Thursday, May 24, 2018

How I Learn Jewish Songs

If you're at all like me, you spend a lot of time quietly hoping no one will notice that you're not singing along. 


I'm not good at songs. Or singing. But I could be better, and I'm trying. Really only because now I feel an obligation to teach my children to be the little FFBs they are.

My problem is words. I'm not a fast Hebrew reader even when I can move at my own pace, much less with the pressure of a tune or other people to keep up with. Even after about 15 years in the Jewish community, I just don't know that many songs from memory, whether in davening or at the Shabbos table. Sure, I know tunes and can hum along with the best of 'em, and I might know (or think I know) some words here and there. I even know some songs, like Shalom Aleichem (and most songs on the radio), yet cannot sing them unless I'm singing with other people. I literally cannot remember the words except during the act of singing. What's up with that, brain??

But there's hope! I've been using a multimedia approach to tackle songs, ostensibly for the purpose of teaching these songs to my toddler. She rarely sings along, and when she does, she mangles the words as much as I ever have. But she's got time. She'll learn eventually, and I could use the education too.

Here's my approach, and maybe it (or something similar) will help you too.

Step 1: Pick a song. 

Any song. But only one. Pick one you'll use frequently. Personally, I started with Adon Olam and thought that was a great choice. Modeh Ani is a very short and simple one. Shalom Aleichem would be another useful one, as would Eishet Chayil. Learn it well before moving on to another song. The only exception would be realizing mid-learning that you need to learn a holiday song (aka, my last-minute panic at realizing my toddler would now be the youngest talking person at the Pesach seder).

How long does this take? 

Depends on your brain, your consistency, the song, your past experience with the song, and your current exposure to learning the song. In other words, I can't tell you. Modeh Ani took me about 3 days; I knew the words but not the tune. Adon Olam took for about two months; I knew the tune but not the words. Chanting V'Ahavta (from the Shema) has taken at least two months so far because my voice doesn't want to cooperate with the chant. The Four Questions took about two weeks. I'll keep plodding along, adding a new song here and there. We have a lifetime to learn, and this is one of the easier, least pressured, and fun things to learn!

Step 2: Locate a YouTube video of it that works for your brain and learning style and sing along with it 1-3 times a day until you know it really well. 

Especially in the early days, I find only one hearing leaves me feeling like I'd just started getting my feet under me. I usually do at least a second sing-along, but I don't do more than three. We have lives to live. And your brain needs time to process. Come back tomorrow for another round. Feel free to move to one time a day once you feel like you have your sea legs.

I get distracted by music videos and prefer having the words in front of me, with it indicating where they are in the song. I've found two accounts particularly helpful. One is Hebrew-only: Brian Shamash. The other is both transliteration and Hebrew: Prayer-eoke by The YouTube Rabbi (it's kol isha, sung by a woman, if that's something you do).

In the beginning, you may find that you're singing only a word here and there. That's fine. You'll gain a little more each day. You'll be behind the song, you won't hit the notes right, you'll start to say the wrong word. It'll come together. But it may take a while. As I said, I began with Adon Olam, and I used the video for about 6 weeks, maybe a little more.

On Shabbat, sing what you know without the use of YouTube if you're shomer Shabbat. If you don't remember any, that's ok. You can try singing it from written lyrics if that helps. If it's not going to work, skip it. Practicing 6 days a week and not the seventh isn't going to hamper your progress appreciably.

A nota bene: If this is a prayer, sing it as you will sing it in davening. Don't worry about substituting Elokim or Hashem. This is for your education. If this makes you uncomfortable, talk with your rabbi about it. Personally, I cannot learn something with substitutions, and that's even a machloket in my home. My husband is really good with substitutions, so he does them when teaching our toddler something, the Shema for instance. From my perspective, I prefer teaching her exactly as I want her to say it. Anecdotes seem to suggest that this is common and either method works eventually, but I don't understand it. Maybe that's just my brain.

