Monday, December 24, 2012

Kochava Goes to Hebrew School

Quite literally. Yesterday was my first day in a modern Hebrew language class. I had forgotten how much I love learning languages! 

I wanted to share a funny story with you from my first day:

Moreh (Teacher): "Kochava, tell me a word with the letter reish."
Kochava: "Uhhh...rasha?"
Moreh: "LOLZ"
The day's other contenders included, but were not limited to: shulchan, sefer, Har Sinai, ashrei, halacha, and neviim.

I'm the annoying kid in Hebrew class who only knows religious Hebrew words. Why is this a problem? Ulpan is about learning to speak at a practical level as soon as possible. Almost all my words were useless in an ulpan setting. You will need to ask for the bathroom before asking for a rasha. Or so you would hope.

Back to the flashcards and cursive letters! Yes, I never learned anything but block letters. I am a FAIL at Hebrew so far.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to Change Your Name Legally

Whether changing your name for marriage, divorce, or other reasons, American society has seen fit to make each of us reinvent the wheel. 

Apology: Sorry, this is very US-centric.

Despite the fact that thousands of people change their names each year (the BBC estimates 58,000 in the UK alone in 2011), it is as though name changes don't even occur to the majority of American businesses. So much so, that 2/3 of the places where I needed to change my name (approximately 10 companies) did not address name changes anywhere in their help sections or on any other part of the websites. Two of those provided instructions for if your name was misspelled. They were banks, credit card companies, and utility companies. I am sure they deal with this issue multiple times a week, but they don't see fit to give you any instructions how to do it. That is just bizarre

Changing Only Your Last Name Due to Marriage or Divorce
Changing your last name legally upon marriage or divorce is just plain easy. You list your new name on a form and POOF, you're done. There are likely limits on what you can choose, such as taking either spouse's last name or hyphenating the two. In some states, men can change their last name upon marriage just as easily as women. In others, men have to go through the "normal" legal name change process if the husband wants to adopt the wife's name or a hyphenated name. But in 9 out of 10 name changes, the desired name change is automatic, and the changee ends up with a form that says he or she has a new last name. At that point, your job is to update everyone else to this change. 

The most likely marriage-related snag at this point: your officiant must return the completed marriage license to the state. This gets even more complicated if s/he ruins the license or loses it before returning it. However, it will still get done. The FAQ on their website probably even addresses the possibility. More likely, if you have an issue, it's due to a procrastinating or disorganized officiant. 

You can't do anything until you get the marriage certificate. You just have to wait. It seems to differ from state to state whether you're automatically provided a copy of your marriage certificate. New York does it automatically, but New Jersey makes you pay extra for it. Check what your state requires. If you need to order a copy, do so as early as possible. You may even be able to pay for it at the time you pick up the marriage license.

As for divorce, your major snag will be a slow divorce. Sorry. There could also be a significant delay after the divorce is granted for the court order to be mailed to you or your attorney. You can't do anything without the court order that says you have a new (old?) last name. 

"Regular" Legal Name Changes
If you want to change your first or middle name or change your last name for a reason other than divorce or marriage...that's harder. I can't tell you how to change your name legally because that is governed by state law and is a different process in each state. In fact, if you could have several residencies, you should check the process in each of the states because there can be significant differences in the effort and cost required. For example, many states still require you to run a legal notice about your name change in newspapers for a certain period of time. You have to pay for that, and it's rarely cheap. (Traditionally, newspapers were supposed to prevent you from defrauding creditors...that doesn't quite hold up in the internet age.)

Using a Maiden Name Professionally
As a lawyer, this idea came up often among my female classmates (and myself): "I plan to work under my maiden name, but legally change my name at marriage because it's just easier." And in certain lines of work, it might even be safer! In my own case and in the case of several academic friends, it is often assumed that a woman will not work under a married name if she has published professionally under the maiden name. I heard many girls say they would choose their name based on whether they published or married first! 

Problem: No one seems to know how to do this or whether it is even legal. As a lawyer, I called the state bar's ethics hotline to discuss the issue. The ethics line had no idea. Again, why has this not come up as an issue? There is incredible demand for this kind of name arrangement, but no one seems to know how to do it legally.

If you're a professional who has to be licensed (medicine, nursing, lawyers, accountants, etc), you should start with your licensing agency. Rules will likely change state to state. Take advantage of an ethics hotline if you have one, especially if you are a lawyer. 

It seems that, at least in my case, my license must match my legal name. I must also advertise under the licensed name, if I were to advertise. The hairier question is whether I can print business cards or put a sign on my door with my maiden name. And if I don't practice law, can I work under a maiden name different from my legal name? Or must I always "put myself out there" as the licensed lawyer entity? For malpractice reasons, it makes sense to force lawyers (and doctors) to choose one name. It's also easier to check records for misconduct if you aren't practicing under one name but licensed under another. So it's not like this is out of left field. It used to make sense. But does it still make sense today? I don't know.

If you aren't licensed in order to do your job, you have a lot more leeway. You should be able to tell your employer what name you want to go by, but your legal name will need to be on the payroll, taxation, and other human resources paperwork. However, you should be able to get business cards and name plates in your maiden name.

Using a Hebrew Name Professionally
What if you want to use a different first name professionally? For instance, if you wanted to go by your Hebrew name. I don't have much experience in this area, but my instinct says that you can go by whatever first name you want, and an employer doesn't have much say in the matter so long as it's not an inappropriate or confusing name. However, maybe an employer would have some success if your chosen name were difficult to pronounce and spell while your English name was not. That said, I don't think it's a good argument. (Again, disclaimer: I don't know employment law. I just think an employer is going to have a hard time forcing you to use a first name you don't want to use. That just seems logical and like any jury would agree.) 

I heard a rumor on Facebook about someone who had requested to go by her Hebrew name and the employer forbid it. There may be a difference if the desired name change happens after working for your employer under your English name. In that case, the employer has a good argument that they will have to pay for new business cards for you, new stationary with the corrected name, pay a webmaster to update the website, pay to change the names on the doors, etc. If that's a problem in your case, you can offer to foot the bill or at least part of it. If you offer to pay and the employer still refuses, you should probably talk to an employment lawyer. You may be dealing with discrimination, and that sounds like pretty awesome proof - especially if you offered to pay in full. (Again, not an expert. Just seems logical to me.)

The Nitty Gritty - Which Name to Use?
I found that "name change checklists" for name changes are totally geared toward newlywed women, and that most are pretty terrible. So I decided to write my own guide, since a great number of converts will change their name at some point, whether taking on a spouse's last name (it's not unusual among male converts to take on a "Jewish" last name from a wife), changing the first name to one's Hebrew name, or changing the middle name to one's Hebrew name. 

Sidenote: I think changing your middle name to be your Hebrew name and/or maiden name might be the most clever idea. (Personally, I'm not a fan of hyphenating, but to each his own.) Unfortunately, if you want both names legally but don't want to hyphenate, you're going to have to change your middle name to your maiden name. By adding both names, you can cover all your bases and have legal proof of any possible name that someone might use to write you a check or to address mail to you. Of course, this assumes you don't use your current middle name. If you do, perhaps you should get rid of the name(s) you don't use. Likewise, you would have a similar issue if you have a Hebrew name of more than one name. You will probably have to pick.

If we're looking at the legal name as a practical item for identification documents, you only need the names you actually plan to use or someone else might. For example:
Firstname Lastname
Firstname Marriedname
Firstname Lastname Marriedname
Hebrewname Lastname
Hebrewname Marriedname
Hebrewname Lastname Marriedname

Theoretically, you could run into registrations, mail, or checks using any combination of those names. However, most states' driver's licenses will only hold 3 names, not four. Then you really need to be strategic.
#Protip: I do not recommend changing your name solely to your Hebrew name. If you converted (or became religious) as an adult, there are a lot of people who know you by your English name and you have a significant paper trail under it. I personally believe you should always keep the birth name you used most regularly as part of your "legal" name. You are free to disagree with me, but I will laugh at you when you can't cash birthday checks from your grandmother.
Let's consider an example. (Totally made up. Sorry if it turns out to be a real person.)

