Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Review: Becoming Jewish by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben

I'll spoil the end of the review for you: Don't buy this book. It will do you more harm than good, whether you're reform or orthodox or whatever else. 

Disclaimers. Because I'm Not an Expert.
I received this book for free, but not to review it. I received it in a overflow book giveaway arranged each year by the Jewish Book Council. I read an "uncorrected page proofs" edition of the book. That means that some things may have changed from what I quote below, but as I am not a professional reviewer or doing this for any kind of personal benefit, I am not finding a final copy to make sure the quotes are exactly what was finally sold in stores. Besides, it's unnecessary, as my point is that there are pervasive errors and misstatements throughout the book, so the details of those mistakes aren't actually important. However, I don't think any significant changes have been made to the page proofs, as you can read from Prof. Wikipedia: "Proofs issued in the proofreading and copy-editing review phase are called galleys or galley proofs; proofs created in a near-final version for editing and checking purposes are called page proofs. In the page-proof stage, mistakes are supposed to have been corrected; to correct a mistake at this stage is expensive, and authors are discouraged from making many changes to page proofs."

I receive no benefit from this review other than the inner calm created by venting my rage at the use and abuse of conversion candidates as "easy money" who can be milked with a half-assed attempt at a book. It's pretty and well-written; their marketing has been honed to an artform, but they forgot that marketing ultimately fails if there's no substance.

So...on to the review.

Becoming Jewish: Ur Doin It Rong
"Our goal is to deliver a practical book with insider information that demystifies a religion still somewhat shrouded in secrecy with expressions, gestures, practices, customs, rituals, and a language that dates back over four thousand years." Yet I'm a layman, and I can see the glaring issues with this book. That's worrisome. The problems are basic and pervasive.

The book was co-written with a conservative convert for the "insider perspective" and stories, but I decided not to attach her name to the searchable text of this review, as I don't know how much input she had in the final product. The text refers to the rabbi as "author" and the convert as "co-author," so I am going to assume she had less control over this text. Besides, maybe she doesn't know better. I have no idea. But a trained rabbi of any movement should.

The author is a reconstructionist rabbi who has apparently achieved considerable success in the world of interfaith families. Be appropriately impressed with this factoid: "Dr. Reuben was once referred to as 'the most famous rabbi in the world' when he was seen by millions on live television officiating the vow renewal of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne on New Year’s Eve 2003." I noted a distinct focus on public action and spectacle being the "true" experience of Judaism, and I think this bio reflects that worldview, focusing on prestige and fame as the hallmarks of legitimacy and authority. Produce a pretty book with reasonable-sounding writing and a snazzy cover, and people who don't know any better will buy it. I'm sorry to have to call out someone who has clearly been dedicated to the rabbinic profession for many years, but for someone with this much experience, it baffles the mind where this book came from. Was this really written by a ghostwriter, and the author didn't bother to read the proofs closely enough?


Let's start at the beginning: the Foreword. The book is loud and proud on the cover that the Foreword was written by Bob Saget, a comedian best known for Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos. The choice to have him write this was clearly a marketing ploy that showed as much substance as the rest of the book. He basically writes, "This rabbi is awesome. I was born Jewish and didn't have to convert. Here are some jokes about stereotypical Jewish things. THE END." It's one page long. And then I quote the rabbi's acknowledgements section: "Accolades go to Bob Saget for writing such a brilliant forward." ::Facepalm::  Notably, Bob Saget's name is in font at least twice as big as the authors' names and placed in a spot usually reserved for the author's name. My guess is that they hoped for the exact reaction I had when I first saw it: "A book about Judaism by Bob Saget?? I must see what this is about!" And I walked over to the table and picked it up. For book marketers, that's half the sales battle, and I think this was a cheap visual trick to increase sales. You can see the picture of the cover below and come to your own conclusions.

I marked over 40 of these factual errors as bad enough to groan at. The rabbi may be a great reconstructionist rabbi for all I know, but he appears to have a superficial (and sometimes blatantly incorrect) understanding of Jewish tradition and law. Here is the cover and my annotations of groan-worthy errors:


The Blind Converting the Blind: How to Make Your Eyes Bleed in 40 Easy Steps
So let's go through some of these errors. Again, the point isn't really specific to the errors. It's the fact that the errors are so basic and pervasive that makes this book so terrible. Again, as a reminder, these may not be the exact quotes that appear in the store copies. However, they shouldn't be much different either.

  • "Before that [conversion], you'll learn about holidays where you blow a hollowed-out ram's horn. Then you'll spend a week outside in a see-through shack and shake an oversized lemon and some branches. Next you'll wear a costume and make a ruckus every time someone mentions the bad guy's name. Soon you'll spin a top to memorialize war and light a bunch of candles while reciting prayers in Hebrew. Later you'll eat a bland cracker and a funky-tasting fish while reflecting on how our people were slaves in Egypt."
Anything strike you as off there? Oh yeah, the holidays are out of order.

