Monday, January 31, 2011

Management Update: Blogger Has a New Feature!

Blogger has added a new feature: Reactions. They're little check-boxes at the bottom of each post now.

Have suggestions for other reactions I should add? Currently, I've added funny, painful, thought-provoking, and hits home. If you have suggestions for changing those, I'm open to that! Get your creative juices flowing!

I thought this might be fun :D

Adventures in Semantics: Class Terminology that Sounds like Jewish Things

In my trial advocacy class, our fake state/jurisdiction is "Nita." This is because our materials are created by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy.

Humorously enough, "Nita" is pronounced "niddah" thanks to the American accent that pronounces middle Ts like Ds.

We are in the state of niddah. 


Halacha in a Nutshell: Lashon Hara

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

Loshon hara literally means "evil tongue/speech." It's usually translated as "gossip," but while that's a component of lashon hara, that's not totally inclusive of the idea.

Have you thought about what gossip is? It's usually a true statement about someone else that you're not supposed to know and/or share. I don't know about you, but that's different than what I think of when I hear the word gossip. That underscores the very important idea of lashon hara that people usually talk about: just because the statement is true doesn't mean you have a free pass to say it to someone else.

The major voice on lashon hara is the Chofetz Chaim, which is the name of the book Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933) wrote about lashon hara. There is a ridiculous amount of books written on the topic of lashon hara, and I suggest that all of us should read at least one. This is a mitzvah recognized as binding by all movements of Judaism (to my knowledge), so I encourage all of you to take on some observance this week related to elevating your speech!

You'll often hear the term "lashon hara" thrown around in speech, yet there is so much actual lashon hara used in the same breath! And sometimes, that's even the topic of discussion!

A good story I once heard about the Chofetz Chaim:
He was traveling, and he caught a ride with a cart full of horse traders who spent the several hours of the trip "talking shop" about horses. The Chofetz Chaim was quiet during the entire ride. At the end, they finally realized who he was and began to apologize profusely for not realizing they had such a highly-esteemed rabbi riding with them! Then they began to apologize for talking about horses instead of "holier" subjects. The Chofetz Chaim responded, "I was just glad you weren't discussing people." 
I think that quote about sums up lashon hara. Avoid talking about people. And don't listen when other people do! That's why it's so hard to perfect this mitzvah!

Lashon hara has very complicated rules. They can be broken down into several categories (going from memory here):
True speech
Untrue speech
Speech when you're unsure if it's true or not
Who the speech is addressed to
How many people the speech is addressed to
The purpose of the speech
The expected response of the listener

Now go forth and learn! And don't feel so lost in conversations!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thought of the Day

For your (hopefully) lazy Sunday enjoyment, here is a great quote I heard in a recorded shiur a few weeks ago while driving cross-country. Unfortunately, I don't remember which shiur it came from! Since I listened to over 30 hours of them, I'm not going to go through all of them to locate two sentences.

Hashem did not create the Jews. He created humanity.

I think of this quote whenever I hear Jews speak negatively of or imply being superior to non-Jews. After all, G-d could have chosen to only create the Jews, but that's not what He did. Every individual on this earth has a place and a purpose, and we all possess sparks of the divine in our souls. We should treat each other that way.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Shabbat Shalom! What to Do When People Are Crazy

Some people might think this is a downer of a Shabbat shalom post, but it was certainly liberating for me!

Quite simply, other people's problems are just that: other people's problems. I don't worry about people who don't follow halacha (or follow it differently) or judge me as a convert or any of that other stuff. Their opinion simply doesn't matter. And just because one rabbi "yanks" your conversion doesn't mean that anyone else will accept that revocation as being valid. (After all, you should still have the original conversion paperwork. And note: only your converting rabbi can unilaterally yank your conversion; anyone else needs to convene a beit din.) There's more than one rabbi in this world! Just like there is more than one community in this world! And while we (converts) talk a lot about rabbis questioning conversions, it is usually limited to "the usual suspects," and the rabbis who matter will know that.

I admit that I have a much tougher skin than most converts I know, but I would also say that I am possibly the happiest and most content one that I know (and I'm not even done with my orthodox conversion yet!). Working in divorce/child custody law and being in the Jewish world has taught me a mantra that I use whenever someone tries to force their crazy on me: "People are crazy." I say that out loud, take a deep breath, and move on. Their crazy (usually) doesn't affect my life unless I let it.

Growing a tough skin would absolutely be my strongest advice to any convert in any movement. But it doesn't have to make you callous, dismissive, or distant. It's just letting the water roll off your back. Hear their crazy, acknowledge it in an appropriate way (which may mean calling them out on a halachic argument or racist comment, as two examples), and move on. Nine times out of ten, they're not a bad person; they're just misinformed or ignorant.

Of course, the other side is that this argument blames the victim: everything would be better if you just changed your perspective. To a point, yes, that's blaming the victim. However, no matter how crazy I think someone is, there is almost never a good reason for pointing out their crazy, and most of the time that'll fall under lashon hara anyway. Of course, if you get to the point of saying, "People are crazy," then the other person is probably violating at least one ethical/interpersonal mitzvah.

Basically, even if you're in the right, most of the time it isn't worth pursuing. Your sanity may sometimes require you to walk away from "being right."

And if all else fails, shut your mouth and daven (pray)! The serenity prayer is a good option:
G-d grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Shabbat shalom! May you find calm and peace in the beauty of Shabbat!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Convert Questions: How to Choose a Hebrew Name

Choosing a Hebrew name can be the hardest part of your official conversion process. After all, you have to live with it for only the rest of your LIFE. Some people make it their everyday name. Or even adopt it as their legal first or middle name. And some people never use them ever again except for when a legal Jewish name is required (calling to the Torah, wedding, child naming, divorce, etc).

The most common advice for picking a Hebrew name:
  • A Hebrew equivalent of your English name (which probably doesn't exist)
  • A Hebrew name that starts with the same letter as your English name
  • A Hebrew name with the same meaning as your English name
Personally, I think those are boring. I really hate the letter suggestion because how meaningless is that connection? Yet it seems to be the most commonly given advice.

So here's my suggestion: look up Jewish baby names (there are oodles of websites of baby names, as well as Jewish-specific books in the stores) and make a list of all the names that speak to you, either through their sound or meaning. You don't have to take a Biblical name, though that is very common among converts. Let that list marinate for a while. For that reason, I recommend making the list early in your process and adding new names as you go. Others, particularly those working with you during your conversion, will recommend names. I suggest adding them to your list, even if you don't like them at first. After all, they should know you well and maybe have some insight into a name that will fit you.

