Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Word of the Day: Parnassa

Parnassa (also written parnassah) means livelihood. It is your income and your ability to support yourself. Traditionally, it has meant your "living" in the sense of "making a living." I think the shift in people (primarily men) learning instead of being a breadwinner has shifted the "definition" to one focused more directly on the money a "living" is intended to provide. However, job ads or solicitations will often ask "are you looking for some parnassah?"

If you're looking for extra parnassah in your life, today is an auspicious day for you! This week's parsha,  Parashas Beshalach, includes the portion describing how the Jewish people received the manna from heaven for the first time. That maan, bread from heaven, was their livelihood, the Jewish people's ability to survive the desert. There is a custom to recite this chapter on the Tuesday of that parsha as a way of requesting your own increased livelihood. That day happens to be today. The publisher Artscroll emailed out a link to a PDF interlinear translation of this chapter if you would like to daven this passage in the Hebrew with the translation underneath. However, you can recite the passage just as effectively in any language. In fact, saying it in your native language is probably more effective for increasing your bitachon (trust in Hashem) that Hashem will provide you with what you need.

Supposedly, there is a lesser-followed custom that people in need of parnassa will recite this chapter every day (presumably until the parnassa comes along). A more common custom for daily (or as-needed) use is that there is an optional passage in the thrice-daily Amidah (Shemoneh Esrei) that you can daven. The passage should be off to the side or bottom of the page. Artscroll siddurim put it in a gray box like the holiday insertions. The prayer for livelihood is inserted in the section of the Amidah for the acceptance of our prayers. There will be a mark that will tell you where to insert the prayer at the bottom of the page. As with the chapter, you can say the prayer for livelihood in either Hebrew or your language of choice, even if you normally daven the rest of the Amidah in Hebrew.

"Cast your burden upon Hashem and He will support you."

Monday, January 30, 2012

My Conversion Is Complete

I debated on if/when/how to write about this on the blog. My conversion was finalized on Jan 12, and I'm very happy with the conversion experience. It had its difficulties early on, but a new location and new rabbis gave me a conversion that was as respectful and as painless as a conversion can be. 

Nothing feels different, really. The hardest part is remembering that I don't have to worry about wine anymore. I have to remind myself I can touch wine without looking at it anymore! 

Also, I feel less "under a microscope." There are no more applications, no more lists, no more interviews, and no more fear that an innocent mistake will derail the whole conversion. I am responsible to only Hashem now, and that feels good. When I read a Jewish book or learn something, it's for the pure joy of doing a mitzvah and increasing my avodat Hashem. Until now, every "Jewish" book I read went on a list that was emailed to the beit din each month, my form of pestering the rabbis. Now, I read to read. That is a new kind of freedom.

In some ways, people's perception of me has changed. For instance, now I'm date-able, and that has changed the look in some men's eyes when we talk. I worried that the women would begin to see me as competition, but I am lucky to have wonderful friends who wanted to celebrate with me instead of seeing me as an enemy. The shidduch crisis has made many women feel that dating is a zero-sum game, and therefore, all women are the enemy. Most conversion candidates face some issue with this long before conversion, generally an accusation that conversion candidates (and even converts) "steal our men."  Personally, I was very open and clear that I was not dating until my conversion was finished. Yes, it has been annoying and lonely, but it was the right choice. When I thanked some girlfriends for being supportive of my desire to begin dating (and not hating me for taking "their men"), they said that my refusal to date until the conversion was over showed to them how serious I was and that they respected that. Thankfully, they're also smart enough to realize that dating is not a zero-sum game, and that each of us is a different person with a different beshert.

So overall, not much has changed. I'm still who I have always been. Every decision and event in my life has lead perfectly to this day, the kind of perspective you can only have in hindsight.

What does the future hold? Someone specifically asked about whether I plan to go to seminary now. I don't. It would be nice, and I would like to pursue more formal education in the next few years, but I don't see it happening now or soon. I also feel a bit old for the "seminary scene." So I will be doing what other single girls my age are doing: working (err, trying to find work), learning, and living my life.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Stuff People Say

It's been a while since we enjoyed a pop culture post, so let's tackle the "Stuff Xs Say" theme. They're reasonably safe for work, but you probably shouldn't be watching them at work anyway.

The original, and probably the best made:

My second favorite:
"I love waiting 6 hours between meat and milk. ...It gives me time to reflect."

Shdus Frum Girls Say, with multiple "characters," which is nice.

Can we rename this one "Stuff Yeshivish Girls Say"?

Then a good all-purpose Jewish girl video that can attack all groups of Jewish women simultaneously.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What to Wear for Your First Beit Din Meeting

You've got your first meeting with the beit din (or the head of the beit din)! Yay! So what do you wear?

In general, you should dress very conservatively, even if it is not what you would wear on a daily basis. This is not dishonest, it is respectful. You would dress more formally to go to synagogue or a job interview, and this meeting is basically a combination of the two. Further, your dress, even if it is not "where you're at" right now, it shows that you know where the end goal is. And don't worry, they will ask you about your daily clothing choices, and you should be honest.

