Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The "Holiday Season" Is Upon Us

This time of the year is like walking on eggshells for many conversion candidates and converts in the Christian world. And even the supportive families can become a little crazy now, even if in their overenthusiasm.

Christmas is coming, whether you like it or not. [Full disclosure: I don't like Xmas at all.] And this year, Christmas coincides with Chanukah. So in good news, I don't have to be annoyed at the "Oh yeah, happy Chanukah!" wishes two weeks after Chanukah ends. That's something, right?

There are many ways to handle this time of the year, but this is what I do. (Assuming I am visiting my family. If I'm not, Xmas is just another day. But I might get some awesome presents in the mail!)

Children seem to respond well to the analogy of family Christmas celebrations being like someone else's birthday party. You can to go to the party, help them celebrate, bring gifts for them, and you get really awesome party favors (gifts).

In a way, that's how I approach it. I don't join my family at church, but I can eat my kosher dinner while they eat their Xmas dinner. I get Chanukah presents from my family, but I also get Xmas presents. (I suspect they split their intended gifts in half, but I've never asked.) Very thoughtfully, they avoid using obviously-Xmas wrapping paper for my gifts. I also avoid Xmas-y wrapping paper on the gifts I wrap for my family. 

Really, I feel like a spectator who occasionally interacts with the celebrations. However, my family of birth never took Xmas very seriously, but my Xmas-loving stepfamily entered my life when I was already the old age of 19. They take Christmas very seriously, and the Norman Rockwell experience is alien to me. In many ways, I think this makes it easier for me to take a back seat role in the house this time of year. I can lurk in the background without upsetting old family traditions because there aren't any traditions that involve me.

The key, in my opinion, is to set clear ground rules. Know what you are comfortable with, and don't compromise. If something makes you uncomfortable, be clear about it...without being a jerk. Be patient, explain clearly, and listen to whatever the reaction is. Acknowledge it respectfully, then move on. 

So what's your plan? 

Whatever you decide to do (if anything), now is the time to decide. Don't wait until December 20th to decide whether you will spend time with your Christmas-celebrating family members and what the "ground rules" for that time will be.

For more "holiday" reading, I suggest what I wrote last year: Chanukah: That Time of Year When Everyone Knows Something About Judaism.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Signs You've Made It: Nightmares

Nightmares are probably the strangest sign that you've really cast your lot with the Jewish people. But they seem to be universal: everyone begins to have nightmares about Nazis, the Holocaust, or other anti-Semitism. [I don't think anyone dreams about the Cossacks.]

It seems unavoidable. Interestingly (and in my totally unscientific opinion), I believe it's one of the earliest signs that a convert has really affiliated with the Jewish people.

My theory can be analogized to linguistics. You know you really know a language when you begin to dream in that language. Personally, I've progressed that far with Spanish and French (though I can't vouch for being anywhere near fluent in either anymore). It's a really strange feeling. Even within the dream, I'd stop and think it was strange that I was speaking and listening solely in a foreign language. When I woke up, I knew exactly what had happened in the dream, even if I couldn't reproduce the "script," so to speak.

This is called internalization. You have internalized the language such that it has become a part of you. However, you don't have to be fluent to reach that stage. But you won't reach that stage if you insist on thinking in English, then translating the English thought into the target language. Internalization is when you begin to actually think in that language like a native speaker would. [Personally, I think this is the secret to learning languages, and anyone can force themselves to do it!] It takes a lot of humility to admit to yourself that you can really only say, "I like cheese" instead of discussing the amazing cheese dish you just cooked. 

So what does that mean for converts/conversion candidates? When you "think Jewish," you will begin to internalize a Jewish identity. That is all kinds of awesome, but Jewishness also includes a history of antisemitism. The good comes with the bad. Thankfully, the only antisemitism many of us experience is in the dream world. That is certainly true for antisemitic violence, which is thankfully not common in America today. But that isn't very comforting while Nazis hunt you down in the Polish countryside of dreamland! When you have that first dream, you will wake up thinking you're insane. But don't worry, every Jew has these dreams at least occasionally, according to my very unscientific polls.

This discussion doesn't make the nightmares any less disturbing, but maybe now you can see the good in them too. And if they freak you out or are otherwise bothering you, feel free to discuss them with your rabbi. I think that's an important topic to work through with him. Anti-Semitism is something you really need to come to terms with, and this is the way most of us do.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Adventures in Machmir Dating

Today, just a funny quote from a singles event that was advertised on Facebook:
"This is a Machmir event for Machmir Singles, Ages: Guys 24-32 and Girls 23-28, FREE for Full time learners & Rabbinical Students." 

Who knew I lost Ladies' Night privileges when I became all machmir? Also, can it really be that machmir if it's on Facebook? What does "machmir" even mean in this context? This sounds more yeshivish than modern orthodox machmir.

But I want to know the good stuff: did they allow mixed seating? Sadly, that is a legitimate question.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Do You Have an Adequate Support System?