  • "Many kosher kitchens have dual refrigerators, utensils, plates, and dishwashers - one for meat and one for dairy."
Two fridges? I have yet to see a kosher kitchen (a non-commercial kitchen) with two fridges. If you study anything about kashrut, you immediately learn that there has to be some heat to transfer the "taste" of meat or dairy, and that makes the fridge an unlikely candidate for a "mixing" issue. What's next, separate trash cans?

  • [Discussing the development of the modern Jewish wedding ceremony] "A family would hold a simple betrothal ceremony where the bride and groom were legally pledged to one another in the presence of witnesses who would sign a ketubah. Then the families of the bride and groom would have about a year to prepare for the wedding."
As someone who says he has performed many Jewish weddings, this total mishmashing of the wedding tradition baffles me. He is referring to the tannaim, the betrothal agreement. And he doesn't even get it right. During the betrothal, it was the fathers (or families, whatever) that signed the tannaim, not witnesses. The historical tannaim (as I understand it) usually set practical details like wedding date, location, and who pays for what. The ketubah is the legal document that signifies that the wedding actually happened and thus the couple is married, not betrothed. In traditional wedding ceremonies, both contracts are still completed. (An example of when the tannaim isn't signed: my wedding did not have a tannaim, as my family is not Jewish, and thus could not enter into the contract. Yay halacha. So we skipped it, and that's also perfectly kosher. However, skipping the ketubah would NOT be kosher.)

  • "Grooms unveil brides in a ceremony called a badeken to ensure the right person is present."
They veil the bride, not unveil her. Again, how many Jewish weddings has this guy done? This seems like a petty thing to point out, I admit, but this is often the most beautiful and touching part of a wedding ceremony. You don't forget it.

Wait! Can't forget to throw in a passive aggressive jab at the stupidity of traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies: "Of course, having the bride circle the groom was also a symbol of the bride leaving her father's home for her husband's, and as such is fundamentally a sexist, male-centered symbol." Maybe I misunderstood the part of the rabbi's acknowledgements that said, "It [the book] outlines the many paths to Judaism so you can avoid mismatched expectations and instead identify the denomination that best suits your life. You wouldn't choose a partner with tentacles and fins, so why bank on a movement that's as foreign to you as intergalactic space travel? Remember, each path is lined with plenty of challah, holidays, community, and God, so you can't go wrong as long as the level of observance works for you." Unless that means being an oppressed woman subjugated by orthodoxy. I thought he was saying this book would provide a neutral view of each movement, but now I see that I have tentacles and fins and that no reasonable person would enter this space-age world called orthodoxy.

  • "Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism are religions. Some would even go so far as to claim paganism is a religion. But that's a topic for another book altogether." [Emphasis mine.]
I find that passage incredibly offensive and condescending. Gag me with a spoon, as they say in SoCal.


  • "In the past, halacha (Jewish law) defined a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother. That has since changed, and those who convert and promise to believe in the most central belief of Judaism - God is one - can ultimately choose to be Jewish."
I'm not sure if this is meant to be a stab at matrilineal descent (still held as halacha by both the conservative and orthodox movements) or just a gross misunderstanding of the history of the Jewish people. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm not aware of any time period when converts/gerim weren't in the definition of Jew. It reads (to me) more like support for patrilineal descent that lost track of its point as the sentence continued. 


  • "There is no getting around learning Hebrew if you are converting to the Orthodox or Conservative movement. Honestly, you'll feel like a third wheel when others around you are repeating the V'ahavta, the Aleinu, or the Kaddish and you're speechless. [This seems to suggest only reading skills?] Those converting into the Reconstructionist or Reform movement are encouraged to learn but are not necessarily required to master Hebrew." [Master? That's very different from reading.] ..."Think of it this way: if you moved to France for an extended stay, chances are you would want to learn the language to communicate with the locals. Nothing says 'tourist' like speaking English when those in the marketplace are haggling in their native tongue. ...The good news is that most Jews you speak Hebrew with as a convert to Judaism will speak English fluently."
There is no mention in the entire chapter of the fact that most Jews you encounter probably can't speak Hebrew above an elementary level, if at all. And I mean that about all the movements. If you read this chapter, you'd assume every Jew converses primarily in Hebrew in Jewish situations. That is so not the case. And the text seems to vacillate wildly between saying reading is all that's required and conversational Hebrew is the actual requirement. This entire chapter left me confused as to what he was trying to instruct me, the hypothetical conversion candidate.  

More importantly, let's get down to the practical issue: the conservative and orthodox movements do NOT require any actual Hebrew language knowledge. You must be able to pronounce Hebrew text aloud from a prayer book, that is all. You don't even have to do it quickly! You do not need to be conversational in Hebrew. Yes, you will learn some Hebrew (and Yiddish) phrases and words because that just happens when you're immersed in them, but you won't hold a Hebrew conversation unless you want to learn that. I am aware of no conversion program that mandates actual Hebrew language training, though individuals may choose to do so. Of course, in the conservative movement, each rabbi sets his or her own conversion standards. There may be shuls that require this, but I think that's dumb. Yep, that's my intelligent analysis of the situation. Okay, maybe it's also an unnecessary restriction on conversion that probably violates halacha. 

