Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Strength of the Convert

I'm normally all doom and gloom (or so I'm perceived), but do you realize how amazing you are? Really. You. Well... Convert You and Conversion Candidate You. I'm sure the rest of you are amazing too, but we'll discuss it some other time.

Converts are such a great strength to our community, and it should appreciate you. There is dispute over how many times the Torah says that you should love the ger, but 36 is a frequently cited number. Why should the Jewish community love you? (Of course, not all reasons will apply to all people.)

  • Well, for one, you're really good looking.
  • You bring much-needed genetic diversity, especially to the Ashkenazi community.
  • You're often young, and many communities need youth.
  • You bring variety to the shidduch process.
  • You inspire born-Jews to embrace their heritage and see that it has meaning in the modern world.
  • You challenge born-Jews to make the same choice and commitment you made.
  • You reassure frum-from-birth Jews of the value of Torah because (presumably reasonable) people do choose this path without being born into it.
  • You have incredible strength to have chosen this path and stuck with it. Do you realize how much strength that required? Very little is beyond your strength to overcome.
  • If you left the faith of your family, that shows such inner strength, conviction, and fortitude. It takes a lot to leave what is comfortable and what people you love say is "right," in order to find the truth. 
  • Sometimes it takes the same amount of effort and strength when you leave an atheist or secular agnostic background. It is perhaps more humbling to be seen as someone who has "regressed to superstition."
  • Speaking of, you know a thing or two about humility and how to eat humble pie gracefully. 
  • You have a stiff neck thanks to plenty of exercise.
  • You might just raise the next generation to reject "Jewish time" and actually arrive when the invitation says.
  • You bring necessary experience and perspective to the table. Torah discussions are very boring if each person has had the same experience and the same exposure (all wholesome, of course). Some groups may find that to be a worthy goal, but I do not. I think the sufferings, the joy, the relationships we've had all shed fresh light on eternal concepts and help deepen the discussion for everyone so that the Torah can be applied to new experiences. All can be for the good.
  • You bring a perspective of the non-Jewish world that the Jewish community needs.
  • You (but not me) bring a spiritualism and energy to our community and help people realize that a personal relationship with Gd is (the? a?) goal. 
  • You know how wine and cheese should taste and that is helping raise the taste/availability standards in the kosher community. 
  • You know that a restaurant is supposed to please the customer, and that is starting to change too. Though slower.
  • You probably brought us sushi, and I thank you for that with all my heart.
  • You are the closest many Jews will ever get to being a "light to the nations." You may be the only orthodox Jew that your friends or relatives ever meet. That is a tremendous privilege (though it may sometimes feel like a burden).
  • You are probably one of the most committed people in your community, disproportionately volunteering for the community and serving on boards.
  • You have a special role in Gd's plan for the world. Yes, you.
  • You were called, and you answered. 
  • You overcame the doubt, the opposition, the fears, and you have grown in ways many people can only imagine.

You're awesome. Now go get yourself a cookie. You deserve it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Things Rabbis Are NOT

We've discussed briefly before how a rabbi, scary though he may seem, is a normal person with dreams, faults, anxieties, and other responsibilities. His job responsibilities may be less than clear: What is the Proper Role of a Congregational Rabbi?

But what is he NOT?
  • He's not your friend, sadly. He might become your friend over time, but a conversion candidate needs to always treat a rabbi like you would treat your boss.
  • He's not your confidant. See above. 
  • He may not seem friendly. He might even be unfriendly or temperamental. He may even be a Diva with a capital D.
  • He's not your therapist. He probably has no psychology training.
  • He may not be a good listener.
  • He's probably not a doctor, so make sure you get a doctor's input so he can make better halachic rulings about your health.
  • He may be too busy to answer your questions. After all, unless you're a member, you don't pay his salary. Unless you're engaged to the shul President's child; then you'll get plenty of time.
  • Hopefully he is knowledgeable, but there are no guarantees.
  • If he's unknowledgeable on a topic, he may refuse to admit that and give you rulings that you know have no connection to reality or logic (pets come to mind). Ask someone else, even if you have to go to social media. Don't just take a ruling you know is uninformed.
  • He will most likely not be knowledgeable about the conversion process or conversion-specific halachic questions. 
  • He may not be rational, sane, or mentally stable. Again, there are no guarantees in life.
  • He may not be encouraging, kind, or welcoming. He's got stuff to do and people to see.
  • He may not be the best leader you need for your strengths and weaknesses.
  • He may have no concept of the struggles you face or how this process complicates your life.
  • He may have no understanding of how a halachic ruling may impact your relationship with your non-Jewish family. 
  • He may not appear compassionate or kind.
  • He may be judgmental about the choices you've made and make.
  • He may not like you as a person. He doesn't have to in order to do his job. You might not like him either.

