Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jewish Resources Are Getting Weirder and Weirder

While researching yesterday's post for conversion gift ideas, I came across one of the strangest bits of Judaica I've ever seen: The Mitzvah Measure. It is "[a] tape measure that contains measurements in accordance with Jewish Law such as tefachim, amot, minimum sizes for lulavim, etc."

I thought these measurements were hotly contested by the rabbonim; am I remembering incorrectly? And if so, how do you find out in advance which rabbi this tape holds by?? What problems we have! :P

This reminded me of the matzah size charts that were floating around my prior community this Pesach. I couldn't find the same one online, but I found a different one. I understand rabbis hold differently on these sizes, but how can you resist adopting a rabbi's halachic position when it's laid out in such a visually-pleasing and easy-to-understand way?? 

The lesson to you conversion candidates: just because you read something doesn't make it gospel. I'm not saying these are incorrect. In fact, I'm sure they're correct according to some very illustrious rabbi, but that doesn't mean there aren't different interpretations of the same halacha. 

As another example, I got the Parve-O-Meter app for my new iPhone. (The Crackberry may rest in pieces.) It tells me that the "prevailing custom" is to wait 6 hours between eating meat and dairy. Yes, I'd agree that's "prevailing." It also says that the "prevailing custom" is to wait 1 full hour between eating dairy and meat. That, I would NOT say is prevailing custom, or even common. Some simply wash out their mouths after the dairy. (Remember that hard cheeses are a different story.) The app recognizes this to a degree because you can adjust the preferences for the dairy-to-meat waiting period at 0 minutes (but says you must eat crackers in addition to washing out your mouth), 30 minutes, and 1 hour. However, it doesn't allow the same variation in custom for meat-to-dairy: "6 Hours For Everyone" is what it says.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

News: Rabbi Angel on Parsha Hukkat and Conversion

Rabbi Angel, former President of the Rabbinical Council of America and author of Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion, has written a pretty scathing commentary on this week's parsha and conversion.

Here is an excerpt. The full version is located here.
Some years ago I attended a meeting of Orthodox rabbis to discuss policies relating to conversion to Judaism. One of the rabbis unabashedly proclaimed: “We have the power! We can demand prospective converts to do everything our way. We do not need to make any concessions because we have total control. They need us, we don’t need them. We have the power!”

I responded: “Did we become rabbis so that we can gain and exert power? Isn’t it our responsibility to help others and bring them closer to God and Torah, humbly and sincerely? Isn’t it antithetical to our religious worldview to arrogate to ourselves “power” to make people squirm, and bend to our will, and meet our demands—even when these demands far exceed what the actual halakha requires?”  
He responded: “We have the power, let’s use it.”

I find this account hard to believe, but I shouldn't be surprised because rabbis are human too. I think that sometimes we put rabbis on a pedestal and believe they are above regular human beings. But on the other hand, I am still willing to believe that the international rabbinate has been strong-armed in conversion policies by extremists within the Israeli Rabbinate, and that this voice was hopefully just the opinion of one misguided rabbi who needs a lesson in middos.

Gift Ideas for a Conversion

You know someone who is about to complete or has recently completed a conversion. Very graciously, you want to give that person a gift. I don't think Miss Manners writes about which gifts are appropriate for this occasion, so we need to figure that out for ourselves. I will present my suggestions, but please feel free to add more in the comments!

The real concern is avoiding replication of items the new convert already owns. On the other hand, perhaps you can afford to give them a much nicer version! Alternatively, it could be an "extra" nicer item or themed item for holiday use. If you are used to buying wedding and bar/bat mitzvah gifts, basically all of those gifts would be appropriate. If the conversion occurs near a holiday, gifts related to that holiday are especially appropriate!

One last thought: "It is best to avoid religious gifts if you don't know what you're doing."

Non-mevushal wine (I'm a big fan of this as a gift because of the emotional validation)
Wine glasses
Wine charms 
Candlesticks (I suggest leaving this as a last resort)
Mezuzahs (Note that the person may already have more than enough)
Havdalah set
Hebrew-face clock
Kosher Lamp
Shabbat clock
Jewish-themed cookie cutters
Magnetic Shabbat message board
Israeli flag
Netilat Yadayim cup (and bowl?)
Challah board with knife
Challah cover
Nice kiddush cup
Kiddush set or fountain
Seder plate
Apple and honey dish
Salt thing for Shabbat (I've seen bowls and salt shakers that are Shabbat-themed)
Jewelry with Jewish themes
Jewish art
Jewish music (or a simply iTunes gift card!)
Services from you or someone else
  • Hebrew lessons
  • Yiddish lessons
  • Massage or spa services
  • Hair cuts (especially if you're near Lag B'Omer or a holiday!)
  • Pedicure/manicure
  • Babysitting
  • Spending quality time with you!
Judaica store/website gift cards/certificates
  • For women, gift certificates to tznius clothing stores/sites can be particularly nice! 
  • Gift card/certificates to kitchen stores for items that need to be replaced to make kitchen fully kosher (since everything will most likely have to be (re)kashered because it was owned by a non-Jew-the reasons are quite complicated). Some things may have to be totally replaced, such as the ceramic interior of a crockpot (which means a new crockpot, essentially).
  • Gift card for
Books, of course
  • Biography of a Jewish person
  • Book of teachings of a particular Jewish leader
  • Halacha books, but try not to overlap with their studies. Try books on the halacha of lashon hara, tzedakah, tefila, business ethics, medical ethics, chesed, or chinuch.
  • Cookbooks
  • Home-made cookbooks
Non-Jewish-specific Gifts
  • Money, money, money :D
  • Gift cards, gift certificates, some non-religious ones listed above
  • Collectible item that the person collects
  • Something else that would be meaningful to the convert
  • Cookbooks, published or home-made (But avoid ones like The Ultimate Shrimp Book!)
  • Jewelry
  • Kitchen specialty items, such as salad bowl sets or fruit bowls
  • Offer to go out for a meal at a nice kosher restaurant and spend quality time together!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why Does Water Not Have Its Own Bracha?

This is something that perplexes me. When I first began learning the brachot (blessings), I could not understand why water doesn't have its own blessing. I even contacted a rabbi to ask what blessing we say on water because I believed that I simply missed it. I still don't understand, so I thought I would throw it out here.