Just as there are many baalei teshuva who read this blog, there are many conversion candidates reading Beyond Teshuva, a blog created for BTs. [Grammar note: notice that the plural of BTs is not BT's. That's your dose of my crazy for the day.]

Last week, Beyond Teshuva had a great breakdown of the kinds of support BTs and conversion candidates need to have in order to flourish in the Jewish community: What Type of Support Are You Missing? I've written before about the importance of support.

The author suggests five categories before opening it up to the commenters:
1) Teachers of fundamental and advance[d] Torah topics
2) Rabbis who can rule on halachic questions
3) Mentors who act as surrogate parents and help with major topics like Shidduchim and Parenting
4) Friends who act as spiritual coaches and tell us to slow down and inspire us to move up [and all other friend responsibilities, I'd imagine, like letting you bawl your eyes out]
5) Spouses who are soul mates on our spiritual journey
Edits in [ ] are mine. Yes, I bluebook my posts. Please ignore that statement if you are involved in making shidduchim. 

As a "relatively older" single, this is what my support system looks like now. I've ranked them in the order of how much I depend on them, but I don't know if the original post was intended to be ranked.
  1. Friends
  2. Mentors/Fake family
  3. Rabbi(s)
Clearly, spouse is irrelevant to me. I don't have a boyfriend either. I would say that friends and my "fake family" rank equally, but I do have other people I consider to be mentors in the way they author intends. I just don't have much for them to mentor yet... [Side note: I used to say "adoptive family," but then people thought I was actually adopted and converting because of that! Oops.]

As of right now, I generally lack teachers (though I'm waiting in the wings until a friend's life settles down). I attend some shiurim, but I don't learn regularly with another person, neither a chavruta nor a teacher. I'm working on changing that right now, but it's difficult. I feel that I need a teacher more than a chavruta at my level. Thankfully, I have access to many friends who are at a level that they can act as a teacher to someone like me, but we're all busy. 

Conversion candidates don't have access to the services of kiruv/learning organizations like Partners in Torah or Aish because those organizations limit their work to halachic Jews. Similarly, seminaries and yeshivot aren't open to conversion candidates, even to some of their "open to the public" programs (as opposed to an isolated class). Often, we have to make do with what we have, and that's our friends and mentors. And usually, those people feel they aren't knowledgeable enough to act in that role. Occassionally, a rabbi has the time and willingness to tutor/teach/learn with a conversion candidate, but that is relatively uncommon. 

The most difficult thing about arranging your own learning situation is that you need to pick a topic before you approach a potential teacher. After all, they need to know if they're qualified to learn that with you! That is a post for a different day.

Further complicating all these matters is that these people really should be paid for their time if it's a true teaching relationship. Thankfully, many people tutor, mentor, and teach conversion candidates and refuse to be compensated for it. They consider it a mitzvah. But as I said, not everyone has access to these kinds of people. And some batei din assign tutors who must be paid a set rate (also a debate for another day).

Personally, I think the support system makes or breaks a candidate. This comes from someone who had nothing more than an online support system until last year. For over five years, I didn't even have an online community. I struggled alone and didn't have a support system of any kind other than my family and non-Jewish friends, plus a random Jewish friend here and there. At the time, I thought I was doing fine, and by many measures, I was. (That in itself is shocking!) But having finally found a support system, I can't begin to tell you what a difference it makes. Things that used to be a huge hassle are suddenly effortless because the answer/assistance is a chat message or phone call away. And I can finally discuss "Jewish" issues without having to explain them. That in itself is a major change in how I think. I used to have to spend so much time "translating" Jewish situations/issues/problems to friends and family that I lost the emotion behind it. For example, it's hard to cry to your dad about a conversion issue when you have to spend 20 minutes explaining why it's an issue and why, no, Judaism isn't insane.

If you don't have a support system, I encourage you to reach out, even if it's through the interwebz. After all, this blog began because I finally reached the point where I couldn't do it alone anymore!

PS - There are still emails that haven't been returned. I'm working on it. I heart you all.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Spend some time with the people who make you happy!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Does the Squeaky Wheel Get the Grease?

Thanks to the ever-helpful Lifehacker blog, I came across this Psychology Today article: Are You Teaching People to Treat You Badly?

Essentially, a psychological theory says that if you don't "punish" people who treat you badly, they become conditioned to treating you badly. They think it's ok to treat you badly. As a dog trainer, this is the foundation of dog training. Reward the behavior you want to see more of, and either punish or ignore the behavior you don't want the dog to repeat. [Note that with dogs, punishing the dog can be seen as a reward! It's the idea that any attention is better than no attention at all. You can also see this in many a neglected child.]

As the article says, "The meek shall inherit the earth because the aggressive people of the world will trample their face into it!" [I take no responsibility for the grammar of that sentence.]

This article was only one instance of this idea slapping me in the face recently. Does the squeaky wheel get the grease? Do nice guys finish last? Or more appropriately on this blog, do nice guys convert last? 