  • "Modern times have brought us people that wish to erase the memory of the Holocaust and eight million victims by denying it ever happened."
8 million? I've never heard that number before. 6 million, of course. 11 million, yes. 12 million, sure. My Jewish historian husband says he's never heard 8 million either. So this wasn't exactly groan-worthy; it was more "WTF?" In the glossary, he clarifies that only 2 million non-Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis. Uhh...I know a few people who would disagree with you there. Also, I'm pretty sure the Holocaust happened in "modern times" and that Holocaust denial has been present since the Holocaust was in progress, but that's just being anal retentive.

  • "It's an interesting fact that the Hebrew words for bread (lechem) and war (milkhama) come from the same root. This reminds us that bread - sustenance - has often been the root of war throughout the course of human history. When the day comes when we have created a world providing sustenance for everyone in abundance, perhaps wars will cease."
What a nice dvar Torah! I wondered, if that's true, why have I NEVER heard that? Those are powerful words to connect, and I have a good memory for these kinds of linguistic comparisons. So I asked two rabbis: nope. Those two words do not share a root. Just because two words have three same letters doesn't mean they are formed from the same root word. To be fair, I made that mistake before and learned a lesson. But then again, I'm not a rabbi. 

  • "No matter which branch of Judaism you choose, you'll see that tikkun olam and social justice are centerpieces of the community."
Not true. And it even differs from synagogue to synagogue. So if you're an avid social justice fighter, this sentence will make you disappointed in many of the synagogues you find, and may even make you question their Jewish commitment. (Of course, I would imagine the author thinks their Jewish commitment should be questioned in this case.) It is a mitzvah, and it is important, but it's one piece of many. Not the "centerpiece." And even then, some shuls excel at it more than others.

  • "Upon leaving the mikvah (and dressing), your witness will accompany you to your conversion ceremony. This part is typically brief but is also the part friends and family can attend. Think of it like graduation. Once your ceremony ends, you are officially Jewish."
No. No no no. That is just wrong. You become "Jewish" when you are in the mikvah. You enter the mikvah not Jewish and exit it Jewish.

  • "There are even additional components of the soul that not everyone has. One, neshamah kedoshah, or the 'holy higher soul,' is a piece of the soul we receive when we have a bar or bat mitzvah."
Maybe he means "become bar or bat mitzvah"? Last I checked, no one said having a party and reading from a Torah scroll in a high-pitched voice gave you an extra soul. Then again, I've never heard anything about gaining another soul upon becoming bar or bat mitzvah either. So I'm willing to admit that maybe this is true in some way (and I just don't know it), but it certainly strikes me as wrong. It strikes me as the worldview that public-ceremony-is-everything, as the author said above about what really "makes" you Jewish: holding the Torah in public, not the mikvah immersion.
  • He clearly has no understanding of the conversion process (or the problems) in the orthodox world today. He makes it sound so clear-cut: Apply to the "state rabbinical council," who will assign a beit din. Take two years of group classes, and then BAM! Mikvah date. Easy peasy. 
Totally not how that works. I can't even find proof that there are state rabbinical councils. I believe he was confused by the name of the Rabbinical Council of California and assumed other states would have similar organizations. As for the classes, I can think of only two orthodox communities with group conversion classes on the North American continent. Even two years isn't a given. In most communities, I'd say two years is a minimum now, and that's measured from when you formally enter the program. There are always exceptions, but there are also exceptions in the other direction.

Why not take the opportunity to take a cheap jab at the orthodox? "[H]e (there are no female rabbis in the orthodox movement) convenes your conversion date." Let's not even discuss how that sentence is completely illogical. (Ok, I'll explain it just in case: You don't convene a date. You convene a beit din or you set a date. Maybe he had a brainfart and combined the two sentences?)
  • This one was just funny: [Discussing security/antisemitism/anti-Zionism precautions.] "A good rule of thumb is to avoid strangers that approach you at religious-affiliated functions or buildings or at your home. While it sounds extreme, it will keep you safe." 
...And you won't ever make any friends in that new community you're entering. If you're at a religious function in your new community, don't you want strangers to approach you? That's not a serious error, just funny.

The Glossary of Doom
The glossary implies that he doesn't know that Lubavitch and Chabad are different names for the same group. He even says that the Lubavitch ("a hasidic/hareidi group") are recognizable by their "fifteenth-century-style garb." He knows that means the 1400s, right? And that black suits and fedoras weren't invented in the 1400s? And that the Lubavitch generally don't wear the bekishes, shtreimels, or other "old world" clothing? And that those aren't from the 1400s either? Dear heavens. Is there anything right in this entry?? I'm not Lubavitch, but I'm offended on their behalf. Hey, did you hear? The orthodox have sex through a hole in a sheet. Really. I read it somewhere.

