Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adventures in Semantics: D'Oraisa v. D'Rabbanan

Just a quick vocabulary lesson today!

There are many ways to classify mitzvot, and one of the major ways is by source: from the Torah or from the rabbis.

Mitzvot d'oraita (mitzvos d'oraisa) are mitzvot directly from the Torah, both the Written Law and the Oral Law. The theoretical punishment (when there was/will be a Sanhedrin) for breaking these mitzvot is stricter than those d'rabbanan. Generally, there are less leniencies allowed, so it's sometimes important to know whether a mitzvah is d'oraisa or d'rabbanan.

As you can probably guess, mitzvot d'rabbanan (mitzvos d'rabbanan) are derived from rabbinic sources. There can be a much greater variation of observance with mitzvot d'rabbanan than mitzvot d'oraisa. This is where you find the rabbinic "fences" that are intended to prevent people from accidentally violating mitzvot d'oraisa. The rabbis can and do still institute new mitzvot. It's totally dated by now, but I always think of when electricity and cars were invented.

Related to this discussion are minhagim (plural of minhag, custom). Customs are considered a subset of mitzvot d'rabbanan because they are adopted by the rabbis as mitzvot, but they are less clearly connected to the Torah.

If you want to read slightly more in depth on the subject, check out this good beginner's reference at Jew FAQ!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Passover Timeline: When Do I Do What?

Last year during the High Holydays, I had to write out a timeline of the Holydays for my school in order to justify why I couldn't attend certain classes because of a religious holiday. (Because of night classes, just putting down a date wasn't sufficient because many days, I could attend day classes but not a night class.)

I decided this is a fabulous idea, so let's make a timeline for Pesach! (There is more to come on all of these topics, so don't freak out if you don't know what something is! We'll talk about it very soon!)

NOTE: This presumes you are in the Diaspora, as we discussed yesterday. And let's hope I got all the dates right! Be sure to add your additions, corrections, and comments below!

Yom Tov Restrictions:
Sundown April 18-Sundown April 20: The first two days of Pesach have yom tov restrictions (similar to Shabbat restrictions, but we'll talk about that in the next week or so).
Sundown April 20-Sundown April 24: Chol hamoed. Technically, there aren't yom tov restrictions, but there are restrictions unique to chol hamoed. You should particularly try to avoid any "skilled work." If you are considering working or doing schoolwork during this period, you should consult your rabbi. The most notable general issues: 1) You may cook. 2) You may "light a fire." 3) You may not do laundry unless it's for the holiday and was impossible to do before the holiday began. 4) Generally, hair cutting and shaving is forbidden. 5) You should be festive.
Sundown April 24-Sundown April 26: Yom tov restrictions.

Things to Do:
April 15-16: Shabbat HaGadol (the Great Shabbat). We read from the book of Malachi.
April 17: By now, you should know if you're going to sell any chametz. If so, you need to make the appropriate arrangements with a local rabbi, probably before April 17. If you're more isolated, Chabad allows for the sale of chametz through their website. You will also need to have the sold chametz put away appropriately.
Evening of April 17: Search for chametz. There is a blessing for this.
Morning of April 18: Burn the chametz you found the night before. Then make the declaration that nullifies any other chametz that may accidentally be left. You may not eat chametz after a particular time this morning, which you should look up for your location.
April 18: Fast of the Firstborn (males). You may not actually have to fast even if you are a qualified firstborn.
Sundown April 18: Pesach begins at sundown. We light candles. Tonight is the first seder!
Sundown April 19: We light candles again after sunset. (Remember to use an existing flame!) Then go to the second seder!
Sundown April 20: Recite havdalah but without the blessing for the candle or spices. At the maariv service, we begin to count the Omer.
Count the Omer at maariv each night after April 20.
Sundown April 22: Light Shabbat candles before sunset like normal. Instead of two challahs, use two matzahs.
April 23: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. In addition to the normal Pesach readings, we read Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim) during the Torah service.
Sundown April 23: Recite havdalah like normal.
Sundown April 24: Light candles for the two yom tov days at the end of Pesach. Have a festive meal!
Sundown April 25: We light candles again after sunset. (Remember to use an existing flame!)
April 26: We recite the Yizkor memorial service after the Torah reading.
Sundown April 26: Pesach ends! Recite havdalah without the blessing on the candle or spices. Now go eat some chametz! If you sell your chametz, you will be told to wait a certain amount of time in order to allow the rabbi to buy your chametz back. Generally, this is about an hour. If you're going to eat chametz that wasn't sold, you may eat it immediately. Most people go out for pizza, bagels, or donuts.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Is the Diaspora?

This post will be short and sweet. You'll hear people frequently refer to "the Diaspora." In short, that's everywhere but Israel.

Being in the Diaspora or not can affect holiday observances. Some holidays that are two days in the Diaspora are only one day in Israel because that's how it's supposed to be observed. This is because the new month used to be announced by bonfires, and sometimes there was doubt as to which day a holiday would fall on. Therefore, the outlying communities observed the holiday on both possible days it could be. This halachic issue gets more complicated when a person living in the Diaspora visits Israel during an affected holiday or an Israeli Jew visits the Diaspora during an affected holiday. Generally, your rabbi will advise you to observe the holiday as you would where you live. When Israeli Jews visit the Diaspora, they're supposed to be careful not to be too obvious that they're observing only one day because it could confuse a Diaspora Jew into thinking that the day isn't actually a holiday with the yontif restrictions.

The Diaspora also goes to the idea of exile. The Jews remain in exile today, and the Diaspora is that exile.

Last but not least... For most readers of this blog, the Diaspora comes up in Israeli politics, particularly conversion politics. You'll often see news articles about the Israeli Rabbinate's policies affecting "Diaspora conversions." Because many converts want to make aliyah (or their children might want to), the Israeli Rabbinate's conversion policies/recognition necessarily affect how conversions are done abroad. Even if you personally don't plan to make aliyah (and you may change your mind), you should know how your conversion interacts with aliyah and the Rabbinate.

Monday, March 28, 2011

News: Religious Services Minister Calls for Bill to Outlaw Non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel

Here's a news story for you: Margi Calls for Law Against Non-Orthodox Movements. Just to be clear, no bill exists at this time.

To give you the general idea, "To strengthen its status, Margi called for legislation making the Chief Rabbinate the supreme rabbinical institution in Israel and the world, and wants to move the rabbinate under the ministerial authority of the Religious Services Ministry instead of the Prime Minister’s Office."

How to Find a Seder for Passover

If you don't already have plans for your Pesach/Passover seder, you should get on that! As an introverted person (I promise, but no one believes me) with social anxiety, I know how difficult it can be to ask people to invite you to their seder. Of course, things are much easier if you have family or in-laws hosting a seder. But what about people who are essentially alone in the Jewish world? And even worse, those early in the conversion journey and nervous about going to an orthodox home! The ideal arrangement is when people invite you without being asked to. But sometimes, that just isn't possible.

