Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Nine Days in a Nutshell

Tomorrow night is Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the month of Av. It also begins the period known as the Nine Days, a time of great sadness for the Jewish people. Ashkenazim have been observing mourning practices since the 17th of Tammuz, but starting tomorrow, their mourning practices intensify and Sephardim begin observing mourning practices. The Nine Days culminates in the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, Tisha B'Av (the 9th of Av).

The English dates for the Nine Days in 2011 is sundown of Sunday, July 31, through the evening of Tuesday, August 9.

Note: Sephardi practices may be slightly different from what is noted below.

What is prohibited during the Nine Days?
  • Weddings. (Engagement parties are permissible.)
  • Public celebrations.
  • Haircuts.
  • Dancing.
  • Shaving.
  • No saying the shechecheyanu blessing on new food or clothing (except on Shabbat).
  • No music (singing may be permissible).
  • You shouldn't purchase items of joy unless they will be more expensive after Tisha B'Av (tefillin is excluded).
  • Drinking wine or grape juice. This might not apply to Shabbat, Havdalah, or a seudat mitzvah in your community.
  • Eating meat (including poultry). This might not apply to Shabbat or a seudat mitzvah in your community.
  • Doing laundry (except for children's clothing).
  • Wearing freshly-laundered clothing (except socks and underwear). See: How to Wear "Clean" Clothing During the Nine Days.
  • Buy new clothing, even if you won't wear it until after the Nine Days. There are exceptions.
  • Bathing for pleasure.
  • Swimming for pleasure.
Custom in many communities discourages traveling during this period, but it is halachically permissible. During the entire month of Av, some people will attempt to postpone any personal court proceedings. (I don't believe there is the same custom regarding attending a court proceeding or being the attorney in such a proceeding.)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Debate: Early Shabbat v. Late Shabbat

This is truly an eternal debate, and everyone has an opinion. Mostly, they focus on the negative opinion: which do they hate? Personally, I hate early Shabbos, but not for the reasons you would think.

First, what are early and late Shabbos?

Early Shabbos is in the winter, when Shabbos begins early on Friday afternoon. In some of the places I've lived, Shabbos can start as early as 4pm. This can wreck havoc with your work schedule, not to mention trying to get ready for Shabbos that early! The Shabbos Shuffle (trademarked by me) is frenzied. Most people hate the getting ready so early part, but it seems that most people prefer early Shabbos overall.

Late Shabbos is in the summer, when candlelighting might be as late as 8pm. While we all appreciate the extra time to prepare for the Shabbos Queen, most people hate late Shabbos because a) You have to wait so late to eat dinner, starting at 9:30 at the earliest sometimes, and b) You end Shabbat so late on Saturday night that you can't go out and do something like see a movie. 

So what is this other factor that sways my love to late Shabbos? Primarily, the Shabbat nap, aka "the Shabbos schleuf." When Shabbat ends at 5 or 6pm, there's hardly even time for a nap! Shabbat is over before you turn around. I might get to read for an hour. With shul, a meal, and then shul again, I just can't get any Shabbosing done! In short, I don't find as much peace on early Shabbats.

If you hate both early and late Shabbat, move to near the equator (::coughIsraelcough::), and you'll have Shabbat at substantially the same time year-round!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

How to Wear "Clean" Clothing During the Nine Days

As the Nine Days approaches, you should begin preparing your clothing. During this period, we do not wear "freshly laundered clothing" and don't do laundry. 

So what will you wear without looking and smelling like a crazy homeless guy? It's easy.

A) You may wear freshly-laundered (aka, clean) underwear and socks (and some say undershirts) because of hygenic reasons. I have also seen some opinions that include any clothing worn to absorb perspiration in this category.
B) You may wear freshly-laundered clothing on Shabbat for the honor of Shabbat.
C) You may wear freshly-laundered clothing in honor of a mitzvah. The classic example is for the participants at a bris (parents, sandek, and mohel).
D) If you have young children whose clothing gets soiled frequently, you may launder their clothes and they may wear them freshly-laundered.

What do you do about the rest of your clothing? You take the "freshness" out of them. In practical terms, you need to plan what you want to wear during the Nine Days. Do your laundry, including those items. After they are clean, you remove the freshness by wearing each item for a short amount of time.

What happens if you forget to "wear in" something you want to wear during the Nine Days? If you want to wear it before Shabbat, you're out of luck. If you want to wear it after Shabbat of the Nine Days, you wear the clothing for a short period of time on Shabbat (when freshly-laundered clothing is allowed) so that it will lose its freshness for the remaining days.

There is a more in-depth post about the Nine Days already written, but just for your reference now, the dates of the Nine Days for 2011 is sundown of Sunday, July 31, through the evening of Tuesday, August 9.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Management Update: Today Begins the Bar Exam!

I know you will all be sad, but there are no posts until Thursday afternoon. Today begins my journey through the New York bar exam, which continues with the multi-state portion on Wednesday and culminates with the New Jersey bar exam on Thursday. G-d willing, that means I will be licensed to practice law in the states of New York and New Jersey come Thanksgiving.

When you daven today, please think of me. May Hashem give me the help to articulate the things I know, to not freak out over the things I don't, and the courage to make things up when I need to. If you or someone you know want to hire an estate planning clerk/future attorney to join your firm, you know where to find me!

For those of you who have emailed and commented in the last week or so (and in the next few days), I will be in touch with you next week! I apologize for the delay, but I hope you understand!