All of these things sound so negative, I know. But when I learned (most of) these lessons, I found it really freeing. At least 90% of the bad interactions in my life have nothing to do with me and everything to do with that person's perspective or emotional state. Those things are out of my control, but I can control how I react to them. And that is the secret for how I maintain(ed) my sanity.

I became very gun-shy of rabbis. But then I moved to NY and befriended many rabbis and rabbis-in-training and realized they're just human beings. Some are awesome, some are ok, and some are best avoided. In the shul and community, the community rabbi is doing his job. It's a job, much like any other, influenced by politics and finances and time restraints. He probably also has a family and hobbies and likes to nap occasionally. So cut the rabbis a little slack sometimes. But also recognize when a rabbi is toxic for you and move on to Plan B. 

You can survive a bad rabbi relationship. Sometimes you have to suffer through it, but sometimes you can find a new rabbi. Try to avoid the nuclear option, though I know first-hand that is survivable too.

Even when you feel the most powerless, you still have control over some parts of the conversion process, such as how you react and who you spend your time with. Make healthy choices.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Interested in a Conversion-Specific Trip to Israel?

I have been asked to share an upcoming trip to Israel that is specifically for converts and conversion candidates. I can't vouch for the trip or the people involved because I don't know them (but I received nothing for posting this opportunity). The idea is great, and many conversion candidates have mentioned wanting an opportunity like this, so I wanted to pass it along.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Need a Siddur for Your Tablet or Phone?

Rusty Brick, the foremost developer of Jewish apps (they're the first company I remember on the market!), is having a sale on its apps for your tablets and phones. These Android and iOS apps are half off the normal price until Tuesday night, according to an email I received last night from their mailing list. According to the blog on their website, the sale started on Thursday and ended yesterday, but I didn't hear anything about that. I used to have an old free version, the Siddur Lite, which I don't believe exists anymore. Since it was Hebrew-only, I didn't use it much. 

Little did I know how much the Siddur app has progressed! (They do have other apps available.) Last year, a Jewish Press writer named it the must-have Jewish app. As someone who carries a siddur every day, I plan to experiment using the app instead. A lighter purse is always welcome! It also includes zmanim (halachic times), Jewish date reminders to prevent you from forgetting your own birthday, a minyan database, a tefillin mirror, and a prayer compass. Not bad for one app! That would replace at least 3 apps I currently use.

Normally the siddur app is $10, but it's reduced to $5. You can purchase an English translation in-app for $9. (There is also a Chabad expansion you can purchase in-app.) I wasn't going to buy it because I have an aversion to paying for apps. I'm just cheap and have been operating on a restricted budget for several years now. However, a reviewer in the App Store convinced me to pay for the app: support Jewish developers and we will get more (and better!) Jewish resources. I can't argue with that logic, plus the benefit of not carrying a physical siddur.

You can download the apps by choosing your operating system from the Rusty Brick website.

Did you buy one of Rusty Brick's apps? What did you think? How would you improve them? 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Exposing the Emotional Abuse of Conversion Candidates

This Tuesday, I'm giving my very first lecture: Light in the Darkness: Emotional Abuse in the Conversion Process. I need your help: what do you wish people knew about the conversion process, specifically the potential for emotional abuse?

My own conversion process is linked to Chanukah because I got "the call" eruv Shabbat Chanukah (late Friday afternoon) 2 years ago. I was so depressed by my situation and had lost hope. I was sure that the bullies would win and that I'd be converting until I was 30. (I was 27 at the time.) My roommate assured me that the time of Chanukah would bring light for me, and she was so very right. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, even though the conversion couldn't be finalized for several more weeks because of holiday travel.

Though emotional abuse is hard to define, it seems like "you know it when you see it." However, I found a passable definition for emotional abuse on Wikipedia: "Form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Such abuse is often associated with situations of power imbalance, such as abusive relationships, bullying, and abuse in the workplace."

Do you think that accurately reflects the emotional abuse that happens in the community? What do you think is the cause and how can we cure it? 

I think the problem is best summed up by something I wrote almost 3 years ago when I faced my own brick wall: The Monster that Orthodox Conversion Has Become (wow, that post needs an update!)
The world Jewish community and Jewish politics have caused a "frummer than you" approach to conversion where the meaner, harder, and more demoralizing [beit din] is considered to be giving a "superior" conversion that no one will question. In essence, if you're willing to suffer actual emotional abuse, you REALLY must have been sincere!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What's Your "Favorite" Book of Tanach?

