Friday, December 31, 2010

Halachic Discussion: Moshiach

I was driving again (See Halachic Discussion: Are Female Converts "Not Niddah" After the Mikvah? ), and had more "what if?" kinds of thoughts, but this time about Moshiach.

I was thinking about the phrase "Moshiach ben David." As most of you know, Moshiach will be the descendant of King David (and the first convert, Ruth!). But is Moshiach fated to be male? ("Ben" means "son of.") Does Mosiach have to be male?

Further, will Moshiach know he's Moshiach?? That would be trippy.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

UPDATED Convert Questions: What Is the Ideal Conversion Process?

Disclaimer: This is my idea of the ideal process. Others may feel differently. Regardless, no matter which advice you take, most converts wait far too long to begin getting involved in their local orthodox community and with the prospective beit din out of shyness and/or fear.

What should the orthodox conversion process look like? What are the steps? What is the timeline?

Let's begin with the hardest question to answer: the timeline. It will almost certainly not be less than a year. It will likely be at least two years, but may be more, depending on your personal progress (or the progress of a significant other).

The process (which will include the steps):
  • Read/research. 
  • Visit synagogues. ALL of the ones available to you. Even if that means more than one from a particular movement. Get a feel for them.
  • Decide you would like to be orthodox (since I'm presuming we're talking about orthodox conversion). Articulate why that is, but your reasons will likely change over time and as you learn more. And be prepared to articulate why you did not choose one of the other movements (or even another orthodox subgroup!).
  • Talk to a rabbi. Even better, talk to several rabbis from different groups/movements! Even if you haven't taken a single step in observance, it would be best to begin the conversation and begin getting to know a rabbi and learn about the resources in your community. Us converts can tend to be isolationists, and this is not what Judaism is about!
  • Begin taking on mitzvot. Keep track of your progress. Write down every milestone you can think of and the date: taking on a new observance, as well as refining those observances.
  • Start taking classes in the community or online. Read/research some more. You may want to engage a private tutor.
  • Keep talking to the rabbi. 
  • Arrange to spend a "real" Shabbat with a family. Not a single person or couple (though do that later!). You should see a real, full orthodox family so that you can see if that's what you want your future to look like. 
  • Develop relationships with members of your community or Jews in other communities you visit. If you don't like Jews, you can't like Judaism. You will be surprised how quickly your relationship with the entire Jewish people will begin to resemble one big, loving, raucous family!
  • Remember a few things: (1) that you will meet Jews who do not follow halacha. (2) that people will think the same thing about you. (3) that people say stupid, hurtful things sometimes. And most importantly, (4) someone else's problem is just that: his/her problem. Not yours.
  • Decide how you want to describe yourself to people. Are you a "conversion candidate," "Jew in training," or something else? What information are you comfortable sharing with complete strangers? Make up stock answers that you can use at a moment's notice.
  • Set up a meeting with a representative of your desired beit din. Some beit dins require that your rabbi must be the one to initiate the process. You do not have to be fully observant at this point, but please at least begin working towards observance so that you can show you understand what you're undertaking. Remember the difference: no observance necessary to start talking to your community rabbi, but you should be at least be working towards observance before meeting your beit din. However, your rabbi may advise you differently, and you should follow that advice.
  • Begin following the process your beit din has designed. Some parts will be standard, but the overall process will be individual and based on your weaknesses and needs.
  • You will likely begin studying with a private tutor, as well as your community rabbi.
  • Become fully observant. Your beit din may place some limits on your observance.
  • Refine your observance, continually learning more.
  • Men get (re-)circumcised.
  • Go to the beit din.
  • Go to the mikvah.

The take away? Don't wait so long to talk to your potential beit din. You don't need to be fully observant to show your dedication. In fact, things will probably be much easier if you're growing in observance in conjunction with your beit din! There will be no need to un-learn things, and you'll know that there aren't holes in your knowledge! It seems like conversions take much longer when we become fully observant before beginning to work with a beit din. It's almost as though they all have a minimal period, and if you're already fully observant when you begin, you still have to wait all that time.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Feminism or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mechitza

I personally love the mechitza. (Within limits: so long as I can hear the service and can see the Torah reading.)
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the mechitza, it is a separation between the genders in orthodox (or some conservadox - conservative leaning towards orthodox - services). It is usually very pretty, maybe lace or latticework. However, it can be as much as a thick curtain or be a balcony. (The balcony gets a bad rap, but I haven't found it to be as described - unable to hear or see anything.)

Unlike many converts, my "default" rule is actually the mechitza. And I actually felt uncomfortable without one when I began attending a conservative shul.

There is a halachic/traditional reason for the mechitza: Calm the hormones during prayer services. Most people phrase it as keeping the men from being distracted by the women. I think that a man must have started spreading that rumor, because us women can be just as distracted by the opposite gender! Particularly with such a shidduch crisis going on, the single girls are practically salivating over that mechitza to see if any young single men have wandered in!

I like that the mechitza helps me keep my focus where it belongs: off the men and on the davening. Of course, I still find ways to peek through!

However, there are other very interesting effects of the mechitza. Only the orthodox Jews believe me when I describe my theory, and I've even had liberal Jews be pretty rude and tell me I've been brainwashed. I have not been brainwashed (at least not here), and I promise this is true.

I've found that the mechitza emphasizes our individuality. When I first began attending an orthodox shul so many years ago, I had a very hard time learning the relationships between the people I met. I met many men and many women, but even two years later, I was still discovering who was married to whom! I don't think I ever discovered who all the children belonged to! Because of the mechitza, I was forced to meet everyone as an individual. Only later, at kiddushes and meals, could I begin learning how these individuals were connected.

When I began attending a conservative synagogue, I met people as family groups, and inevitably, one person is naturally the "spokesperson" for the family. I walked away feeling that I had really only met one person, even though I had met a couple with children.

Some people will continue to feel that the mechitza is sexist, but I'm afraid I will never be able to agree with that argument. Because of the mechitza, I've been able to meet each individual on a deeper level, as well as being able to meet more people. Both quality and quantity have been enhanced.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kashrut Update: The OU Has Launched Their Kosher Food Website!

The OU (Orthodox Union) is the largest kosher certification agency in America. I think I've trained my parents well enough now that they can spot the OU from 20ft away in the grocery store!

The search function is incredible! Finding the kosher ingredient you want just got a lot easier!

OUKosher.org

First order of business? Search: Marshmallows.

Orthodoxy and Eating Disorders: Kosher Discipline to the Extreme

As someone new to full Jewish observance, I can tell you that the #1 practical lesson you learn from observance is discipline. This is also probably the hardest for people to learn, especially for us spoiled Americans! We take pride in not being "tied down" by rules, people, whatever. (Leaving aside the argument that we become slaves to "stuff" instead!)

However, there is a dark side to this kind of discipline in America, especially for people raised with this discipline from birth. As discussed on the OU.org website, Eating Disorder and Orthodoxy, this discipline can provide a fertile breeding ground for eating disorders.

The basic argument of the article: "Because Orthodox Judaism enforces a litany of rigid food rules and restrictions – no mixing meat and dairy, a bevy of off-limits foods and brands – Orthodox women who keep strict kosher learn from an early age to resist temptation and adhere to stringent meal guidelines. For the sake of religiosity, they become experts at saying no to foods that might otherwise appeal to them – and in some cases, such as on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av, to saying no to food, period."

My only problem with this article? Women are not the only ones who suffer from eating disorders! Like domestic violence, this assumption makes it even harder for male victims of domestic violence and eating disorders to come forward because they "aren't supposed to" suffer from these problems. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 7-10 million women suffer from an eating disorder, but so do 1 million men. That is certainly not an insignificant percentage of those suffering from these disorders!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Management Update: Expanded Content and New Layout!

As you've probably noticed, the blog has a new layout! I hope you like it!

And if you have eagle eyes, you may have noticed that there are new pages listed above! Enjoy the expanded content, provided as always to promote practicality in the conversion process. If you have suggestions, edits, or gripes, my email is listed on the About Me page!

Have a great Monday!

Convert Questions: Does Anyone Fail the Beit Din?

In short, no, especially in orthodox conversions today. However, I think that is generally true in all the movements.

If your sponsoring rabbi recommends to your beit din that it is time for you to take the oral examination part of your conversion ("the" beit din) and your beit din agrees, then you likely ARE ready. And it reflects their idea that even if you turn out to not be ready, you WILL be ready eventually. You should be a Jew. After all, do you have any idea how hard it is to get three people (no less three rabbis!) together in one place for an hour or more? My conservative beit din was (supposed to be) my rabbi and two congregants. Even without dealing with three rabbis, it still took two and a half months from "you're ready for us to convene a beit din" to finding a date convenient for all four of us, plus the congregational mikvah lady. It also had to be rescheduled at least once!