Step 2.5: If you're learning with transliteration, switch to the Hebrew text as soon as you think you can. 

Step 3: ???

Step 4: PROFIT!!1!

Sorry, I couldn't resist. You should know by now that I love memes.


Step 3: Once you know the tune and words well, switch to singing from a written copy.

Find a written copy of the Hebrew text, bookmark it somehow, and keep it handy for your daily practice. I recently discovered book darts and love them!

For all our music practice, I'm really enjoying the book The Complete Jewish Songbook for Children. Obviously, it's intended for children, but I think it's a great resource for anyone. It has transliteration, Hebrew text, and an English translation. (Obviously, take all English translations with a grain of salt, especially when we're talking about poetry.) And it's all in just one spot, which is a real convenience.

I bought it used without the CD, but I think it's worth the full price. I don't say that about many books. Based on how I understood the Amazon reviews, the CD only includes snippets of songs, not the full song. They suggested YouTube anyway, but it sounded like there was a specific account that had made the songs specifically for this book. I haven't located anything like that.

But it's a scary-looking book to me, as a non-musically-inclined person. It's really a book of sheet music. Don't let that stop you.

(You can see my book dart in the first photo.)

It was published by the reform movement, back when it was the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. But I don't think movement affects the content of the book. Some tunes are more used in different movements, but several songs do have different tunes included.

Step 4: Start looking up from the page sometimes.

Not gonna lie, I discovered this step with the "help" of the into-everything toddler. It's kind of like a mini "test" of whether I can remember the next line. I always keep my finger approximately where we are so that I can easily jump back in when I look back at the page.

Step 5: You deserve a cookie!

Because now you know that song well enough to get by in any situation I can think of.

Here are some of the YouTube videos I've used so far:

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"B'ezrat Hashem"

"B'ezrat Hashem, we'll be there." 

"B'ezrat Hashem, we'll see you over Pesach."

"The party will be on Sunday, b'ezrat Hashem."

Gdwilling. That's all it means. 

Literally defined as "with Gd's help," b'ezrat Hashem is a common phrase sprinkled in conversation. It can technically be used anywhere in the sentence where an interjection would be appropriate. In practice, it's usually said at the beginning and sometimes the end of a sentence. 

It's just as common to hear people say, "Gdwilling" in English. Or not using a phrase like this at all. If you want to add either phrase, feel free to. But also don't feel pressured to. I know I felt pressured to, but I eventually came to really embrace "Gdwilling" as a common feature in my speech for its own sake. If anything, I actually feel like I say it too frequently, which is a different problem. (I hate so much repetition - words quickly lose their meaning if I say them too often in a short period of time and I begin tripping over the sounds. Like saying avocado 15 times in a row. Try it if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

One wrinkle here is seeing Bezrat Hashem in writing. People often write BH or B"H as shorthand for it. Except that those acronyms could just as well mean "Baruch Hashem" (Thank Gd). So you have to use context clues to figure out which one is meant, but neither phrase is integral to understanding the message itself and can be ignored if needed. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

What Happens at Your First Beit Din Meeting?

Before jumping into the meat of the matter, there's a big question: are you actually meeting with "the beit din" or just the representative of the beit din?

If this is your first meeting, you will almost certainly only meet with one person, the Av Beit Din most likely. And this is what we're going to assume for the purposes of this post. If you meet the full beit din, a first meeting will still look largely like this. You just get the questions from a panel of people instead of one person. (And you'll probably revisit some or all of these questions the first time you meet the full beit din too, especially the background, current situation, and motivation questions.)

