Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Phrase of the Day: "Be Attractive, Not Attracting"

People either love or hate this phrase. What does "be attractive, not attracting" mean to you? And do you think it's a phrase worth telling someone (particularly a woman) as they're learning the rules of tznius? If someone said it to you as you were becoming tznius, was it helpful?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Immediately After Conversion, What Needs to Be Done?

You're in the mikvah. You have your dips in the water and officially cross over into the obligation in mitzvot. What happens once you get dressed?

First mitzvah/bracha. This should not happen in the mikvah because you shouldn't say a bracha while nude. I think some people hear about the "here, have a candy!" bracha opportunity immediately after conversion and mistakenly think it will be immediately after, while still in the water. That's not so. They'll let you get out of the mikvah, dry off, and make yourself presentable again. Once you leave the prep room again is when you'll be bombarded with some bracha opportunity. I was given a choice of water or a candy. I needed the water more. Of course, you're going to feel awkward saying a bracha out loud in front of a group of people, especially three rabbis, but that's normal. You might even mess it up. It happens. (Don't forget to say the after bracha!)

It's possible you could be given another "mitzvah opportunity." Just roll with it.

After the initial mitzvah, everything else depends on your beit din, their schedule, your schedule, and the air-speed velocity of an unladen African swallow. In other words, who knows? Relax, you're done, don't let yourself get stressed out.

Naming. You could be "given" your Hebrew name at the site of the mikvah or in the synagogue. There's really no rules, from what I understand. If it's not done immediately at the mikvah, it may be done immediately at the synagogue, during the next service with a Torah reading, or the next Shabbat. In theory, I suppose it could be done anywhere.

Davening. Depending on the time of day, you may or may not "have" to daven. Most conversions are early in the day, so you will probably have the opportunity to say mincha. You can certainly choose to daven. Tehillim would be a good choice, especially the psalms of thanksgiving.

A sidenote on davening: Of course, most people convert before maariv, but most poskim have held that women aren't obligated in maariv. (Based on my understanding, Sephardim women don't even hold to shacharit and mincha as the Ashkenazim generally do. If I remember correctly, Sephardim obligate women in prayer only once a day, and it can be any kind of prayer.) If you have previously been saying maariv, your mikvah might be a good time to stop that tradition if you don't want to obligate yourself to that mitzvah. There is no reason to obligate yourself to something if you won't do it regularly. Judaism discourages taking on a vow, though saying maariv is a worthy practice to take on if you can trust yourself to do it. This is a very case-specific issue, and opinions may differ significantly. Your rabbi can help you understand what your community practice is and how that should or shouldn't change your current davening practice.

Brachot haShachar. The way it was explained to me is that when I went to the mikvah, I started a new day (of my new life), so the morning blessings should be recited. Your rabbi could hold differently. Do what he says. It certainly seems appropriate to say the birkat haTorah, thanking Hashem for the gift of the Torah.

Aliyah. If you are male, you are almost guaranteed to get an aliyah on your first Shabbat as a legit Jew. Practice the blessings and the procedure with a friend multiple times before your conversion.

Kasher. Maybe you will have to re-kasher your kitchen. I hope you won't have to because that's a pain. You may have to throw out a lot of things that can't be kashered, like ceramics, china, and some plastics.  Maybe even glass, depending on your rabbi. Some (many?) rabbis hold that if you have always owned the items and you know that you have only used the items for kosher foods and in a kosher way, you don't have to kasher them. In that case, they are just toveled. The kind of funny part is when you know that to be the case, but the rabbi holds you must still kasher everything because the rationale of the halacha is that a Jew cannot trust a non-Jew to use utensils kosherly. (It's a word. I say so.) The effect, as I see it, is that Jew You is being told you cannot trust Non-Jew You. And I find that funny.

That said, if you have the same kitchen items you had when you first became kosher, you may have made significant mistakes without knowing it. In that case, you should seriously consider re-kashering and replacing. However, if you're like me, you made a long-distance move well into your kosher life and replaced everything once you had been keeping kosher for a significant amount of time. For that reason, I always recommend that no one replace anything until they've been successfully keeping kosher 6 months. It can save you a lot of trouble and money in the long run, even though you really, really want to color code your kitchen red, green, and blue.

Kashering is a question you should ask early on. Either you find out that no kashering is required, and you can sleep soundly at night, or you are prepared to replace stuff. That way, you have time to save up and buy replacements for the items that can't be kashered. You can also take advantage of sales if you have lots of notice. Just keep the items in the box and in your closet until your day arrives. If you are required to kasher, I suggest having a rabbi or knowledgeable friend help you.

Tovel. You will need to tovel any kitchen items requiring toiveling that belong to you. Ask your rabbi for more information for your specific case. One thing to remember is that, generally, kitchen items belonging to a Jewish roommate don't legally belong to both of you. Just because it's in your kitchen doesn't necessarily mean you have to toivel it, even if it is of a material that requires toveling. I suggest taking a friend with you for your first toveling experience. You can tag along at any time, you don't have to wait until your conversion. You can even help! (Newlyweds will appreciate the help!) The unanticipated worst part: you have to wash all those dishes when you come home. Keilim mikvah water is essentially standing water that has touched the hands of most of your community. I wouldn't eat off that. (That also goes for natural bodies of water being used as a mikvah.)

Mezuzot. If you haven't hung mezuzot before, you'll need to now. Check with your rabbi for the rules as they apply to your case. For instance, the time requirements differ whether you rent or own your home and you may have unusual passageways that may not require a mezuzah or special placement of it. If you already have mezuzot up, ask your rabbi. Several factors can influence his ruling.

Separation of married couples. If you are married, regardless of whether one partner converts or both, there may be a separation period required. There is significant difference of opinion here, and there are too many factors to name. For one, you may not be together again (however they define that) until you are Jewishly married. That may be right after the mikvah, the next day, a week later, or three months later. It all depends. There are also concerns about the status of the child, but that argument doesn't make sense to me since my understanding is that if a pregnant woman converts and the child is born after the mikvah, the child is a born Jew, not a convert. If anyone has more insight into that, please let the world know.

Marriage. As I alluded to above, you may have to plan a wedding! If you were already married, you probably planned your remarriage before the mikvah occurred since most people want to reunite as soon as possible (especially when there are kids in the picture or the rabbis require the couple to actually live in separate homes, which can create a financial strain). Others may convert and then almost immediately have a proposal from the partner who traveled the road to conversion with him or her. (Or maybe both were converting! Haven't seen that yet in a non-married couple.) In that case, wedding planning begins relatively soon after the mikvah, but I would encourage you to not mix simchas. The joy of conversion and the joy of being engaged should each be given your full attention and enjoyed to the utmost!

So did I leave anything out? Did you have an unusual experience?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why I'm Not Going by My Hebrew Name

It's been almost two months since my conversion. I have been shocked that the most common question I am asked is, "So what do I call you now?"

Of all the things to ask about a conversion, that's the first thing that comes to mind?? Maybe it's the most polite (and practical) thing to ask, but I never expected to get this question. It just didn't occur to me that the conversion is the most practical time to change one's name.

There was nothing to prevent me from choosing to call myself by my Hebrew name prior to my conversion. In fact, I do it here to blog anonymously. Because of that, many of you out there only know me as Kochava and still refer to me as that. However, I have never gone by Kochava "in real life." Of the people who choose to adopt their Hebrew name, they generally seem to start using it full-time long before conversion is imminent.

Why would someone choose to change right at the moment of conversion? We're all different, and I can imagine some reasons for that, but it seems unusual in practice. Either people adopt it early on or they adopt it later (many adopt their Hebrew name when making aliyah to Israel). It seems that few people adopt it as soon as they come out of the mikvah. To me, that seems like the "purist" approach: don't go by your Hebrew name until you are, in fact, a Hebrew. Right? Makes sense. Maybe that used to be more common or maybe rabbis used to set that as the rule.

