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! 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Can You Help Me Update the Resource Pages?

It is beyond time to update my links and blogroll pages. Can you help? What are your favorite online Jewish resources, Hebrew resources, conversion blogs, and anything else you think would be useful to a conversion candidate? Just drop them in the comments below!

The internet is a very big place, as I'm sure you've heard. Together we can make a better resource than I ever could alone!

Thank you!! This community is so big, and I know we can help each other get the best available info!

To the internet! 


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book Review: Mommy Never Went to Hebrew School by Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy

Mommy Never Went to Hebrew School by Mindy Avra Portnoy

The title really speaks for itself, right? I couldn't NOT get this book.

I've owned it for years, and it never fails to make me guffaw. This is the best possible title for a book on this topic. It remains one of my favorite books in my (ginormous) book collection.

But in all seriousness, it's not a bad book. It may not be useful to you, but there are definitely people who could benefit from it in certain ways. And you too can own it used for only $2 (plus shipping) on Amazon! It doesn't appear to be in print anymore, but there are about 25 used copies for sale right now.

Yes, it's 80s-rific (published in 1989). Yes, of course it's about a woman who converts for marriage who comes from a nominally Christian family ("Presbyterians to be exact"). Yes, of course she's blonde. Yes, of course it doesn't tackle patrilineal descent or having born-Jewish family. Yes, of course it overlooks issues of race in both content and illustrations (minus one or two background, black and white drawings who might be people of color). Yes, of course there's very little diversity in any sense.

But it's also a good explanation of conversion for kids. Not kids as young as mine. But maybe yours. No book on a topic this big with this many variables will fit everyone, unless you write your own. (Please write your own. We need more books on this topic.)


It also mentions the main character learning that his friend's dad is "Jewish by choice" (in case you love or hate that phrase) and a friend who converted as a baby after adoption. It even brings up a big question important to kids: "Last week, when I didn't feel like waking up for Hebrew School, I told mom I shouldn't have to go because she didn't have to when she was little. I thought it was a great argument. But mom explained to me that she used to go to Sunday School classes at her church, and that she had to wake up even earlier."

On non-Jewish families: "Mom knew that becoming Jewish was an important decision, so she talked it over with her parents. They agreed that even though they might pray in different ways and celebrate different holidays, they could still love and respect each other." That may not be your experience with your family, but that's a great lesson for your kid to hear moving forward.

Is this acceptable to orthodox people? Depends on your hashkafah. Not every male character is wearing a kippah (including the main boy), and there's nary a black hat in sight. All the rabbis are male, even though the author is a female rabbi. All the women are dressed in tznius-friendly ways as best as I can tell from black and white line drawings, minus the obvious exception of the toweled-back in the mikvah.

Will I read it to my kids one day? Yes. It doesn't totally track my own experience, especially since I come from an atheist family and converted as a single woman, but the core concepts are there. It's an excellent background resource and conversation starter for myself. Maybe not for you. But now you know it's out there if it's something you might be interested in!

There are very few books out there about conversion for kids. Which ones have you read, and what did you think of them?  

Sunday, October 7, 2018

New Jewish Movies Available Online!

Welcome back to the real world, post-chag! Do your co-workers and classmates still remember you?

I bet you have so much free time in those hours you've previously been spending prepping for yom tov each week. Sure, you could spend that time catching up on real life or learning Torah... or you could brush up on your Jewish pop culture! After all, at least half of becoming orthodox is learning cultural cues and shared history. You can only people-watch at shul events for so long before you seem creepy, and it's helpful to rewind and rewatch parts and words that confuse you. They can also be good lessons in what NOT to do. Jewish pop culture also helps you build your Jewish vocabulary and shared cultural knowledge. Being able to "get" jokes and cultural references sounds insignificant compared to an eternal soul, but it can often be a big part of whether you feel connected to your community or like a frustrated outsider. The little moments of disconnection and confusion add up quickly and destroy morale. Hence the entire purpose of this site!

This week I came across some surprising new Jewish offerings on Amazon Prime's video listings! I "cut the cord" on cable after moving out of my parents' house all those years ago (simply because I couldn't afford it at 18), and I've never gone back. It's one of the better life decisions I've made, in my opinion. I never would have read or learned as much as I have if I'd continued with my TV-watching habits of my teen years! It was a problem.

But that doesn't mean I'm completely screen-free now. I tend to be very open to pop culture in my hashkafa (Jewish philosophy/approach, for lack of a better definition), but others aren't. Many of us ebb and flow over time. So if you're someone who still watches movies (and I find this is the norm for people who visit this blog and for large sections of the orthodox community - not always openly admitting it), have I got some good ones for you! Free! Well, if you have Amazon Prime. (If you don't have Amazon Prime, I highly suggest trying the 30 day free trial! I've been a very happy Prime member for over 6 years.)