To keep you amused until Thursday, watch the BBC program below. This is part one of four.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Management Update: I Need Your Assistance to Improve the Blog!

Today, I'm asking for your input. 

In order to serve my readers better, I want to know when you normally read my blog. This way, I can time the notifications of new posts to the time when people are most likely to read! In other words, I want to make it easier and more convenient to mosey on over here.

In the comments below, please note the time you normally read my posts. Be sure to note your time zone. If you want to be really nice to me, you can translate your local time to Eastern US time. 

If you only read on certain days, I would also be interested in that. For instance, would you rather have posts on the weekends and less on the weekdays? I don't expect to write more than 5 posts per week, but I am open to changing the times and days they post. Likewise, is five posts a week too much? Would you rather have less posts?

And if you can think of any other suggestions to improve the blog, I'm all ears! Once this bar exam madness is over (next Friday), I'm going to start expanding/improving the blog!

I would greatly appreciate your input! If you want to share something more privately, feel free to email me at crazyjewishconvert on the gmail server.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Make Button Shirts Tznius

One thing that annoys me endlessly is when women wear button-down shirts and there are obvious gaps between the buttons, exposing the woman's bra or undershirt. In the Jewish context, this is untznius. In the everyday world, it's sloppy. I, too, was once a victim of this scourge on fashion. (I didn't know better. But at least I had the good sense to wear an undershirt.)

Worse, if you work in a professional environment, it looks unprofessional and can be distracting to others.

If you are a chesty woman with a similar problem, it's easy to fix. Please do so. 

There are several solutions:
  • At a minimum, at least wear a shirt under it so that we don't have to see your bra. Or worse.
  • Also a minimum requirement: wear a properly fitting bra. Get a professional fitting at least once a year because your body can and will change over time. There should be no obligation to buy. For instance, Nordstrom offers fittings for free.
  • Get your shirts tailored. Yeah, I'll get on that as soon as I win the lottery. And as fate would have it, you'll still manage to move in a way that will make the shirt gap at least some of the time.
  • Double-sided clothing tape placed on the fabric between the buttons (available even in your grocery store in the household aisle, near the sewing kits). It's also called "fashion tape." I recommend owning some for emergency use regardless.
  • Use safety pins instead of fabric tape. Button up the shirt, turn it inside out, safety pin together the fabric between the buttons, then turn it right side out. You can only do this on shirts you can pull over your head, which is more possible than you think. Surprisingly, you can wash the shirt like this, and I recommend doing that. You can also pin the fabric while you are wearing it, but that is more difficult. Similarly, once you're comfortable with this, you could sew the gap shut as a more permanent fix.
  • Sew a snap closure or two in the middle between the buttons. This will take some trial and error, or you might just make smaller gaps.
For more fashionable and/or tznius uses for fashion tape, see 1,001 Uses for Fashion Tape.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Practical Tips: Carrying Food/Drinks to a Shabbat Meal

We discussed earlier what halachic non-Jews (and/or people who don't keep kosher) can bring to a Shabbat meal.

How do you get it there? Hopefully this thought occurred to you. And if not, maybe I'll save you a little embarrassment (though there is no reason to be embarrassed by a lack of knowledge).

What's the problem? Carrying between public and private "domains" is prohibited on Shabbat. This is halacha d'oraisa, which means it is from the Written Law of the Torah. It's more serious than a rabbinic prohibition. 

Of course, this law only applies to halachic Jews. If you're a Jew who doesn't keep kosher, you're probably not bothered by this issue. If you haven't converted or have "only" a Jewish father, you are also not held to this law. However, there is something to be said for fitting in and "doing as the Romans do." You might also want to avoid bringing any attention to your status from other guests or congregants. (Remember that your host NEEDS TO KNOW if you are not halachically Jewish.)

So how do you get your food/drink item from your house to your gracious host's home? There are two possibilities, and they all revolve around whether there is an eruv in the community that encompasses both homes. Note that you must check whether the eruv is "up" for the coming Shabbat.

If there is an eruv: You can carry the item with you. Most likely, you will carry it to synagogue with you and then to your host's home. It's fine to carry it in a bag or whatever you need to do to carry it comfortably. (Probably not by riding an electric scooter.)

If there is not an eruv OR the eruv is "down": Carry/drive/teleport the item to your host's home BEFORE Shabbat begins. If you drive, etc, be careful that you leave enough time to get back home or to the synagogue before Shabbat begins. If you are worried about being seen carrying on Shabbat, you probably don't want to be seen driving on Shabbat either. (You might be able to leave your car at your host's home, especially if there is on-street/public parking.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Adventures in Semantics: Chutzpah

The word "chutzpah" has received a lot of attention lately, thanks to Michelle Bachmann, American Presidential Candidate of Insanity [personal opinion]. 

While many Americans cannot correctly pronounce it (or know that there is a different pronunciation), the word chutzpah is absolutely part of the English language today. Like schlep, maven, and klutz, this Yiddish word has been adopted by America. 

Chutzpah is audacity and insolence. It's generally not a nice word to apply to someone.

So what was the issue last week? Michelle Bachmann hilariously mispronounced chutzpah as "choot-SPA." Chutzpah's "ch" is not pronounced like "choo choo." It is a guttral sound, but if you can't pronounce that, the plain "h" sound is permissible. The stress should be on the first syllable.

