Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Liberal Conversion: The Gateway Drug

It seems that most orthodox converts you meet are also liberal Jewish converts. When we liberal converts begin an orthodox conversion, we all seem to think we're crazy to be going from a liberal movement to orthodoxy. But no, you're certainly not alone.

I had the great pleasure to meet with an amazing rabbi who has worked with many converts. He estimated that 60% of the converts he had met were originally converted through another movement. Personally, I would place the number at 2/3 (66% for you math-challenged types), but I think he would have a more educated opinion! Who makes up the other 40% of orthodox converts? My guess is that many are already considered Jewish by other movements, either through patrilineal descent or a maternal liberal conversion prior to birth. I'd like to see some statistics on this one day. But then again, I have an unnatural love of statistics.

Why do so many orthodox conversion candidates have a prior Jewish conversion?

When you think about it, it's a lot easier to "ease into" being Jewish through beginning in a liberal community. It's definitely less culture shock! Going from being a secular person to being an orthodox Jew is a lot like going 0 to 90 in 2.5 seconds. I can't help but wonder about their sanity! Of course, I suppose I'm no one to judge. I started in an orthodox community, and then since I felt I couldn't measure up to orthodox standards, landed in a liberal community.

On an intellectual level, I think there are real philosophical issues that cause so many converts to seek a second (or third!) conversion, whether we realize the reasoning or not. I myself didn't realize the philosophical misgivings I had until someone actually explained the philosophy to me! Then I suddenly knew why I had felt so uneasy. Converts tend to be very curious and somewhat nerdy. Also, as a necessary side effect of conversion, we learn a lot more about our chosen movement (and Judaism) than many of our community cohorts. If you ask the average Jew-on-the-street (of any movement!) what the differences are between the reform and conservative movement, I think they could only say, "More English/Less Hebrew?"

Basically, I believe that it's the philosophical differences that lead liberal converts to orthodox Judaism. While we can't always put our finger on it, I think we all become frustrated with the idea of "pick and choose Judaism." We can't find a better word for it, but that's the idea we get. Let's discuss these philosophical foundations of the reform and conservative movements. (Of course, they have philosophies on other issues as well, but I think these are the main sticking points for many converts.)

A) The Reform Movement. I heard our local reform rabbi (a very educated and charismatic woman!) give a lecture about the current state of reform Judaism almost exactly 1 year ago. If I remember correctly, there had very recently been some important philosophical changes adopted by the movement, but I don't recall if they were related to this idea. She explained that the current reform approach to halacha is that 1) mitzvot between man and G-d is optional (each person should adopt the practices he or she finds meaningful) and that 2) mitzvot between man and man is mandatory.

B) The Conservative Movement. The conservative movement holds that halacha is mandatory, just as the orthodox do. However, they have a different interpretation of the individual mitzvot. How does the movement make rulings? There is a head group of rabbis of the conservative movement who come together and debate halachic issues, much like the Supreme Court of the United States does on secular cases. And like the Supreme Court, they write an official opinion handing down the majority ruling, but including separate minority opinions. At some point early in the conservative movement, it was decided that each congregation could choose which opinion to follow, whether it was the majority or a minority ruling. For instance, everyone knows that the conservative movement allows driving on Shabbat. Did you know that was only a minority opinion?? (Contrast: in orthodoxy, there is no group to decide. Each person must follow his or her own rabbi's rulings, as he follows the rulings of his own rabbis.) As an orthodox rabbi once told me (paraphrasing from memory), "Once you can follow the minority opinion, you can do whatever you want because eventually someone will write the opinion you want to follow."

What do these two philosophies come down to? There is no right answer. No, that wasn't a rhetorical question; that's the answer I'm giving. Curious converts with an overdose of logic become bothered by the lack of line-drawing by halacha without a ruling. While the orthodox may seem crazy from the outsider's perspective, you have to give them credit for something: they all agree that all the halacha is obligatory. Where they disagree is how that halacha should be followed. That's a much firmer logical ground to stand on, no matter what you think of halacha. I think liberal-turned-orthodox converts generally value consistency in philosophy. If the orthodox's greatest "logical fallacy" is that they think all the laws come straight from G-d and are mandatory, that's a much more consistent and tenable stance than that of the other two big movements. Orthodoxy follows its philosophy to its natural conclusion, whether or not one thinks that is a good place to end up :)

Why don't more liberal converts seek an orthodox conversion?

Quite frankly, many are probably happy where they are. More power to them! They're an inspiration to their communities, and a nourishment to their community's neshamas :)

As for the rest. This is probably an un-PC response. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the Jewish partners of converts. I think batei din (orthodox or liberal) are the only ones who realize the true importance of the significant other. Converts usually meet a Jewish significant other either before, during, or relatively soon after conversion, but the convert may not have completely grown into his or her "Jewish skin." Speaking from personal experience, wanting to grow in Judaism with an apathetic Jewish partner can bring out the foundational cracks in a relationship in ways normally only the birth of a first child can do. As they say, "an argument about the drapes is rarely about the drapes"! Then you're faced with a pretty awful decision: do you want to risk your relationship on religious changes you might not even like? It sure is a lot safer to stay in a religious place that no longer quite fits than to risk your relationship, particularly if you already have children! I do not envy that position.

Monday, November 29, 2010

I'm ready for Hanukah, are you??

A package of Hanukah gifts arrived in the mail from my parents today! So I decided it was time to get ready for Wednesday night!

Awkward Moments: When You're Not Sure Who's Shomer Negiah

One of the more awkward "unwritten rules" for converts to learn is shomer negiah. People just tell you not to touch men or women, but with little to no details. Or worse, they only tell women not to offer their hand to the rabbi for a handshake! Few people take the time to explain it.

The natural consequence of this lack of knowledge is in social situations. It's not polite (even by Jewish standards) to just start asking "Alright, who's shomer negiah here? You? To what degree?" Yes, remember that some people and some groups have their own standards (or younger/single people and our "rationalizations"). They don't even have to make sense, but they're the rules people come up with for themselves.

The result of this rare island of Jewish politeness is that you should just assume everyone else is shomer negiah unless you actually know otherwise. Don't make assumptions or go on gossip. Because if someone tells you one thing, you touch that person, and then they tell you they're shomer negiah, you're going to feel like a jerk.

How does this play out in real life? On my Birthright trip, everyone assumed that everyone else was shomer negiah. Coming from a part of the world that doesn't seem to have any concept of shomer negiah, that was weird enough for me! However, near the end of the trip, people began to be comfortable enough to speak about it, and it turned out that many people were not shomer negiah, even though I was convinced otherwise!

The "take away"? If you're around orthodox Jews, don't touch the opposite sex. It'll work itself out from there. And you'll always be "right."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Reason #834 You Know You're Crazy: Hebrew Jewelry

I'm really beginning to hate Hebrew language jewelry.

I received a "chai" (Hebrew for "life") necklace for Conversion 1.0, which is really nice and I enjoy it. However, my necklaces share a chain, and I inevitably forget how to put the chai charm on the chain so that it will face the correct direction. I probably spent 10 minutes in front of the mirror, trying to rotate it in my mind to see if it read correctly. Since it's such a short word, it felt even harder.

About a week later, I realized that I had chosen wrong.

You know what's awesome about living in a very small Jewish community? Only 1 out of 500 people I see regularly knows the difference!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Reason #92 You Know You're Crazy: The Only People Who Don't Think You're Crazy Are the Mormons

Reason #92 You Know You're Crazy:

I live in a very small Jewish community. As far as I'm aware, I'm the only observant Jew on my campus. And the only people who haven't batted an eyelash at my lifestyle changes have been my Mormon classmates! In fact, they've been the most curious and supportive!

I imagine that it's not just because they're super nice people. Mormons also get a lot of flack for taking on "strange" and "old fashioned" rules. We also suffer a lot of stereotypes and misunderstandings. But perhaps our most basic commonality is that both our groups are trying to make an ideal society within the greater secular society. That means we've got a lot in common, even if the details are different.

But I'm just happy to see people on a daily basis who don't think I'm crazy! You guys rock! Thank you for helping me feel normal :D

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Just wanted to share an article...

Here's a really wonderful article by Rucheli: The Back of the Bus.

For those of you who don't know, there are some buses in Israel (and a couple in America) that segregate men and women. I knew that it had to do with tznius, but thought it had more to do with avoiding accidental touching between the sexes. I didn't realize it had to do with those who have the minhag to avoid learning Torah in front of women (we're very distracting in our cuteness, which is not the most ridiculous argument for secular folks who stop and think about it)!

But in general, a great article about kindness, avoiding embarrassing people, and then applying that idea to your own life in a very thoughtful way. And I learned a lot!

Yasher koach, Rucheli!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chanukah: That Time of Year When Everyone Knows Something About Judaism

Dear non-Jewish friends and family,

I know that Chanukah is that time of year when you're so proud of yourself for knowing that Chanukah is coming up. Really, I'm proud of you too! But Chanukah is like the speedbump of Jewish holidays. I don't even take off work. And you all very much noticed that I took off 11 days of work and school this September.

If you want to help me celebrate Jewish holidays, I would love that! But stop making a big deal out of Chanukah. Secular society celebrates it so that it can feel multicultural at a time when it knows it is the least inclusive of religious minorities. That makes me much less keen to have that be the only holiday we celebrate together. Let's start with Purim and go from there, ok?