Pesach is a notoriously family-oriented holiday, and this makes asking people to invite you to their seder even more intimidating and awkward. However, know that an overwhelming majority of the people I've ever spoken with absolutely love having guests! They're also sensitive to the fact that people, particularly students, a) may not have family, b) may not have family observing Pesach, or c) can't go home to their families. This makes them want to invite you even more! Generally, you won't have to reveal your circumstances unless you want to. Of course, nosy people will probably ask questions in that direction, but you can simply say, "I'd rather not talk about it," and that should be the end of that. It's better if you can skillfully redirect the conversation, but most people aren't that good when faced with Jewish Geography or Nosy Bubbe.

So if you don't already have your two seders planned (assuming you're in the Diaspora), check out the following resources:

  • Call your Jewish friends and see what their plans are. Hopefully, you can either join their seder or piggyback onto their seder invitation. This is the ideal solution.
  • Your local synagogue. Yes, just call up the shul office and say you are looking for a seder. There is almost certainly either a hospitality committee or organizer. This is the next-to-ideal solution.
  • The local Jewish Federation or Jewish Community Center.
  • If you're a student, the local Hillel, Jewish Student Union, or other Jewish student group will probably host a seder. And if not, they definitely should have access to hospitality in people's homes. People LOVE inviting students!
  • The National Jewish Outreach Program's Passover Across America

Good seder hunting! Any awkwardness is totally worth a good seder. Trust me.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Weekend in Review

The first weekend in my new community was a success! Much less stressful than I was afraid of, and I had a really good time! I'm lucky to know good people already and through Ilan, and they've been introducing me to some really amazing people. And even better, I got to check out two shuls instead of just one!

No apartment...yet. Waiting to hear on one, but that's what I get for apartment hunting more than a month in advance. Of course, I didn't have much choice in the matter. Worst case scenario, I suppose I could fly back during chol hamoed, but it shouldn't come to that.

Tonight I fly back to California, and then I have to hit the ground running with school! Three more weeks of law school to finish five classes...terrifying! One way or another, law school is finished April 18.

On the bright side, I've got my seders arranged. Do you?? Get on that.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Country Mouse Visits the City Mice

It's Spring Break! Yay! And what did I do with it? I worked my day job and now I'm apartment hunting in NYC. Not the most exciting Last Spring Break on record. Now, I'm about to have my first Shabbos in my new community. It's pretty nerve-racking, especially because it's also the old community of my friend Ilan. A lot of people already know who I am either because of my original blog post about him or from Ilan speaking about me to his friends. No pressure, right? Right.

I'm writing on Thursday as I steal the interwebs in the YU library thanks to a friend. Be very very quiet, I'm hunting Maccabeats... Not really, but the joke had to be made.

Related to the first paragraph about social pressure, this library is surprisingly anxiety-provoking. I may be a hoot at parties, but social anxiety is a real issue for me. Here, I'm surrounded by other Jews. Ones my age! And men! This is like my own personal Twilight Zone. Ok, so Brooklyn streimel-ville would be my real Twilight Zone, but this is definitely heading in that direction. In both my orthodox communities, I've been the only person in my age range. Ilan moving to my community last year was already SUCH a change. I'm looking around and this room is full of young frum Jews. This is totally alien to my experience.

My life is about change dramatically, and I have no idea what it's going to be like. Scary!

I'm very lucky to already have a small mishpacha formed. But the adoptive mispacha is another tale for another day. I'm so thankful for them.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Convert Questions: What Is the Deal with Tattoos?

Piercings were covered here.

Tattoos are a huge concern for converts and baalei teshuva. Before becoming observant, they may have gotten tattoos, and now Jews have filled them with all kinds of unfounded fears. You will not be denied burial in a Jewish cemetery. You may use the mikvah. You might not have to get the tattoos removed.

Of course, at least with tattoo removal, you should consult your rabbi. If it's a tattoo of another religion, you will very likely be asked to remove it. However, there are issues if the removal will cause more physical harm than leaving it. (Sometimes removal procedures can result in significant scarring.) In order to prevent any further "damage" to the body, some rabbis do not recommend removal unless otherwise necessary or desired.

Keep in mind that there is a third option if removal of an inappropriate tattoo isn't possible for some reason: cover ups. If you aren't familiar with this term, it's using an old, unwanted tattoo as the basis for a new tattoo: "hiding" the old one. However, you will want a very good artist in order to avoid a catastrophe of a new tattoo that doesn't even hide the old one. Ask for references and examples.

Now where does this issue come from? Tattoos are still relatively taboo in the Jewish world, even in the more liberal movements. The younger generations are getting them increasingly, but even before you get to the halachic issues, there is a serious stigma from the Holocaust. Just in case you aren't already aware, the Nazis tattooed concentration camp inmates with a serial number on their forearms, and to the Nazis, that was their identification. To this day, there is a serious emotional reaction to tattoos in the entire Jewish community.

What are the halachic issues? a) Like piercings, tattoos are changing the natural form of your body. Your body is a temple, after all! b) In Biblical times, tattoos were used to show allegiance to particular idols. c) There is a specific Torah commandment against self-injury during mourning, which were also idolatrous practices. "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am HaShem." (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:28). This includes purposeful self-mutilation, cutting, scarification, burning, etc. Note that the psychological self-mutilation issue is very different from these kinds of actions being done for the sake of beauty or idolatry. Of course, the alternative argument is that this isn't done for the purpose of mourning or idolatry. Rabbis will still often rule against tattooing.

And just like piercings, the other major issue is fitting in to orthodox society. If you have a visible tattoo, you may want to consider having it removed simply for peace's sake (or your shidduch chances!). Of course, it may matter where that visible tattoo is. The arms or legs are probably different very different from a facial tattoo!

In almost any community, you will not be the only tattooed individual going to the mikvah. They've seen it before, and you'll be ok. There is no prohibition against you using the mikvah unless the community has made one. I'm sure there are places that would deny you mikvah services for that. However, it may matter to explain to the community rabbi in advance that you have tattoos, but they were done before your conversion. If that satisfies his concern for community standards, he can give an approval for you to use the mikvah.

Now to the big deal: there is no halacha that says tattooed folks can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery! Some uninformed people go so far as to tell these tattooed people that they have to have their tattooed arm cut off and buried elsewhere! That is simply not true. Further, that kind of postmortem dismemberment is blatantly against halacha as disrespecting the dead. It is possible that individual cemeteries or burial societies (the chevra kadisha) may have policies against it. Gd-willing, you will have the time to purchase your own burial plot and will be aware of any policy long before it's necessary. Also, as the times have changed, these societies may be forced to change their policies rather than deny burial to a growing percentage of tattooed Jews. (As a sidenote, since the argument is that a "voluntary" tattoo is against halacha, it may matter that the tattoo was done pre-conversion, and thus, not prohibited at the time.)