Birth name: Eleanor Regina Fitzgerald
Hebrew name: Chaya Ilana bat Avraham
Automatic name change at marriage: Eleanor Regina Schwartz 
(Of course, she could have chosen Fitzgerald-Schwartz)

Our fictional name changer could choose to do a "regular" name change after her marriage to incorporate her Hebrew name and/or maiden name:
Possibility #1: Eleanor Fitzgerald Schwartz
Possibility #2: Eleanor Chaya Schwartz
Possibility #3: Eleanor Chaya Fitzgerald Schwartz

Note that Possibility #3 may not work so well on your driver's license. (To be honest, I don't know how many names the US government will allow on a passport.) If the state only allows three names on the license, only the first middle name will be used. In that case, our fictional girl will have a license for Eleanor Chaya Schwartz. If it is important to you to have your maiden name on your ID, it is probably best to change your middle name to only the maiden name. In that case (Possibility #1), the ID would say Eleanor Fitzgerald Schwartz.

There may be a way around this, at least in some instances. If you go by a Hebrew name regularly, you may be able to tell businesses that you have an alternate name. Your bank or the post office may be able to make a note that things may be addressed to your Hebrew name. Of course, that's no guarantee that you won't run into problems when the note is accidentally erased or the employee claims s/he doesn't see any such note. 

Documents you will need:
Quite frankly, bring every piece of paper you have that proves you exist. If you didn't move, your shouldn't need to provide proof of residence (such as bank statements or utility bills). You will almost certainly need original documents at some point, though some places may accept a copy or your word. You won't need all of these, but the more you can collect, the easier a time you'll have.

Most importantly, the document that proves you may use your new name legally. Either:
  • Marriage certificate
  • Divorce decree
  • Court order from a "regular" name change
Other documents that can prove you exist:
  • Current driver's license or state ID with old name
  • Current social security card with old name (If you've never applied for one, don't bother under the old name)
  • Passport (Except for renewing your passport, it can probably be an expired passport)
  • Certified birth certificate
  • Various kinds of federal or state-issued ID, such as welfare benefit cards or military ID
  • Student ID, if it has your picture or birth date (I doubt you'll need this, but it can be helpful if you don't have some of the above)

Where to Change Your Name
Here is the fun "checklist" part. Remember that this list is not exhaustive, and I suggest making your personal list as exhaustive as possible so you don't forget anyone. For example, don't write "Change name with credit cards." Instead, write "Change name with Capital One. Change name with Chase Sapphire. Change name on Macy's card. Change name on BP card." And remember to ask for a new card to be issued. There may be a fee for the new card. 

I'm going to make this list as specific as possible, but please feel free to add suggestions in the comments. If they're good, I'll add them up here. This list is long. And that can be overwhelming. However, only a few of them need to be done quickly. The rest can be changed as you have interactions with those companies or organizations.

Legal stuff: 
Social Security Administration (you may be required to get your new card before changing your license, depending on your state)
DMV state IDs
Renew (or apply for) passport (this can be delayed indefinitely if you have no plans to travel abroad)
Voter registration
Notary public office (if you are one)
The IRS should automatically update its records based on the Social Security change (or so I'm told)
Legal contracts, if relevant
Regular banking:
Checking accounts
Savings accounts
Money market accounts
Order new checkbooks?
Safe deposit boxes
Investment accounts (Vanguard, Sharebuilder)
Mutual funds
Trust accounts
Stock you own (Contact who you bought them through or the company itself)
Store credit/refillable cards (Macy's, Nordstrom, Starbucks)
Gas cards (Shell, BP, Exxon)
Retirement: (May be done by you through a bank or through your employer or you may need to go through your employer's bank)
Other retirement accounts
Post office
Mortgage (for your home or investment properties)
Lease (if you rent)
Car registration
Car title (you might not be able to change this until the car is sold)
Utilities (electric, gas, water, garbage, sewage, etc)
Alarm company
Home phone
Cell phone
Student loan companies (remember that you may have more than one)
Car loans
Car leases
Personal loans
Your "professionals" (doctor, dentist, therapist, housekeeper, hairdresser, landscaping, attorney, accountant, veterinarian, chiropractor, masseuse, babysitter, drycleaner)
Professional organizations
Professional licensing organizations
Professional licenses (likely will need to purchase new wall copies)
Employee ID card
Tax forms (the same ones you did when hired)
Update former employers so that your new name and address will be used on anticipated W2s, 1099s, etc.
Your signature line on your emails
Business cards
New email?
Name plates/Door listings
Update the people who may refer others to you
Online professional listings
Websites (your individual personal one and/or your employer's)
Insurance or leases for work-provided cars
Employer-provided credit cards
Permissions to act on behalf of your company (for example, picking up packages at the post office)
Government security clearance (not sure, but certainly worth asking)
Companies that pay you (AdSense, Amazon Associates,, Ebay)
Alma maters (so they can hunt you down to ask you for money...I understand if you skip this one)
Alumni organizations
Hobby organizations
Fraternal organizations
Charitable groups you support
Charitable groups you volunteer with
Jewish stuff:
Your converting rabbi
Your converting beit din
The Jewish Agency, if you have an aliyah application on file
Your congregational membership (may also need to add a spouse to your membership)
Jewish student organization (Hillel, JSU)
Jewish organizations
Jewish subscriptions
Learning sites (Jewish Pathways, Partners in Torah, Aish Audio)
Gyms, yoga studios, health clubs
Clubs (Book clubs, music clubs, cheese clubs, wine clubs)
Online games
Library card
Video store card (I heard those still exist)
Other movie sources (Netflix, Redbox?)
Grocery/Produce delivery companies (co-ops, Fresh Direct)
Preparing for the Worst:
Life insurance
Health insurance
Disability insurance
Long-term care insurance
Renter's insurance
Homeowner's insurance
Flood insurance
Car/motorcycle insurance
Boat insurance
Any other kind of insurance
Living wills/healthcare proxies/healthcare directives
May want to open a new "professional sounding" email address with your new name
Signature line of your personal email (and send a mass email to update people to the change)
School ID card
Public transit card (if relevant)
iTunes, other music players that use your credit card
Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+,, Goodreads)
Frequent flier cards
Discount cards
Courtesy cards (I'm not sure what this is, but I saw it listed on another checklist)
Any site you have a payment method linked to
Any site you have a mailing address linked to

According to what I found in my research, you do not need to alert the three credit reporting agencies about your name change. When you change your name with your creditors, they will report the account to the agencies under your new name and they will be linked to your current credit history. Good thing if you have a good history, bad if you'd hoped for a fresh start.

With many of these changes, you can also have the opportunity to change the beneficiary. This is particularly relevant with wills, retirement accounts, bank accounts, and insurance policies. Perhaps that's also relevant to safe deposit boxes?

Name changes other people may need to make:
This is the really hard part: Getting other people to care enough to deal with bureaucracy to update your name in their records. I guess it probably works out fine in the end if you don't, but it would certainly make life easier to deal with this now, before things get bad. Some failures, such as not updating the car insurance, could come back to haunt you. (I don't know, but some of these companies can be sketchy like that.)

Insurance policies
Retirement accounts
Bank accounts with a beneficiary clause
Power of attorney
Living will/healthcare directives/healthcare proxy agents
Authorized user for credit cards (get a new copy of the card)
Authorized user for other accounts
Family plans:
Cell phone plans
Car insurance
Health insurance

After You're Done
After a few months, order your free annual credit reports (and some states get more than one!) to make sure no one is opening accounts under your old name. You'll always want to keep an eye out for that. Use Also check that any accounts you closed are marked as closed.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Meet the New Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth

Mazal tov to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who will be the next Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth! Current Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will retire this September. Lord Rabbi Sacks is a tough act to follow, but hopefully the world will give Rabbi Mirvis a fair chance.

Commonwealth, you say? I thought he was only the Chief Rabbi of the UK? After all, Rabbi Mirvis used to be the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. 

Good question.