Our blessings focus on very fundamental parts of our diet, at least from a vegetarian perspective! We even differentiate between whether fruits and veggies come from the ground, a bush, or a tree. We also separate out grains and then distinguish the type of grain. (I also wonder why meat and dairy don't have blessings.) We even separate grape products because of the use of wine as a ritual item. But not water? Not the substance that makes up 3/4 of our bodies? A substance that we cannot live without? 

I don't get it. What is the fundamental principle behind the brachot? The sources I have learned from focus so much on the laws of the brachot, and I have yet to see any theoretical discussions about them and their creation. Feel free to discuss and enlighten me.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Phrase of the Day: B'Seder

Appropriately enough after my last post, today's word is "b'seder." This word/phrase is ubiquitous in Israel. That means it is everywhere. Israelis say "b'seder" more than teenage girls say "like."

Literally, it means "in order." It generally means "ok" or "fine" or "everything will be ok." You can even end your sentences with it, like tacking "right?" to the end of the sentence.

But really, it seems to mean anything you want it to mean, so long as you are answering with an affirmative response of some kind. However, I've never heard it used enthusiastically. It reminds me of how Americans say "fine." Alternatively, when I'm stressed, I can stop and say, "B'seder." It will be ok. Soon, Gdwilling.

Some questions you can answer with b'seder:
  • How are you?
  • How about getting dinner next week?
  • Is everything b'seder?
  • Will you marry me?
  • How was your final exam?
  • How was the party?
My favorite quote about b'seder is "It does seem a little ironic to me – if my translation is right, 'b’seder' actually means 'in order,' but it seems to be used when nothing is in order at all."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Are Conversion Rabbis Capable of Understanding the Conversion Candidate's Emotional State?

Can conversion rabbis ever really understand the emotional issues that face conversion candidates? Worse, maybe even our friends and family can’t understand?

I don’t mean to downplay the suffering that other people face. We all have our own challenges, but orthodox conversion candidates face an outside restriction on the most intimate areas of life. Given the unique type of emotional challenges we face, do conversion rabbis really understand where we are coming from when we express frustration or emotional difficulties with the process? Do less friendly conversion rabbis consider this when they are borderline (or not so borderline) rude or cruel?

Almost every conversion candidate faces at least some period of time that feels like life is on hold. And your life literally IS on hold. Many of the fundamental life freedoms that normal people have are forbidden to us. I know of no other area of society or culture that essentially forces a person to stay put in one phase of life for an indefinite period of time based on the totally subjective view of a third person. Batei din give about 1 week’s notice that they are ready to convert a candidate. It may take anywhere from 1 year to 3 years to 10 years to get to that week. Until that time, you normally have absolutely no indication how much longer you must remain in limbo. Essentially, you can plan almost nothing meaningful in your life until after you become halachically Jewish. Personally, I think this undermines emotional stability in even the most stable conversion candidates.

Some of the challenges we face: 

We cannot date [if we didn’t enter the conversion process with a partner], so we cannot marry or have children. For years. Our friends, both Jewish and not, are marrying and having children (and even getting divorced), while we cannot even begin the process that everyone else started long ago. Dating is grounds for termination of the geirus process as being deceitful. It's difficult to wait on the sidelines of life, even before you factor in the loneliness, frustration at missed opportunities, and feelings of inadequacy.

Married couples may be forbidden from having “relations” and/or told to not have children until the conversion is complete. For however long that will take. And with a partner, the conversion process is normally even longer because the conversion goes as the pace of the "slower" partner. The biological clock is ticking, not to mention the emotional toll of being married to someone you can no longer have a normal marital relationship with. Many couples will be required to live separately for some period of time, regardless of childcare concerns. At least one beit din (to my knowledge) lists pregnancy as grounds for termination of the geirus process. A second essentially adds a "penalty" that the (female only?) candidate must leave the program for the duration of the pregnancy and some time after birth, not being allowed to have tutoring or any other step towards the conversion.

While dealing with the issues above (which I believe are usually the most destructive to the emotional life of any conversion candidate), the candidate is also forced to make decisions against their normal social and financial interest.

We cannot move to a new community after finally assimilating into the community or else we will have to effectively start the conversion over, probably with a new beit din. This may mean staying in a bad community until whenever the limbo ends. This may result in turning down career advancements or preventing a move to a more appropriate (or welcoming) Jewish community. Further, because of Israel’s aliyah regulations, converts should stay in the converting community for at least one year after the conversion if they intend to make aliyah. Otherwise, they may have to rely on a spouse’s Jewish status in order to fulfill the Law of Return, despite the conversion. This could potentially affect aliyah benefits, which are often essential for making that move. And that assumes you are married at the time of aliyah! (Remember, this is the secular side of making aliyah. This is not dealing with Jewish status issues with the Rabbinate.)

We cannot begin our conversions until we graduate our current stage of schooling and are thus free to move to a new community. For whatever reason, transferring schools may be impractical or impossible. This can delay a conversion for years. What may have been an “acceptable” Jewish community for any other purpose may not be an acceptable community for conversion, but you will not know this until you are father along in the process. You may have chosen to attend school in what seems to be an acceptable community, only to discover later that you are required to move to Los Angeles, New York City, or somewhere else.

Those of us who are single are being required to move to Los Angeles or New York City because they are the “only acceptable singles’ communities” in the United States. There is no allowance for whether that move would be appropriate or beneficial for the candidate in question. We may not even be allowed to start learning towards a conversion until making this move, no matter how large the prior community is. The time in the prior community may not even count towards the "discouragement" period, meaning that after moving, the candidate may continue to be turned away from the beit din for up to a year.

In some places, we are required to move into the home of strangers for 6 months or more, usually a year or more. If we have pets or families, this may prevent us from completing a supposedly "essential" part of the conversion process. No one says what happens to those candidates (and I have yet to meet anyone who did this who was not single), so I don’t know whether they are allowed to complete the process.

In almost all cases today, we must move and leave behind our careers, our families, our friends, or our schools. We are placed in significant financial jeopardy by having to sell homes during down markets while having to buy in expensive urban areas. We have to move to some of the most difficult job markets in the country, potentially leaving behind all the networking contacts that many professions require. We may leave behind our families and support systems. Lech lecha indeed.

And we have to do all this before some batei din will even speak to us. I'm not talking about chareidi batei din either.

Have these conversion rabbis ever faced these kinds of issues in their own lives? Since converts who later obtained smicha (ordination) are not allowed to sit on RCA batei din for conversions, I doubt it.

With all of these emotional strains in the life of a conversion candidate, can even the most sympathetic conversion rabbi really know the emotional rollercoaster we face? Do less sympathetic rabbis consider these issues when they are rude or condescending or treat the candidate as a burden on their time?