For all that free time you have, here are some movies to watch! 

Fiddler on the Roof! Ok, this isn't new, but I think it was newly added and it's a classic of both the Jewish world and secular theatre. If you haven't seen it, you should. I worked in theatre for a decade, and I was fortunate enough to see it performed once in person and saw the movie once years ago. I had honestly forgotten how funny it is, and especially how the casting for Tevye is one of the best in cinema, in my opinion. 

Fun fact: Fiddler was directed by Nathan Jewison. Who is not actually Jewish. YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP. 


Yentl! Also a classic, starring Barbara Streisand as a woman who masquerades as a man in order to learn. It's been a very long time since I've seen this, so maybe I'll make time for it sometime soon!

Disobedience. Now here's a very new one. It's...complicated, and people have widely differing opinions on it. But if you're like me, I'll watch anything Jewish, especially when I was newer to the community (for all the educational reasons I describe above). It's just like how I spent a lot of law school evenings watching Law & Order. I love "catching" what the creators did right or wrong. The premise of Disobedience is that a woman (played by Rachel Weisz) leaves a chareidi British community and comes back after her father, the Rav, dies. She ends up rekindling a romantic relationship with a female friend who stayed in the community (Rachel McAdams). This is NSFW.

#ProTip: Something that particularly confuses American audiences: apparently it's a common British frum thing to wish mourners "may you live a long life" ("Chayim aruchim"). They say that approximately 500 times in Disobedience and I'd never heard it before. I thought that was just my own ignorance, but Facebook conversations showed this was a common reaction. 

Some of the older offerings:

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel! A non-orthodox Jewish family in 1950s Manhattan, where the title character becomes a single mother and turns to stand-up comedy as a career. It is really NSFW. The new season is coming, but a release date hasn't been announced yet.

Transparent! A father is trans and decides to transition, which turns her life and family upside down. The family is non-orthodox Jewish, and a reform rabbi plays a major role in their lives. The fourth season centers around a trip to Israel. I'm very conflicted with this show. I hate pretty much all the characters because they're just awful selfish, hurtful people. But it's also one of the best-made TV shows I've ever seen. I can't look away.

If you're into marginally-Jewish TV, the new season of The Man in the High Castle just came out, an alternate history where the Nazis won WWII and run most of America (Japan controls the Western states, and Germany and Japan are in a Cold War). Likewise, there's Valkyrie, a dramatization of a real plot to kill Hitler. I try to avoid watching anything with Tom Cruise, but you may feel differently.

And if you still have time...

And then some movies I haven't seen yet and didn't even know Amazon had until I began digging around tonight!

Mendy. The story of a Brooklyn Chassid who leaves his community. I've heard that it's good.

Srugim! I'm really shocked Facebook didn't tell me this. It's all the rage.

The Little Traitor. A "coming of age" tale set around the founding of the state of Israel. Based on a novel by Amos Oz. I'd never heard of this movie, but all signs point to it being decent.

Menashe! Another one I'm shocked I didn't hear that I could watch for free! This is a very new, very popular movie.

Exodus! Another classic, about the founding of the state of Israel. You might be surprised by some of the actors.

Do you know of others?

I have to admit I'm pretty disappointed that Amazon's offerings are very Askenormative/Ashkenazi-centric, but I don't know enough about Jewish and Israeli-available-in-English cinema to know whether this is a chicken or an egg issue. If you know of any others legally available for free (from any site), especially non-Ashkenazi offerings, please share them in the comments below! 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Pick Up the Orthodox Union's Magazine this Chag for Stories on Conversion!

Going mainstream, y'all. Before digging into the details, I just want to say it's nice to see conversion as the cover story in something as mainstream as the free magazine you pick up in shul to read when you need a break from davening on the chagim (I've heard people read them at home too, but I've seen a lot of magazine reading in shul on Yom Kippur...)

Settle in for a short novel. Let's discuss this.

If the synagogue you're attending is a member of the Orthodox Union, you should find these magazines out on tables in the foyer or otherwise stashed somewhere nearby. 

It's funny how much of the "debate" I've seen has been about the choice to use the phrase "Jews by Choice" on the cover. It's such a polarizing term, usually one associated with non-orthodox spaces. The converts I've met seem to either love or hate the phrase, with few in the middle. Personally, I hate the phrase, but I also think there are worse things to call us. A friend summed it up well by sharing that she heard a story that Rebbi Nachman described converts as being "vomited out." That's an accurate statement, at least in my case. Choice? I mean, sorta. But it sure didn't feel like a choice because I felt so compelled. 

As you might expect from a mainstream source intended to be light-but-uplighting reading during the holidays, this isn't hard-hitting journalism and exposés. I get that. 

This is the human interest portion of our tour: profiles of different converts and their experiences.

