Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Social Strategies for the Isolated Conversion Candidate

Some of you may be considering orthodox conversion, but you don't live in an orthodox community. You know that you will be required to move if you want to pursue this. (See Convert Issues: the Community Requirement.) However, because of school, a lease, saving money, owning a home, or a million other reasons, you're stuck in the Jewish boondocks for a while or longer.

All is not lost. Sure, your learning is probably limited to books and the internet. Maybe you even have a small orthodox community and a local rabbi! Regardless, the availability of quality (and enjoyable) books and internet resources is constantly increasing, and there is more than enough to keep you busy. The problem is that you won't be learning the standards of the particular community that you want to live in. However, that comes in time. If there is a difference of opinion and you don't have a rabbi, just pick one. (See How Do Converts Choose a Minhag?)

But what about orthodox society? How can you learn about that from a rural Midwestern town or a small town in Russia? Your options are limited, but they're not nonexistent. And there are more opportunities every day. Here are my suggestions, and most of them are ways I've found to cope in my own small communities. Except for the first suggestion, they're all in the virtual world of the internet. After all, you found your way here, right?

First and foremost, VISIT orthodox communities! I know this is difficult for shy people and those with social anxiety, but take the step. If nothing else, it can help you realize that orthodoxy is not for you, long before you pick up your life and move. Call the local synagogue and ask for hospitality. They will either arrange a family/person for you to stay with (they will probably say "stay by so-and-so") and meals. If not, they will tell you about the local hotels within an easy distance. (Before making a reservation at a hotel, make sure they have real metal keys available instead of electronic card keys!)

If you can go to a nearby Jewish community, get on the mailing list for the Jewish Federation, the synagogues of interest (even if you don't plan to move there), and specialty groups (such as Hillel college groups, Jewish Student Unions, young professional groups, Israeli dance groups, seniors' groups, etc). When you can, go to their events. You'll make new friends, and you'll see the orthodox in their original habitat. You may also have some success with Meetup.com or similar sites.

Read blogs by orthodox Jewish people. (You can get a good start on my blogroll!) You'll get an insider view into how orthodox people approach life, and the issues currently facing the community. You may even learn some halacha along the way! Comment. Comment to the other commentors. Email the writers. Make the connection. It's not impolite! However, remember that bloggers are people too, and a response to your email may take some time. And of course, just like in real life, some bloggers don't want that interaction. If one person is a jerk to you, judge them favorably and don't let it stop you from talking to other virtual people.

Get involved on Facebook and Twitter. Personally, I find Twitter to be more interactive between individuals, but Facebook allows a much wider sweep of your brush. You can also join groups and "like" pages as a way of getting information and interacting.

As your circle of orthodox friends increases, so will your interactions with the orthodox (makes sense, right?). But more than that, they'll introduce you to their friends, and when you travel, maybe they know people where you're traveling. The Jewish people is all about connections between people. That's all Jewish geography is! We take care of our own; it's the Jewish grandmother complex. We're family.

Please share your suggestions in the comments!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

No Posts for the Last Two Days of Pesach

This blog is shomer Shabbat and yom tov. Therefore, no posts on Monday, April 25, and Tuesday, April 26.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Shabbat Shalom! The Bitachon Edition

Word of the day: bitachon. Most basically, it means trust. Trust in Hashem.

Being a Type A, practical-to-a-fault person, I often say that bitachon and emunah (faith) are very difficult for me.

I'm beginning to rethink that statement.

As you should all know by now, I'm moving cross-country in a week. Only today did I finally get my apartment settled (or so I think). I still need to get rid of my worldly possessions. I haven't sent out a single resume to find a job. And today was my last day of work, so I'm officially unemployed until after the bar exams at the end of July.

My dad is understandably nervous. People think that I'm very calm about making major changes in my life, but my dad is so calm that he makes me look like a nutcase. He always says, "Everything will work out." Being female, sometimes I just want to vent, and that phrase is the very last thing I want to hear. (See Rabbi Aryeh Pamensky and the Happy Wife series.) But today, I used that phrase on my dad to calm him about my move. My guess is that he took it as well as I normally do! Hahahahah...sweet revenge.