Have a happy Chanukah next week! Eat lots of jelly doughnuts for me!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Convert Confessions: Why I'm Not Afraid of the Shidduch Crisis

Didn't you know there's a shidduch crisis going on? Young women are turning 22 without finding a suitable husband!

I'm not afraid of the big bad wolf known as the shidduch crisis.

For the uninitiated, what's a shidduch crisis? Shidduch means "a good match," and today, people say that everyone over ___ age (depends on your section of the orthodox world, but definitely once you've graduated college) is having the most terrible time finding a suitable marriage partner. The world became bigger, and now people are moving to new cities and being able to date outside their neighborhood. This has thrown the traditional matchmaking world (for lack of a better example, think of Fiddler on the Roof) into a tizzy. People now create "shidduch resumes" that list the "important" facts that any potential mate should see before agreeing to a first date.

Why I should be afraid of the shidduch crisis:

First off, I'm 26. That's already old in the shidduch market, and I could potentially be 30 before I begin dating! 30 is the real crisis point, particularly for women. Less so for men, but I'm not as familiar with that side of the story.

Second, matchmakers are increasingly using pigeonholes to classify their singles. The most quoted terrible example is the color of your tablecloth on Shabbat. (For the record, I don't use one.) Everyone seems to agree that this should not be a meaningful way to classify a potential marriage partner because it doesn't really mean anything. Yet people continue to ask, so matchmakers have to keep asking. The convert's problem with pigeonholes is that we can't even answer most of the questions!
  • Where did you go to seminary/yeshiva? (This is a dealbreaker for some! At least converts are more likely to have an answer for this than the other questions.)
  • Where did you go to summer camp?
  • Where do your parents daven?
  • Where do your siblings daven?
  • What kind of Jew did they marry?
Of course, there is the great shidduch resume equalizer: What's your dress size? ::Shudder::

Why the shidduch crisis doesn't worry me:

1) It seems to generally be a Frum from Birth problem. And since the FFB crowd is usually married by the end of college or shortly thereafter, I'm just not in that demographic. No younger men for me, thank you!

2) If someone thinks that the color of a tablecloth says something about my religious practice, then I'm completely fine with that guy removing himself from my pool of potential suitors. Similarly (and as noted in Is There a Stigma Against Convers? and Shabbat Shalom: the Dating Convert Edition), if people are unwilling to consider converts as marriage partners, I'm equally glad to not consider them.

3) The shidduch crisis is supposed to apply especially to people like me: "older singles." I'll be 27 this spring, and who knows when my conversion will be complete? Being "almost 30," I'm supposed to have a nearly impossible chance of getting married, if you listen to the whispers on the streets of Queens. Chances are, my dating pool will be primarily BTs (and maybe other converts, who knows??). I'm okay with that. And as I've mentioned before, I have a quirky and "strong" personality, so being a convert should be the least of the reasons for a potential match to reject me.

4) Further, I don't expect to use a professional matchmaker. I would; I think it would be fun. But then again, I really loved speed dating! I'm more adventurous than most daters. My perspective is that, if nothing else, a bad date translates into a hilarious story. However, I don't expect to get to the point that I'll be able to use a matchmaker. Friends are already compiling a list of eligible men for me, and my friends will wait to see if their picks are still available when my conversion is complete! (Fantasy football turned fantasy shidduch dating?) A lot of people get bothered or embarrassed by this kind of "assistance," but really, it's means a lot that people really want to help me find some happiness in this world. And fun too! Because I'm very open about who I am as a person, I've been blessed with several friends who mesh well with my values and qualities. Quite frankly, I trust these people, based on their good qualities and their knowledge of me, to suggest good matches to me.

5) It's just as likely that I will meet my beshert on my own. I'm actively involved in my own life (yet somehow still resemble a hermit, I don't get it!), and my Jewish involvement has already brought me to nice Jewish boys before. (Did I tell you that I met my last boyfriend because were were both regulars at afternoon minyan? It was mamish cute!)

And you know what are probably the bigger problems underlying the shidduch crisis?  Lack of self-esteem and out-of-whack priorities. And meddlers :)

In summary, I'm not afraid of the shidduch crisis. And if you're not crazy, you shouldn't be worried either. Dating is a pain, no matter the demographic, but your perspective can make it a lot more enjoyable! You cannot force the process, so there's no point in worrying about it. In many ways, it's just a continuation of the limbo of the conversion process. Have the patience to accept the things you cannot change. Be a zen dater :)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Convert Confessions: I Hate Jewish Self-Deprication

"It may sound like I'm whining, but I'm just Jewish. That's how we communicate."

Le sigh, the things I don't want to hear at a law school lecture. Do other religious/ethnic groups buy into the stereotypes about them? You know, other than us stupid Southerners :) Jews certainly buy into the Jewish stereotypes. Self-deprication is a Jewish artform, but probably also the source of all the Jewish comedians of the world. But that doesn't make it healthy or right.

And that's what grinds my gears.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Male Converts Are Really the Crazy Ones

Personally, I think it's much easier to become orthodox-observant as a female than a male. What the heck are those male converts thinking?? Quite frankly, I think the mitzvot for women is exactly what benefits me, and the mitzvot of men are things that I think would not benefit me. Of course, drawing any line is imperfect, and some people may benefit from the mitzvot of the other gender. This is an area of the halacha that I don't know as much about, but if someone wants to take on another mitzvah with the right intent (as opposed to a general opposition to gender line-drawing), I would support that.
UPDATE: I just read a bit about this on Shabbos in Halichos Bas Yisrael. According to that, women are allowed to do all mitzvot except tzitzit and tefillin because those were specifically assigned to men. If you'd like me to post the sources for that, just let me know in the comments!

On a related note, it's very interesting to me that it's normally women wanting to take on the mitzvot of men, rather than the opposite. There are no men running to bake challah or light Shabbat candles. Perhaps this is because men already have more than enough on their plate, while women may feel that their opportunities are limited. My problem is that I'm content with what I have been given, so I lack the perspective to really understand the other side, though I can imagine the frustration.

The lesson? I guess human nature always wants to think someone else is crazier. It helps us feel less crazy :)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shabbat Shalom! The Dating Convert Edition

I hope you all have a wonderful and peaceful Shabbat! I'm not feeling so well again, so my Shabbat is probably going to consist of a book and my bed!

But now to my weekly ramble... (since that's so different from what I normally post! Hah!)

On the Aish website, there is a running series called the Dating Maze. As you might guess, it's about dating! People can submit questions and get advice. This week, the letter came from a woman who converted about 2 years ago (Dating Maze #321: New Jew Blues). She's 34 and never married.

It's a pretty interesting article, but only partially because of what it says.

I especially like that the letter writer brought up how people talk about how, if you're an "older single" and looking for an orthodox Jew who hasn't been previously married, you're not going to find anyone "normal." To quote her, "The dates I’ve had are simply not suitable – either they haven't 'found' themselves yet in terms of life direction, or are not yet established in a career, or simply are not functioning well overall." Even from my secular past, I'd say that's still really true. I've had more than my share of "non-functioning" first dates!

What bothered me? This letter writer has been converted for 2 years. She's not really that "new" of a Jew. And heaven only knows how many years it took her to convert! Here is a quote from the beginning of the response: "We usually advise people in such situations to wait a while before starting to date. That's because they're only at the beginning of an amazing journey and are still acquiring basic Jewish knowledge, developing a worldview, and discovering the direction in which they'd like to grow spiritually. They need to know themselves a bit better before they can decide exactly what they're looking for in a marriage partner."

If you've been through an orthodox conversion 2 years before, you should have all of those questions answered as best as they can at this moment in time. And I can guarantee she's got more than "basic Jewish knowledge"! Orthodox conversion is HARD. Cross-reference this morning's post: Is There a Stigma Against Converts? This Aish article really helps illustrate those kinds of stereotypes, particularly the one pointed out in my post's comments by Sarah, who has problems with people assuming she is Jewishly "clueless." Two years of being an orthodox Jew should more than qualify you as having a Jewish worldview and a spiritual direction. And if she's like most orthodox converts I know, she probably had 3-5+ years in the orthodox Jewish community before her conversion. Basically, this answer is for a BT. Two years as a BT can be a very short time, and if they mark two years ago as the time they became observant, that usually means that's when they really began. A convert has not just begun his or her "Jewish life" at conversion. It begins years before that.

What did they get right? Don't hold out for a never-married person over 30 in the orthodox community. They exist, but it's rare. So many people get married young by secular standards, mainly because there is enormous pressure in the Jewish world (orthodox or not!) to get married and have 17 babies.

What's disturbing in all this? That I'm turning 27 in April, have at least 1-2 years until my conversion (if not more), and people are already making me feel like an old maid. If I had a nickle for every time someone said, "Well, I hope you're able to get married by 30! It's so difficult for a woman after that!" Even at 26, I'm considered an "older single."

In the end, none of this debate personally matters to me right now. I can't date until the conversion is over. And quite frankly, it's kinda nice. There'll be more about this later, but the gist is that I can be selfish and take care of my own needs rather than worrying about the needs of someone else. That makes for a saner law student/conversion candidate/person. If I added another responsibility to my plate, I might just implode.