You'll probably cover some pretty obvious topics:
  • Your history (general life history)
  • Your current life (schooling, work, living circumstances, maybe romantic relationships, maybe a general discussion about finances and the recognition that orthodoxy can create significant financial/professional demands)
  • Your plans for the future (especially careers and whether they're orthodox-friendly)
  • Why you want to convert
  • Your family situation (how do they feel about this?)
  • Why orthodoxy/this community
  • Where you are religiously (this may include some basic questions)
You should hopefully also get information back from the Av Beit Din:
  • How they run their process
  • Financial expectations (fees, etc)
  • Who will be your contact person
  • When/how often you should be in touch
  • When/how often you should expect to meet
  • What they expect from you
  • Maybe a rough timeline, but don't bet on it and any given will probably be very conservative and feel discouraging
Consider taking notes, because many of us forget everything once we leave the room. The adrenaline wears off, and all we can think is, "wait, what did he say about X?" or "did I remember to ask about Y?"


Ask any questions you're concerned about. Don't be afraid that they're dumb questions or that you'll look dumb for asking. I guarantee they've heard almost everything. "How fast do I need to be able to read Hebrew?" is an excellent question that most people are too afraid to ask. You may be surprised at how low that bar is, which is really comforting for us slow Hebrew readers (I don't know of any beit din that requires reading with comprehension, just being able to pronounce the words from a siddur). Likewise, if you have a learning disability that affects your ability to learn to read Hebrew, talk about it. They might know something or someone who can help. Learning disabilities are common within our dayschools too! They might know something helpful.

If you have any particular concerns, please ask. Common questions include (but are not limited to):

  • How do I cook food at my family's house? Visit them over Shabbat?
  • Can I observe Shabbat fully? (Despite what some people will tell you, this is actually a complicated question that requires a ruling from your rabbi.)
  • How close do I need to live to my synagogue? (The closer you are, generally the more expensive housing is.)
  • What should I do about a specific situation at school/work/with family?
  • Will I still be able to do X (particular sport, hobby, job)?
  • Can I keep my pet? (Please do - you can!!)
  • Can I convert here or will I need to move to another Jewish community?

Before you leave, ask what the next step is. Ask this explicitly and be sure you understand the answer. Ask any follow-up questions you need to understand his answer. If he only gives a vague answer (very common), press for more detail. What can I do between now and our next meeting? Where do you think I should focus? Do you know someone/something that could help me with Z?

Ask who you should contact with follow-up questions and how you should contact them. Do not leave without this information! You will kick yourself later.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Modeh Ani: What Is It and How Do I Make This a Habit?

The practice of saying the bracha of Modeh Ani when you first awake in the morning is one of the easiest and hardest practices to take on when you're new to orthodoxy. It's short, can be sung, and you can literally do it while still laying in your bed (and you generally should). But you have to remember to do so when you've first woken up and are still probably groggy or your adrenaline is pumping in reaction to your alarm clock. It's not a situation very conducive to remembering something totally new. 

So first off, what's Modeh Ani? It's a blessing said in the morning, upon waking, preferably while you're still in bed. 
When waking up from sleep, before washing hands, one should say:
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי האשה אומרת: מודָה לְפָנֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ:
I am thankful before You, living and enduring King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me. Great is Your faithfulness. (courtesy of Sefaria)
This is the only major bracha (to my knowledge) that does not include the name of Hashem in it, and that's because you've just woken from sleep and are not physically prepared to daven properly. You haven't yet washed your hands with the bracha of netilat yadayim. 

But when you begin, you will probably forget it sometimes. Be patient and know it takes time to create a habit under these less-than-favorable circumstances. Think about how to make this habit work with your brain instead of trying to do it the way you think you "should" do it. What would work for you? Having a notecard right beside your alarm clock? Maybe right beside your phone? If your alarm is your phone, maybe setting the text of the alarm to a reminder? Setting a separate reminder on your phone? Having your spouse or roommate remind you? 

Another thing to be aware of is that it can be very hard to fall out of this habit because it's so easy to get distracted by the enormity of your day when you first wake up. Don't beat yourself up if this happens. Do teshuva (repent), make a new plan, and get back on the horse. Every day is a new opportunity!