The way that I understand it, the UK's Chief Rabbi remains the Chief Rabbi of the entire Commonwealth, the former British Empire. From Canada to New Zealand and back again. I'm not sure how that plays out in rabbinic politics, but my guess is that Rabbi Sacks would supersede because he is just that respected and well-liked. Whether any other Chief Rabbi today would be able to supersede Chief Rabbis of the Commonwealth countries may be a very different question.

Several Americans were considered for the post, which surprised me. It would be like the British Invasion in reverse. With less drugs and music. But still lots of screaming fangirls. And/or it would be the American Revolution Part Deux (Thank Dear Husband for that one).

Management Update: Updated Pages

I hope you're all prepared for the end of the world on Friday! I'm relieved to know that I can skip preparing for Shabbat. Erev Shabbos gets so crazy, it'll be nice to relax while the world ends.

But seriously. I've been spending a lot of time updating the pages. The Facebook page has also been updated.

The About page has basically been rewritten. Note the new (and long) list of disclosures and disclaimers. 

The Book page has been completely redone, and is now full of Book Lists, which I hope will be much easier for you to use and for me to update.

The Blogroll has been updated, and dead links were removed.

The Links page has been updated, and dead links were removed.

Two new pages have been added:
Start Here is where I have moved the Conversion Candidate's Toolbox that used to be located in the right sidebar. It was getting unwieldy on that sidebar.
Hebrew Names puts all posts related to Hebrew names in one convenient place. That topic is the most common search that brings readers to this blog.

Pages not updated are the Glossary, Conversion, and Observance Checklist. I don't believe any of those have had updates in at least a year and a half. I don't believe the Conversion or Checklist pages need updating. The Glossary could always use more work, but that will be a large undertaking.

Let me know if you have any other ideas or suggestions!

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Non-FFB Inferiority Complex

Chances are that if you became religious later in life (in any movement), you have had times when you were terrified that you were DOIN IT RONG. Whatever "it" was. 

Right or wrong, you get worried. Or embarrassed. This usually results in avoiding the issue entirely or avoiding it when other people are around. See, for example, bentchophobia.

Granted, it doesn't happen to everyone. (Though I suspect those people may be liars.) And most people only encounter it during certain phases (::coughduringtheconversionprocesscough::) or about certain topics. I think it's usually a little of both. A few periods of general "I'm doin it all rong!" and many periods of "What is up with this one thing that I'm so stupid at!"

Let me give you an example from my own life.

Netilat yadayim. Ritual handwashing. I can tell you the debates over when it is required and the debates about how to do it. But I am too embarrassed to say the blessing loud enough for my own husband to hear. In fact, I don't let anyone listen to me say anything in Hebrew. I mumble very quietly. I'm self conscious. Go figure. I feel like a five year old. A five year old DOIN IT RONG.

I finally had to read Hebrew aloud in front of him for lighting the menorahs for Chanukah. (Yes, I made it a month into marriage before the poor man heard me read Hebrew...I'm a ninja.) I stammered and messed up the most basic things, including nearly setting things on fire. I was that nervous. It took at least five nights for me to get into something resembling a groove. And I still felt like an idiot. 

I suppose it's only human, and it's natural. On most subjects, I'm already at the "F it"stage. I'll do what I know how to do, and if I'm wrong, so be it. I just hope someone will tell me nicely. (Granted, I may not accept your position as the halacha binding on myself. Maybe I am right, just not according to you.) But some things still make me nervous, and maybe they always will. Some people say being a little neurotic is a very "Jewish" quality, especially if those people are Jewish comedians. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I'm Probably Going to Start Blogging Again

...Because I'm a sucker for pain, I suppose. 

I make no promises about schedules, quality, or political correctness. But if anyone decides to get stalkerish again, you'll be hearing from the police, my lawyer, and 150lbs of angry dogs. I bet even the three legged cat will get in on that.

However, I don't yet plan to put my email address back up on the "About" page. I get too involved when people ask for advice, and I'll spend hours answering emails if I let myself. So...I'll just avoid it for now. Honestly, I shouldn't be getting back into the blogging world. I lead a surprisingly quiet and positive blogging life until near the very end, when the trolls began to appear here. I don't know how they missed me for so long, but it seems they did. I hate trolls. I don't have a thick enough skin for that junk. I foolishly believe trolls will eventually see reason if you explain yourself enough, but that's not true. And then I begin to lose hope in humanity again. Let's see if we can avoid crushing my hopes and dreams, mmmkay?

Since I stopped blogging, I've been leading a very quiet Jewish life. I have all my paperwork now and am too legit to quit. Despite the shidduch crisis, I managed to find myself a quality husband. (I suppose that means I'm halfway done with my purpose in life? ::RimshotOfShame::) Life settled into a routine, minus the getting married part. And the getting laid off because of the economy part. But life goes on.

I was shocked last Shabbat when I realized that it had been many months since I had been asked to tell "my story" at a Shabbos meal. When I first came to New York, and really up until the time my conversion was finalized, every meal had someone new, and people seem to think I tell a good story. (And they know I'm willing to talk about it.) Eventually, life settled down, and I had met almost everyone in my community. And my conversion problems became old news. I became, dare I say it, normal.

But then I had a table full of people who'd never heard any part of my story. And I realized that I missed advocating for conversion candidates, talking to one person at a time. I'm Southern, and I definitely inherited the storytelling gene. There is still plenty to be angry about, and there don't seem to have been any changes since I started railing against the system a little over two years ago. There's a fine lashon hara line when you're railing against a system with so few players. People can figure out who you're talking about even if you try to be careful with details. I can't say I'm disinterested or that I'm not tempted by the yetzer hara to hurt those who have hurt me. But I also believe that the circumstances I was able to overcome can and will happen again, and that not everyone is as stubborn or as resourceful as I am (with a dash of incredible luck). We will lose good Jewish neshamas, and we have already lost many due to insanity in the orthodox conversion world. Not to mention causing unnecessary pain to good people. It's wrong. And that makes me furious. And it should make you furious too!

So that's probably why I can't stay away from this blog. But I can't promise anything either. Well, except that I can promise you will suffer if you stalk me. 

Despite not blogging for six months, the blog still gets about 18,000 page views a month, so clearly there is some kind of need for my Negative Nancyness. Better add rainbows and unicorns to the list of things I can't promise you. But maybe I'll make you laugh. And maybe you'll learn something. And maybe you'll learn more about the problems in the conversion world and stand up for those who either can't stand up for themselves or don't know enough to know that something is very, very wrong here. Conversion should not be hidden. It should not be taboo. And the way to break taboos is to talk about them. So let's start the conversation. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Review: Becoming Jewish by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben

I'll spoil the end of the review for you: Don't buy this book. It will do you more harm than good, whether you're reform or orthodox or whatever else. 

Disclaimers. Because I'm Not an Expert.
I received this book for free, but not to review it. I received it in a overflow book giveaway arranged each year by the Jewish Book Council. I read an "uncorrected page proofs" edition of the book. That means that some things may have changed from what I quote below, but as I am not a professional reviewer or doing this for any kind of personal benefit, I am not finding a final copy to make sure the quotes are exactly what was finally sold in stores. Besides, it's unnecessary, as my point is that there are pervasive errors and misstatements throughout the book, so the details of those mistakes aren't actually important. However, I don't think any significant changes have been made to the page proofs, as you can read from Prof. Wikipedia: "Proofs issued in the proofreading and copy-editing review phase are called galleys or galley proofs; proofs created in a near-final version for editing and checking purposes are called page proofs. In the page-proof stage, mistakes are supposed to have been corrected; to correct a mistake at this stage is expensive, and authors are discouraged from making many changes to page proofs."

I receive no benefit from this review other than the inner calm created by venting my rage at the use and abuse of conversion candidates as "easy money" who can be milked with a half-assed attempt at a book. It's pretty and well-written; their marketing has been honed to an artform, but they forgot that marketing ultimately fails if there's no substance.

So...on to the review.

Becoming Jewish: Ur Doin It Rong
"Our goal is to deliver a practical book with insider information that demystifies a religion still somewhat shrouded in secrecy with expressions, gestures, practices, customs, rituals, and a language that dates back over four thousand years." Yet I'm a layman, and I can see the glaring issues with this book. That's worrisome. The problems are basic and pervasive.