As described on the Conversion page: [The beit din is] very similar to the way the computerized GRE works today: if you get an easy question right, they'll keep going to harder and harder questions until you don't know any more. It's an effective way to discover the limits and holes in your knowledge. There's nothing wrong with those limits or holes. No Jew ever knows everything. One of the most important things a beit din needs to know is that you are able to admit what you don't know and that you know where to locate an answer. For instance, when you finally have to say, "I don't know," they may next ask, "Then how would you find out?" And sometimes, the answer is as simple as "email my rabbi"!

However, it may happen that the beit din realizes during the conversation that you have an area of knowledge that really needs to be explored before conversion. After all, they can't know how well you know all of it until you actually sit down together and have that discussion. In that case, they will tweak your learning plan and make arrangements for a second beit din meeting in the future. Because of this, you will always be warned before the beit din that you shouldn't expect to go to the mikvah that day. However, they'll also tell you to prepare in case you do go to the mikvah that day!

Today, the process is changing so that you'll go through several of these "conversations" with your sponsoring rabbi (and probably even with the full beit din!) before your conversion. It sounds frightening and soul-crushing (particularly to those who who fear public speaking), but personally, I think this is one of the better changes in conversions today. Even if your sponsoring rabbi and beit din don't have this as a set policy, you will certainly be allowed "test runs" if you ask for them. In fact, that is yet another way to show your sincerity and dedication.

So to tie it together: even if your first meeting with the beit din doesn't result in your conversion, you have not failed. The fact that you got there in the first place says that they all believe you should become a Jew. You just might not be to the "right" place yet.

Now some practical advice: Don't tell anyone (other than the people closest to you, if you so choose) when you get a beit din date. In the unusual case that they decide you aren't ready yet, you don't want to have to explain to every third person. Therefore, I suggest only telling people you would be comfortable telling that the beit din said you're not ready. The last thing you need is everyone asking, "So, what's it like to be Jewish now? How was the beit din? What was the mikvah like?" and you have to explain that you weren't ready. There are few things as frustrating as thinking you'll be done, and then you aren't. Don't compact the pressure.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Buying into Modern Orthodox Stereotypes One Day at a Time...

Wearing skirts in the cold winter is less awful than I expected. Not even bad, 95% of the time. (Check back with me next year during my first New York winter!) However, I'm in the snOMG blizzard experience, even in Virginia. We've got about 10 inches of snow as of Sunday night, and it's still snowing!






And the result of this was some very creative dressing today!





Oh yes. Jean skirt. Winter-themed PJ pants. Uggs. Even I am ashamed of this kind of fashion choice. I am personally offended when people wear PJ pants as "real" pants rather than taking the .3 seconds to put on a pair of jeans. But it was warm and comfortable! The two descriptions friends gave were "classic Ulpanistit" and "Now all you need to do is meet all of your seminary friends at a kosher Dunkin' Donuts dressed like that!"

And I promise I don't have Hobbit legs. The self-held camera angle makes my legs look very strange, IMO. The skirt is actually quite a long knee-length (yay being short!); perhaps that's the weirdness.

Did Something Important Happen Yesterday?

Oh yeah. Xmas.

This week has mostly been a reminder of how much I've forgotten Xmas.

Case in point: I'm spending my winter vacation mostly with my parents, who celebrate Xmas. I was shocked when my stepmom asked, "So what are you going to fix for Xmas dinner?" (Since I'm cooking kosher in their house.) My brain completely fried for that instant, thinking "Wait. What? Oh yeah."

Second case in point: I sat down to write a few days' worth of blog posts, and I scheduled a post for 12/25/10 without at all realizing the importance of that date. I only did a double take because I had to remember that I don't schedule blog posts for Shabbat!

For those of you who have positive Xmas experiences, I'm not sure whether this is good news or bad news. But yes, over time, this season will have less meaning for you, and your Jewish memories will overpower your prior holiday associations.


As for something more substantive, why do you see Jews referring to Christmas only as "Xmas"? In a somewhat funny twist of fate, the Jews are removing the Christ from Christmas by saying "Xmas." At least, that's how it was explained to me. And that's what makes me feel more comfortable now. And for your pleasure, here is a picture of a trend I found in a small Southern town that hoped to put the Christ back in Xmas decorations!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Convert Questions: Converts and Aliyah

A common question for many converts is whether they can make aliyah to Israel. In short, yes, a convert from any movement can make aliyah to Israel under the Law of Return. This means the convert can get expedited citizenship and be labeled as a "Jew" on their ID card. (I'm still very confused by the labeling of people by religion as an ethnicity on the ID cards. Any Israelis care to explain that one to me??)

However, things get trickier. The problem is that the convert-related regulations and policies aren't being made public, so over the last couple of years, converts have had to collect anecdotes and try to figure out what the rules are behind the scenes. (The Jewish Life Information Center has been the most successful at this collection process.) Even worse, whatever policies exist seem to be applied in a haphazard fashion, based on the person doing the enforcing.

For one (and I welcome any further explanation!), converts are required to remain in the community of their conversion for one year after the mikvah. This is a requirement of the Ministry of the Interior, NOT the Rabbinate. Thus, the Rabbinate may be fully willing to recognize you as a valid convert and Jew, but the state bureaucracy may deny you citizenship under the Law of Return for failure to prove yourself to be a Jew!

(1) Your rabbi will be required to write a letter detailing your conversion process and your involvement in the community after the conversion. What's more uncertain is that supposedly now your conversion must have taken a minimum number of hours (350 it seems), which must be supported and detailed by your rabbi in his/her letter. I guess if it didn't take that many hours, you're banned from ever making aliyah?? Further, I know that some female rabbis have male counterparts actually be the converting rabbi and letter writer simply to avoid making the convert's life any more difficult. A sadly practical move.

(2) You'll also have to write a letter about your conversion process, and it sounds like a long one. You'll need to discuss why you decided to convert, your conversion process, and your involvement in the Jewish community since conversion.

(3) As you might imagine, you will need to provide a valid copy of your conversion certificate.

What worries me? The "one year in the same community after conversion" requirement. I haven't seen anything written about this, but what happens if someone does move to a new community within that one year period, and then decides to make aliyah 10 years later? Are they permanently banned from making aliyah because of a decision made with no consideration of aliyah? Worse, this requirement was ruled an unconstitutional limit on the Law of Return by the Israeli Supreme Court (in either 2006 or 2007, if memory serves), but the Ministry of the Interior reinstated the policy secretly less than a year later. About a year ago, they admitted publicly that the policy was back in place because of work by organizations on converts' behalf. I am unaware of any new legal challenges to it. Both as a convert and as someone studying the law, the chutzpah (audacity) of a government agency to violate the law makes me more than a little angry!


Speaking of the law, the problem with non-orthodox converts is when family law comes into play. Marriage is what gets all the attention, but this would involve anything status-related. Status can involve anything family-related, such as marriage, divorce, child custody/support, inheritance, or even if there are special laws for torts (injuries) between family members. Israel's status-related court system is a religious court. There are four parallel court systems: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze (if you don't know the Druze, look them up, they're very interesting!). Americans and Europeans with conversions not recognized by the Jewish courts will be thrown into the Christian courts even though they are not Christian. Similar converts from Muslim-heavy nations will likewise be placed in the Muslim courts (and maybe also converts with Muslim-area heritage who happen to live in America or Europe). You would also not be allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, as far as I understand.

Note that even some orthodox converts may be questioned! Nowadays, it seems all converts are questioned, regardless of converting beit din. Though it may change at any time, there is now a list of "presumptively valid" converting batei din. Of course, once you have citizenship, these issues should no longer affect you.

Now for my 2 cents from my personal experience. I had originally planned to make aliyah upon law school graduation, which would have been well over a year after my conservative conversion. This was the plan while I was completing my conservative conversion, though of course plans changed when I began to consider an orthodox conversion! Now my plan is very different, and a bit undefined at the moment. However, the point is that my Jewish Agency shaliach stopped returning my emails as soon as I began asking questions about how my conservative conversion would affect aliyah. We had communicated several times before that, and then email after email went unanswered. As you might imagine, now I'm more than a little gun-shy about dealing with Israeli bureaucracy, and it is already the source of pain and frustration for me. Sadly, I don't think this is an isolated case.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Orthodox Dating Process

We all know that orthodox dating practices are different than other Jewish groups or the secular public. However, there isn't much explanation of the process. And most of the kvetching (whining) is about being an "older single," which most converts and baalei teshuva are. Unfortunately, most of the internet resources on the topic are on specific topics.