A separate point we've briefly mentioned before is relevant here: another consideration (a controversial one) is that the beit din will also be evaluating your "marriageability." That means try to look your best, rather than throwing on your muumuu or other frumpy clothing. I have a hunch this is true even if you are converting "with" a partner, unless you and that partner are already married. Marriageability isn't that significant of a factor, but it's part of the larger consideration of whether you will "fit in" in the community and be happy socially. Not finding a marriage partner is one of the major causes that will push an otherwise-successful convert off the derech. So it's an important issue to consider (and warn the conversion candidate about), though it is hard to define and the concept angers many people.

What does "conservative" translate to? Let's discuss it separately for each gender. Depending on the feel you get from your beit din, you may dress more casually for future meetings. 

Men: You'll have to forgive me, I'm not as "up" on men's clothing. Commenters are especially welcome to make additions to this. You don't necessarily have to wear a suit, but you should if you are planning to convert chareidi/yeshivish/chassidic. If you're going to wear a suit, go for black. Gray can work, but why bother when you almost certainly own a black suit? Stick with the simple, and try to wear neutral colors. Avoid bright red, even ties. If you want to dress more casually (and even in the most liberal of orthodox conversions, you should still consider wearing a suit since you would wear one to a job interview), dress business casual. You should at least wear dress pants and a collared shirt. Again, stick to neutral colors. You should not wear shorts or distracting clothing. Your shirt should be buttoned up or otherwise come to your collarbone. 

Women: You have more leeway to wear what would be considered more "casual." You also have an easier time in that there are firm rules to follow, which can decrease your anxiety about what to wear. (But if these rules are stricter than your community's interpretation of tznius, you may be annoyed. Too bad, get over it. Remember, what works in the club or hair salon doesn't work for a job interview either.) Your clothing should cover your elbows (not just reach the elbows), cover your knees even when sitting, and cover your collarbone. You should be wearing a skirt. An even more conservative idea to consider is to avoid a top that mimics cleavage, even if you're wearing a shirt under it. In other words, avoiding v-neck tops, even though you are fully covered. Some communities hold even the suggestion of cleavage is un-tznius. That's not true in most communities, but again, you need to dress very conservatively for these meetings. Most conversion candidates will be fine with such shirts so long as your are properly clothed otherwise. You should not wear bright red, but you may want to avoid other day-glo colors as well. Aim for neutrals, even though you do not need to wear blue, black, and white for most batei din. If you want to convert in a community that does believe tznius requires wearing only black, navy blue, and white/cream, then you should reflect that in your meetings. But for most people, that will not be the case. You should wear closed-toe shoes that also cover your heel. That is also stricter than many communities' standards, but you should be wearing the same in a job interview.

Headcoverings: Men should wear a kippah or other community-appropriate clothing. A baseball hat and many other hats are probably too casual to be your headcovering for this interview. Married women should cover their hair, following the standard of the community if possible. If you don't own a sheitel (wig) and that is the community standard, a hat should still be fine. But expect that other types of headcoverings may enter the conversation. 

Jewelry: Men who wear jewelry should wear it in traditionally-male ways and wear very conservative jewelry, if at all. You should likely remove ear piercings or other piercings. Necklaces should not be too noticeable. Cufflinks should be simple and tasteful. Beyond that, I can't think of male jewelry. Female jewelry should also be simple and tasteful. Unusual piercings should be removed. It is alright to wear "Jewish" jewelry such as a star of David. 

In general, you should dress in a way that would fully acceptable in your intended community. This will show that you understand what the community standard is and that you are prepared to live within it. This is one of the subtlest and most powerful ways you can show your research and what you know about the community. Just like in a job interview, your clothing can set the stage or serve as a distraction. Ideally, what you're wearing will seem so natural that they don't even register it. Don't let your clothing be distracting or a black mark against you. This is a place where it is important to remember how to pick your battles. Your beit din is not the appropriate group to fight with if you disagree with how your community (or others) interpret tznius. They did not set that standard; it is just their responsibility to ensure that you fit in to the community you claim you want to join. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Maintaining Tznius at a Public Laundromat

When you're dressing tznius, the public laundromat can make you a nervous wreck. But if you're at the public laundromat, you don't have a more private alternative for washing your "unmentionables." So how can you make the best of a less-than-ideal situation?

Sure, you could handwash everything "private" at home and save the outerwear for the laundromat. Personally, I haven't found handwashing to be nearly as effective as a machine wash, so this option doesn't appeal to me.

So assuming that you "have" to take everything to the laundromat, there are steps you can take to maximize your privacy.
  • Pre-sort your clothing if you plan to have multiple washes, such as colors, whites, and delicates. If you plan to shove everything in the biggest washer to save a dollar or two, this step is unnecessary.
  • Put your underwear and other "private" items at the bottom of the pile. This minimizes the surprise evacuees to the floor when you're putting your clothing into the washer. When all the private items are grouped together, you can get them into the washer faster and with less likelihood of them falling to the floor.
  • Use an opaque hamper or bag to transport the clothing.
  • If you don't have an opaque hamper, you can place other clothing or linens around the sides to shield your private items from public view.
  • Place linens (sheets, towels, blankets, etc) on the top of the hamper if the top is open to the public.
  • When transferring your clothes from the washer to the dryer, find a linen or large piece of clothing to place all the clothing inside, wrap it around the clothing, and then push it to the dryer. It's going to take more time and be more noticeable if you try to sort out your private items into a separate pile.
  • If some of your private items can't go into the dryer, remove them from the washer and place them separately back inside your opaque hamper. If your hamper isn't opaque, it is probably fine on the bottom of the hamper. It depends on what your hamper is like.
  • After they are dry, don't fold or hang your clothes at the laundromat. To be honest, just shove them back in the hamper, go straight home, and deal with your clothing there. If you're worried about wrinkles, not many will happen if you're close to home. And if they still happen, you can use a hairdryer to warm the clothes back up when they're on the hanger. (There are also clothing de-wrinklers available in stores.)
It's not a perfect solution, but it can make the laundromat trip more bearable.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Word of the Day: Gemach

Gemachs usually enter the average convert's mind when they have an upcoming marriage. Whether bride or groom, you will get an earful about gemachs.