When people learn that I'm moving to NYC, the question is always: "Oh, did you get a job there?" No. No, I didn't. I haven't even started that process. (Because quite frankly, a lot of people say they will move to NYC and never do, so why should an employer believe me?) Why am I moving to NYC? Because getting my conversion requires it. Once I'd decided on this move and began researching it, I learned that it was also the best move for me objectively as a person. As a career choice and financial decision, the jury is still out.

So what do I have? Bitachon. I must. Or else I'm a certifiable nutter.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reflections on the first days of Pesach

Well, the first days are over. Three days without chametz, and I haven't killed anyone yet! However, I was dismayed to realize that we're not even halfway through Pesach yet...

My only good joke so far for the yontif:

Person 1: "The bread of affliction just afflicts you with constipation."
Me: "Maybe this is to show us that true affliction comes from within ourselves."
Person 2: "That's a very Chassidishe interpretation."

But as for the seders, they were wonderful. As someone else said, "I love Pesach once it starts." I always forget how much I love Pesach because I hate all the lead-up to it. During both seders, I just couldn't stop smiling!

And even better, school is effectively over, and the moving madness has begun!

Monday, April 18, 2011

No Posts for the First Two Days of Pesach

This blog is shomer Shabbat and yom tov too! Therefore, no posts on Tuesday, April 20, and Wednesday, April 21. 

I'll post another reminder before the last two days of Pesach, which are next Monday and Tuesday.

What to Expect at the Seder Tonight and Tomorrow Night

Tonight is the first seder! If all goes as planned, you're going to have a great time! And if not, ur doin it wrong. (If you don't know this internet meme, check out this, this, and this. All are "safe for work," assuming you're supposed to be on the internet at all!)

In all seriousness, there is a reason why so many people would choose Pesach as their favorite holiday! If someone can say that with a straight face after cleaning and kashering for Pesach, there must be something there! I think it goes beyond the warm and fuzzy childhood memories that many people have about Pesach. And though that may be a significant influence, converts and BTs also get to build those memories with their friends and families. Of course, that takes time, and that knowledge may not help you now. Personally, I've only had seders with near-strangers, and I've never had anything but a great time. Four (or more) cups of wine certainly encourages people to relax!

Assuming you've never been to a seder before, let's talk about some of the major things you should expect to experience. Most parts of the seder are family traditions, and every family's seder is different.

As a threshold matter, realize that this is going to be a very long meal. And at least the first half won't have the actual meal!  By the time the official meal arrives, you're going to be starving.

There will be an assigned "leader" of the seder. If you're like me, you're just glad it's not you! This person (usually the male head of the house) will have spent a significant amount of time preparing to lead the seder and to offer several Torah insights throughout the evening.

The best part? The seder comes with an "instruction" book: the hagaddah. It will literally spell out what you will do and what people will say. It's amazing for the clueless. Of course, some hagaddahs are better than others, and you make do with what you have.

You will almost certainly be expected to read out loud from the hagaddah. Some people may read their section in Hebrew. You're going to be just fine if you read in English. (And you can read along in English when others recite the Hebrew.)

Pay special attention to the Four Sons. Be like the wise son and ask good questions. And if you can't ask an informed question, be like the simple son and ask "What's that?" Of course, at least once, you will be like the son who doesn't know to ask. And that's ok. Just don't be the wicked son! The moral of the story? Questions are encouraged on Passover. Ask them. No need to feel silly; the seder is intended to be a structured learning exercise. Really.

Four cups of wine. For your sake, I hope you like the wine you get. If you are a recovering alcoholic or otherwise don't (or can't) consume wine, you will use grape juice or sparkling grape juice. The amount that fulfills the requirement of a "cup" is actually very small: about 3.2 ounces. If any of this would be a problem for you, speak with your rabbi for possible alternatives.

Yes, you have to eat matzo in order to fulfill several mitzvot (making hamotzi, eating matzah for Pesach, and the afikomen-perhaps afikomen is simply custom?). If you're like me, you hope the two seders are the only time you'll eat this intestinal shellac for another year. Of course, there are people who actually like matzah enough to eat it year-round. I am not one of those people.