Here is the offending video:

As Jon Stewart said, "You know...I got a feeling that saying the word 'choot-spa' is going to hurt more grandmothers than Obama cutting off their Social Security. I think both parties have already lost Florida."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Three Weeks in a Nutshell

Today begins the period known as the Three Weeks. At the end of this period is the Nine Days and then Tisha B'Av. During the Three Weeks, some of the laws of mourning apply, and the mourning observances are intensified during the Nine Days. In short, you "decrease" your joy. Some say that because of the divine judgment inherent in this period of the year, you should avoid risky and dangerous activities. [Like taking the bar exam and job hunting? Oops.]

Note: Ashkenazim begin mourning practices on the 17th of Tammuz (today). Sephardim generally begin mourning restrictions on Rosh Chodesh Av (the first day of the month of Av and the beginning of the Nine Days).

During this period, we are commemorating the destruction of both the Temples, though other calamities have also struck the Jewish people during this period throughout history. Tisha B'Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year.

Here, we will speak about the Three Weeks. We'll discuss the Nine Days and Tisha B'Av in more detail in the near future. 

So what is prohibited during this period?
  • Weddings (Engagement parties are ok)
  • Public celebrations
  • Haircuts
  • Dancing
  • Shaving (Some authorities only prohibit this during the Nine Days)
  • No saying the shechecheyanu blessing on new food or clothing (except on Shabbat-there is some difference among the authorities who allow it at all times)
Many do not listen to or play music during this period. Some only avoid music during the Nine Days when they increase their mourning practices. Professional musicians may be able to practice (but not perform) during this period, but you should speak to your rabbi. Singing may be allowed by your community.

If you are uncertain which practices you should be following and when, ask your rabbi.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tomorrow Is the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz

Tomorrow is a fast day! Sunrise to sunset only. If you are uncertain how the laws of fasting apply or how they apply to you, ask your rabbi! Remember that if you are halachically unable to fast because of your health, it is a mitzvah for you to eat!

The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz commemorates 5 particular tragedies according to the Mishnah:
  • Moshe broke the first tablets when he descended Mount Sinai and saw the Golden Calf
  • Offerings in the first Beis HaMikdash were suspended while Jerusalem was under attack
  • The walls of Jerusalem were breached in the time of the second Beis HaMikdash
  • Apustamus the Wicked burned the Torah [in the time of the second Beis HaMikdash]
  • An idol was placed in the Sanctuary of the second Beis HaMikdash
For tips on things you can do today to improve your fast tomorrow, check out Tips to Ensure an Easier Fast! Most important of all, get properly hydrated!

In the larger picture, the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, which we will talk about tomorrow! It culminates in the Tisha B'Av (the 9th of Av).

Friday, July 15, 2011

Coping with the Kletzky Tragedy

If you would like to send your condolences to the Kletzky family, please email

The organizers of this e-letter drive hope to collect 10,000 letters before the end of this weekend, and 100,000 letters by the end of the shiva. Please put your social media to work and advertise this through your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, email lists, etc.

If you would like some advice on how to discuss these kinds of tragedies with your children, check out this article at Aish that was written following 9/11: Talking to Our Children About the Tragedies.

Shabbat shalom, and may these kinds of tragedies cease to exist soon.

"All that G-d Does Is for the Good."

Today, rather than me getting on my soapbox, I'm going to share a common Talmudic story. It happens that I didn't know what to write about. But when I read, I mark ideas that I'd like to eventually share on the blog with post-it notes. I picked up the closest book, and this story was the first thing I opened to. Guess I needed this message today, and perhaps you do too.

Rabbi Akiba was traveling (on the lam from the Romans after a rebellion, as I understand it). He had a donkey, a rooster, and a torch with him. Near dark, he came to a city and began looking for lodging for the night.

Not knowing who he was (that says something bad in itself), everyone turned him away. Rabbi Akiba didn't complain. He simply said, "All that G-d does is for the good."

Without another option, Rabbi Akiba was forced to camp in a field that night. During the night, a lion (yes, a lion. I don't know where it came from) came into the field and killed the Rabbi's donkey. He said, "All that G-d does is for the good."

Later, a cat came and ate his rooster. Again, he didn't complain. He said, "All that G-d does is for the good."

Finally, a great wind came and extinguished his torch. "All that G-d does is for the good."

In the morning, Rabbi Akiba walked back to the city. During the night, the Romans had sacked the city and killed all the inhabitants. If Rabbi Akiba had found lodging, he would also be dead. Likewise, if the Romans had heard his donkey bray, heard his rooster crow, or seen his torch, he would have been found and killed.

Rabbi Akiba said, "Have I not said that all G-d does is for the good!"

Of course, it bothers me that the inhabitants of the city probably didn't feel that way. Yet we don't discuss them. (As a side note, I've also heard this story used as a warning against turning away chances to practice the mitzvah of hospitality.) 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

News: Tragedy Strikes Brooklyn and the Larger Jewish Community

Being in New York and friends with many Jews in the tri-state area, I feel like this news is pervasive in the Jewish world. However, my dad told me that it didn't even make the national news. This shocks me. (The combination of fear-mongering, gruesome details, and the ability to gawk at chassidic Jews should have made this top-billed national news.) Just in case you readers in Lurker Land haven't heard, I wanted to share so that you can join the Jewish people in davening for the Kletzky family.