The word gemach is an acronym for "gemilut chasadim," acts of kindness. The traditional gemach fund is a free-loan organization. But we don't refer to those as "gemachs" anymore (or at least I haven't heard them called that). Instead, those funds are just called interest-free loan funds. Gemachs seem to refer today to organizations that lend physical items instead of money.

Gemachs loan many items, and they must be returned when you're done with them. Usually, the items are already used by the time you get them, but some organizations buy new items too, so maybe you'll be the lucky person to use it first. Most items are donated to the gemach already used.

So what kinds of items can you find at a gemach? We're not talking about a Goodwill-style store here. Each gemach has a "theme," and some are small enough that they may be run out of someone's home or just a list maintained by a person or organization. You can find wedding dress gemachs, wedding gemachs, bridesmaid dress gemachs, gemachs with baby toys and furniture. Wedding gemachs can carry bridesmaid dresses, mother-of-the-bride dresses, fake flowers, decorations, and even leftover food from other weddings. [When you rely on those gemachs, you will have little to no control over "the look" of your wedding, from colors to styles, and the styles may be outdated.] Those are the kinds of gemachs I know. Do you know of other kinds? 

Wedding gemachs can be a whole room or they can be a Google document maintained by a shul. In the case of a central document, the spreadsheet lists things like color, size, whether the borrower can make alterations, and where the dress is (usually with the owner). Wedding gemachs in a building can be organized by color and size, or they can be tables with piles of poorly-maintained clothing. When you're dealing with clothing, always remember to ask the cleaning policy. Was the item cleaned when it was returned? Will you have to clean it before returning it or will you pay a cleaning fee? As a side note, you should be aware that bedbugs can travel in used clothing. [For more, read Bed Bug Confidential: An Expert Explains How to Defend against the Dreaded Pests.]

Every gemach should tell you its policies and be upfront about any fees. That's right. Not all gemachs are free. In fact, few are. However, most should be free or have a token fee if you can prove you are truly indigent (and that level is much lower than secular standards). The controversy with the gemach system is that gemachs can sometimes (and in some communities, often) be far more expensive than the "secular" option. Wedding-related gemachs are particularly guilty of this. It isn't unheard of to spend more than $1,000 on a wedding dress at a gemach that you have to return after "the big day." [Devil's advocates on the internet suggest that parents (since it's usually a parent) can use these fees to make large costs of the wedding tax-deductible because it's technically a donation to charity since the dresses, flowers, etc, must be returned. When someone is paying for his or her own wedding, they usually don't have/want to spend the cash for that.] If you want to read more about the unrest over wedding gemachs, start with this blog post from Conversations in Klal: Err, Define Gemach for Me Please.

Some other time, we'll talk about ways you can make your Jewish wedding cheaper. Adult converts often foot the bill for their wedding, so that is a common concern.

So what's the take-away? If you're looking for a big ticket item, remember to ask if there's a gemach for that. You might even want to check neighboring communities. Also, remember the gemachs when you have good-quality items that need a new home.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Being an Orthodox Jew Is Expensive

There is a lot that can be said on this topic, but we're going to touch on the major causes superficially. This is basically a warning to make sure you realize what you're getting into. After the steep cost of the initial set-up, living Jewishly doesn't seem that much more expensive to the average single person. But then the big ticket items begin to hit: Dating. Wedding. You have to take a lower-paying job when your boss stops being patient with yom tov observance. Children. Keeping up with the Steins. Jewish or not, no one ever thinks they have enough money at the end of the month. But if you choose to live Jewishly, you have to remember your priorities.

So let the list of awfulness begin. [This is admittedly skewed to the American experience.]

Kosher meat, which can be even more expensive based on the kind of meat hashgacha you hold by. The price of kosher meat varies greatly depending on where you live and what kind of meat you're looking for. Chicken could be priced almost as well as treif chicken. Lamb, which has lower demand, could be much higher than the secular varieties. If you live outside of New York City or Los Angeles, your grocery store availability is probably not great, and there is probably only one brand, maybe two. You might not even have fresh meat, just frozen. Worse, you may not have access to any meat in your local stores. Either you stop eating meat (and you probably eat a lot less meat regardless) or you locate it somewhere else: road trips with large coolers or order your meat through the mail, probably as a group.

Most people buy glatt kosher, and it seems to be the most widely-available, which can often make it as cheap as kosher meat gets. If you hold by beit Yosef, only a particular rabbi, or only a certain group of rabbis, your purchasing choices are very limited. For example, if you live in Borough Park in Brooklyn, you probably have access to every kind of meat hechsher you could want. However, if you travel to another community for a visit or move there, you likely will not find the unusual hashgachas. Either you bring meat in a cooler, order it through the mail, or stop eating meat. You may have to reassess your priorities and consider whether another hashgacha would be appropriate for your circumstances.