So, in the interest of simplification and practicality, I'm going to try to make an overview of the orthodox dating process. This article presumes that you are just beginning to date in an orthodox fashion, and therefore, does not deal with the circumstances of someone who has been trying and not finding success.

FYI, converts: No one will let you start this process until you've finished your conversion. If you find someone, you find someone, but no reputable website or matchmaker will take you until you have a shiny conversion certificate.

The Goal
  • Dating for marriage, not for the sake of dating.
Getting Ready to Date
  • The first rule of dating for everyone is that if you want to love someone else, you must love yourself first. Healthy self esteem and self-acceptance.
  • Think about what you want from life. What are your life goals? 
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Make a list of deal-breakers and must-haves. Then evaluate those to determine if they're actually important enough to be on that list.
  • Come to terms with the fact that you probably won't get what you envisioned. 
  • Come to terms with the fact that you may find exactly what you're looking for, but that person may have been married before and/or have children from a prior relationship.
  • Come to terms with the fact that you will probably have at least one long-distance relationship, especially if you live in a small community. Give it a shot!
  • Realize that orthodox dating is usually for a very short time before engagement, compared to secular standards. It's not unusual to hear of a couple dating for only 2-4 months before an engagement.
  • Keep in mind that real "love" usually comes after marriage, not before. The first time someone loves a partner in the Torah, Yaakov (Isaac) "loves" Rivka (Rebecca) after marrying her. To quote an Aish article, "I don't marry a soulmate. I marry a good person with integrity and with goals and expectations consistent with my own."
  • Start telling people that you're looking to get married. 
  • Put on your game face and get a positive attitude about the whole thing.
Choosing the Dating Method
Nowadays, you have several options:
  • Professional Matchmaker. A pro will likely require you to prepare a "shidduch resume," which is exactly as dispassionate and business-like as it sounds. Most people dislike professional matchmakers because the process has severe flaws in the modern world. Also, you can burn out on "shidduch" (blind) dates.
  • Informal Matchmaker. Friends, coworkers, family members, the old lady you walked across the street. Literally, every person you meet.
  • Personal Connections/Kismet. Aka, chance. I don't suggest that this be your only method.
  • Jewish "Singles" Events. Treat classes and other Jewish events as a place to meet other singles with similar interests.
  • Online Dating Services. Be aware that at least one site (Saw You at Sinai) combines traditional matchmaking with "regular" online dating.
What to Do Once You Get a Date
  • Make an effort. In other words, when you're going on a date, dress nicely. Put your best foot forward. Be as positive and optimistic as your nature allows.
  • Give the person a few tries, unless they are very clearly a "no." But if it's not working out after three or so dates (either no attraction forms, it turns out you don't have the same goals, or the person has questionable traits), cut 'em loose.
  • Keep it objective. Don't be blinded by the bling or a hot bod.
Factors to Assess in a Potential Partner
  • Middos/Good Character Traits. Take the person as they are, not what they might become. As they say, "Everyone changes after marriage...for the worse."
  • Common Life Goals.
  • Attraction. I suggest giving this a few dates before making a final determination so long as the other two factors are present. Hopefully being shomer negiah can help you keep this area in focus, rather than letting it blind you! Shomer negiah is really the "key" to orthodox dating.
  • How well do you communicate? That's the "key" to orthodox marriage!
What to Do If You Meet Potential Mates in a Way Without a Formal Date
  • Beats me. Awwwwwkward.

And While You're Doing All This 
  • Keep your other single friends in mind. Become a matchmaker!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Importance of Finding the "Right" Community

As we just discussed the potential that a convert may need to move to a new community in order to finish his or her conversion (Convert Issues: the Community Requirement), the next step is choosing the RIGHT community for you. And I mean literally "you," specifically. No community will be the right fit for all converts.

Disclaimer: This post is in response to some comments about communities that are not friendly to converts. I'm very blessed that my community is a wonderful one, even before you take into account that almost half the congregation is a convert or married to one! However, when I move in a few months, I'll have to evaluate my new community by these same standards.


My entire philosophy on life can be summarized in one sentence: I'm responsible for my own happiness.

I think that my early life parallels the search for a good Jewish community. I was raised by atheists in the South. As non-Christians, we were ostracized at times, ignored the rest of the time. We had literally one friend in our town (a neighbor), but all my parents' friends lived several hours away. I guess you might say my parents were pioneers of the internet social life! And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree :) However, it made for very lonely weeks between visits, especially for me since they weren't my friends! Especially as an only child, these experiences have made me into a person who is almost too self-sufficient. While those have been good lessons, most people don't survive those kinds of experiences very well. I'm probably an anomaly. I would certainly never wish those kind of experiences on my hypothetical children.

We were isolated and lonely, and people were not very nice to the non-Christians. [The reasons for this are actually more complicated than American society talks about. America is not very nice to us Southerners!] In fact, now I find Southerners to be much nicer and inclusive of me because "even if you're not a Christian, at least you've found G-d!" It was less religious discrimination as lack-of-religion discrimination. When we were unaffiliated with any religious group, we were a (a) free game for "saving" or (b) going to Hell, which we should be warned about in the rudest way possible (to wake us up from our delusions, of course).

Because I'm very comfortable holding my ground and sticking up for myself (I think most societies call this "a big mouth"), I felt it was my duty to stand up for myself whenever people did these kinds of things. In the name of tolerance and understanding, I sought to help people be nice to me. They needed to learn that not everyone, even in the South, is a Christian. Sometimes it worked, most of the time it didn't. Even now, when I told a postal employee in rural TN (during my cross-country drive last week) that I didn't want to buy the Post Office's Xmas CD or DVD because I'm Jewish, I just got a confused stare, as though a flamingo just walked into the North Pole. The feeling was clearly "Sure, you exist. But not here!"

After college, I moved to rural France for a year to teach English, but that was similar to the South in many ways. (Everyone I met was "Catholic, but atheist," but still could not comprehend that I had not been raised as a Christian.) The real difference came when I moved to California!  To give you an idea of how much I bought into the Southern "religious war" mentality, I actually sat down with my career office to discuss how CA employers would view the fact that I had worked for atheist organizations. In response, I got a dead stare and "Why do you think this would matter to employers?" Then I had to explain that almost every job interview I've ever had included the question, "So what church do you go to?" It wasn't being used in the illegal discrimination sense (and I was never discriminated against for my answers), but simply to see if we knew people in common. It was a social segue.

Even though I now live in a place where my non-traditional religious path is not an issue, I still have difficulty believing that the "war" is over. However, the lack of stress and confrontation that I now feel convinces me that I will never live in the South again. The South is a religious battlefield, and I did more than my share of the fight. It's not my responsibility to win the war. I fought many battles, won some, lost some. I worry that I could have, should have, done more. After all, I had the ability and the thick skin.

In the end, I've realized that I did what I could, and I've done more than many. Now, I need to take care of myself. I'm responsible for my own happiness, and the South does not make me happy. Likewise, if a Jewish community doesn't make me happy, I can only do so much to improve that community. And if that fails, I need to look for a new community that will encourage my happiness.

Judaism only asks us to sacrifice our lives for very explicit reasons. Judaism is a philosophy of life. An unhappy life is no life at all. Having a background in working with victims of domestic violence, I see several parallels between an abusive relationship and an "abusive" Jewish community who mistreats its converts (or Jews of color!). As humans, it's better the devil you know than the devil you don't. You've put down roots, there are some nice people, you like the rabbi, your kids like the school, you've got a good job, all your family lives nearby. However, if you're fundamentally unhappy with your Jewish community, you're going to become unhappy with your Judaism. The Jews cannot be separated from Judaism the Religion. There is no point in handicapping your religious life by planting yourself in the rockiest, most acidic soil around. Thankfully, almost all the things you love about your old community can (and hopefully will!) be found in your new community too, in addition to being better able to foster your happiness and spirituality.

Unfortunately, there are only three options I can see:
  1. Move. Ask advice from people who've lived in other communities. Talk to the people in your potential new community. Ask questions specific to the problems you've had in the old community. And make sure you visit several times before settling on a community! It may take a while longer than just packing up and moving, but hopefully a good shidduch (match) will be worth every "extra" moment you spend in the old community.
  2. Unfortunately, if you're a new convert, you probably want to stick it out for at least a year after your conversion in order to not risk your chance to make aliyah. (I've already written a post about this. It should go live about a week from now.) However, if you haven't converted yet, I highly suggest moving to a new community before going to the mikvah.
  3. Stay. I wish you strength and a good sense of humor, but it's needless suffering. Don't let them take you down with them.
And saddest of all, if/when you move away, the negative people in your old community will have no idea of the opportunities they've lost. However, that's not your responsibility.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Culture Shock: Jewish Standard Time

If there is any "cultural" aspect of the Jewish People that you should know, it's Jewish Standard Time (JST). I swear I hear this phrase at least twice a week, and I live in a very small community. I can only imagine its effects in the larger communities!