I always just said Modah Ani aloud, but now that I'm teaching my toddler, I've discovered the fun of using a song version. Highly recommend, A+. This is my favorite version, especially for kids:

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It's to the tune of "You Are My Sunshine," and I frequently have this song in my head all morning long. And I don't even mind it. It's very cheering when you're not a morning person but small humans force you awake anyway.

Chabad has a recording of a more traditional tune.

Other cultures have seen the value of a practice like Modeh Ani. I particularly like this quote from the Dalai Lama, who said, "Everyday, think as you wake up, ‘today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.’ "

I'm sure a Jewish source somewhere has these ideas, but I've never seen one with all these values of Modeh Ani in one place.

Monday, April 23, 2018

When Does Daf Yomi Start Again?

Someone asked this question, and I thought it was an excellent one! The Daf Yomi cycle is approximately 7.5 years. The current cycle was started in 2012 and will end with a Siyum HaShas in January 2020. Then that new cycle will end sometime in 2027. 

You can find a convenient Daf Yomi calendar here.

If you're interested in Daf Yomi, you might also be interested in a memoir I read over Pesach: If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan.

It's about a newly-divorced woman's somewhat impulsive decision to start learning Daf Yomi based on the recommendation of her jogging partner. Follow the mesechtot of Gemara as she builds a new life in Israel. Some facts that may sway whether you decide to read it or not: the author does not affiliate orthodox but her new husband does. She was raised in an egalitarian and observant Conservative family, and her father is apparently a well-known Conservative rabbi. She writes beautifully, in the style of literary fiction, with lots of allusions to the classic literature she loves. Personally, I really enjoyed her feminist approach to and experience of Gemara, but then again, I'm a self-labeled feminist. Your mileage may vary, but I loved it.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Where Should I Sit in Shul?

Anywhere you want. Sorry, if you were hoping for a more detailed answer. This was an actual Google search term for my blog, and I thought it was an excellent, practical question.

Like all places, the front is usually less crowded, but if this is your first visit, you probably don't want to be front and center.

If you're going to shul for the first time, there's no way you're going to be able to predict where other people sit. People like sitting in the same seats day in and day out, and there's actually some halacha that says that's a good thing. But one week won't kill 'em. And if they hassle you, I know how embarrassing that is. But it's a reflection of them and their lack of character/middot, not you. Guests do the best they can, and people should know that. (This is especially true for seats in the back and at the end of rows; people should know better those are always up for grabs to the first taker.)

If someone doesn't treat you right, please don't let them turn you off from going back. I let other people do that to me before, and the only person that punished was me. I let those people bring me down once, and then I let them bring me down again every time after that when I refused to go for fear of being embarrassed again. This is one of my bigger Jewish regrets. Don't be me.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

"B'Shaah Tovah!"

No, I'm not pregnant. But "b'sha'ah tovah!" is the traditional well-wish to women who are. 

Before we continue, let's review when it's ok to assume a woman is pregnant: 

Now that we've covered that, what do you say to congratulate a pregnant woman? You can say "congrats!" There's nothing "wrong" with that. But traditionally, Jews have been superstitious about pregnancies. Not a crazy thing given the history of maternal-infant mortality rates. But it lingers. Many people won't buy anything for the baby until it's born (or may leave it at someone else's house or even on their porch!). I imagine that was a lot easier to do back in The Olde Country™.  Your diapers were just repurposed rags/cleaning cloths. The baby probably slept in your bed instead of a thousand dollar crib. Your neighbors likely could lend anything you need. Babies really don't need very much, especially when you live in a two or three room hut or apartment and there are lots of people to help out. 

But the superstition lingers in the phrase "b'shaa tova," and you know what? I'm ok with it here, even though I'm normally very against superstition. B'sha'ah tovah translates literally as "in a good time/hour," perhaps better phrased as "at the right time." Having been pregnant twice now, that's a really good blessing. I would accept that bracha any day. From their mouth to Gd's ears. In fact, my kids listened a little too well and took their sweet time. It was so bad that my first was induced for being two weeks past her due date. That's a loooooooong time in pregnant time. 