So that you don't have to believe me on the burial issue, here are three respectable sources that say the same:
The Orthodox Union: Very detailed and footnoted.

Timing: Whatever you decide, you need to have it done before your conversion. After the mikvah, you will be held to the same halacha, and you will probably be stuck with what you've got. Think about that carefully.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What All Branches of Judaism Can Agree On: Jesus Is Not Moshiach

Let's talk a little about Moshiach (the Messiah). I'll admit, I'm not as well versed on Moshiach as I should be because since there is no world peace, I know that Moshiach hasn't arrived yet. The lion has not laid down with the lamb, we haven't made our swords into plowshares, and there is not an end to war. While I have so many other areas that need more immediate detailed knowledge (kashrut, lashon hara, etc), I don't see the need to delve further than the knowledge I just listed. (If you disagree, I'd love to hear your argument!)

So let's get one thing straight: If you want to convert to Judaism-in any movement-Jesus is not Moshiach. You cannot believe in Jesus as anything more than a historical person. (But yes, you can believe he existed as a historical person.) Messianic Jews are not Judaism, they belong to Christianity. Many aren't even Jews. I suggest checking out Jews for Judaism. Further, Jesus is not a prophet in the Jewish religion; you're thinking of Islam (as I understand).

I know, I get off easy because I wasn't raised Christian. I didn't have to work to overcome a Christian training. (Though that might be debatable since I grew up in the Bible Belt!) However, my understanding is that many former Christians approach Judaism precisely because Jesus doesn't "seem right" to them. If you feel pulled between these two worlds, I wish you luck and strength.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Judging Others Favorably

I had an interesting thought recently: What do you call someone who always judges favorably?


Of course, the halacha is more complicated. However, there is an undeniable trend in the stories that the tzaddikim judged favorably even when the Torah did not require them to.

There is a story of the Chofetz Chaim advising the wife of a rabbi. The wife was upset that her husband allowed people to take advantage of him.

The Chofetz Chaim said, "True, if someone is always good to others, he might sometimes suffer. However, if he were insensitive to other people, they would suffer because of him. In the long run, when a man's good and bad deeds are weighed against each other, he will realize that it is better for him to have suffered as a result of his good deeds to others, rather than for others to have suffered because of him." (Amud HaChessed)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Purim Is Over, Now Pesach Is Coming: Start Your Cleaning!

Now that Purim is over, you can begin really thinking about your Pesach preparations! I know, right? We all love Pesach (Passover) preparations! ...Not.

If you haven't prepared for Pesach before, I suggest taking it slow. Last year, I didn't kasher my kitchen because I had just decided to be orthodox and didn't know what I was doing. However, I did all the cleaning, including the kitchen. Pesach is possibly the original spring cleaning. Unfortunately for you, Pesach cleaning isn't optional or on your own schedule.

(Side note: I did help kasher the synagogue kitchen for Pesach, and if you're given this opportunity, I highly suggest taking it. I learned a great deal about kashering from it!)

So let's talk about cleaning.

The GOAL: Rid the house of all edible chametz (foods made of leavened grain flour). Remember that edible is defined as anything a dog would eat. If you have questions whether something is either chametz or edible, ask your rav.

The process: Clean your house one step at a time, and once a place has been cleaned, don't bring any chametz in there anymore. To be safe, don't take any food in there afterwards. Of course, this is more difficult in some areas than others.

Begin with the least-likely offenders: the bathrooms, the closets, the garage.

Move to the places where you sometimes have chametz: bedrooms and the car. Remember that you can't bring chametz in there after that!

Delay as long as you can on the living room and kitchen. Yes, you need to move the couch and vacuum under it. You even need to remove the couch cushions and clean there! Shampooing would be ideal.

And don't forget the halls, entryways, windowsills, light switches, door knobs, porches, dresser drawers, shelves, bookcases, and your nightstand.

While you're in the bathroom, throw out your expired toiletries, medicines, and make-up. Set aside any that are kosher for Pesach. Separately set aside toiletries that will need to be sold for Pesach. Talk to your rabbi about his rulings on this issue because there are significant differences of opinion. It's even possible that you may not have to separate anything.

What's more complicated? You need to clean your workspace. Any place that you own, rent, or lease needs to be free of chametz. You have a cubicle at school? Locker? You probably need to clean that too. And yes, your co-workers will think you're insane if you explain this to them. My advice? Pretend you're stressed and/or bored and on a cleaning streak. If you have only shared workspace and you're able to take off all of Pesach, I suggest speaking to your rabbi. You should probably speak to your rabbi about your workspace anyway.

And the most practical note of all: Start eating all that chametz in your pantry, fridge, and freezer! Sure, you can sell it to a non-Jew for Pesach, but it's better if it doesn't exist.

Happy chametz hunting! At least this gets me one step closer to moving, right? Right. And as annoying as Pesach cleaning is, you feel amazing afterwards when you sit back and admire your handiwork.

More Pesach steps will be discussed soon. If you want a more advanced discussion, google it or check out this Aish article: Passover Cleaning Made Easy. Note that it goes into kashering issues.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dealing with Coping

How do you cope with going back to normal life when you're not "normal" anymore? I don't remember who originally asked me that question, but it's the perfect way to describe things.

My answer? Everyone copes, whether they want to or not. Some do it better than others. And some circumstances are more conducive to coping than others.

It's been two weeks since Ilan passed away, and that was only the beginning of the pain of the last two weeks in my life. Some of you know some of the things going on in the different areas of my life, but only two know the whole picture. There are also horrific, sad, and terrifying events happening in the world in the last two weeks. A perfect storm in my life, you might say.

As for grief, I feel like I'm relatively far along in the process. Perhaps I've just been distracted by school, work, and the other problems, but I don't think that's it. I also don't think I'm numbed. I was effectively on my own for the first days after Ilan's death. There was no support system to soften the blow or create distractions. I'm sure there are benefits from a support system, particularly that you can spread the grief over time in more manageable chunks. Me? It all came out in one fell swoop with nothing to hold it back. I cried and grieved until I physically couldn't anymore. The levaya (funeral) released a lot of the same emotions again, but today, there is just that dull ache of loss and an occasional sharp pain.

How have the grieving and other problems affected me? I began having low-level panic attacks after a long time without medication. I'm back on meds, and while they can't have kicked in yet, the placebo effect is a blessing. Along those lines, so many areas of my life have had significant and awful things happen that my anxiety has tried to focus my attention on the areas that can still go wrong. On the physical level, I've lost almost 10lbs. I'm aware that's not healthy (though I was already purposely losing weight), so I'm trying to get that back in check. However, I'm sure the shadchans would approve :P The stress nausea has finally eased a great deal. On the bright side, fasting has been remarkably easy today (I'm writing on Thursday).