I happen to have an amazing Hebrew name. So why wouldn't I choose to use it? My English name also happens to be an amazing name, and I am very connected to it. I may choose to go by Kochava at some future point, but not now.

At the most basic, and as I mentioned somewhere else on the blog, I'm the same person I've always been. I don't see a contradiction (or even dissonance) between my "former" life and who I am now. Because of that, I feel like it would be disingenuous to essentially take on a new identity.

Everyone is different, and everyone will approach this question differently. This is just how I approached my own case. Every person's experiences (especially when you're dealing with identity!), their family history, and each person's community situation (especially if dating) may require a differnet analysis in every person's case. Even generational differences could play a part. There is literally no end to the factors a person must consider when deciding whether to change one's name (Jewishly or legally).

Friday, February 24, 2012

Nullifying Conversions vs. Questioning Conversions

If you're going to convert, you need to understand a key distinction. There's a lot of talk since 2006 about nullifying conversions.

While a few nullifications have occurred, the general problem is questioned conversions. 

Nullified conversion: the conversion is void. It was invalid at the time the conversion was performed. The person was never halachically a Jew. Any children born of a woman since her "conversion" are not Jews (and grandchildren and so on down the line, if applicable). You may still argue that the conversion was valid, and some communities might even still accept it. Worse, you could be told your conversion is invalid/nullified by a rabbi who doesn't have the authority to rule it invalid. (The problem is that many people won't think about whether the rabbi had the authority, they'll be so shocked and angry.) Sure, a rabbi can choose not to accept your conversion in his community, but most rabbis can't rule your conversion invalid for other rabbis/communities.

Questioned conversion: This can happen for many reasons. Most simply, there is doubt whether the conversion was valid or not. The most common is when there is a converted mother or grandmother, and all the converting rabbis are dead and unknown. If today's rabbis don't know anything about the converting rabbis, they may say, "Well, we don't know if it was a valid conversion or not." (Continued frumkeit in the family can support that it was. If the convert and family went off the derech, you may be in trouble.) This is quite common, and is even a serious problem in the frum-from-birth community. 

When a conversion seems questionable, rabbis often will decline to make a ruling on it (for many reasons). It's easier (lazier? better halachically? better for the person?) to throw the person in the mikvah for a geirus l'chumrah. I say it may be better for the person because a newer, "better" conversion can remove any doubt about the person's status and gives the person new paperwork to prove his or her Jewishness. It can remove any future headaches. On the other hand, you had better hope you weren't a "born Jewish" woman trying to marry a kohen when this issue rears its ugly head (or already married to one!). If you have a geirut l'chumrah, it is almost guaranteed that you cannot marry the kohen. (It's extremely rare, but it's possible to have a geirus l'chumrah that is very explicitly emphasizing the "l'chumrah" part. If you have to get a geirus l'chumrah l'chumrah before marrying a kohen, it will be presented to you as optional and then you will never, ever speak of it again. Your sons would remain kohanim in this case, as I understand.)

Why does this distinction matter? Generally, it matters because the situation is often better than you fear. Almost all these cases are questioned conversions. There's a protocol for that, though it may cost money, time, and maybe even some of your sanity. Best case scenario, it can be "fixed" within the hour. Worst case scenario, you go through a conversion from scratch like everyone else. Most people fall in the middle. No one is saying, "Nope, you're not a Jew," even if you might want to run out for McDonald's upon hearing the news.

If, chas v'shalom, this should happen to you, feel free to ask the rabbi whether he is making a ruling on the issue and what the options are to rectify the situation. Assuming you want to "remain" Jewish, of course.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"How Did You Know You Were Ready to Convert?"

This question comes up a lot. It's funny, since what the conversion candidate thinks about his or her readiness is often irrelevant. The beth din is the final decision on when a candidate converts, and their opinion on readiness is really the only one that matters. 

The beit din may ask the candidate whether he or she feels ready, but I think the answer is largely irrelevant. If you say yes, they're not surprised. Of course you want to move on with your life. If you say no, it's either a) The beis din seeing if you realize there are issues that still need to be handled or b) You're actually ready because you realize exactly how much trouble you're getting yourself into by taking on all these mitzvot. All three answers are more about seeing where your mind is, rather than actually considering your opinion. Yay psychology practiced by unlicensed quacks like batei din and me.

Most people feel "ready" long before there is any discussion of the mikvah. But what "ready" feels like, I'm not sure I could say. It's individual to each person, but it can even differ day-to-day with that individual. Personally, I felt ready, but my "readiness" showed itself as little emotional stabs every time someone asked me why I wasn't done yet and every time I had to point out my differences when I didn't really feel different. However, I consider myself lucky that I knew why I was being told to wait. Not everyone has that luxury (though I would never wish on any conversion candidate outside circumstances that delay a conversion).

I think the better question is how do the rabbis know when someone is ready, but I'm afraid I don't have an answer for that one.

However, I can tell you one thing: If you went out and got a cheeseburger the day before your conversion (knowing it was the mikvah date), you were not ready. I think that's question #2: "Did you eat a cheeseburger while you still could??"

Did you feel ready? How did you know? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Types of Knowledge a Conversion Candidate Should Cultivate

So much of conversion is about acquiring knowledge and then learning how to translate that to real life situations. Input followed by output.

But what kinds of knowledge should you import into your poor, overworked brain in order to produce the right output? It's not as simple as "learn halacha." I would argue there are many kinds of knowledge you need to acquire in order to integrate into orthodox society with the most success and the least suffering or embarrassment. There may be others, but these are the categories of knowledge that occurred to me.

Halachic knowledge: Ok, that's a given. However, pay careful attention to learning what is halacha, what is chumrah, and what is minhag. Those distinctions are important and often overlooked by the popular literature (and most teachers/mentors).

Hashkafic knowledge: Your hashkafah is your "worldview." It generally refers to your "brand" of halacha and Jewish living. At the broadest level, it is the label you wear: "just plain orthodox," modern orthodox liberal, yeshivish, chassidishe, etc. But hashkafah has implications right down to whether you are comfortable owning a TV or going to a movie theatre. (Explanation: if you go to a movie theatre, you might have to touch someone of the other gender's arm on the armrest, and that leads to mixed dancing.) Expanding your hashkafic knowledge means learning about your group's philosophy and methods of interaction with the world. In many ways this is minhag, but it's deeper than that. There's a rationale behind the action that's more philosophical than "this is what our community has been doing for 300 years." Tznius, women's issues, and interaction with the "secular" world are usually big issues here.

Historical knowledge: You're joining a people as well as a religion. The Jews have a unique history, and even the earliest history can still have ramifications today on the Jewish worldview. You need to be conversant with the gist of many periods of history. I would suggest the following level of "importance" as a guideline for your study, though your mileage may vary: Torah history, the exiles, WWII, the creation of the state of Israel, history of the great Sages (and/or their works), Tanach history, Israeli history (basically the wars), the periods of oppression in Europe from the middle ages until the Enlightenment, and then the earlier periods. I admit I know little to nothing about Sephardi history other than what is shared with the Ashkenazim (Blame American Askenazi privilege). I say "importance" based on how often these topics or themes come up in everyday life (conversations and shiurim), in my experience.

Cultural knowledge: From the borsht belt to Seinfeld to Yiddishisms (wow is that Ashkenazi-centric), cultural knowledge is just fun. It's also the best way to fit in: to get the jokes and to make them. It's knowing the slang, the values, and the buttons people push (for example: Rabbi Avi Weiss, "mixed dancing," the Maccabeats, Chabad, or anything else that can start a passionate debate). This is like a deeper version of historical knowledge. If historical knowledge is about joining a people, cultural knowledge is about joining a family. You will learn how your community thinks, what they are passionate about, what makes them angry, what makes them laugh.