Unfortunately, not only do many rabbis not consider these issues, some rabbis (an increasing number, apparently) view these challenges as essential for weeding out "insincere" candidates. However, even sincere candidates are being pushed away by these issues and rabbis' failure to be sensitive to these difficulties. Today, candidates are excited when someone treats them politely. We dare not hope for sympathy, validation, or understanding. 

These are some of the things that made me initially say, "When you're converting to Judaism, sometimes you just wanna know you're not crazy."

At the risk of going 90s girl rock on you, this all reminds me of Jewel’s song, “I’m Sensitive”
I was thinking that I might fly today
Just to disprove all the things you say
It doesn't take a talent to be mean
Your words can crush things that are unseen
So please be careful with me, I'm sensitive
And I'd like to stay that way.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Is a Gabbai and What Does He Do?

A gabbai is a person, usually someone with a high level of Jewish learning. A synagogue may not have a "set" gabbai, but a different one every week. However, some synagogues do have a person who (either voluntarily or as a kind of employment) acts as gabbai every Shabbat and maybe also on Monday and Thursday mornings.

In short, he is the person who calls other men to the Torah during a Torah reading service (Shabbat morning, Shabbat mincha, Monday morning, and Thursday morning. He is essentially the "director" of the Torah service. He tells people when to come to the bimah (the stand from which the Torah is read), and generally conducts the people present at the bimah. He recites the prayers that are not said by those called to the Torah, such as the misheberachs (usually prayers for healing, but maybe also prayers for a person's birthday, anniversary, or upcoming wedding, etc) that are said between certain aliyot. (I've seen the misheberachs between the 3th and 4th aliyot, but also between two later aliyot.) 

In addition to calling people to the Torah and leading some davening, he is a resource for the person actually leyning (reading) the Torah. He will have a book or print-out (usually a special book made for gabbais/gabbaim or leyning) that has both the vowels and the tune marks for the Torah reading. Remember that the Hebrew on the Torah scroll has no written vowels, so the reader must memorize the correct pronunciation of the parsha. Leying takes a lot of preparation, so appreciate that small group of people who regularly leyn for your benefit! Likewise, the Torah is chanted to a particular "tune" for lack of a better word. The leyning books have marks that could be analogized to musical notes above the letters. 

So how does the gabbai use these books to help the person leyning? The gabbai follows along with the reading and corrects the Torah reader when he needs it or asks for the correct pronunciation. Likewise, the gabbai will correct the chanting itself. In some communities (or among certain individuals-like a father and his son being bar mitzvahed), hand signals can be used to "conduct" the chanting just like at the symphony. From my perspective in the "audience," I really enjoy watching the hand signals, and it helped me to get a better understanding of the chant by using two of my senses instead of only one (in other words, seeing and hearing).

Historically, gabbais have performed many other tasks, such as being a personal assistant to the rabbi or acting like a caretaker for the synagogue and grounds. In some communities, gabbais may still serve these functions, especially acting as an assistant to the rabbi.

Why am I bothering to tell you about what a gabbai is and does? In short, you should know who this is in your community. He can be a great resource for you (assuming he wants to be), and if you are ever lost during a service or in the synagogue, this is a person who can tell you when and where to go. The community's regular gabbai will generally be on the ball, as well as being knowledgeable both about Judaism and your particular community's customs. This is probably also a good person to consider approaching to ask for tutoring if your conversion requires a tutor (you should most likely offer some kind of compensation, of course!).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lessons in Ahavas Yisrael: Tattoos in the Mikvah

(I'm not so bright, so I accidentally scheduled this for tomorrow's date. Sorry!)

A really nice story to start your day off right!

I don't think any story can really be classified as a "chassidic story" unless it involves a forest in The Old Country, a miraculous job offer, and someone who gets pregnant after at least a decade of barrenness. But this is a pretty good one. I like it.

Since tattoos in conversion and/or the mikvah is one of the biggest search engine draws to my website, it seems especially appropriate to post here!

Remember: your previous tattoos are ok. You are fine. I wouldn't rush out to get new ones though. 

If that is the case, why the opposition in the story? Because sometimes, people are crazy. Either they don't know the halacha, don't seem to care about teshuvah, or they simply don't like you because you are different. However. Whether the other person is crazy, mistaken, or both...try your best to take the high road. Judge favorably and assume they have simply made a mistake. 

Gotta love Breslov.

For the uninitiated, who are the Breslovers? They are a Chassidic dynasty founded by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who was the great-grandson of the founder of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov. I think it's very interesting that there has not been another "Rebbe" since Rebbe Nachman passed away. That's very unusual in the Chassidic world (perhaps unique?).

The Breslav emphasize joy in serving Hashem. They live life passionately. As Rabbi Nachman said, "It is a great mitzvah to always be happy." The Breslov also hand out booklets of Rebbe Nachman's teachings on streets and in kosher restaurants. I currently have four booklets (I was so excited to get them!) on topics such as "Don't Take It Personally" and "Forget About it!" Personally, I think of it as chassidic mussar. And I think it's no coincidence that "lover" is in the name!

Not everyone likes the Breslov as much as I do. Or more accurately, people tend to make fun of a subgroup of the Breslov, the NaNachs. Their name comes from their meditation mantra, "Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman." Rabbi Nachman advocated this form of meditation, but personally used a different mantra. The Na Nachs are most easily spotted by large white, knitted caps that say "Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman" on the bottom. It isn't complete without the pom pom on top. That's how you can spot them from at least a block away.

A lot of people think the Na Nachs are annoying hippies. (What? You thought I'd sugarcoat it for you?) They dance in the streets to chassidic techno music. (Never thought I'd ever say "chassidic techno.") And to some people's annoyance, they also graffiti their mantra all over Israel.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Exceptions to Pikuach Nefesh (Saving a Life)

As many Jews throughout the ages have unfortunately discovered, most mitzvot can be violated for the sake of saving a human life. In fact, it then becomes a mitzvah to disregard that mitzvah. (In other words, saving a life "outranks" the other mitzvah, so that the other one no longer applies.) But not all mitzvot can be disregarded when a life is in danger. The realm of pikuach nefesh (saving a life, specifically a human life) is complicated, but the exceptions are relatively simple in theory. There are 3 or 4, depending on how they are grouped:
  • Idolatry (Some include any chilul Hashem-the defamation of Hashem's name-which is a very big category of mitzvot violations)
  • Murder (Does not include self-defense. Note that killing does not necessarily equal murder. Yay legalese!)
  • Incest and Adultery (Also known as "forbidden relationships," but that can also be a much larger category)
Why these mitzvot and not others? The idea of pikuach nefesh comes from Leviticus/Vayikra 18:5, "You shall therefore keep My statutes, and My ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them: I am HaShem." From this psuk (verse), the rabbis concluded that "That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them." But if that is the case, why shouldn't we be able to violate any mitzvah for the purpose of saving our lives or the life of another? 