 UPDATE: I went back and read the comments below the Aish article. I found a particularly disturbing one:
Rachel joined the Jewish people for spiritual reason not to find a Jewish man, we hope. The state God calls you is usually the state you remain in. Not in all cases, but it does put it in the right light why a person converts to begin with is to walk closer to God's will. God's will for Rachel may be strictly a spiritual one, given the amount of time spent in studies and contemplation for some time, will greatly benefit and can be used by God for his purposes for the help of the Jewish people.
You read constantly that Jewish men are marrying non Jews, so if that was her goal, she would of had a better chance as a non Jew. Not trying to be negative on this, it's just that I don't think it's right that the moment of conversion, her first thoughts is Now to look for the Jewish man she is to marry, and whining that there isn't anyone. There are tons of Jewish women waiting in line to marry Jewish men, for we had been told too since we were old enough to be thinking on the lines of dating and marrying, this is God's will. Having a Jewish Soul, you are complete. A Soul-Mate is someone to join together with to further God's plan on this earth, not to make us complete, we already are.
So...if you come into the Jewish people single, G-d wants you to remain single?? And waiting two years after conversion implies that she was in the mikvah and said, "Mwahahaha...now I can go hunt down Jewish men!" How terrible to assume that she has converted specifically for the purpose of marrying Jewish men and that if that was her goal, she should have created an intermarriage! And on the practical level, converting at 32, yes, your first "task" is try to get married. The marriage/babies pressure is there just as much for converts as for born-Jews, except we get it from complete strangers (and rabbis!) instead of our mothers! And as a good Southern woman, "Not trying to be negative over this..." is the equivalent of "G-d love her/Bless her heart, but..."

Not to mention that this author implies that "Jewish women" (I suppose she means "born-Jewish women") have priority over convert women to get married to Jewish men.

Quite frankly, this kind of talk is offensive (not to mention cruel/heartless), against the Torah, and should be pointed out as such. Every. single. time. This is unacceptable.

Stereotypes in action. Oy vey!

Is There a Stigma Against Converts?

Is there a stigma against converts?

As you might guess from me starting this blog, I'm incredibly open about being a convert/conversion candidate. In fact, I don't think I've ever been in the conversion closet!

In my experience (over 6.5 years now), there is no stigma against converts today. Sure, there's the odd duck every so often (though I only know this through the grapevine). But if someone is going to dislike me for being a convert, then I'm not too inclined to make their acquaintance anyway. I will be better off not dealing with that kind of negative person. Also, if you haven't already guessed, I'm considered a "strong" personality, which means people tend to have very strong feelings about me. Being a convert is the least of the reasons for someone to dislike me!

But while I don't think a stigma generally exists, I do believe that there are still negative stereotypes about converts lingering in the backs of Jewish minds. To make an analogy to racism, racists have negative stereotypes about the group, but inevitably have one or two friends of that group because "they're not like the others." Similarly, born-Jewish individuals generally seem to love individual converts, but may harbor negative stereotypes about the group as a whole. Notably, these stereotypes are also held against BTs.

Let's look at the main stereotypes subconsciously held against converts and BTs:

1) "Converts and BTs are not suitable marriage partners."

This is undoubtedly the most hurtful of the stereotypes. Professional matchmakers continue to ask their available singles whether they would be willing to marry a convert or BT. This alone seems like a chilul Hashem (and/or sinas chinam) to me, but what do I know? The only time this matters is when one partner is a kohen because of the laws related to who a kohen may marry. And I'm ok with that. On the bright side, any man who says he would be unwilling to marry a convert or BT is not the kind of person I would like to marry anyway. Let them opt out of my pool, please.

However, this sentiment is rarely so obvious. Here comes a personal story! Be warned, this is one of the most hurtful comments that I've ever had, and I have a much thicker skin than the average bear. I was dating a very nice Jewish boy, and his parents even liked me! But one day, they decided to sit him down and tell him why a convert cannot be a proper Jewish wife. They said that, even though they liked me personally, converts have no traditions and that the beauty of a Jewish marriage is learning to combine your traditions to make your own tradition. They honestly believed this. The boyfriend told me about this, and I blew it off at first, but about 24 hours later, I was in tears. I have traditions! Converts have the option of choosing our traditions, but I also have traditions that are just "what I know," and I've done those things for years. It was most painful that people who liked me, and liked that I was dating their son, could still believe that I was personally incapable of being a proper Jewish wife. Basically, that's saying that I can't be a proper Jew at all. And that's what I think that stereotype boils down to: Converts and BTs just aren't "good enough" Jews.

2) "If you haven't been frum your whole life, you must have been a sex-crazed maniac at some point."

Besides the fact that the FFB community has its own problems with sex-before-marriage today, there is an assumption that any convert or BT is not a virgin. Even worse, there is often an assumption that you were promiscuous and have had many partners. This ties heavily into the stereotype above, but it deserves its own bullet point simply because even casual conversations may include comments that refer to your sexual past. Whether this is true or not is none of their business, and these kinds of comments must be objected to in every single case. It's not appropriate. Nice people generally don't realize they have a stereotype in their mind until it's pointed out. Let's be honest, most converts and BTs who adopt an observant life in their mid-20s or later probably are not virgins. However, there are many who are. And regardless, it is not an appropriate topic of conversation or jokes.

I'll share a personal story of the above so that you can see that this does happen. It was awful and embarrassing at the time, but it's pretty funny in retrospect. The place: in synagogue (conservative), waiting on the afternoon minyan to begin. We're all regulars and know each other well. I was the only non-grandparent who regularly showed up. The conversation turned to how I came to Judaism, and I shared that I had once been engaged to a reform Jew (a very long time ago now). Then one of the men said something along the lines of "She's had more Jewish inside her than I have!" Oh yes. He said it. And jaws dropped, including my own. Inappropriate. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't have corrected that kind of inappropriate statement, but thankfully, all the ladies jumped to my aid and chewed him out. From conversations with other converts and BTs, this is not that unusual of a comment, though people are usually a bit more subtle.

3) "This is just a phase, and they'll go off the derech again."

This is also an argument for why we're not suitable marriage partners, but again, deserves its own discussion. Of all the stereotypes, this one seems the most logical to me. However, having a practical perspective on life and people is different from holding a stereotype and using it against individual people. Sure, in any group of people who "frum out" (Added to the Glossary for your convenience) and turn their lives upside down, at least some percentage is likely to go back to their old life. That's people for you. But it's not right to make that assumption and use it against someone. Deal with the problem when it occurs rather than assuming it's going to happen. Who knows, you might end up pushing them to go back to the secular world by showing how closeminded the frum community can be!

In summary, converts are Jews. Period. No qualifications. It's a miztvah to treat converts with respect. It's also a mitzvah to not hold a conversion against someone.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Adventures in Semantics: Observant v. Religious

I've noticed that people in the orthodox community tend to call themselves "religious Jews." I really don't like this phrase. I'm not happy with the phrase "observant Jews" either, but I haven't found a better replacement. (I'm open to suggestions if you have any!) And if you're thinking of using the term "orthodox Jews" instead, that's not quite the same meaning either.

Why do I dislike the phrase "religious Jews" so much? While Judaism has a very specific meaning about what determines one's "religiosity" (one's actions), modern American society, thanks to Christian influence, thinks of "religious" as being a measurement of one's beliefs. For secular or liberal Jews who were not raised in "religious" homes, they probably (at least subconsciously) think of the modern secular definition of "religious." I can't stand the idea of accidentally implying that another Jew doesn't believe in G-d or have other Jewish religious beliefs. This is why I avoid the phrase and why I dislike its use in conversation. It's so easy to misinterpret, both by the "non-religious" Jews and non-Jews.

Why is "observant Jew" not much better? It still implies that other Jews aren't observant to our standards. Worse, it denies the observances/mitzvahs that other Jews do, even if they aren't doing all of them. There are reform and conservative Jews who are "observant" of some of all of the mitzvot (measured by Orthodox standards), even though they may or may not observe them exactly like the orthodox do (and there are probably serious discrepancies between orthodox groups' observances as well - see Rule #42 of Orthodox Conversion: There ARE Double Standards. Get Used to It.). Along the same lines, I dislike the phrase "Torah-true Judaism." Neither of these terms will foster communication or happy feelings from the person implied to be "not observant" and "Torah-untrue."

Jews are Jews are Jews, and I wish we could stop the semantics that divide us. The Jewish People could benefit from more conversations that avoided labels.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jewish News: Mike Tyson in Talks to Open Chain of High-End Kosher Restaurants

So...Apparently Mike Tyson is in talks to open a chain of high-end kosher restaurants. I promise that isn't a story from The Onion, but will likely end up in News of the Weird.

The Original Story 

The "Are human ears kosher?" jokes have begun!

I'm excited about anyone wanting to open up a kosher restaurant, and even more excited if a chain is opened! Chains mean they might make it to the smaller Jewish communities of America! I live without kosher restaurants, so I celebrate the opening of any kosher restaurant in the world! I probably wouldn't care about this news story at all if I lived in a larger Jewish community with kosher restaurants. But because I don't, this story makes me very excited. Could one come here? Could one open nearby? How thrilling!