Review the list periodically. Roll the names around in your mouth. Feel free to try one out as an everyday name for a few days.

Run the list of names past someone else pretty early in the list-making process. I was so attached to a name for almost 2 years. But when I told my rabbi at the time, he advised me that it's a "H" v. "CH" away from being the word "disease." And that in modern Hebrew, it's the word for cancer.

When you know you're getting close to the end of your conversion process, take that list back out and see which names still resonate with you.

It's a very personal process, and we all approach it in a slightly different way. You and only you can choose the right name. Don't let someone (even a rabbi) push you into taking a name you don't want. A push is probably well-meaning because they just know the right name for you. It's been known to happen in all movements (and anecdotes suggest this is more common in the liberal movements), and it usually results in some pretty negative feelings after the fact.

Don't be worried if you're surprised by the name you eventually choose! I was!

Happy name hunting!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Conversion Mikvah Visit in a Nutshell

Every conservative and orthodox convert (and an exponentially increasing number of reform converts) will go to the mikvah (also spelled mikveh) to complete the conversion.

Just in case no one has spelled it out explicitly for you, emerging from the mikvah is when you actually become "Jewish." For a more mystical perspective, some say the immersion in the mikvah is when your "Jewish soul" descends into your body. Some disagree with that characterization (the most common being that converts are born with a Jewish soul in a non-Jewish body), but it's a nice idea/visual.

So...what's it like? Really, each and every one of you will have a different experience. Completely different. Every mikvah is different, but so is every mikvah attendant, every beit din's actions while you're in the mikvah, and every convert's perspective on the situation.

a) Prepare a mikvah bag beforehand.
Most mikvaot will not have all the supplies you'll need for your mikvah preparations. You will be expected to bring your own. And if you don't have your stuff and the mikvah doesn't have extras, you're going to be driving to the pharmacy or Wal-Mart.
Most men and some women: You're probably fine with travel-sized toiletries kept in a shopping bag.
Most women, particularly those who intend (now or eventually) to observe the laws of niddah and immerse in the mikvah monthly: Sooner or later, you'll want to invest a little money in your mikvah bag. A pretty bag with your favorite toiletries (though avoid perfumed items if you can - think clean) will go a long way towards making your mikvah experience even that much better. It's comparable to hiddur mitzvah (beautifying a mitzvah), and is one more thing in your control during the mikvah experience. Besides, sharing personal items can be pretty gross.

What should be in the mikvah bag:
  • Towel
  • Shampoo/conditioner
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Soap
  • Floss
  • Q-tips
  • Contact supplies, if that applies to you
  • Hairbrush
  • Comb (you may want to have two, with one being body hair-only)
  • Nail clippers and any other nail-related things
  • Bathrobe and flip flops/shower shoes (optional)
  • Any items you will want to get ready to go back into the real world (make-up, lotions, perfume/cologne, deodorant, etc)

b) You go to the building that houses the mikvah.
In most communities, you'll want someone to drive you to the mikvah because so many of them are hidden away for privacy reasons. (Remember, the majority use for a mikvah is for women to ritually immerse themselves in order to resume "relations" with their husbands. Privacy is a pretty big deal, and people aren't supposed to know who is going when.) For instance, the mikvah I went to is an addition to the back of a residential house in a residential area. I never would have found it by myself! To this day, I still have a hard time figuring out which house it was.

When you arrive, you will meet your mikvah attendant, who will probably show you around and show you the mikvah itself. If you're male, a member of the beit din may serve as your mikvah attendant or they may just give you instructions and meet you in the mikvah room when you're ready. The mikvah attendant should also go over the "house rules" and procedure at this time. Most importantly, they should tell you:
  • What you will be wearing to get from the preparation room to the mikvah.
  • What to do with the thing you wore into the water (usually a towel or robe). Take it off, leave it on temporarily, where to place it, etc. Don't worry if you don't remember later.
  • When you should say each blessing. There are two blessings and three dunks, and each group is slightly different with the timing of them. There is probably a sign posted with the blessings (probably a transliteration too, just in case), which the attendant should show you. And don't worry if you're blind as a bat like myself, that's pretty common.
  • Some may not remember/volunteer this information, but you can ask if they don't: Where will the beit din be during the immersions? If female, you will likely have two other questions: will they enter the room at any point and if so, how will your modesty be maintained? Every group will answer these questions differently. If the beit din will be entering during a female conversion, sometimes they won't volunteer this information as a way of keeping you from worrying before it happens. The idea is that you'll be surprised, then get over it. Instead, it can turn a positive experience very negative in .3 seconds for a lot of women. Don't worry though; even if they enter, they will almost certainly be taking precautions to maintain your privacy. Most of the time, they can only see your head.

c) You get ready in a/the mikvah preparation room.
Don't rush. My overly-polite Southern self was very conscious of the fact that the three members of my beit din were waiting outside while I got ready. They tell me I was the fastest mikvah prep they'd ever seen! That's not a good thing. Speak to your mikvah attendant about what is required and for any advice. According to orthodox halacha, there is actually a prescribed minimum prep time, and it's pretty dang luxurious. (What I've seen is a minimum half hour soak in a bathtub!) You'll have a list of very particular things to do to prepare your body, and a list will probably be posted.

You should be alone during this time and should be given privacy. If you're not, ask for it. I knew my experience wasn't the most positive, but I was shocked by the amount of shock and horror from orthodox women because the mikvah lady stayed in the room for everything. Ev-ery-thing. She was a friend and I knew her to be knowledgeable, so I swallowed the embarrassment because I figured she must know what she's doing. I was especially loathe to question anything she said or did because she was the synagogue "mikvah lady" (but since it was a conservative synagogue, I don't know how much business she saw). To give you an idea of how awkward this was, the preparation room was a standard household bathroom, though a reasonably large one. There was a chair, and she just talked on her phone while I got ready.