I don't know the answer to that, at least not the "official" answer. My guess is that each of the exceptions listed above denies Hashem and His creation. Unjustified murder is acting like a Gd, doling out life and death. Incest and adultery deny the honor of the relationships closest to us, demeaning them as a person and family member. Idolatry is pretty self-explanatory. I feel like I've heard this idea before, but I don't remember where.

But playing devil's advocate, the rabbis say that violating the laws of Shabbat are a desecration of Hashem's name (wow, that's redundant) because violating Shabbat is denying that Hashem created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Given my reasoning above, it seems like desecrating the Sabbath should also be an exception. Going even further, if Hashem really gave us mandatory oral and written law at Sinai, then violating any mitzvah would be denying that Hashem created humanity/the world and chose Israel as His nation. In that case, it would be prohibited to violate any mitzvah even to save a life. Where would we draw the line?


Monday, June 20, 2011

What a Halachic Non-Jew (Or Someone Who Doesn't Keep Kosher) Can Contribute to a Kosher Meal

You’ve been invited to a Shabbat meal. That's great! But oh no, they’ve asked you to contribute something towards the meal! As a halachic non-Jew, this can raise a lot of kashrut issues. So what are your options?
  • Bring nothing and simply enjoy the hospitality of your host. Being an overly polite Southerner, I don’t suggest making this suggestion to the host! Try to be helpful. There are definitely ways you can contribute towards the meal!
  • Sodas and other non-grape drinks. This is the second easiest/cheapest route.
  • Fresh fruit or vegetables. While it may feel somewhat rude, don’t prepare them before arriving at your host’s unless your host has explicitly told you they trust the kashrus of your kitchen. (Remember not to "cook" them in any way.) If that isn't explicitly volunteered by your host, allow them to handle any cutting and washing. Be kind and don’t bring items that require more onerous preparation (leafy greens). Good choices are grapes, berries, melons, maybe pineapples, mangos, oranges, bananas, carrots, celery, and tomatoes. Avoid broccoli and cauliflower! For halachic reasons, avoid "sharp" veggies like onions.
  • Store-bought, packaged cakes and cookies. 
  • Store-bought, packaged challah. 
  • Wine. By most opinions today (your mileage may vary), you can even bring non-mevushal wine so long as you stop touching it once someone (not you) opens it. 
There are other items that could be fine, but these are needed at almost any Shabbat meal. They're also easy to procure even without many kosher resources (especially sodas and fruits/veggies), as well as being within just about anyone's budget.

The best part? None of these things have to saying, "Look at the non-Jew!" You will blend in with everyone else bringing items. Sometimes, you feel the need to just blend in, and these ideas can help.

NOTE: When buying any packaged food, make sure that the host will accept the hechsher on the item and that the hechsher and packaging remain intact. I once brought packaged pastries, and the host had to decline to use them because she couldn’t find the hechsher. Sure enough, it was just hard to find! In the end, we enjoyed delicious rugelach. Be gracious and don’t take these things personally. In fact, your host will probably feel just as embarrassed as you do. If a problem pops up, deal with it calmly, and if you can’t share the item, that’s life. You’ll do better next time.

NEXT: How to get it there.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Parsha Shlach: The Spies, the Ayin Tov, and Converts

This is my first post on Torah, but I just can't resist this parsha. The story of the spies is one of my favorites, and last year, it was even the parsha when I visited Eretz Yisrael for the first time! Appropriate, right? The spies became a kind of analogy for my Birthright group, which made me appreciate the story even more. So here are some pre-Shabbos thoughts for you to bring to your Shabbat table tonight!

I am always surprised that the Midrash and just about every traditional source says that the spies lied about the land. Nothing in the speech of the 10 spies sounds made up, and when Caleb speaks against them, he doesn't accuse them of lying! He essentially says that the other spies (and the congregation of Israel) lack bitachon (trust in Hashem) because Hashem can surely bring us into the land of Eretz Yisrael if He wants to. In essence, he is saying, "Sure, all that stuff is true, but we have G-d on our side! We can't lose!"

So if the 10 spies weren't lying, why were they killed by a plague? And if they lied, why punish Israel for freaking out because of false information? Death in the desert and not entering the land certainly seems to be a harsh punishment for an unintentional sin. 

It just doesn't add up that the spies lied.  But if they didn't lie, what is the problem? As I learned from someone on my Birthright trip (Scott, I think?), the spies had the wrong perspective. The things they said were technically true, but it was spin. They saw the land with an ayin ra (an evil eye, as opposed to "the" evil eye) because they lacked bitachon. 

It may be a question of the chicken or the egg: did they lack bitachon before or after they saw these things in the land? Maybe they lacked bitachon when they began, so they looked for reasons to be afraid. This is a very external focus. But on the other hand, maybe they had bitachon until they saw scary things in Israel and their self-doubt finally convinced them that their own frailties couldn't possibly stand up to the dangers in Israel even with G-d on their side. In essence, that would be a lack of bitachon that Hashem can make us powerful or successful. In short, low self-esteem and a lack of trust in yourself. Did the spies have an ayin ra towards the land or themselves? My guess is that it was towards themselves because why would they NOT want to enter the land? I haven't seen any reasons given for why the spies would resist entering the land unless they wanted to remain in the desert eating manna. Maybe that's true, but I think they wanted to enter the land and dwell there. My penchant for psychology also pushes me towards believing that the spies didn't have trust in themselves.

Applying this to our lives today: Can a person really have bitachon while suffering from low self-esteem? My initial reaction is skeptical.

As I've said several times before, I'm convinced that perspective is everything. Very few things are within our control, but an ayin tov is. The ayin tov is the good eye, a positive perspective. This doesn't mean you can't be realistic and prepare for the worst case scenario; it's all about about your reaction. As so eloquently stated by motivation posters in my elementary school classrooms, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” The 10 spies reacted poorly.