However, since Tyson is involved, I'm guessing these would be vegan restaurants. I'm not a huge fan of vegan food (If I can't have cheese, I'd at least like to enjoy meat! Unless it's sushi!), but I'll take what I can get.

I didn't have a real purpose in writing about this article, but it made me happy. So maybe it'll make you happy too!

The very interesting backstory: Last spring, Mike Tyson adopted a vegan lifestyle and gave a very revealing interview with Details Magazine ("Everything You Think You Know About Mike Tyson Is Wrong"). If you don't like curse words, I suggest not reading this article because Tyson's words are peppered with them quite frequently, but in a very powerful manner. But overall, it's a very disturbing interview.

Hat Tip to Avi Glatt for posting about this on Twitter!

Convert Confessions: I Don't Like Cholent

I was born a bad Southerner. I didn't like pinto beans or fried chicken or the 4 million other kinds of Southern foods.

Now I'm a bad Jew. I don't like cholent. From what I can tell, its purpose isn't to be good. Its purpose is to be hot food on days we can't prepare proper food. And it gets that job done well.

I've had a couple of bowls of cholent that were decent, but I'm always skeptical of the cholent crockpot. Yet, since I'm not very smart, I keep trying it, thinking that "this time will be different." It usually isn't, but luckily I have two trusted cholent chefs in my life.

What's my point? Thanks to modern technology, it's not necessary to eat cholent. We have so many other options, but we cling to cholent because it's tradition and because making "the best" cholent is some true bragging rights.

Maybe we can come to a compromise - I made an awesome Mexican cholent!

And while we're at it, I hate gefilte fish. Keep that nasty stuff away from me!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rule #42 of Orthodox Conversion: There ARE Double Standards. Get Used to It.

One common problem for the newly-observant conversion candidate is when another "orthodox Jew" doesn't do what you've been taught "the law" is. Or worse, the first time you see an "orthodox Jew" drive to synagogue on Shabbat. We get so upset - "How come that person can still call himself orthodox? And why am I held to a higher standard than he is?" Yes, the Jewish authorities can't take away that person's Jew card, while you fear the specter that someone will take your Jew card away. And to a point, that's a valid fear. What is the result? A kind of double standard. It hurts, but with the choice comes the responsibility. But at the same time, by choosing the responsibility, hopefully you will find more meaning in it than someone who didn't have a choice. If you're more of a pessimist, think of it as one more thing you can't change. Either way, there's no point in getting upset.

Worse than the "halachic" double standard is the community double standard. You can't be the lowest common denominator of your community, whatever the place or movement. Converts are great inspirations to their communities. And, for good or for bad, you will be considered an example. You will be held to a higher standard. When you mess up, people will take more notice than if a born-Jew messes up. It's better to make peace with this now, long before a conversion. Converting to Judaism isn't worth it if you end up hating Jews.

As a more basic root of the problem, converts and BTs seem to enter the Jewish world with the idea that orthodoxy is monolithic. At most, we divide it into 2 groups (there are 2 variations I've seen): either (1) modern orthodox and chassidic OR (2) orthodox and ultra-orthodox.

Get that idea out of your head this minute! Nothing is farther from the truth. There are dozens of subdivisions within orthodoxy. And like with any human group, there is a great deal of inter-orthodoxy Jewish politics (even on the conversion issue, which many paint as an "orthodox v. liberal" issue). On the bright side, whatever "kind" of orthodox Judaism you could want, it exists. There is a place within Judaism that will bring out the very best Jew in you. You just have to find it! And honestly, that might be the hardest part of the orthodox conversion process. Correctly, conversion rabbis want to make sure each candidate finds the right "fit" before they convert them. We converts have a hard time with that requirement, in my experience, because we're willing to go with "good enough" of a community so long as we can be a Jew already! But when you're looking at a decision for the rest of your life, those rabbis want to be sure that you find your perfect place first. Like babies, we need the strongest possible start to our Jewish lives!

Here is a short list of the more common orthodox groupings. I apologize if something is incorrect or if your group has not been listed. This list has been compiled based on my (limited) experiences.

Modern orthodox: This is a philosophy that one can keep the mitzvot and still be a part of the modern/secular world. There also tends to be an emphasis on equality between secular and Torah education.
  • Modern orthodox liberal: These folks keep at least the "big 3" commandments: Shabbat, kosher, and the laws of family purity. Besides that, they may look and act like anyone else you know in the secular world. As an example, Esther from America's Next Top Model would likely fall into this category.
  • Modern orthodox machmir: These are the folks who thought the original modern orthodox took it too far, so they created a stricter version of modern orthodox, thus creating the split within modern orthodoxy.
Yeshivish: Also known as "black hat" Jews. Apparently they've also had a split within the yeshivish community where one side is more "modern" than the other. I don't know of any other way to describe the yeshivish community other than its strict emphasis on Torah learning. The men may study Torah full-time or at least part-time. This is one of the groups I know the least about.
Carlbach: These are followers of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach. They tend to be ex-hippies, especially in Israel. Carlbach focused a great deal on music, which means the services are very long, and you either love them or hate them. I adore them. Carlbach folks tend to be super friendly. Even liberal congregations will often have a "Carlbach Shabbat" every so often, and just about every orthodox congregation uses some of his tunes for prayers. Going to a Carlbach service is a rite of passage in the Jewish world, and every one of you should go at least once.
Syrian Jews: As you might guess, these are transplanted Syrian communities. The thing for converts to note is that Syrian communities will perform no conversions and will not accept conversions.
Indian Jews: Yup, Jews in India.
Ethiopian Jews: Supposedly, just about all the Ethiopian Jews have finally left Ethiopia. There are very interesting and bothersome integration issues in Israel with this community.
Kai Phang Jews: Jewish community in China.
Chassidic: There are approximately 40 or more active Chassidic dynasties today; many were eliminated by the Holocaust. I once heard someone describe chassidus as the philosophy of emphasizing the spiritual/emotional side of the mitzvot and observance, thus increasing joy and happiness. This is very different from the secular portrayal of chassidim as ultra-strict, closed-minded, and judgmental. Sure, those people exist (more so in some groups than others), but chassidim tend to be the most passionate Jews you can find. Here is a sampling of some of the larger dynasties active in the US today:
  • Belz
  • Breslov
  • Chabad Lubavitch
  • Ger
  • Satmar
As you might note, that's a lot of Ashkenazim. I don't know very much about the Sephardim or other communities, which I think it just a by-product of living in America.

    In summary, be wary of using the phrase "the Orthodox do/say/believe..." It's the fastest way to dig yourself a very big hole, especially if you have foot-in-mouth disease like myself.

    I wrote this post well in advance of its posting, and a few days later, Lori Almost Live of the Aish website put up a video on this same idea. I particularly love the questions she ends with. Going back to What to Do When You're Craving Treif, we should be self-aware of our actions, minhag, and interactions with Jews different from ourselves.

      Monday, November 15, 2010

      Dog versus Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov: Who Will Survive??

      Clearly, my dog doesn't appreciate good chassidus. However, the book put up an impressive fight. Most of it is still bound together!

      Of course, I was only 1/4 of the way through the book. Reading a demolished book is absolutely frustrating!

      A Good Piece of Advice for All Converts

      A rabbi gave me a great piece of advice about how to respond when someone inevitably gets upset about something (which usually has nothing to do with you anyway) and says something like, "I was born Jewish, what do you know?" or "Who is a convert to tell me how to be Jewish?"

      The answer? "That's irrelevant."

      I doubt I would ever be able to say that to someone, but I think it's a good thing to keep in mind. We converts have a tendency to imagine ourselves as second-class Jewish citizens long before anyone else does. I don't know if it's inherent human insecurities or if it's special to converts, but we sure do seem to have a tendency to underestimate ourselves!

      Sunday, November 14, 2010

      The Disasters Known as My First 3 Day Holidays

      This was my first year being Shabbat observant. My luck being what it is, this was also the year of the 3 Day Yontif.

      Rosh HaShanah and both Shabbats around Sukkot had 3 days of Shabbat and Yom Tov prohibitions. This means Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of each of those three weeks (within 1 month!) could involve no school, no work, no studying, and minimal bathing. The High Holydays left me behind in school for weeks. "Holiday" definitely doesn't have quite the same meaning for orthodox Jews as it does for mainstream American society! Let's just say that it wasn't pretty, especially the first 3 day yom tov: No one bothered to tell me I could still wash my hair and portions of my body on yom tov (and with hot water, no less!). That's right. I didn't bathe for three days. I was moody and disgusting by the end. That was not a positive experience!

      And it got worse! Yes, worse than being that disgusting. This year, I was the High Holyday Fire Alarm Curse. It began simply enough. My friend smartly thought to tell me about keeping a large candle lit during yom tov because you can transfer fire, though not create new fire. This way, you can still light Shabbat and Yom Tov candles once the yom tov starts. Sure enough, I came home from Rosh HaShanah services to the sweet sounds of my fire alarm going off. I have no idea how long it was going off or why no one had called the fire department. After much observation, I discovered that it had to be related to the candle, but I'm still impressed by the sensitivity of my fire alarm. Of course, you also can't extinguish a fire on yom tov or Shabbat, so I couldn't just blow the candle out since it didn't actually threaten to burn down my house. On the bright side, this resulted in my gross self not leaving the house for the rest of that first yom tov because I was afraid the candle would make the fire alarm go off again while I wasn't home. I certainly can't afford a $500 bill for an unnecessary fire department visit! But even better, it means that no one else got to experience the level of my grossness. I seriously wondered why anyone would be observant if it resulted in this.