A thorough cleaning:
  • If you're planning to get a haircut around that time, get it before the mikvah immersion.
  • If you regularly shave (men or women), you should do so the day of or the day before.
  • Things that you need to ask a rabbi about beforehand: Prostheses that are not easily removable, piercings that are not easily removed (I lost a non-removable skin piercing once I knew I was going to the mikvah), permanent make-up, tattoos, manicures, fake nails, and temporary dental work. Permanent dental work should be fine.
  • Remove any barriers between your skin and the water: clothing, make-up, contact lenses, jewelry (including body jewelry), bandages, removable prostheses (including dental ones), etc.
  • Remove any dirt from under your fingernails and toenails and trim them.
  • Clean your ears.
  • Blow your nose and make sure there aren't any boogers left!
  • Go to the bathroom. Try to fully empty anything that might be in there.
  • Floss.
  • Brush your teeth.
  • You should both take a long soak in a bathtub and then take a quick shower, both with warm water. The soak is intended to soften any dirt that may be on your body so that a quick shower can easily wash it away.
  • In the shower, shampoo (and condition if desired, but check with your rabbi first!) your hair. Body hair too, but you might use soap there. 
  • Clean your body with soap. So fresh and so clean clean.
  • Don't forget the lint in your bellybutton! You'd be amazed what you find in there.
  • After the shower, comb your hair. I guess people with crew-cuts get it easy here. Also comb your pubic and underarm hair. Yes, I mean that. Some say you can use your fingers to separate body hair. This is the instruction that is always lost in euphemistic translation and is made needlessly awkward.

d) You immerse three times.
But first, the mikvah attendant (or maybe a member of the beit din if you're male) will inspect you to make sure there is nothing that would render your immersion not kosher. Yes, you're going to stand naked in front of someone and that person is going to scrutinize your body. It's really not as bad as it sounds. It'll be more business-like than anything else. It's mostly a visual inspection, but there may be a touch, especially if you have loose hairs on your back. Because they're businesslike, most will forget to ask before removing that hair on your back. Some people inspect more than others, and I've known women who purposely go to the mikvah when they know a more stringent attendant will be working.

As stated above, there are three dips and two blessings. You will be instructed when and how. And if you forget (and you inevitably will), the mikvah attendant will help you. They can even say the blessing word for word to guide you through it. The water should be clean and warm. This isn't your community swimming pool!

BAM! You're Jewish!

e) You go back into the preparation room.
This is where you get ready to go home. Take as much time as you need; they're not going anywhere without you! There will almost certainly be a hairdryer. It is generally not recommended to shower after immersing, though that may be different in the conversion mikvah context (as opposed to the niddah mikvah experience). It is expected that you'll take a little bit of time (though the men may be in and out), and it's okay to put your makeup back on, etc.

f) Pay. It's probably a suggested donation, and some synagogues subsidize/waive the cost of the mikvah for a conversion. And just because they aren't making you pay the fee doesn't mean they'll remember to tell you that explicitly. In my case, a visiting rabbi handled my conversion, and he asked me to "leave the check" and I just stared at him like a deer in the headlights. In the end, they decided that if I hadn't been told anything about a fee, I was probably not expected to pay one. Awk-ward.

g) You go home and live your life!
Some people find this mikvah experience to be one of the most emotional experiences they ever have. Some...don't. It may even be anticlimactic. That's ok.

The things you cannot control:
  • The mikvah attendant (or lack thereof if you're male). Some are chatty/friendly and some are silent/businesslike. Inevitably, everyone likes one personality type better than the other (and the disliked personality will have 101 ways to "ruin" your experience), but you're rarely going to know who you get. And even if you already know your mikvah attendant, you might be very surprised by his or her style in this new setting!
  • The chlorine or other chemicals used to keep the water clean. Personally, the chlorine was so high in my mikvah that my eyes burned for a full three days.
  • If you get a serious bodily wound (or a surprise menstrual cycle) the day before your immersion and it has to be rescheduled.

If you want to learn more about the mikvah, I recommend the websites of Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters, a progressive mikvah in Boston) and The Mikvah Project.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Halachic Discussion: Converts Can't Be Prophets?

This Shabbos, I sat down with the Kuzari, a classic text by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (1080-1145). The story is a recreation of a dialog of a great rabbi speaking to the king of the Khazars, who supposedly then converts to Judaism along with most of his kingdom. As the Khazars were eventually conquered and faded into history, there is little to verify the story.

The backstory is that the King of the Khazars decided to inquire of the three great faiths in his area: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The story as Rabbi HaLevi writes is it a back-and-forth, question and answer approach. It's actually great Shabbat reading because it's only 100 pages.

I'm only halfway through at this point (started reading it late in the day), but I came across a paragraph that is very interesting for a convert. Here is the text as the translation I'm reading says (complete with the poor punctuation):
"If a convert agrees to these rules, he and his children will delight in closeness to G-d. Nevertheless, a convert is not on par with a Jew from birth, because only Jews from birth can attain prophecy. Converts can become sages and saintly men [like Shemayah and Avtalyon, heads of the Sanhedrin and teachers of Hillel,] who were descendants of converts but they cannot become prophets."
Aside from the terrible unclear translation/punctuation at the end, have you heard this idea before? What would justify that distinction? And is it related to female converts being ineligible to marry kohanim?

A notable exception to this "rule" (as far as I know!) is Obadiah (also known as Ovadiah), a convert from Edom, a kingdom in modern-day Jordan.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Blue Jean Skirt Controversy

People often mention that certain orthodox Jewish groups hold that blue jean skirts are un-tznius and unacceptable for women, to the point of ostracizing them or their children for that. I can't find any articles about it now, but I remember hearing about two children who were expelled from their day school because their mom wore blue jean skirts. Personally, a floor-length blue jean skirt might be the most tznius thing I own: It's like wearing a stiff tarp. (And yes, it's one of my favorite skirts!)

Can someone please explain this to me? I don't get it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Shabbat Shalom: Orthodox Judaism Is a Full-Time Job

I have a shiur (lecture) by Rabbi Yom Tov Glasner that I really enjoy. It's from Aish Audio and is called Practical Spirituality: How to Make the Right Choices. The title actually has very little to do with the shiur (at least to your average listener). It's very much about the nature of reality, kabalistic ideas, etc.

He speaks of orthodox Judaism as a "full-time job." He analogizes his kippah to a time clock, punching in and out at work:
"I remember when I was in my first year of yeshiva. I realized that I felt uncomfortable putting my kippah on my table next to my bed before I went to bed at night. Because if G-d's here, not just "outside," but here, it's full-time. It's a 24 hour experience. So even when I'm asleep, He's here. I don't like the feeling, even though I know my kippah is gonna fall off after 10 minutes once I'm asleep and roll over. I know my kippah's going to fall off, but I don't like the feeling of cutting out from a Being that would never cut out. If the Being cut out, what would happen to the creation?"
That kind of thought is part of what draws me to orthodox Judaism. No matter how I feel each day, this is a full-time commitment. That pushes me to be a better, more consistent, more complete person. I would feel less genuine if I could compartmentalize my religion into particular days and times. It should be the water I drink and the air I breathe. How could I schedule G-d like I schedule (or not) study time? I never got that approach. All in or all out!

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What to Do If You Question the Validity of Your Conversion

I know what more of you are thinking: Who in their right mind would do that??