He throws out definitions in a glib way that could easily mislead people (and/or are totally wrong). He says nisuin is the "Jewish wedding ceremony," but it's the betorthal ceremony. Shiva is "the required seven days of mourning at home." Maybe you want to clarify that it's limited to certain family members? That could be helpful to not scare away newbies. If I had to stay at home for seven days for any mourning I feel, I'd never keep down a job. Yamim noraim are "the ten 'Days of Awe' between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur." I know it's picky, but it's not ten days between them, it's ten days including them. And my favorite, tzitzit: "Strings tied at the fringes of garments..." That's just...where do I start? 1) On what kind of garments? All of them? My socks and hat? 2) "strings tied at the fringes"...strings = fringes. I think this may have been another brainfart, and maybe "fringes" was supposed to be "corners." But after reading this book, I'm not sure I can give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Chapter that Will Put You into the Fetal Position
Even assuming this book were spotless and free of errors, I would still have a major objection to it. The chapter about the beit din assumes that you will have only one visit with a beit din and even says, "we won't say passing the beit din is a given, but you would really have to botch it for your bet din to bypass you." Possible reasons for such a "rare" and terrible outcome that you could bring down on yourself:
  • "You would have to present a deep conflict for them [the beit din] to have reservations about rubberstamping your conversion, like wearing a keffiyah, crossing yourself, or whipping out a BLT." He earlier mentions belief in Jesus as divine or as a prophet as reasons to turn down a candidate in the beit din.
First off: "rubber stamping your conversion." What a terrible analogy to use. "Rubber stamp conversions" are what everyone rails about! It implies you don't really deserve it; you just did X, Y, and Z, and now you demand your prize. 

But really. The substance of that sentence makes me gag. Overall, the impression I had by the end of the beit din chapter was "if you get to a beit din and they don't convert you that day, you are the worst fake Jew ever! You will never convert, and no one will ever love you. You will die alone. And your sponsoring rabbi will kick your puppy."

EDIT: I have had several comments from readers who say that one beit din meeting is the norm in the reconstructionist, reform, and conservative communities. I'm willing to grant you that, but that doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions. And those people should not be made to feel like worthless crap by someone who's never even met them or heard their story. This chapter implies that there is a serious flaw in a person who "fails" a beit din. 

Can you imagine reading this book, going before a beit din, and then being told you aren't ready? You will feel like a loser, an idiot, and be completely demoralized. This chapter is dangerous and may do a great deal of harm to conversion candidates, perhaps even leading to worthy candidates leaving Judaism. There are many reasons a beit din may not "approve" a conversion at the first meeting, and not all of them are your "fault." There is no shame in not "passing" the beit din. It's not a race, it's a process. It is not a "rubber stamp" on a foregone conclusion, not in any movement of Judaism. (Admittedly, I know little about reconstructionist conversions, but I would imagine reconstructionist rabbis wouldn't like to be accused of this either.) Rubber stamping is a common insult against reform converts, and it's simply not true. This author is setting back the fight for conversion acceptance 50 years by admitting to the worst slander against conversion and converts.
[An explanation of the keffiyah objection above might be useful for some of you. A keffiya is a particular kind of scarf that has become symbolic of the Palestinian political cause. In recent years, it has also become a fashionable piece of clothing, completely unrelated to politics. I own two really nice ones, one green and one purple and pink. I can see no other interpretation of his suggestion than political support of Palestinians being an automatic disqualification for conversion. Last I checked, a political position on Israel or the Palestinians has never been required for conversion. Nor should it be required. I am incredibly offended by this suggestion, and I believe you should be offended too. The idea that this rabbi would require conformity to his own political views as a condition of conversion is absolutely unacceptable and downright horrifying.]

"Here, bite down on this aluminum foil" and Other Excellent Advice
I also object strongly to a practical suggestion the book offers: "One of the first questions your family might pose is if you're converting for your love interest. [First, the suggestion that there is always a Jewish love interest involved? My eyes are shooting laser daggers at you!] This is a natural concern and one you will want to be prepared to answer. Having your partner there can reassure your family that this decision is 100 percent yours so they don't build up any unfounded resentment at your partner."

...Or it will actually CAUSE them to build resentment towards your partner and lend support the belief that you are being manipulated by him or her into seeking a conversion. I strongly believe that candidates with a romantic partner should always tell their family alone and in person (unless there is a risk of violence, and then maybe you should consider email). At the very least, this should NOT be the first time they meet your Jewish partner. It is my belief that the average family will be suspicious if a Jewish partner is present for the "Hi, mom, I'm becoming a Jew" conversation. Of course you can't tell them if you're being pressured to convert while the potential pressurer is present! If you're alone, your parents, siblings, whoever, can be open with you and ask questions they may not be willing to ask in front of a (near) stranger or non-family member. With your partner there, they can't even ask if you're being pressured without looking like a non-supportive jerk. Asking alone, there's at least a chance it'll be read for what it probably is: concern for your well-being. From their perspective, this is essentially a family matter, and odds are that your partner is not an integral part of your family yet. I think this advice is just bad news bears, ranked slightly below the advice to "here, put your finger in this electrical socket."