There will probably be lots of singing. Just play along.

You'll be doing a lot of leaning to the left (physically, not politically). I feel silly when doing this without an armrest because it seems unnatural. Just lean and enjoy that the leaning signifies your freedom!

These are only some highlights of what you'll experience tonight and tomorrow night. May you learn a lot and have a wonderful time! And if you feel like you did it all wrong, don't worry! You get a second chance tomorrow night!

If you want to be a Seder Superstar, do some reading beforehand and come prepared with some short Torah insight about Passover.

Chag Pesach kasher v'sameach! Have a happy and kosher Passover! Next year in Jerusalem!


(As an interesting sidenote, the Pesach seder is one of the few time-bound mitzvot that women are obligated to do.)

Kitteh Joos No Can Haz Cheezburgers

For your Pesach enjoyment, the LOLcat Passover Story.

If you don't already know the LOLcats, they are definitely a guilty pleasure of mine!

(And there is a project to translate the entire Christian Bible-which means the "Old Testament" too!-into "lolspeak." It's called the LOLcat Bible Translation Project.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Halacha in a Nutshell: Tzedakah

Halacha in a Nutshell is a series that does not aim to actually teach you halacha. The goal is to acquaint you with the general ideas of a halachic issue so that you can follow conversations without looking like a total n00b.

Just in time for the US tax deadline!

Tzedakah is normally translated as "charity," but there really is no English equivalent. It would be more accurate to translate it as "justice." Because of this, most Jews of all movements say tzedakah. And yes, this will be one of the harder words for you to learn to pronounce.

As you will hear from 4 million sources, charity comes from the Latin word caritas, which means "love." The Christian (and thus, Western) understanding of charity is that it is a voluntary action because of a feeling in the heart. Tedakah comes from the same root as tzaddik (righteous person), and that shared root word is the word for justice. Tzedakah does not come from a feeling of love; it is part of an obligation to pursue justice. And tzedakah is the source of the Christian idea of tithing. Tithing is basically a Jewish idea, but the Christian perspective on tithing is an oversimplification of tzedakah.

How much to give is a question for your rabbi. There are many opinions, and it matters what your income is. As a general rule, if you're making enough money to get by reasonably well, you should give at least 10% and not more than 20%. Yes, there is a halachic ceiling on how much you can give! (Note that the amount of your income for calculating that percentage may not be what you think it is-again, ask your rabbi.) You shouldn't drive yourself into the poorhouse by helping the poor! In fact, the great rabbis have repeatedly said that you will not go poor because of giving tzedakah. For the rest of you, if your means are limited, that ceiling may also be the minimum you are required to give. And as you will hear fairly often, even recipients of tzedakah are often obligated to give tzedakah from their tzedakah. Again, all these points are halchic questions for someone familiar with your circumstances.

There is a preferential order of who should receive your tzedakah. Some scholars arrange it differently, but this is representative of a lot of the opinions I've read. Ideally, you will be able to help all these communities.

1. Redeem captives and save lives.
2. Poor relatives.
3. The poor who are not related to you (both Jews and non-Jews), Torah scholars, and Torah institutions in your community.
The opinions divide at this point, though there is also some disagreement in #3.

The Talmud gives a kind of ranking order for how to give tzedakah, though all the levels are a mitzvah. Rambam organized them into 8 levels from most meritorious to least meritorious. This is the "ladder" of tzedakah that you will often hear people reference.

1. Giving to someone to make them self-reliant, and thus, avoid having to seek tzedakah. For example, giving someone a loan to enable them to avoid becoming needy. Another example is giving someone a job or arranging for them to be employed.
2. Giving where neither person knows who the other is.
3. Giver knows who is receiving the money, but the recipient does not know who gave the money.
4. Recipient knows who gave the money, but giver does not know who will receive the money.
5. Giving before being asked. Both parties know who the other is.
6. Giving after being asked. Both parties know who the other is.
7. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully. Smiles and kind words to the needy person count here. If you have nothing else, you should give them that.
8. Giving begrudgingly. This includes giving with a negative facial expression (if the recipient is seeing you).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thoughts on Exile as Passover Approaches

If you have a machzor set, you should review the Pesach machzor before Passover begins. It's very helpful. I began reviewing mine, and the introduction has a very interesting description of the three reactions people have to exile (galus/galut). As exile is an important theme of Pesach, I thought I would share two discussions of it here.