I have yet to see anyone anywhere discuss this topic: what if you question the validity of your own conversion? Quite frankly, that's everything converts want to avoid!

The LAST thing a convert wants is someone else to question his or her conversion, which may throw his or her life into a real mess! (Not to mention the lives of a significant other and/or children!) This creates the ultimate reason to push any concerns about the validity of your conversion to the back of your mind, ignoring them or chalking them up to something you don't understand about halacha. However, if you do have a concern about your conversion, it's better to address the issue yourself and now. The sooner you address your concerns, the less issues will exist with spouses and children. (Most concerns will be clearly evident to you immediately or within the first few conversations afterwards.) And in my opinion, it's much better to address any concerns yourself rather than knowing you have a potential time bomb and waiting for someone else to challenge it!

Thankfully, you have many options to "correct" a questionable conversion, no matter your movement.

There are several steps:
A. You're probably pretty angry. I can't blame you. Take some time. Cool off. I don't recommend talking to your rabbi, the converting rabbi, or anyone else about it for a little while. If you end up switching to a different rabbi later, you may even be told not to tell to the old rabbi about your concerns (particularly if the "old" rabbi won't take them seriously).
B. Figure out how to articulate what you think was wrong with your conversion. It's probably pretty simple when you think about it. The most common culprits I can think of are...
  1. Rabbi wasn't qualified by the movement you're converting with (more so an issue if your converting rabbi is different from your sponsoring rabbi or an "emergency rabbi" gets called in who actually belongs to a different movement).
  2. Rabbi has "gone off the deep end" within that movement (this is the issue that can emerge later).
  3. Being expected to lie during your beit din. In other words, asking questions with a "hint hint, nudge nudge, know what I mean?" attitude. Whether or not you actually mean the answer the beit din "wants," the fact that they expect you to not tell the truth is a HUGE issue.
  4. Procedural issues with the mikvah and/or bris. This can be the easiest and least emotional to "fix."
  5. You may find more than one concern from this list.
C. Once you're calm and can articulate your concerns, consider your options (but don't do anything yet):
  1. Talk to your congregational rabbi (who may or may not be the converting rabbi) about your concerns and set up a second conversion through the same group. I only recommend this if the issues were very minor and mostly procedural. A smart rabbi would probably still set you up with a different beit din just in case.
  2. Convert again with a different group within the same movement. In other words, switch rabbis/shuls. This may not be possible in smaller communities, so if you're set on staying with the same movement, you may have to move or wait until you move. Be careful about the passage of time creating more issues to "fix."
  3. Consider "going up" to a stricter movement and converting again through that movement. For example, from reconstructionist to conservative or reform to orthodox, whatever the combination may be. (I think that if you decide to "go down" movements, the average rabbi will probably tell you a second conversion isn't necessary, but I could be totally wrong.)
  4. If your first conversion was orthodox, consider a gerus l'chumrah through a different beit din, which is a process made specifically to remove doubt from a prior conversion.
D. Once you've considered your options, talk to the "target" rabbi. It may turn out that your concerns are unfounded and that you don't need to take the step you were considering. But by talking to the "target" rabbi instead of the converting one (unless it's a minor issue, as noted above), you can get a second opinion from exactly the person you've decided you would like a second opinion from.
E. Whatever you do, remember that you should be careful how, when, and where you discuss your concerns. No matter how angry you are (and you should be angry!), that does not justify lashon hara (evil speech), which governs both true negative statements and run-of-the-mill gossip.
F. I'm going to list a second warning to watch what you say because this point is SO important: Remember that any statement to anyone (even other rabbis) can bring other converts from the same converting rabbi/beit din into "questionable" status. Take your statements and actions very seriously and weigh your words carefully because you aren't the only person they affect.  
You have the power to ruin other people's lives.
    If you're stuck in this un-enviable position, I'm very sorry.  However, you're not alone, and you're not powerless to fix it. But be prepared for everyone to think you're crazy and being too strict. Good luck, you're gonna need it!

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    How to Listen to a Shiur

    First, what's a shiur? It's usually just a lecture about something that is somehow tied to Jewish thought. And it usually has a lot of Hebrew and/or Yiddish and/or Yeshivish.

    I used to become very frustrated when listening to shiurim (plural of shiur) because of the frequent use of words I didn't understand. However, now I know that at least the Hebrew words are often unnecessary to understanding the lecture. Basically, if you don't understand Hebrew, just ignore the Hebrew because the lecturer will almost always translate what the Hebrew phrase means. And if they don't, and you don't understand the shiur in the first 5 minutes, turn it off and find a new one.

    This helps but doesn't always make the shiur understandable. If you don't speak yeshivish (a mix of English, Hebrew, and yiddish), you may still have a hard time understanding the shiur. Even the most modern of rabbis may use a great deal of Hebrew or Yiddish words in conversation. In this case, I also advocate the 5 minute rule. If you don't know what's going on, try something else. Especially as a beginner, try sticking to shiurs labeled "for beginners" or "introduction." But you will be surprised how quickly you learn all kinds of words! It's very much like learning a foreign language as a child would: immersion. Remember to look for context clues! (And most Yiddish words are words of emphasis/qualification or not important anyway: "very," "really," filler language that can translate to something like "so")

    There is no shortage of shiurim on the internet, so there is no point in continuing to listen to something you don't understand!

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    Halacha in a Nutshell: Tznius

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

    Tznius is most often translated as "modesty," and people usually use it in conversation to refer to women's clothing. However, most authorities I've come across seem to agree that it's really an attitude. It is also one of the hardest words for a new-to-Jew to pronounce.

    I highly suggest reading Outside Inside by Gila Manolson. It's a short (and cheap!) overview of the topic. Though it can be a little too "teen" feeling for some people, I think it's a great introduction to the ideas of tznius. You can easily read this on a Shabbat.