And in almost completely unrelated news, there is a convert connection here. In the Haftorah this week, we read about Rahab during the second set of "spies" in Israel. Read more about Rahab at the Kvetching Editor: Rahab the Harlot: the Rabbis' Convert!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Guest Post: The Practical Guide to Tzitzit and Talleisim

As a female who still has plenty to learn, I understand that my male readers get somewhat shortchanged because I don't have experience with some things that concern them. Thanks to a generous offer for a guest post, today you get to read some practical information about tzitzit and tallitot! Women, keep in mind that it is very possible you will purchase tzitzit or a tallis for a man in your life. Kallahs (brides) often purchase their chosson's (groom's) tallis, since the majority of Jews do not wear a tallis in synagogue services until after marriage. Later, mom is often the one in charge of purchasing the tallit katan (the shirt tzitzit) for her sons.

Just so we're clear what we're talking about, here is a picture of a typical tallis, and here is a picture of daily-wear tzitzit (the tallit katan).

The following is a tzitzit and tallit primer, courtesy of Ben Slobodkin with basic how-to information on tzitzits and talleisim (or “tallitot”). 

Ben Slobodkin grew up in Los Angeles, studied history at UC Santa Cruz and is an alumnus of Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim. He is the owner and operator of Bens Tallit Shop, an Israel-based tallit and tzitzit webstore.

In this week’s Parsha, the Torah instructs us to wear tzitzit “in order to remember and fulfill all of [the] mitzvahs” (Bamidbar 15:40). To explain the mitzvah, the Midrash brings an analogy of a ship passenger who fell into the water. The captain throws him a line, shouting, “Hold onto the rope and don’t let go, otherwise your life is finished!” Tzitzit is considered a special, cherished mitzvah, because it helps us cleave to all of the other mitzvahs.

Tallits in modern styles come with machine-spun, hand-tied tzitzits already attached. There is a dispute in halacha over whether machine-spun tzitzits are valid, therefore if you want to be sure the tzitzits are kosher, look for hand-spun tzitzits. Classic black-on-white tallits may come with an option for thin or thick tzitzits. This is just a matter of aesthetics, so it’s entirely up to you.

Tzitzit knots tend to come loose when new, so before putting the tallit away, tighten the knots. If you’re sitting in shul on Shabbos and see loose knots, avoid the temptation to tighten them, because tying knots on Shabbos is prohibited. Running hot water over the tzitzit knots (i.e. the final knot) when new may prevent unravelling.

DIY Tzitzit

Although even very frum Jews often have someone tie their tzitzits for them, it can be a valuable, enriching experience to tie your own. You’ll learn the mechanics behind the mitzvah and won’t be hapless if you ever face broken tzitzits strings. Also, the Talmudic Sages tell us that ideally a mitzvah should be done oneself rather than having someone do it for you.

The verse introducing the mitzvah of tzitzits begins, “Speak to the Children of Israel” (Bamidbar 15:28), therefore the halacha states that tzitzits cannot be tied by non-Jews. A few months ago an earnest soon-to-be convert ordered a distinctive Turkish tallit from me. He would have liked to tie the tzitzit himself, but he wanted the tallit ready and waiting, so he could wear it right after his conversion, therefore he asked me to tie the tzitzits. I felt privileged to have a part in this (now) Jew’s tallit, and gladly stayed up past midnight to have it ready on time.

Similarly, according to some opinions an “underage” Jew should not tie tzitzits on his own tallit before his bar mitzvah. Likewise, many poskim hold that women should not tie tzitzits.

Consumer Warning

Tzitzit tying instructions and videos are easy to find on the Internet, but before you get started, if you buy tzitzit strings online make sure they are kosher tzitzit. One prominent supplier at the top of the Google rankings is operated by Christians, and various messianic Chrisitian sites sell tallits and tzitzits.

In general, beware of dubious online articles on various topics related to Judaica (tallits, tefillin, mezuzahs, etc.). Much of this information is simply thrown together by SEO experts who have no knowledge of the subject or appreciation for the mitzvahs.

The Shul Tallis

The prayer shawl worn during Shacharis is sometimes referred to as a tallis gadol (as opposed to a tallis katan, which is worn all day long, typically under one’s shirt).

Since we are enjoined to perform mitzvahs in an aesthetically pleasing manner - zeh Keli ve’anveiHu - wearing a nice tallit is commendable, as the Shulchan Aruch states explicitly. Expect to pay around $100 for a traditional wool tallit. Some variations include Turkish tallits (Echt or Kmo), which are made of a very dense weave and come with no atara (neckband), Chabad tallits, which also have no neckband, have two holes for the tzitzits and a unique tying custom, and Yemenite tallits, which have wide, ornate corners and atara and distinctive netted fringes.

Though the traditional tallit typically has black stripes, the prevalent Sephardic custom is to use white stripes. In modern Orthodox congregations you may see blue stripes or even various colorful striping patterns.

Those seeking a distinctive look will find a wide range of attractive handmade and handwoven designs, which can cost $300-$600. Fabrics include wool, silk and cotton.

Tallit Sizing

Reform and Conservative Jews often wear narrow tallits that hang down in front, although in recent years there seems to be a return to the traditional larger tallits that hang down the back. Whether the narrow type (size 18 and 24) is halachically acceptable is doubtful. Tallit sizes are standardized, starting with 45, which fits a typically bar mitzvah boy, and going up to size 80. Sizing tables can be found online.


Wool is the fabric of choice from a halachic standpoint, although cotton and silk are also acceptable. According to Sephardic poskim, to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit according to Torah law, the garment must be made of wool or linen. (Linen is not used today, for reasons related to shatnez and techelet). Certain synthetic fabrics may be problematic, according to a famous responsum by Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l.

Loose Ends

Since only four-cornered garments require tzitzits, strictly speaking, there is no obligation for men to wear tzitzits, but it is an accepted custom to wear a wool or cotton tallit katan all day, every day, to carry out the mitzvah. For newcomers it can be a challenge to start wearing tzitzits out and about. Some people might tell you to tuck them into your pants until you feel comfortable letting them dangle, but if you open the Mishna Berura you will find that the Chafetz Chaim, who normally went out of his way to judge Jews favorably, speaks harshly against those who tuck their tzitzits out of sight. I recently came across two responsa by Rav Binyamin Zilber zt”l that argue at length that the widespread Sephardic custom of wearing tzitzits inside one’s pants is misguided and a misinterpretation of the Arizal.

