but it's different to know that I'm physically taking an action that will expose her to certain harm instead of possible harm. Our nation has lost its mind. This is not what "the land of the free" should mean. Whose freedom? Where's my freedom to attend shul and raise my children as Jews?

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Happy Chanukah! And Go Check Your Smoke Detectors. Now. I'll Wait.

Chanukah starts today, a very early Chanukah this year. 

So I hope you enjoy hearing "Happy Hanukkah!" from every Tom, Dick, and Harry for weeks after Chanukah, until December 26! I used to correct people, but now I just accept it with a smile and move on. I guess you mellow out as you get older?

To give you a pre-Chanukah smile, please find attached one of my favorite Jewish memes. I feel like this at least a few times a week, and I bet many of you do too. 

As some of the Ashkenazim say, Freilichen Chanukah! I don't say that because I can't pronounce it. But I can write it (with the help of a Google search to get the spelling)! 

Ain't no shame in using the term you're more comfortable pronouncing, and that means I stick to Happy Chanukah! Or sometimes Chag Sameach, but that's never me. Right or wrong (my understanding is that different people come to different conclusions), "chag" feels like a day with yom tov restrictions. It feels weird to call Chanukah a chag, even though it is...but not really because it's different but... Maybe it's just the lingering effects of my childhood Christmas hatred. I'd rather skip Chanukah altogether sometimes because it's become so closely tied to Christmas in American culture. 

Well, I started this post to just share a couple light-hearted funny thoughts, and instead you got a load of my baggage. Yep, that sounds like Christmas to me.

Enjoy some fried foods tonight, and check your smoke detectors before you light the menorah!