But how am I trying to affect the anxiety and grief? As the old cliches go, it's one day at a time. More than that, it's one task at a time. Somehow, in a way totally unknown to me, I've still managed to get my homework done in time for my classes. Well, as done as it is at any other time! I recognized that I have no capacity to multitask. Therefore, I've tried to avoid asking myself to do things I'm not physically or mentally capable of. Sure, I could be further along in my moving preparations, school work, or actually have a clean house. That'll come in time. And if I run out of time, I run out of time. Worse things have happened, but I know how to forgive myself when I miss the mark. Also, by paying attention to what I'm focusing on, I can try to focus it away from anxious thoughts. It doesn't always work, but every little bit helps. And as you can see from some parts of this post, I'm still trying to see the humor in life, although most of the humor I've found lately is quite dark. Perhaps humor in the face of pain is a natural talent, but maybe it can be learned. I'm afraid I don't know.

In the immortal words of Dory, "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim."

That's all awfully internal...what about other people? I don't know, really. Two weeks ago, there were four important people in my life. Now there are two. On the other hand, I've spoken, emailed, and Facebooked with so many new people, all genuinely concerned about me and wanting to share their support. It's been incredible. But it's entirely new to me, and I'm not sure what to do with it. It's overwhelming to have so much support and that has strengthened my connection to the Jewish people. I'm forming a true mishpacha. Just be patient with my social awkwardness :)

Six weeks until moving day, and only three more weeks of law school. I'm beyond ready to get a fresh start.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Convert Questions: Can a Convert Keep His or Her Piercings?

Tattoos are discussed here.

Piercings can be an issue for two primary reasons: 1) keeping your body intact and in its natural form and 2) because piercings used to indicate that a person (particularly a male) was a slave.

In general today, piercings don't appear to be an issue for conversion candidates except for social reasons. Ear piercings, even multiple ones, probably won't be brought up. If you're a "young" woman (under 30 or so), nose piercings generally won't be an issue. A belly button ring likely won't be an issue because if you're dressing tzniusly, no one should know it's there. I even had/have an unusual ear piercings (tragus), and in my old community, no one thought anything of it. Of course, know your community, and there are communities with standards considerably stricter.

However, other facial piercings or tongue piercings will likely bring a reaction from a beit din. They will warn you that orthodox society doesn't look favorably on them and it could hamper your integration into the community.

There is also a practical consideration: the mikvah. Can you remove any piercing in order to go to the mikvah? In my case, I had a skin piercing that had to be removed once I knew I would be heading to the mikvah for my conservative conversion. The nape of my neck was pierced (very pretty and feminine, if you ask me!). Skin piercings require going back to a piercer to reinsert them, so I felt that it was easier for everyone if I let the piercing grow up. I miss it a little, but it's been worth it. The fact that (Gd willing) one day I'll be a regular mikvah user was certainly a consideration to me.

But remember, when in doubt, ask. However, be prepared that you may get an answer you don't like and/or don't personally agree with.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tomorrow Is Ta'anit Esther

Just in case you don't already know, tomorrow is a fast day: Ta'anit Esther (The fast of Esther). Because Purim falls on motzei Shabbos (Saturday night) and Sunday this year, the fast is pushed forward to the Thursday before.

The fast tomorrow is from sunrise to sunset. Normally, the fast would end after the Megillah reading at the beginning of Purim.

For tips on things you can do today to improve your fast tomorrow, check out Tips to Ensure an Easier Fast!

Revisiting the Mitzvah of Not Embarrassing People

It's raining in Northern California, and that means driving in the rain with Californians. This is ugly. And it made me reflect on Monday's post. I said that I put a lot of emphasis on avoiding embarrassment. However, I realized that I have an area of my life where I actually WANT to embarrass people. Where does that leave me halachicly??

This comes as a surprise to many people, but I am an unapologetic car horn honker.

A month in Egypt apparently converted me to the powers of the car horn. But seriously, there is no more effective way to communicate with other drivers. My very first car didn't have a functioning horn for the first couple of weeks. Sure enough, someone tried to merge into me, and I couldn't do anything about it! (Something about me attracts unsafe merging.)

I (generally) don't honk out of anger. However, one of my primary purposes in honking is to publicly shame other drivers. I like to call it "positive peer pressure." In other words, "You've done something unacceptable, you should know that was unacceptable, and I saw you. Feel shaaaame."

Now let's consider the "logical" process I worked through as I continued to drive (no honking was necessary, actually):

  • Honking is probably embarrassing someone, which would probably violate that mitzvah.
  • But maybe this is pikuach nefesh (saving a life).
  • Bad drivers are certainly a threat to my life and the lives of others. By pointing out their dangerous actions, hopefully they'll avoid doing it in the future, thus maybe saving a life in a future that never happens. (Yay sci-fi and theoretical physics! Questionable halachic argument?)
  • But sometimes I honk at them for something that's only stupid or careless, not dangerous.
  • Even stupid actions can place people in danger because that's a huge hunk of metal traveling at a high rate of speed compared to a pedestrian or smaller car. Even not paying enough attention can be dangerous. Maybe I've woken them back up from whatever stupor they were in.
  • Even something as stupid as when I honk at them for not going fast enough when the light turns green?
  • Yes. I will totally justify it with the stupor argument. Obviously they weren't paying enough attention.
  • But just in case, maybe it qualifies as a rebuke?
  • Is the other driver receptive to my rebuke? I don't know. That's a good question. How could I ever possibly know that?

And...scene. I hit the brick wall of an unknowable fact.

If it's any consolation, I take what I dish out. I'm pretty absent-minded, even when driving. And I do feel shamed when someone honks at me when I know I've done something stupid.

Thoughts? Welcome to my brain, this is what it's always like. And from what I understand, I'd fit in perfectly in Israeli driving culture. With the honking, at least. I'm a very non-aggressive driver otherwise. I even drive the speed limit. That's a mitzvah too, ya know :P

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Survival Kit: Living Without Kosher Restaurants

I'm a student, and I'm not particularly fond of cooking. (Though I'm a great chef's assistant!) And the closest kosher restaurant is 2 hours away. How on earth do I survive??

It's not for the faint of heart.

The answer is pretty straightforward. I cook at home, I eat at the homes of others, B"H for the growing kosher frozen foods market, and I take advantage of traveling! My cooking skills have improved exponentially despite my best efforts not to cook. Thankfully, even though I may not like cooking, apparently I'm not too bad at it. Even better, between 1/2 to 2/3 of the items in your local, run-of-the-mill grocery store are kosher. (Check with your rabbi as to which hechshers are recommended.) Yes, most of those are the name brands, and you will pay a little extra. (Going kosher is expensive. Didn't anyone tell you that?) If you have trouble getting anything, it will be kosher meats, cheeses, and wines. Nowadays, you can order all these items in bulk online. Several communities use services like the KC Kosher Coop to order in bulk as a community and have the items delivered every month or two.