There is one amazing quote I really enjoyed: "Secondly, Stein would also like others to understand that she didn't simply crawl out from under a rock when she became Jewish; she had been a worthwhile person in her non-Jewish life, with valuable experiences and knowledge. And now that's she's frum, she's well-educated in Judaism and doesn't need to be shown the basics. 'I've been frum for thirty years,' Stein says. 'I know how to check lettuce [for bugs]! Yet some folks still think I need to be instructed.' " 

The same person also has a very problematic quote. I totally get what she was trying to say, but I think the nuance will be lost on most of the people who read this: "Stein's oldest children are already of marriageable age, and she finds that the shidduchim suggested to them are often other geirim. 'Why should my children marry a ger?' she says indignantly. 'My children are frum from birth! Why should they have to be subjected to the same outsider status that I experienced!' " I get her point. I really do. (Assuming she actually does mean it in the "judging favorably" way I'm thinking.) Shadchanim have a tendency to not understand or like anything outside the box, and to throw anyone outside the box at other outside-the-box people without actually caring what those differences are. You're different, they're different, I'm sure you'll be very happy together even if those differences are completely unrelated. Some even think they're being kind: "I like feeling understood, so I should set you up with someone I think will understand you." When the only factor being considered is that one, somewhat random quality like conversion or BT status, race, ethnicity, national origin. In short, many shadchanim are simply not good at their jobs, even when they're not being motivated by overt prejudice (as some certainly are, especially when conversion, BTs, or race are involved). We want to be seen as complete individuals and matched that way. Too many matches are just plain lazy and thoughtless, if not cruel. 

Super important issues glanced over but at least they were mentioned? Racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, lack of family support that most members of the community can count on, being cast out of your family of birth. I can't say I know a lot, but I know more of some of these stories in the article, and this was soooooooooooooo watered down. Whether that was a choice of the interviewee (which is absolutely understandable and legitimate), the interviewer, or an editor, I don't know. And of course, happy endings for everyone!!1! 

The thing that really got to me about this article is the lingering feeling that it was written solely to "real Jews" who are interested in converts and find them fascinating and exotic. I felt like the article was written about me to introduce me to people, not with the understanding that I too am part of the audience. The lumping together of BTs and converts (which is appropriate in many instances in conversation) made me feel like this article was written solely for FFB people. It's a little thing, and something I'm sure the author didn't intend, but the tone of the article made me feel like an outsider, not an insider. 

Article 2: Loving the Convert by Rabbi Yona Reiss, A Big Deal in the conversion world

This article will probably be shocking reading to many of you, and particularly to many who are not connected to conversion. The whole first half is a laundry list of the limitations on converts, which are a bit hard to swallow in our American meritocracy, and they were presented like everyone already knows about them. For example, he mentions a ruling that says "a convert can even be appointed rabbi of a synagogue if the community members all agree upon accepting him to serve in that position." Even? I feel like a lot of people will read that sentence and be very confused: halachic sources say a convert CAN'T be a rabbi of a shul?? After speaking with a lot of FFBs over the years, people have no idea that this is out there, that converts can't be placed in positions of "authority." And they get pretty angry when they find out! (I'm always so relieved and thankful when they get angry.) That when Yeshiva University's rabbinical school opened, there had to be a ruling to allow converts (men only, of course) to enroll. Because if they aren't allowed to be a rabbi, how could we let them study rabbinics? It was eventually decided they could enroll because converts as rabbis can be teachers. (Of course I can't find a source for that at the moment, but if you know one, please drop it in the comments below!) 

It also details how most believe converts can be Presidents of a shul, so long as he cannot make unilateral decisions without the Board's approval. Most people don't realize this ruling/debate is the one that leads to why women "can" or "can't" be shul Presidents, which is most famous as a ban on female Presidents in the Young Israel organization of synagogues. Because if a male convert can't, then surely a woman can't! Of course, there's a lot more that can be said on these issues, but that's above my paygrade unless it's a Shabbos afternoon and there's wine and snacks involved.

Just reading the first two pages of this article set my heart racing with anxiety, thinking of all the self-appointed conversion experts we're all going to have to face in our communities now, empowered with this knowledge that converts aren't allowed to do a bunch of things, even though they can't remember exactly what but it's definitely something they need to make sure they tell you about. I'm not kidding; I'm taking deep breaths over here to calm myself. Knowledge is sometimes not power; half-knowledge is often used to oppress and intimidate.

Overall, this article didn't feel very loving. It felt like "love gerim, you're commanded to. But these are all the ways you're required to make them feel less-than. But they're very special people." That's not the author's fault, but I feel like the halachic system should have handled this better over time because many feel like the result of prejudice rather than something Hashem commanded. I get kind of hung up on "There shall be one Torah and one law for you" (Numbers 15:16). 