The machzor introduction classifies the Israelites into three groups in terms of the Egyptian exile.

1) Those who saw G-d in everything. "They were not in exile at all in the truest sense because nothing impaired their awareness of G-d in all things."
2) The assimilated who viewed themselves as Egyptians, "albeit enslaved and persecuted." "Their goal was not to leave Egypt, but to be accepted by their masters. For such people, no redemption was possible, and they died during the plague of darkness."
3) Everyone else in the middle. "They were in exile because they were not part of Egypt nor did they wish to be. But they had sunk very low, almost as low as a Jew can sink without being utterly and irreparably lost."

The writer then sums up the message he finds in this idea: "...all three categories of people are always present, and all three aspects may be in each of us to varying degrees. In some ways, an individual may be unswervingly loyal to his roots, in others he may have become indistinguishable from his surroundings, yet in others he may straddle the fence between conviction and doubt. If anything, however, the story of Pesach should encourage everyone to be confident that there is hardly a depth from which a Jew cannot escape."

And what does that all remind me of? The Books of Life and Death during the High Holydays, and how very few people can automatically be placed in one or the other on Rosh Hashanah, so we have the next 10 days to sway the balance towards Life.


Now for another perspective on exile from Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (made aliyah to Israel from Spain in 1145):
"Despite all that we know about the precious spiritual status of the land of Israel, still, we have failed to make this place the focus of our life's goals. And, it is this very shortcoming that prevented us from grasping the historic opportunity that existed during the era of the Second Temple. With the beginning of the rebuilding of the Second Temple, and the initial return of thousands of Jews to Israel, G-d was making it clear that He was prepared to restore all of the spiritual grandeur that had existed prior to the destruction [of the First Temple]-if only the entire people had been profoundly desirous to return home. However, only a minority returned, while the majority, including the leadership, remained in Babylon, where they preferred to live in exile in the comfort of their homes and worldly possessions. This is what is meant by the verse in Song of Songs, 'I am asleep but my heart is awake.' Exile is a deep sleep, and while in our heart of hearts there is a longing to return to Israel, it is difficult to stir ourselves from the depths of our slumber."

News: Memorial Held for Convert Who Died Fighting for the Founding of Israel

"Today" (Already Wednesday in Israel), there is a memorial for a Jewish convert who died in the service of the Irgun in 1948. The Irgun was a "rogue" paramilitary force in Israel during the days of its founding.

Learn your history! And who else but the Jews would manage to not even unite for self-defense in the land of Israel? Not true anymore, of course, but the story of Israel's founding is incredibly interesting, no matter where you stand on the political and/or theological consequences. My favorite quote to use to describe the founding (and continued existence) of the state of Israel: "In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles." - David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the state of Israel.

And more vaguely cynical analysis: The article is titled "Memorial to Be Held for Irgun Fighter Who Converted to Judaism." Once again, a convert is a Jew. Plain and simple. Yet that's the adjective that people will continue to use to define us, even 63 years later. A curiosity or an inspiration? The truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

So What Exactly Are Chametz, Kitniyot, and Gebruchts?

A Jew can not "possess" or benefit from chametz during the 8 days of Passover (7 in Israel), which additionally includes erev Pesach (the day when Pesach begins at sunset). Any remaining chametz must be destroyed, sold, or nullified by a certain hour on the morning of erev Pesach. The hour depends on your location, like Shabbat.

As a threshold issue, know that only chametz over the size of a kezayit "counts." A kezayit is approximately the size of an olive. Pesach and chametz is usually most conversion candidates' introduction to a kezayit, but it's an important measurement in kashrut/brachot as well.

So what is this chametz you've got to get rid of?