Do you particularly enjoy a certain book of the Tanach?

Today, I heard the book of Daniel described as a "really good read." Usually, when I hear orthodox Jews discuss a "favorite" book of Tanach, it's always Psalms/Tehillim. But does another book speak to you personally? Is there a book you simply enjoy reading? Have those feelings or choices changed over time? 

Conversely, do you have particular difficulty with a certain book? Why do you think that is?

Deep Thoughts Tuesday.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Decorating for the Seasons

Today I have some strange questions for you.

For the first time, I live in a neighborhood that loves to decorate for the seasons and holidays. October was great, with all the pumpkins and fall leaves a girl could ask for plus great Halloween decorations. Now I'm anxiously awaiting the Christmas decorations because I'm sure this will be an "electricity be damned!" extravaganza. 

This got me thinking. Other than Sukkot, I can't think of any "holiday decorations" in the sense that I grew up with in the secular American world (one Channukiah in a window isn't very impressive). My family wasn't Christian, but we did decorate for Christmas. Funny story: At 8, they sat me down and said, "We think we're provided you with good childhood memories of Christmas. We're still going to do presents and a big meal this year, but if you want a tree or decorations, you'll have to do it yourself from now on." I was never that into decorating, but I think this is a large reason I don't feel nostalgic for my childhood at Christmastime. That's allegedly a big dilemma for converts and candidates, but in my experience with individuals, it rarely plays out that way. Personally, I find Christmas very stressful and overwhelming, so I'm glad to only celebrate it in small doses with my family.

But...I still love seasonal decorations. Honestly, I'm far too lazy to decorate my house for something when there are so many other things that need to be done. But I love the pumpkins and fall leaves and snowflakes (so long as there's not real snow). I can't be the only one who feels that way, but I don't recall ever seeing such decorations in Jewish homes. Is there a fear that the decorations will be mistaken for non-Jewish holidays? Is it "just not done" because it's too "goyishe" (derogatory word for non-Jewish)? Is everyone else just as lazy as I am?

Sociologically, I would see a difference between fall and winter decorations. Winter decorations have become part and parcel of Christmas decorations, especially once you reach sleds and snowmen. (So does that mean that the new public obsession with penguins should be exempt?) However, there's nothing religious or even holiday-related about them. On the other hand, fall decorations are much more divorced from Halloween, which isn't even a Christian holiday to begin with. (Only you can decide whether to classify it as a secular or Pagan holiday.) Even if paper snowflakes or an evergreen wreath on the door is too goyishe, should fall leaves on the windows get a free pass?

Do seasonal decorations exist in the Jewish world but I just have lazy friends? What's your experience?

EDIT: Husband wants to add Thanksgiving decorations to the conversation. Do you think that's different?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: Branded by the Pink Triangle

As some of you may remember, I'm very passionate about the "forgotten" victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, such as the Roma and gay men. Thanks to the Jewish Book Council, I got a free copy of the book Branded by the Pink Triangle, which is a very short book about the Nazi experience of gay men. The book is so short, probably because of the fact that gay victims of the Nazis were perceived to be criminals, as homosexual activity was still criminalized in most of the Western world until the last few decades. 

(As this is an orthodox blog, I want to point out that regardless of what one believes the Torah says about homosexuals, it is not inconsistent to believe that a government has no authority to criminalize such behavior or thoughts. But you might be reminded of this current news story: "No gays in my town, thank Gd," Says Orthodox Mayor of Beit Shemesh. Let's just point out that the actual quote was “We have none of those things [gays] here. Thank God, this city is holy and pure.” Glad to know gays weren't created in Gd's image and have no status as a human being. /rant)

In short, the book is interesting, shocking, and a quick read. But I want to take the time to tell you some of the infuriating information I learned.

Like most places, Germany criminalized homosexual behavior under a law called Paragraph 175. The Nazis increased the penalty, making this a felony. They explained their position towards the gay community in 1928:
It is not necessary that you and I live, but it is necessary that the German people live. And it can live if it can fight, for life means fighting. And it can only fight if it maintains its masculinity. It can only maintain its masculinity if it exercises discipline, especially in matters of love. Free love and deviance are undisciplined. Therefore, we reject you, as we reject anything which hurts our people.
Anyone who even thinks of homosexual love is our enemy.
We reject anything that emasculates our people and makes it a plaything for our enemies, for we know that life is a fight, and it is madness to think that men will ever embrace fraternally. Natural history teaches us the opposite. Might makes right. The strong will always win over the weak. Let us see to it that we once again become the strong! But this we can achieve only in one way - the German people must once again learn how to exercise discipline. We therefore reject any form of lewdness, especially homosexuality, because it robs us of our last chance to free our people from the bondage which now enslaves it.
The gays were undesireables. (But hey, at least lesbians weren't as threatening, so they could be considered just "antisocial" when they were sent to the camps - though in much lesser numbers.) Interestingly, that same rationale meant that the Nazis didn't persecute gays "as much" in "non-Aryan" communities because they hoped the gay community would help speed up the internal rot within, say, the Polish community. 