Social intelligence: You need to learn how to get along with other people. People who may drive you insane sometimes. If you're going to get through the conversion process relatively unscathed emotionally, you need to understand group dynamics and how those dynamics can affect your life. You need to be able to think of far-reaching implications for your actions (and have the discretion to realize when those consequences are irrelevant). Social intelligence can be learned, but some people have more natural skillz in this area. Important: beware of confusing social intelligence with manipulation. They are very different, and I don't recommend mixing the two.

Knowledge of personalities: This is a subset of social intelligence, but even if you can't manage full social intelligence (or make a wrong prediction), you can at least work on your knowledge of personalities. As I have said many times, rabbis are people too. No person is entirely consistent or predictable. There are always facts beyond your knowledge. A rude rabbi may have nothing to do with you; any number of things could put him into a bad mood at the precise time you were scheduled to have a meeting. That doesn't justify rude (or unacceptable) behavior, but being able to judge people favorably will allow the bad experiences to roll off your back like water rather than rotting in your chest. Likewise, even if you aren't able to predict future problems through social intelligence, knowledge of personalities can help you analyze a situation after-the-fact to choose a new course of action. So maybe social intelligence and personality knowledge are two sides of the same coin?

Do you have any kinds of knowledge to add to this list?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shidduchim and Nose Jobs

I have a well-documented enjoyment of the Groggers. They released a new song on Valentine's Day, and I wasn't planning to comment on it. It's the first song off their upcoming (as yet unnamed, apparently) album: Jewcan Sam (A Nose Job Love Song). As always, power pop/punk combined with satire makes me happy. But I don't think I'm the only one saying WTH? for the ending in the doctor's office.

But getting back to business...another blogger did a really good job introducing the issues raised by the video; namely, "plastic surgery for the sake of getting married." If you want a deeper halachic discussion on this issue, a commenter on that post linked to his own discussion of the topic: Improving God's Handiwork, With Scalpel and Ether.

Shades of Grey (the original blogger) has an excellent point that this video is unusual because nose jobs are generally considered the onus of women. Yet here is a male lead singer getting a nose job to impress a woman. And apparently, the nose job is a real life thing. (Uhhh...much disappointment in this peanut gallery.)

As for the future of the Groggers, they have several upcoming shows and apparently some kind of college campus tour. But if you really want to be "in the know," check out tonight at midnight for a new song release (according to the alleged radio host on the Groggers' Facebook page-I take no responsibility if it was just a troll). If it's about the Seforim Sale after all, I wouldn't be surprised. But for the record, I was there, and for the spectators, it was not nearly as dramatic as depicted. Nothing seemed out of place except that it was a relatively short set. You can read the published version of events here. But to be fair, what exactly did YU expect?? (I admit I was highly amused.)

Management Update: Page Updates

Claudius Templesmith has two announcements for you this morning! (Mandatory nerdy reference while re-reading the Hunger Games. Sorry.)

1. I've added several interesting blogs to the Blogroll page linked above. Peruse and enjoy.

2. For your statistical pleasure, I've added a pageview counter to the upper right-hand corner of the page.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How Do You Congratulate a New Convert?

This has been a surprisingly contentious issue. What do you say to someone upon finishing their conversion? 

Congratulations in English is a simple, easy way to do convey all the possible emotions.

Out of the 200+ congratulations I've received in person and online, almost all people said "mazal tov!" to me, and I think that's appropriate. However, a surprising number of people followed that with, "Is that what I'm supposed to say?" Do people say it because it's the default thing to say about something joyous?

Two very smart friends suggested that mazal tov is not the appropriate phrase. They argued, and I think rightfully so, that the "more correct" phrase would be "yasher koach."

What say you?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Not Be a Noachide?

Born Jews are very quick to throw out the advice that a conversion candidate should "try being a Noachide!" They're very enthusiastic about this, but I find that they rarely know what it entails, much less what it is really like to be a Noachide. Most can't even name the seven laws. Yet they are shocked that a conversion candidate can dismiss it so quickly, especially when they haven't spent some time "being a Noachide."

A Noachide is a non-Jew who follows the sheva mitzvot B'Nei Noach. Being a Noachide is also called being one of the B'Nei Noach. 

The main problem is that almost no rabbis have sat down and figured out what being a Noachide actually requires in real life situations. There are a few rabbis now trying to figure this out, but Judaism has thousands of years of rabbinic rulings and interpretation to figure out already-detailed instructions (the Torah). What can a non-Jew unlearned in Torah do with seven sentences? For that matter, there's little to no precedent for today's rabbis to use. Halachic rulings are based on precedent that stretches back to Moshe Rabbeinu himself, who was able to ask Hashem himself for clarification on the text. The seven Noachide laws skipped all that tradition. I honestly can't say I would feel comfortable trusting a ruling with such a lack of history. That situation is ripe for abuse, extremism, or just plain wrongness. (And my guess would be that it's not the moderate rabbis who feel a need to increase Noachide observance in the world...) 

To my knowledge, the Noachide faith is the only "religion" that requires another "religion" to tell them what to do and how to do it. Except Judaism isn't doing that.

But there are other issues that can make a person decide to "skip" a "Noachide stage" and go directly to seeking conversion. Let's discuss them. 

Lack of religious leadership. As stated above, the rabbis have historically had no interest in the Noachide laws, other than casually mentioning that they exist or deciding whether another religion can qualify as satisfying the laws. Today, there is no group to certify or train Noachide leaders. That can be dangerous, since anyone can set up shop and start recruiting. A cursory review of some of the Noachide "literature" on the internet reveals that there are some sketchy people out in the world. When you have a question, who do you ask? You could ask the local rabbi, but I'll bet money your local rabbi will be clueless on many of your questions. But the bigger problem is that there isn't even a "bigger" rabbi for him to call to ask. There's just not any rabbis doing this work (minus one in Israel, to my knowledge).

Who is your community? There are very few "Noachides" in the world. There are a few developed "communities," like less than five in the world. And you thought it was bad enough that your conversion required you to move within walking distance of an orthodox shul? Of course, a Noachide is not required to live in a Noachide community. In fact, you may not even like the people you find there. (There tends to be a lot of New Age and "off the grid" people.) Who will you call on when you suffer a death in the family? Want to celebrate a birth? Get married?? But is the Jewish community really your community? 

Lack of houses of worship. Where do you worship as a Noachide? The "communities" have houses of worship, but that means there's not many options. Note that some religions qualify as satisfying the Noachide laws, but most people actively choosing to be a "Noachide" today are leaving those religions. For example, if you were a Muslim, you could continue to worship at the mosque and satisfy the 7 laws, but if you believed the Jewish religion is true, you could not honestly participate in the services. Worshipping at the community synagogue can get complicated, and men could accidentally be counted in a minyan. In the beginning, people might accidentally ask them to cook (and if they don't know the kosher laws, they might show up with their food!). There are a lot of things that can become embarrassing or complicated. You think it's annoying explaining to strangers that you're not Jewish but converting? Try explaining that you're not Jewish and not converting but are still davening in the shul!

What do you daven? You can't say most of the liturgy when you can't talk to Hashem about "our" ancestors. You can't thank Hashem for not making you born a gentile. Most of the liturgy is written in the plural and is spoken in the name of the Jewish people. There is a lot that just doesn't apply to you. Your average community rabbi likely isn't going to be able to answer these questions for you. 

Who do you marry? Do you marry an atheist or agnostic? Do you marry a Christian or Muslim? How would you find another person affiliating as a Noachide? Would an atheist, Christian, or Muslim even be comfortable marrying you? I don't think Eharmony has provisions for Noachides. Worse, who would officiate? The county judge??