      I thought Yom Kippur would be better. It was, marginally. Of course, it was better simply because it was only one day and was already on Shabbat, meaning no tricky three day yom tov! However, being the fire alarm curse that I am, a child pulled the fire alarm at the beginning of the repetition of the amidah during shacharit. Being the available Shabbos goy, I was drafted into dealing with the alarm company and fire department. At the time, I was happy to be of service because I can still violate Shabbat, so no one else had to. Later, it did hurt to have yet another reminder of the long road ahead of me. I also missed most of the remainder of the service.

      Take 3! The first two days of Sukkot! By this time, I knew I could wash myself, so I was not disgusting. You know, not any more disgusting than normal. This yom tov went pretty smoothly, but I opted to not have a candle this time because I was still afraid. Things seemed to be on the upswing.

      The home stretch! I flew to NYC to spend the last 3 day yom tov (Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah) with my good friend. On one hand, I was glad to have gotten a lot of mistakes out of the way at home so that I didn't seem too stupid in front of my friend. However, if I had visited her earlier, perhaps I never would have made the mistakes to begin with! But wait...what's that lingering in the shadows? Oh, yes, the fire alarm curse! A seemingly innocent food spill in the oven turned into the worst apartment fire alarm issue I've ever seen. It was so bad that we had to leave the apartment to let it air out! It was unfit for human occupation. I felt really bad for bringing my curse into my friend's home. I'm lucky she's amazing.

      Thankfully, I survived, and I was more than thankful to see the end of the 3 day yontif!

      Being the eternal optimist, it's going to be pretty hard for next year's High Holydays to be worse than this year's. But knowing my luck, it'll give me a run for my money.

      Builds middos, right?

      Friday, November 12, 2010

      ShabShal, Ya'll! The Early Shabbat Edition

      Shabbat Shalom, all!

      This is the first week of short winter Shabbats here in the US, thanks to the fall time change. I really hate when Shabbat comes in early. Not because I run out of time to prepare (heaven knows I don't have much to prepare!), but because I really feel the Shabbat spirit on Saturdays. When Shabbat ends at 5:30pm, I feel like I've gotten no Shabbosing done. Just when I settle into a nice book, BAM! Shabbat is over. There's hardly even time for a Shabbos nap! Awful, I tell you, just awful.

      Rule #1 of Conversions: You Can't Hide that You're a Convert

      You cannot hide that you are a convert. Whatever their reasons may be, I've known many converts/conversion candidates who adamantly felt that it was no one's business if they are converts and that no one has the right to ask them if they are a convert.

      That's all well and good, but they're still going to find out, so every convert needs to get used to admitting to being a convert and create some canned responses to common questions. Almost no one will ever ask, "Are you a convert?" It's much sneakier than that, not to mention almost always completely innocent conversation.

      We've discussed Jewish Geography before, and those conversations will be your downfall if you don't want to talk about your conversion. They always start innocently enough, trying to locate people you know in common. But then it gets more personal:

      "Where'd you grow up?" ...  "Oh, there aren't many Jews there! What's the community like?"

      Umm...I wasn't involved in the community.

      "So you weren't religious growing up?"

      Nope, sure wasn't. I started going to synagogue in college.

      "Well, what were your parents raised?"

      This is the question that'll get you every. single. time. I'm luckier than most. My parents were atheists and I had no religious upbringing, so I sound like any other Jewish kid raised by secular parents. Most converts aren't this lucky. After all, the last answer you want to give is "Southern Baptist." Once you do, the gig is up and you are exposed as the convert you are.

      Every once in a while, when I say my parents are atheist, the determined person will ask "Well then, what were your grandparents?" This is relatively unusual, but sure to expose just about every convert in America.

      Other questions that lead towards self-exposure include:
      Where is your family from? Translation: "Which little shtetle in Europe does your family come from? Maybe we're related!" Yay for Ashkenazi assumptions!
      Where was your family during the war? Translation: "How much of your family died in the Holocaust? Let's share war stories!" More Ashkenazi assumptions.
      Why did you start going to synagogue/getting Jewishly involved? This one is a toss-up. It could go nowhere or expose you for what you really are. Dun dun DUN!

      In summary, Jews like to talk about being Jewish. And that means they're going to ask you questions about your Judaism, and there's an approximately 75% chance that they're going to back you against a wall and make you admit that you're a convert. Get used to it and start coming up with canned responses that you feel comfortable giving to a complete stranger.

      Once the cat is out of the bag, 95% of those conversations will then turn to how awesome you are for converting and detailed stories of every single person they know who has converted. Approximately 3% will result in a confused face and the question, "Why would you do this when you could remain a gentile and not be bound to all these laws?" And the other 2% will be rude, condescending, or abruptly end the conversation. Your mileage may vary.

      Thursday, November 11, 2010

      The Most-Thought Yet Least-Asked Question: Are You Shomer Negiah?

      Disclaimer: While I've only been "frum" since June, I've been primarily shomer negiah for several years. I haven't always given it the attention it deserved, and being a bit of an idiot, I was shomer negiah except where it mattered: in my romantic relationships. That's no longer the case, even though there is no risk of romantic relationships until after my conversion anyway :)

      The Most-Thought Yet Least-Asked Question: Are you shomer negiah? What's it like? I applaud the brave souls who have asked me this question. It's a pretty awkward way to start a conversation, but I think it's certainly worth talking about! It cuts to the heart of our relationships with each other and how our culture influences those relationships.

      Yes, I am shomer negiah. In short, this means that I try to avoid physical contact with the opposite sex. As you'll see, I don't think it's a big deal. But I know it seems absolutely crazy to basically everyone I've ever known. It's certainly one of the less popular practices of the orthodox lifestyle, and it seems alien to a culture where people openly discuss their one-night stands (If you've ever spent any time on a college campus, you know this is true at least for the younger generations!).

      If you thought the no-sex-til-marriage kids were crazy, just wait until you hear this one! Even crazier to people is that this means no touching the person I'll eventually (hopefully) marry. Yes, the first time I will touch my future husband is during the wedding ceremony. No hand-holding, no hugs, no innocent kisses. This is a total 180 degrees from how I was raised. My parents believed (and told me from a young age) that people should live together before deciding to get married. And I took that advice once upon a time, and it seemed like great advice! As you can tell, it didn't work out for me (or perhaps it did exactly what it should have?). I'll admit, I was raised in the secular world, and it's scary to think about being shomer negiah with the person I'll want to marry. We live in a "test drive the merchandise" culture. But my failed relationships haven't been any better for that philosophy, and I don't think we ever knew each other as deeply on an intellectual and emotional level as the couples I know who dated following orthodox practices. The practice of shomer negiah forces you to rely on the deeper levels of a relationship, and you trust that the physical will work itself out. And to date, science generally says that once you get the chemicals going in your brain, all the physicality will take care of itself. If I have difficulty trusting Hashem, perhaps I can trust science?

      So far, my experience is that shomer negiah, like kosher, is one of the areas that can create the most stress with our loved ones. Why is that? Those two areas affect our relationships with other people the most. We share affection with our friends and family, just as we break bread with them. Dressing tznius or going to synagogue 7 days a week are fundamentally self-contained. Of course these internally-directed practices can be a stress point, but I think shomer negiah and kosher are the most outwardly-directed of the mitzvot. These are the parts of our life that we want to share with other people.

      Let's be honest: the key is don't be a jerk about it. When people make big life changes, it can be easy to become excited and (to be perfectly honest) a little self-righteous. You've had a major revelation, and why doesn't everyone else just get it? The conversations I've had with friends and acquaintances about my life changes usually evolve into a discussion of their experiences with other friends who "frummed out." Your friends and family worry about your life changes. Are you the same person? Will you like the same jokes and the same activities? Will our relationship change? What will we talk about? Will you try to convince me that I have to change my life too? It's important to remember that these questions are important to your loved ones because they love you, so their concerns deserve your respect.

      How can you infuse your observance of shomer negiah with respect for those who aren't? The very first lesson I learned from my very first rabbi was that shomer negiah is no excuse to embarrass someone. (Those first 30 seconds convinced me that this man should be "my rabbi.") And that's how I try to approach shomer negiah. Avoiding embarrassing someone is a mitzvah just as much as shomer negiah, and sometimes one mitzvah takes precedence over another. I think of this as almost a perfect example of that concept.

      As a future professional, I've made peace with the "necessary evil" of handshakes. I haven't inquired much into the issue yet, but my understanding is that handshakes are a pretty common leniency in the modern orthodox world. The basic rule I've created for myself is that I don't initiate physical contact with the opposite sex. I also don't put myself in situations that lend themselves to (or encourage) that kind of contact. Then I let the chips fall as they may. I've taken care of myself; I can't control the actions of others. And thankfully, no one tries to touch me on a regular basis, which means that I haven't created a script for explaining shomer negiah to friends and strangers. One day, I'm sure I'll create one, but so far, it hasn't been necessary. Though I'm not sure what I would say!