    The basics:
    a) Men and women both must wear a minimum amount of clothing when in public. What those halachic minimums are may differ based on who you talk to. Community standards certainly will differ, sometimes even down to which street within a community you're talking about, lol... That said, most of the orthodox world will agree that
    1. Men should wear knee-length shorts, a t-shirt (therefore a high neckline), and a headcovering.
    2. Women should wear a skirt slightly past knee-length (most agree on this as a minimum, but it's debated heavily), a shirt that reaches the elbows (most say covers the elbows) and has a high neckline (some say collarbone, all say no cleavage). Once married, some headcovering will be required at least in synagogue (most say full-time, and all argue about how much covered and how covered).
    b) Men and women should both have a "modest" attitude, which does not translate to self-effacing. I like to think of it as being realistic about yourself and down-to-earth, while still being assertive.
    c) Being shomer negiah (not physically touching the other gender) can be classified as tznius, though I personally classify it as part of the laws of family purity. It just makes more sense to me that way.
    d) Being careful what information you put into your head. This means movies, music, books, magazines, whatever. This is an area where people start to get ruffled in "tznius" conversations because it almost inevitably leads to one person feeling "judged" by the other. Some people refuse to have televisions or the internet in their homes because they're "not kosher," but they really mean they're trying to avoid the "non-tznius" aspects of those media (remember, media is the plural of medium!).
    e) It's an easy way to justify hating something you don't like ;)

    Tznius is a HUGE issue in the orthodox world. Really. Especially when you limit the definition to women's clothing. For more proof, see my recent post Orthodox Women Being Patronized by Feminists? and its comments. Personally, "It's just not tznius" is usually a sign to me that a conversation/lecture/article is about to get really annoying really fast. The idea and halacha have greatly improved my life, but they're also greatly abused to justify all kinds of statements.

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    What Does It Mean to You? The Amidah Edition

    I remember one of the very first questions I asked my first rabbi: In the amidah, what does "may my soul be to all like the dust" mean? (The amidah is also known as shemonah esrei, a long silent prayer that is the central focus of the liturgy) [Using the Koren translation because that's my travel siddur and I'm still traveling when I write this.]

    To put it in context for those who aren't as familiar with the amidah, this is in the concluding mediation, and the full idea is "My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; may my soul be to all like the dust."

    This is the thought that is most powerful to me in the amidah, and surprisingly, that hasn't changed in the 7 years I've been doing this. Yet I still can't decide what that last bit means. What do you think?

    Friday, January 14, 2011

    Shabbat Shalom! Being a "Lech Lecha" Kind of Girl

    Converts (and especially orthodox ones!) experience more change in the first few Jewish years than some people do in an entire life, and more than most Jews, I would argue.

    Like most Jews of any movement, I come from a family and culture of tradition. You're born, live, and die in the same place, or close to it. There's a lot of discussion of and emphasis on your ancestors, both recent and hundreds of years old. You're constantly compared to your great aunt Mildred and the stereotypes of your culture. And don't forget the emphasis on food, and that food is love!

    However, while I never fit in to Southern culture, Jewish culture was like coming home for the first time in my life. Many, if not most, converts don't feel this way. They connected with their culture of origin and find meaningful ways to intertwine the two, which is simply amazing to me. I, on the other hand, dive face first into Jewish culture in all its varieties because I have nothing else to cling to. (If you know Indian and Latino Jews, send them my way! I need their food. Stat! Kai Phang Jews too!)

    In summary, I'm expecting a LOT of change in the next year, and that change is already beginning. It always blindsides you, but life is 90% how you react to it. But I don't worry because I'm a "lech lecha" kind of girl.

    Shabbat shalom! May it be full of peace, warmth, good food, and good company!

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    How Do Converts Choose a Minhag?

    What is a minhag? "Custom." Plural: minhagim. However, some minhagim have been practiced so widely and for so long that rabbis have declared them to be mandatory halacha. More generally, each large group of Judaism are considered to have a "minhag," including Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Yemenite, Indian (from India), etc.

    Further, some minhagim are how someone does an actual halacha. One of the most common examples is how a person ritually washes his or her hands. There is no wrong answer. You're fulfilling the mitzvah, but there are several customs on how to fulfill it.

    Back to the point at hand. This is a question that born-Jews ask me all the time. As far as I can tell, there are basically four sources that seem to form a hierarchy:

    1) The first one you hear/learn.
    2) A significant other's minhag.
    3) Your community's minhag.
    4) The one you like better.

    Of course, some people may skip directly to the personal preference. Interestingly, born-Jews constantly encourage me to pick the "most convenient" option and express jealousy that I get to choose!

    Let's be clear that I don't mean Ashkenazi v. Sephardi. As a general rule, you will have to choose there. And as nearly no Sephardi community does conversions, chances are that you should consider yourself Ashkenazi. However, my understanding is that you may change that self-designation later, particularly if your heritage is a Sephardi culture. The only exception here is Hebrew pronunciation. Many Ashkenazi baalei teshuva and converts choose to use modern Sephardi pronunciation because of Israel. (However, note that there is a real push for Jews of color to "be" Sephardi. Interestingly, I've seen this peer pressure even between Jews of color, so it's not just rabbinic/born-Jew racism/stereotyping.)

    Don't forget that some of this choosing may be irrelevant. If a convert marries a born-Jew, there is certainly a temptation to adopt the minhagim of the spouse and the spouse's family. However, for females, it is tradition (halacha?) for a wife to adopt the minhagim of her husband. Being a female convert, I look forward to following both of those reasons. Unless he waits 6 hours between meat and dairy. (For convenience and health reasons, I chose 3 hours as my minhag!)

    The lesson here is that you may adopt whichever minhagim you wish, regardless of what someone may tell you. As long as you are within acceptable custom and halacha, you may have a mishmash of minhagim; and even for born-Jews, a mishmash is becoming much more common. There is no "right" minhag, even though inevitably, someone will tell you that a minhag is "pure halacha." Personally, and because of practicality, most of my minhagim are the first ones I learned. It was just simpler that way.

    The only problem with that method is that I don't always remember where my customs came from. That's a problem because I can't explain it or track down a reasoning whenever someone tells me I'm practicing some strict minority opinion that very few people follow. Then I'm stuck giving them an awkward smile and "'s just what I know." Then either a lecture happens or the person walks away thinking I'm a nut.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Orthodox Women Being Patronized by Feminists? Oh, Linguistic Irony!

    I discovered a blog post today titled Frum, Fashion, and Feminism on the Jewish Women's Archive's Jewesses with Attitude blog. It started so well: talking about fashion becoming more open to modest designs and the orthodox women who are working towards that end (including the fabulous bloggers Chavi and Hadassah).

    Then I ran into the end, where the author questions whether these writers/advocates can be feminists (in the sense of believing in the equality of the sexes, it appears) and implies that she can't help but think these women have been brainwashed to think they're actually more spiritually connected and fulfilled through the laws of tznius. "Perhaps, then, it’s not modesty I take issue with – it’s that so many women dress modestly because they feel they have to, as required by their (our!) religion."