Assuming you marry (or were already married), how do you educate your children? There's no Sunday School for Noachides. Besides you, who will be their adult role models of being a good Noachide? Will their friends reflect your values? And in the future, who do they marry?

There are some people who, knowing all this, actively choose to be a Noachide in their community. I find this is generally people who, for whatever reason, cannot convert. Some are temporary Noachides, as they "try it out" to see if they want to pursue conversion or if life circumstances temporarily prevent them from learning about Judaism. This seems most common with people living in rural areas.

I think Noachidism is probably most common among people interested in converting but who are married to a non-Jew who is not interested in converting. (Remember, it's possible for a couple to both be converting.) My understanding is that only the Reform movement will perform a conversion in this case. (Maybe the reconstructionists do too, but the conservative movement does not.) For people in a loving relationship with another non-Jew, Noachidism is a good compromise, but the worry is that the Jewishly-inclined partner will view it as a compromise and develop resentment. Rightfully so, the rabbis do not encourage divorce in these cases. However, over the long-term, divorce may happen anyway.

So, my born-Jewish friends, don't be so surprised the next time a conversion candidate says they never seriously considered being a Noachide. One day, there will be an organized, fully-informed Noachide community, but that's when we will know Moshiach has come. For me, and for many others, the Noachide movement today is not developed enough for our spiritual and community needs. But one perspective is that dissatisfaction is a Jewish neshama saying, "This is not where you belong!"

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Is a Circumcision Absolutely Required for Male Conversion?

I'm reading an interesting book I plan to review on the blog soon. The book describes a halachic issue that never occurred to me before: Can a man convert if a medical condition prevents him from getting a circumcision?

Apparently, according to most authorities, no. In fact, at least one great Rabbi (Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg in Seridei Eish) says the conversion cannot happen under any circumstances, in order to prevent the man from risking the procedure. Pikuach nefesh in an unusual application, I suppose.

Sorry, hemophiliacs. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Askenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel) says no in Da'at Kohein. In Rabbi Weinberg's case, he refused an admittedly "pure and selfless" conversion of a man suffering from diabetes and a heart condition. Because of these conditions, the doctors felt that he could not safely have the procedure.

Here's the reasoning: circumcision is absolutely required by the halacha. An uncircumcised Jew is punished with being cut off from his people, so every day he remained uncircumcised, he is actively breaking the halacha. Further, he states a policy reason: Rav Kook says that this would create an "ambiguous situation" that might confuse people as to the requirements for a proper conversion or think they can opt out of it based solely on a doctor's recommendation. Very interesting stuff...

I'm curious if any of you know how this applies to a born Jew, either a baby or an uncircumcised adult baal teshuva. It seems that pikuach nefesh would require forgoing the circumcision on a baby, and it is definitely acceptable to delay the circumcision of a baby, per the recommendation of a doctor and your rabbi. If the child were a hemophiliac, could he ever be required to get circumcised? If not, is there still a punishment for not being circumcised?

Who says reading halachic opinions is boring??

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Should You Make Up a "Jew-y" Name for Yourself?

Disclaimer: All names in this post are completely made up (and often from random name generators). If I happened to accidentally choose your name, I apologize. Well, except for the famous names. I just felt like using those.

It's very common for converts to take on a Hebrew name as their "everyday" name, even if only in some parts of their lives. I appear to be in a very small minority: At present, I don't intend to use my Hebrew name for anything more than its legal uses.

But I'm not talking about Hebrew names, really. It's very common throughout the world for people to take on a different first name than the one on the birth certificate, even if it's just a nickname for the legal name. (For example, William can be called Bill and no one would think anything of it.) People also use their middle names, nicknames that aren't related to their legal names, and sometimes a random name they've chosen. It's usually pretty easy to change your first or middle name legally. At marriage, it can be particularly easy to add the Hebrew name (or another one) to a legal name. 

Last names are harder. And that's where our discussion begins today. Over the last few weeks, I've had a few discussions about converts who choose a "Jew-y" last name, usually in an attempt to "fit in" better. Or at least not stand out so much. (Of course, this is always paired with a "Jew-y" first name, which is probably the Hebrew name.) I can understand that, even if I don't agree with it. There is no way I can know all the facts and experiences that went into someone choosing to change his last name to something "more Jewish." But I was most surprised by a born-Jew who said that a woman with a very "non-Jewish" last name should consider changing it since she's divorced and dating. The woman is not a convert, a male ancestor of her former husband had converted. Thus, she currently has an "obviously non-Jewish" last name, despite having no connections to conversion. What's so wrong with that?

I'm not talking about Smith or Johnson, not even Lopez. I'm talking Nguyen, O'Flannagan, or Nzeogwu. I can understand the emotions that cause converts to make that kind of change, but I don't understand why it would occur to a born-Jew as an option. First, why would this even occur to them as an option? It certainly hadn't occurred to me, and I deal with all kinds of Jews with "non-Jewish" names! But secondly, and more disturbingly, born-Jews should know better than non-Jews and former non-Jews about the variety of "Jewish" names. It can be easy to say, "Feldsteinkohn, he must be Jewish!" but it's much harder to say, "Oh, McSmithson...not Jewish." The odds are higher in both cases, but it's not a given. The Jewish people has mixed and melted with "native populations" throughout history and increasingly so today. America is terribly Ashkenazi-centric, but I had no idea it had reached the level that people believe they have to change their names in order to get married or fit in. 

I suppose the "distinction" could be that it's "okay" to have a "non-Jewish" name if you converted, but if you didn't convert, you shouldn't be made to suffer the stereotypes against converts. I admit, being a convert can be both a blessing and a curse when dealing with people who think that being a convert defines you. And those people are the first ones to say, "This name is Jewish. That one isn't."

I imagine these issues can often be a consideration for divorced convert women who choose to keep their ex-husband's "Jewish" last name after divorce. Of course, there are other considerations in that case, especially it being a pain to switch your legal name back to your maiden name and get all your legal documents re-issued (driver's license, passport, Social Security card, etc). And why do all that when you might marry again??

I guess this is all another "shidduch crisis" issue that I'll never understand.

(For the record, I think people choosing a "Jew-y" last name is incredibly uncommon. Super unlikely you will ever know anyone in this situation.)

But let's talk about this. Is it ok to give yourself a "Jewish" last name? Does it make a difference to you (yes, you!) whether the name change has been made the legal name or if it's just the name the person uses in Jewish circles? Does it matter if the person still uses the "non-Jewish" legal name for some purposes, like work? Does it matter if the new last name happens to be a family name? Do you think other converts will feel differently about this decision than born Jews? Would you assume certain things about a person who does this?

I don't have answers to these questions. But I think that American society generally distrusts people who change their last name for things other than adoption (or an absentee/bad parent) and marriage. I think the perception is that the person is running away from something or is an ex-con. It's very hard to change a last name legally (generally, you have to prove you're not trying to hide from creditors or hide a criminal past, among other things). So I admit it bothers me less if the name has become the legal name. But I don't know how many "normal" people know this distinction. 

If this is a route you decide to take, know that one "slip up" can seriously harm your reputation. One dropped driver's license (or "Oooo...let me see your driver's license picture!") can reveal your legal name. Not to mention your past crossing paths with your present (hello, Facebook!). Rightfully so or not, people may suddenly question everything else you've ever told them. They may feel deceived. But should their hurt feelings matter or does it matter more that those same people may have created the social conditions that made the person choose a new name?

Important Sidenote: If you're pre-conversion and choose to adopt a "Jew-y" name, remember that there are certain halachic situations where you need to make sure people aren't assuming you're halachically Jewish based on that name. (Even though they would be idiots to rely on only a name.) Whether you choose to reveal your legal name or not, you still need to reveal your halachic status when required. Worse case scenario in that case, they'll assume only your father is Jewish.