I suppose I'm done kvetching. Don't buy it. 

33 comments:

  1. Oy, I said I didn't read the book, but I skimmed it and saw that part about the conversion "ceremony." Ick.

    Good for you for reading these - in case something good comes along. And good for you for steering folks far, FAR in the other direction.

    You should leave an Amazon review, too, so others aren't deceived.

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  2. Thank you! I read this about six months ago and I had to go back and make sure I had learned some key points correctly. Luckily I had, but that will teach me to get the conversion book with the famous person's name on the cover.

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  3. EEK! Thanks for the warning. I'll be sure to not waste my money on this.

    I have just one question though, how did you ever manage to finish it without hurling it out a window?

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  4. Please post this review on Amazon. Seriously. I bought this book a few months ago, just to add another "resource" to my collection, and even I, a relatively new Conservative conversion candidate, could poke holes in the more glaring misstatements. Aside from the potential damage this book could do to the geirus of unwitting readers, it's a shame to waste $10 on it, and I wish now that I had read a review like this when I was deciding to order it.

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  5. Just to say, btw, that while I agree with nearly all of your review and with those kinds of errors, the book must suck ass, the "You only have to visit the beth din once" is pretty much how it works in progressive communities as far as I know. Your rabbi is the one who will say "you don't know enough, go do this, or this, or study this". The beth din is effectively rubber-stamping your rabbi's decision that you are ready - when I converted (British Reform), I had five conversion-specific interviews with my rabbi over two years and on the day of my conversion spent about half an hour with the beth din making sure I understood the commitment I was making, checking my Hebrew, and asking some theological questions. Pretty much what the Talmud requires!

    I've read large amounts of your blog, and I appreciate many of the beautiful aspects of Orthodoxy that I do not experience as a Progressive Jew, but the willingness to stress converts out forcing them to make repeated trips to the beth din looking for reasons to tell them to go away and come back in six months seems just mean. If you broadly live the life of an observant Jew (the hard bit of converting and only your rabbi would know whether you meet this requirement) and you don't appear to want to convert in order to make aliyah and take down Israel from the inside, then there should be no "stumbling block before the blind". This freaking out over whether you wear trousers or not is just silly.

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  6. Thank you for this review. This could be so destructive to the geirus of unwitting readers, as Elizabeth said. Please do post a review on Amazon.

    'Rabbi Yehudah used to say, "Be careful in teaching, for error in teaching amounts to deliberate sin."

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  7. I got this book from the library and it was not for me. Thank you for your review. It is important to have good information for converts . Thanks

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  8. Rabbi Josh Feigelson, a graduate of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah has a Dvar Torah where he says milchama and lechem do have the same root. Here's an excerpt:
    One of the keywords of Parshat Beshallach is really two words with the same root. The first is milchama, the Hebrew word for war. The second is lechem, which means bread [...]
    The juxtaposition of these two words that look identical, lechem and milchama, bread and war, is striking. Hasidic thinkers, including the Kedushas Levi and Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, have picked up on the similarities in the words in order to understand the relationship between them more deeply. The latter explains that every time we eat, a battle takes place between the holy and the unholy. Our eating can become an act of sanctification, reflection, and improvement; or it can become an act of baseness, coarseness, and vulgarity. If we take the time to prepare, to focus, and to make our eating purposeful and intentional, we can make the act into one of holiness. But if we eat quickly, inhaling our food and failing to acknowledge its significance, then we are no more than animals satisfying our base desires.

    For the full dvar Torah, click here: http://joshfeigelson.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/beshallach-5772-war-and-bread/

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    1. If they did, I'd imagine that other rabbis would have picked up on it by now. We've had some pretty good minds making linguistic connections over the millenia. One voice doesn't make it true.

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    2. They are both derived from a root lamed-chet-mem, but they are derived from two different roots compiled of the same three letters (in the same order). The reason you can have two different roots that are seemingly the same is that the three h's of proto-Semitic collapsed into only two h's in Hebrew, so the Hebrew chet actually stands in for two separate letters. Originally, then, the middle radical (root consonant) of these two roots were different from one another, but since Hebrew orthography can't support that distinction, it's been lost to us except by reconstructing it using historical linguistics.

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  9. I am laughing very hard at this book. There is so much wrong with it and it is NOT impartial about the movements. But there may have been a few spots where you were too hard on him.