In my discussions with people who've finished their conversions, they're often shocked how long I've been waiting to move forward with my conversion. Of course, there are always more to the situation than a stranger knows, but the question seems fair. And I admit, I wonder that myself, despite all the rationalizations I can make.

But these people always have "the" solution. My Southern self is far too polite. The overwhelming theme has been, "You have to hound the rabbis. Nothing gets done otherwise. They're busy, and you need to prove to them that you are ready to be converted. It's not their job to push you. You have to make it happen." 

What do you think? And if you finished converting, do you feel this way? Did you start "nice" and get nowhere until you began to push? Do you think this could actually backfire with the wrong person or the wrong approach?

And as a metaconversation: do you think it's appropriate to give this advice to conversion candidates? Do you stop and wonder how this advice could cause very bad behavior in the wrong hands?

[But in the interest of full disclose, I think the wrinkles have been sorted through, and I am finally getting somewhere! I can't guarantee it's going somewhere anytime soon because I have no idea.]

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Feel Bad About Your Hebrew? Don't!

Do you feel inferior because you can't read Hebrew at the speed of light like your congregation? No need to feel that way.

A) It'll come. Really. Just keep slogging through it. Lest you think I'm being dismissive, I assure you I'm right there with you, struggling to read at a non-embarrassing speed. I spend most of my Jewish life in English still.

B) I'll bet you're still better at Hebrew than the people profiled at Bad Hebrew Tattoos! Be warned, the pictures are not the most tznius, but I haven't seen any actual inappropriate parts so far. It just gets very close.

Unexpected teaching moment: Read the posts and try to see why the tattoos are wrong. Oftentimes, it's a very small writing mistake that turns the intended letter into a different letter. It'll help cement the letters in your mind because you'd never want such a small mistake to turn "parsha" into "Porshe." The sheer hilarity and sympathetic embarrassment will help even more! It even helps train you to read other Hebrew scripts!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tznius Women and Winter Weather

On another occasion it happened that a certain conversion candidate came before a rabbi and said to him, "Make me tznius in a New York City winter, on condition that you teach me all your fashion secrets while I stand on one foot." Thereupon he repulsed her with the builder's cubit which was in his hand.

When she went before Skylar, she said to her, "Sweater tights. That is the key to avoiding winter winds up your skirt. The rest is obvious. Now go and be fabulous."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Management Update: Bar Exams

I'm happy to report that I've passed both the New York and New Jersey bar exams! Next on the list is the California bar exam in July 2012!

However, I remain an unlicensed attorney while the bureaucrats go through the paperwork. So don't send me your legal questions :P   Unfortunately, the job hunt continues. 

And that's your quick update on my personal life!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Batei Din Are Opposed to You Living Long Distances from Synagogue

This is an interesting issue that came up in a comment, and I thought it deserved its own post. 

Why can't you finish a conversion so long as you live a significant walking distance from shul? 

To start, what distance ARE they looking for? Typically, you are alright if you are living "within the eruv," assuming there is an eruv. For practical reasons (government permits and the availability of places to attach the eruv), the eruv may be bigger than the community would like. If you are close to the edges of an eruv, you should check with your rabbi whether that is "close enough" to the synagogue. A good rule of thumb is living within 1 mile of the shul. The "average" person can walk that distance in 12-20 minutes.

The problem is that conversion candidates may own a home or have a cheap (or free) rental arrangement outside that distance. What then? Quite honestly, you will probably have to move, regardless of the inconvenience, lost profits, or increased cost.

If you've faced this situation before, I know where you're coming from. When I became observant, I lived about 4.5 miles from shul, and I walked every other week or so. It took a long time, but I did it, even once in 110 degree heat! However, I was a renter, and I was eager to live closer than that distance! Quite frankly, I was not willing to walk that distance for long or frequently.

And I think that is the gist of most of the arguments: almost no rabbi realistically expects people to maintain the enthusiasm to walk long distances over the long-term. When you know it's short-term (for example, until your lease ends) or you are "fresh" to Judaism, the enthusiasm to walk long distances is still there.

Further discouragements to walking include injuries, sickness, and only mildly "extreme" weather. You are much more likely to walk to shul in the rain when it's 10 minutes than when the walk is 50 minutes. Same with snow and extreme heat. As I said above, I walked 4.5 miles in 110 degree heat in tznius dress (long skirt and long sleeves). For you Celsius users, that's slightly over 43 degrees. I don't recommend it. And all of these weather-related situations could seriously endanger your health. Also, walking distances that far should probably be cleared with your doctor, just as with any exercise regime.

In short, they are afraid you'll convert and then get tired of walking the distances, so you will choose to not attend synagogue services. Since shul attendance on Shabbat is considered an important part of Jewish observance, the rabbis don't want to set you up to fail. The conversion process (and the beit din) should prepare you to live a productive Jewish life, including a commitment to synagogue attendance.

In the long term, you have to consider that you will eventually grow older and may not be physically capable of such long walks. If you're younger than that, long distances are more likely to isolate the parents of young children. It's hard enough to get these parents to do more than the minimum shul observance (even with an eruv) without doubling or tripling the average distance traveled.