The book was co-written with a conservative convert for the "insider perspective" and stories, but I decided not to attach her name to the searchable text of this review, as I don't know how much input she had in the final product. The text refers to the rabbi as "author" and the convert as "co-author," so I am going to assume she had less control over this text. Besides, maybe she doesn't know better. I have no idea. But a trained rabbi of any movement should.

The author is a reconstructionist rabbi who has apparently achieved considerable success in the world of interfaith families. Be appropriately impressed with this factoid: "Dr. Reuben was once referred to as 'the most famous rabbi in the world' when he was seen by millions on live television officiating the vow renewal of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne on New Year’s Eve 2003." I noted a distinct focus on public action and spectacle being the "true" experience of Judaism, and I think this bio reflects that worldview, focusing on prestige and fame as the hallmarks of legitimacy and authority. Produce a pretty book with reasonable-sounding writing and a snazzy cover, and people who don't know any better will buy it. I'm sorry to have to call out someone who has clearly been dedicated to the rabbinic profession for many years, but for someone with this much experience, it baffles the mind where this book came from. Was this really written by a ghostwriter, and the author didn't bother to read the proofs closely enough?

Let's start at the beginning: the Foreword. The book is loud and proud on the cover that the Foreword was written by Bob Saget, a comedian best known for Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos. The choice to have him write this was clearly a marketing ploy that showed as much substance as the rest of the book. He basically writes, "This rabbi is awesome. I was born Jewish and didn't have to convert. Here are some jokes about stereotypical Jewish things. THE END." It's one page long. And then I quote the rabbi's acknowledgements section: "Accolades go to Bob Saget for writing such a brilliant forward." ::Facepalm::  Notably, Bob Saget's name is in font at least twice as big as the authors' names and placed in a spot usually reserved for the author's name. My guess is that they hoped for the exact reaction I had when I first saw it: "A book about Judaism by Bob Saget?? I must see what this is about!" And I walked over to the table and picked it up. For book marketers, that's half the sales battle, and I think this was a cheap visual trick to increase sales. You can see the picture of the cover below and come to your own conclusions.

I marked over 40 of these factual errors as bad enough to groan at. The rabbi may be a great reconstructionist rabbi for all I know, but he appears to have a superficial (and sometimes blatantly incorrect) understanding of Jewish tradition and law. Here is the cover and my annotations of groan-worthy errors:

The Blind Converting the Blind: How to Make Your Eyes Bleed in 40 Easy Steps
So let's go through some of these errors. Again, the point isn't really specific to the errors. It's the fact that the errors are so basic and pervasive that makes this book so terrible. Again, as a reminder, these may not be the exact quotes that appear in the store copies. However, they shouldn't be much different either.

  • "Before that [conversion], you'll learn about holidays where you blow a hollowed-out ram's horn. Then you'll spend a week outside in a see-through shack and shake an oversized lemon and some branches. Next you'll wear a costume and make a ruckus every time someone mentions the bad guy's name. Soon you'll spin a top to memorialize war and light a bunch of candles while reciting prayers in Hebrew. Later you'll eat a bland cracker and a funky-tasting fish while reflecting on how our people were slaves in Egypt."
Anything strike you as off there? Oh yeah, the holidays are out of order.

  • "Many kosher kitchens have dual refrigerators, utensils, plates, and dishwashers - one for meat and one for dairy."
Two fridges? I have yet to see a kosher kitchen (a non-commercial kitchen) with two fridges. If you study anything about kashrut, you immediately learn that there has to be some heat to transfer the "taste" of meat or dairy, and that makes the fridge an unlikely candidate for a "mixing" issue. What's next, separate trash cans?

  • [Discussing the development of the modern Jewish wedding ceremony] "A family would hold a simple betrothal ceremony where the bride and groom were legally pledged to one another in the presence of witnesses who would sign a ketubah. Then the families of the bride and groom would have about a year to prepare for the wedding."
As someone who says he has performed many Jewish weddings, this total mishmashing of the wedding tradition baffles me. He is referring to the tannaim, the betrothal agreement. And he doesn't even get it right. During the betrothal, it was the fathers (or families, whatever) that signed the tannaim, not witnesses. The historical tannaim (as I understand it) usually set practical details like wedding date, location, and who pays for what. The ketubah is the legal document that signifies that the wedding actually happened and thus the couple is married, not betrothed. In traditional wedding ceremonies, both contracts are still completed. (An example of when the tannaim isn't signed: my wedding did not have a tannaim, as my family is not Jewish, and thus could not enter into the contract. Yay halacha. So we skipped it, and that's also perfectly kosher. However, skipping the ketubah would NOT be kosher.)

  • "Grooms unveil brides in a ceremony called a badeken to ensure the right person is present."
They veil the bride, not unveil her. Again, how many Jewish weddings has this guy done? This seems like a petty thing to point out, I admit, but this is often the most beautiful and touching part of a wedding ceremony. You don't forget it.

Wait! Can't forget to throw in a passive aggressive jab at the stupidity of traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies: "Of course, having the bride circle the groom was also a symbol of the bride leaving her father's home for her husband's, and as such is fundamentally a sexist, male-centered symbol." Maybe I misunderstood the part of the rabbi's acknowledgements that said, "It [the book] outlines the many paths to Judaism so you can avoid mismatched expectations and instead identify the denomination that best suits your life. You wouldn't choose a partner with tentacles and fins, so why bank on a movement that's as foreign to you as intergalactic space travel? Remember, each path is lined with plenty of challah, holidays, community, and God, so you can't go wrong as long as the level of observance works for you." Unless that means being an oppressed woman subjugated by orthodoxy. I thought he was saying this book would provide a neutral view of each movement, but now I see that I have tentacles and fins and that no reasonable person would enter this space-age world called orthodoxy.

  • "Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism are religions. Some would even go so far as to claim paganism is a religion. But that's a topic for another book altogether." [Emphasis mine.]
I find that passage incredibly offensive and condescending. Gag me with a spoon, as they say in SoCal.

  • "In the past, halacha (Jewish law) defined a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother. That has since changed, and those who convert and promise to believe in the most central belief of Judaism - God is one - can ultimately choose to be Jewish."
I'm not sure if this is meant to be a stab at matrilineal descent (still held as halacha by both the conservative and orthodox movements) or just a gross misunderstanding of the history of the Jewish people. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm not aware of any time period when converts/gerim weren't in the definition of Jew. It reads (to me) more like support for patrilineal descent that lost track of its point as the sentence continued. 

  • "There is no getting around learning Hebrew if you are converting to the Orthodox or Conservative movement. Honestly, you'll feel like a third wheel when others around you are repeating the V'ahavta, the Aleinu, or the Kaddish and you're speechless. [This seems to suggest only reading skills?] Those converting into the Reconstructionist or Reform movement are encouraged to learn but are not necessarily required to master Hebrew." [Master? That's very different from reading.] ..."Think of it this way: if you moved to France for an extended stay, chances are you would want to learn the language to communicate with the locals. Nothing says 'tourist' like speaking English when those in the marketplace are haggling in their native tongue. ...The good news is that most Jews you speak Hebrew with as a convert to Judaism will speak English fluently."
There is no mention in the entire chapter of the fact that most Jews you encounter probably can't speak Hebrew above an elementary level, if at all. And I mean that about all the movements. If you read this chapter, you'd assume every Jew converses primarily in Hebrew in Jewish situations. That is so not the case. And the text seems to vacillate wildly between saying reading is all that's required and conversational Hebrew is the actual requirement. This entire chapter left me confused as to what he was trying to instruct me, the hypothetical conversion candidate.  