    Pagini means 'country people' or as we might call them "am haAretz". It was a Roman insult, like "Rube". As Christianity caught on first in the cities, and the country folk held onto the old ways, it turned into an insult toward all nature-based/polytheist religions. Only recently have people started calling themselves Pagan as a religion. I think that is the kind of Paganism he means, not the actual religions of Biblical times.

    Second, there are beliefs about extra souls, not just Sabbath souls. Many Chassidic Jews believe Jews have an additional soul all the time, and the Lubavitchers teach that all or most Gentiles just have the soul that all animals have; no human soul. That idea does exist, though why a social justice type would embrace that, I've no idea, as it borders on a racist idea even to many Orthodox Jews.

    Third, I think he means that failing a Beit Din is rare because Rabbis should not bring a candidate before one until they are confident they are ready; "unreadiness" is an unlikely reason to fail anywhere but perhaps Orthodoxy.

    Lastly, relatedly, he is not kidding when he implies that politics may impact your conversion. The Conservative movement has been Zionist from it's beginning and does make it an important issue and i was asked at (in, actually) the mikvah if I promise to help build the Jewish State. If it's an issue you want to know more about, I'm happy to explain what I know. Here are the Core Beliefs.

    http://judaism.about.com/od/conservativejudaism/a/conservative.htm,

    Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, identifies and explores seven core values of Conservative Judaism in his monograph, "The Sacred Cluster: The Core Values of Conservative Judaism." According to Schorsch, the core values of Conservative Judaism are:
    The Centrality of Modern Israel
    Hebrew: The Irreplaceable Language of Jewish Expression
    Devotion to the Ideal of Klal Yisrael
    The Defining Role of Torah in the Reshaping of Judaism
    The Study of Torah
    The Governance of Jewish Life by Halakha
    Belief in God

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    1. Re: Israel and the conservative movement. Like the commenter below, my conservative conversion didn't cover Israel at all. The shul itself "supported Israel," but was careful not to advocate any political positions or "peace plans" because they knew there were great differences of opinion within the members. I think they generally handled it very diplomatically.

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  10. I believe that the 'lechem/milchama' connection originated with Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, although I think modern scholarship would see it as a fanciful idea.

    The bar mitzvah soul idea is just weird. I suppose it could be the next logical step in the bar mitzvah's change from being a legal term for 'adult' to one of the most important Jewish life-experiences.

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  11. Seriously, thank you Kochava for that review. To me, that was very funny. You had me laughing so much and I needed a good laugh. With such mistakes and superficiality, I'm shocked it was published. Why?

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  12. Amazing review. I'm disgusted with this book.

    One thing: to my understanding, Chabad was once a larger movement than just Lubavitch, though since Lubavitch is the only branch of Chabad still in existence, the words are now used interchangeably. Could that account for the Chabad/Lubavitch confusion in the glossary?

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    1. I don't believe so. There are other words in the glossary that say, "See Entry X" when they are related. The Chabad and Lubavitch "definitions" don't refer to each other and are slightly different.

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  13. I second Jennifer's suggestion of posting your review to Amazon, and thank you for this review.

    I agree with Mikhal-Sarah that requiring more than one trip to the beit din is limited to Orthodox conversions. A possible cause of this difference may be in how often you meet with your rabbi. I met with mine weekly at first, and then every other week, as part of my Conservative conversion. What I know of Orthodox conversions suggests that actual meetings with a rabbi are infrequent compared to Conservative and Reform conversion procedures. The "Intro to Judaism" class which both Conservative and Reform place so centrally in the conversion process is absolutely worthless, IMHO. It is so lacking in depth that calling it shallow is an overstatement.

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    1. I was very lucky with my "intro to Judaism" class that my conservative conversion required. Yes, much of the material was pretty basic, but we discussed it very deeply and even hit a few specialty topics I'd never studied. (For example, it spurred my love of Mussar, not the fire-and-brimstone kind.) They were smart people who generally did know the basics, and were able to discuss things intelligently and had interesting things to add. It had conversion candidates, Jews who were exploring their heritage (including a young patrilineal Jew who cried when we got to the "Who is a Jew?" question and she discovered most Jews don't think she's Jewish), and a Christian lady who was interested in learning more about Jesus. She didn't last through the course though. The statements of some students being dismissive of their previous religious affiliations weren't always nice. (I don't think they realized there was a Christian.) The most surprising thing is that the class was co-sponsored by all the shuls in the surrounding area except the Chabad: several reforms, a conservative, and an orthodox shul. The class was taught by a college professor who was studying to be an orthodox rabbi. He was an excellent choice, and was able to balance movement differences very diplomatically and honestly. All the rabbis came in to give a lesson to the class, some more than once.

      The Sacramento community had a remarkable level of inter-movement cooperation and respect. Sac had (has?) the two largest neo-Nazi gangs in CA (surprising!), so the shuls were hit at least twice a year or so. (Thankfully, they mostly had turf wars with each other instead of with religious and racial minorities.) The orthodox shul had been destroyed by firebombing about 10 or 15 years ago, with two failed simultaneous attempts at the conservative and reform shuls. Usually, there was nothing more than graffiti, but the community would come together to clean and repair the damage and have a potluck dinner. There is always divisive people, but the grand majority of the community was really great, and that transfered to the intro class I had. I don't believe it was worthless, but you need a great teacher, engaged students, and a welcoming community to make it work. I was lucky to have all of those.