[All that said, I know of one case where a beit din required a candidate who moved 1.1 miles from shul to move again "within 1 mile." I think that was more about discouragement than any of the practical rationales we've discussed above.] 

"BUT WAIT," you might say! "I'm different! I'm 22, I'm healthy, I'm a marathoner, I can do this!" In short, too bad. As I have said many times before, we all want to be "the exception to the rule." The rabbis can't know whether you will maintain this enthusiasm for walking three miles two years from now. And quite frankly, history and human nature tells them that you won't. There are also the considerations of weather, children, injuries, sickness, etc.

Of course, these same arguments apply to living in very high floors of apartment buildings. I kid you not, I know people who live(d) on the 14th and 30th floor. Imagine walking that every Shabbat!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lessons from Hillel: There Is Generally No One "Right" Way in Halacha

There is a lesson that many conversion candidates and newly religious Jews are not told until they've made a fool of themselves: There are different interpretations of halacha, and it's possible for all these interpretations to be halachically valid and accepted. In other words, the modern orthodox, the "just plain orthodox," the chassidim, and the chareidi practice vary significantly, but they are all valid interpretations of Jewish law. (Of course, some individuals may say differently!) Depending on the issue, there is not only one "acceptable" way to perform a ritual act. We can respect each other's practice and learn from each other.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin discusses this idea in his book Hillel: If Not Now, When?, describing a conflict two thousand years old.

From the Gemara (Eruvin 13b):
For three years, there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, "The halacha is according to our view," and the latter asserting, "The halacha is according to our view." Then a voice from heaven announced, "Both these and these are the words of the living G-d, but the halacha is in agreement with the school of Hillel." 
But since both are the words of the living G-d, for what reason was the school of Hillel entitled to have the halacha determined according to their ruling? Because they were kindly and humble, and because they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai, and even mentioned the teachings of the school of Shammai before their own.

In other words, if your rabbi says something that conflicts with a book you read, they are probably both "right" and valid answers. Books with halachic rulings/explanations are usually "strict" rulings in order to be "acceptable" to the greatest number of people. That doesn't make the book "more right" than community practice where you live or the practice of your neighbors. Your practice can be different from what a book says, and that can be just as halachically permissible. Rabbi Telushkin quotes radio talk show host Dennis Prager as saying, "One of the most important days in the life of a religious person is the day he meets a person of a different religion, or of a different denomination within his own religion, who is both a good person and intelligent."

The life lesson here: don't tell others that they have the halacha wrong just because you read a different answer somewhere else. Usually, you just look arrogant and ignorant of Jewish practice. When you encounter something unfamiliar, take a mental note and ask a halachic source later.

The lesson in middos: When we disagree with other Jews, we should respect the "living word of G-d" in the other opinion. Beit Hillel respected the rulings of beit Shammai and was humble enough to feel they could learn from their opponents.

The "trivia" lesson: As a general rule, when Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree in the Gemara, we almost always hold by Beit Hillel.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reason #216 You Know You're Crazy: The Excitement You Get When You See Jews in "Non-Jewish" Places

When you cast your lot with the Jewish people, you develop a new excitement about seeing Jewish people in places you consider "non-Jewish."

When you're visiting a rural area with essentially no Jewish population, you are shocked to see a kippah, and you might just try to tackle the guy in your excitement. Personally, people have nearly tackled me because they thought my hair was a sheitel! I can't help it that my hair is awesome and that long hair is easiest to maintain with heavy layering!

Perhaps even more common now, you might just mistake earbud cords for tzitzit. Repeatedly. And then you are surprisingly let down to discover the truth.

Ain't nothing wrong with it. Maybe it's even a sign of having "made it."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Word of the Day: Nusach

Nusach is the style of the prayer service practiced in different communities. The differences in structure and melodies (the melodies are also called nusach) are normally relatively minor, but they can be enough to trip you up. When dealing with an unfamiliar nusach, just keep following the siddur. There are many nusachim, but there are three primary nusachim you will find in your run-of-the-mill American community:

Nusach Ashkenaz: the most common in America. There are variations, but Artscroll's Ashkenazi siddurim are very widely used. 

Nusach Sephardi: There are actually many variations according to the particular Sephardi community. There is no authoritative Sephardi nusach like the Ashkenazim have. 

Nusach Ari: (You may hear this called Nusach Sfard.) Nusach Ari is a version of Nusach Sfard (also spelled Sefard) used by Chabad chassidim. If someone calls this Nusach Sfard, don't make the mistake of thinking it is Sephardi. Nusach Sfard and Nusach Ari are very similar to Nusach Ashkenazi but attempt to include kabbalistic ideas and customs. Each chassidic group has its own version of Nusach Sfard, but the Ari is most well-known because of the wide geographic reach of Chabad.

If you want a cool Jewish hobby/hoarding opportunity, consider collecting siddurim! 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Being "Religious"

I've written before that I don't like the phrase "religious Jews." Now I have a better explanation for it, thanks to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. I'm still looking for a better phrase if you have one!