More importantly, let's get down to the practical issue: the conservative and orthodox movements do NOT require any actual Hebrew language knowledge. You must be able to pronounce Hebrew text aloud from a prayer book, that is all. You don't even have to do it quickly! You do not need to be conversational in Hebrew. Yes, you will learn some Hebrew (and Yiddish) phrases and words because that just happens when you're immersed in them, but you won't hold a Hebrew conversation unless you want to learn that. I am aware of no conversion program that mandates actual Hebrew language training, though individuals may choose to do so. Of course, in the conservative movement, each rabbi sets his or her own conversion standards. There may be shuls that require this, but I think that's dumb. Yep, that's my intelligent analysis of the situation. Okay, maybe it's also an unnecessary restriction on conversion that probably violates halacha. 

  • "Modern times have brought us people that wish to erase the memory of the Holocaust and eight million victims by denying it ever happened."
8 million? I've never heard that number before. 6 million, of course. 11 million, yes. 12 million, sure. My Jewish historian husband says he's never heard 8 million either. So this wasn't exactly groan-worthy; it was more "WTF?" In the glossary, he clarifies that only 2 million non-Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis. Uhh...I know a few people who would disagree with you there. Also, I'm pretty sure the Holocaust happened in "modern times" and that Holocaust denial has been present since the Holocaust was in progress, but that's just being anal retentive.

  • "It's an interesting fact that the Hebrew words for bread (lechem) and war (milkhama) come from the same root. This reminds us that bread - sustenance - has often been the root of war throughout the course of human history. When the day comes when we have created a world providing sustenance for everyone in abundance, perhaps wars will cease."
What a nice dvar Torah! I wondered, if that's true, why have I NEVER heard that? Those are powerful words to connect, and I have a good memory for these kinds of linguistic comparisons. So I asked two rabbis: nope. Those two words do not share a root. Just because two words have three same letters doesn't mean they are formed from the same root word. To be fair, I made that mistake before and learned a lesson. But then again, I'm not a rabbi. 

  • "No matter which branch of Judaism you choose, you'll see that tikkun olam and social justice are centerpieces of the community."
Not true. And it even differs from synagogue to synagogue. So if you're an avid social justice fighter, this sentence will make you disappointed in many of the synagogues you find, and may even make you question their Jewish commitment. (Of course, I would imagine the author thinks their Jewish commitment should be questioned in this case.) It is a mitzvah, and it is important, but it's one piece of many. Not the "centerpiece." And even then, some shuls excel at it more than others.

  • "Upon leaving the mikvah (and dressing), your witness will accompany you to your conversion ceremony. This part is typically brief but is also the part friends and family can attend. Think of it like graduation. Once your ceremony ends, you are officially Jewish."
No. No no no. That is just wrong. You become "Jewish" when you are in the mikvah. You enter the mikvah not Jewish and exit it Jewish.

  • "There are even additional components of the soul that not everyone has. One, neshamah kedoshah, or the 'holy higher soul,' is a piece of the soul we receive when we have a bar or bat mitzvah."
Maybe he means "become bar or bat mitzvah"? Last I checked, no one said having a party and reading from a Torah scroll in a high-pitched voice gave you an extra soul. Then again, I've never heard anything about gaining another soul upon becoming bar or bat mitzvah either. So I'm willing to admit that maybe this is true in some way (and I just don't know it), but it certainly strikes me as wrong. It strikes me as the worldview that public-ceremony-is-everything, as the author said above about what really "makes" you Jewish: holding the Torah in public, not the mikvah immersion.
  • He clearly has no understanding of the conversion process (or the problems) in the orthodox world today. He makes it sound so clear-cut: Apply to the "state rabbinical council," who will assign a beit din. Take two years of group classes, and then BAM! Mikvah date. Easy peasy. 
Totally not how that works. I can't even find proof that there are state rabbinical councils. I believe he was confused by the name of the Rabbinical Council of California and assumed other states would have similar organizations. As for the classes, I can think of only two orthodox communities with group conversion classes on the North American continent. Even two years isn't a given. In most communities, I'd say two years is a minimum now, and that's measured from when you formally enter the program. There are always exceptions, but there are also exceptions in the other direction.

Why not take the opportunity to take a cheap jab at the orthodox? "[H]e (there are no female rabbis in the orthodox movement) convenes your conversion date." Let's not even discuss how that sentence is completely illogical. (Ok, I'll explain it just in case: You don't convene a date. You convene a beit din or you set a date. Maybe he had a brainfart and combined the two sentences?)
  • This one was just funny: [Discussing security/antisemitism/anti-Zionism precautions.] "A good rule of thumb is to avoid strangers that approach you at religious-affiliated functions or buildings or at your home. While it sounds extreme, it will keep you safe." 
...And you won't ever make any friends in that new community you're entering. If you're at a religious function in your new community, don't you want strangers to approach you? That's not a serious error, just funny.

The Glossary of Doom
The glossary implies that he doesn't know that Lubavitch and Chabad are different names for the same group. He even says that the Lubavitch ("a hasidic/hareidi group") are recognizable by their "fifteenth-century-style garb." He knows that means the 1400s, right? And that black suits and fedoras weren't invented in the 1400s? And that the Lubavitch generally don't wear the bekishes, shtreimels, or other "old world" clothing? And that those aren't from the 1400s either? Dear heavens. Is there anything right in this entry?? I'm not Lubavitch, but I'm offended on their behalf. Hey, did you hear? The orthodox have sex through a hole in a sheet. Really. I read it somewhere.

He throws out definitions in a glib way that could easily mislead people (and/or are totally wrong). He says nisuin is the "Jewish wedding ceremony," but it's the betorthal ceremony. Shiva is "the required seven days of mourning at home." Maybe you want to clarify that it's limited to certain family members? That could be helpful to not scare away newbies. If I had to stay at home for seven days for any mourning I feel, I'd never keep down a job. Yamim noraim are "the ten 'Days of Awe' between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur." I know it's picky, but it's not ten days between them, it's ten days including them. And my favorite, tzitzit: "Strings tied at the fringes of garments..." That's just...where do I start? 1) On what kind of garments? All of them? My socks and hat? 2) "strings tied at the fringes"...strings = fringes. I think this may have been another brainfart, and maybe "fringes" was supposed to be "corners." But after reading this book, I'm not sure I can give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Chapter that Will Put You into the Fetal Position
Even assuming this book were spotless and free of errors, I would still have a major objection to it. The chapter about the beit din assumes that you will have only one visit with a beit din and even says, "we won't say passing the beit din is a given, but you would really have to botch it for your bet din to bypass you." Possible reasons for such a "rare" and terrible outcome that you could bring down on yourself:
  • "You would have to present a deep conflict for them [the beit din] to have reservations about rubberstamping your conversion, like wearing a keffiyah, crossing yourself, or whipping out a BLT." He earlier mentions belief in Jesus as divine or as a prophet as reasons to turn down a candidate in the beit din.
First off: "rubber stamping your conversion." What a terrible analogy to use. "Rubber stamp conversions" are what everyone rails about! It implies you don't really deserve it; you just did X, Y, and Z, and now you demand your prize. 

But really. The substance of that sentence makes me gag. Overall, the impression I had by the end of the beit din chapter was "if you get to a beit din and they don't convert you that day, you are the worst fake Jew ever! You will never convert, and no one will ever love you. You will die alone. And your sponsoring rabbi will kick your puppy."

EDIT: I have had several comments from readers who say that one beit din meeting is the norm in the reconstructionist, reform, and conservative communities. I'm willing to grant you that, but that doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions. And those people should not be made to feel like worthless crap by someone who's never even met them or heard their story. This chapter implies that there is a serious flaw in a person who "fails" a beit din. 

Can you imagine reading this book, going before a beit din, and then being told you aren't ready? You will feel like a loser, an idiot, and be completely demoralized. This chapter is dangerous and may do a great deal of harm to conversion candidates, perhaps even leading to worthy candidates leaving Judaism. There are many reasons a beit din may not "approve" a conversion at the first meeting, and not all of them are your "fault." There is no shame in not "passing" the beit din. It's not a race, it's a process. It is not a "rubber stamp" on a foregone conclusion, not in any movement of Judaism. (Admittedly, I know little about reconstructionist conversions, but I would imagine reconstructionist rabbis wouldn't like to be accused of this either.) Rubber stamping is a common insult against reform converts, and it's simply not true. This author is setting back the fight for conversion acceptance 50 years by admitting to the worst slander against conversion and converts.
[An explanation of the keffiyah objection above might be useful for some of you. A keffiya is a particular kind of scarf that has become symbolic of the Palestinian political cause. In recent years, it has also become a fashionable piece of clothing, completely unrelated to politics. I own two really nice ones, one green and one purple and pink. I can see no other interpretation of his suggestion than political support of Palestinians being an automatic disqualification for conversion. Last I checked, a political position on Israel or the Palestinians has never been required for conversion. Nor should it be required. I am incredibly offended by this suggestion, and I believe you should be offended too. The idea that this rabbi would require conformity to his own political views as a condition of conversion is absolutely unacceptable and downright horrifying.]