In my Jewish encounters, I've found that JST translates to 5-15 minutes late. However, I was listening to a shiur (lecture) about telling the truth and misleading people. The example used throughout the discussion was JST and a Jewish wedding. I'm paraphrasing from memory, but "Don't write 6:30pm on the wedding invitation if you plan to actually be married at 6:30pm, but your community would understand '6:30pm' to mean '8pm' in JST. You need to take JST into account when giving instructions to people."

Being a relatively punctual person (though getting lost frequently might make me a liar here), I cannot fathom that someone would read time as being an hour and a half later. Granted, maybe that's wedding/simcha specific...but still. Really? That's just impressive, and not in the good way.

Have any interesting JST encounters?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Something You Should Read and Comment on!

As an unmarried woman who had a terrible first mikvah experience (for conversion 1.0), I would very much like all of you to read this post by fellow Chavi about the mikvah! Please comment, anonymously or not!

Just Call Me Chaviva: The Mikvah Is Lost on Me.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Memory Lane: The Converting for Marriage Stereotype

Since we've been discussing converting specifically for marriage this last week (See Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism and Taking a Shyne to Judaism), it reminded me of a funny story. (I'm not sure if it's funny weird or funny haha!) But it's the kind of story that could only happen to me. I attract crazy like you wouldn't believe. On the other hand, this isn't so outrageous that it doesn't happen to other converts.

On the first day of class earlier in my law school career (though not long ago), I had a teacher who decided to make us go around the room introducing ourselves. A pretty convenient way to waste an entire class period, if you ask me! I was the last to go, and I don't remember how it came up, but I mentioned that I am a Jewish convert. I do remember being suspicious that my new professor might be Jewish, so maybe that's why I threw it out there!

Then came the question. "So...um...this is kind of personal, but are you marrying a Jew?" That's right. On the spot, right in front of 40 of my classmates. Thankfully, I was able to say that I am single and converting for myself. And to be honest, I remember nothing of the class before or after that moment.

I don't know why people don't think about their actions more. If you get the answer you're expecting, you just make me publicly look like a jerk who doesn't take an entire faith, people, and history seriously. I don't know if it would really make a difference, but I think a female professor would have been slightly more subtle. I'm not sure if that would have been better though.

Personally, when asked if I'm a stereotype, I prefer giving them an answer against their stereotype (even if that means a little rephrasing of my answer) in an approachable way that shows I'm open to discussing the subject further. I do this because I think the person-to-person approach is the most effective way to overcome stereotypes. Getting upset just closes the bridge of communication, and you both walk away feeling like jerks.

Of course, there are days when I don't feel like having this conversation (or can't), and "I can't discuss it right now, but maybe later?" is definitely in my vocabulary. And some days, I say, "Stereotypes exist for a reason. I was dating a Jew. But then...blah blah blah [showing how that was just the beginning of a difficult and rewarding journey]."


The lesson? Have an answer ready for this question at all times. You're going to need it, and you'll need it in the most unexpected of places. But don't take it personally, and don't get defensive. There's nothing to be gained from it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Halachic Discussion: Are Female Converts "Not Niddah" After the Mikvah?

This is the kind of question that could only come up after hours upon hours of undisturbed solo driving.

When a female convert goes to the mikvah to complete her conversion, does she become "not niddah" after the mikvah? Assuming the timing is right, of course. Not that it matters, but it was an interesting question. Because can you have two intents when immersing or is immersion just an immersion that has all possible effects regardless of intent?

And along those lines, my understanding is the conversion mikvah dip has to be planned to be at the right time for female converts. I don't remember very much about planning my first mikvah date, although I know I had to plan to miss the actual "red" days, though I don't remember if I was told to avoid "white" days as well.

On a related point, what's the opposite of niddah? I may be having a brain malfunction, but I can only think of "niddah" and "not niddah."

Thoughts?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Convert Issues: The Community Requirement

As I've mentioned several times here, a potential convert may have to move in order to complete his or her conversion. It may be an easy move or a very difficult one, depending on the convert and the community. Some may have to move across town, and some may have to move to a different country!

Traditionally, all converts have been required to live within an "easy walking distance" (which may vary based on convert and beit din) of an "orthodox community" before completing the conversion. My understanding is that it could be any community that was regularly able to muster a minyan for Shabbat and had some kind of access to kosher food (even if through the mail). Converts throughout the ages have made sacrifices to move across town or across continents to fulfill this requirement. It can often be one of the most demanding requirements, particularly if the convert owns a home, has children, or is part of a tight-knit family.

Today, this requirement is changing. Several groups have already changed, and it seems that new groups are adding this requirement all the time.

Now, batei din are beginning to require that a convert of child-having age (meaning of child-bearing age or having children under 18) must move to an orthodox community that has a 12-year orthodox day school program. This means that a "community" day school or an orthodox day school that is not from elementary to graduation cannot satisfy the requirement.

Moving isn't necessarily the requirement itself. The converts are required to take a vow during the conversion itself (usually in writing beforehand AND orally while standing in the mikvah) to raise any children as Jews and to provide them with 12 years of orthodox Jewish day school education. It's been a requirement for as long as I know of to require that the convert vow to raise all children as Jews. This education component is very new. As in the last 1-2 years new. In practice, this results in a requirement for anyone who has children or could have children to move to an "appropriate" community before the conversion will be completed.

I'm unmarried and have no children, but I was told this was a requirement of the first beit din I interviewed with. I was told I should switch to a more geographically-appropriate beit din, but this requirement seemed unsettling to me even then. I don't know my new beit din's position on the subject yet, but I'm sure it's the same. However, I was already planning to move to a new area, which happens to be NYC, so there would be no problem. I didn't think much about it. I know of a couple converting (yes, both!) whose children are already grown, so they were not given this requirement by the same beit din.

I made the innocent mistake of sharing what I had been told with someone from a small community. I was shocked by the amount of pain and anger I gave this person because he had spent over 20 years working diligently to build his community, only to find out that it is "unacceptable" as a home for converts. I had simply shared the story because he was curious about my meeting, and I thought this requirement was noteworthy. I had no idea it would create such negative feelings, and I'm very sorry it did. Of course, in retrospect, I completely understand his reaction. As an example, my personal calculations say that my shul is comprised of approximately 20% converts. If they had been told to move, where would my community be today? Small communities may need the passion of converts more than anywhere else. However, the perspective of people in the larger communities seems to be very negative against the smaller communities (the "Jewish boonies," as I like to call them), but that's a different story for another day.

This requirement severely limits the available communities, as you might imagine. According to the Education Encyclopedia, two-thirds of all American orthodox Jewish day school students are in NY and NJ. So guess where you're moving! You could probably live in Los Angeles too. But besides that, who knows? You'd have to search city by city to locate an appropriate community, then you'd need to be sure there would be no chance of the only orthodox day school in town closing in 5 years because of lack of funds. Then you'd have to move again! (Assuming you have kids or plan to have kids, of course.)

What's the real worry for converts behind this requirement? What happens if you intend to fulfill this requirement at the time of conversion, but your circumstances change and make it unreasonable for you to fulfill it? Worse, given the Jewish instability in the last 10 years where everyone is going around and saying that everyone else is "fringe" and "questionable," what if you thought you had fulfilled the requirement, then the school you sent your children to was ruled to be "not orthodox enough"? In general, there are simply too many unknowns, and there is no way to know how any beit din will enforce the rule, especially since batei din will change rabbis over time.
  • G-d forbid, but perhaps you have a child with special needs, and this creates a conflict with your conversion requirements. It's generally conceded that the Jewish day schools (minus a few special schools) are not equipped for special needs children, and then perhaps you as a parent are forced to choose between giving your child the best education for him or her (or even an adequate education!) and bringing your Jewish status into question because you've broken the "terms of the agreement," so to speak. 
  • Less compelling, but I also could imagine a child with a special talent who would like to attend a special school. For instance, imagine your amazingly talented Jewish child gets into Juliard for music! What do you say? "Sorry, honey, but that would make me stop being Jewish, and [if this is the mother talking] thus, you too. You get to choose between being Jewish and going to Juliard." We're going to punish our children because their best interests may force the parents to choose between their child's legitimate, kosher wishes and being Jewish?? 
  • This could also very much limit the convert's and the convert's spouse's job opportunities if they can only live in very particular areas. Most of the areas that can support 12 years of an orthodox Jewish day school are very expensive. Not to mention the fact that Jewish day schools' yearly tuitions are more expensive than most private colleges! I'm lucky that I'll have a professional degree, but many are not so lucky. And it's sad that even I, someone who lives frugally and will be a lawyer (not to mention not even having kids on the horizon yet!), still worries a great deal about how to afford a day school education. (Personally, it seems like the Jewish communities are reaching a breaking point where something will have to change.) I think this is particularly notable for foreign converts, who may have only one available community in their country to begin with, if not already having to move to a new country!
I was sure that any beit din in the world would allow the convert parent of a special needs child to forgo the "I will send all my children to 12 years of orthodox day school" vow in such a situation simply because it would not be in the best interests of the child to keep him/her in these day schools. And we all know how protective of children halacha is. Yet I have seen several posts from converts online where their batei dins threatened to invalidate their conversions for exactly this decision. I don't know what decision those parents made, but I know I'd be pushed in a certain direction! That doesn't make any sense to me, nor to anyone I've spoken to about it. And with this requirement being so new, the unknown aspects of it are even more frightening simply because it's yet another "convert gray area." Does anyone have a better insight into this and could share?