Granted, it can be kinda boring to eat at home all the time. You will inevitably make the same 5-9 dishes. On the other hand, you'll be forced to be creative. Thanks to Leah Sarah, I now make awesome enchiladas! And to dispel any myths, I did not lose weight from not being able to eat out. Apparently you can get fat at home just as easily as in a restaurant :)

The worst? Figuring out you mistook something for a hechsher and the food you just went to the pantry for isn't actually kosher. (Especially when you're new, remember to double check!) Being aware of the mitzvah of not benefiting from mixtures of meat and milk, most nonkosher foods can be given away. Heaven knows my co-workers have inherited SO much food from me during the last year!

Here are some suggestions for your sanity (some of these are untested by me):

  • Figure out if you can eat/drink something from somewhere. I spend a ridiculous amount of reward points at Starbucks. It's just nice to have someone make something for you. Don't underestimate that psychological benefit.
  • Make friends with the good cooks in the community. If you're desperate, take whatever cooks you can get.
  • Try gardening. You'll have more ownership over the meals you prepare.
  • Claim you're going on a diet. Then you can justify a "raw foods diet" because you're too lazy to make anything but salads.
  • Cook in large batches (only slightly harder than cooking an individual meal) and freeze the rest in meal-sized portions so that you can defrost enough for one meal at a time. This is ideal with enchiladas, soup, breakfast burritos, quiche, stew, lasagna, and most any other kind of food.
  • If you're new to kashrut, consider having a meat-only or dairy-only kitchen for a while. I still have a mostly-dairy kitchen, and I added meat things as I decided I needed them. However, almost all of my meat supplies are still disposable. Hello, my name is Kochava, and I'm a fleishig phobe. (I hate being fleishig!)
  • Host meals or dinner parties. This way, you feel less like a hermit among your nonobservant/non-Jewish friends, and you have an excuse to get creative and surprise yourself! If you're a conversion candidate, be very careful here
  • Don't feel tied to a cookbook if you don't like them. I bought 15 kosher cookbooks for a quarter each, and I've used them twice. A) There are incredible recipe resources online. (The Food Network website is my favorite!), B) You probably know cooks who can give you suggestions. (Hi, Dad!), and C) you might be able to create a dish all by yourself! It's really not that hard.
  • Have a stash of ready-made frozen food and other ready-to-eat foods. You'll be less tempted to go for easy treif. Students, this goes triple for you.
  • Deal with any eating-out-of-boredom issues. This is particularly a problem with students. I'm sure you could survive fine without dealing with this issue, but it will be easier if you can break the habit/compulsion.
  • Take advantage of trips to larger Jewish communities. Pig out. You'll be glad you did.
  • Remember to treat yourself with foods you love. Continue to eat Mexican food or whatever. And buy/make a special dessert every so often! Going kosher doesn't have to be as ugly as a crash diet. 
  • You don't have to have gefilte fish in your kitchen if you don't want it there. Insert whatever other stereotypically "Jewish" food you hate. Except matzah. I don't like matzah, yet there it is, staring at me from the cupboard. ::Shudder::

B'hatzlacha and bon appetite! Feel free to share your own suggestions/horror stories in the comments!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Discussion: Your Favorite Mitzvah

Since it's the first day back, I'm throwing a softball.

What's your favorite mitzvah?

When all's said and done, I would say avoiding embarrassing other people. I try to put a lot of effort into that.

What do I look forward to improving? Kashrut. Only because I want to be an awesome host one day. So really, I want to improve my observance of hospitality, and kashrut is a means to an end :)

I guess I'm not surprised that interpersonal mitzvot come to my mind first. One day, I'll be an expert in mussar (not the fire and brimstone kind).

So what does this teach me? That I actually need to be more committed to the mitzvot between man and Gd. They don't come easily to me, and certainly not now. Gd and I are currently having issues. And while people have encouraged me to yell at Hashem as much as I need to, I apparently default to my four-year-old self and the silent treatment.

News: Massacre in Israel

Since there is so much going on in Japan and Libya, it appears that a crime against humanity has flown under the news radar. My dad is a total news junkie, and if I know news he doesn't, there is a problem. (My news sources are Facebook and Twitter. No TV for this girl for a couple of years. I know this means I'm lazy, and I'm ok with that.)

Someone snuck into a heavily-guarded "settlement" (whatever your political views are, nothing excuses this kind of sick behavior) and slaughtered two parents and three of their six children while they slept. The children were 11, 4, and 3 months old. Apparently mom put up a decent fight though. Thankfully, they missed two of the children, and the sixth was with the local Bnei Akiva group (a religious youth group that also exists in the US and probably everywhere else too).

Quite frankly, I don't know my own political views on "settlements" and Israel before Moshiach yet. A political science degree and eternal optimism make me want to consider every possible angle and reserve judgment. But stabbing a 4 year old through the heart and slashing an infant's throat is calculated to turn people into hawks. Or simply shows a total lack of humanity.

Gazans celebrated in the streets and gave out candy.

Lesson: Hawks v. Doves is a well-known way of categorizing Israelis' (and anyone else who is pro-Israel's) stance on national security. It's hard to explain the stances, but I'm sure the names help you figure it out. The particular issues and platforms may change, but those are the philosophical foundations.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Management Update: What Is this Blog, Anyway?

I thank all you regular readers for your patience with my sporadic writing this week. I hope to have the blog back to "normal" starting Monday morning at 7am Pacific.

Now, for you new folk. There's a lot of you. Like a lot a lot. On Tuesday, March 1st, I hit 20k pageviews after writing here since last October. Since last Friday, I've reached almost another 20k pageviews. I'm sure there are at least a few repeats, but I suspect that's at least 12k individual readers. I don't think many individuals came back to re-read the same post, but 15k visited before I posted again. (I like statistics. Unnaturally so.) Of course, I don't think all of those people will come back, but I'm sure some did. (Hello!)

You should know what I do here. I write about conversion and the Jewish community. I try to keep things objective, rational, and professional. However, I'm opinionated, and the conversion situation has become very complicated in the last 3-5 years. I've somehow done a decent job learning about orthodox society, and that can be the hardest information to find when you're a new convert or baal teshuva ("BT" is used frequently). My background: In total, I've spent about 4.5 years in small orthodox communities, though only fully observant for one year of that time. There's a lot of nuance in orthodox society and a lot of fun psychology going on. I like to talk about that. Also, the euphemisms in orthodox society can often confuse new people or leave them unprepared (first mikvah visit, anyone?).