Rabbi Telushkin sums up the situation very well in Hillel: If Not Now, When?:
...[I[f two Jews are speaking about a third, and one of them asks if the person being discussed is religious, the answer is invariably based on the person's level of ritual, not ethical, observance. "He keeps kosher, he keeps Shabbat; yes, he is religious," or "She doesn't keep kosher, she doesn't keep Shabbat; no, she's not religious." It is virtually inconceivable that you would overhear the following conversation: 
"Is so-and-so religious?"
"Oh, definitely."
"How do you know?"
"Because he's very careful never to embarrass anyone, particularly in public. And he always judges other people favorably."
Conversations such as this simply don't happen. Religiosity today - and perhaps even during Hillel's time - is assessed on the basis of ritual observance. If a Jew is known not to observe Shabbat or kashrut, that individual is regarded as nonreligious, even if his or her ethical behavior is exemplary and is based on what the ethics of the Torah and Talmud demand of him. In such a case, people might say, "Unfortunately, he is not religious, but he's a wonderful person." On the other hand, if a person keeps Shabbat and kashrut, but violates, for example, Jewish laws on business ethics or, in violation of the Torah, speaks unfairly and inappropriately of others, it wouldn't occur to people to say that such a person is not religious. Rather, they might say, "He's religious, but unfortunately he's not ethical."

Food for thought.

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Learn to Speak "Frum"

You don't have to be a fake linguist like me to learn how to speak "frum" quickly and almost painlessly. But you do need patience, some time, humility, and the realization that you will make mistakes (and that you will feel like an idiot when you do).

Everyone's path is different, but this is how I did it.

Really, most of it comes from learning, which you should be doing anyway. But rather than skipping over words I don't understand, I look them up. Contrary to what your yetzer hara tells you, it will take less than a minute of your time.

The easiest way to do this is to go to Google and search "define X." The answer will not always be the first link, and you should always check a couple of links. There can be several ways to define a word (or spell it in English!), so reading several links will give you a better sense of the word and see it used in several contexts. 

Prioritze links from websites you recognize as legitimate (as opposed to a random person's blog). Normally definitions will come from sites like Chabad and Aish simply because they're aimed at (and created for) people learning to be frum. If a page from one of those sites pops up, start there and then read the others.

How do you read these several links without losing two hours of your day? Don't read the whole page. Use ctrl+F (command+F for my fellow Mac users) to locate the word you wanted to define. Then only read the appropriate part of the article/page. Don't let yourself get sucked into the larger article unless you really have the time to read it. If you don't have the time, but the topic interests you, bookmark it for later.

Really, it's that simple. The trick is remembering the word the next time, which will almost never happen. Just keep looking up the word until you remember it. Studies suggest you need to "touch" a word approximately 7 times in order to remember it. You can increase those "touches" by reading the information out loud in addition to read it silently. Reading several sources can also help you retain the information faster. 

What's the real problem? Learning to pronounce the word correctly. I can't claim mastery of that yet, as I mispronounce words all the time. Here, listen to how other people say the word. You can even ask your friends to model it for you! Listening to shiurim will passively import many words into your brain without you even realizing it. 

But speaking more generally: in the Jewish world, mispronunciation isn't so awful because there are lots of ways to pronounce words, so surely you're correct according to someone! (And sometimes, you can blame it on your native accent, such as a Southern accent or French accent.) For example, I can pronounce a word perfectly fine for an American Jewish audience (this week's example: "MEvushal"), but my new Israeli roommate will look at me like I'm sputtering nonsense. Reversing that, if I use a "correct" Israeli pronunciation of a Hebrew word (this week's example: "yeshiVAH"), Americans may make me repeat the word until they realize what I'm saying. Likewise, maybe I just can't pronounce the non-English sounds of Hebrew correctly. Some days are better than others, and some sounds are better than others. And eventually, you get used to the "boy am I an idiot" feeling and realize no one cares. Except for the people who have to feel superior to other people, and those aren't the people you want to hang out with anyway, right?  

So what is the basic lesson here? Have the humility to realize the limits of your knowledge and the willingness to learn from others. One day (or even today), you can provide the same kind of help to someone else. There is certainly plenty I have left to learn, but I share the knowledge I do have. You can do the same to help someone else!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How to Have Toilet Paper on Shabbat

Taking on Shabbat observance will reveal details of your life that you have never considered before.

For instance, you take toilet paper for granted. I promise you do. But then someone (or a book or website) will tell you, "Oh, you can't tear toilet paper on Shabbat." And then you will be confused.

Rinse and repeat for most Shabbat "rules." This is why knowing other observant Jews is so important. They can help you learn the "tips and tricks" required to implement the halachot of Shabbat. But since toilet paper is a fundamental issue, let's discuss it here.