In short: On Monday, 8 year old boy, Leiby Kletzy, (turning 9 this month) was walking home from day camp for the first time, a distance of 6-7 blocks. He missed his turn and became lost. He appears to have asked a orthodox Jewish man for directions. This man took him home. When Leiby didn't arrive at his doctor's appointment, literally hundreds of people (maybe more) came to Brooklyn to search for Leiby. The man claims that he panicked when so many people began searching, so he suffocated Leiby and dismembered the body. He then went to work, where his boss claims he acted normally. He confessed to the police and told them where to locate Leiby's remains. The funeral was held last night with thousands in attendance. He has been charged with second degree murder.

As my own rant, it blows my mind that the prosecutor chose only second degree murder. That flies in the face of both the facts and the law, as I understand it.

I chose one of the more "mild" news stories: Thousands Mourn Boy Killed in Brooklyn. If you want the gruesome details, there are many other news stories that include them.

In a different article, I saw a different quote from Leiby's dad at the lavaya (funeral). I found it very touching: "Pray for your sisters and the rest of your family, including the entire Jewish nation, which is now part of our family."

Baruch Hashem that there are so many people caring for the family and the kiddush Hashem of this whole community.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Newsflash: Conversion Is Permanent!

At a Shabbat table, a born Jew asked me a very good question about conversion. It was so obvious that I don't know why I haven't been asked this question before. And believe me, I've been asked a lot of conversion questions in my day.

When you first started the conversion process, did you know that it's permanent?

That is a good point that some conversion candidates may not discover for a little while. I can't imagine that any movement would convert someone without making sure this is understood. But since we're talking about conversion, let's talk about it.

Once you convert, you are a Jew. Forever. And ever and ever. Even if you suddenly decided Judaism was a phase, and you wanted to become a Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist. Even if you returned to a prior religion. If you convert orthodox, this means even if you decided to join a liberal movement. And even if you decided to no longer affiliate Jewishly but don't join a new religious group. You're Jewish. Period. End of story.

If you do those things, you are halachically still a Jew. You're just a bad Jew :P

Of course, you are probably wondering about those stories of conversions being overturned or "taken away." If you were not sincere at the time of your conversion in agreeing to take on the mitzvot, and I really mean at that time only, the conversion can be nullified. That's not overturning it; it's as though the conversion never existed. Halachically, if you were sincere up until the day after your conversion, you're still Jewish. That's hard to measure. 

Some groups have made a "testing" time (so to speak), and they will refuse conversion papers or seek to nullify a conversion if the convert abandons Judaism (or if orthodox, the observance of mitzvot, even partially) within 1 year of the conversion. The idea is that if you weren't sincere at the time, you should show your true colors by then. If they withhold your conversion papers, you're unable to prove the conversion occurred. Your papers are essential to the rest of your Jewish life. In practice, if you can actually manage to fake it for the 2-5 years currently required for orthodox conversions, you can certainly fake it for one more year.

You're probably still confused. Why have you heard of so many conversions being overturned? It's not common at all, but there is definitely a fear of "de-conversion" within the convert community. I'm not going to lie, it even frightens me. But in the grand scheme of things, you're probably going to be just fine. Keep reading.

There are primarily two situations in "de-conversions." 

A) The more likely is that a member of the beit din later becomes disqualified from sitting on a rabbinical court. Several reasons could create this issue, but you probably won't be told why because that would be lashon hara. Generally, it must be regular violation of basic halacha like Shabbat. They will then have to determine how long this has been an issue. Any court he sat on during the time he was possibly disqualified, there is a risk that the beit din wasn't properly convened. In short, it's a procedural issue. There is nothing wrong with you. The situation is easily remedied with a geirus l'chumrah, which is just a second conversion ceremony without the blessings said in the mikvah. Chumrah means stringency. This is "just to be safe." And it's essentially retroactive. This can be emotional for some, but it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

The second situation would definitely make you feel upset and betrayed.

B) This is an issue of the usual suspects who rule their communities with an iron fist of conformity. A woman starts wearing pants or covers her hair in a way not accepted by "the community," and suddenly the rabbi is yelling that she must not have intended to take on the mitzvot at the time of her conversion, even if it was 15 years ago. This is definitely more of an issue for women than men. In general, if he is the rabbi who converted you, he can singlehandedly claim that your conversion was invalid. That doesn't mean another rabbi will accept his claim of invalidity. If he wasn't your converting rabbi, he needs to convene a new beit din to rule on the issue. Again, that doesn't mean that another rabbi will accept their ruling as valid. Of course, he can forgo the beit din and ostracize you from the community, telling everyone your conversion is not accepted as valid in the community. In the very unlikely event this happens, you can simply change communities. The problem occurs when you don't have an option you want nearby but lack the funds/ability to move. In that case, I'm afraid that I'm no use, but you should contact any rabbi you feel comfortable with. I'm sure he would be pleased to talk with you and discuss your options. One possible option if you move is to also have a geirus l'chumrah if this is your converting rabbi so that anyone who needs to verify your conversion won't call him to verify the validity of your conversion. Of course, he will tell them it's not valid. If you have a geirus l'chumrah, the most recent beit din is who will be contacted for verification of your Jewish status. That said, most rabbis know which rabbis do this sort of thing. That's why I call them "the usual suspects."

So in short, once you're in, you're in. Understand that and live up to the challenge. And even though it isn't fair, remember that your actions post-conversion reflect on all other converts, as well as the rabbis who converted you. You're not an island in Judaism, and the conversion community needs you to stand with us.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Should Synagogue Membership Forms Ask If You Are a Convert?