Changing my last name never even occurred to me, probably because all this is far too complicated for me to keep all those facts straight. 

The Take Away: At the end of the day, why do our communities make people feel that this is necessary?? We are doing something terribly wrong, and it needs to change. No one should think that people named Flannery O'Connor, Nelson Mandela, or Pablo Neruda cannot be Jews. If for no other reason, these "Jewish" last names have no bearing on whether someone is Jewish when the halachic standard is whether the mother is Jewish. Taking a quote from the movie Wet Hot American Summer, all of the following names could be people who are not halachically Jewish: "Amanda Klein, Jessica Azaria, Ira Stevenberg, Sol Zimmerstein, uh, David... Ben Gurion."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

UPDATED: Menstrual Cycles and the Mikvah

You're a smart cookie, so you already know that the laws of taharat hamishpacha require a married woman to go to the mikvah after a waiting period that comes after the period ends or a certain number of days.

So that means you have to plan your conversion mikvah date equally carefully, right? Not necessarily. You'll probably get little say on what dates are available.

Some batei din hold that you can't immerse for your conversion while there is a flow. I don't know of any batei din who hold that women have to follow the same rules as married women, but who knows.

I know there are other batei din who hold that a woman can immerse for conversion at any time. That doesn't mean they won't discourage you from immersing during that time. They might, or they might even assume you prefer that extra few days or week wait. (And some might assume you're going to make the mikvah gross.) You can always express your desire to dip sooner than later, if that is important to you, and maybe you'll even get your wish.

At some point, you might get the chance to awkwardly (or not) say to the rabbi, "Uhh...what is your ruling about menstrual cycles and the mikvah?" If you suffer from irregular periods, you may want to have a "hypothetically speaking" conversation with the rabbi before you have a date. Best case scenario, they say it doesn't matter and any day will work. 

So what happens if they say the blood matters, you get a mikvah date, and something (usually stress) throws your cycle out of whack and you suddenly have an inconvenient mikvah date? There are a few options, and none is really that pleasant. They may even be dangerous. I recommend staying with options 1 or 2, and if you decide to pursue options 3-5, check with your doctor, preferably your gynecologist.

1) Explain that the date needs to be moved. You don't even have to name the reason, though I'm sure any curious rabbi would ask. If you would prefer to be vague, I think most rabbis won't push it if you say it's health-related. You'll be annoyed that you have to delay your conversion, but it's really not the end of the world.
2) Ask whether the circumstances might make it alright, such as a very light flow or you hope it might stop in time. It's a coin toss what'll happen.
3) If you are not taking birth control/hormonal pills already (or don't at this part of your cycle), you can try re-starting the medication. If you use Nuvaring or other non-daily birth control, you can leave the medication in place longer than you normally would. While this is commonly done by women worldwide who want to delay a period, it is not without its risks. I don't know what the effects might be, and I encourage you to discuss this with your doctor.
4) Take extra birth control medication as soon as you have signs that a period is starting. This is probably terrible for your body, and I can't guarantee that it isn't dangerous. I don't know. And it will hurt terribly (cramps), and you will feel awful for at least a few days. Your doctor can tell you the appropriate number of pills to take if he or she approves this as "not dangerous" in your case. 
5) The Plan B pill. I believe that anyone over 17 can purchase it over the counter (without a prescription, but it may still be behind the counter) in any state. This pill is just a one-pill version of the high-dose birth control in option 3. Just because you can get it without a prescription doesn't mean you should take it lightly. Unlike the target market for Plan B, you have the luxury of at least a few days to research and think about it. This pill creates the same painful cramping and other side effects. 

Again, note that I'm not a doctor. Don't do anything dangerous; halacha forbids risky activity. A few days, a week, or even a month really won't mean anything in the grander scheme of your life, I promise. If you have to delay your conversion, you have to delay it.

UPDATE: I foolishly assumed this was obvious, but I want to state it explicitly: any delay of your period should never be more than a couple of days. Don't try to skip an entire period or move it a week or something! I'm discussing the surprise period or the surprise mikvah date, not shifting your cycle entirely!

Hopefully you won't have to deal with these questions!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Types of Mikvaot

So you've heard of the mikvah because a conversion requires it. But did you realize there are different kinds of mikvahs??

The women's mikvah, of course. That's where most conversions happen, female or male. It's the nicest and usually also the cleanest. It's made for single-person use and is primarily used for taharat hamishpacha reasons. These mikvaot must meet strict halachic requirements, while the other kinds of mikvaot have different requirements, making them easier (cheaper) to create and maintain.

The keilim mikvah. This mikvah is much smaller and is used for toveling (also pronounced toiveling) your kitchen items. The halachot of this is too complicated for us to discuss here, but you can Google it if you are too impatient to wait. In Israel, the stores that sell kitchenware often have a keilim mikvah on site! How cool is that, right?! You will get your first real taste of the keilim mikvah when you convert, and then again when you get marriage gifts. It is a pain to schlep all that to the keilim mikvah (especially without a car), and you will have an intense fear of breaking at least one glass item. Note that a natural body of water can be a mikvah. However, you're unlikely to get naked and tovel yourself in it. Your new vegetable peeler though? That sounds like a great idea! (Remember to check with your rabbi about which bodies of water in your area can qualify as a kosher mikvah!)

The men's mikvah. This mikvah is the butt of many jokes. It's often not clean by female "ewww..." standards, and men generally do not get privacy. There can be as many men as can physically fit in that mikvah. Men's mikvahs are bigger than the women's mikvah, but have less preparation space. Think locker room. And that's how I usually compare the men's and women's mikvaot, like men and women's bathrooms. Thankfully, women's mikvahs are becoming more luxurious and spa-like every year. Mens mikvahs are beginning to be cleaner and less crowded, I'm told. Men's mikvahs are standard in many (most? all?) chassidic communities. Chassidic men use the mikvah much more often than other groups, often every week before Shabbat, and sometimes every morning. This is an area beyond my knowledge, I'm afraid.

Maybe your community doesn't have all these kinds of mikvaot. That's very likely. You may even have to drive a significant distance to reach any mikvah at all! (However, note that the mikvah is the very first "communal" thing that a Jewish community is required to build, before the synagogue or a school!) 

In just about all communities, if you have a mikvah, it is a woman's mikvah. The men may use it periodically (especially before Yom Kippur), and the community also uses it as a keilim mikvah. (Note that they may alternatively use a body of water.) You probably have to make an appointment to use it.

If you have two mikvahs, my guess is that you have a women's mikvah and a keilim mikvah. A keilim mikvah can be much smaller and requires no preparation areas for people. It strikes me as significantly cheaper and, for most communities, more useful than a men's mikvah.

A men's mikvah is "easier" to make than a women's mikvah, but they're generally larger and do require some preparation space. My guess is that these are the least likely to be found in small communities, unless there is a significant chassidic community. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Management Update: The State of the Union

As most of you have figured out at this point, my conversion was finished a month ago. So what happens to the blog now??

My current plan is keep on doin' what I'm already doin'. There is clearly a need for this kind of information and discussion. This isn't going to turn into a "what to do as a new Jew" blog. This space is about conversion and getting along in orthodox society (which is also useful to baalei teshuva). While my life comes up here and there, this is not a blog about my life. I'm here to share information, my experiences, and the experiences of others. 

Of course, I can't guarantee anything. If I got an amazing full-time job, there's the possibility of posting less than the current 5 times a week, though I don't expect to stop blogging entirely. That said, you and your cousin Bob are welcome to hire me. Or you can justify my continued unemployment by donating to my seforim/eating fund through the "Donate" button on the right-hand side of the blog.