There are no known statistics for how many Jewish victims were gay. However, once the Nazis turned their full attention to the "Jewish Problem," things became somewhat better for the gay community as a whole.

So their intimidation, imprisonment, and suffering in the concentration camps was awful. Sure. So was the Jews' and everyone else's experience. Or as you might say (and as I have heard some in the Jewish community say)... "big deal." 

What really grinds my gears is what happened after the war. Once "liberated," the pink triangle prisoners with time left on their "sentence" were removed from the camps back to the prisons. They're criminals, after all. I guess that liberating armies didn't think the Nazis' policies were ALL bad. While the gypsy populations were actually liberated, they remain stigmatized and treated like criminals even today. But we actually took gay concentration camp victims and placed them in prison. It seems like any victim of a concentration camp has more than served any sentence a court of law could impose. But homosexuality was still a crime in the countries of the liberating armies.

According to the book, the West German authorities arrested "more than 100,000 men" for homosexuality between 1949-1969. Those who were pink triangles in the camps were sentenced more harshly because they were "repeat offenders." These men who suffered the horrors of the camps were considered felons when they went home, and were treated as such. "They were not able to work in the civil service, lost their academic and professional degrees, and were unable to vote. But they were the lucky men arrested under Paragraph 175 - they were still alive."

The German government did not recognize gays as victims of the Nazis until 2001. Until that recognition, gay victims could not claim any compensation for their treatment. Even then, most victims were dead or still unwilling to "out" themselves. The last known Pink Triangle died in 2011, and the last known gay Jewish survivor died in 2012. But it's never too late to acknowledge their suffering and honor their memory.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

On Being a Kollel Wife

Since I last posted, I've become a kollel wife.

I'm a married woman who learns full-time in a beit midrash.

I suppose that's not the first image that pops into your mind when you hear "kollel wife." But isn't that the idea behind a punch line? Perhaps it's more appropriate to refer to my husband as a "kollel husband," but I don't think that's as funny.

I never thought I would learn Judaism formally, much less full-time. I hope that'll translate into more blogging here too. I'm certainly full of ideas! But the time to write them...? 

I'm thankful for the opportunity, and it's been a welcome distraction from the less happy side of life. I've spent more time out of state the last few months than not because my mother was diagnosed with a new round of cancer. And this time, she's not going to beat it. (You can daven for the comfort and peace of Judy bat Edith if you'd like to.) It's been a rough few months, as you can imagine.

But learning? That's amazing. But it's also frustrating and tiring, even before considering that I commute four hours a day for the privilege. My brain hurts from reading the tiny script of the old Jastrow dictionary, the grammar, trying to understand the arguments when half the information isn't present, Hebrew without vowels when I can barely read with vowels, and...dun dun DUN...even some Aramaic. Yet the teachers say we'll be learning Gemara by January. That sounds unbelievable for the level I'm at now. But...women learning Gemara? Scandalous, I know. I can't wait. 

Being able to understand Jewish texts in the original language is a necessity in our topsy-turvy orthodox world today. I have been filled with so much misinformation, misunderstandings, and unnecessary chumrot that this learning is like the key to my derech, without having to rely on the second-hand information of halacha books and internet and crazy or misinformed people. That's a powerful skill, one that could change my life.

When the rest of life is so complicated, it's a relief to immerse myself in something so nerd-friendly. It connects to who I am, beyond all the trappings of the world. Being free to think and learn, removed from the pressure of grades, is an incredible freedom.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Meeting with a Beit Din: What If You "Go Blank"?

So...you finally got a meeting with a conversion beit din! Mazal tov! 

Now the fear really sets in. You know you'll be asked questions about your Jewish lifestyle and knowledge, and you know that you know a lot. Your local rabbi knows you know a lot or he wouldn't be approving you for this next step. It feels like, for the first time, everyone is behind you and wants you to succeed. 

This is when your mind will become your own worst enemy. You become convinced that you're not ready, you're going to fail yourself and your rabbi, and you'll set your conversion back years.