"Here, bite down on this aluminum foil" and Other Excellent Advice
I also object strongly to a practical suggestion the book offers: "One of the first questions your family might pose is if you're converting for your love interest. [First, the suggestion that there is always a Jewish love interest involved? My eyes are shooting laser daggers at you!] This is a natural concern and one you will want to be prepared to answer. Having your partner there can reassure your family that this decision is 100 percent yours so they don't build up any unfounded resentment at your partner."

...Or it will actually CAUSE them to build resentment towards your partner and lend support the belief that you are being manipulated by him or her into seeking a conversion. I strongly believe that candidates with a romantic partner should always tell their family alone and in person (unless there is a risk of violence, and then maybe you should consider email). At the very least, this should NOT be the first time they meet your Jewish partner. It is my belief that the average family will be suspicious if a Jewish partner is present for the "Hi, mom, I'm becoming a Jew" conversation. Of course you can't tell them if you're being pressured to convert while the potential pressurer is present! If you're alone, your parents, siblings, whoever, can be open with you and ask questions they may not be willing to ask in front of a (near) stranger or non-family member. With your partner there, they can't even ask if you're being pressured without looking like a non-supportive jerk. Asking alone, there's at least a chance it'll be read for what it probably is: concern for your well-being. From their perspective, this is essentially a family matter, and odds are that your partner is not an integral part of your family yet. I think this advice is just bad news bears, ranked slightly below the advice to "here, put your finger in this electrical socket."

I suppose I'm done kvetching. Don't buy it. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Somebody's Getting Married Today!

And that somebody would be me! I never could have seen this a year ago, when I was still waiting to convert and had been waiting for several years. But I was finally in New York and had a great beit din! And things went smoothly, and I converted in January. I met my chosson in March, and here we are today! Third time was the charm, and I only went out with five dates total. I know almost no one is this lucky (even though I have always questioned the idea of a shidduch crisis). Everyone knows at least one person who rushed into marriage immediately after converting or becoming a baal teshuvah, dating only one or two people. I generally don't recommend that method, but somehow it worked for me. My chosson likes to say that Hashem was just waiting for me to become halachically Jewish. I usually don't buy into those kinds of hindsight rationalizations, but even I have to admit this is a compelling argument in our case. Ever the skeptic, I've always doubted the idea of "falling head over heels" or being certain that a significant other is "right." I always saw it as infatuation (ever the Negative Nancy, I suppose). But I guess I have to doubt my doubts because by dating in an orthodox way, we were able to see very quickly what a good long-term match we are. It's almost creepy. Of course, he calls it awesome. The skeptic reframes it as "This is suspiciously awesome." He's slowly convincing me :)

I hope you all have a wonderful day, and I'll be thinking of you when I daven. And hey, this wedding might bring Moshiach, and all the hurdles and bad experiences for converts will no longer be a problem! Today, we've got the whole spectrum coming together to celebrate, from non-Jews who've never met orthodox Jews (other than me) to Satmar chassidim! (Though I admit that a Jets versus Sharks throwdown between the Satmar and Lubavitch guests would make for more interesting wedding pictures.) Also, there will be a large contingent of the #Twitpacha, most of whom I'll be meeting for the first time today!

Exclamation points!!!1! Did I mention that this is me today? My brain stopped working about three days ago.

In the soon-to-be-eternal words of my dear friend Tzipi, "Ermagerd! Werdig day!" 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why I Won't Be Watching the Olympics

The Olympics is supposed to be a time of international unity and brotherhood. Unfortunately, the reality falls very short of this ideal.

Here are some of the "fundamental principles" of the Olympics, from their Charter [emphasis mine]:

The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

Here is the reality we face today:

On the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in the Munich 1972 Olympic village, the International Olympic Committee refuses (again) to allow one moment of silence in memoriam. Why? Because apparently "Arab nations" have vowed to walk out. I'd like to see them release a name of the countries who are blackmailing the IOC and causing it to violate its own charter and guiding principles.

There has never been any Olympic effort to memorialize the victims. These athletes hoped to practice this IOC-recognized "human right" of playing sports, and they were murdered for it. I would hope that the writers of the Olympic Charter, first published in 1908, are rolling over in their graves.

This article has the most honest quote I've seen on the matter: "Rogge and his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch, have attempted desperately over recent decades to placate the Arab and Persian nations at these Games, fearing a boycott or worse."

The "or worse" is the actual truth. The IOC does not fear a boycott or a walkout. They fear further terrorist attacks.

What a ridiculous reason to ignore a terrorist attack at the Olympics! We give in to terrorist attacks in order to prevent more terrorist attacks at this event to promote international comraderie? Has that appeasement method worked for you in the past, London? This successful intimidation allows bullies to promote terrorism and intimidation during what should NOT be a political event. Regardless of the political motives behind this terrorist act, lives were lost violently in the middle of the Olympic village, the alleged epicenter of global harmony and goodwill. I can think of absolutely no reason to legitimize not remembering the victims of a terrorist attack at the Olympics, regardless of the citizenship of the dead or the motives of the guilty. Thankfully, at least the IOC has been honest that they don't have a good reason either.

Moments of silence have been held for terror victims at previous Olympic ceremonies, including one at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, remembering the victims of the 9/11 attack. Notably, as the 30th anniversary of the Munich slaughter, the 2002 Olympics also declined to have a moment of silence for the Israeli athletes. I suppose the irony was much stronger in 2002 since we had a moment of silence for American victims of an Islamist terror attack, but not for the victims of an Islamist terror attack at the Olympics itself. Today, it's just cowardly.

If we as an international community allow fear to make us incapable of either (a) showing respect for the dead and/or (b) condemning terrorism, what hope is there for the betterment of the world?

This is entirely unacceptable and should be condemned in the strongest terms possible. The opening ceremony is on Friday, and I hope you will not be watching.

If you would like to raise awareness about the memory of these athletes, here is a banner you can put as your Facebook "cover" photo or whatever newfangled social networks you crazy kids are using today.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Management Update: Sorry for yesterday's technical hiccups

I apologize if you received multiple copies of yesterday's post. Since I've been gone, Blogger has completely re-done their site, and I couldn't make it work right. Sorry :(

Shabbat shalom!

(And no, I currently have no idea if I'm back regularly. Maybe.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

In Defense of the Conversion Candidate in a Relationship

Quite frankly, I’m tired of people bad mouthing conversion candidates who are married to a Jew or dating a Jew. When I was converting, it would often come up that I was single for most of the years of my conversion process and wasn’t dating once I formally entered the orthodox conversion process. Once the "secret" was out, most orthodox Jews would visibly relax and almost sigh with relief. To them, I was “one of the good ones.”

People love to say that you “can’t convert for marriage” and use that as a justification to alienate or shame candidates in relationships with Jews. But that’s not quite the rule. Yes, the Talmud forbids conversion solely for the purpose of marriage. However, rarely is that the ONLY reason a conversion candidate is considering conversion. If people in relationships with Jews weren’t allowed to convert, the Talmud would have said that instead, and the rabbis wouldn’t allow so many people to enter the conversion process with a romantic partner.

Sidenote: “Entering the process with a romantic partner” is a key distinction in itself. Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that most of the candidates who start with a romantic partner don’t finish the process with that partner still involved. Often, the relationship simply can’t survive the emotional hazards and the practical requirements of the conversion process. The road to conversion is strewn with break-ups and broken engagements.