Chametz is anything made from the following five grains that has also come into contact with water for more than 18 minutes ("fermented"):

  • Wheat 
  • Spelt
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Rye

So what is matzah? Matzah (matzo) is a hard flatbread that looks like a giant cracker. It is an unleavened bread, and for some people, it's like shellac for your intestines. Some people LOVE matzah and even eat it year-round. Some people spend the week absolutely constipated, so they only eat matzah at the seders, where they are required to. NOTE: Keep in mind that "year-round matzah" usually is not kosher for Pesach. Always check the box.

There are two other issues to consider: kitniyot and gebruchts.

Kitniyot: Kitniyot is allowed to the Sephardi, but not to the Ashkenazi. This is where people get tripped up. To my understanding, kitniyot is a custom that has become a rabbinic prohibition. Kitniyot refers to all the other grains and legumes. There is general agreement that rice, peas, lentils, and beans are kitniyot. Unfortunately, what qualifies as kitniyot can sometimes vary from community to community. Peanuts is a prime example. Potatoes are also considered kitniyot in a few communities. Sephardim generally think that kitniyot is insane. Kitniyot is also given as the prime benefit for an Ashkenazi woman marrying a Sephardi man! (Since wives generally take on the minhagim of their husbands.) A place where I was tripped up is that it appears that you may own and possess kitniyot, but Ashkenazim simply may not eat it during Pesach. As I wrote last week, I was amazed to learn that my pets' food can contain kitniyot.

Gebruchts: This is a Yiddish word for matzah that has come into contact with water. As you might guess, it's an Ashkenazi thing, but it's primarily observed by Chassidic communities. Within the Chassidic communities, I don't know how common it is. It's considered by most to be a stringency, and great rabbonim have ruled that it's not required. The idea is that maybe some part of the matzah wasn't properly mixed with water, and thus, might become leavened. In practice, this means not using matzah meal as an ingredient or as a substitute in recipes. (No matzah ball soup! The horror!) You will see "non-gebrochts" recipes and products in the store. These products normally substitute potato starch for matzo meal. If you're gluten-free, Pesach should be your favorite time of year! Stock up! Better yet, wait until the week after Pesach and buy everything on sale (don't count on the store knowing the exact day Pesach ends. This is no after-Easter candy sale!)

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Fast of the Firstborn

Sunrise to sunset on April 18 this year is the Fast of the Firstborn.

This fast commemorates the saving of the Israelite firstborns from the final plague: death of the firstborn. All the firstborns of Egypt, the children of the garbage man to the baker to Pharaoh himself, died.

Only certain firstborns are required to fast. There are three requirements: (1) A male (2) firstborn (3) over bar mitzvah age. If the male firstborn is under bar mitzvah age, the father generally fasts on his behalf. If you are the first son but have an older sister, you are not a qualifying firstborn. There are differences of opinion when the person is (a) the firstborn of only the father (aka, the mother had a child previously), (b) a convert, or (c) born through cesarean section (C-section). If you are the second son when the first son passed away during the first 30 days of life, you are obligated to fast.

Just because you're obligated to fast doesn't mean that you will actually fast all day. It is common practice to break the Fast of the Firstborn at a festive seudah (meal) after the morning service (shacharis). If there is a bris (circumcision) or redemption of a firstborn, that seudah can count. Typically, the synagogue will host a siyum, which is a festive meal celebrating the completion of a tractate of Talmud. You need to hear the completion of the tractate and understand it. I'm not sure what qualifies as understanding it, so that is a question for your rabbi.

Of course, if you are otherwise exempt from fasting because of health reasons, you are not obligated to fast.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Management Update: Book List is Back

I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but I just discovered that my book list has been missing from my blog for the last few months! It should now appear on the bar at the top of the blog.

Shabbat Shalom! The Pets and Pesach Edition

Using the Star K's kosher-for-Pesach pet food list, I finally purchased my pet food for Pesach. For eight days and three upset pet tummies, I spent $70 on Science Diet food. The other brand (Blue Wilderness) would have been $100. I'm a little shocked, as you might imagine. One more reason orthodoxy is expensive!