...Or maybe that's just how I think. 

Anecdotally, people consistently mention a similar fear of "messing up" questions. Here's the secret everyone messes up something. Inevitably, it is something inconsequential and something you know as well as the back of your hand. Normally, each person remembers one specific "duhhhhr" moment, but there's no limit to how much nervousness can derail you. 

So now that I've convinced you you're going to screw up in their beit din meeting, let me reassure you. Don't worry, these feelings are normal. I'd be more worried if you felt like you passed with flying colors. 

We're human; we get nervous. Rabbis are also human, and they see enough conversion candidates to know that some flub-ups are normal. What they look for is how you flub up. Your body language gives away a lot of information when you have an answer on the tip of your tongue. On the other hand, if you give a wrong answer cooly and calmly, that tells the rabbis something very different. If you look clueless, it probably means you didn't even see the question being asked. 

The information a rabbi can collect from your mistakes is invaluable. And it's generally for your well-being (it should always be for your well-being, but we know better that there are mean and/or incompetent rabbis in this world). The idea behind a halachic questioning is to probe your knowledge until you run out of information. They keep asking questions on a topic until they reach the limits of your knowledge. That's an excellent way to get a rough estimate of your strengths and weaknesses. 

So don't fear the question you don't know, whether you honestly don't know or whether it's on the tip of your tongue. It's really not a big deal at the end of the day, no matter how crushing it may feel at the time.

Take a deep breathe. Relax. You'll laugh about this later. (And if you're like me, you'll completely forget what it was about! I guess I could search the blog to figure it out, but nah...retroactive ignorance is bliss.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Is "Rebuking" a Stranger Ever Appropriate in Public?

Has a stranger ever approached you in public to rebuke you for your religious observance? The very idea seems absurd to me, but I know it happens with disturbing regularlity. 

The nice ones try to do it in a nice way...the backhanded Southern way: 
"I bet you didn't see there's not a hechsher on that bag of spinach."
"Excuse me, but the cholov yisroal is located over there."
"I'm sorry to bother you, but your bangs are showing."
"You must be a newlywed! Let me show you how to cover your hair correctly."

"Bless her heart..." has been ignored because it's normally said behind the apikores' back.

Not all people are capable of being "kind" when questioning your halachic observance. 
"Don't know you that Jews aren't allowed to own dogs?" (My personal addition to this list)
"Your hair is showing."
"Don't buy that; it's cholov stam."
"There's no hechsher on that spinach. How are you going to check it?" (Not just will you check it, but the person wanted to hear the actual procedure outlined!) 
"Where are your tzitzit?" (Just so we're clear, you can wear them inside your pants, and many people choose to, especially for employment reasons.)
"How many sets of dishes do you own?" (Apparently the answer was supposed to be 3.)

Only heaven can help you if you buy fresh, un-hechshered broccoli or cauliflower. For three years, I didn't eat it because I had been told you can't check it and thus, it is treif. I still only eat it if other people fix it. I think I have PTSD for cruciferous vegetables...guess it was growing up around all those crosses in the South.
And the classic:
"That's an aveirah." (Catch-all with deadpan delivery)

Speaking of the war declared on fresh produce, I want to clear something up here: you need to check ALL bagged or fresh produce, hechsher or not. The only complaints I have ever heard about bugs in bagged salad have come from hechshered bags. Personally, I will check hechshered bags far more thoroughly than a national brand bagged salad. FDA standards and consumer demands seem to trump the heimish companies in this respect. (And that's another reason I'm sticking to FDA cholov stam. Other than the fact that it is absolutely halachically acceptable and half the price for an unemployed lady.)

My beef with these comments isn't the content of those comments. There is often a halachic reason for the rude person's belief (tenuous or unjustified though it may be) ...But is there any justification for approaching a stranger and rebuking him for someone that is clearly accepted in the orthodox community?  Even if it does appear out of character for the community, do you really know all the reasons or actions the person is taking? And do you even know the person is really Jewish, much less orthodox? A woman wearing a skirt in a grocery store in a Jewish neighborhood does not a Yid make.