Kosher dairy, especially if you hold by cholov yisrael. Kosher cheese is easily double the price of regular cheese. And you're not going to find the fancy cheeses you loved before you went kosher. There will be a fantastic day when the heavens open and the angels sing because you discovered kosher havarti cheese. Cholov yisrael cheese may not even be available in many smaller communities. Cholov yisrael dairy in general may be nearly twice the price of the stam cholov products, especially milk or coffee creamer.

Kitchen supplies. You need over double (maybe almost triple) the kitchen supplies of "normal" Americans. You probably realize that you will need doubles of almost everything in order to prepare both meat and dairy. Don't forget that many items will also need a pareve option, which will definitely throw you over the mark for "double the supplies" and, depending on your cooking habits and finances, could push you very close to having a kitchen in triplicate. If you can afford it, you will want a dishwasher (or two), two sinks, and two ovens. Kosher kitchen remodels are probably not the conspicuous consumption that they are in most American homes.

The ritual items (Judaica). This is largely an up-front cost, and much of the "nice" stuff might be gifted to you later, most likely for your conversion or wedding. Even if you expect the nice stuff later, you probably still need to buy some cheap stuff to get you by for a while. Some purchases can be postponed. For instance, you don't need a fancy challah/matzah cover; you can use a napkin. If you're fancy, you can buy a $1-2 cloth napkin. Your candlesticks can be cheap ones from Wal-Mart or nice ones from Goodwill. You can use normal cups as kiddush cups and havdalah cups. But this is like eating Ramen in college. It's fine at the time, but eventually, you're going to want to have nice things. (And there is definitely a "keeping up with the Steins" mentality out there.) There is even the mitzvah of hiddur mitzvot to encourage you to "upgrade" your cheap Judaica eventually. But really, you'll just want to look like a normal adult person in your community instead of feeling like a college student. I was always very proud of my first "big girl" Judaica items because either I had saved up for them or received them as a gift, and it was one more marker of being a Jewish adult.

Mezuzahs: This is a big up-front purchase. One case and scroll (kosher handwritten scroll, not a printed one) will cost about $50. The cheapest I've ever gotten out was $40, and the prices can easily go into hundreds of dollars for the very pretty/artistic cases. You'll probably receive many mezuzahs as conversion and wedding presents, but often not enough. And anytime you move into a new home (hello, apartment dwellers who move every year!), you run the risk of needing to buy several more or having half of your mezuzot sitting in a box gathering dust. My inner clutter-hater is very bothered by un-utilized mezuzot.

Books. Most converts are book hoarders. And I might be your leader. Books will easily cost you several thousand dollars just to get a "respectable" home library of basics and some fun stuff. Most of this basic library will be built up during the conversion process, but you'll always be learning, and there will always be more books for your study. The best you can do is watch for sales, buy in person if the middleman mark-up isn't too high, and buy in bulk to get rid of (or minimize) shipping costs. While there are many books you will want to keep a physical copy of, remember that you may want to borrow most books first, either from a friend, library, or shul. For the books you decide have earned a spot in your home, used book websites are everywhere and often have the book you need. If you're patient, you can wait for books to be posted on Half.com or PaperBackSwap.com. I've had surprisingly good luck on PaperBack Swap for Jewish books. (And it's an amazing site generally for all books!)

Clothing. This is primarily an up-front cost. Male or female, you'll probably have clothing adjustments you'll need to make, such as tznius-fying your closet (men too) and buying tzitzit. Clutter-haters may like the spring cleaning aspect of this, but everyone throws out more than they need to. Remember that shells and undershirts can make most shirts tznius. Your booty shorts will unfortunately have to go. But your clubbing tops might not need to. Personally, I also recommend not throwing out your jeans or some other pants until you've gone at least a year without wearing them. It can be comforting to know that they're there, even if you choose not to wear them. You may also want to keep a pair of jeans around for serious cleaning (yay Pesach?), home-improvement projects, or to wear under a skirt while moving, etc. (To be fair, I've moved twice in skirts-with pockets-and it was fine.) Over time, this cost is probably very similar to a "normal" clothing budget, once you've done the initial change-over. However, this cost can go out of control quickly if you don't pay attention to which stores tend to carry tznius women's clothing (men luck out in this department). If you don't, you'll waste gas and time going to multiple stores with zero results, leading to overpriced, frustrated internet shopping binges with high shipping rates. As for tzitzis, they can also be expensive (and itchy), but you can learn to make your own! (Don't try to teach yourself. Just don't.)

Tzedakah: The laws of tzedakah are complex and depend on your individual circumstances. But that is an automatic deduction of your take-home income every year for the rest of your life.

Being shomer Shabbat: Being shomer Shabbat can bring a lot of unexpected (and unpredictable) costs into your life. You will have to live in a certain part of town, and you can't control those property/rental costs. Maybe high housing prices make you decide to move to a different town or state. Little things like nice timers can add up, as well as hot plates (I highly prefer hot plates to blechs for safety reasons) and bathroom tissues. More subtly, Shabbat observance will determine where you are able to work. You may have to take a lower-paying job, and you will miss more work days for chagim. You may not have the freedom to take on a second or third job on the weekends as many Americans do. You may have a harder time finding a job at all, so your periods of unemployment may be longer. You may outnegotiate yourself in job offers because you know you're asking your employer to deal with strange hours and strange days off. If you cause your starting salary to be lower, it's likely that your salary will continue to be lower than your colleagues for years to come. That lower salary could even cause later jobs to offer you lower job offers. (If you think you need to disclose your prior salaries, please read this.) Women are already prone to this self-destructive behavior in the job offer negotiation process, and Shabbat observance may cause you to sell yourself that much shorter. 