A non-Jew dating someone Jewish and hoping to marry him or her is not enough to qualify as converting "solely" for marriage. Honestly, I don't know if the Talmud explicitly defines it, but here's my definition: the desire to convert simply to get your potential in-laws off your back. If you have no better reason than that, then you cannot be converted. (And if you lie to say you have other reasons but don't, then you will get your punishment sooner or later.) If I remember correctly (and anyone is free to confirm or debunk this), the Talmud states that once a non-Jew and a Jew are secularly married, "converting for marriage" can not be "the reason" for converting because, by definition, they don't need the conversion for the marriage.

What other reasons could exist for a non-Jewish partner to convert? Those reasons are the same reasons that could cause any person to consider converting: affiliation with the Jewish people, belief in the truth of the Torah, appreciation for the beauty of observant life, the philosophy of Judaism and Hashem resonates with the person’s innate worldview, maybe the non-Jewish partner was raised with some Jewish family members, or even grew up with a Jewish identity! (For example, a patrilineal Jew who grew up in the reform movement). Most people convert for many reasons, and I think any successful convert must have several things that drew them here. If you want to read more, check out my old post Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism?

I believe people highly underestimate the number of converts who have Jewish fathers (or even the "wrong" grandparents). Contrary to public opinion, it is possible for an orthodox (or conservative, for that matter) convert to have grown up "Jewish." I would bet five dollars that a very small percentage of people consider conversion without a significant relationship with a Jew (friendship or romantic) who introduced them to the idea. It's entirely possible that the kiruv movement that targets non-affiliated Jews will reach both the halachic and non-halachic Jews equally, and is it a surprise that "Jewish" couples could decide to become more religious, only to discover that one partner is not halachically Jewish??

Non-Jewish romantic partners have converted throughout history, including in the Talmud. There is no excuse for the “zero tolerance” policy many Jews have developed towards conversion candidates who have a Jewish romantic partner or converts who converted with their spouse (whether married before or after the conversion). There is no excuse for meeting every convert who is married and wondering (silently…or aloud, as I’ve seem some do) whether the convert converted for the spouse you just met. It is irrelevant, rude, and arguably against halacha (especially when against someone who has already converted and is thus now a Jew).

Halacha “frowns on” converting solely for marriage, not the conversion candidates who happen to have romantic relationships with Jews. Yes, I believe dating during conversion is NOT the ideal way to convert, but few things in life are ideal. You have the situation you have. (Likewise, I do NOT advocate entering a relationship while converting. I think it’s very different if you enter the process with an established relationship.)

On the other hand, many Jews look down on the Jewish partner. These people may think of the non-Jewish partner as the unwitting partner to a crime, in a way. There is an element of condemnation here: the Jew “should have known better” than to date outside the Jewish community. (Or they may even believe the Jew wanted to “sow wild oats” by sleeping with non-Jews and accidentally fell in love in the process, which is even more degrading to the non-Jewish partner.)

Non-Jewish partners is one of the largest causes of bringing Jews to a renewed appreciation of Judaism, orthodox or otherwise. Usually, the Jewish partner is not orthodox and never has been. Often, they have essentially nothing more than a cultural Jewish background. The non-Jew sees the beauty in Judaism that the Jew has not seen, either for lack of exposure or negative childhood experiences. Seeing Judaism through the eyes of a person you love can bring an entirely new perspective to Judaism, especially seeing the beauty of Jewish family life because of the person you want to build a family with. Suddenly, Judaism seems relevant and even useful.

On the other hand, Hashem works in mysterious ways, especially in the ways he brings converts to Judaism. Many converts initially consider Judaism because of dating a Jew, whether or not that Jew was still around during the actual conversion process (happened to me, and he was out of my life 7 years before I converted!). Hashem brings the right people into our lives at the right time for various reasons. Why is it so hard to believe that Hashem could use a Jewish romantic partner to give a non-Jew with a Jewish neshama the impetus to investigate Judaism?

In short, yes, I do believe a conversion candidate being in a romantic relationship with a Jew is a red flag to investigate the case well. However, that investigation is the responsibility of the converting rabbis, not the yenta at the Shabbos table or for general speculation by the community. As with any conversion candidate, maybe they’ll convert, maybe they won’t. It’s not your responsibility to question their decisions or how they got to where they are today. Treat them like a fellow Jew when it comes to interpersonal relationships, even if the halacha may not “require” it for relationships with non-Jews in many situations. You never lose points with Hashem for having common decency.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Berating Google

I'm a lawyer, and that means I try to be precise with my language. I don't always succeed, but I try. So this means I do a lot of Google searches of "define X" to make sure I'm using a word correctly for the idea I'm conveying. I don't remember why, but I wanted to make sure berating was the word I wanted, so I googled it. And this is what I got:

Does something seem off to you? Yeah...

Really now, Google? Maybe you should get a psychoanalyst. 

This is not taken from another website. It is an actual screen capture from my own browsing. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Today is Yom HaShoah

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

We will Never Forget the six million who perished as Jews. But remember that only one Jewish grandparent made you a "Jew" to Hitler, so many Christians and Christian converts died as Jews. Even being married to someone classified as a "Jew" could be a death sentence. 

We also risk forgetting the other five million who died for being gay, a gypsy, a political minority, or other "undesirables." We shouldn't forget the "righteous Gentiles" who risked their lives (or lost them) to save Hitler's intended victims. Or all the others who died because of one man's personal madness: in the countries he invaded, the militaries he faced, the German population, and anyone else who stood in his way. 

Never Forget.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Management Update

As of today, the blog is on indefinite hiatus. I may be done blogging; I don't know. Regardless, the content already here will remain. Please refrain from emailing me, as I won't be checking the account.

After an incredibly inappropriate breach of my privacy, I think this blog has gotten out of control. This is no longer a safe space, so I'd rather fade back into the obscurity of the internet. 

Good luck to all of you.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Chag Sameach! No Post on Friday.

This blog is shomer Shabbat and Yom Tov. Tonight begins the last days of Pesach.

Therefore, there is no post on Friday, April 13.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Growth of Dogs in the Jewish Community

I used to be known as "the girl with the 3-legged cat." Now the poor mutilated cat has been upstaged by some dirty, poor-mannered dogs. Now, if a stranger knows anything about me, they know I have "two huge dogs." And in New York City, of all places! If I'm at a Shabbos table, this is guaranteed to be how I'm introduced. 

One day, I'm not going to be such an oddity. Dogs (and all pets) are slowly but surely making their way into Jewish communities all across America. It's becoming downright normal. 

Until recently, pet ownership was pretty exotic in the orthodox community. Many community rabbis (the majority? I doubt it) rule that pets can't be touched on Shabbat (often a knee-jerk answer instead of a researched one), and that is a good enough reason to not pursue pet ownership. Also, they're expensive, especially on top of 4 day school tuitions and eating kosher meat.

If that weren't enough, there is a deeply-entrenched fear of dogs in the Jewish community. My understanding is that many of my generation's grandparents are simply terrified of dogs (the Nazis definitely helped create that fear). Once a parent has a fear of dogs, he or she often tells the kids to avoid dogs and that they're "scary." Also, kids pick up on how their parents shy away from animals or even cross the street when a neighbor walks a dog down the street. The children have a lesser fear of dogs that might more appropriately be called inertia and habit. Today, my generation (who is having kids today) often grew up with parents who didn't like pets and didn't have any, but the kids had secular neighbors who had dogs. These children went over to friends' houses and met dogs there. Now, their adult friends are getting pets. This generation, despite being raised with a nominal dog fear-mongering, has been exposed to pets. There is still a lot of fear or dislike, but there is a great openness to having pets and a realization that pet ownership has many benefits. And that's how people end up with pets: the parents aren't opposed to the idea (or even think it might be nice), and then they have children who beg for pets. We've seen an exponential increase in pet ownership in the community, but I don't think it's anything like what we're going to see 10 years from now when my generation's kids are a bit older.