KvetchingEditor has written about a topic that should concern all converts/converts-in-training: Membership in the Community: Invading Your Territory.

The "Problem": Synagogue membership forms that ask whether a person requesting membership is a convert. Some forms go on to ask for the converting beit din information, etc. Enough information to verify the conversion. Just about everyone does (and should) agree that the rabbi is entitled to know this information. 

I don't have a problem with this. You may disagree. In fact, I'm sure most of you do.

I have been involved in the orthodox community for over 7 years, and I've considered living in many communities throughout the US in that time. When I considered each community, I looked at the orthodox synagogues. I would estimate that I've looked at the membership forms for 25-30 synagogues. According to my memory, 100% of those forms asked whether the person applying had converted. I never even considered that a synagogue membership form wouldn't ask that because of the issue of the rabbi's need to know whether the convert is halachically Jewish.

The number one argument I'm seeing is "Are they asking born Jews to prove their status?" No one seems to find my response worth addressing because everyone is ignoring it: the same form asks for both parents' Hebrew names (and yartzheit dates if they have passed away). If you are unable to provide one (or one that is clearly an English name), I'd imagine that you will be asked to provide some proof of Jewishness. Sure, you can lie. You can also lie and check the "no" box beside "Convert?" Liars gonna lie and haters gonna hate :) Liars will be caught when there is a lifecycle event. If the convert (or a female convert's child) wants to get married or bar mitzvahed, proof of Jewishness is required by the officiating rabbi. (Or when they enroll their kids in a Jewish school.)

Let's examine an underlying assumption: why is it a problem for non-halachic Jews to join the synagogue in the first place? As I said in What's Up with Membership Fees, I think that the grand majority of synagogues do not allow converts to join whose conversion is not halachic to their standards. However, some orthodox synagogues (granted, very few) allow anyone to become a member, even members of other religions. Why does it even matter? I've spoken with several rabbis about this, and they all said that synagogue membership can be used by an unscrupulous person to justify their Jewish status to others. According to these rabbis, people in the Jewish community put some stock into shul membership and believe that the synagogue is responsible for "vetting" the status of members. Quite frankly, I agree. Who is in a better position to verify than the synagogue, the center of Jewish communal life?

What is the other underlying problem? There is normally a membership committee (sometimes including the rabbi), and those members will see the form and know the convert's status. A lot of people hold that the mitzvah of not oppressing the convert includes any mention of the convert's status. I'm of the "minority" approach that doesn't prohibit knowledge of the status, but prohibits drawing negative inferences from it or speaking badly about the person based upon that. I think that the "majority" approach (I really don't know which is the halachic minority/majority-this is percentage of the converts themselves) is premised on the assumption that any statement about convert status is or can lead to those negative results. To me, the "Jew is a Jew is a Jew" argument doesn't solve this problem. If that were the case, why isn't there a prohibition against calling someone a baal teshuva? 

What is the alternative? Give memberships to anyone who pays the proper fee? Regardless of what a membership form says, any convert should still approach the rabbi and volunteer their information so that the rabbi is aware of any issues. For instance, if you are a single female convert, then the rabbi can steer you away from single kohanim. 

To be honest, assuming I disagreed with this widespread policy, I can't imagine a better alternative that will still serve the interests of the community. That just leads to arguments of individual v. community. To me, halacha is unique among world religions for the protections offered to individuality, but there are also strong protections for the community. It's a balance. Converts, widows, and orphans are already singled out for special protections. 

I don't get it. I apologize for any jumps in organization. This has been written quickly because I should really be spending my time studying.

UPDATE: A new point. By demanding that every Jew provide proof, we're just dragging everyone else into the status wars converts face. I don't think that making more victims is a fair way to create more justice. We should be treated kindly and with respect because we deserve it, not because we shame the rabbis into shaming born Jews too. That is not true change.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Adventures in Semantics: Types of Kosher Meat

The title of this post may have confused you. Sure, there's kosher meat and non-kosher meat. But there's more. There are grades of kosher meat! And not in the USDA Grade A sense.

Kosher Meat: Kosher meats are a) kosher animals b) slaughtered according to Jewish law. Certain internal injuries can render that meat un-kosher. Because of the possibility of internal injuries or signs of illness (such as scarring), there is a post-mortem internal inspection of the animal. Not all injuries to the animal render it treif. And not all organs are always checked because the likelihood of injury is very small in many organs. The lungs are always checked. 

Glatt Kosher Meat: "Glatt" is Yiddish for "smooth." Usually it refers to the lungs, and it implies that the lungs are free of injuries. However, Ashkenazim allow for the removal of some injuries without rendering the rest of the meat treif. Fowl, fish, and non-animals cannot be made "glatt" kosher. Any such product is a marketing ploy to convince you that the item is "super kosher."

Beit Yosef Meat: Beit Yosef meat (aka glatt Beit Yosef meat) is, in simplified terms, the Sephardi interpretation of glatt kosher. In effect, they have a no-tolerance policy for any of those internal injuries that the Ashkenazim would remove. My understanding is that this is the majority holding of the Sephardi world.