      Personally, what was the change like? To be quite honest, it wasn't a big change for me at all. I was raised in a family that isn't very touchy-feely. Thus, I'm not a touchy-feely kind of person. This means that I very rarely initiate physical contact with anyone, regardless of sex/gender. Interestingly, strangers touch me a great deal more than the people I've known for years! And sometimes, it's not as innocent of a touch as you might think. Unfortunately, I encounter the "lingering a little too long" handshake or back touch from clients with regularity. Most females recognize it on some level (because we're used to looking out for Creepy McCreepies), but we rarely pay much attention to the touches that seem "innocent enough." They're still unwelcome, even if they don't reach the level of a police call or a slap in the face.

      But just because the change was easier for me doesn't mean that I haven't found meaning in this mitzvah. I pay a lot more attention to my body and how others interact with it. Being mindful of myself and the people around me is one more way that Judaism requires us to be mindful of the physical world and our interactions with it. To me, especially as a single girl (since it's a whole other ballgame once married!), that's the meaning that I find in shomer negiah.

      On a physical level, it's amazing to me how much more sensitive I am to touch. It is as though my nerves are no longer so dulled by overuse and by ignoring the power of touch. I wonder if this is part of the "honeymoon effect" people attribute to the laws of family purity! I think it might be. And if so, the future could be awesome. Just sayin'.

      In short, shomer negiah isn't so weird. Most of us aren't crazy and/or brainwashed. And I'll do my best to not make it a big deal and embarrass you. I'm doing my thing, and I'll let you do yours. I just ask that you respect my boundaries. But selfishly, I also ask that you don't make fun of me or think I'm an idiot. I think it's the best way to live my life, and I've come to that conclusion through a lot of experiences and study. I understand that people worry that this kind of practice "isn't healthy." And no practice is when you're doing it for the wrong reasons. Shomer negiah isn't crazy, and intelligent people can choose to practice it without being brainwashed.

      Wednesday, November 10, 2010

      Adventures in Semantics: Jew-by-Choice v. Convert

      Am I the only one who thinks “Jews-by-Choice” is an unnecessary term? What’s so wrong with being a “convert”? For some reason, I like it, despite not really having another religion to convert "from." At a minimum, I don’t see what’s wrong with the term convert or why some people are so opposed to it, so I’m fine using it as a label for myself. In general, I find there is less confusion from Jews and non-Jews alike if I just say "convert" or "conversion candidate." Non-Jews, unless they have a lot of Jewish exposure, have generally never heard the term "Jew-by-Choice" before.

      On a practical level, it seems that "Jew by Choice" has become slightly less common in internet coverage/conversations (since that is my primary conversion resource) for the last 3 or 4 years. The acrimony surrounding the terminology debate has lessened exponentially since I began my Jewish journey. However, I suspect that there is a split between orthodox and liberal conversion conversations, judging from my own discussions with other converts and conversion candidates.

      As a principle, I buy into the idea that ALL Jews, observant or not, are Jews-by-Choice today. If you wanted to fully assimilate to throw away “being Jewish,” you can in modern America.
      If you choose to have any association with the Jewish people, even ethnically, you are "choosing" to be a part of that people when you're not required to.

      In my opinion, limiting "the choice" to converts downplays the choosing by the rest of the modern Jewish people. Having been trained as a linguist (my original career goal in college), one of the biggest ideas in the psychology of language is that the words a language (or a society/group/individual) uses have a subconscious effect on how those people think about those ideas. That is the principle behind the feminist arguments for "inclusive" language such as "he or she should..." instead of the traditionally correct use of "he" when the subject is unknown. I'm generally skeptical of many of these psychological arguments, but I acknowledge that I'm a severe minority in the linguistic world.

      In summary, what do you converts and conversion candidates like being called?

      UPDATE: In some conversations this morning, we've decided that the term Jew by Choice is trying to get rid of the stigma of being a convert, but that the problem is that the stigma isn't the WORD, it's BEING a convert. And by using a different term, you're still subjecting yourself to a stigma (assuming there even is one today, which is a whole other post that is coming sometime soon). I also hypothesize that the word choice might be a way for converts to distance themselves from ever having been part of another religion, since "convert" presumes that you "converted" from something else. That's my main beef with the word since I didn't really "convert" from something else.

      Tuesday, November 9, 2010

      Reason #12 You Know You're Crazy: You're Unusually Attached to a Particular Mitzvah

      Reason #12 You Know You're Crazy:

      You're unusually attached to a particular mitzvah. Mine is my mezuzot.

      I couldn't tell you why, but I bought a mezuzah case (and non-kosher scroll) in 2005. I knew I couldn't hang it, but it stayed with me for the next 5 years. This involved 5 moves. All but one were major moves of 6+ hours, but that mezuzah always managed to stay nearby, waiting for its day to come. Once I had a date for my conservative conversion, I bought a second mezuzah case for my other entryway that needed a mezuzah and two kosher scrolls.

      After my conservative conversion in February 2010, the first thing I did was hang my two little mezuzot. I had finally made my "Jewish home." I was living in a rough area, so I was very afraid that my outdoor mezuzah would be stolen or defaced (not for anti-Semetic reasons, just drunk college kids or strung-out drug-users). Amazingly, it survived until I moved to a safer neighborhood.

      My severe attachment to my mezuzot created a small panic once I realized that I needed to be Orthodox. I was afraid that my mezuzot would have to come down and go back into the drawer for the next 2-3 years or however long Conversion 2.0 takes. Understandably (and perhaps counter-intuitively), the first time I spoke to a conversion rabbi, this was my first question. I was terrified of the potential answers, but amazingly, he said I could keep them up! They will have to be taken down and re-attached once my conversion is complete, but for now, they can remain. And in fact, I have to add more to my new home.

      I realize that my attachment is silly, but psychologically, I feel a greater accountability when my home is identified as a Jewish home, but it also gives me that extra feeling of "being home."

      Monday, November 8, 2010

      The Importance of Support

      Today I'm writing about the importance of a support system during and after your conversion. Sure, this sounds obvious, but really, it can't be overemphasized. And not only do you need to know that your family and friends still love you and support your choices, but you also need observant friends to support you. It seems that many of us neglect that branch of the support tree.

      In my own life, I haven't placed great emphasis on having observant friends. Quite frankly, the observant people I knew weren't the people I would normally be "friends" with. I've only lived in two very small Jewish communities, and I've always been the only person in my age range (though now there are 2 more!). I really enjoy my friendships with people older than myself, but sometimes you need another young, single gal (or guy) to vent to. I just didn't have access to people in my demographic.

      So I've had to "make do" with my pre-orthodox life friends and family as my support system. Of course, it didn't feel like making do. My friends and family gave their best effort and had great compassion for me even though I seemed to have gone off the deep end of insanity! I thought I was doing as well as could be expected in the emotional and complicated conversion process, and that the process is necessarily a lonely one.

      I am relieved to tell you that I was misguided. After going on a modern-orthodox Birthright trip (which happened about 2-3 weeks after I finished becoming fully observant), I now have the benefit of young, Jewish, observant friends. It's like night and day. (And after coming home, I began building virtual friendships with observant folk, which has also been an incredible boon to my sanity!)

      When I'm unsure about how to do something, rather than bother my rabbi with a very basic question, I can call someone more knowledgeable than myself or who has more resources available than I do to find the answer. I'm especially lucky to have a nice mix of FFB and BT friends, which I think is key. Both groups have such valuable knowledge and experiences that have been a real benefit to me.

      And most important of all, when I'm having a "Jewish problem," I can talk to someone who understands. (And someone who knows I'm not crazy.) My dad and my local friends are amazing, but there are nuances they miss or I spend more time explaining why something is an issue than venting about the issue. And even better? Gushing about girly things that are tznius!

      All of these benefits seem small individually, but together, they make for a much saner (and much happier) Chavi.

      Basically, it comes down to having a role model. Not an after-school special kind of role model, but being able to see someone else in substantially the same position as yourself. I had a major revelation during a meeting with a rabbi recently: that perhaps the lack of a role model was a major part of why I spent so many years thinking "I could never be observant." I saw kids doing it, I saw young families doing it, and I saw retired people doing it. How was someone like myself observant? What did that look like? Why should I bother being observant when no one else in my social circle was observant? Humans are social creatures, and I was young and single. Cutting off all your ability to date (1. during the conversion process and/or 2. afterwards because there's not anyone else observant to date) and eat out with your friends can be incredibly intimidating when you're really not sure if this is something you want to do for the rest of your life. (Remember, when I started this path, I was 20 and going to college in a beach town! Talk about a place where looking tznius will make you stick out like a sore thumb!)

      Without seeing others in your position and committed to your goal, it's a HUGE leap of faith to make that commitment because you don't have the benefit of seeing how it will affect your life. I didn't have the benefit of a role model before deciding to become observant, but the desire for the goal finally overpowered my fears. And because I had to take the harder route, I've taken over 6 years to get here. I'm thankful that I found role models when I did because this help and support came just as I was getting settled into the business of living orthodox. If I had known role models earlier, perhaps I would have successfully made these choices years ago!

      Shoulda woulda coulda?

      Sunday, November 7, 2010

      What to Do When You're Craving Treif

      I suspect that everyone who has become Jewishly observant as an adult has cravings for treif food. (See the Glossary if you aren't familiar with "treif.")