You have a couple of options:
  • Put out a box of tissues. Cheap, store-brand tissues are less likely to leave behind pieces when used as toilet paper.
  • Don't use tissues whose corners are connected (like a perforation). In that case, you can take the tissues out of the box ahead of time, separate them, and lay them in a pile on top of each other.
  • Pre-tear the toilet paper and place it in a basket/pile. (You can use a razor to cut a whole roll of toilet paper at once!)
  • In an emergency, you can tear it in an unusual way. I recommend an elbow or corner of a wall. Of course, this should not be your regular Shabbat method.
The problem is when you mindlessly reach for the toilet paper and tear it like normal. I recommend removing the toilet paper from where it normally sits. When you reach for the toilet paper and you're half-asleep, it won't be there.

Enjoy using the bathroom guilt-free on Shabbat! Don't bother trying to explain this to your friends and family. They will think you're insane.

Public Service Announcement from a Grammar Gremlin

A short PSA this afternoon: 

The plural of "rabbi" is "rabbis." NOT "rabbi's." 

Please don't mistake possessives for plurals. "Rabbi's" makes me wonder what the rabbi owns.

That is all.

The Grouchy Grammar Gremlin

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Nice Video from Aish About Torah Study

This isn't worth a "regular" daily post, but I thought this was a really nice video. Regardless of what you think of Aish, I like how they showed the diversity of people who study Torah regularly and that even the busiest professionals find a way to make time for it!

"Read it. Study it. Enjoy yourself!" Set aside regular time for it!

Convert Questions: Is Conversion Faster If You Have a Prior Conversion?

Many conversion candidates believe that a prior conversion will speed up the time of a second conversion. (If you are in the unlucky group that gets to 3+ conversions, you're more likely in the territory of geirus l'chumrah than "normal" geirus.) After all, it makes sense: you've already "cast your lot with the Jewish people," learned holidays and customs, become integrated into a Jewish community, probably even learned some deeper things, maybe even read Hebrew.

So does a prior liberal conversion help you to get an orthodox conversion faster? In short, I'm leaning towards an answer of no. 

But maybe the better answer is that I think other factors are much more determinative than having a prior conversion or not. A prior conversion may even be largely irrelevant.

This isn't scientific, I'm afraid. It's just the feeling I get from talking to other "upgraders" like myself. As for me, after a year and a half of being observant and many years of studying orthodox sources, I'm not converted yet, and I don't know when I will be. That doesn't seem to be unusual today. 

So what DOES matter?
  • Current relationship with a Jew. (If you're in a relationship with a non-Jew, don't even think about approaching an orthodox rabbi about will get absolutely nowhere.)
  • Number of years studying towards conversion. (Yes, years.)
  • Even more importantly, what did you study? Five years of studying primarily liberal sources (especially reform and reconstructionist sources) will give you almost no background for an orthodox conversion. After all, the reform and reconstructionist movements don't view halacha as binding, so few sources discuss traditional halacha. In an orthodox conversion, that traditional halacha is the primary thing you will be learning.
  • Where you live. This is the killer for most people. A year lease is a long time to wait to "start" your conversion.
  • Integration into the community. They want to see a support system, friendships, the possibility of marriage for singles, etc. Will you be able to take care of yourself in the community and do you have the support system to keep you within the community? People who feel isolated or alienated from the community are the first to leave orthodox Judaism, whether born-Jewish or converted.

Not living in an "appropriate" community and romantic relationships seem to be the two things that will "slow you down" most. In my opinion, those two factors are much more determinative of the length of a conversion than whether there is a prior conversion. Prior knowledge, even orthodox learning, seems to have surprisingly little effect on conversion time. Of course, there are other unpredictable factors that can come up and "derail" you: bullies, being told to move a second time, finding out that a community or hashkafah isn't appropriate for you, health issues, school issues, etc.

Take that for what it's worth, I suppose. I can't give you an easy answer here. Every case is so very different.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Hebrew Alphabet

The Hebrew alef-bet is easy to learn, even if you've never learned another language or think you're too old of a dog to learn new tricks. 

And you don't have to do it alone! Approximately every November, the National Jewish Outreach Program sponsors "Hebrew reading crash course" classes. Locate a class near you here! It's free and just takes some time. Also, the positive peer pressure of meeting a group every week and practicing reading Hebrew can really work in your favor.

A particular problem I had/have is that I learned only the sounds of the alef-bet, not the actual names of the letters. I certainly couldn't name them in order. So here is a handy list, and even an alef-bet song by the famous Debbie Friedman!


I think you've worked hard enough to earn a juice box and some naptime!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Conversion from the Rabbi's Perspective

People are both pleased and dismayed by the "streamlining" of orthodox conversion since 2006. Some believe it standardizes the process and releases "regular" rabbis from dealing with conversion issues (which your average rabbi is not well-versed in). Others feel that American rabbis capitulated to the Israeli Rabbinate and that the process invites abuse by concentrating power with small groups of rabbis. There's probably at least a little truth in both views.