On the other hand, I'm incredibly amused that even though I am Ashkenazi, I can feed my pets kitniyot on Pesach, bwahaha... I guess I never thought about "possessing" kitniyot because I automatically group kitniyot with chametz.

If you're a fellow pet-owner, try to purchase somewhat more pet food than you'll need for Passover so that you can gradually introduce the new food to your pet before Pesach begins and then wean them off it gradually after Pesach is over. This will help reduce upset stomachs and the messes that can result from that. Your pets will thank you.

For a good general overview of pet food and halacha (I'll be writing a post on this in the nearish future), see Pesach and Halachic Issues with Pets.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Management Update: New Feature on the Sidebar!

Just a blog management heads-up. I've replaced the "Popular Posts" gadget on the right sidebar with "The Conversion Candidate's Toolbox." This is a list of links to the blog posts that (I think) are most useful to the new orthodox conversion candidate.

You also now have the option of sharing my blog's link on Facebook or Twitter using links at the top of the sidebar.

Comments and suggestions are always welcome!

Halacha in a Nutshell: What Is an Eruv?

Halacha in a Nutshell is a series that does not aim to actually teach you halacha. The goal is to acquaint you with the general ideas of a halachic issue so that you can follow conversations without looking like a total n00b.

For many people, an eruv is an essential "feature" of any orthodox community. From personal experience, I can tell you that it is possible to survive just fine without an eruv.

On Shabbat, one may not "carry" an item from the private domain into the public domain or between two private domains. (Note that specifically, you may not carry more than 4 amot-a measurement that is, by most accounts, approximately 6ft.) What's a public domain? That which isn't a private domain! (Don't laugh too hard, this exact definition happens in secular American law too!) In most cases, a private domain is basically what it sounds like: a building or other small, enclosed area. If you have a fenced yard, it is considered the same private domain as the inside of your house. I don't know why every orthodox Jew with a yard doesn't have a fence! Apartments are more complicated and would require their own eruv to carry between apartments. (This is my understanding based on my prior living arrangements.)

What are the practical uses of an eruv? You can carry items to synagogue: prayer shawl (tallit/tallis), siddurim, other books, toys for kids. You can also carry food, drinks, etc, between houses for meals. You would also be unable to use a stroller to take young children to shul. You can't carry those young kids either, they must be able to walk on their own. Therefore, an eruv is what frees parents (especially mothers) from the home on Shabbat when they have infants and toddlers. I only recently learned that jewelry is an issue without an eruv, and a sheitel (wig worn by some married women to cover their hair) counts as jewelry for carrying-on-Shabbat purposes.

As for terminology, you will hear that the eruv is either "up" (may be relied upon) or "down" (no carrying allowed). In most communities, an email will go out over the local email listserv near the end of the week, and there is likely both a website and phone number for status updates. If the eruv were to go down after it was checked, you are able to rely on that checking unless you know that the eruv is down. This means that if you carry on Shabbat based on an eruv status update and then learn on Sunday that the eruv went down on Friday night, you're still ok. I don't know the exact status of that as an aveira (sin), but there is a key difference in breaking a halacha when you think you're not. Reliance makes a difference, just as it often does in the secular law! Some people use this to say that you shouldn't tell other people that the eruv is down unless you are the one who checked it (in case you're wrong or they might carry in spite of the knowledge-let them sin less), but that is a questionable position. You'll hear people say it, however, which is why I mention it.

One famous eruv "controversy" you may hear about is Rav Moshe Feinstein's ruling that Manhattan could not qualify for an eruv. There are people on both sides of the issue, but an eruv still doesn't exist in the Lower East Side (Rav Feinstein's "turf," so to speak).

And for a more current eruv controversy, check out this hilarious clip from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week! This kind of political battle over eruvim (plural of eruv) happens in nearly every community that creates one. Also check out the post at Fink or Swim! As Rabbi Fink points out, it's very sad that a lot of the opposition comes from within the Jewish community.