Wedding. Getting married in the Jewish world is incredibly expensive. Wedding halls, kosher caterers, more fabric in the wedding dress, printing bentchers for the attendees...orthodox weddings can easily cost more than your entire college education. $40,000 is not a shocking number today (even though it is incredibly shocking). $10,000 weddings are considered a bargain. Jewish weddings tend to have many guests, and elopement isn't a popular option. If you're like many adult converts, you will not have family able or willing to pay for your wedding, but you probably also have less guests. However, you may get the "joy" of dealing with 200-300 guests you've never heard of, as your spouse's parents use the wedding to network with every distant relative and business acquaintance. On the other hand, the money the Jewish community is willing to spend on wedding gifts is equally shocking. It's possible that you could actually "make money" on your wedding from the cash and registry gifts. But I don't think you want to rely on that.

Children. Here's the biggie. Day school tuition. Just the thought of it already makes me gag and wheeze. You'll also have to pay for religious celebrations throughout the child's life, such as the bris, bar mitzvah, etc. My observations in college, law school, and my current community make me think that Jewish parents tend to provide financial support to their children longer than the average American parent. (Maybe my data is skewed by being in the South, which has a lot of poverty and values independence? I don't know.) And at the end of the day, you get to pay for a second wedding. And maybe a third, fourth, etc.

I'll go curl up in the fetal position and cry now.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Week Hiatus - Check Back Jan. 23

Due to sickness, I'm taking a week hiatus. I appreciate all refuah sheleimahs :)

Friday, January 13, 2012

After Conversion, What Do You Do Now?

A very wise rabbi once told me that a common problem with converts is that they fail to realize "there's no there there."

The day of your conversion isn't really a destination. I've spent well over a year thinking about that phrase, trying to decide how I interpret it. I think I like the journey metaphor.

Conversion day is like a mile-marker. I don't think we expect kids to feel any different once they are b'nei mitzvot, so why are converts supposed to suddenly feel different? 

Of course, everyone asks b'nei mitzvot, newly-married couples, and converts the exact same question: "So...do you feel any different?" I don't know why we keep asking, since we generally expect the answer to be no. If someone actually responded, "I feel like a whole new person!" we would either assume that they're joking or that they have very unreasonable expectations about life being suddenly new and shiny and different.

Or maybe there's an even better analogy! It's like being on a diet and reaching your goal weight. You've reached your goal, but now you have to maintain it. You have to keep exercising, eating the right foods, and combating the negative self-images we develop. It's not easy, and the major "reward" we were working for over such a long time has come and gone. The question becomes: what is your new goal? Running a 5k? Doing 100 push-ups in a row? Or maybe even doing a triathalon?? 

Once you reach the mikvah, what becomes your new goal? Yeah yeah, "being a good Yid." Don't give that answer because that is an objective, which is achieved through smaller goals. Your goals lead to your objective. Without goals to motivate you and mark your progress, your objective remains undefined and without the steps to get there.

How do you achieve your objectives? You make a SMART goal.
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely [With a time frame to complete it]

What say you, general public?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Should You Change or Add to Your Hebrew Name When You Have a Second Conversion?

I find it interesting that Hebrew names is the #1 topic that brings people to this blog through search engines. I wonder where all this interest in names comes from! Based on the search terms themselves, it appears to be adults choosing a name for themselves, rather than parents naming a baby.

Well, this week's parsha is Shemot, names. So let's talk about a conversion-specific name issue:
When you have multiple conversions, should you change your Hebrew name or add to it?
As a preliminary matter, what kind of change are we talking about? At a second conversion, many converts either a) change their Hebrew name to an entirely different Hebrew name or, more commonly, b) add a second or third name to the prior Hebrew name. Having three names is unusual but not unheard of, though you shouldn't push it to four names.

So...should you? I can't answer this question for you, nor can anyone else. I've heard of a right-wing orthodox beit din that did require a name change of some kind if the candidate had a Hebrew name already, either from a prior conversion or because they were raised in a liberal movement but required a conversion in the orthodox community. (If you don't understand the last idea, it's essentially patrilineal Jews raised in the reform movement and the children of female liberal converts.) While this may apply to someone who received a Hebrew name from parents, I am going to address this post to people who chose their Hebrew name the first time around.

Keep in mind: it is a perfectly valid choice to keep the same Hebrew name through multiple conversions. If you are set on doing that, don't let others bully you to make a change you don't want.

First, why would anyone think this is a good idea? There are several possible reasons, including, but not limited to the following:
  • The desire to create a new identity separate from your prior Jewish identity.
  • The desire to mark a distinction between one conversion to another.
  • The desire to change your "mazal," your luck. (When someone is very ill, he or she may add a name to their Hebrew name to accomplish this same change of mazal.)
  • The reflection of a belief that the prior conversion was invalid or a negative experience.
  • The reflection of the convert's changed view of himself or herself Jewishly from the prior conversion.
  • The reflection of a particular influence, mentor, or inspirational person.
  • A desire to "balance" your name if you went strictly traditional or very modern the first time around.
  • The reflection of new knowledge of a Jewish family history.
  • It just feels right.
  • Some other reason you can't quite put your finger on.