Since there has been some confusion among some of the readership in the past, what exactly am I doing here? I realize that many long-time-observant people (converts, BTs, and frum-from-birth) read here, and that's a wonderful resource for both me and my readership. But I do make editorial decisions about what to write about and how to write about it based upon who my target demographic is. And while you may not agree with which questions I choose to tackle (or not tackle) and how I tackle them, you're welcome to submit a guest post for consideration. However, I like keeping pretty tight editorial control over this blog because I'm the one who ultimately answers for it.

My target demographics are people converting to orthodox Judaism or born-Jews who are relatively new to orthodox society. The BT demographic is a new direction for me, but almost all information, even if applied to the case of a conversion candidate, applies to BTs too. I do write about liberal conversions when the occasion arises that there is an overlap or important distinction between the movements on a particular conversion issue. I care about this demographic (and I think orthodox kiruv organizations should not be turning away liberal converts), but I think their needs are served by the many blogs out there from liberal converts. However, I realize that they can also find useful or enjoyable information here, and I hope maybe they can learn more about orthodoxy than they might otherwise. There is a lot of misinformation and hate-mongering out there (from both sides, obviously). I don't always present the pretty side of orthodoxy, but I hope I present accurate and useful information about why something is the way it is (as best as I can tell).

So what do I assume about my intended readership? (I know, assuming is always dangerous business.) I expect that most of these people do not live in New York City or Los Angeles. Many live in areas with no orthodox Jews. They may even live in countries without Jews at all. Probably most live in a community somewhere in between those two extremes. I generally assume that my intended readers do not speak Hebrew (I don't, for that matter) and may not even read Hebrew at this point. I do assume that readers probably cannot "listen for" specific words or phrases in regular congregational davening. I assume little to no familiarity with halachic concepts unless I've written about them previously (and I try to remember to link to those posts).

But honestly, I don't know very much about who actually makes it here. I get approximately 800-1,000 views every day except Shabbat, but I don't know who you people are. So...I'll continue to write for the people I'm here to serve. I hope all the rest of you find a benefit here, and if you meet someone who could benefit from this information, point them to this blog. I appreciate it! 

My goals right now:
Better search functionality (The only problem I've ever had with Blogger)
Better linking between posts
Going back and linking old posts
Figuring out how to create a "Similar Posts You Might Like" automatically after posts
I'd like to figure out a different look, but that always gets pushed back
Working on/expanding the "pages" other than the blog
Increasing my own knowledge in order to pass that along to you!

Some people have brought up the idea of me writing a book. Knowing me, that'll probably happen sooner or later, probably some years from now. I have a few things written up so far, but nothing organized. However, if you happen to be a literary agent or otherwise in a position to give me monetary motivation to get my tuchus in gear on this, I'm certainly willing to discuss the issue. I currently don't have any plans to self-publish any book I might write.

On the other hand, I'm certainly willing and able to speak to organizations or groups about conversion issues and the conversion experience. I already do that every week at the Shabbos table, I might as well expand my audience base. I'm no authority, but I've listened to a lot of people, as well as having my own experiences. Starting the community conversation and making people aware of the issues is the key to improving the process for everyone.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Conversion Issues: Computer Use on Shabbat

I'm sure the topic of this post confuses you. Of course you can't use a computer on Shabbat! That's right. But there are still some computer issues that could create the appearance of using a computer on Shabbat, and that might just get a conversion candidate in hot water with a rabbi or beit din. But there's no need for it. 

I had a similar issue come up a long time ago, but I thought it was an isolated incident. I recently discovered that it's not isolated at all! This is the kind of thing I refer to as an "innocent mistake" (or misunderstanding) that could get a conversion candidate into significant trouble. This is precisely the kind of stupid mistake that a bully could latch on to, if you have a bully or suspect one. So if you can avoid these issues, do so. If not, be prepared to defend yourself. And if you're lucky, your rabbis are so technologically clueless that it never comes up at all (or it just doesn't happen).

Quite frankly, I think most of these problems stem from the fact that rabbis are generally not the most computer literate people on this earth (and generational differences can exacerbate this knowledge/use gap). Rabbis may not understand how computers or the internet work and there's always the possibility of a technological gaff being exploited by a bully if someone's got it out for you.

On the other side: Rabbis, you need to chill out. A computer that appears online during Shabbat really might not be the person online. Really.

So let's discuss how you might be "online" when you're not really online. I call this passive internet use.

The most common: you just forgot to turn off the computer before Shabbat began because, as we all know, the Shabbos Shuffle is frantic and there is always something forgotten. If your computer remains on and online, your chat program could continue to be on during Shabbat. I see this a lot with Gchat accounts-all that needs to be open is the email. Many privacy settings in chat programs allow you to disable the "idle" status in order to keep people from stalking when you're at the computer or not. The "idle" status shows other chatters that you have not used your computer/the program within a certain amount of time, usually 20 minutes to an hour. So if your program can allow "idle" statuses and you aren't marked as "idle," you must actually be in the chair, right? Some chat programs, like Facebook, don't even have an "idle" status, so people just always assume you're there unless you don't respond. (An alternative fix: block the rabbi, bully, or others. Then they'll never see you online. Remember that Gchat automatically adds people you email with to your chat list, so you might never have "friended" these people!)

Pre-programmed or automatic postings. For example, I use Hootsuite, which can program automatic postings to go out on your Twitter or Facebook account at a specified time. Someone who works in social media or other internet-based work might benefit from these automatic postings keeping them visible in the internet sphere or maintaining their Klout score. As most of the observant Twittersphere knows, Klout scores go down for all of us every week after Shabbat, sometimes significantly. We didn't tweet for 25 hours while everyone else was tweeting, so we must not be as influential as those people! Another example is what I do with this blog: all my posts are pre-written and automated to post at a specific date and time. And heaven knows I get an earful if a post accidentally posts on Shabbat because I wrote the wrong date. (That's happened on this blog twice. As you can imagine, the people who jumped on me about it were computer-illiterate and just plain rude.) Auto-posting isn't an option I choose to use on Shabbat or yom tov, but they do exist and someone who needs a bigger online presence than I do might feel the need to take advantage of these options. However, if this is you, I suggest adding "[auto-tweet]" or other clarification language to your automated postings to avoid this mess in the first place. (This also protects you from later comments from an employer like, "But I see you work on Saturdays all the time!" This could be a real problem and could get you fired, maybe even negating any religious discrimination wrongful termination claim. I don't know, but that seems reasonable.)

Emails that say they were sent during Shabbat. This one is a bit beyond my technological knowledge, but my understanding is that it's very possible for emails to have an incorrect "time sent." If you have this happen to you, saying you sent an email during Shabbat, and it happens to be to your rabbi or beit din, then you know that Hashem has decided you need a test. I don't envy that, but it apparently happened to someone. I do know that when your email has a problem reaching its destination, your email will continue "trying to send" the email periodically for up to several days. This could certainly happen on Shabbat, but you would have proof that the email server did it automatically since every email server I've used sends a "your email failed" email, along with follow-ups for each unsuccessful (or not) future attempt. Try to read the times on those and maybe not delete those emails for a few weeks if you could see this being a problem.

Anti-virus programs, other automatic updates, or software installs. Someone very smartly said that they run their anti-virus software on Shabbat because they don't need the computer for anything else. This goes along with the "leaving the computer on" issue above, but apparently this could create a separate issue by bringing a computer online that was offline before. This is a particularly smart productivity idea if you make your living on your computer. Computer scans can take hours, reducing your computer's speed (and thus, usability) during that time. So if you can move that less-productive time to a time period when you don't need to use the computer, bam! You've just made a few hours of your life more productive! Less regularly, you may do the same for new software or other major updates.

These are the issues I can think of or have been made aware of. Do you know of other ways your computer might be passively online during Shabbat? If so, note them in the comments below.