But as hard as the conversion process can be for the conversion candidates, it's important to remember that the process can also be difficult for the rabbis involved, especially your "local" or "sponsoring" rabbi. He may have no idea what he's doing or how to guide you. That's the case with most rabbis, and that's just because they're not experts. They're not doing a bad job, most of the time. Sometimes, they're as lost and confused by the process as we are.

Similarly, rabbis hate conversion politics issues just as much as the converts do. As I've mentioned several times before, all the rabbis involved in your case are putting their name on you. Throughout the process, each rabbi's participation is vouching for you as a good Jew/potential Jew. If you really mess up (especially if you self-destruct and decide to take the whole ship down with you), you can actually harm his career and livelihood. On a lesser scale, when other rabbis meet his "finished" converts, they may judge him unfavorably if you act poorly or show a serious lack of knowledge. As with converts, we all rely on each other to give us a good name.

In short, the rabbis worry about whether you will be a "good" convert or not. They worry about it for the sake of halacha, for the sake of the Jewish people, for the sake of other converts, for the sake of their reputation, and also for your sake. They generally want to help you make the right decision, but your desires are not the only factors they have to consider. They even have to consider that your desires are not what you say they are or maybe that you don't fully understand your desires.

An anecdote about these rabbinic fears was detailed in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Hillel: If Not Now, When?:
Rabbi Marc Angel, a prominent Orthodox rabbi in New York (and a man who himself favors a somewhat more open approach to would-be converts), writes of a lecture on "practical rabbinics" given by a leading Talmud scholar at RIETS, the Orthodox seminary at Yeshiva University, in which the scholar instructed the soon-to-be-ordained rabbis not to perform a conversion unless they were willing to bet $100,000 of their own money that the convert would observe all Jewish laws. One student asked, "Since no one can guarantee absolutely the future of any convert, doesn't this mean that Orthodox rabbis should avoid performing conversions?" After hemming and hawing, the rabbi suggested that Orthodox rabbis should never, or only rarely, perform conversions.

Note for Jewish geography's sake (and for the sake of conversion politics): Rabbi Angel is a former President of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and author of Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion (among many other works). He is very outspoken about conversion issues today, and sometimes, that doesn't make him popular. But my favorite fact? He grew up speaking Ladino at home! That's just cool.

Why discuss this? If you want to be realistic about your conversion, you need to think about your case from the point of view of the rabbis. After all, they are the gatekeepers to Jewish-ness. What about your case should worry them? How can you allay or address those fears? Also, and perhaps more importantly, sometimes it's easy to forget that the rabbis are human. They make mistakes, they phrase things poorly and it hurts our feelings, or they get caught up in the politics. Do your best to judge them favorably and realize that whatever bad things happen are most likely not personal attacks against you or your candidacy. Life happens.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Should Public Announcements List a Speaker as a Convert?

Blogger Hadassah posted an interesting question on her blog: Should an invitation to a public lecture identify the speaker as a convert?
"I was taught that you never ever out a convert. Even if everyone knows that so-and-so converted, it is a sin to point it out to anyone."
I don't agree with that necessarily as the halachic standard, but it's probably the correct politeness standard. But on the other hand, there are a lot of factors we don't know:

Is her conversion part of the lecture?
Did she approve the text?
Does she normally list herself in this way?

Last I heard in the comments section, we don't know these answers. But, as was probably intended, proclaiming the speaker to be a convert will undoubtedly bring a larger crowd than would otherwise show up. And that's good for her parnassa.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

How Jewish Geography Will Trap You

Many converts want to live in peace with their Jewish history unquestioned. For converts able to physically "pass" (aka, those who are white or Middle Eastern or otherwise of "vague" ethnicity), it's easier to blend into the born-Jewish community. However, even the most "Jewy-looking" convert can be "outed" by Jewish geography. Even if you are very open about your history, there is always a day when you will not want to discuss it, or you will encounter a person you don't want to discuss it with. 

If you want to avoid being trapped by Jewish geography, you have to know your enemy and consider your answers in advance. When caught by surprise or without a prepared answer, you will say precisely what you will regret later. One such conversation is profiled here

So what topics are most common?
Did you grow up religious?
Were your parents religious?
How and where you became religious.
Where your family is from. (before America, England, wherever)
The Jewish community (or lack thereof) in the place where you grew up.
The Jewish history of the places where you've lived. (You should learn about this.)
Jews who live in or near the places you have lived.
A sneaky tactic: your family members' names, either first or last. (Example: I had a Shabbat dinner ice-breaker "What were your grandparents' names?" meaning first names and how "funny" and old lady-ish/man-ish they are.)
Questions about survivors in your family or what your family did during "the war."
Where some physical trait comes from. (Example: "Where does your red hair come from?" or "Green eyes are so rare in Jews!" If you learn about Jewish communities worldwide, you will inevitably find a culture that has the trait. For instance, my red hair comes from German heritage, which can certainly be Jewish.)
If you are an ethnic minority, they'll could come straight out and ask if you converted or if your mother is Jewish.