      The question is what you do with these cravings. I suspect that most people divert their attention to something else and try to forget about it. Usually, this results in your mind subconsciously going back to the "forbidden fruit" in your brain. I would argue that we should embrace our cravings in order to understand them. And the earlier you are in the "going kosher" process, the better the argument that you should even indulge in that craving. However, that is a question for someone more knowledgeable than myself.

      What are you going to learn by embracing your craving and understanding it? I'll use myself as an example. I've learned two very important things from my treif cravings: (1) they actually made me feel more successful about my kashrut process and (2) they attack at specific times.

      The most unexpected realization I gained from examining my cravings is that I don't crave "necessarily treif" foods. My treif cravings are usually for foods that are not intrinsically treif (combining meat and milk). I crave foods that are perfectly kosher if prepared kosherly. Against all expectations, this attempt to understand my cravings made me feel great! I realized that I had finally conquered the desire for pepperoni pizza and chicken Parmesan! This also brightens my spirits now because once I move to a larger community (and kosher restaurants are my #1 requirement), I will be able to satisfy these cravings with no problem (other than gaining 100lbs and ruining my shidduch chances, haha!).

      Now for my realization about the timing of cravings. This will be considered TMI by some readers, but I think it's a great example: I generally only crave treif during my monthly cycle. Like chocolate, but treif! That's been a very key realization to me because I can anticipate the cravings and take action to lower any temptation factors. After all, there are no kosher restaurants in my area, so I need to make sure my house is full of kosher alternatives (especially "guilty pleasures"). Also, this means that if I have a craving at a time other than my monthly cycle, I stop and try to understand it. What's going on in my life that is giving me a craving NOW? What can I do to remedy this? What is my body/mind telling me? Often, I'm overly stressed or getting sick. The common thread in all of these situations is that my resolve is weakened by external factors. It's not me on the average day; it's when my ability to maintain self-discipline is weakest.

      So now that you understand your cravings, where do you go from here? As mentioned above, the best idea is to minimize temptation. At its root, kashrut is probably the most discipline-oriented of the mitzvot (in my opinion). I, like many people/Americans, have very little discipline. In fact, that's what kept me from being observant for so many years. Observance was beyond my ability to discipline myself. But like a muscle, discipline must be exercised. You'll become stronger over time, but there's no reason to encourage giving in to the craving when there are steps you can take to bolster (or support) your goal.

      Friday, November 5, 2010

      Converts & Fear: Is a Beit Din on Halachic Thin Ice?

      Disclaimer: I had never heard of the Vancouver Beit Din until this week, when I was given access to a copy of their conversion manual. For those of you who are also unaware of them, they are (among other things) a regional conversion beit din for the Rabbinical Council of America. This means (for today at least) presumptive acceptance of their conversions in Israel. (Lesson on presumptive acceptance: that means it can still be challenged and potentially not accepted.) Don't ask me why a Canadian group is affiliated with an American group; I'm just as confused as you are.

      Those of you who are not familiar with the orthodox conversion process should probably review the new page titled "About Orthodox Conversion." Also, the Glossary has been updated.

      I got a copy of the Vancouver Beit Din's Geirus (Conversion) Manual.

      First off, they have an exceptional manual. I love the concept so much that I could marry it. They explain all their conversion policies, procedures, and expectations. It's thorough, it's clear, and it's straightforward. In short, I adore it, and I wish every group performing conversions had something like this written out for their conversion candidates. I think it makes for a better and more standardized conversion process, a saner candidate, and less nagging emails to the beit din. This is practically the definition of a win-win concept in conversion.

      However, and this is a big however, one policy in particular really surprised and dismayed me. The beit din requires a "12 month waiting period" after conversion (the actual dipping in the mikvah) before they will give the ger his or her conversion documents. And during this year, the ger must continue participating at least weekly in a beit din-approved class. At the end of the 12 months, the ger must (a) again meet with the beit din and (b) again request support letters from the sponsoring ("assigned") rabbi, the weekly teacher for the prior 12 months, and "any Jewish community members or organizations with whom the ger has worked."

      To their credit (and proof of their awesome thoroughness), they list the criteria that the ger will be measured against: (1) "a demonstrated commitment to a Torah observant [sic] life," (2) "continued learning," (3) "community involvement," and (4) "observable involvement in all aspects of being Jewish." What happens if you fall short? "If the Bais Din is not satisfied after examining these factors or any other pertinent information, the geirus document will not be issued[,] and the geirus will be called into question."

      To be fair, this policy implies that it applies to every single one of their conversion candidates and, therefore, doesn't single anyone out. It also tells the ger exactly what is expected of him or her, and the consequences of noncompliance. These are all good things.

      On the other hand, it seems irrelevant to have this kind of policy (and contrary to my limited knowledge of conversion halacha). Assuming that the beit din is worried about people not intending to accept the mitzvot at the time of conversion, halacha has specified processes to negate a conversion that was later shown to be invalid. But on a practical level, if a convert is "faking it" for the entire conversion process (an incredibly hard feat in itself), what would stop him or her from faking it for one more year? They've probably already had to fake it for 2-4 years at this point, so why would one more year matter? And if that's the rationale, why not hold the geirus documents for the rest of the ger's life since they may go off the derech at any time? Can you hold a conversion hostage?

      To make a legal analogy, just because a law is well-written (and passed by Congress, signed into law by the President, and you're given constitutionally-sufficient notice of the new law) doesn't make it constitutional. But without a Sanhedrin, we have no forum to challenge these kinds of policies nor anyone to give a conclusive ruling on their "constitutionality." If you want to convert to orthodox Judaism, you will accept that you have to follow whatever rules and policies your rabbis give you above and beyond the mitzvot...or you won't convert. Or as many people do (and as I did), you will seek a liberal conversion instead.

      Thankfully, on a practical level, I can't imagine that many people will fail this test. If you've made it far enough for a beit din this strict to let you in the mikvah, you're probably doing just fine. (And your beit din's reputation for strictness can be very helpful for preventing challenges to your conversion later.) But the fear factor of this policy is cruel, in my opinion. Converts, especially those living in Israel or considering eventually living in Israel, already live in fear of some rabbi "challenging" (for lack of a better term) their conversion. Every time a convert moves to a new community, his or her new rabbi has the right to refuse to accept the conversion if he believes the conversion didn't comply with his understanding of halacha. And heaven help every convert mother when her child decides to get married and thus, must prove that she is halachicly Jewish. Of course, the geirus paperwork is usually enough...but sometimes it's not.

      These fears are (sadly) relatively normal/common and, for the most part, unwarranted if you continue to live an observant life (albeit probably still needing to be stricter than your neighbors). But giving these fears physical form (especially when appropriate halachic procedures already exist) just serves to raise our blood pressure and make us constantly feel like we're living in a glass house. This fear isn't limited to the Vancouver conversion candidates; any one of us who has not yet completed the conversion process could face a similar change in policy at any time. It reflects the ever-increasing "guilty until proven innocent" mentality about converts because of the conversion issues in Israel.

      As an example, anyone reading this article who has been involved with the conversion process (as a rabbi, mentor, or candidate) probably thinks I'm an idiot to have written this. And maybe I am; I certainly wonder if I am. The first rule of Conversion Club is "you do not talk about your beit din." (The second rule of Conversion Club is "you do not talk about your beit din.") This isn't my beit din, but you get the point: You don't bite the hand that feeds you. At least not until after your conversion, but even that would be questionable. (For instance, I've heard good advice that is unfortunately true: Converts should avoid being on the synagogue board because of the potential that they may be forced to vote on firing the rabbi that converted them! Besides the obvious conflicts, it could also call your conversion into question.)

      But if conversion candidates are afraid to stand up for themselves, who will? "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? When I am for myself only, what am I? If not now, when?" (Pirkei Avot 1:14). So yes, I may be crazy for questioning this policy in a public forum, and it may have severe repercussions. But who else is going to start the conversation? There are some born-Jews and after-conversion converts who seek to help us conversion candidates, but aren't conversion candidates the best ones to say how policies affect us and harm our sanity? It's too bad we're all too afraid to speak up for fear that all the beitei din will refuse to convert us. The problem is certainly not limited to this policy or this beit din. Fear is endemic within the conversion community. But since when have Jews ever not given their opinion?? Why would we expect any less of our converts and conversion candidates?

      This policy is just one more thing to help us converts practice the middot of patience and acceptance of the things we cannot change.

      Thursday, November 4, 2010

      Reason #7 You Know You're Crazy: Being the Inconvenient Friend

      Reason #7 You Know You're Crazy:

      You are the inconvenient friend. Your friends want to spend time with you. However, they are confused by kashrut. And you have no idea how many friendship-time ideas involve food. Inevitably, people are confused about what kinds of activities they can do with you, which is wonderful because they care enough to spend time with you!

      This also means that I need to be less lazy and think of ideas for spending time with my non-Jewish/non-observant friends. Because they don't know the limits I have, it's my responsibility to make suggestions of things that I can do without problem, while also being enjoyable. Of course, first school needs to chill out and let me have time to see the light of day!

      These are my ideas so far:
      Coffee dates
      Bars or restaurants with a bar (Did this one already and enjoyed a beer during a birthday dinner!)
      Movies (both at home or the theater)
      Dinner/meals at my house
      Outdoor activities
      Dog playdates
      Go to kosher restaurants, if available (they're not in my case)
      "Be a tourist" days/trips
      Road trips
      Comedy/theatre shows (we're blessed with several comedy troupes!)