On a more fundamental level, I'm a little surprised that rabbis can change the "terms of the agreement" for conversion. It's one thing to require more before the conversion will be completed, but it seems odd to me that the rabbis can add to the conversion requirements themselves. Does this make sense? To make a silly analogy, it seems similar to requiring that the convert only wear purple after conversion. First, how can something like that be used to invalidate a conversion that was valid according to halacha (as understood for a thousand years) when made? Second, especially if it needs to be broken for a good reason, I don't see why batei din may not allow a loophole to invalidate a vow, which is done on a regular basis in other areas. Third, if the convert really intended to do that at the time of conversion, I don't understand how a beit din could go back and invalidate the conversion by saying that even if you had the proper intent at time and it was a kosher conversion, but we're going to pull your Jew card anyway. That's a little more complicated of an argument than I have the knowledge to argue, but it's certainly an idea floating around in converts' heads, and therefore, should be addressed.

It seems like one thing to set the conversion bar higher, but a very different thing to create new requirements for the conversion itself. That's a very fundamental change to halacha itself, it seems. Anyone more knowledgeable than myself know about this?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Convert Confessions: Candles Are Lovely, But Do They Have to Be So Messy??

I love Shabbat candles. I do. And I even like Chanukah candles. However, the wax is driving me insane.

I have half a mind to switch to oil candles, but (a) I just don't think they're as pretty and (b) better the devil I know than the devil I don't. Who knows what problems oil candles have??

I would like some advice: How do you remove candle wax? And I mean from every surface imaginable: wooden tables, candlesticks, countertops, carpet, small animals. (Just kidding on that last part...or am I?)

One fantastic piece of advice someone gave me when I was hunting for my second hannukiah (Chanukah menorah): Get pewter instead of silver. It looks very similar to silver (prettier, in my opinion), but doesn't require polishing! That's one less annoying task you need to do when you have 40 other errands breathing down your neck and 8 hours before Shabbat/Yom Tov begins.

Also, invest in drip cups. I only have disposable foil drip cups now, but I used to have metal ones. In retrospect, I guess metal drip cups defeat the purpose of a drip cup since I'm just removing the wax from a different metal surface! Granted, they were very pretty, but were lost in a move several years ago. I found the disposable drip cups in the "kosher" section of my grocery store for less than $3/box for a 6 month supply, assuming you change them every week, which I don't. Also, I should have looked harder for hannukiah drip cups this year because it would have made my life easier. C'est la vie.

And it's a little late, but here is a picture of my hannukiah on the 8th night!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Adventures in Semantics: Goy v. Non-Jew

Let's start with a funny quote since the rest of this post isn't very funny! "I think G-d is a goy. A mix of a girl and a boy." - a 3rd grader


And a quick definition to get us all on the same page! A connotation is "a subjective cultural and/or emotional coloration" of a word. You have the denotation, which is the actual dictionary definition, but connotation is all the "baggage" of a word. For instance, ideas and emotions instinctively pop into your head when you hear the word "mother" or "spider." Those are the connotations of those words.

Until I started "really" running in orthodox circles (remember that I had three years of lax orthodox affiliation when I first began my conversion process!), I can't remember hearing the word "goy" more than a handful of times, and always from people I would classify as elderly. Of course, you read it more often. I imagined that "goy" was like the terms people use for racial groups (aka, you can almost always tell how old the person is who's speaking!). I also thought goy had a negative connotation to it (like "shiksa" - don't even get me started on that awful word! Don't say it!). But then again, because of the way I heard people say it, I used to think "chareidi" was also a negative word! (A commenter on here cleared that up for me!)

Of course, my understanding is that the word "goy" itself is neutral and simply a descriptor, just as non-Jew is. For those who are unaware, goy literally means "nation." I think it's how people use the word goy that has given it negative connotations.

Interestingly, the frummer I get (or maybe the better people get to know me), the more people use the word goy around me. In the past, I could tell (through body language and word choice) that there was a hesitancy to make general statements about non-Jews to me. Over the last six months or so, this hesitancy is disappearing faster than lottery winnings! I think it tracks their perceptions of me. The more "Jewish" I seem, the less "goy" I seem, and the easier it is to make generalizations or jokes about them with me. Of course, I straddle the line between the two groups, and I probably will for the rest of my life.

I find that I bristle a little while I hear the word goy. It's generally said with little respect, and it is usually followed by a statement about how "other" they are from Jews. (The "other" is a big concept in literature and psychology, but most people know it as the "us v. them" mentality.) I think that using the word "goy" has the effect of dehumanizing non-Jews or otherwise lowering them below Jews. I use the word "non-Jews" simply because I don't have a better one. Of course, "non-Jew" is then defining a person by what they are not and could have the same distancing and dehumanizing qualities! But I think it's less likely to be said by a native English speaker with a sneer. Perhaps because goy is not an English word makes it easier to forget that you're talking about a group of people?

Taking a step back from the words themselves, there seems to be a distinction between who says goy and who says non-Jew or another term. In my experience, those who say non-Jew or a similar term tend to be baal teshuva or a convert (though I do not suggest that BTs and converts as groups tend to use those words; I'm arguing the converse of that connection). There are some FFBs who say non-Jew, but they tend to fall into two camps: (1) those who purposely try to be politically correct OR (2) those who have significant relationships with non-Jews, particularly within their families. As in my case, when someone makes a totally uninformed or disrespectful comment about "the goyim," (plural for goy) I know that they are speaking about my family, my friends, my teachers, and generally a large majority of the people in my life. That's a very different subconscious and emotional reaction than if someone made a similar statement to me about farmers in Micronesia.

My conclusion: I think that people who avoid using the term goy are more likely to be the people with continuing, meaningful relationships with non-Jews, which would support my argument above that we feel the dehumanizing/otherness connotations in the word goy. Quite frankly, I start preparing myself for a bad conversation as soon as I hear someone say the word goy.


Observations, opinions, thoughts?

NOTE: Before "going to press," a friend pointed out that the other word I was trying to think of is "gentile." I'm not sure which camp gentile belongs to in the goy v. non-Jew debate. Personally, I've been known to use it occasionally, but I think of it as an archaic word. The same friend suggested that gentile may be used primarily by people who want to say goy, but think it would be offensive: an apropos analogy would be people who say "people of color." I'm not sure how that word choice translates to "Jews of color," but that phrase seems to have become an acceptable one in the Jewish community and certainly adopted by many (if not most) of the prominent Jews of color that I have read/heard speak.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Management Update: Expanded the Mandatory Disclosures

Mandatory Disclaimers:

(1) I am not a rabbi. I am certainly no halachic source. I'm not even in a formal learning program right now, so my resources are my congregational rabbi, great friends (including an informal tutor and a couple of orthodox rabbis), and my own research, usually online.

(2) I talk a lot about psychology. For the record, I've never taken a single psychology-related course. My knowledge comes from a fine liberal arts education and a penchant for people watching. So any crackpot theory (or revolutionary one!) is entirely my own creation.

(3) And for good measure, I am not (yet) a lawyer, and nothing I say should be taken as secular legal advice.


And this has been said before, but there's no point in not reminding you while I have your attention: I personally moderate all comments. This will often result in at least a short delay before you will see your comment posted and sometimes a longer delay if I'm particularly busy (or traveling). Given how quickly and easily these kinds of discussions can devolve into something unproductive and full of trolls, I decided this was the best way to go. However, you've all been wonderful, and I've only ever rejected one comment, and that was for spamming.