Did you change your name or add to it? What made you decide to do it? 

Personally, I've decided to go from Kochava to Kochava Yocheved. My reasons are personal, but mostly organic and of the can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-it variety. It just hit me one day, and I've been letting it roll around in my mind for the last few months. Unfortunately, I can only pronounce it correctly about half the time. It sounds beautiful and rhythmic together, but also makes a good tongue-twister. 

I think Kochava Yocheved reflects the "balancing" idea above very well. I don't remember the exact reasons why I chose Kochava, and it was a very last-minute choice after being convinced for years that I would choose Nechama (at least I have a type, right?). But I remember being very happy that it was a modern Israeli name, not much older than the state itself. It's a very Zionist name, the kind of name that reminds me of the agricultural collective beginnings of the state. It is also very unique like my English name, which was also important to me. If people say my name, I fully expect to be the only person to answer. If I chose to go by my Hebrew name at some point, I wanted something similar. 

On the other hand, Yocheved is a very traditional name, straight from an important Torah personality. I've spent time learning stories and lessons Torah scholars have written based on her life. It gives me a biblical mentor, in a sense. So in Kochava Yocheved, I can tie the beginnings of the Jewish people with the modern re-beginning of the Jewish people. I think that reflects the Jewish sense of time, how we're constantly re-connecting with prior times, rather than being in a linear timeline. And on the literal level, I am a star of Hashem's glory, a small spark of Hashem's light shining forth to the rest of the universe. Or so I hope :D

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Word of the Day: Bentchophobia

Let's be honest. For the new-to-Hebrew person, bentching takes a really long time, even in English or transliterated Hebrew. It feels like everyone else at the table is finished in 45 seconds flat (and yes, some of them did do it that fast, but it's debatable whether it was words or one big slurred sound). The result of this is that many people will do whatever it takes to avoid eating bread or anything that could lead to bentching. And that is what we "affectionately" call bentchophobia.

Unfortunately or not, there is no escaping bentching on Shabbat. You've gotta eat challah! Do your best to locate a bentcher with English or transliteration. Just about every host should have at least a couple bentchers with English, but you can also ask for a siddur with English. Bentching will be listed in the table of contents under "Blessings" or something similar. However, it's possible you might end up in a house with both Hebrew-only bentchers and siddurim (it happened to me once, and boy was that awkward). In that case, do the best you can. In the future, you can bring a siddur or bentcher with you (assuming there's an eruv) or drop it off before Shabbat. If you carry around your own siddur, no one is going to think you're strange. They might just think you're fresh off the boat from seminary or yeshiva in Israel.

The irony is that frequent bentching is the key to faster bentching, and thus, losing your bentchophobia.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How to Make Tea on Shabbat

The "tea question" seems to be a common one, according to the grapevine and my own experience. Thankfully, it's a question that all the authorities seem to agree on. It encapsulates a key principle of the laws of Shabbat (and that's probably why it's such a common question): What makes something not cooking on Shabbat? 

The set-up: A hot water dispenser like you see in hotels and at conferences. It is plugged in, filled up with water, and turned on before Shabbat begins.

The problem: When water is too hot, it will "cook" the tea leaves in your average tea bag. This temperature, yad soledat bo, is hot enough to induce cooking, and cooking is forbidden on Shabbat. The temperature itself is disputed, but if you can't hold your hand under it, it has definitely passed that threshold. This temperature matters, among other things, when determining whether a utensil has accidentally become meat or dairy during a mix-up while cooking or doing the dishes. When the water is hot enough, the "taste" of meat or dairy can transfer because the level of "cooking" has been reached.

I know of two answers (and I believe they're the only two), but if you know of more options, please note them in the comments!

The traditional answer: Tea essence. You brew the tea leaves (or tea bags) before Shabbat in a concentrated form. Then you mix the concentrated tea with more water to make it drinkable. According to at least some (I don't know if it's the majority opinion), the tea essence should be placed in the cup first, and then diluted. This avoids "coloring" the clear water on Shabbat.

The modern answer according to R' Moshe Feinstein: Tea bags can be used on Shabbat, so long as the water is transferred from the hot water dispenser to one cup and then poured into the drinking cup. Put another way, there is an intermediate cup between the water heater and the cup you want to drink out of. Put a third way, you need a hot water heater and two cups. You will not drink out of the intermediate cup because the water is still too hot and presumed to be at a "cooking" temperature. The water is presumed to lose enough heat via the intermediate vessel to lower it below the cooking level. If you've never tested it, it really does lower the temperature significantly. Once the water is in the second cup (the "third vessel"), you may put in the tea bag. At least technically (I don't know how followed it is), you should not remove the tea bag from the cup (like you normally would do when the tea has steeped enough). That would be removing bad from good and violate the laws of selecting. I believe there is a way to accomplish this, but I don't know. Perhaps it matters if you never stop holding the string? However, if the tea bag being in the cup really bothers you, you can avoid this issue by pouring your tea (the good) into a third cup, thus selecting the good from the bad.