If properly inspected, "regular" kosher meat is kosher, at least for Ashkenazim. Many, if not most, Ashkenazim hold by glatt kosher instead. In fact, if a kosher certification organization certifies non-glatt meat, they will likely be called "an unreliable hashgacha/hechsher." (For more, see What Are Hechshers and Why Do I Care?) This is something to be aware of, particularly if you plan to host meals or bring food items to a potluck.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Oldie But a Goodie: the Ever-Present Convert Joke

I have a lot to write about on my soapbox day, but I'm going to wait and let the chain of events play out first. And to be quite honest, it has been a little difficult to keep the blog updated these last few weeks! I'm trying to maintain momentum to keep you all informed and entertained, but we'll see how it goes. Two and a half weeks until the 3 day exam madness.

So today, in a sure sign of laziness, I bring you an old joke. If you're going to convert, you have to know this joke. You're going to hear it 1,000 times. There are minor differences in the storyline, but the joke below is a fair representation. In fact, I've cobbled three different versions together.
         Moshe is talking to his friend Victor. "As you know, Victor, my daughter Rifka is getting married soon and because you’re not only my friend, but have also been my chavrusa (study partner) for nearly nine years, I would like to ask you to act as a witness under her chuppah. What do you say?"
         "I'm sorry, Moshe," replies Victor looking sad, "I know it’s an honor, but I can’t accept. I'm not Jewish."
         "What do you mean you’re not Jewish??" says Moshe. "You've been coming to shacharis every morning for over ten years and you've been my chavrusa for nearly as long. I don’t understand."
         "Well," says his friend, "I find shul to be very spiritually fulfilling, and the learning is the best intellectual stimulation around, to say nothing of this wonderful community. I've devoted my life to the mitzvot, but I've never actually got around to converting."
         "But hold on a minute, Victor," says Moshe. "Didn't we both learn in the Gemara, only a few weeks ago, that if you're not Jewish, you can't keep the Shabbes?"
         "Oh, don't worry," says his friend. "I don't keep Shabbat fully. You see, every Friday night, I put a key in my pocket so that I will carry on Shabbat."
         "So? Our community has an eruv."
         "Feh," says his friend. "I don't hold by that eruv!"
Har har har, right?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Interpretation of the Torah, Pardes, and Kabbalah

The Talmudic story of the four who entered Pardes sticks with me. It's definitely in my Jewish Story Top 10. I couldn't tell you why. Maybe it shows I've got a 1/4 chance of making it out of this conversion alive and mentally/emotionally/religiously intact.
Four men entered pardes: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher ["the other one"], and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace. (Talmud Bavli tractate Chagiga)
Pardes means "orchard," but I've also seen it translated as garden. It is paradise. 

Who are these men? They're great rabbis of the Misnah period (post-Temple but pre-Talmud, around 200 CE). Upon entering paradise, one man died, another went insane, and the other became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiba survived. He was able to peacefully incorporate all the levels of Torah knowledge within himself. Without his mind imploding, essentially. Remember: these are very respected, great rabbis. If Torah can drive them insane or heretical, there is no sense in beating yourself up when you have difficulty learning Torah. Or so I keep telling myself.

For many, this story is considered a warning against studying kabbalah (NOT Madonna's The Kabbalah Center kabbalah) before you have the appropriate level of knowledge. See below the link.

For a deeper explanation of Pardes and the kaballah, click here (link to pdf).

What are these levels of Torah knowledge? PaRDeS is an acronym for the four levels of Torah interpretation:

Pshat: This is the literal interpretation, the plain meaning of the words. You will hear the word "pshat/peshat" used often. It is the foundation of the house of Torah, so to speak. Before you can get into the "cooler" ideas and interpretations of the Torah, you have to put in the legwork with the Chumash.
Remez: The symbolic or allegorical meaning behind the words as you see them.
Drash: The midrashic interpretation, as in the Midrash. Examples of midrashic interpretation: when a word seems superfluous, a word has an extra letter (remember, there are silent letters), multiple versions of the same story in the texts, stories to fill in "gaps" in the chronology of the story.
Sod (Rhymes with "toad"): The mystical interpretation. This is the kabbalistic perspective.

I don't know if gematria is drash or sod, but my guess would be drash. While the interpretations of the numbers themselves are usually kabbalistic, the methodology of "finding" the numbers strikes me as very similar to the drash methods above. It's almost grammatical in a way.

How do these levels of interpretation fit with kabbalah and the story of Pardes above? As I said, you're not supposed to study kabbalah until you reach a certain level. Traditionally, the threshold is 40 years old and being married. In that, there appears to be a requirement for a thorough knowledge of the "lower" levels of Torah study over many years combined with achieving certain life experiences/wisdom.

On a personal level, I find it very difficult to focus on pshat, though I know that is where I am in my Jewish education, and where I should be for several years. The other levels of interpretation are more "fun" and feel more intellectually challenging. However, I have to remind myself that the house of Torah has a foundation, and that foundation is the pshat. Every moment I spend studying the pshat deepens my ability to understand all the other layers of interpretation within the pshat.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Beged Ish

I don't know how it happens, but the phrase "beged ish" pops up in the most random of contexts. Perhaps that says something about the people saying it, but I'll leave that to you.

Beged ish is Hebrew for "a man's garment." In short, men and women aren't supposed to wear the clothing of the other sex. It's not tznius. The arguments in "polite conversation" tend to be about women wearing pants. Of course, aside from being a d'oraisa prohibition, there are also issues of tznius.

The source is Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5, "A masculine accouterment shall not be upon a woman, nor shall a man wear a woman's garment, for all those who do these thing are an abomination to Hashem, your G-d."