However, there is also lots of run-of-the-mill beginner's education too. For example, a series of posts about how to choose a Hebrew name is one of the biggest Google draws to my site. Some of these posts may bore you, particularly if you're a born-Jew. There is little rhyme or reason in what I write about. It's whatever strikes me that week, requests in the comments, google search terms that lead people to the site, and ideas on a "to write someday" list. While this blog was started to write about my personal experiences, it quickly shifted away from that. The last few weeks have shown me that some of you actually kinda care what's going on with me, so I'm going to try to write a little more about my personal experiences, though I'm not sure how that'll work yet. I'm open to suggestions.

I'm happy if you born-Jews and non-Jews decide to stay, but at the end of the day, you're not my demographic (though BTs kinda are). However, please feel free to participate. Everyone's experiences are welcome.

If you decide to stay and you want regular updates from the blog, the easiest way is to "Like" my blog page on Facebook. To do that, use the "Find us on Facebook" box on the right side of the page. If you do that, every day's post will show up on your wall like any other status. You can also set up a "feed" (I use Google Reader). Google that if you want more info because I'm not sure how to easily explain it. And if you're really low tech, bookmark the main page.

If you choose to comment, know that I personally approve every comment. It's my website, I get to be a Type A control freak ;) But more importantly, there's enough bickering in the conversion world. I don't want to see it here. The conversation doesn't have to be friendly, but it must be respectful. I've been lucky so far. Only one comment crossed that line, though I approved it anyway for my own educational reasons.

Please note that while I write from an orthodox perspective and am personally orthodox, I'm not going to force that on anyone else. Converts and conversion candidates from all streams read my blog and are my friends. If I can tie my writing into the issues they face, I'm happy to do so. (Besides, most issues are across-the-board from reform to orthodox.) It's not my place to judge anyone. I'm a layperson, and heck, I'm not even halachically Jewish. There are plenty of people in this world who will judge you, and plenty of those people are more qualified to judge you than I am. My best guess is that you're not the appropriate person to judge the people here either. Please avoid doing so. (And for the record, approximately 60-66% of today's orthodox converts have had a liberal conversion. Keep that in mind before you give liberal converts a reason to hate orthodoxy.)

My two major non-school sanity activities are dog obedience training (I have two dogs, including a sociopathic puppy) and this blog. At the end of the day, this blog is for my own sanity. If you find it useful, funny, or enjoyable, I'm thrilled, but that's icing on the cake. If you enjoy me but don't care for the subjects on my blog, feel free to find me on Twitter and Facebook. The events of the last week have ruined any hope of anonymity for me, so why not? I fully admit that I'm weird and sometimes have a dark sense of humor, but I'm friendly.

And if you want to know my philosophy on life and blogging, this sums it up well:
"If you are going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh or they will kill you." - Oscar Wilde

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lessons from the Gentle Giant

Ilan passed a week ago tonight, and this has been the hardest week of my life. In addition to the obvious, there have been other serious issues in my life this week, all conspiring to give me panic attacks. Thankfully, and much to my surprise, I have handled the anxiety, anger, hurt, frustration, pain, etc, in a healthier way than I ever thought I was capable of, particularly because I have a panic and anxiety disorder.

I think half of the strength I've found comes from Ilan's memory ("What would Ilan do?"), and the other half comes from all of you. I've received messages from over 50 total strangers who shared a love of Ilan. The way the people in the UC Davis and Jewish communities have come together to support each other is simply incredible, and I think it's the most appropriate way to honor Ilan's memory. He was there for all of us, and now we are all there for each other.

Which brings me to some of the things I've been thinking about this week.

I've been blown away by seeing people embrace their very best qualities. Ilan was very good at seeing the best in people, and in the last week, everyone has lived up to the qualities that Ilan saw in them. Personally, I've received such kind words and offers from people who I would never have met, even despite Ilan's devious plans to integrate me into his old community when I move.

Every one of us has our own pain or fear when dealing with the death of a loved one, no matter how close you were or how long since you've had contact. Mine is that I know I had a short time with Ilan, so I don't have a large pool of memories to draw from. I'm very afraid that I'll forget these experiences. I've told these funny, touching, and silly stories to anyone who will listen, probably in some subconscious attempt to memorize the stories. However, a friend of Ilan had a great point: I'm internalizing the lessons I've learned from Ilan. I know it's natural that I'm going to forget at least some of these stories, but I feel better knowing that the real substance of those times with Ilan will stay with me.

Ilan and I joked a lot about Jewish Geography, and unlike many converts, I think it's great fun. However, I realize now that Jewish Geography was something much more serious to Ilan. It's not just making that initial connection, but it's maintaining that connection and strengthening Am Yisrael. But on a foundational level, it's seeing every person individually and taking the time to really KNOW him or her. I never thought I'd think of Jewish Geography as a holy mission, but it really can be. It takes an incredible amount of effort, effort that most of us aren't willing to do on a regular basis. After all, none of us had any idea how many people Ilan kept in regular contact with, and he must have spent 1-2 hours a week placing Shabbat Shalom calls every Friday afternoon. But he did it so cheerfully and effortlessly that every person felt special and had no idea the others existed.

That's what I've learned from Ilan and what I hope to internalize from our time together.

If you would like to share memories of Ilan, here is a place you can do so.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Things That Make Me Happy: The Maccabeats

Believe me, I have plenty to say rattling around in my head. It'll come soon. After all, I have tax law classes for the next three days...

But in the meantime, I wanted to share something that makes me happy: the new Maccabeats video is out! I LOVE the throw-back to the Candlelight video!

Ilan was so proud of these guys, especially the cinematic stylings of Uri (quit your day job already, jeez). He was proud of you as people, as Jews, as musicians, and as new Jewish celebrities!

I apologize if this post seems irreverent. For those of you who don't know me yet, the people who just met me this weekend in NYC probably realized something: even mourning can't stop me from laughing. I laugh a LOT. That's been one of the hardest things for me, but I think also one of the healthiest. And despite every guilty feeling to the contrary, I think Ilan would be angry with me if I stifled my laughter since it's probably what we shared the most.

May we merit only simchas and joyful laughter!

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Shavua tov. I hope you all had a peaceful Shabbos full of wonderful discussions about Ilan.

I've heard from a lot of you, and I can't tell you how much that means to me. I hope you're all coping as best as possible.

The funeral is going to be held in NJ (I have no other details at this moment), and I'll be joining you. I'm flying out in about 3 hours.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Baruch Dayan HaEmet: Ilan Tokayer

Another friend of Ilan has written about his feelings of loss for Ilan here. Having heard so many stories over Shabbos about this New Zealander rabbinical student, I thought it might be healthy for me to follow his example. However, he wrote about the wonderful qualities of Ilan. For me, I think I need to speak about what Ilan was to me. Consider this post paying a shiva call to me (though I'm not in the group of people who will sit shiva).