How do you get out of these conversation traps? If you have baal teshuva-like answers (as I do to many questions), you can be honest if you want to and the person may believe you were born Jewish. Maybe you choose to give short, non-committal answers...or maybe even to flat-out lie. Personally, I wouldn't consider it a "bad" lie to give the "correct" answer to someone who is being pushy and isn't taking the polite answers. Halachic opinions may vary. Another technique: throw out the "really interesting" facts in your story as early as possible to sidetrack the conversation. For example, I can usually derail any conversation by stating that the "Jewish boyfriend" who started me down this path is Scottish. That leads into shock that there are Jews in Scotland and a discussion about the Scottish community. This is why you should learn a lot of Jewish history and the status of any current community that has even the vaguest connection to you. It allows you to deflect the conversation away from you without looking like that's what you're doing.

What are some polite ways to decline these kinds of questions? Feel free to add your suggestions to the comments!
"I'd rather not discuss that right now." Then change the topic.
"That's kind of private." (This one can come off snooty or rude, so be careful. However, it can be a "gentle" warning to back off when someone is actually being rude or inappropriate)
"That's not something I like to discuss [in public]." (Optional: "Maybe we can discuss it in private later?" Or "maybe we can step over here and talk about it in private?")
"I don't like to dwell on the past." Then change the topic.
"I don't think this is the place to discuss that." (Again, use sparingly and only when really deserved.)
Turn the question around on the person or ask them a different question. (Example: Take a bite of food, make a surprised smile, and say "I'm sorry, but wow, this egg salad is amazing, what's in it??")
Turn the question around to ask a third person something. Preferably, don't deflect the question to an unsuspecting stranger who might be in the same boat! Alternatively, you could open a question/topic to the group as a whole. (Example: "That's a great question! What do you guys think?")
Excuse yourself to the bathroom, to refill your drink, or to get more food.
If you're feeling fiesty, you can give a TMI answer that scares the person away from any other personal questions. Beware of this backfiring, especially later gossip.

My personal favorite if someone is giving "advice" or chastising you for something dumb: "Thank you for your input." You can choose to add things like "I'll keep it in mind" or "I'll take it into consideration" as the situation warrants. Smile, and then walk away. This takes a lot of self-control, but it rarely burns bridges you may want later. That is particularly important when it is a stranger...who may turn out to be your rabbi's mother or your boss' husband.

However, this whole post, and the assumptions behind it, beg the question why converts feel the need to hide their religious history. That is a post for another day soon. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Hiddur Mitzvah

There is a mitzvah to make a mitzvah beautiful or otherwise enhance the mitzvah beyond the demands of the halacha through aesthetics. Generally, it refers to the beauty of a physical ritual object.

The source for hiddur mitzvah is Exodus/Shmot 15:2
"This is my God, and I will glorify Him."

Many mitzvot require a physical object, and hiddur mitzvah allows you to personalize the mitzvah to help invest yourself in it. By putting the extra time into choosing beautiful candlesticks, the most delicious-looking challah, or setting the Shabbat table with a pretty tablecloth, you are giving more attention and mindfulness to the mitzvah. It also helps involve all your senses in the mitzvah. In another way, you can have hiddur mitzvah by using heirloom Judaica.

Examples of items you can "beautify" to enhance the mitzvah:
Shabbat candlesticks
Kiddush cups
Hanukkah Channukiah 
Setting the Shabbat table with a pretty tablecloth and your best dishes
Dressing your best to honor Shabbat
Choosing the most beautiful/best-smelling etrog for Succot
Decorating the sukkah (Note that Chabad chassidim do not decorate the succah)
The coverings of the Torah scroll
Haggadot for Pesach
Matzah covers for Pesach

However, there is another side to the hiddur mitzvah tale: don't lose sight of the mitzvah in the quest to make it beautiful. It's possible to get carried away and forget the meaning you were trying to create. The rabbis knew this was a risk and suggested that you shouldn't spend more than 1/3 of the mitzvah to beautify it. If you want to see hiddur mitzvot gone wrong, watch the movie Ushpizin.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Convert Quote: Handicaps

Sammy Davis, Jr., is one of the most famous American Jewish converts. In true borsht belt/vaudeville style, Mr. Davis has a very famous quote involving Jack Benny, a contemporary American entertainer.
On a golf course, Jack Benny once asked Sammy Davis, Jr., what his handicap was. "Handicap?" he asked. "Talk about handicap! I'm a one-eyed Negro Jew."

What do you think? Do you think that being a Jew is a "handicap"? Does it combine with other traits you have to make it more handicap-like?

As a Southerner, I feel that my stereotypes have improved by affiliating Jewishly. Southerners are assumed to be inbred, stupid, lazy, and incompetent. Now people assume I can do my job well enough that I'm capable of running the world! They're also less confused by the fact that a Southerner is nerdy and bookish. So I guess I feel differently than Mr. Davis.

Along those lines, I once saw a hilarious quote on Facebook by a stranger, "So-and-so was disappointed to learn that, after his Jewish conversion, he still does not control the banks."