The problem is how to define gendered clothing. It certainly can change over time, based on community custom. However, in our modern world, how do we define community? And how do we deal with a change in the times? These are questions that rabbis disagree on vehemently. Even more complicated, rabbis may allow an item of clothing as permissible under one theory but prohibited under another halachic theory. For instance, my understanding is that Rav Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z"tl-if you don't know him, you should) held that women's pants are not beged ish, but the crotch split violates tznius. So even when you get around a beged ish issue, there are tznius issues to consider. On the other end of the spectrum, some groups would (loudly) emphasize that pants are beged ish per se. Therefore, they are not permissible in any context, even as pajamas in the privacy of your own home with no men around.

This is an area where my favorite quote applies: "Everyone who is more lenient than you is a heretic. Everyone more stringent than you is a fanatic." Whenever you have this conversion, unless you agree, the other person is going to think you're a heretic or fanatic, and you will feel the opposite.

Yet there's a twist here: what about all that cross-dressing on Purim? Didn't I see the rabbi dressed as a mermaid?? (True story: I met my first rabbi's 2 year old son on Purim, and he was dressed as a girl. For several weeks, I thought the rabbi had a daughter.) Apparently, cross-dressing is allowed on Purim because everyone knows that the intent isn't to be lewd; we presume it is for the joy of Purim.

The most interesting beged ish question I encountered: I heard swords are beged ish. Does this mean that guns are beged ish today?

As a last thought, my "research" brought me to this gem of a quote: "Modesty is a characteristic that has no Hashkafa."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Non-Mevushal Wine Survival Tips

When you're new to converting, it can be hardest to figure out why everyone freaks out when you get a little too close to the wine bottle. What's that about? (And later on, you get freaked out by how many people don't know these laws and try to hand you the wine bottle!) Let's discuss.

Let's start at the beginning: there are certain rules that must be followed to make wine kosher. If you're familiar with kosher food, this should make sense to you. Your hamburger, your Coke, and your Cheez-Itz have to be certified kosher, so why not wine too?

However, with normal food and drinks, simply sharing it with a non-Jew doesn't make the food un-kosher (trief). With grape drinks (grape juice, wine, if Grape Gatorade were kosher, etc) can become non-kosher from coming into contact with non-Jews. (It can become non-kosher in other situations involving Jews, but that is outside the scope of this forum.)

Note that in the grand majority of communities, this issue only applies once the bottle is opened. The non-Jew or non-halachic-Jew can buy it, carry it to the house, and set it on the table without issue. But they can't open it or handle the wine once it has been opened. This applies to both the bottle and glasses. No, you can't hold your friend's glass while she goes to the bathroom or pass the kiddush cup around the table.

But there's a way to prevent treifery! You've heard it mentioned before, but it's easy to get confused: mevushal wine. You want mevushal wine, NOT non-mevushal wine. That can be very easy to confuse. Mevushal means that the wine has been boiled. If you think of the word as "boiled," you won't want to buy "non-boiled." If the bottle doesn't say anything about "mevushal" (and it will be in English if sold in English-speaking countries), then it is NOT mevushal. When in doubt, assume grape drinks are not mevushal and you'll always be ok.

So, let's break it down.

Affected products: Wine and grape juice. Other grape drinks would be a problem, but you won't see them certified as kosher. That means no real hope of grape Powerade being kosher anytime soon.

The problem: Stated in the most basic terms (and ignoring halachic issues involving Jews), non-Jews can make the wine non-kosher simply by pouring it or moving it. You can do everything normally with a mevushal wine, with no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. That's why mevushal wine is awesome. However, it gets a bad rap as not being as "good" of wine. That is generally not true.

The reason: Because you might worship pagan idols with the wine, and we can never really be sure whether you did or not. I don't even know how boiling prevents you from dedicating the wine to Baal, but I haven't looked into it. Ok, all that is being a little glib, but that's the basic reason. In short: it's the law. Follow it. Even if you think it's silly and don't believe halacha is binding, you need to know about this law if you're going to attend Jewish events and visit Jewish homes. It would be extremely disrespectful to flaunt this law in front of friendly folk. You will ruin their wine in their eyes, no matter whether you think it was affected or not. Note: Events are normally not a problem, or any other time the host doesn't know what sort of background people will bring to the table. In those cases, everything should be mevushal. However, you should always check. I attended a synagogue function where the people who provided the wine didn't think ahead about this issue (and the drinkers didn't know these laws) and a majority of the wine had to be poured into the ground outside. Buyers make mistakes, and drinkers don't always know the laws.

Best practice solution: Until you know that you can be trusted to remember which bottles are mevushal and which bottles are non-mevushal (which, for the record, took me 6 years), just. don't. touch. wine. Ever. Once it is opened (by someone other than you), it is off-limits. Other people can pour for you, but do not touch it. In this way, you won't mess up. As a sidenote, it would not be nice to purposely "mess up" so that you can have a whole bottle of wine to yourself! In fact, that would be rude. Though maybe brilliant.