This will be long and rambly because of a few reasons: a) I've never suffered a close death before, so this is the first time I'm "mourning." b) I'm very isolated, both physically and in the sense that I have few people in my life (hello, internet-user stereotypes), so I have few people to talk to. And even the people I have, I don't know what to say. c) The people who generally know Ilan as I do all live in NYC or Israel, and being awkward, I don't even know that I would feel comfortable speaking to them, at least right now. And for all I know, they have no idea who I am. d) I have been bawling crying (and I NEVER cry) for over 15 hours at this point, and two rounds of prescription sleeping pills have only produced two hours of sleep.

Ilan Tokayer passed away suddenly yesterday, Thursday March 3, 2011 (21 Adar I, 5771). It was his half-birthday, so he was exactly 25 and a half. Born and raised in the New York City area, he grew up in a frum home with a very lovely, loving family. He spoke constantly about them, and how proud he was of his brothers and sister. He moved to my community last fall to enter a 2 year graduate program. He knew he was leaving the safe Jewish bubble of NJ, but had no idea what a Jewish desert the rest of the country could be.

Here is where I enter. I had been Shabbat observant for almost 6 months at the time Ilan arrived in town, and I had spent every one of them alone. Ilan contacted the community to let us know that he would be moving here and was looking for help to find an apartment. As I had just secured my own apartment inside the eruv, I used the mighty powers of Facebook to begin talking to Ilan. While my suggestions didn't pan out, he still ended up living across the street from me. As is common with Ilan, we had the strangest Jewish geography connection. Literally weeks before, I had visited his hometown to visit my best friend, and I met Ilan's sister, who worked with my best friend. It was always a small world with Ilan. If you sent children to camp, I can guarantee he was their counselor at some point. I once wrote about this very "Ilan" phenomenon because I have always been good at Jewish geography (especially for only living in very small communities), but Ilan blows me out of the water every time.

He moved here, and it was nice to finally have company. I have a very nice community, but hospitality doesn't seem to be their strong suit. It doesn't seem to occur to them (and I really think it just doesn't pop in their mind) that people spend Shabbos alone. If visitors come, hospitality is easily found, but Ilan and me, the two single people, generally spent it alone. For me, this was the status quo. I'm an introverted kind of person, and I had accepted that that's just how things are. But for Ilan, it was un-Shabbosdich. He often chided me, "You CAN'T spend Shabbos alone! It's not allowed!" So Ilan and I began to celebrate Shabbat together each week. Eventually, we were even careful to make sure that if we were both going out of town, we would coordinate the weeks so as to not leave the other. This is what happened last week, as he went to a wedding and I spent Shabbos in Oakland. It's been two weeks since I saw Ilan face-to-face. I'm so thankful that two weeks ago, his parents visited him. I can't even imagine what things are like for them and their family right now.

Among many other things, Ilan taught me what Shabbos is. I knew it on paper, and I knew it as a guest, but for the first time, I had ownership of Shabbat. Several friends came into town over the year, with them staying at Ilan's, but me being "Shabbos Ima." Ilan and I weren't romantically involved, but we had made our own kind of family for Shabbat. When there were guests, I felt as though I was also the host, instead of a long-term guest. And because we're both busy grad students, Shabbos was normally the only time we saw each other face-to-face, though we talked daily. We were a strange pair, the FFB and the weird converting girl who knows too much. I'm thankful that I know how proud Ilan was of my Yiddishkeit, and he was always the most effective person at cheering me up when conversion issues had me down in the last few months. I wish I could remember the exact words, but they were very no-nonsense and along the lines of "Of course they're going to convert you. How could they not?" In all aspects of my life, he challenged me in a way that no person on this earth has so far. He wasn't afraid to call me out, and he was always right. Of course, this was a source of endless frustration to me :)

Ilan was very important to me because he showed me what things could be like in my life. As no one in my community (save one) has found out, I'm pretty alone in this world. I never had a support system until this last year, very much unlike Ilan. But like Ilan, I have many friends but few close friends. Ilan gained my respect and my affection, and I consider him as one of my two best friends. However, he "holds his cards close," so I was never sure exactly where I stood with him. I'm lucky that on Wednesday, we had one of those conversations that people always wish they'd had right before losing a loved one. While now I wish we had discussed more things, I'm smart enough to be thankful for the words I have. Due to a miscommunication, he had hurt my feelings, and it created a good conversation about what our friendship was. The context is that I'm getting ready to move to NYC (thanks to the helpful influence and advice of Ilan), but he's been upset that he would be "alone" after I moved away. Here are some of the parting words I have from Ilan:
"My point is that you're my best friend out here and I love having you around! I might hold my cards close, but you think too much and maybe don't give yourself enough credit. Just to be extra super clear, I don't want you to leave because I like you and I appreciate you and you've been an important part of my life since I moved out here that I would rather not lose if I had a choice. I choose my friends wisely and if there is one thing that you're not, it's replaceable."
And of course, now I'm the one saying those exact same words to him.

I'm both glad and worried that I'm about to enter Shabbos. I'm glad because I had the freedom to not go to work or school today (which is much less possible on other days), and I'll have the weekend and most of Monday to get myself back under control. However, Shabbos is so Ilan. I'm going to miss hearing the Tokayer family tunes each Friday night (they're tunes you won't hear anywhere else), his cooking, his conversation, his company. I was especially excited that we were both going to be in NYC for Shabbos in three weeks, and he was going to help me apartment hunt in my new neighborhood. On a selfish level, I'm much more afraid of this move without Ilan's guidance.

Even blogging is hard now because Ilan read my posts every day, and about once or twice a week, he'd have an opinion on something I wrote that was strong enough that he felt the need to email me immediately. (This guy had opinions, let me tell you. Thankfully, they were always insightful and amazing.) So every morning, one of the first things I do is check for Ilan's opinion in my email. It's hard to know it won't be there anymore.

I keep thinking of funny stories I was trying to remember to tell Ilan on Thursday night and how annoyed I was that he wasn't online earlier that day, and now I remember so many questions I've forgotten to ask him over the weeks and months.

Thanks to two particular east coast friends, I feel less crazy than I did 16, 12, and 8 hours ago. I worried because I've know Ilan less than a year, who am I to think I'm close enough to him to feel this terribly? Of course, being empathetic, I should have expected this to be bad, but I really don't think that's it. Empathy is feeling the pain of others, but this is certainly my own pain, minus some serious empathetic pain for Ilan. And so many things around me hurt me worse because even though I know better, I have this feeling that everyone should know about Ilan and should feel what a tragedy this is. Music and idle talk just seem so cheap.

And I still wonder when I'm going to stop crying and when I'll be able to sleep agin.

I miss Ilan. I'm going to miss him a lot.

Baruch dayan haemet

There is no post today. There may not be posts for a few days.

Baruch dayan haemet. How difficult that is to say right now.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Celebrate Your Conversion

Mazel tov! You must be getting close to your conversion if you're thinking about how to celebrate it!