The other issue with an eruv: it can be expensive. There are government permits, materials, and the time each week for someone to walk the perimeter of the eruv to check it. If you have an eruv, appreciate it and understand the work that goes into it. I think eruvim are frequently overlooked when people plan their tzedakah (charity, for lack of a better English term). Because of this, you may have a separate eruv "fee" in addition to a shul membership fee.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More Jewish pop culture videos!

Remember my post about Orthodox Earworms?

Chaviva (the Kvetching Editor and the "other" convert blogger named Chavi) has posted a Pesach version! Check out Passover Video Roundup!

Enjoy!

Chodesh tov! What's Rosh Chodesh?

Yesterday was Rosh Chodesh Nisan. So what is Rosh Chodesh? Rosh Chodesh is the first day of a new lunar month. Depending on the month and year, Rosh Chodesh can be either one or two days long. The term literally translates as "head of the month," just as Rosh HaShanah is "head of the year."

Rosh Chodesh is considered a minor holiday, and it is the first mitzvah given to the Israelites when they left Egypt:
1 And Hashem spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying:
2 "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. ..."
Exodus/Shemos 12:1-2
That was the month of Nisan! And like the Israelites journeying out of Egypt in Nisan, so will we experience redemption and begin anew the journey to Har Sinai in the middle of this month!

But back to Rosh Chodesh in general.

When there was a Sanhedrin, two kosher witnesses would report the new moon to the Sanhedrin (a beit din), who would then declare the new month to start on that day. Going back to the diaspora post, the new month used to be announced by bonfires, and sometimes there was doubt in those outlying communities as to on which day the month would begin. Therefore, the outlying communities observed the beginning of the month on both possible days it could be. Because of this, every month has either 29 or 30 days. There is a calculation for that, but it's not important to know, at least not for most of you. If you need to know for some reason, check your local Jewish calendar!

The new month is "announced" in synagogue at Shabbat morning services on the Shabbat before the appearance of the new moon. On the day(s) of Rosh Chodesh, special language is added to the daily prayers and the grace after meals (birkat hamazon). There is a Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh, and Mussaf is added after shacharis that morning.

Rosh Chodesh is linked to women, and today, many communities have special women-only celebrations for Rosh Chodesh. Generally, the women will gather at someone's home with food, drinks, and either have a discussion or a class. They may also recite Tehillim for the ill, shidduchs needed, or others who need some sort of heavenly assistance.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why You Should Never Call Someone (or Yourself) a Shiksa

Shiksa is a Yiddish word that means "non-Jewish female." It's especially used for an attractive woman who could be a "temptation" to Jewish men.

The people who use this word in conversation very rarely know its real meaning: abomination. And the people who know the meaning and use it for that meaning probably aren't the people you want to spend much time with. The two other translations I've found for shiksa are "impure" and "object of loathing." It is not only pejorative, it is intended to be offensive and cruel. It's even used in Israel like Americans would use curse words to refer to women.

So...don't say it. Kochava said so.

And if someone says it in your presence, I encourage you to tell them that it is offensive and explain the meaning of it. Nine times out of ten, they don't know the origins, and they will be better people because you've told them. You'll prevent them from hurting someone's feelings later. It is ESPECIALLY important to say something if someone says this about a female convert. Not only is she no longer "not Jewish" (so it's not even true), but calling her (or you) that word is a violation of the mitzvah of loving the convert and all the other mitzvot related to respecting converts.

There's a movement to "reclaim" the word shiksa. Most notably is the book Boy Vey!: The Shiksa's Guide to Dating Jewish Men (oy vey...) and the blog The Shiksa in the Kitchen (the author has now converted). Coming from the South, I'm familiar with the efforts of the African-American community to reclaim the N word, but this reclamation would be analogous (in my mind) to reclaiming "porch monkey" or some other irredeemably offensive term. I don't think the word shiksa can be reclaimed. [To be clear, I'm comparing the efforts to reclaim a negative word, not implying that shiksa reaches the negativity level of either of those terms. Because by any measure, it doesn't.] And if I weren't so personally offended by the term, I would laugh at the people who try to reclaim it because it would be funny to see someone do something so pointless.