One very astute statement that was too underplayed by the author: "Ultimately, the trajectory of  a convert [toward more or less observance], like that of each member of the Jewish nation, can go in either direction, but much depends on the love and support he or she receives from the community.  On some level, 'it takes a village' to raise up a convert."

What it should have said: Bad treatment by the community is the number one NUMBER ONE NUMBER ONE reason converts go off the derech. I have met so many people who felt forced out of the community because of cruel and/or indifferent treatment, especially in the areas of racism and shidduchim. Sometimes loving Gd isn't enough. You cannot be orthodox without a community, and too many people have moved too many times and still came up short. Anyone who says "it should be enough to love Gd! Suck it up! Get your priorities in order!" is almost certainly part of the problem.

Article 3: Up Close with Abby Lerner, National Director of Conversion Services for the RCA's conversion system, by Yehudit Garmaise

Lerner is the newly-hired ombudsman-like person for RCA conversion in America. If you have any questions about a questionable situation or behavior you encounter, please contact her at the contact info on this page. I don't know how effective this position can be given that it also has a power-dynamic issue, but it's certainly better than the nothing we had before, and I believe they mean well and are trying their best.

Honestly, I really like this article overall. It was the most practical, down-to-earth, and honest piece of the three. I recognized myself several times in the article, and I think many of you will too. Is it perfect? No, but it's a very good introduction to several pain points that the average community member should consider, and it gave some actual tips like stop talking if you find yourself wanting to say, "What interested you in Judaism?"

Thing briefly mentioned that I think should have been made more explicit for the readers: the fact that many "geirim" should also qualify as "baalei teshuva" and have never affiliated as anything but Jewish. If a THIRD of those approaching the batei din have Jewish roots (a statistic she mentions), then we need to recognize that maybe there are subgroups of converts that have different needs. I suspect most of that third are patrilineal Jews. She goes into more depth about Hispanic converts who may be descended from Marranos, and while that's a "sexy" topic people like hearing about, we really need to recognize the BT-converts differently. (I am not one of those, so that's not me being biased in favor of the "specialness" of my own experience.)

A Bigger Problem Oversimplified

A larger issue that popped up repeatedly and is not as simple as presented: Stop pestering converts. Love them (what does that even mean? There's a question they should have considered in depth). Here are two quotes to show what I mean:

"A convert is Jewish now and part of the community. Treat them as Jews and love them as anyone else" - Rabbi Appel in Article #1.

Describing how a convert described the inappropriate questions people asked, Rabbi Reiss says, "This is not acceptable, either on an individual level or a communal level." He also says, "It is important to underscore that one who has undergone a valid conversion procedure is every bit as Jewish as one who was born Jewish. One of the key discomfitures that converts face is being questioned about the validity of their conversion." Then it goes into detail about that questioning, meaning when they're maternal descendants try to get married, etc. [Most of us are more immediately annoyed by the questioning now, over Shabbat tables and shul membership applications.]

But these quotes are completely missing the point. Every person at a Shabbos table who questioned my conversion has always defended themselves with the assertion that they "need" to know whether my conversion was kosher or not. They certainly won't bother me about it again once they know I'm "legit." It's just a one-time ask! Multiplied by a few hundred nosy nellies. In theory, the question would be fine if it came from people who actually need to know my status: the mesader kedushin, a mohel, for example. Others can be discussed on a case by case basis, but really very, very few people have any need to know my halachic status, much less who the rabbis were or especially to demand to see the paperwork.

A current example many converts are struggling with in online groups: when shuls ask for proof of conversion to verify it before allowing a convert to become a member and have the privilege of forking over $1-2k. Schools too. Every American shul and Jewish school I know takes a born Jew at their word that they're halachically Jewish when they check the right box on the form. If I check the "convert" or "child of a female convert" box, I have to prove it, and they'll probably call the rabbis to verify I didn't fake the document or something. Because someone's cousin's brother's wife knew a guy who did. Until and unless my born Jewish husband is asked for his proof of Jewishness, I'm not providing mine. If born Jews are taken at their word, converts should be too. Until the random guy who just showed up one morning isn't given an aliyah without his Jewishness being confirmed (which is actually a halachic issue if he's not halachically Jewish), then there's no need for mine to be verified. Every shul I've ever attended has (rightfully) offered any visiting man an aliyah, without even knowing his name or why he's in shul that day. If they can make that guy feel welcome and like a valued part of the community, they can do the same for me.

This is all a much larger issue that we can discuss at another time since this post is already a novel, but the point needed to be raised. They should have said, "you don't have the right to ask someone their status. Full stop. Those who have the right to ask that are few and far between, and it's almost certainly not you." Instead, this feels like permission to say, "Well, this only applies to 'valid' converts, so I need to verify they're legitimate." Too many people feel it is not only their right, but their obligation, to verify our status. And that is wrong. So wrong. And it drives people off the derech. Given the stories I've heard, I don't blame them one bit.