I'll give you an example: sometimes I buy treif hotdogs. Yes, mamish treif, all porked up. Why? Because I have 2 dogs, and hotdogs are their Holy Grail. I'm not going to waste expensive kosher hot dogs on them when I can buy treif hotdogs for 89 cents for a pack of 10. Why can I buy them? As I was taught, I can buy treif food items for my pets (hello, cat food and dog food are all treif!), but you can't benefit from mixtures of meat and milk. That's harder, but not difficult. Most pet foods that have both meat and dairy will list it prominently. For example, Fancy Feast Cheddar Grilled Turkey is out for the kitty cat. ...But Cheddar Grilled Whitefish is fine. However, the average non-pet owner on the block doesn't know these things, and I've been approached about them. Of course, no matter how well you "explain yourself" (to someone who has no right to demand an explanation for your behavior), the best you can get is "Well...ok then...If you say so." Sometimes they tag on "But maybe you should double check that with your rabbi." You cannot convince a hater unless you're a rabbi. At least when you're a man, there's a chance you're a rabbi, so haters will often step more lightly. But women? All bets are off, especially as many men are becoming more vocal about the alleged inadequacy of women's halachic observance. Personally, I've noticed that women are overwhelmingly the victim of such halachic questioning by strangers in public places.

Does halacha extend the mitzvah of "rebuking your friend" to a person you've never met? I'm not a scholar, but my common sense says no, and I believe that it would actually prohibit such activity. When you approach a stranger, you see a very small sliver of his or her life. You don't know anything other than the physical trappings on the outside. You have a mitzvah to judge favorably, and you don't know the other factors of the situation. And no stranger, NONE, has the right to question a person about how she or he performs an alleged mitzvah unless it actually affects the stranger. (I say "alleged mitzvah" because customs-confused-as-halacha are also targeted for "enforcement".) 

Only certain people have the right to know your understanding of halacha, and that includes, among others, Hashem, your spouse, your children, and close friends, your rabbi, maybe your local rabbi (depending on your rabbinic relationships). The stranger on the street (or even in the shul) has no right to know why you cover your hair with a tichel instead of a sheitel or why you show a tefach of hair or all your hair below your hat. Those people can certainly wonder, and they can even stereotype you and ostracize you for it, but if you are questioned, you owe them no explanation. Any explanation you give is voluntary. I want you to remember that because many of us do answer these inappropriate questions. You have the right to decline the conversation, and you have the right to spend 30 minutes answering their questions. (I fall into the "let's have a conversation!" camp), but recognize that it is your choice, not something you've been forced into. And never take the bait from someone who will never be reasonable or respectful of your Judaism.

I think that a last example will help show my point. A friend was riding the Egged bus while studying in a seminary in Israel. She was wearing a scarf or hat of some kind, with her hair hanging out the back. Let's set aside the fact that this style of haircovering is considered halalchically-approved by many rabbis and is the community custom for most Americans. While riding the bus, my young friend was verbally attacked by an older woman who accused her of covering her hair improperly and how this aveirah was such a harm to the Jewish people. This tirade continued for several minutes before my friend quietly was able to interject, "I'm sorry, but I'm not married. I just like hats."

Did that older woman feel like a jerk? I doubt it. Because she was trying to do the right thing

But that's my point: that's not the right thing. This kind of behavior brings unnecessary pain to Am Yisrael and that pain drives people away from observance. And only heaven can help you if you've accidentally rebuked a non-Jew who looked Jew-y.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What if Muhammad Ali Had Converted to Judaism in 1977?

A generic post was going around on Facebook this week: Jewish Top 10s: Contemporary Comedians. I wouldn't normally bother reading such a generic post, but I have a soft spot for Jewish comedians. A couple of the choices just didn't make sense to me. If we're going to profile Jewish comedians, it only seems reasonable to profile people who actually affiliate as a Jew. Crazy, I know. 

The post isn't that great, honestly. But there was one real gem, and to boot, it was about orthodox conversion!

This 1977 Tonight Show skit addresses an interesting question: what if Muhammad Ali, one of the most famous American converts to Islam, had converted to chassidic Judaism thirteen years after publicly announcing his Muslim conversion and name change in 1964.

Billy Crystal: From tonight on, I want to be known as Izzy Yiskowitz.
Harry Shearer: It has a, has a Jewish kind of ring to it, you know what I mean?
Billy Crystal: Kind of. I'm a chassidic Jew. Izzy Chayim Yiskowitz.
Harry Shearer: Hayim?
Billy Crystal: Chayim. It stands for chai-am the greatest. [Cue crazy eyes]
I found the entire skit hilarious.

My parents really should have expected that I would explore Judaism. They spent a long time indoctrinating me in Jewish comedians, especially Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. One of the great joys of my adult life has been rediscovering these Jewish comedians. Now I can get both the sex jokes and the Jewish jokes! It's a whole new world.

As an added bonus from this article, an old Woody Allen stand-up skit was included. I've never seen Woody Allen at such a young age, and the first part of his material seems pretty risque for 1965!