How this works in practice: Before a meal begins, check with your host or look at the bottles (without touching) to find out if they are mevushal. If they are, good! No problem. Go ahead with your normal life. You'll eventually learn that certain brands/products are always mevushal. For instance, the Kedem grape juice you see at every kiddush is always mevushal. But if there is nothing marked or it actually says "non-mevushal," you need a Plan B. My suggestion is to arrange for someone to pour your wine for you. If you forget: If you're female, you can always ask a male neighbor to pour for you, and he should be happy to chivalrously oblige. The awkwardness comes when one woman unexpected asks another woman to pour for her. The women will look at you like you just grew a second head. I've been there and done that more times than I can count, but you can always say, "The wine isn't mevushal, and my status is questioned." You don't have to go into details or explain, though you may have to explain why this matters. A surprising amount of orthodox Jews (and almost no liberal Jews) know the problems in this area. Of course, my understanding is that the reform movement wouldn't hold this to be an issue. The conservative movement probably would consider this an issue, but I don't know that anyone but the synagogue worries about it. In short: If you do this before the meal, it is much less awkward and you're not caught by surprise.

Remember: Don't pass kiddush wine/juice to other people! When they're passing the cup around or little cups to each person, you may not touch that little cup of wine. If the people around you don't know, you're probably going to feel embarrassed, but you (silently, since according to most rulings you don't talk between a bracha and the action) will have to motion to the next person to reach over you to take the cup from the table or the other person. Every time, the person looks confused, but given a 3 second thinking period, they realize what's going on and will do the right thing.

It can be annoying to remember all of this, and you can become deathly afraid of being in the presence of wine. Don't. Mistakes can and do happen. Just remember to own up to them. Anyone who acts like a jerk if you make a mistake probably is a jerk. Or is just having a really bad day and it has nothing to do with you. Not being halachically Jewish shouldn't stop you from enjoying wine and grape juice with Jewish friends and family! 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Revisiting the Double Standard

Sometimes conversion candidates can get so frustrated by Jews who are "bad Jews" in their mind.

You have to go through hell and back and basically get a seminary/yeshiva education, but people who just happened to be born Jewish can and will drive to synagogue on Shabbat. Women can and will dress tznius in synagogue and then go out clubbing looking like a streetwalker. Some guy will daven three times a day at shul and look so pious, but then you discover he has left a string of one night stands in his wake. Someone will follow Jewish law, but you will believe they are following a misinterpretation or a leniency that isn't allowed. Someone will act frummer-than-thou but have no idea what they're talking about. It will happen. And it will continue to happen for the rest of your life, even post-conversion. It will annoy you and frustrate you.

But don't get caught up in what other Jews do. It'll drive you insane. Jews can be unknowledgeable and/or completely disregard Jewish law, and they still get to be Jews, while we have to meet a different standard. It's unfair. It hurts. But it's reality. Don't let it eat you up inside. Take care of you because that's what you can control. You can't (and shouldn't) control the actions of others. Life is a journey and we are all in different places.

There is a quote that appeals to me in all areas of life, but is literally applicable here: "Everyone who is more lenient than you is a heretic. Everyone more stringent than you is a fanatic."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Revisiting Last Friday's Post

Last Friday's soapbox moment got a lot of attention. Worse, it got a lot of sympathy, proving that I'm not alone. However, I want to clarify what prompted me to write that post because of some of the reactions in the comments.

As you should all know by now, I'm studying for two bar exams. I just finished law school and immediately packed up and moved to New York City. I was told by a previous beit din (that I am not working with now) that I had to move to NYC or Los Angeles in order to go forward with my conversion. All because I'm single and of childbearing age. I wasn't allowed to go forward with anything in my conversion for over a year now, being left to my own devices and without rabbinic guidance. That's a large part of why I got frustrated enough to begin this blog last October to hold myself accountable.

I had to wait to graduate school in order to move. If this conversion weren't in my life (or I had been satisfied with my conservative conversion), I could have stayed where I was already living or chosen another town. Instead, I had 2 choices: LA or NYC. I made my choice, and I moved. The conversion is the first thing on my mind, not the bar exams, not setting up my apartment, not even looking for a job. I haven't sent out a single resume, much to my dad's dismay.

I just turned 27. I can't date until after I convert, which means a very long time until I'm married. Being Southern (and all the stereotypes that has), I am already a "late bloomer" as far as marriage and family goes. Worse, living in a community with many singles, anyone who interests me and happens to be older than 22 isn't going to stay on the market long. I get to see the "good ones" plucked up while I wait. That's frustrating, both emotionally and physically. I'm only human, after all. 

On the other end of the seriousness scale, I can't figure out how much money to spend on my kitchen right now because I will have to replace almost everything (since so much kitchen stuff can't be kashered) immediately after my conversion. If that is going to be two years from now, I would like to get decent quality kitchen items. If it's 6 months, I should buy the $3 pots at Walmart. It's amazing how paralyzing such a seemingly trivial decision can be.

In short, some days I feel insane. The famous stress of bar exams has only made this worse.

Seven weeks into my New York life, I was very behind in my bar exam studies (less so now) and I don't even have furniture. I put off my bar studies and jumped into learning halacha as much as I could, and to the detriment of my other responsibilities. I pursued the conversion by spending an inordinate amount of time shul shopping. I was so READY to move forward with my life, and I finally had the ability to do so after more than a year. Yet I was still moving at a snail's pace. But after a standstill, a snail's pace was still welcome.

All this sparked friends, family, and even rabbis to tell me to put the conversion aside and focus on my bar studies. What? That's crazy talk. With every day of someone telling me my priorities are misplaced, I became more frustrated and more alone. 

I still feel that way. But now that I've written my post last Friday, I feel better because I got some of that frustration out of my system. And now I'm finally scared enough of the bar exam to shift my priorities there. After all, it's only a month more delay, right?

Lech lecha and lech lecha and lech lecha.