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  14. "Upon leaving the mikvah (and dressing), your witness will accompany you to your conversion ceremony. This part is typically brief but is also the part friends and family can attend. Think of it like graduation. Once your ceremony ends, you are officially Jewish."
    No. No no no. That is just wrong. You become "Jewish" when you are in the mikvah. You enter the mikvah not Jewish and exit it Jewish.


    Reform and Recon, from my experience, are huge on the "public ceremony" stuff. I heard more than once that "once you say this blessing for the Torah, you are officially a bar/bat mitzvah!" I wouldn't be surprised if he, as a Recon rabbi, really did believe that the ceremony was what made someone "officially Jewish."

    It sounds like a terrible book, and if it were me reading it I'd probably put it down at "then you'll spend a week outside in a see-through shack and shake an oversized lemon and some branches." Is that all he has to say about it? (When did disrespect become funny? Did I miss that one?) He obviously doesn't think highly of halacha ("oversized lemon"..."see through shack"?!) Having the holidays in the wrong order wasn't my first thought at all!

    Besides that though, the jabs at the Orthodox and the lack of knowledge about Chabad don't surprise me at all.

    The "Intro to Judaism" class which both Conservative and Reform place so centrally in the conversion process is absolutely worthless, IMHO. It is so lacking in depth that calling it shallow is an overstatement.

    I can attest to this.

    I've missed this blog. :) :) :)

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    1. I added my two cents about the intro to Judaism class in the post above yours!

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    2. (including a young patrilineal Jew who cried when we got to the "Who is a Jew?" question and she discovered most Jews don't think she's Jewish),

      That's so sad! ;_;

      That's pretty neat you had that experience though. I've been to Reform and Recon conversion classes, and they were pretty pointless. I went to a Conservative "walking with mitzvot" class though; the rabbi was super smart but the people said things like "people still keep kosher?" That was in Hampton, VA..

      /my 2 centaroonies

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  15. Nice Article ..Thanks for sharing..

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  16. Lastly, relatedly, he is not kidding when he implies that politics may impact your conversion. The Conservative movement has been Zionist from it's beginning and does make it an important issue and i was asked at (in, actually) the mikvah if I promise to help build the Jewish State.

    Wow. That's very different from my Conservative experience. Israel did come up at my beit din, but because I brought it up; I was asked which aspect of Judaism or Jewish identity I felt was the most difficult to accept fully, and I actually said Israel in general, the Law of Return in particular. I went on to explain that this wasn't because I'm anti-Zionist, but because I have major problems with the separation (or lack thereof) of synagogue and state as it exists in Israel at the present, and finding a deep emotional connection with the Jewish state when I know that the Rabbanut of that state does not consider me Jewish is difficult. No one gave me a hard time about my answer at all (my rabbi actually really liked it, although we had had this conversation before). Aside from an Israel discussion in the Intro to Judaism class I took, the topic of zionism and Israel did not feature prominently in my conversion process at all. I think it could be problematic if someone cruised into a beit din and said, "I don't think Israel should exist!" or something like that, but my feelings toward Israel are very complicated, and it was never an issue.

    The "Intro to Judaism" class which both Conservative and Reform place so centrally in the conversion process is absolutely worthless, IMHO. It is so lacking in depth that calling it shallow is an overstatement.

    I think this can depend a lot on the person teaching the class and, possibly more importantly, the other participants in the class. My class was heavily weighted towards couples where one person was converting and the other person was there for moral support, and most of the Jewish spouses were not regular shul attendees. As a result, there was a lot of basic information that needed to be covered to even begin to get to a place where everyone could start discussing deeper issues- when you're meeting once a week for a couple of hours, that's a tall order. On the other hand, I think a class that was weighted more toward people converting totally independently (or as spouses of people more involved in the Jewish community), I think the dynamic would be very different. I do agree that while an Intro to Judaism class can be useful for someone who is relatively new to Judaism, if you're someone who's done a lot of reading or been Jewishly involved for any length of time, it may be less valuable, particularly if it's a class comprised of conversion candidates from multiple shuls, as it's not even like you'll see a lot of them on Shabbat or holidays to offer moral support or whatever.

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  17. All: I wrote an Amazon review already. It was basically the first draft of this post (and a much condensed version).

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  18. Too many quality lines in this post to pick out my favorite. Thank you for doing a service to all those that may have been flummoxed by this book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review. I'm still kind of chuckling.

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  19. Excellent review. I'd always heard that Reconstructionist Jews were pretty observant by non-orthodox standards, (am I naive to think that "observant" means "knowledgeable about Judaism in general and halacha in particular"?), so I hope this rabbi either knows his stuff better than you would apparently think he does from reading this book, or that as a Reconstructionist Rabbi, he's the exception rather than the rule.