The custom among traditional Orthodox families is to start training boys to keep the mitzvah as soon as they reach their third birthday, which is somewhat challenging because boys spend much of their time on the floor (and grungier places), so the strings tend to become dingy looking or snap within a matter of weeks.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dressing Awesomely and Modestly: The "Fresh off the Boat from Seminary" Look

Here is Tuesday's awesome and modest look! Calhoun decided to photobomb me, looking for lovin'.

The skirt is a black, floor-length (because I'm short) polyester/rayon blend and comes from from Nordstrom's kids' section. The t-shirt is from my Birthright trip to Israel, so it has the easily-spotted Birthright logo on the pocket area and a large map of Israel on the back that is the entire length of my back. Not subtle, right? The gray shell is from Kosher Casual, my favorite shell supplier!

I always giggle when I wear this outfit, which happens relatively often because it is incredibly comfy while also being comfortable going between radically different temperatures. I basically lived in this outfit during the winter because even though this is a very lightweight skirt, it is very warm in the cold, but is almost equally comfortable in the heat.

But why does it make me laugh? Because I feel like a walking stereotype when I wear it. I look like a "frummed out" baal teshuva fresh off the boat from seminary in Israel. It screams "Born Jew!" so loudly that conversion has never come up in any discussion in its presence. 

If you hear someone (especially young men) refer to a "seminary skirt," this is the skirt they mean. It is the sweatpants of Jewish femininity. Yet paired with a nice shirt, it passes as business casual in the secular world. If I could clone it, I would. I wish I had bought more than 2 of them. 

On the other hand, the Birthright shirt suggests that I was not raised orthodox because most orthodox (especially modern orthodox) youth have gone on group trips to Israel before, which usually disqualifies them from Birthright's free trip. (Note that I qualified as a Jew as a conservative convert. Pre-converts are not eligible.) Even many reform and conservative youth are disqualified for the same reason. On the other hand, the pairing of the Birthright shirt with an orthodox-style shell and seminary skirt implies that Birthright affected me so strongly that I either stayed after Birthright or went back so that I could study in a seminary, maybe Neve Yerushalayim or Mayanot, both always popular with the BT crowd (For the record, I hear they're amazing). While studying there, you become observant and "frum out" according to the perspective of your friends and family back in the United States. They think you've gone a little crazy. And you think you've discovered the best thing since sliced bread. This causes you to talk about why observant Judaism is the best thing since sliced bread, which causes everyone to really think you're crazy, maybe to the point of avoiding you. Then over time, either you ditch it altogether or you mellow out and settle at your equilibrium of observance.

And that is what I saw reflected in the knowing glances from frum strangers on the street today.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Kochava's Essential Jewish Library

After posting a picture of my Jewish library two weeks ago, I got many questions about the books on those shelves!

So I decided to share the books that are MY "essential Jewish library." I posted a list of recommended books for your own essential Jewish library in the tabs above. Your library will probably differ from my own in some way, but these are the books I've found to be most essential in my own life.

Siddur, published by Artscroll
Siddur, published by Koren
Chumash, published by Artscroll
Tanach (I have both the JPS and Artscroll versions)
Machzor, published by Artscroll
Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, published by Artscroll (Vol. 5 is not published yet)
Rashi on the Chumash, published by Artscroll
Book of Our Heritage by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov
The Laws of Berachos by Rabbi Binyomin Forst
The Kosher Kitchen by Rabbi Binyomin Forst
The 39 Melachos by Rabbi Dovid Ribiat
The 39 Avoth Melacha of Shabbath by Rabbi Baruch Chait
The Laws of Yom Tov by Rabbi Simcha B. Cohen
Halichos Bas Yisroel by Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Fuchs
A Woman's Guide to the Laws of Niddah by Rabbi Binyomin Forst
Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days by Rabbi Shmuel Yosef Agnon
Shemirath Shabbos by Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth
Love Your Neighbor by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Sefer HaChinuch
Sefer Chofetz Chaim
Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis
What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home? by Azriella Jaffe
Exodus by Leon Uris

Monday, June 13, 2011

Things That Don't Need a Hechsher

For an introduction to hechshers, read  What Are Hechshers and Why Do I Care? Now let's go more in-depth to hechshers. Conversion candidates and others new to kashrut get hechsher-dependent and get anxious about eating anything without a hechsher because we don't trust our own knowledge (or may still lack that knowledge).

What kinds of products have hechshers? In theory, something you would eat or might potentially consume (like swallowing toothpaste). But for reasons unknown to me (unless it's about easy money), you will find hechshers all over the place, particularly on cleaning products. I don't intend to eat my dishsoap or bleach, but I'm glad to know that I could eat it if it were physically possible. On the other hand, not all consumable items require a hechsher.

In short: A) Not everything that has a hechsher requires one, and B) You can consume certain items even without a hechsher.

The simplest example of A is cleaning products. The simplest example of B is fruits and vegetables (though fruits and veggies may require washing to rid them of potential bugs, but that is a different topic).

Now here is a convenient list of many common items in your house (and belly) that do not require a hechsher in order to be theoretically kosher for use, barring a problem with other laws of kashrut.

Non-Edible Items (Or So I Would Hope)
Aluminum foil
Cling wrap
Cleaning products (including dish soap and oven cleaner)
Cupcake wrappers
Unflavored dental floss
Gloves (for example, dishwashing gloves)
Mouthwash (If you always spit it out. And ask your rabbi anyway.)
Paper plates
Pet food (Can NOT use pet foods that combine meat and dairy. For easier Pesachs, I suggest using a kosher-for-Pesach pet food year-round. Do NOT feed this food with kosher utensils.)
Plastic drinking cups
Plastic silverware
Silver polish
Toothpaste (though some people hold that toothpaste does require a hechsher because you may swallow it)

Edible Items
Unflavored apple sauce (unless there are flavorings or additives)
Unflavored domestic beers (some include imported unflavored beers)
Unflavored cocoa (as opposed to cocoa mix)
Corn starch (make sure to check for bugs)
Unflavored coffees, both caffeinated and decaf
Unflavored, unseasoned, uncooked couscous
Extra virgin olive oil
Unflavored gin (as opposed to sloe gin)
Raw grains
Whole fish
Plain flour (make sure to check for bugs)
Fresh fruits and veggies (but need proper preparation)
Unflavored honey (liquid)
Unflavored molasses
Raw nuts
Raw oats
Olives (if packed in salt water and ferrous gluconate, and/or lactic acid - and NOT from Israel - see "produce from Israel" below)
Plain, unpopped popcorn (aka, not even butter)
Plain raisins
Plain rice (make sure to check for bugs)
Unflavored tea
Tap water/Bottled water (Generally, yes. Some rabbis disagree because of bugs that may be in the water or other issues.)
Filtered water (for example, from your Brita filter)
Frozen vegetables (most are alright without certification, assuming there are no oils or sauces - Note that some kinds of frozen veggies are difficult to check for bugs, such as broccoli)
Unflavored domestic vodkas (make sure it isn't made from grapes)