Let me be clear here. I don't think it's a bad thing for rabbis to ask a conversion candidate if something like this happens. I think the question should be asked. But if there is a reasonable explanation (or clueless confusion), there is no reason to blackball a conversion candidate for it. There are simply too many reasonable explanations for it.

A related issue: being told you're online "too much." This is more unusual, but that's actually the scolding I got. (From not one source, but two! I'm that lucky.) This is more likely the further to the right you go. Besides the fact that it is super creepy that this person is monitoring your time online, you are rightfully entitled to tell them that is irrelevant and not their business. Of course, say this as carefully as you can because you don't want to create bad feelings. But honestly, it's not their business (unless you live in a no-internet-allowed community, and then that's what you signed up for). This goes over much better if you can say that you have a significant computer-based workload, for instance as a freelancer, blogger, web designer, student, whatever. I think part of this comes from a lack of understanding of computer-based work and that all you have to do is leave a browser on in the background for them to get this impression that you are mindlessly surfing the internet for 17 hours a day. Blocking the Nosy Nancies is also a useful technique here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

You're Getting a Second Conversion! What About the Mezuzot?

Maybe you're considering getting another conversion. But what about the mezuzahs you already have on your doors? In your new community (even if it's within the same geographic area), you are not (or "might not" be) halachically a Jew. Mezuzot on your doors could confuse people, and technically, you aren't obligated in the mitzvah.

Of course, you can take them down and then put them back up after your next conversion is over.

But maybe you don't have to. As I mentioned previously, I'm unusually attached to my mezuzot. It was important to me that I could continue to leave them up. So I asked, and I made sure to tell the rabbi that this was important to me. And I was told that I could leave mine up. 

I don't suggest asking your congregational rabbi. Ask your beit din rabbi. If you don't have a beit din, wait and ask when you do. (Of course, opinions may differ here.) Congregational rabbis overwhelmingly don't know how halacha applies to conversion candidates and doubtful Jews. The beit din deals with these questions all the time, and they have come to an halachic ruling on the matter. Your community rabbi may have never heard the question before, and if he gives an immediate answer, then you know he has not checked the sources or called a more knowledgeable rabbi. It is unlikely that he knows the answer off the top of his head, and some rabbis, for good or for bad, just want to give an easy answer and move on. He may even believe it is an honest ruling. "Of course non-Jews can't do X!" is not always the right answer. The answer is almost always more complicated, even if it comes to the same conclusion. 

The lesson of the story? Ask and you might just receive. But know who to ask and how to ask.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: The Seforim Sale

There's an interesting thing going on in Manhattan in the month of February! The Seforim Sale has conquered the Yeshiva University campus. It is the largest seforim sale in North America, and almost everything is being sold at a reduced price. There's books, cookbooks, music, children's books, all kinds of things. For a bibliophile, it's like a winter wonderland. As has shown up on Facebook...

But wait! There's more! Lectures, films, concerts! Even...the Groggers! Oh yeah, and the Maccabeats.

The Seforim Sale is credited with at least one shidduch every year. Everyone makes fun of the idea of meeting your beshert at the Seforim Sale, but we all look forward to the sale, spend inordinate amounts of time there, and people vie for the opportunity to work at the sale. (Since that's how most matches are made!) It's the hip place to be and/or talk about. I guess the hipsters can't claim all the feigned disinterest in the world.

Look! I even got some books to help me here on the blog! The back book could kill a man, it's so heavy, but the "lighter fare" books could spawn some good post ideas! I don't think there are any more copies of the back book, but the others ones are still available and priced between $1 and $2.50! I got some books for myself too, and I'm sure I'll hit the clearance rack as the sale winds down. That's right. This sale lasts almost a full MONTH.  ::Swoon!::

Not in New York? No worries! You can order your books online and have them shipped anywhere in the US. Sorry, everyone else :'(

Happy hunting!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Management Update: Requests for Assistance

I have two things I want to quickly cover today.

A) I'm having a long-running problem with Blogger, and I'm looking to talk with anyone who might be able to help. Since beginning this blog, the search function at the top of the page does not work properly. I don't know why, and I don't know how to fix it. I do know that I search for words, looking for a particular post, and I'm either given "no results" or not all the results that I know exist. This is more common when searching words that are only in the text of the post, but sometimes happens even when the word is in the title of the post. I know that the word is spelled correctly, and I've verified that the missing words are present in the articles that weren't given as a search result. This is driving me batty, and it hurts the usefulness of the blog.

B) This is totally random, but since I'm here anyway... if you have a burning desire to give a (non-tax-deductible) monetary contribution to my work, you can find me on PayPal through the email address crazyjewishconvert at (Or you can click that handy "Donate" button to your right.) As you'll see in tomorrow's post, there's a big seforim sale going on, and there are several conversion/halacha books that would be very handy to both this blog and my personal life. Also, heaven knows a girl's gotta eat.

Is It Forbidden to Wear Colors Other than Black, White, and Navy Blue?

Today's question comes straight from a Google search term that lead to my site. Someone wanted to know if orthodox Jews are required to only wear black, navy blue, and white (and presumably cream, based on personal observations).

This is not true. You can wear other colors and not be in violation of tznius. Of course, some groups are against bright red, but other colors are free game. Those groups likely do follow the idea that tznius means avoiding standing out, so day-glo colors and neon colors would be frowned upon, as would any other way of dressing that "stands out." 

This limitation on colors is what's called a chumrah, not halacha. Of course, there will always be people who say that X chumrah is "straight up halacha." The halacha of tznius is quite minimal, but the chumrahs and customs have become pretty extensive. Most orthodox groups allow you to express your personality through your clothing so long as you are appropriately covered. 

That said, black, white, and blue are predominant colors in tznius communities simply because a) they're flattering and b) tznius clothes are generally made for an "older" consumer (rather than the Jewish community), and elderly consumers tend to dress conservatively. Even I, the queen of color, own a ridiculous amount of black clothing because it's very flattering. And that's what's available in the stores.

But yes, there are orthodox groups that have very strict standards on both what clothing and what colors can be worn in order to be accepted by that community. However, 95% or more of American conversion candidates will not end up in these groups. To begin with, these groups are very hard to break into. They are generally suspicious of outsiders. Rightfully so, they're even more suspicious than average orthodox Jews that people would willingly take on the community's regulations without being born into it. Secondly, most Americans balk at that kind of groupthink/peer pressure, especially people willing to leave prior group associations and create a new identity. Most conversion candidates are strong free-thinkers or they wouldn't have ended up here. We also tend to have non-conformist backgrounds: hippies, political activists, pagans, individualists, etc. On the other hand, converts with pre-existing romantic partners are probably already labeled "too Jewish" for being orthodox, so even those predisposed to those kind of "cohesive" groups may not feel it is an option. Also, I would guess the majority of converts don't live in a city that has that kind of community. So unless and until you move, any decision to dress like a "right-wing" group is a personal choice rather than actually joining a "right-wing" community.

So keep on being who you are, which we inevitably reflect through our dress. If you are in the community right for you, this will not be a problem. If you are following the covering requirements for tznius (and that does not include wrist-length sleeves, ankle-length skirts, or mandatory socks/stockings), but are suffering social pressure about it, you should consider whether you are in the wrong community for you. There is a place within orthodoxy for everyone.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Judge Favorably, But Don't Ignore Red Flags

I have a big rallying point that I try to drive home in the born-Jewish community: Conversion candidates are the canaries in the mine of Judaism. If you don't know the analogy, here's what Wikipedia has to say: "Canaries were once regularly used in coal mining as an early warning system. Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, methane or carbon dioxide in the mine would kill the bird before affecting the miners. Because canaries tend to sing much of the time, they would stop singing prior to succumbing to the gas therefore alerting miners to the danger."