Crashing Venice, CA, for Shabbat!

I had the great pleasure to spend Shabbat this week in Venice, CA. I know nothing about the area, except that I'm pretty sure it was the Venice Boardwalk in the move Son in Law. (Pauly Shore movie from 1993...pure comedic gold!)

I attended the Shul on the Beach (officially known as the Pacific Jewish Center), and I have to say I loved it! I'm a "small community" fan, and I was shocked to find a small community within the borders of Los Angeles! If you don't already know, LA is home to the third largest Jewish community in the world! (Behind Israel and New York City.) My little brain was overwhelmed. All the Jewish resources I could ever need...while still having the small community feel?? I think Rabbi Fink tried to tell me that once, but I would have never believed him! The only "downside" of this community for most Jews is the lack of an eruv. Having lived without an eruv before, it's really not that hard, and people blow the lack of an eruv entirely out of proportion.

However, the theme of this Shabbat seemed to be that in no way do I look like a convert. As a representative exchange: "How long have you been orthodox? I mean, clearly, you've always been Jewish [Insert the truth here] But you look so Jewish!" Of course, all converts dream of "passing." AKA, at least not standing out like a sore thumb. I've written about this before (You Know You've Made It When Someone Mistakes You for a Born Jew), and I have a future post running around in my head, but it still gives me a little happy feeling to think that I must be doing something "right." If nothing else, at least I don't make myself look like an idiot!

Along the lines of that example conversation, I had one of the most interesting conversations I've ever had. With about 10 teenagers. Trust me, no beit din could be more frightening than standing in front of that many teenagers with the questions coming in rapid-fire succession. On the bright side, these teens showed me that the parents in Venice are raising their kids right. They were Jewishly passionate, interested, and knowledgeable. The conversation started simply enough with the rapid-fire: what's your name, where do you live, how old are you, why are you staying in our community, who do you know here? I could hardly tell you any of the details of the whole experience, it was all so fast yet covered so much ground!

Somehow I needed to explain that I'm a convert. I think it was a question about whether I'd always been frum. And boy, defying the laws of sound wavelengths, the questions doubled in speed! (Plus the requisite "But you look so Jewish!" Complete with the addition from someone else, "That's not supposed to be a compliment!" hahaha! Apparently I also look only 19!) But the questions were great! I get questions all the time from people about my past and my conversion process(es), and you can tell that some people are just asking out of politeness or a detached interest, but without really being that interested in the conversation. These guys had such passion! And they were so proud of being raised frum, while having a mature appreciation for how this big of a change (and even differentiating the changes of my first conversion-becoming "Jewish"-and now this conversion-"becoming frum") can really affect my relationships. Like most people, they were most interested in how my relationships with other people have changed and the actual conversion process itself.

On my side, I was most impressed with how they struggle with being bound by halacha while still wanting to be respectful of non-orthodox relatives and friends. It seems like many "adults" in the orthodox world could use a class in respect from these guys!

Probably the best question (and one that so many people forget to ask!) was "So when in the conversion process does a person actually become Jewish?" Despite having such a short time together (we were just picking up a coat, after all!), I feel like I gave a full-fledged lecture on Being a Convert. And from the expressions on their faces, you could see the pride growing on their faces to hear that someone had found real meaning in their way of life. I can't imagine a time in our lives when the secular world is more tempting than in the teenage years. It seemed like these kids (I call everyone kids, I'm not suggesting anything here!) had really spent time thinking about these issues and, at least from my perspective, we had one of the best conversations I've had in months (despite the anxiety-causing set-up!). And there are few things as blush-causing as hearing "Thank you! You're an inspiration!" being shouted out the door after you!


The take away? If you're proud of your Jewishness and your community, your kids are listening. Oh, and Venice is amazing. I'd live there in a heartbeat.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism?

According to the Talmud, rabbis must ask potential converts a very serious question: "Why should you wish to become a proselyte; do you not know that the people of Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?"

That's a great question. And even many converts can't quite pinpoint their own reasons for being willing to join a group so hated and persecuted. It always seems to be a mixture of so many feelings, ideas, beliefs, and experiences. Unfortunately, no matter how organic it seemed to you, random strangers and your beit din are going to want some kind of an answer rather than a confused look or "It felt right." Let's discuss what might be some of those component parts of your motivations:

Philosophy: A feeling that the Jewish approach to G-d, the world, and our behavior is right. It's just downright reasonable, especially in psychology. Many are attracted to the emphasis placed on this life and on our actions, rather than on faith and the threat of a negative afterlife. Speaking of the afterlife, most converts I have spoken with were comforted by the idea that Jews aren't the only ones who go to "heaven." Some people are refreshed by the lack of an intermediary between the individual and G-d and that rabbis are simply "teachers." Most converts seem to enjoy the freedom to ask questions that is not only encouraged by Judaism, but required.
Family issues: Jewish fathers, mothers converted in a movement before your birth that happens to be more "liberal" than your current practice, other Jewish family members, Jewish significant others past and present, wanting to create a unified religious upbringing for your children, and surprising genealogical discoveries on Ancestry.com.
Community: You may love the community you live in now, but you need to be able to survive without this particular community. You'll likely live in a different community before you die, and especially if you're an orthodox conversion candidate, you may have to move to a different community simply to finish your conversion!
Ritual: Maybe you feel a deep and unnameable connection to one or several rituals/holidays. The language of symbolism often speaks very effectively to our subconscious. Many converts find comfort in the ritual, predictability, and structure of Judaism.
Jewish Coincidences: There isn't a much better word for this idea, but I've frequently heard/read from converts that as they look back on life, they can't see how they could have ended up anywhere but Jewish. Even myself, I see the pieces of the puzzle coming together over the years, but I had no idea at the time!
Ultimately, when all these reasons mix, the answer to the question, "Why are you converting/did convert to Judaism" comes down to "I couldn't be anything else." But maybe now you have the words to explain how you got to that point.


Some negative motivators might also be present. They are probably not deal-breakers because they're rarely the only reason you're considering conversion, but you should recognize them and deal with them.
  • Unresolved issues/anger with your family of origin or religion of origin
  • Pressure from a significant other and/or his or her family
  • Being eager to please a significant other and/or his or her family
  • The desire to "fit in" with friends or family
  • Pressure from the greater (or local) Jewish community if you're in an interfaith relationship
  • Pressure from psychologists or other members of the wider public to give your children a unified religious upbringing
  • Idealistic stereotypes of Jewish families and how they're better than your family of origin
  • Dissatisfaction with yourself. As written in The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians, "Conversion should feel like a chance to become more fully your real self, not like a chance to transform or to leave your old self behind."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Converts and Books: An Obsession

I don't think I'm alone in the convert world as being someone obsessed with books. Jews are the People of the Book, after all! However, I think I'm taking this a little too literally.

My late Chanukah present to myself arrived! In my defense, I got an amazing deal! Of course, it's only 5 months until I move to the NYC area, and I have several books of "easier" material I need to cover before moving on to these. Therefore, I should have been smart and shipped these to my parents' house instead. Unfortunately, I'm not that smart, so they're being packed in the car as well.



And this is the great majority of what I'm hauling to my parents' house this week. I would estimate that about half of these books are Jewish-related in some way. (Partially thanks to a ridiculous amount of Jewish cookbooks.) If someone decides to break into my car and rob me blind, I feel sorry for the guy.



Clearly, books are a disease, and I've got the fever! (Unfortunately, cowbell will not help this fever.)

Shabbat Shalom, all! Enjoy a nice book for me on Shabbos afternoon! If you live in the greater Los Angeles area, be on the lookout for me!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Am Yisrael Chai!

I'm taking off on a cross-country road-trip today, which makes me feel like a real 1950s beatnik!

For your pleasure, here is a short video from my Birthright trip, as taken by Rivka. It was taken on a small jutting-out area on the top of Masada. If you listen carefully, you can hear the amazing echo we produced! But to get the full effect, you're just going to have to go to Masada yourself!

video


For those who don't know, "Am Yisrael Chai" means "The Jewish People Live!"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

When Do You Celebrate Your Hebrew Birthday?

A very interesting question came up on Twitter: When is a convert's "Jewish birthday"? The actual Hebrew date of his/her birth or the date of going to the mikvah and reemerging as a new Jewish soul?

I'd never thought about that before, but that's a very deep question! As converts, when is our "birth"?

My answer? BOTH!