Now the awkward part: how should a pregnant woman respond to this well-wish? It seems there's not a consensus, at least among my sample. I could never decide whether to say "amen" or "thank you," and since I waffled, I always stumbled and stuttered in the moment. Turns out both are considered "correct" answers. But even once I knew that, I still couldn't decide and continued stammering and trying to pick the best answer for the situation and/or conversation. These are the problems we should have, right? 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Birthdays in the Jewish World

If you're an American like me, you're used to birthdays being A Big Deal.

But...they're really not a big deal in the Jewish world. But on the flip side, you'll now have a lot of them! Let us count them:
  • Your English day of birth
  • Your Hebrew day of birth
  • The English date of your conversion(s)
  • The Hebrew date of your conversion(s)
  • Half-birthdays of any of the above

You can choose to celebrate any, all, or none of these days however you wish. Personally, I have six possible birthdays, and I celebrate none of them if I'm being honest. But I don't celebrate much of anything. I'm not a "holiday" person. After all these years, I still feel most comfortable and most connected to the English calendar, so that's what I generally use. Each person comes to a different conclusion, and that can change over time. (Apparently I used to be much more energetic about birthdays. Maybe I'm just getting old and

As a former rabbi of mine once said when I asked what Judaism said I should do for my birthday: "Go buy a lottery ticket." (How's that for one of those throw-away comments you never realize someone will remember 15 years later? Also, if you happen to come across, are we really this old?)

Some people give brachot to others, in the idea that we have a special connection to spiritual energies on our birthdays. That's not my thing, and I don't really understand it. But it's very common practice to hand out brachas or ask if people in your social media feed need a bracha for something. I'm all for more brachas in the world and more supporting each other.

In that vein, today happens to be one of my Hebrew birthdays. May you all find what you're looking for and may it be good for you. May we all have a year of health, happiness, community, connection, personal growth, professional fulfillment, parnassah, and nachas from our friends and family. And let us say...amen.


So there you have it. Go buy a lottery ticket. And get yourself a cookie. You deserve it. Give someone or your entire social media feed a bracha if you like.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Israel Creating a Worldwide Jewish Conversion Outreach Effort?

Well, color me surprised. Apparently an Israeli government committee has proposed a worldwide program to interest people in Judaism and conversion. You know, since they really love the converts, conversion candidates, and patrilineal Jews they already have in Israel. #NoNotBitterWhyDoYouAsk

Last week a committee appointed by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs suggested that Israel reach out to the tens of millions of people around the world like Sanchez who have an “affinity” to Israel largely because their ancestors may have been Jewish. 
The ministry, which is headed by Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, a settler supporter, created the committee in 2016 to discover how many people have Jewish ancestry and to propose an outreach program. Once these communities are identified, the committee said, Israel should launch a pilot program to teach willing communities about Judaism and Israel, and to offer Hebrew-language lessons. Those who express a strong and genuine desire to become Jewish should be assisted to convert and possibly make aliyah.According to the committee, an estimated 5 million have distant Jewish relatives while another 35 million are descendants of communities that were forced to abandon their Judaism. An additional 60 million people, whether descendants of mainstream Jews, Jews who were forced to convert or members of other communities, but who either don’t know about their Jewish ancestry or don’t care, are another group primed for potential outreach, the committee said. 
In the report’s introduction, Dvir Kahane, the ministry’s director general, said connecting with “tens of million of people” could potentially foster “support for Israel and aid in the struggle against anti-Semitism.” 
... DellaPergola questioned why the ministry may reach out to millions of people who aren’t eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return at a time when it has failed to convert the roughly 400,000 Israeli citizens who immigrated under the Law of Return, most of them from the former Soviet Union. 
“I would expect that the first concern of the government of Israel would be devoted to the 400,000, which absolutely isn’t the case. The rabbinate converts something like 5,000 of them a year.” 
At this rate “it would take 100 years to convert half a million citizens. Their numbers are growing and the government’s policy is akin to emptying a boat with a tiny spoon,” he said. 
What can I say about this? Israel can't even sort out the conversion system it already has or that system's relationship with the conversion systems already in place around the world. But sure, let's create a new system on top of the current system rather than fixing (or even using) the current system, and I'm sure it'll all work out. Let's just admit this is about demographic warfare and not religion. I'm pretty tired of conversion being used as a political tool/target/boogeyman.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Halacha in a Nutshell: Autopsies

Sure, let's jump right into a hot, emotional topic. Autopsies. 