Why are candidates the canaries? Because they are the weakest members of our communities. Generally, they know few other members of the Jewish community, they may not know any other rabbis, they likely have weak ties with their own birth family, and they generally have little experience with Judaism. Anecdotal evidence suggests that conversion candidates have suffered abusive relationships more than average, whether parental, sexual, or partner abuse. That combines to create a fertile ground for abuse. (Thankfully, the internet has evened the odds significantly.) 
A) They may not know they are being taken advantage of,
B) They may not know that a rabbi is violating the halacha,
C) They may not have Jewish friends they are comfortable discussing sensitive issues, and thus, don't have another Jew to tell them something is wrong, and
D) Even if they know something is wrong, who would they tell?
In other words, conversion candidates are the weak gazelles of our community, the ones who are easy to pick off. This is why the Torah commands that we protect the ger: the ger doesn't have a portion of the land in Israel and doesn't have a tribal affiliation. There is a potential for abuse and taking advantage of the ger. Today, that risk falls on the conversion candidates.

Rabbinic abuse of conversion candidates is rare. It is certainly rarer than you would expect, by a long shot! If this were a secular enterprise, I think the rates would be astronomical compared to what they are in our community. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Most abuses are financial or pure power trips. There have been sexual abuse cases sporadically, the most infamous is the Tropper case (See, for example, this post.) Note that there are rumors Tropper is back in business again with a new group, but keeping his name off the paperwork. If you meet this man, run away!

So what's my point here? If something seems wrong to you, it might just be wrong. Halacha requires you to judge favorably, but it doesn't require you to forget. If you see something that strikes you as a red flag (and there is an innocent interpretation), give them the benefit of the doubt and move on. But remember that red flag and keep your eyes open. Watch for other red flags. 

Of course, if something is beyond the pale bad or crazy, don't be afraid to call it like it is. 

There's another prong to cultivate in order to protect yourself. Cultivate your relationships with other Jews. Find a mentor, find an "adoptive" family, make close friends. Get active in the online Jewish community. These are the people who can be your sounding board. They can help you figure out whether the behavior was harmful or harmless. 

Learn about rabbinic organizations. Learn who are the rabbis "over" your rabbi and beit din. If, Gd forbid, you have to make a call, these are who you would call. Of course, it's possible you could be wrong (and it's also possible that a bad rabbi could weasel out of valid allegations). That is a risk. Hopefully it is a risk you will never have to face.

What's the risk on the other side? There are mentally unbalanced people who consider conversion. They generally don't get very far in the conversion process, but they might stick around in the community for years. People with victim complexes, people with anger issues, people with serious issues with authority, people with skewed visions of reality, pathological liars, attention-seekers. And these people can create false allegations either out of spite or a disconnect with reality. I wish that was a risk that rabbis never had to face. The moral of this story? Don't necessarily believe allegations you hear from someone else. Keep your eyes open, but also watch that person for warning signs that he and reality might not be on the same page.

(Of course, the current child sexual abuse issues highlight others in our community who are disenfranchised and abusers who have been protected.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

How to Choose a Waiting Time Between Meat and Milk

In short: Just pick one.

Your options:
A full 6 hours
5 hours and one minute
3 hours
1 hour (Almost no one does this, and you better be able to say you're Dutch or in a Dutch community. I have a Dutch name, I really should have considered this option.)

I believe there is one or two other options, but these are the primary contenders.

Most people seem to choose 3 hours or the full 6 hours. The most common reasons are 
1) What your community does.
2) Your personal preference.
3) Your significant other's custom.
4) Your beit din may "force" you to choose 6 hours. I know of at least one who does, but others who "strongly encourage" it. 

All of these are acceptable reasons to choose a waiting time. Personally, I chose 3 hours. I liked it better, and at the time, I had a medical recommendation that I needed to eat a small meal every 3-4 hours. In retrospect, I'm very glad to have this as my custom.

If you're considering basing your custom on a significant other, remember a few things:
A) That significant other might not be there in the near future. This is very common.
B) Then you'll be stuck with your custom, even if it's not what you would have chosen.
C) Many rabbis, if asked, do not require women to adopt all the minhagim of their husbands, including this one. It can be helpful to shalom bayis when raising kids if both parents have the same waiting time, but at the end of the day, it's a personal custom. Traditionally, women were required to adopt the custom of their husbands, but that seems to be changing today (in the mitzvot that are "personal" and technically don't affect the husband). Note that if your health requires a meal every 3-4 hours, that in itself may be enough for a heter for most rabbis. Of course, some will always insist that 6 hours is the only acceptable waiting period. You might want to know your rabbi before asking this question to see if you really want to ask the question.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What Not to Do When You "Frum Out"

When you first become "religious," you're passionate. You're motivated. You're going to be the best Jew ever

This is called "frumming out." Conversion candidates do this just as much as baalei teshuva. And are just as unpopular for it.

You might just drive everyone you know crazy. You have discovered The Truth, and if everyone would just listen to what you have to say, they'd see The Light too and realize how misguided they've been. You will be at least a little holier-than-thou. If you have Jewish family, they're going to take it personally that you don't think they're good Jews (whether or not you actually believe that - but you probably do).

Avoiding alienating your friends and family is a topic for another post. Today, we'll tackle something easier and more concrete. When you see The Truth, you're going to go on a clutter-busting rampage. You're going to throw out every non-long-sleeve shirt you own. (And you'll discover that you now own only two shirts...what a great excuse for a shopping trip!) You'll throw out your secular music because you want to allow only kedusha (holiness) into your ears. You'll clean out your bookshelves and computer files too, probably. You'll delete half your Facebook profile. You might even decide to "trim" your list of friends.
An alternative cause: This is an OCD dream. Even better, when you're stressed out and conversion politics make you think your conversion will never happen, you will be ecstatic to have something in your life that you can control. This is not unlike many eating disorders, though a very temporary form. You feel out of control of your life, so you exercise over-control on the things you can control. If you feel this being an issue with you (as opposed to an ideological opposition to the items), research stress-relieving techniques and healthy routines.

In most cases, you will regret your Martha Stewart-worthy spring cleaning. You'll realize layering and shells could have salvaged almost your entire wardrobe. And you'll miss your favorite shirt. Worse, you'll realize you accidentally threw out a school book you need for another class. Or your favorite CD. I think you can imagine how much you might regret forever deleting pictures and memories off Facebook, not to mention prematurely ending friendships.

What will you do when you suffer these regrets? On top of the all the money you spent replacing those items with "holy" things, you'll go out and spend even more money to replace all those "secular" things you got rid of. And you will be annoyed. Majorly annoyed. And you will hate yourself.

Here is my advice. Do your sanity and your bank account a favor. If you're inspired to throw/give away significant amounts of your belongings, you should wait. Go through the items just like you want to. Put those items in a box and label it with "Open on X" and set the date for 6 months in the future. Six months is enough time to let the initial glow of frumminess fade into a routine. A year is even better. You'll know more, and you'll know more about your hashkafa. That means you'll know whether some items are salvageable and/or aren't as offensive as you initially thought. Digital music/files are harder to "hide away," but I suggest doing the same cleaning out process, but placing the files into a separate folder. You then exclude that folder from your music program's library. Out of sight, out of mind. Until you change your mind. If you do. Maybe you won't. Then you can get rid of the items with a clear conscience and know it's not just a rash decision.

A less-clear issue is that you'll also throw out all your religious items/jewelry/etc from any prior religion(s). This is necessary eventually, but probably not today. I suggest using the same boxing technique. You never know, maybe you'll discover a make-or-break issue with Judaism (or the Jewish people) and decide to go back to your former practice. 

Another side note: You may not have this stage. You're still normal. You're just more practical than emotional. Or you're flat broke and know you can't replace that stuff, so you'll make do.