Items NOT on this List (AKA: Consult your rabbi)
GRAPE FLAVORING: Always requires a hechsher! Unless they're fresh grapes. This can also cause issues of mevushal/non-mevushal (up-coming post!).
Other alcoholic beverages (case-by-case depending on the alcohol, flavorings, and sometimes even bottling/manufacturing location)
Chapstick/Lip gloss
Cough drops
Cut fish
Foods from Israel (there are tithes that must be taken from produce in Israel. If a product is produce from Israel, it ALWAYS requires a hechsher. This includes spices and seasonings.)
Canned fruit
Dried fruit
Fruit juices (Grape products ALWAYS require a hechsher)
Herbal tea (requires certification)
Peanut butter (requires a hechsher because of oils used)
Spices (almost always requires a hechsher)
Tennessee whiskeys
Canned vegetables

NOTE: Just because produce has a hechsher does NOT mean it complies with other halachic requirements, such as washing fruits and veggies for bugs.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Dressing Awesomely and Modestly

Yes, I have copyrighted the phrase "dressing awesomely and modestly," and I will pursue any violation of my legal rights ferociously. Rawr.

Here is today's outfit, a simple black shell with flowy, hippie empire-waist floor-length dress. Less clear are the amazingly 60s sunglasses.

Verdict: Surprisingly well-suited to the heat of the sun and subways. On the other hand, the empire waist prompts strangers to ask if you are pregnant.

Question of the Day: Women Shaving During the Omer

I apologize for today's post being a bit late, but I always write my Friday posts on Thursdays instead of scheduling them ahead so that I can write something related to my week. Unfortunately, thanks to a dead car battery, I didn't get back from my camp Shavuot experience until around 2:30am. But the three hours of driving gave me time to think. (See, e.g., Halachic Discussion: Moshiach)

So here is a new question. During Sefira (aka the Omer), men generally don't shave, though there are exceptions to the rule. But what about women? My understanding is that the rule doesn't apply to women either because of a) it's a time bound mitzvah, so women are generally except, or b) it only applies to the face, so women can still shave their legs and underarms. However...what about women who have embarrassing facial hair issues? Being human, I'm sure they would probably continue to shave it in order to avoid embarrassment even if the halacha applies to women shaving their faces.

Thoughts? I'm sure this has come up somewhere. It just has to have.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

No Posts for Shavuot

This blog is shomer Shabbat and yom tov. Therefore, there are no posts on Wednesday, June 8, and Thursday, June 9.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shavuot: The Holiday of Nerds, Vegetarians, and Converts

Shavuos is my favorite holiday. Really! I get to stay up all night learning interesting stuff and eating cheesecake. What's not to like?? And I'm not the only convert who likes Shavuot best!

Besides the nerdy, cheesy aspects of the holiday, it is also the holiday for converts. Quite honestly, I don't understand why Shavuot gets such a short shrift in the Jewish world. It's the day when we became the Jewish people and accepted the Torah. Why do people treat Shavuot like it's just a tag-along to Pesach? I was most impressed to see it described as "the neglected stepchild of chagim."

There are two primary stories about Shavuot that relate to converts. And if you want to, you can think of the acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai) by the Israelites as the original mass conversion. Before, they were Israelites. After, they were the Jewish People.

The most common story about converts and Har Sinai comes from the Talmud. It relates that the souls of future converts all "stood at" Sinai with the Jewish people. Our souls were present just as much as the bodies of the Israelites who fled Egypt. This idea comes from Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:13-14: 
"Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath, but with whoever is here standing with us today before Hashem our Gd and whoever is not here with us today."
A very traditional view of this story is on the Aish website. For a very different view of this Talmudic explanation, read "Perfection": Human Accomplishment - Not a Jewish Birthright (mid-way down the page). Ohr Somayach describes the "procedures" of conversion as a reenactment of the revelation at Har Sinai.

On the other hand, there is a story that praises converts for seeing the truth of Torah and choosing Judaism without needing the awe and fear that the Israelites experienced at Har Sinai. The Jewish people required lightning, earthquakes, and even the mountain being held over their heads. But converts believe without needing any divine "nudging." Despite my awesome Googling skills, the idea of converts physically standing at Sinai overpowers any other narrative on the internet. I apologize for not giving you sources to read about this story.

Of course, Shavuos is overtly about conversion since we read the Megillah of Ruth. Someone asked me about Ruth on the blog's Facebook group recently. I never thought about it before, but I've never been particularly attached to the story of Ruth. But why? After some thought, I came to a conclusion: "Every convert's story is SO different and intricate, but Ruth's is so short. In a way, the description of Ruth's journey is the kind of description most born-Jews would give describing a conversion. [Because they have not heard her particular history.] Because I've been/am going through it, I know there must be more to the story." But every year, Tikkun Leil Shavuot allows me to hear new ideas and stories to challenge my own preconceptions and grow in my Torah knowledge.

Chag sameach! See you on the flipside!

Monday, June 6, 2011

What Are Hechshers and Why Do I Care?

What is a hechsher? (Pronounced "heck-shure.") It's a symbol on a product that certifies that some rabbi or rabbinical organization has ruled that the item is kosher. Here is a list of hechshers you may see.

What kinds of products have hechshers? In theory, something you would eat or might potentially consume (like swallowing toothpaste). But for reasons unknown to me (unless it's about easy money), you will find hechshers all over the place, particularly on cleaning products. I don't intend to eat my dishsoap or bleach, but I'm glad to know that I could eat it if it were physically possible. On the other hand, not all consumable items require a hechsher. In other words, some things are kosher, regardless of whether they bear a hechsher or not. I'll defer that discussion to a separate post next week.

Why are hechshers awesome? It seems so easy to read the ingredients on a label and say, "No pork! No shellfish! No meat with dairy! Yay, we're good to go!" But there are chemicals whose composition you may not know. A chemical could be derived from animals and then used in a product with dairy. Or maybe the machinery that makes and packages the product could also be used to process another product that includes shellfish. You just don't know. Unless you can personally watch the product being made from basic materials to the store shelf, even the most knowledgeable rabbi can't be totally sure about the kashrut compliance of the product. Hechshers make things simpler. You can rely on the certification of the rabbi or organization. Now you don't have to know what sodium nitrate, natamycin, or oligofructose are!

