Monday, December 24, 2012

Kochava Goes to Hebrew School

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to Change Your Name Legally

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

Apology: Sorry, this is very US-centric.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Meet the New Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth

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

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

Good question.

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

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

Management Update: Updated Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Non-FFB Inferiority Complex

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

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

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

Let me give you an example from my own life.

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I'm Probably Going to Start Blogging Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Review: Becoming Jewish by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben

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

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

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

So...on to the review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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