    The first commenter doesn't even pretend to be PC:
    You're 100% right that any kind of explanation about spirituality that justifies rules imposed from without (read, men) is disingenuous. Coercion negates any possible genuine spiritual value. Because it's about women trying to find some kind of meaning within a system that is by definition oppressive. And impositions like this, even if somewhere deep down they may have once had value, are completely antithetical to spirituality.
     I'll admit it. I'm not a classical feminist. (I think classical feminism either/both 1. says women are better than men, rather than seeking equality and/or 2. says that women can only be successful if they succeed at the things men are "successful" at.) However, I totally believe in the equality of the sexes and that each sex/gender has its strengths and weaknesses. I also believe this is the Torah perspective, and I have yet to meet a Jewish woman (including every orthodox woman I've met!) who isn't a "tough old bird." I have met more positive female role models in the Jewish world than in the entire greater society.

    I'll even admit that I have these writers' concerns when it comes to the frum-from-birth community, at least to a degree. There is a well-publicized concern about domestic violence and get-withholding within the frum community, particularly the more insular the community. I worry that there are women in communities I don't know who do keep the laws of tznius just because that's "what's done" or simply because their husbands enjoy and/or require it.

    HOWEVER, that does not mean there is not intrinsic value in the laws of tznius. Because they may be abused or "imposed" in some segments of Jewish society does not remove their intrinsic value. I have chosen these standards. On my own. No husband, no shidduch crisis, no rabbi forced these rules upon me. I think that G-d himself has provided me these rules for my benefit and growth. And let's not forget that men also have dressing requirements for tznius (that are actually quite similar to women's requirements), but those requirements just happen to fit more snugly with secular society's view of what is appropriate for men's attire. Women's requirements are an issue because they buck secular society. In fact, they're practically revolutionary! But that's just my opinion. I've always been a "modest" dresser by secular standards precisely because I felt there was something wrong with the sexed-up attitudes of secular society, as well as having the typical self-esteem issues caused by that secular standard.

    So, thank you, particularly Commenter #1, for making me feel patronized because I clearly have no idea what I've chosen, what it means, or who has influenced me to make that decision.

    If you're interested in reading about my change in clothing, read Changing from Jeans-and-T-shirts to Skirts-and-Sleeves. As I say below in the comments, I am treated a) more respectfully, b) more seriously, and c) in a more friendly (non-sexual) way.

    Further, this commenter's comments go to my larger problems with classical feminism:

    A) Men are not the ones imposing any fashion/physical standard on women. Women impose these standards on women. It is the criticism and ostracization of other women that is the societal peer pressure. Marketing creates these visions of "the Size 0," but it's other women's judgment (or perceived judgment) that pushes women to try to be that size 0.

    B) Even if it is "the man" who is imposing physical/fashion standards on women, that's not the fault of men today. It is a cycle that is reinforced by each new generation doing exactly what the generation before did. And as my theory above suggests, I think it's women who've taken up the oppressor's mantle anyway. Or even worse, perhaps the cycle is self-sustaining at this point. In some ways, these arguments about "men!" remind me of the snide comments/"jokes" made about young Germans, those who had nothing to do with the atrocious actions of their grandparents or great-grandparents in Nazi Germany. Or, being an American Southerner, getting comments that all white southerners should continue to feel guilty that our great, great-grandparents may have owned slaves. (And for the record, I did the research, and mine did not. They actually spied for the North during the Civil War. -- If you think this is a ridiculous argument/analogy to make, I've more than once had someone try to shut me up in an argument with the phrase, "Well, your family owned slaves!" Apparently that is the argument to end all arguments in the South.)

    All this blame is misplaced. And further, what does it accomplish? You've just demeaned and demonized half our society. I can't blame them for not wanting to cooperate (and who says they aren't??) with a partner who refuses to do anything but play the blame game.

    Status Wars: Not Nearly as Fun as Star Wars

    There is a Status War going on in the world.

    People who have become religious later in life (either as baalei teshuva or converts) are having a very difficult time proving that they are, in fact, Jewish. Personally, as painful as the conversion process can be, I think the baalei teshuva have it worse.

    Thanks to the Holocaust and the USSR, generations of Jewish documentation ceased to exist. Yet despite how widespread this loss of documents was, the Jewish community doesn't seem to have come to any consensus on how these people can prove that their family was Jewish within the acceptable generational time limits. (I believe it's 2 generations? Maybe 3? My understanding is that, as a general rule, if your maternal grandmother was "actually" Jewish, you are still Jewish.)

    These problems seem like they should be so common that we would have an answer to them by now. Or at least a standard practice. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have happened. And BTs, like converts, get stuck in the middle of Jewish politics that decide who is Jewish and who isn't.

    Of course, the opposing argument is that no one would be happy with any standardized procedure for either BTs or converts.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Two Very Different Thoughts for the First Day of School

    Today is the last first day of law school! I only had one class today, and B"H, my load will be very light this semester! So here are two thoughts I've been having today.

    First off, after being in a pretty tough spot, I received a significant financial windfall today. So now, thanks to my Tzedakah Plan, I have to put my money where my mouth is and give one of the largest charitable donations I've ever made! I'm actually quite excited! It also meant that I could purchase a flight to meet my beit din more than two weeks in advance! And that means I got a great deal!

    And now, thanks to Chavi, the Kvetching Editor, here is an amazing quote from the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Chabad):

    "You don't learn by having faith. You learn by questioning, by challenging, by re-examining everything you've ever believed. And yet, all this is a matter of faith - the faith that there is a truth to be found. To truly question, you must truly have faith."

    Adventures in Semantics: "Going to Temple"

    Quite frankly, I hate this phrase. Yet people say it to me all the time and will continue to say it, so I have to learn how to live with it. So do you. Most of the time, it simply is not worth the effort to explain to someone who (a) won't even remember and (b) doesn't care.

    For those who don't know, why is "temple" such an annoying phrase? From the orthodox perspective (and the conservative one, from what I understand), our position is that the only "temple" is the one with a capital T in Jerusalem that was destroyed and will be rebuilt in the future.

    "Temple" was a revolutionary idea created very early in the reform movement. And, to be honest, it's one of the most appropriate positions that the reform movement has ever taken. It's exactly on point with their philosophy. The idea is that since the Second Temple was destroyed in 77 CE, the Temple continues to exist through individual Jews, and the Temple can be recreated wherever those Jews assemble and live Jewishly. From their perspective, it's removing the intermediaries and going straight to G-d. If you like analogies, I think of the Protestant Reformation and the opposition to the authority of the Pope and priests.