But that sounds so simple! Why do some people refuse to "hold by" a particular hechsher? In short, they don't believe that the hechsher is "reliable." They believe that the certifying rabbi or organization doesn't follow the laws of kashrut to the purchaser's standards.

For instance, a rabbi could certify kosher meat that is not glatt kosher, but someone who only eats glatt kosher meat would not eat that rabbi's certified meat. By extension, the consumer may not eat any other products with that hechsher for fear that other rules are not followed to his standards.

As another example, an organization could certify products based solely upon the ingredients used (without inspecting the machinery, etc, used to make the product). Some people may feel that is unreliable and fear that the machinery could (at least theoretically) impart some treifery to the product. (Treifery is an awesome word, don't judge me.)

So what does the "reliability" issue mean for you? When I first began going kosher, I was happy enough that I remembered to find any hechsher. I did not discriminate. My recommendation: Once you have more knowledge about the laws of kashrut (enough to understand an explanation of why a hechsher is considered unreliable), talk to your rabbi to get his ruling on which hechshers are acceptable in your community.

But what will the neighbors say? Good for you in realizing that hechshers can create problems between you and your neighbors in the frum world. While you may hold a hechsher to be reliable, if your neighbor doesn't feel the same way, they may question your kashrus and refuse to eat in your kitchen. And yes, people may ask you which hechshers you don't hold by for exactly this reason. Similarly, if you are not glatt kosher or not cholov yisrael, some people will refuse to eat in your kitchen (or maybe even in a potluck situation). Along those lines, if you are asked to bring a store-bought item (pre-conversion) or bake something for a potluck, you should take these issues into consideration.

Final note: This week, I heard a very interesting point from a friend I met through this blog. I hope she doesn't mind me quoting her directly, but she said it very well and succintly: "[B]y saying you don't hold by a given hechsher, you’re essentially saying that you don’t hold that rabbi’s opinion/qualification as valid and this in itself is a form of lashon hara. It’s very easy to keep “stricter” kashrut, but much harder to keep in mind how our actions, words and choices affect others. I think we get caught up in the idea that more strict = more kosher = better, but really, there’s only kosher and not kosher. That being said, if there are legit concerns with the supervision, by all means, don’t eat questionable food, but really consider why you're doing it and what the effects of a seemingly simple choice can be."

And you thought that something legalistic like hechshers doesn't matter in interpersonal mitzvot!

NEXT: Things that Don't Require a Hechsher

Friday, June 3, 2011

Shabbat Shalom! The Smell of New Books Edition

I am most definitely a person of the book. Judaism and law school only made this natural tendency worse by justifying being a book hoarder. 

This week, my missing seven boxes of books from California finally arrived! I mailed nine boxes when I moved from California to New York, for a total weight of approximately 200lbs. Two boxes arrived at a neighbor's, and the other seven have been missing for almost a month. This has caused me an unreasonable amount of anxiety. However, everything is okay now. 

Like a good hoarder, I immediately unpacked the books. This means that the only two things that are completely unpacked in my new apartment are my books and my office supplies/desk area. There you go, there are my priorities in life. I slept on an air mattress for a month before I got a bed, but I couldn't let my books sit in boxes for more than 20 minutes. I don't even have gas in my kitchen yet, so I've had to live on take-out food for the last month! (Lucky Stove #3 arrives today, so let's hope it's not a safety hazard too!)

So here is the finished product! There are about 2 dozen more books on a smaller bookshelf not pictured.

I was quite surprised that the entire left bookcase is JUST Jewish books. I thought I owned a lot more "general," non-Jewish books than I do, but on the other hand, I significantly underestimated the amount of Jewish books I own. I would say that there are now more Jewish books than "regular" books! Of the books that can be "read" (aka, not cookbooks or reference books), I have read at least half of them. Having them all back in my greedy little hands means that I've been furiously sneaking in "pleasure reading" as much as possible, and probably to the detriment of my bar studying.

Full disclosure: I haven't even touched a Kindle or other electronic book thingy-ma-do. I have way too many real books to read without giving myself access to an unlimited library that doesn't cost $100 and a chiropractor to ship. And there just ain't anything like the real thing :D

Shabbat shalom, and read something good before your Shabbos nap this week!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Funny, You Look More Jewish When You Wear Glasses."

I hear this one a lot, and apparently so do a lot of other "white" or Middle-Eastern people. If you could possibly "look Jewish," glasses will make you look even more "Jewish." Even totally secular Jews have said this to me over the last 7 years. Just like glasses will make you look smarter or make you look more like a lawyer. Hmm...I wonder what the connection is between all these stereotypes??

Just an interesting thought for the day. And below, you can compare my "Jewish" appearance. This is me at 1am last night, as I finished my studying for the day. That studying may or may not have really been lackluster Bejeweled performance. (I apologize for the weird head angle. I couldn't get the computer glare off my glasses!)

Goyishe Shiksa

Yeshivish Yenta

I apologize for the proliferation of quotation marks in this post.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Explaining Kashrut to the Clueless

Since I became observant of the kosher laws while living in a largely non-Jewish area, I got a lot of practice in explaining kashrut in a quick-and-dirty way. This is what I came up with, and maybe it will be useful to you!

Eating kosher is essentially three levels of paying attention to what you eat. 

1) What you're actually eating. There are prohibited animals that can't be eaten. Everyone knows pig, but I also don't eat shellfish, shrimp, or bottom-feeder fish like catfish. There's also shark, swordfish, and insects.

2) What you're eating that item with. I don't eat meat with dairy. This even includes meat with a side dish that has dairy, such as a steak eaten with a baked potato with butter and/or sour cream. 

3) How you prepared it. Going back to what you eat the food with, I wouldn't eat a steak cooked in butter. But more than that, I have two sets of kitchen supplies, one for meat and one for dairy, so that I don't accidentally mix the two. Surprisingly, if you cook chicken soup in a pot one night and clean it well afterwards, and then boil water in it the next day, a professional chef could tell you what you cooked! Meat and dairy could be absorbed into the pot or plate or other utensil, so we separate them. That means I use pots, pans, silverware, and dishes that are designated as either meat or dairy. I don't use other peoples' dishes and pots because they've probably been used for both.

If the person is still interested and has more time, I spend a minute or two on each topic, fleshing it out. Usually, they jump right to questions about specific examples.