The yom tov adjustment: Since you may cook on yontif for the yom tov, the intermediate cup is not necessary if you plan to drink the tea on the same day. In that case, you pour the water from the hot water heater into a cup and put the tea bag into that cup, like you normally would.

I believe this is accurate, but if there are (correct) corrections, I will update this page. So it might be in your interest to check this page again in a day or two. If corrections are coming, they tend to come within the day.

Management Update: Conversion Candidate Toolbox Updated

I guess the title says it all. I've updated that little list of what I think are the most "relevant" blog posts I've written. It's on the sidebar on the right.

I'm not sure why I tell you these things, but I do.

Happy Tuesday!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Chilul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem

You know when you have a brilliant realization and then realize that it's so self-evident that there is no way you're the first person to think of that? I had one of those moments.

"Sometimes it takes a chillul Hashem to finally motivate people to make a kiddush Hashem."

That's been rattling around in my head recently. As a smart friend pointed out, people "eventually" do what they think is right. Whether it turns out to be the right thing to do is always a debate. But I think that "eventually" is the key word. It seems that most people go for the easiest, laziest, less controversial, or most pleasurable action with no thought to what's "right" or not. ...Until they're backed into a corner or some kind.

It may not be the most optimistic thought, but I think it's an interesting one.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Converts and Birthright

If you're young enough, every conversion candidate thinks about the possibility of going on Birthright. I went on Birthright after my conservative conversion, but I was on a trip organized by an orthodox organization and the specific trip was actually labeled as "modern orthodox." I think that effectively just meant that the trip was shomer Shabbat and kosher l'mehadrin. Despite the label, my group ranged from the mostly-secular to Chabad to Satmar (yes, Satmar).

Personally, I think any convert should consider a more "religious" trip simply because we are (or should be) at a higher level of Jewish literacy than the average Birthright attendee. While I was not orthodox when I signed up for the trip (but I was orthodox by the time I went on the trip), I knew that the regular "This is what Shabbat is!" kind of trip would drive me insane. I would be bored, and I would get frustrated. (I also wanted to avoid any trip of 18 year olds in a country where they could drink for the first time. And the much-discussed sex-in-the-next-sleeping-bag stories of the Bedouin tents. What can I say, I became an old fogey at some point.) While maybe a specialty trip would be more appropriate for you (especially the outdoorsy ones!), a more "religiously-oriented" trip should be considered even by the least traditionally-observant convert from any movement. I believe that the conservative and reform movements also offer "religious" trips for people with a higher level of Jewish education, so an orthodox trip is probably not the only option. You may decide a religious trip isn't for you, but don't write it off immediately because it's "religious." But know that you, as one of the most knowledgeable people on the trip, may end up doing a lot of teaching. Of course, you may avoid the whole issue by going with a Jewish group you're already active in and affiliated with, such as your college's Hillel. 

Those preliminary "do I or don't I?" questions aside, what are the actual procedural issues that can affect converts? As far as I can tell, there are two primary concerns: 1) whether the conversion will be accepted and 2) whether you're within the age range.

The Conversion
Taglit Birthright Israel's policy is that "Eligible individuals are those recognized as Jewish by the Jewish community or by one of the recognized denominations of Judaism..."

Tour providers who are certified to run "Taglit Birthright Israel" must follow Taglit's policies. Anecdotes suggest that some providers who were affiliated with a movement (usually orthodox) did not respect conversions their movement didn't recognize. It seems that Taglit has cleared up that problem. If you want some anecdotal proof, Israel Free Spirit (an orthodox-affiliated provider) allowed me to even go on a specifically "orthodox trip" with a conversion the orthodox movement would not recognize as a valid conversion. And I was treated respectfully and as just as much Jewish as every other person in my group, both before and during my trip. I had to deal with their main office several times to get an appropriate trip for me, and I encountered the same respect of myself as a participant and as a Jew. (And I believe that I worked with the same administrator the Kvetching Editor wrote about, based on her slightly-anonymized timeline of her Birthright issues in the link above.) 

If you encounter issues (and I hope you don't!), contact Taglit with any proof you may have.

The Age Issue
I've known several people who opted themselves out of the Birthright pool because they assumed they were "too old." The trip is for people 18-26, but that's not all the details. You only have to be 26 at the time of registration. There should be exact cut-off dates noted in the FAQ before each registration season. That means that you might actually be 27 when you go on the trip. The point is, as long as you're still 26, don't count yourself out!

The Most Important Thing to Keep in Mind
Birthright registration only opens twice a year, and it's only open for a week or two (I don't remember how long). But if I remember right, they don't advertise the date registration will close. Perhaps it even closes as soon as a certain number of people register. If you're older, register as soon as you physically can. Providers prioritize "older" participants who might otherwise "age out." But it's still worth trying to get as early in the line as you can anyway. 

If you know people who have previously gone on Birthright with the provider you want, ask that person if you can list them as a referral. Most providers will use that as another way to "bump" your application in line. And if you're not very close to aging out, know that you may not get a spot (or be offered a spot you want) for a registration or two. The winter trips tend to be in less demand, so don't count them out even if the scheduling would be more difficult! I've talked to people who were "rejected" as many as 3 times before getting a trip they could take, but most were rejected/unable to go at least once. There's just not enough money for every participant in every season, but I've never met anyone (other than the Kvetching Editor) who didn't make it work in the end.