My experience so far is that orthodox converts don't celebrate nearly as much as liberal converts. Make your interpretations as you will.

Nearly everyone has (or tries to have) a special meal with some friends and family. You will hopefully receive cards and congratulations from your friends and members of your community. Some may even make a contribution to the synagogue or to a charity on your behalf. Remember to write "thank you" cards or otherwise thank these kind people!

For men, things seem to be pretty standard: you'll almost certainly get an aliyah on your first Shabbat as an "official Jew." Some people choose to treat it almost like a bar mitzvah, and they'll spend the time training to lein (leyn, however you want to spell it) the Torah and lead at least one service on Shabbat. Anything beyond that is up to you!

For women, things are anything but standard. Be creative and do what makes you happy! Personally, I'd like to host something for myself akin to a Shabbat Kallah, where people gather on Shabbat afternoon and celebrate with food, games, and brachas (brachot, blessings)!

What I don't suggest? Don't immediately start calling the shadchans (matchmakers) to start looking for your beshert (soulmate)! There's a great Jewish idea: don't mix simchas. Enjoy this simcha for a little bit, at least a few weeks but preferably a couple of months, before starting the pain that can be the shidduch process!

Enjoy the glow of being newly-converted! Share brachot and kind words freely. Help others feel the joy you (hopefully) feel! And if your conversion was anticlimactic, let yourself "catch" the enthusiasm from those closest to you! Science shows that if you smile when you're not happy, you'll trick your brain into thinking you really are happy! You're like a kallah (bride) regardless of whether you're male or female, and you should share your particularly fresh closeness with Hashem by making a bracha for (or otherwise davening for) the people around you!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Those Tricky Dairy Drinks...

Since I "went kosher" in June 2010, the most annoying thing remains drinks. I am apparently incapable of remembering that drinks can and will be dairy.

I don't drink milk and I rarely eat meat products, so my kitchen is almost entirely dairy. I rarely have to think about dairy v. meat except for what I bring into the house. In those rare times that I'm fleishig (aka, in the period after eating meat when dairy is prohibited - thankfully, only 3 hours for me), it's always drinks that trip me up. I can remember to avoid eating cheese or yogurt, etc, but I have the hardest time remembering that many non-dairy-looking drinks are actually dairy.

I'm much better now than I was several months ago, but only because I always remember that this is a mistake I'm susceptible to! As a practical matter, this means I try to avoid eating or drinking anything but water in those 3 hours. This would be much more difficult if my minhag were 6 hours!

(As this is a post I thought of a few months ago, it hasn't been a problem in a while now, yay!)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When You NEED to Reveal Your Conversion Candidate Status

You may have previously read When Is It OK to Say "I'm Jewish," Even If You Really Aren't. But what about the other side? When MUST you disclose your in-flux status, even if you really don't want to? I make no promises that this list is exhaustive, but I will update it if other important issues are mentioned in the comments or as I learn more.

NOTE: This post applies just as much to liberal conversion candidates as orthodox ones, though the specific halacha may differ.

Many conversion candidates feel that their status is no one's business. And that's true. However, sometimes your feelings must take a back seat to Jewish law. Sometimes your Jewish status can be very important for the sake of a mitzvah. And in those cases, you may cause someone else to make an aveirah (a sin) when they actually believe they are doing a mitzvah.

Counting a minyan: The most obvious case! If you're male and in an orthodox synagogue, you will have to disclose that you aren't Jewish so that they won't daven prayers that require a minyan when they don't really have one. If you're sensitive to sharing this, show up a little late. If the minyan normally gets more than 10 men, you can try to arrive after 10 men will likely already be there. If it's always close, then there are going to be 9-12 regular men who will just have to know that you aren't a Jew yet. Even if the rabbi/prayer leader knows, the others will also have to know sooner or later because they will inevitably say, "But rabbi, we have 10 men here! What do you mean we can't start yet?"

Similarly, you may have to disclose this to the gabbai or rabbi if he tries to give you an aliyah or other honor during a synagogue service. No offense, of course, but you shouldn't be doing anything but davening in your seat. If someone asks you to leave your seat to do something, it's probably not allowed until you've converted.

Zimmunim: A zimmun is when 3+ men (no matter how many women are present) eat a bread meal together or 3+ women if no men are present. It makes the prayer after eating (bentching) different. Like the minyan, a pre-convert doesn't count. Further, the bentching prayer is slightly differently if there is a minyan present, so you should also be sure that you aren't "the 10th man."

Liberal female converts, all of the above also applies to you.

Wine and grape juice: If you're drinking grape products at someone's house, the host(ess) should know that you are not halachicly a Jew. If the wine is "mevushal" (boiled), you may touch it. If it isn't, you may not even touch the bottle once it has been opened. What happens if you touch/pour the wine? It becomes non-kosher and is therefore prohibited to any Jews. Granted, this could be a good strategy if you want to hog the wine to yourself! Personally, I don't trust myself to remember which bottle is mevushal or to even ask, so I have a flat policy that I don't touch kosher wine bottles once they've been opened. You can handle this in such a way that others don't realize what you're doing. I usually ask men to pour me a glass, and they gladly do so (or do it voluntarily long before I ask) for the sake of chivalry. Things get weirder when I ask a woman to pour for me, and it will usually end with me having to explain my status. If you're male, you may have to explain it to anyone who pours for you because that "seems odd." A tip: Before it's even an issue, ask a friend or the host(ess) to always pour for you. That way, you don't have to explain to anyone else. You can also make a deal with the person sitting beside you.

Cooking food, generally: You may not "cook" food for a Jew. This is more complicated than I can describe here and relies on rulings from your rabbi. As a general rule, I suggest not feeding a Jew any food you've prepared. Bring prepared, packaged foods with the packaging intact. That way, the hechsher is visible, and if the package is unopened, there is no question. There are other options, but they are beyond the scope of this blog post. This way, you should always be safe.

Cooking food on Yom Tov: A Jew cannot cook food for a non-Jew on a holiday. Generally, a Jew can cook food on a holiday with Shabbat restrictions so long as 1) it is for the holiday itself (or for Shabbat if it immediately follows the holiday without a "weekday" in between) and 2) it is for him/herself or another Jew. A Jew cannot cook for someone who can normally cook for himself or herself, aka, a non-Jew. However, there are ways to deal with this that are beyond the scope of this blog post. Be sure to warn any host(ess), who can then check with his or her rabbi about the halacha.

It's never pleasant to reveal your lack of Jewish status to a stranger. But sometimes, it's necessary. You need to place your ego and fears in the back seat to keep others from violating Jewish law. Just remember that one day this will no longer be necessary, and these unpleasant conversations will teach you valuable middos such as humility, honesty, patience, kindness, and a sensitivity for the emotions of others.