    Of course, that argument would make you think that the orthodox think that the Temple is necessary today as an intermediary. We don't, though I admit I'm not as well versed with the orthodox arguments as the reform one. However, my personal understanding is that the Temple is someone very specific and irreplaceable (except by another one, of course). I think there is such a difference between the closeness between the Jewish people now and at the time the Temple stood, and that our synagogues can't compare. In essence, I find it presumptuous to compare the two. (Though being mostly vegetarian and a vegetarian/vegan sympathizer, I have my own concerns about how I would feel about the resurrection of animal sacrifices - but that's another discussion for another day.)

    As you might imagine, this is difficult to explain to people who don't feel the same way. Certainly more than you would generally like to do in casual conversation. So...I let it slide.

    As a side point, I often hear orthodox and reform Jews refer to a "conservative temple." My understanding is that the conservative movement's position is identical to the orthodox position. Therefore, please avoid referring to conservative synagogues as "temples."

    Following that tangent, something I don't understand is why, if the orthodox are so opposed in principle to the use of the word "temple," why do they say "reform temple" and "conservative temple"?? Besides not liking it when other people say it, I don't ever use it to refer to other synagogues of any group. Of course, if you hear the word "temple" from an orthodox mouth, you can be almost certain that it was said with a sneer! In that sense, it's very similar to the use of the word "goy" (See Adventures in Semantics: Goy v. Non-Jew).

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    A Response to a Very Good Question: Why Not Fake It 'Til You Make It?

    I saw a great question about conversions. I decided to post the question and my answer to that question here because I think that's a struggle the overwhelming majority of orthodox converts face at some point in their process. How would you respond?

    Not to risk offending anybody, but I'd be curious as to why people chose to pursue an Orthodox conversion instead of becoming an observant Conservative Jew. I don't see the racism going away anytime soon, and the Orthodox are more likely to yank your conversion if it takes you time to get up to speed on halacha.

    I understand not wanting to hurt your grandchildrens' sidduch if you are in childbearing years (although it doesn't look like Orthodoxconversion is going to help you or your children marry well.) It seems that other branches of Judaism have better resources for learning since they are more open to converts. I have no issues with being observant, but the more I study, the more it seems that artificial barriers have been put in place. (I am studying Hillel and Shammai right now.)

    Or excessively conservative interpretations on issues like kol isha, which originated from a man's need not to be aroused when saying the Shema (and has been extrapolated by the Hassidim to prohibit a woman from publically speaking, even in an educational context.) I am starting to weary of the increasing frumer than thou standards which distract me from the spirituality of Judaism. It seems easier to obsess over hem length than to develop chesed. And that is the reason I want to convert -to do the mitzvoth and to develop my spiritual connection to Hashem.

    Not trying to upset anyone, but I really would like to know what went into your thinking.

    (Note that I didn't address each specific issue, but tried to address the overarching issue.)

    This is a great question! And I think almost every orthodox convert has been at that point (I know I have!). Every person must "come to terms" with the things that "worry" them in orthodoxy before converting orthodox. I put those in quotes because I eventually learned that I didn't need to "come to terms" at all, simply because I was misunderstanding, and these weren't things that "worried" me at all!

    In short, anyone who decides to convert orthodox for any reason less than believing that is the only way to be Jewish AND the only way to be fulfilled in this life is going to end up a very, very unhappy person. Also, as difficult as the orthodox conversion process has become, I'm not sure anyone has the ability/patience to "fake it until you make it." I, as well as any Jew who knows anything about the conversion process today, am SO impressed when I meet someone who "survives" the orthodox conversion process. It's truly a trial by fire sometimes.

    Going deeper, why did I eventually decide these "issues" with halacha were simply misunderstandings? Because we're approaching halacha with our secular perspectives. I'm female, and I'm a huge supporter of the way halacha "treats" women! I think it allows women to be the best they can be, as a woman; and the same for the men and their mitzvot, of course. However, when you look through a secular lens, all you see is that the genders are treated differently, and our society says that is presumptively bad. (However, being in my 20s, I studied the more "modern" feminism which recognizes that there are gender differences and that women should learn their strengths and focus on those, rather than trying to be everything a man is!) And as a soon-to-be lawyer (I graduate in a couple of months!), I don't feel that my self-empowerment is harmed in any way in orthodox Judaism, but that I am more fully "myself" and that I am more able to cultivate my strengths through the mitzvot required of women. In fact, from a psychology standpoint, I think it's harmful for women to wear tzitit, tefilin, and tallis. We are such physical creatures with pretty objects, and I was so jealous in my conservative congregation because I wanted my tallis to be the prettiest of them all! That's when I realized that something was wrong, and that that's probably why I wasn't commanded to don a tallis.

    On a slightly tangential note, it's interesting to me that women are so upset by the physical mitzvot required of men. However, people forget that ALL Jews (even the Reform movement holds this) are bound by the ethical halacha. We all have to avoid gossip, be honest in business dealings, judge others positively, etc. There are more than enough mitzvot to keep me busy without worrying about what men "wear" in public!

    I then pointed the question writer to Liberal Conversion: the Gateway Drug for a consideration of the philosophical differences between the movements that might make a liberal convert decide to become orthodox.

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    Halachic Discussion: Kosher Animals

    There's a common argument that I've always found interesting: that the Torah names ten species of kosher land animals, and that no other animals have ever been discovered to display the two signs of a kosher species. (The signs are that the animal chews its cud and has a split hoof.) Also impressive is that the four animals identified as showing only one of the two signs (aka, be warned!) remain the only species to date that only show one sign.

    The animals listed in Deuteronomy (Devarim) are the ox, sheep, goat, deer, gazelle, yahmur, the'o, pygarg, antelope, camelopardalis.

    My question: Where is the cow? From everything I can find, the untranslated animals above are clearly not cow-like. And cows don't seem very ox-like to me.

    More fundamentally: Is the basic claim true?

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    A Milestone: 100 Blog Posts!

    It seems like I started this blog yesterday! Yet here we are, 100 blog posts in!

    I hope you've all enjoyed my blog as much as I've enjoyed writing for you! I hope you've found it comforting, funny, and useful. After all, conversion/becoming observant shouldn't be as soul-crushing and humorless as some people would like you to believe it is!

    Thankfully (and as I had hoped), there was a real need for these kinds of discussions, even if just to know that we're not alone. If I have learned anything from this venture, it's that I'm nowhere near alone! And every person has been incredibly interesting!