After watching this video, I'm going to add "He's not as alert as the average tree stump" to my polite insult repertoire. (I embrace my Southern roots.) "Tree swinger" will join "mouth breather" in the less-than-polite insult repertoire. I honestly believe 90% of my sense of humor comes from Woody Allen, especially the talent to reframe bad events in the most hilariously pathetic way possible.

I sincerely mourn the decay and death of the Borsht Belt. I coulda been a contenda! As my friends and husband know well, I'm a "Murphy's Law Machine." I am stuffed to the gills with comedic gold but have no bungalow colony to employ me.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Brooklyn Honors Slain Convert

Three years ago today, orthodox convert and chossid Yoseph Robinson Z"L was shot and killed during a liquor store robbery in Crown Heights, trying to protect his girlfriend. I remember when the story happened, even though living in NYC wasn't even on my radar yet. It was heartbreaking, a tragedy, the life of a mensch cut short.

Yesterday, Brooklyn named an intersection near the liquor store to honor his memory. (Disregard the NY Daily News' total failure to proofread, mentioning in a photo caption that he died "last year.")

I'd say may his memory be for a blessing, but it clearly already is.

May Hashem comfort his family and friends among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and may they know no more sorrow.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Most Un-Jewish Book Ever?

I'm doing some east coast driving this week, and I stumbled upon a really neat museum: the Frontier Culture Museum. If you ever pass by Staunton, VA, I highly recommend spending a couple of hours exploring the grounds.

In the museum store, I stumbled upon the most un-Jewish book ever. I have a hard time believing you could do this on accident. 

Why is this even in a frontier museum store?? The other books make sense, from Native American crafts, quilting, cabin building, blacksmitching, and even period school textbooks. But this? I was just confused.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Shabbat Games Aren't Just for Kids Anymore

Board games aren't just for kids. If you're shomer Shabbat, you hopefully already know this. If you looked around orthodox sites, you'll really only see games mentioned for kids, so I thought it was time to refresh you on your gaming options.

But, in fairness to all opinions, you should know that some groups believe everyone over bar/bat miztvah age "should desist" from playing games on Shabbat. You should be learning Torah instead, which cannot be learned from spending social time with other people. Unless you're using that social time to argue a minute point of Gemara. Sadly, for the person new to the frum community, this link is the second or third on Google in every Shabbat game related search I ran. Most of the others limit the discussion to games for children (or playing with children), which can justify this opinion to the new BT or conversion candidate. /rant.

Whether the idea of adults still playing board games is new to you or you're looking for some new games, maybe you'll find a new favorite game below! On long Shabbat afternoons, games can be a lifesaver from the 4 hour nap that keeps you awake until 3am.

I haven't checked these games for Shabbat-compliance (and there may be differences of opinions on that point anyway, which is why I don't even try), and I haven't played all of them.

You have your traditional games: 

And you can't forget the summer camp standard, Bananagrams! But did you know there is a Hebrew version?? While Bananagrams are insanely common in the frum community, I feel that many Americans have never heard of it. Does anyone know why that is?

Here are some more options to consider (I haven't played all of these, so I apologize if something is obviously not Shabbos appropriate):

Thie week, The Simple Dollar, one of my favorite blogs, posted a list of his favorite inexpensive board games. I haven't heard of any of them, but they sound fun! Seven Wonderful Inexpensive Board Games for a Game Night (or Three) with Family and Friends

Games profiled or mentioned:
Coup (currently out of print and not available on Amazon, but Trent says it will be re-released soon)
Pandemic (I linked to the much-cheaper 2nd edition)
Battlestar Gallactica (great TV show!)
Ra (Remember to not accidentally worship Ra)

Games that are fun for the rest of the week:

Remember that many games offer expansion packs and additional versions for a new twist on an old game!

What is your favorite Shabbat game? Can you recommend any of the ones posted above or suggest a new one for the list? As a practical matter, how do you keep score? 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Do You Store Your Shabbat Leftovers in Bags?

As someone who came to the religious community late in life, I have a big hangup with the average Shabbos kitchen: using disposable Ziploc bags to store Shabbat leftovers.

There must be a historical reason for this, and that is the question I submit to you, dear readers: Why are Shabbat leftovers so often put into sandwich or quart bags when a reusable container seems so much more reasonable?

When I see this, both my inner hippie and my inner organizer hurt. Besides the obvious waste and harm to our environment, it is nearly impossible to stack bagged leftovers in an already-full fridge. Let's not even speculate on the potential for leaks and spills both in the fridge and while filling the bag.