For one, Jews love to celebrate. And as people, we could all use more reasons to celebrate life and be happy! Just because we've gained a new Jewish identity doesn't mean that we should no longer celebrate how we entered this world. I think the hesitance that many of us have about celebrating our own birthdays (and I've heard that before, as well as experiencing it myself) has to do with our enormous efforts to distance ourselves from who we were pre-conversion. We aren't supposed to turn our backs on who we were before conversion, nor the people who were important to us. It's difficult to balance two very different selves, but (hopefully) every person grows and changes significantly. That problem should not be unique to converts! We are a cohesive whole, not two halves.

However, looking to tradition (and halacha?), we don't mix simchas (joyous events). Each one should be celebrated and appreciated individually. I think that applies even more so here. Everyone with a bellybutton has a birthday. But very few people can celebrate the day they joined the Jewish people. It should be appreciate for the very special day it is, independent of any other celebration.


If you don't already know your birthday on the Hebrew calendar, check out the very handy Chabad birthday calculator!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Halachic Discussion: Is Red an Immodest Color for Women?

I was reading Halichos Bas Yisrael and came across an interesting point: "Bright red clothing is considered immodest." It was then grouped with tight clothing (which is an interesting line in itself!). I had heard that "bright red" (as distinguished from shades like "burgundy red") is considered an immodest color before, but primarily from people stricter than your average modern orthodox community. Of course, some communities go further, and the women traditionally only wear black, white, and navy blue. I would be thrown right out of those communities because I love wearing very bright colors!

The book cites this to the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 178:1, which is not a resource I have in my home yet. I'd appreciate it if someone could tell me what that says! The footnotes in the book go on to describe that the prohibition has several sources: (1) the prohibition against adopting pagan practices, especially "licentious" ones (anyone care to explain why this was a licentious and pagan practice?), (2) the tradition of "modest women," (3) red is associated with arrogance, and (4) Rashi, commenting on Bereshit/Genesis 49:11, says, "Their clothes have the color of wine...and are worn by women to entice."

I have been having a similar discussion in my personal life about the line between a chumra and mandatory "minimum" halacha, and it does seem to be a different line for every person. As the old saying goes, "Anyone stricter than you is a fanatic, and anyone more lenient than you is a heretic."

What do you in Lurker Land have to say about women wearing red and the chumra/halacha line? I would very much like to hear from you!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Taking a Shyne to Judaism! [Cue rimshot]

Since this blog is, in theory, about conversion, let's talk about some converts! On a practical level, this is very useful knowledge because it's inevitably going to come into a conversation: "Oh, you're a convert?? Did you read the New York Times piece about Shyne??"

Rap star Shyne has taken the Jewish and non-Jewish media by storm with the story of his conversion to orthodox Judaism. Google his name, and you'll get tons of articles! Here's the NYT's piece to get you started.

But in order to give you a well-rounded education, here are more modern converts!
NOTES: Movement is ignored. And since my readership is surprisingly international, I've tried to keep that in mind when writing descriptions.


The One Most Likely to Come Up in Conversation
Marilyn Monroe, converted before marriage to playwright Arthur Miller.
Liz Taylor, converted between Jewish husbands. She is known for being a supporter of Los Angeles' controversial Kabbalah Center.
Tom Arnold, converted before marriage to Roseanne Barr.
Yisrael Campbell, American comedian (a very good one too!).
Connie Chung, Chinese-American television journalist.
Campbell Brown, American television journalist.
Soleil Moon Frye, American actress. (Punky Brewster!)
Sammy Davis, Jr., actor/singer/danger, the only African-American member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack.
May Britt, Swedish actress and wife to Sammy Davis, Jr. Actress in Sweden, Italy, and the U.S. They caused a ruckus in America because interracial marriage was still illegal in a majority of the states when they married in 1960.
Nell Carter, African-American Tony and Emmy Award-winning singer and actress.
Cristian Castro, Grammy-nominated Mexican singer.
Dany Boon, French actor (Per Wikipedia, "In the year 2008, Dany Boon was the best-paid actor in European film history.")
Elizabeth Banks, American actress. (I didn't recognize her name at first, but boy did I recognize her face!)
Kate Capshaw, American actress and wife of Steven Spielberg. (You know who she is-she's the female lead in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the singer!)
Natan Gamedze, member of the royal line of Swaziland and now an Israeli chareidi rabbi.
Isla Fisher, Scottish-Australian American actress. Ms. Fisher is probably the most recent of these converts, converting before her marriage to Sacha Baron Cohen (British comedian most known as "Borat") in March 2010. She studied for conversion for three years.
Mary Hart, American host of Entertainment Tonight.
Capers Funnye, African-American rabbi of the predominately African-American Chicago synagogue Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.
Cameron Kerry, brother to American presidential hopeful John Kerry.
John King, American journalist and CNN anchor. (Not related to Larry King.)
Karol Sidon, Chief Rabbi of Prague and the Czech Republic.
Anthony Lake, American Executive Director of UNICEF.
"Dr. Laura"/Laura Schlessinger, American talk radio host. Underwent orthodox conversion, but announced on her radio show in 2003 that she is no longer orthodox.
John Lehr, American actor and comedian. You probably know his respectable roles, but did you know he was one of the Geico cavemen??
Ivanka Trump, daughter of Donald and Ivana Trump. She is married to Jared Kushner, owner of The New York Observer.
Ike Turner, American musician and former husband of Tina Turner. (This one was the biggest surprise to me!) 
Anne Meara, American comedian and actress. Wife of Jerry Stiller and mother of Ben Stiller.
Daniel Silva, American author. Many of his books deal with Jews, Islamic terrorism, WWII, and the Holocaust.
Jackie Wilson, African-American singer, one of the fathers of soul music.
Dara Torres, American Olympic gold medalist swimmer. At 41, she was the oldest swimmer to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, and she has competed in 5 Olympics!
Yaniv Ben-David, an Arab-Israeli who discovered Judaism while serving a 12 year prison sentence in Israel (not related to terrorism).
Pawel and Ola, Polish skinheads who discovered they both had Jewish roots and became orthodox Jews. They are the subject of an American documentary by CNN. 
Communities of converts in former colonies that had Jewish populations, including Guatemala and Indonesia. I read about another community in South America, but I can't find it now.


The Ones That Might Come up at Trivia Night and Are Still Super Interesting
Steve Bedwell, Australian comedian.
Polly Bergen, American actress and singer.
Sarah Brown, American soap opera actress.
Eddie Butler, African-American Israeli singer.
Luke Ford, Australian-American writer, blogger, and "former pornography gossip columnist." His blog continues to make breaking news, but is viewed with disapproval by many in the Jewish community. Most notably to me, he was dismissed from one beit din for failure to disclose. Let that be a warning to you! He wrote about his struggles, including being asked to leave two congregations, in XXX-Communicated: A Rebel Without a Shul.
Aaron Freeman, American comedian and writer.
Reuben Greenberg, the first African-American police chief of Charleston, SC. (My adopted hometown! Yay Police Chief Greenberg!)
Carolivia Heron, African-American author and "scholar of African-American Judaica."
Jon Juaristi Linacero, Basque/Spanish writer and political activist.
Felicity Kendall, British actress.
Lenny Kuhr, Dutch singer.
Elliot Maddox, African-American former professional baseball player.
Richard Marceau, Canadian politician.
Fran├žoise Mouly, French artist and designer. She is the art editor of The New Yorker.
Jeff Newman, American former professional baseball player and manager.
Bob Nystrom, Swedish former American professional hockey player.
Lorna Patterson, American actress. (Best known as the stewardess in Airplane!)
Rebecca Pidgeon, British actress and singer. Married to playwright and director David Mamet.
Roger Rees, Welsh actor best known to American audiences for Cheers and the West Wing.
Mary Doria Russell, American novelist.
Jackie Sandler, American actress. Married to Adam Sandler.
Michael Netzer, Lebanese-American comic book artist for DC and Marvel during the 1970s.
Margo Stilley, American-born British actress and model.
Karen Tintori, American author.
Andre Tippett, African-American former professional (American) football player and Hall of Famer.
Mare Winningham, American actress and singer.
Nikki Ziering, American model and actress. She was Playboy's Playmate of the Month shortly after her conversion.
Suzy Menkes, British fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune.
Christian B. Anfinsen, American Nobel Prize-winning biochemist.
Sofi Tsedakah, Samaritan-Israeli actress and singer.
Reza Jabari, an Iranian flight attendant who highjacked a plane in Iran and later converted.
Avraham Sinai, Lebanese informant for Israel, who later fled to Israel and then converted.Andre Williams, African-American musician, who married a Jamaican lawyer "of the Naftali tribe."
Chaviva, who blogs at Just Call Me Chaviva.
Ahuva Gray, African-American former Protestant minister.
Asher Wade and his wife, American former Methodist minister.
Aliza Hausman, Dominican-American rebbetzin. Her blog was well-known, but has recently become private.