    (We don't have Reconstructionist Judaism in the UK - certainly not in the relative backwater I live in - so I can't check. And anyway, Reform and Conservative (Masorti) - and possibly even Orthodox - Judaism are different here than in the States, so it's more than likely that Reconstructionist Judaism, if it were to suddenly spring up here, would be too.)

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  20. Ah, I borrowed this from the library. It was...semi-ish helpful? I'm converting Reform, so slightly more relevant, but I found myself disenchanted with it and with the Anita Diamant book that so many Reform rabbis seem to be beloved of. And the Saget introduction was like nails on a chalkboard. I appreciate their goal, and I wonder how much of what you have pointed out would leap out at me now, a year later and nearly done with converting. At the time I read it, it was more like OMG I'M CONVERTING TO JUDAISM! READ ALL THE THINGS! and so I did, and was excited. Those are some pretty giant oopsies.

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  21. Also! Having read the rest of the comments now (:)) My intro class was helpfulish. My converting rabbi is a very knowledgable, devout man and encourages the same from the congregation and his conversion candidates. He gave us lots of nuts and bolts about Judaism and the concepts, etc. Then we switched rabbis. And the other rabbi, who's a much bigger name, was really, really flaky. In the class on marriage customs, we spent the time talking about how the ancient Jewish weddings of yore took place in the market and how that was a public affair. Then we talked about doing brissim on the dining room table. And it was just generally dreadful and I spent my time gritting my teeth to get the certificate I needed.

    I've met with my rabbi one-on-one for about an hour each time...5 or 6 times throughout the year I've been in the conversion process. My beit din meeting is being held in the same place as my mikvah, and I've been told the setup will be 40 minutes with BD, go prep, mikvah, done. It's a relaxed conversation, not a "this may not happen today" moment.

    Though I do find it interesting that I know I will have three rabbis on my BD panel, whereas the other rabbi (from the class) is converting a friend of mine from the class, and she's been told her BD will at the minimum have two women who work for the URJ present, in addition to her rabbi. Whether he has two other rabbis in order to make it conform nominally to halacha (which is my rabbi's logic for doing it, I suppose to help ensure I have no issues should I ever go Conservative) or not, I wonder. Would a conversion done by a BD that is not of three rabbis in the Reform movement "count" in the Conservative, Kochava? Any ideas?

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  22. I swear I'm done - my rabbi would not convene the Beit Din until he felt I was ready to become Jewish. He is now, and that's why there's essentially a guarantee that I will pass (see previous comment about it taking place at the mikvah), but there's a reason he hasn't done it until now. To state otherwise is, as you point out, foolish and misleading. And a giant FU to the author on the use of the term rubberstamping. I've had to learn and grow and sit through class and have some really scary, raw conversations as part of my conversion process. I am really, really offended by the term rubberstamp.

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  23. "[Discussing the development of the modern Jewish wedding ceremony] "A family would hold a simple betrothal ceremony where the bride and groom were legally pledged to one another in the presence of witnesses who would sign a ketubah. Then the families of the bride and groom would have about a year to prepare for the wedding."
    As someone who says he has performed many Jewish weddings, this total mishmashing of the wedding tradition baffles me. He is referring to the tannaim, the betrothal agreement. And he doesn't even get it right. During the betrothal, it was the fathers (or families, whatever) that signed the tannaim, not witnesses. The historical tannaim (as I understand it) usually set practical details like wedding date, location, and who pays for what. The ketubah is the legal document that signifies that the wedding actually happened and thus the couple is married, not betrothed."

    This actually sounds like he's describing the wedding procedure that did take place in Talmudic times, where the kiddushin, which is a legal betrothal, would take place about a year before the nisu'in, the chupah/wedding ceremony. Today, things have changed and we (except Yemenites) do the kiddushin and nisu'in at the same ceremony, seconds or minutes apart. The ketubah is given after the kiddushin/betrothal part, and before the nisu'in.

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  24. " He says nisuin is the "Jewish wedding ceremony," but it's the betorthal ceremony."

    No, sorry, nisu'in is the consummation of marriage under the chupah. You're thinking of what can be called either "kiddushin" or "eirusin," which are basically synonymous terms for betrothal.

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  25. I feel robbed; I bought this on my Kindle last year...I wish I knew all this before I bought it. But, on the bright side, I bought another book about How To Become Jewish (And Why Not To), which was quite suitable and helpful for me; being from the UK and all.

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  26. I don't know why it offends you to say that paganism is sometimes considered a religion. Are you not aware of Neo-Paganism? It's a family of religious groups including (neo-) Druidry, Wiccans, Asratu, and other modern revivals of ancient paganism. I can understand that you might disapprove of them, much as you would Christianity or Islam, but that's no reason to say that they're not religious.

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