The male equivalent to shiksa is "shegetz," but it isn't commonly used. I suspect that many Jews today don't even know that word. While it comes from the same linguistic source, it translates as something closer to scoundrel or my personal favorite, "varmint." It's pejorative, but doesn't have the same venom as shiksa, particularly since it's so rarely used.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pesach Cleaning Accomplishment!

How are you doing with your Pesach cleaning? I finally got some done. The bedroom and walk-in closet are chametz-free! Maybe even clean!

The Ideal Passover: Go Away!

With all the effort that goes into Pesach, the ideal plan is to not have to make that effort! Go away from home and let someone else do the hard work for you!

There is big business in "kosher for Pesach" resorts in Mexico, Arizona, Florida, New York, Israel, and just about everywhere else Jews vacation. There are even Pesach cruises!

No cleaning and no kashering, and you get a 5 star vacation to boot!

Sounds like a plan to me. Except...that's not my plan for this year. But I can dream. And we can all start saving for next year!

Next year in Cancun! Ok, ok...Jerusalem.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Shabbat Shalom! The Tznius and Prejudice Edition

Happy April Fools' Day! Assuming you can call it a happy day. Personally, I'm not a fan because I'm a gullible person. Remembering that it's April Fools' Day is half the battle: I'm going to assume every person is a liar today.

Fridays have apparently become my soapbox day, where I write about whatever's on my mind.

Today, tznius is on my mind. The weather is getting warmer in California (yay!), which means that my tznius clothing is getting hotter (boo!). I've always been a very modest (aka, bodily self-conscious) dresser, so dressing tzniusly wasn't as big of a change as I had expected.

Honestly, my new concern with the heat makes no sense. I began dressing tzniusly full-time (as a conscious decision) last April, so I've dealt with the sweltering hot summer already. (Last summer had many days with 110+ degree weather!) I don't know why I'm worrying about this when I know better. I'll be just fine, despite the disbelief of my skin-bearing friends. I wondered whether anyone would notice or whether I would look unusual in the hot California weather in my sweater sets. Because it is relevant, you should know that I dress to a pretty strict tznius level: elbows covered, high necklines, and skirts below the knees and with no slits. (However, pantyhose are evil.)

So all this had me thinking, particularly when combined with a potential shomer negiah mindfield today. It didn't come up today, but people are often surprised that I am shomer negiah or purposely dressing tzniusly. (A key piece of advice: You don't have to be a jerk about it!) I thought about how differently people might treat me if I were male, and thus, wore a kippah (yarmulke) as I became observant. I think I would be viewed very differently on campus. Being on a law school campus and in professional employment, my tznius wardrobe isn't out of place at all. My classmates generally think I'm coming from work, and approximately 90% of my wardrobe is fine for business casual use. How would things be different if I lived a less "professional" lifestyle? I thought these changes would be huge, but they've been a blip on the radar. Your mileage can, and will, vary.

Perhaps as a reaction to these thoughts about how different things could be, I've worn my star of David to work for the first time this week. Normally, I avoid wearing anything to work that would identify me as a Jew in order to avoid any prejudices my clients may have. After all, a lawyer (and future lawyer) should appear neutral, and I have to do whatever I can to inspire my clients' trust. There's no reason to unnecessarily alienate a client based upon his or her prejudices. (On the other hand, do I really want the business of someone who hates me? I suppose I won't be able to be picky as a new lawyer.) As a future professional, I've seriously considered keeping my English name and maiden name as my professional name simply because it inspires little prejudice. It's even gender neutral! (Of course, already being published under that name is also a serious reason to keep it as a professional name.) These are the dilemmas that converts face, I suppose.

On the other hand, while my appearance and behavior isn't considered unusual in my school and employment, I was asked in Starbucks in NYC where the boundaries of the eruv are. From the perspective of another orthodox Jew, this total stranger looked like someone who would know the local eruv. To be fair, even though I don't live in the area, I could still answer the question :D

All very interesting to think about. To me, anyway. Perspective is everything, folks.

In other news, Pesach cleaning isn't going so well. Chametz eating, on the other hand, is going quite well. After several weeks, my appetite is finally back and the stress nausea is gone.

Shabbat shalom!