The patterns I saw while combing through Wikipedia? (1) Converting at the time of marriage, (2) children of Jewish fathers, (3) lots of entertainers or those married to entertainers (and many other breeds of creative folk!), and (4) lots of brainy (dare I say nerdy!) folk. Most people combined two or more of these patterns. Family-oriented, creative, and brainy? Yep, sounds Jewish to me! On the other hand (since we're being stereotypical here), I was surprised by the number of professional athletes! However, only a few are listed above.

Also, I found surprising amount of Southerners, including two from my own hometowns! As with the converts I know "in the real world," I'm amazed at the variety of converts from all races and creeds. We're an interesting bunch! It's too bad I'm pretty "boring" by convert standards. And what I want to know is where is a book about African-American converts?? There's serious gold here, people!

DiCaprio Reportedly Considering Converting to Marry Israeli Model: Perfect Timing with Today's Post

Original story: DiCaprio May Convert to Judaism for Love.

Beside the fact that converting to a religion simply to marry a person sounds like a recipe for disaster, what do you think about this? My initial response was "DIBS!" but then I remembered that I'm not a DiCaprio fan. It was my automatic female response.

As many of us converts discover Judaism through a Jewish partner (and I'm no exception), it's likely that he's finding meaning in Judaism. Let's hope that's the case! I'd be very interested to know where he's converting!

My other initial response? Who names a girl Bar?? Is there a meaning other than "son" that I'm not aware of?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How NOT to teach a convert or BT to pray in Hebrew

Dear creators of resources that teach people to pray in Hebrew:

I have some problems with your products, and I would like to discuss them.

Let's begin at the beginning. If I am coming to your CD/book or website to get help learning to pray in Hebrew, it's very likely that I either a) Do not read Hebrew at all or b) I read Hebrew poorly. Certainly, A is not your business; there are many other resources for that. However, you are not serving your poor Hebrew readers as we need you to. And I am willing to bet that we are the overwhelming majority of your customers.

1) Be very clear about what kind of pronunciation you are teaching us. I would rather not get into a habit, only to discover I'm using some very niche pronunciation of a vowel that the members of my community doesn't understand. There are many more accents than "Ashkenazi" and "Sefardi," and your information is not enough.

2) I will cover this more in #3, but I don't want to hear your tunes. I want to hear clear, accurate pronunciation of the prayers. I find it difficult to be sure I am pronouncing a word correctly when it is being sung, since that is so different than speaking. Amazingly, easy-to-follow pronunciation of prayers that are usually sung is apparently impossible. I am a poor Hebrew reader. Causing me to sing something "close" isn't the effect I was hoping for. I sang Aleinu wrong for months without even knowing it! Until it was pointed out, of course.

3) Getting to the tunes. Quite frankly, I don't want to learn this prayer to a tune initially anyway. If I learn the words plainly, I could apply them to any tune. But if I learn the words specifically to one tune, I can never say it with another tune. Personally, this has already happened with Aleinu. I can't just "say" it, I HAVE to sing it or else I don't know the words. My new congregation does not sing it. This is difficult and annoying. Further, there are 4 million prayer tunes in the world. I want the freedom to use the tunes of my community rather than being locked into the tune of a CD I learned with when I first began. The average FFB person grew up hearing multiple tunes to those prayers that have them, which prevented him or her from "locking in" a tune. I don't have the mental and linguistic flexibility of a child, unfortunately.

4) I know that no one wants to (nor should) say a bracha in vain. However, my understanding is that instructing a person in prayers and brachot is not halachichly a bracha in vain. I know that one adult may even say a bracha word-by-word so that another adult can say the bracha correctly. Why must these recordings only use Hashem and Elokeynu? Again, you're just confusing me and getting me into bad habits. I'm not good enough at this to be switching words around, and I will inevitably memorize the wrong thing. Do you remember how hard it is to see one word in a foreign language and have to remember that in some circumstances you must replace that word with a different foreign word? When you don't understand what you're saying, that's even harder.

All future helpers of the converts and BTs of the world, please take these things into consideration. You have the potential to make our lives much easier.


And that's what grinds my gears.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Convert Issues: Going Back to the Basics

My biggest hurdle in becoming orthodox has been going back to the basics.

Most converts who've already gone through one conversion feel like we know stuff. We're not newbies, so why are we back at the beginning?? It can be incredibly frustrating and ego-busting. Even new converts can be incredibly frustrated by suddenly feeling like you're 5 years old. For instance, we're being told to focus on pshat (the most basic level of understanding the Torah - basically, learning the stories), and many of us haven't learned to pronounce Hebrew to the level we need for orthodox standards. For some less fortunate than myself, you may actually have to re-learn Jewish ideas and philosophies from a totally different perspective than that which you originally learned them! Since I began with an orthodox congregation, I'm filling in the holes of my haphazard Jewish education, but since I don't know what holes there are, I'm just starting at the beginning and going from there.

But when you've had a "revelation," the first thing you want to do is jump into the deep ideas. Being told to focus on reading the Parsha and other "basic" tasks can be very effective brakes to your enthusiasm. (And I bet that's used by batei din to weed out the insincere.) The deeper discussions are the life-changing ideas that brought us here, right? On one level yes, but we still need the foundation. There would be no deeper levels without the foundation, and most of those deep levels are just going deeper into that "foundation." Remembering this perspective helps keep me motivated when I feel like a child in the first year of Hebrew school!

In no place is this issue more obvious to me than in learning to read Hebrew. I've studied 6 languages and am trained as a linguist. How can an alphabet stump me so hard?? Definitely a hard beating to my ego. I'm proud to report that it all seems to be coming together just in the last week! It's still slow and not pretty, and I appear to have Hebrew dyslexia, but the foundation is there now. It's all up from here! And instead of being frustrated that I can't do something so basic, I now see each little improvement each time I practice. A key turning-point has been crossed!

If you're still frustrated, I've discovered a way to soothe my own beast: I mix in some of the "deeper" material with all that basic material I really need to learn. Also, there are "basic" areas that I just don't know much about, and studying those newer areas also helps me feel that I'm accomplishing things by covering new ground!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Who Doesn't Want to Celebrate Chanukah in a More Environmentally-Friendly Way?

I'd like to write today about this article: "Green" Hanukkah Sparks Criticism. You don't really need to read the article, but the link is there for your convenience.

The (very short and poorly edited) article is talking about a proposal in Israel to encourage people to have a more environmentally-friendly Chanukah by burning one less candle. Keep in mind that we burn a total of 44 candles over 8 days. And wouldn't it just be awkward to burn 7 candles twice?

As the article notes, each candle not burned saves 15 grams of carbon dioxide. According to the EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency, a United States governmental agency), one gallon of car gasoline emits 2,421 grams of carbon dioxide. The average Chanukah candle burns for one hour, but according to my research on the Chabad Lubavitch site, the lights are only required to burn for a half hour. Though it's discussing oil hannukiah (I wonder if that was even considered in this green Hanukkah movement, since I know many people prefer to use oil on Chanukah!), it says, "If one poured more than the required amount of oil for the lights, he may extinguish them after they have burned for more than half an hour after the appearance of the stars, if he wishes to use the excess oil for lighting on the following evening. He may also extinguish the lights in order to use the remaining oil for some other purpose, provided that he specifically stipulated that he had intention to do so before he used the oil for the Chanukah lights."

The potential solution, especially for those who celebrate Chanukah ethnically rather than religiously? Just blow out the candles after a half hour. You'll save way more carbon emissions. And if you don't? 15 grams of carbon can be made up for in a multitude of other ways! And if you really feel THAT bad about it, there are now groups that let you pay money to offset your carbon dioxide emissions. I don't know much about it, but they are always making offers to me when I buy plane tickets.

It seems that the second sentence of the Chabad quote above could allow for blowing out your candles "early" if you are worried about their environmental effects! Would any rabbis/learned persons care to share any knowledge they have on this point?

The funniest part of the article? "The founders of the Green Hanukkia campaign say each candle burning all the way down produces 15 grams of carbon dioxide, and that -- multiplied by an estimated 44 million households in Israel -- adds up quickly." That's pretty impressive for a country with only 7.6 million people total!

The funniest (and most trolling) reaction I've heard to this debate so far: "You'd have a lot smaller carbon footprint if you stopped driving on Shabbat!"


Compare and contract with this article: Dueling Billboards Face Off in Christmas Controversy. Oh, the War on Christmas continues... Personally, I've decided this year that if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I'm going to wish them a Happy Chanukah. It just seems fair. Surprisingly, it hasn't happened yet!