I hope you get the Birthright trip you want and that you have as wonderful of a time as I did!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

UPDATED: Adventures in Semantics: Hashkafah, Hashgacha, Haskalah

Personally, my biggest tongue-twister is hashkafah and hashgacha. My brain consistently combines the two into a nonsense word: hashgafa.

Hashkafah: Worldview. It generally refers to your "brand" of halacha and Jewish living. Modern orthodox, yeshivish, Satmar, etc.

Hashgacha: The kosher certification of a restaurant. It'll be evidenced by a little sign in the window, which is called a teuda. The teuda may be more specifically called a teudat kashrut or teudat rabbanut, especially in Israel. It's essentially the restaurant equivalent of the hechsher you see on your grocery items. 

Extra credit:
Hashgacha Pratis: Divine providence; G-d's activity/intervention in the world. While it isn't an exact match, many people say it when secular people would say either "How lucky!" or "What a coincidence!"

Haskalah: A movement in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries that is also called the "Jewish Enlightenment." When Jews were allowed to integrate into secular society, they did so. That's not good or bad in itself (hello, your writer self-identifies as "modern orthodox"), but it did lead to the wide-scale assimilation we saw prior to the Holocaust (and as some theorize, that assimilation was a large driving force that led to the Holocaust.).

And remember not to confuse havdalah in the mix!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Blessing for Children

There is a traditional bracha for children, separate from the blessings affiliated with circumcision, pidyon haben, a girl's naming, and the various ceremonies being created to celebrate the birth of a daughter.

The blessing is three-fold and can be worded in many ways. That the child should be blessed with...
  • Torah
  • Chuppah
  • Ma'asim Tovim
Torah represents Jewish learning. The chuppah symbolizes a good marriage. Ma'asim tovim means good deeds; in other words, to grow up to be a mensch. 

You can see and hear this blessing in many places, from birth announcements to bar mitzvah celebrations. It's always an appropriate blessing to give new parents, if you're not sure what else to say! (But it certainly sounds more natural written than when you say it out loud.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Myth: Calories Don't Count on Shabbat

This phrase may be the most-said sentence on Shabbos behind "Shabbat shalom!" 

I'm sorry to tell you, but it's not true. Calories do count on Shabbat. 

The problem is that you have no way to count them. If you belong to Weight Watchers or another strict weight-loss system, then you had better be eating your own food at home, with each meal planned ahead of time. You have no idea how your host has fixed those dishes or even what all is inside them. The best you can do is watch your portions, eat the most un-processed fruits and vegetables you can find, and avoid any particular foods prohibited by your diet (such as carbs or meat). 

If you have any advice about keeping track of your food intake on Shabbat, feel free to share it below. While I likely won't benefit from the advice (I follow what I said above), I know this is a subject that a lot of people would like to discuss!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Haikus for Jews?

All my Jew Crew on Facebook is all a-twitter about the Shema. Someone pointed out that the Shema is a haiku, and it began to spread like wildfire through status updates. After a few friends "verified" it, I decided it was finally time to investigate it for myself. 

The Haiku
The haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry. It's short and sweet, and English speakers usually define it by its number of syllables (and maybe say it has to be about nature). I may have been the Haiku Champion of 7th grade English class, but I have forgotten what the precise requirements of an English haiku are (since English "syllables" and Japanese "on" are not identical). So here they are:
  • 17 syllables, broken into three "lines" of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. 
  • A "seasonal reference" that apparently should be drawn from a set list of words (but not necessarily nature-related)
  • The juxtaposition of two images or ideas
As I said above, our English teachers say that a haiku has 17 syllables, but that's not exactly true to the Japanese form, simply because the languages are written and formed so differently. This same problem applies to Hebrew: It's like the translation of a translation of the original quote. But we can still try it. 

The first issue is the problem that there isn't three "lines." However, you can make three lines. Following traditional practice, Hashem is substitute for the word used in prayer, as is Elokeinu. Hashem should be treated as having 3 syllables for our experiment.

Sh'ma Yisrael
Hashem Elokeinu
Hashem Echad

I find this three line breakdown convincing. So let's start counting syllables.

The sheva "half-vowel" in the word Shema is the make-or-break here. If you think of She-ma as two syllables, you reach a different result than if you think of Sh'ma of one syllable. 

So if you use She-ma, you have 5-7-5. A haiku structure.
But if you slur together the word into the one syllable "Sh'ma," you have a different outcome: 4-7-5. Not a haiku form.

Seasonal Reference
There is a large, but well-defined, list of words that qualify as a "seasonal reference," and they're not all nature-related. According to Wikipedia (yes, yes, I am citing the Wiki of Evil), the most common categories are
  • The Season
  • The Heavens
  • The Earth
  • Humanity
  • Observances
  • Animals
  • Plants
Some Google snooping reveals many entries for "festivals" and "observances." Under those categories, there are entries for various gods of the harvest or season, etc. So perhaps discussing Hashem fulfills this requirement, but this isn't determinative without the help of someone more knowledgeable than myself.

I would argue that this quality is fulfilled. When the Shema was written, the idea of "god" and the singular were considered very divergent ideas. Their juxtaposition would have shocked many of the polytheist societies at the time.

So what do you think? Haiku or not? Deep revelation or cheap trick of a middle school English teacher? Does the Shema now have more meaning for you?