Friday, December 3, 2010

Convert Issues: Going Back to the Basics

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

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

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

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

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


  1. It sounds like you have a great perspective. And - wow - six languages?! That's amazing. Which ones?

  2. Another linguist here -- I've studied about as many foreign languages as you have, and I know four different alphabets (Roman, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Greek). In my experience, Hebrew requires more concentration, not just because it's right-to-left and not left-to-right but also because the eye movements are different when you add nekudos to the picture. That is, instead of your eyes being able to move on a straight line through the text, it's letter, down, up to the next letter, down, up to the next letter, and so forth. I can almost feel my brain working differently when I do it.

  3. Ugh, you're so right, ichur! Also, I have horrendous eyesight already, and I can feel the different movements straining my eyes.

    Rivki, mostly European ones! I've studied them to varying degrees, with only having any kind of proficiency in Spanish and French, though I'm good with Esperanto, just missing vocabulary. So that makes Spanish, French, Esperanto, American Sign Language, Arabic (alphabet only, and that is hard enough!), Latin. Now I count Hebrew for 7 :) And can we count pig Latin?