    Now, since I love statistics, here are some stats/observations!
    • Started on October 20, 2010, which means the blog is currently only 2 and a half months old!
    • 9,900 Page views
    • 985 Feed views
    • 150 Average views per day, per my totally uncalculated estimate
    • Countries where readers have accessed the site include such surprising entries as Malta, China, South Korea, Mexico, Sweden, Slovenia, Russia, the Ukraine, Japan, Croatia, and Norway!
    • The U.S. is the clear readership leader, with heavy contingents from the UK and Israel. Canada and Australia come limping behind. Which country comes in 6th? A very surprising (to me) South Korea!
    • Money earned from my minimal ads: A whopping $11.54. No check gets cut until I reach $100, which (at this rate) I expect will be about a year and a half from now! But then I'll have an amazing dinner out thanks to you guys!
    • My favorite search term to bring someone to my site: "what is a shomer negiah honeymoon." I'll tell you what it is: a great disappointment! However, after the initial reaction, I understood the question, and I hope you found your answer! It's still a honeymoon, even though some things are different!
    • The Google search terms generally tell me that you're afraid of failing the beit din and interested in dating, fashion, how long conversions take, and the differences between conversions by different movements. You also really, really love googling things about Shyne.
    • I had no idea how much I love to use parentheses until I began writing here.
    • To date, only one comment has been designated as spam. I think you commenters have been fantastic!
    • Facebook has consistently remained my biggest recorded traffic source from Day 1. I have no way of recording statistics on who is coming directly to the site from memory or a bookmark.
    • And as a devoted Mac user for four years, I'm very sad to see that a whopping 61% of you use Windows. (I sure hope the blog shows up with the same format on different operating systems!) I've also learned that there are SO many browsers that I've never heard of before!

    Thanks for reading! I wish you all peace, humor, health, good friends, and a smidgen of happiness!

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    The Lingering Effects of Chanukah

    I wrote before that I didn't "get" Chanukah (Shabbat Shalom! The Chanukah Edition). Well, I didn't expect to be proven wrong so quickly! Somehow, I internalized Chanukah without even realizing it.

    How did I figure this out? I saw a LOT of TV on New Year's and the week leading up to it. My family is the kind that always keeps a TV on for background noise. In addition, my family loves college (American) football. But in a pinch, any kind of football will do. I would estimate that I have seen/heard about 40 hours' worth of football in the last week. I'm reasonably interested in sports, and I'd even planned to take on pro football as a new "hobby" next year when I would finally be free from the evil mistress known as homework. Now...I no longer have that ambition. Now I just can't imagine why people would put themselves through that kind of abuse for fleeting fame and money.

    My New Year's Eve Shabbat was not very Shabbosdich ("Shabbos-y") because of all the noise, TV, and cooking. I tried reading as much as I could, but I'm very easily distracted. As far as I know, I'm the only one of my Shabbat-observant friends who saw the ball drop in New York City.

    As I saw the advertisements (amazing how they all tied into common New Year's resolutions!) and activities (football and the "kissing" at midnight), I was kinda repulsed. Really, no lie, actual revulsion. At one point, a light bulb just came on above my head that here it is, Greek culture, alive and well today. The worship of the human physique, the focus on the physical form (I think I've seen 4,234 Weight Watchers commercials!), the indulgence in fleeting physical relationships... I actually had to turn away from the footage of the Midnight Kisses because I seriously felt like I was intruding into a very personal, intimate moment, not to mention the tznius issues for those who were actually making out.

    Wow, I sound like a naysayer prude. And my family would think I'm crazy if they read this. For them, this was all harmless, simple fun. But to me, it reflected a very dangerous and downright sad way of viewing the world. It's amazing how many not-so-subtle messages we beam into our brains every day without a second thought. No wonder it takes so long for converts and the newly-observant to internalize an orthodox Jewish worldview when everything around us is its antithesis!

    And just like learning a language, one day you suddenly realize you've internalized the lessons because you finally had a dream in the language. This New Year's, I saw the world through the lens of Chanukah.   ...Just a month late.

    Monday, January 3, 2011

    Planning Your Tzedakah/Charity for the 2011 Tax Year

    It's that time of year! The new tax year! Yay! (Spoken like a true tax law student!)

    Jews are encouraged to plan their tzedakah  for the year during the 10 Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. (Tzedakah is usually translated to English as "charity," but the two concepts have a completely different justification.) However, most people probably don't think about it until the new tax year is actually here. Especially after the 482 emails and 58 letters asking for your money before the last tax year ends!

    I sincerely believe that regular giving is more important than the amount you give. One of the lessons that has been most influential in my life is that we should give every single day in order to get into the habit of giving, which will then turn into the actual emotional desire to give. I've found that to be true in my life, even from putting one coin a day in my tzedakah box. 

    This is probably the only time you'll see anything about my personal finances, but I thought this was an interesting discussion of problems shared by many, especially those just beginning to give tzedakah in a planned way while being low-income.

    As you should all know, I'm a grad student. I live by the grace of student loans. Law school has become famously expensive in the last 15-20 years. Even with approximately 40% of my tuition covered by scholarships, I'm going to graduate with about $150k in debt between grad school and undergrad. Add to that I'm about to move to the notoriously expensive NYC without a job lined up and be unemployed for several months anyway while I prepare for the NY and NJ Bar exams. That's more than a little frightening, as you might imagine! This also means I'm trying to save money from my jobs like a fiend.

    I've been giving tzedakah haphazardly (aka, without any kind of plan) until now. Thanks to a clever suggestion from friend/commenter Leah Sarah, I've decided to make my own giving plan. Tzedakah has been more than a little confusing to me simply because my primary source of income is loans, though I always work more than one job at any given time (some paid, some not). This leaves a lot of doubt as to what I should consider as my "income." For example, my student loans are not considered income for tax purposes, so I'll pay income tax on the amounts I pay towards the principal of that loan in the future. That brings up questions for my future income since that really won't be my "income" since it'll already be earmarked, and it will not be an insignificant amount (aka over $1k/month). For some reason, the shiurim I've heard on tzedakah do not address these questions, though I've heard some people say tzedakah should not be paid out of loan funds, but then again, the needy are required to give tzedakah from the tzedakah they receive!

    I came to a compromise to continue giving without putting me (or the future self bankrolling my current lifestyle) into the poorhouse. I'm going to give regularly to one organization each month, a different group each month. As many of you know, Jews like to give money in multiples of $18 because 18 represents the numerical value of the word chai, life. So I'm going to give some amount along those lines, while separately giving from windfalls I might receive during the year. Hopefully, this plan will have to undergo a major renovation in November, when I will, G-d willing, be a licensed attorney with a job! (Bar exams are held twice each year in February and July, and the July test results are released in November.)

    I encourage each of you to renovate your own tzedakah plan or create one!

    Sunday, January 2, 2011

    Management Update: No More Posts on Sundays

    I think the title just about sums it up. Regular posts will now be Monday-Friday, with random posts added as they come up!