      Any other ideas out there from lurker land?

      Wednesday, November 3, 2010

      The Real Question on the Orthodox Conversion Candidate's Mind Is...

      The real question on the minds of all us orthodox converts is actually "Now that I'm orthodox, am I doomed to own a minivan?"

      I sure hope not.

      Reason #35 You Know You're Crazy: Carrying Dog Poop on Shabbat

      Reason #35 You Know You're Crazy:

      I was SO ready to move inside the eruv because I learned out how to walk the dog without breaking Shabbat, but there's no way to get around picking up the dog poop and carrying it to the trash. (As required by law, apartment community rules, common decency, and angry neighbors.) Being the crazy conversion candidate that I am, I convinced myself that I would be a terrible person if I didn't pick up the poop and that it would make my neighbors hate Jews (be a chilul Hashem), so I just accepted that I had to violate Shabbat by carrying the poop to the trash until I could move into the eruv.

      That was the summer of the most guilt-ridden poop bags ever. Of course, I moved into the eruv into a place that has a backyard, so there's not even a need for poop bags on Shabbat anymore! Hrmph! All that crazy for nothing.

      In retrospect, this story is just hilarious to me. I think this moral dilemma ranks in the Top 5 Most Hilarious Internal Debates of my life. I hope it also gave you a good chuckle. But just wait, you'll have something just like this!

      Tuesday, November 2, 2010

      Step #1 with the New Beit Din

      Today I have a meeting with a rabbi who was recommended by my new beit din! And I'm super excited! How amazing is that? You mean the conversion process can be a positive experience? Apparently yes!

      Even the multiple-hour drive can't dampen my spirits :)

      Full disclosure: I rocked my exam this morning AND I get to eat at a kosher restaurant tonight! How could I NOT be in an amazing mood?? I hope all of you are having an equally wonderful day!

      The Best Inventions Every Convert Should Own

      These are the things I've found most useful in transitioning to an observant life.

      Environmentally friendly and useful for kicking out Shabbat dinner guests who won't leave at a decent hour! I usually set mine to go off at 1am, but most people seem to prefer midnight. They're cheap: about $10 for a timer that may have one or many plugs. However, they can only be used with electronics that plug in.

      Shabbat plate. It's like a blech, but less likely to burn down your house. And it can be set on a timer! Granted, I never make enough food to need it, but I love knowing it's there.

      Crock Pot. If you're single, they make a half-size crock pot, which is the best thing ever. It makes exactly 3 meals for me! The only problem is adjusting recipes. I just keep throwing stuff in, and as is the beauty of the crock pot, it turns out fine every time. Regardless of how much food you need to prepare, the crockpot is the best kitchen appliance ever.

      Kashrut stickers. Those little red, blue, and green stickers that say "meat," "dairy," and "pareve." Trust me, you're going to label every surface of that kitchen. So much so that your Jewish friends and family are going to make fun of your knife set's individual labeling for the next 15 years.

      The Shabbos Clock. This is an actual product from the people who make the Shabbat Lamp. I haven't tried a Shabbat Lamp, so I don't know its level of awesomeness. However, the Shabbat Clock is a-may-zing! You can set 5 alarms so you can cover (1) the time to wake up for shacharit services, (2) a snoozed Shacharit alarm, (3) the time you'll actually wake up for Shacharit, (4) a wake-up call from your Shabbat afternoon nap so that you can make it to mincha/maariv, and then (5) is left for whatever other time you need!

      Bookshelves. You're going to need a lot of these. Granted, I've noticed that most converts are already book nerds, so we all already own a lot of books and bookshelves. Don't worry, no matter how many empty bookshelves you have, you're going to need more.

      Plastic silverware and paper plates. I've never felt so un-green in my life, but these save my life on a regular basis.

      Dress shoes that don't make your feet bleed even when you walk 4 miles in them. Inevitably, the family that likes to invite you for Shabbat dinner on a regular basis will be 2 miles in the opposite direction of your house.

      For women: Leggings. They will save you from Marilyn Monroe moments, are good when you develop irritated skin on your thighs, and are awesome for hiking! Similarly, sweaters are the easiest way to add sleeves to a non-tznius shirt. Don't throw out those shirts without getting creative with them first!

      Reflective wear for Shabbat walking. My community has unfortunately suffered several hit-and-run accidents on Shabbat. Late Friday night walks combined with buzzed/drunk drivers and no sidewalks has had deadly effects in my community, and doubtless in other communities as well. And yes, you will look like either (a) a crossing guard or (b) a Girl Scout. But it's better than being a dead or maimed.

      A final note: Non-kasherable kitchen items might be okay for people who are used to keeping kosher. However, for us newbies, I HIGHLY suggest making sure that everything you buy is kasherable for those inevitable mistakes. For example, my silverware and knives are all a solid piece of metal, which was accidental, but the best accident ever. When I move next summer, I'm going to replace everything else with all-kasherable items.

      UPDATE: For your viewing pleasure, I've included a picture of my kitchen labeling skillz. Because I rent, I didn't want to use stickers on the cabinets and dishwasher that I couldn't remove! And yes, my knives are individually-labeled with the nice stickers. But at least I sort of have an excuse: instead of buying two (or three) sets of knives, I took a really nice knife set and divided it up.

      Monday, November 1, 2010

      An Ethical Dilemma: Serendipity or a Mistake that Needs Fixing?

      I've got an ethical dilemma on my hands, and I'm seeking advice. But I think the underlying issue is very relevant to all of us: when a "good" mistake happens to us, is it serendipity or just a mistake that we have an ethical obligation to fix? (Apparently "fix" is a very Southern verb. Just go with it.)

      Here's my dilemma:

      I take a daily medication. My bargain-basement student insurance (evilly, in my opinion) makes me fill it every month, even though it is available in a 3-month supply, which is significantly cheaper than purchasing one month at a time. I don't know what happened this month, but they gave me the 3-month supply, and I didn't notice until almost 2 weeks after I filled the prescription. I don't have the receipt anymore, but I'm pretty certain I only paid the (higher-per-unit) one-month price.

      Should I attempt to return the two extra months' supply to the pharmacy? (I'm not even sure that they can take back "used" medication since it may have been tampered with.) Or, knowing that the next two months are going to be tight financially, has HaShem sent me a little goodwill?

      UPDATE: Bright minds have confirmed that I cannot return the medication, but that I may be able to pay the difference. However, because of the insurance rules, I'm not sure that I would be allowed to. I might be liable for the non-insured price :/

      PS: The irony of a big ethical dilemma the day before my professional responsibility exam was not lost on me.

      Reason #827 You Know You're Crazy: Drowning in Acronyms

      Reason #827 You Know You're Crazy:

      You're drowning in Jewish acronyms, but eventually they begin to make sense. Some of the acronyms I've found to be the most common include...

      B"H: Baruch HaShem. Thank G-d.
      B"H: B'Ezrat/Ezer HaShem. Means "With G-d's help." Some people write this at the top of letters/emails.
      BS"D: B'si'ata d'shmaya. Means "With heaven's help." Some people write this at the top of letters/emails.
      NOTE: I located an internet source that says the distinction is that B"H should only be placed at the top of a letter that is Torah-related, but that any other kind of letter, personal/business/otherwise, should use BS"D.
      BT: Baal Teshuva. Refers to someone who becomes observant later in life.
      FFB: Frum from Birth. Refers to someone who was raised observant.
      MO: Modern Orthodox.
      IY"H: Im Yitzeh HaShem. Means "If it be G-d's will," but many people say "G-d willing" in English.
      R': Rabbi. Used before a rabbi's name.
      TN"K: Tanach.
      Z"L: Zichrono Livrocho (male)/Zichronah Lebracha (female). Pronounced "zal." Means "Of blessed memory." Used behind someone's name to indicate that they are deceased.
      ZT"L: Zecher Tzadik Livrocho. Pronounced "zatzal." Means "The memory of the righteous is a blessing." Used behind the name of prominent deceased Jews.
      A"H: Alav/Aleha Hashalom. Means "Peace be upon him/her." Used behind someone's name to indicate that they are deceased. (In my experience, this is the least common of the acronyms used to note that someone has passed away.)
      HY"D: HaShem Yikom Damo(am). Means "HaShem will avenge his(their) blood." Used to denote martyred Jews.

      Other places you will see acronyms:
      Synagogue names will often consist of several words (often because multiple synagogues have merged over time) and most people will refer to them by their acronym. (My personal favorite acronym-related place is "The Alphabet Shul" of West Orange, NJ: Congregation AABJ&D.)
      Jewish organizations are also subject to acronymization. It's not quite an acronym, but I always enjoy calling our Jewish Federation the "JFed."
      The sages sometimes have "names" that are actually acronyms. In fact, the acronym Chazal ("Our sages of blessed memory") is described by Wikipedia as: "In rabbinic writings, this is a general term that refers to all sages of the Mishna, Talmud, and other rabbinic literature commentators, and their authoritative opinion, from the times of the Second Temple of Jerusalem until the 6th century." Individual acronymized sages include: Rambam, Ramban, and Rashi.

      We Jews love our acronyms!