A strange revelation about myself and my Jewish journey: Jewish death practices are a big part of how I got interested in Judaism. When I was young, my mother became certified to sell burial plots. (Yes, apparently you have to get a particular education and license for that. Given the potential for elder abuse, I assume that's why.) So from a relatively young age (somewhere between 10-12), I knew a lot about American death practices, and they horrified me as a general rule. I assumed we just buried people respectfully in a box and they eventually decomposed into dirt. We don't. In fact, many regulations exist to prevent exactly that: keep our decomposing bodies from mixing with the earth and entering the water table. Given the chemicals we use to preserve the body for several days or weeks before an open casket funeral, that's probably a good idea honestly.

So I began thinking about what I wanted for myself when I one day died. And I became very vocal about these issues with my parents and any time it came up in conversation. I used to tell people "just throw me respectfully into a ditch." Don't tell the government or I might end up in a steel box surrounded by concrete. 

When I first discovered Judaism online at 19, some of the mourning practices were given as part of the introduction to Judaism. And I've found that's common among introductions; at least some death practices are given very early in your exposure to Judaism as a general rule. Those spoke to me, and they reflected the deep feelings about death I had cultivated so many years before. It was the first confirmation that maybe Judaism is where I should be.

But autopsies. Those are complicated. And I continue to have complicated feelings about them. 

In short: autopsies are generally prohibited. This is to respect the person and their body. Routine autopsies are seen as unnecessary and disfiguring for no purpose. And honestly, I agree with that, even though I'd never considered it before. After years of Law & Order, I guess I assumed every body always gets an autopsy and that this is both normal and necessary. But it's not. The family can say no in almost every case. (I'm told there are some states with laws that can mandate an autopsy over objections, which makes sense when you think about how many murders are committed by family and romantic partners.)

But what if foul play is suspected? An unexpected death of someone who seemed healthy? What about when a young person passes away without warning and maybe had a congenital health issue that could also affect siblings still living? What is there's a public health concern, that maybe this person is part of a larger health outbreak like food contamination or tampering? What if you need to rule out suicide under unusual circumstances for the purposes of qualifying for a life insurance policy to care for the person's children? (We can discuss suicide in halacha another day.) These are very complicated questions, and families have to make decisions quickly and under intense emotional circumstances. Many families say no to autopsies far beyond a line that I'm personally comfortable with. And that is their right. I imagine that different rabbis could come to somewhat different conclusions too, if presented with a specific shailah. But we all agree that the overarching concern should be that we must remember this is a person and they should be treated with the utmost respect. All questions should be viewed from that perspective. Seek out a posek to discuss your case if you're ever in this situation. Preferably, seek out one you know and trust already, but you can always call the rabbinical associations and they will help you.

How does this affect you? Please please please draw up a living will (also called an advance directive or advance health care directive). This is an important idea for so many reasons. Only you can answer the questions of what your priorities are at the end of life or when you're incapacitated. Jewish law impacts almost all these questions. You can learn more about them from the orthodox perspective at this PDF from the OU, and it has links to sample living wills you can model your own on. Everyone old enough to be reading this blog post and understand it should consider these questions and consider making a living will. That's not just me talking as a lawyer (and you can do this with no lawyer needed - just a notary usually). I'm saying this as a child who has had to make these decisions for a parent who could not communicate with me. This is one of the best gifts you can give your family, and Gdwilling, you should be 120 years old before they realize what an awesome gift it was.