Unfortunately, the yeshivot aren't preparing their rabbinical students for these issues in the communities that will hire them. All you need is one pet owner in the community, and there will be shailahs for the rabbi. In smaller communities with high baal teshuva and convert populations, the pet ownership rate could be more than 50%. I would estimate that over 75% of one of my prior communities owned at least one species of pet, but often several species. Some friends and I are doing our best to change the attitude that "pet halacha" isn't a priority in rabbinic education, but change is always slow. However, at least there is a growing public conversation that is allowing pet owners to pool their knowledge and to locate far-away rabbis who are qualified to answer these questions.

When talking about pets, you need to assess your local rabbi's knowledge and his willingness to ask someone more knowledgeable in a particular halachic area. You can ask him what he has learned and if he knows a rabbi who is knowledgeable on pet issues. It helps if your rabbi owns pets or has owned them. Some things just can't be explained to someone who has never had a pet, and sometimes those facts can be halachically relevant. I'm told there's one book on the topic of pet halacha, but I haven't found it, and you don't see many rabbis publishing papers about it. (I did find a book about the halacha of wild animals!)

In some ways, pet shailahs are very similar to conversion: a community rabbi knows very little about today's conversion process (as opposed to what's "on paper" halachically) nor does he know how to apply halacha to someone "between" halachic statuses. Likewise, many rabbis (most?) know very little about the divergent opinions about pets and the various strategies that have been found to make pet ownership easier halachically. It is absolutely possible to own a pet with little to no halachic issues other than buying the right food.

These are some of the major issues that a community rabbi needs to know in order to serve the average community:
  • The rules of what pets can eat, particularly no mixing meat and milk and no chametz during Pesach. (Though I learned this year that there is a possible work-around for animals who can't survive without chametz - other than "selling" your pet to a friend to petsit for 8 days. I'm afraid I don't know enough to explain it to you.)
  • The various opinions on touching pets on Shabbat. People often say, "Pets are per se muktzeh on Shabbat," but rabbis don't always think to investigate the issue. That may have been true for much of history, but I would argue it's not today for at least dogs and cats. Of course, I'm no rabbi!
  • The rules of Shabbat and yom tov as applied to a pet. For instance, which dog tags, if any, can be carried on a collar on yom tov? How should you carry the leash? What will you do with the poop? What would you do if your pet escaped on Shabbat or yom tov? What would you do if your dog were hit by a car on Shabbat? How will you take care of your dog's needs if the eruv is down?
  • How to halachically neuter a pet (because your pet should absolutely be neutered!).
These questions are often machlokets and need to be decided before you're in the situation. For instance, when your dog runs away on Shabbat is not the time to hunt down the rabbi for a shailah!

Pet owners: have I forgotten anything major?

In happy dog news, we've recently welcomed two new puppies to the frum-female-blogging-world (that I know of): Max and Sabra!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Conversion Candidates: The Child Who Doesn't Know How to Ask

At the seder, the discussion always surrounds the rasha, the wicked child. We rarely discuss the other three children, and usually then, only to compare and contrast with the rasha.

This year, I put a name to a long-standing part of myself: the child who doesn't know how to ask the question. You can never explain why a realization hits you and when, but I've been spending some time comparing the conversion candidate to the child who doesn't know how to ask. Baalei teshuva can also fit the bill, but I think there are (generally) more personalized resources for the BT than the conversion candidate.

We all lack some middot, and almost all of us fall prey to pride. We often fall victim to the "Hah! What a dumb question!" or "Wow, doesn't he know anything?" or the slightly less terrible, "Oh man, I remember when I didn't know anything either."

These are the attitudes we take with the child who doesn't know how to ask when that child has the strength and courage to speak up. Yes, sometimes people make ridiculous statements based on half-knowledge or being fed misinformation. But that's often the most effective way of asking a question you didn't even know you had. The strongest (and most humbling) lessons I've learned happened when I made a giant idiot of myself. Heck, I created a blog to help you avoid those moments I had (and continue to have in all areas of my life). 

Conversion candidates are not being properly educated. Worse, they've not even being given the tools to get an education to decide whether a conversion is proper for them or not. The kiruv resources are dedicated to educating potential BTs, no matter how lukewarm they may feel, but the most dedicated conversion candidates can be alienated, shuffled around, and embarrassed by every "teacher" they encounter in our communities with little opportunity for recourse (or verification). Each one of us has the potential to teach someone (even inadvertently), and we should embrace that role. If you want to be selfish about it, I assure you that every teacher learns at least as much as his pupil, if not more.

Conversion candidates, yes, you will say dumb stuff about Jewish law or practice. So does everyone else. Those slip-ups are (generally) not your failure. They're the community's failure for not helping you find the right words to ask your question or for not even showing you there is a question. On the other hand, no one likes admitting ignorance, and people especially don't like discovering they were ignorant without knowing it. I personally hurt most from thoughts like, "WOW. I actually said that? What an idiot." As much as I'd love to stop dwelling on those moments, we need to find ways to stop dwelling on them. Admit when you're wrong, learn why, and learn from the experience.

Both sides of the conversation need to take a big bite of humble pie.

I googled around for discussions of the child who doesn't know how to ask. There aren't as many as I had hoped, but I found a very good discussion from the perspective of an educator: Helping the Child Who Cannot Ask:
"[W]e can also view the presence of that child at our seder as a gift. We know how to deal with the wise, wicked and simple child. But the presence of a child who doesn't know how to ask can transform the seder for everyone, even for the wise children. Who knows what unanticipated issues may arise. Our success in helping this child discover the buried questions can make the seder the genuine learning experience it was designed to be."

The conversion candidate (and convert) transforms the born Jews' perspective on Jewish life. Converts bring fresh blood literally (yay genetics), spiritually, and philosophically. These fresh perspectives and fresh enthusiasm make Judaism "the genuine learning experience it was designed to be." But that learning experience must be a partnership.

Only when the Jewish community properly educates prospective conversion candidates (especially about the idea that there are divergent views even within orthodox Judaism, rather than the "normal" kiruv approach that there is one hashkafah) will we have conversion candidates who know how to ask questions. Only once he or she has the right question can there be a right answer.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Pesach: The Red Sea Beach Diet

Tonight starts Passover. Despite being chol hamoed, I intend to have posts next week. 

I hope you have a chag kasher v'sameach!

So. Pesach is here. Let's assume this is your first or second Pesach (particularly speaking to those of you who haven't converted yet), and that you're trying to "do it all" this year. By now, you've cleaned your home, maybe even kashered stuff. You probably have everything that doesn't move covered in tin foil or contact paper. You're ready, and you're going to make the best Pesach ever!

That's all well and good (and well done!), but don't beat yourself up if you mess up or simply don't make it all of Pesach without chametz. Pesach preparation can be very difficult, and everyone talks about it, but I don't see people talking about how difficult it is to actually do Pesach itself. Everyone says, "Oh, I'm so glad Pesach is here! My house is clean, and now I can relax and have a great week!" While that's usually true for the first night, I don't think that's necessarily true for the other 8 days (or 7 in Israel). Maybe these people who have been doing fast days and making Pesach their whole lives don't think anything about a major (and sudden) diet change, but converts and baalei teshuva often have a very difficult time making such drastic diet shifts, and that difficulty can last several years.

If viewed objectively, Pesach is very similar to a crash diet. You're going cold turkey on almost all carbs that the average American eats. Your diet over the next week will not be balanced, and you will probably be lacking nutrients your body needs. It's hard on your body, and it's hard on you mentally. Forbid a food, and instantly your body is ravaged by cravings for it. 

So if you don't make it...acknowledge it, see what you can do to prevent it from happening again, and move on. There's no need to beat yourself up over it. There is certainly no need to feel like a terrible person if you haven't converted because you're not obligated yet. It's voluntary, so there isn't an aveirah.

Pesach can bring out the OCD in you, in addition to the guilt. Don't let Pesach ruin Pesach. Conversion is a process for a reason, just as we all have ebbs and flows in our Judaism. Remember to learn from all your experiences, both the good and the bad.

I hope this little Downer Debbie pep talk ends up being unnecessary for you and that you have a wonderful, relaxing, kosher, delicious, guilt-free, and constipation-free Pesach.