I definitely understand the heavy use of disposable eating ware on Shabbat (though that also triggers my inner hippie), and I'm guilty of that on a regular basis. But bags? Plastic reusable containers are better for the Earth, your fridge, and for stuffing that fridge with the most food possible. What's the downside?

I actually cringe when this happens. But when I ask why, the answer is always the same: "Hm. Never thought about it. We've just always done it this way."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Question

It's wedding season! Whether you're happy or bitter about yet another wedding invitation, at least you get to enjoy some great food and hopefully have a good time!

Frum weddings are fun. My family (totally unconnected to orthodox Judaism) still swears that my wedding was the most fun wedding on the face of the earth, but little do they know that it was fairly "normal" in these circles. Frum weddings have such a spirit, a ruach, that no other event has, in my experience. Of course, you can have a bad time at a wedding, but it's rarely related to the wedding itself (if you're being honest).

And the bedeken. Can you beat the beauty and sweetness of a bedeken? C'mon now.

What a good topic to talk about, right? Well, one of the admins at BeyondBT managed to ask the question in such a way that it makes me gag. Yes, physically gag. 
Frum weddings are amazing. The energy, the joy, the dancing, the camaraderie, the segregation.
What do you like about Frum Weddings?

The segregation? Really now? Of all the great parts of a frum wedding, and that's one aspect worthy to point out as a highlight?

Is the rest of frum society not gender-segregated enough for you that you need to celebrate when it's done at a wedding? Even when not "imposed," gender segregation happens naturally of its own accord in most circles. 

And what is so wonderful about segregation? I don't get it. There is a time and place when it's better to hang out with your own gender, but since when is that time 24/7? Why should we ignore half the human population as much as possible? In my opinion, this push for segregation (since when has that word ever had a positive connotation?) is one of the most disturbing trends in the frum community. It's dangerous, and it leads to a fetishization of the other gender (especially women) that leads to all the non-tznius thoughts/reactions this is supposed to prevent. I think this is a dangerous trend that is harming our children. Unfortunately, others disagree with me.

But remember: segregated seating is NOT halachically required at a wedding. It's not. At all. Yet we have wedding halls who acknowledge this, but say they "can't" allow it because their kashrut teudat would be pulled. Yes, kashrut. Because failing to segregate your diners while they eat shows a laxity with kashrut in the kitchen. After all, they might brush elbows. Or talk to each other.

Teudat threats have happened for years with mixed dancing/not having a mechitza during dancing, but at least there's some basis for it, though it is disputed.

I don't know whether the author is male or female, and I wonder whether that makes a difference. Do you think it would mean something different coming from one gender rather than the other? Considering the "party line" of gender segregation, I don't feel that there would be a difference.

Would you like some Kool Aid? I just made a fresh batch.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Can a Holocaust Survivor Count on You?

As you may have guessed from my long absences, things are quite busy with me. My job hunting has finally stopped, as I now plan to attend seminary for a year, starting this fall. Another thing keeping me busy is helping Holocaust Survivors! I have been working with an organization called iVolunteer NY, and I volunteered to create and run a fundraiser for our work. I hope you'll take the time to read about our campaign: Providing Holocaust Survivors with a Friend to Count On.
(Monetary donations are always welcomed, but if you're not in the position to do that, there are many other ways you can support our work. First and foremost, help us get the word out about this campaign! Help us tweet it, Facebook it, Tumblr it, and email it!) 

Have you thought about our Survivors lately?

Summer is a difficult time for Holocaust Survivors. Higher temperatures keep many senior citizens from leaving their homes for socializing or errands. A regular visitor, a friend to count on, can be a life-saver for those vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

Unfortunately, 88 percent of the Survivors we serve do not have children. When Survivors lack family, iVolunteer fills that void. One of our 800 volunteers may be their only regular visitor. Through these one-on-one visits, we are able to cater to the special needs of each Survivor.

“John has been a true gem and source of solace an inspiration to me.
He takes me on walks and escorts me to the bank when he comes over.
I wouldn’t leave the house if not for his encouragement and assistance.”
- Issac K., Survivor 
This month, iVolunteer celebrated our 12,000th home visit! Through these weekly visits, our volunteers build rewarding and enduring friendships with Survivors. They are given the privilege of hearing extraordinary stories, and inter-generational bonds inevitably form to ensure the experience of the Holocaust will not be forgotten. 

We always say that we could write a book filled with the many acts of selfless kindness our volunteers have done for the Survivors they visit. No challenge is too daunting when it comes to serving a precious part of our community, so we hope to raise $10,000 over the next 23 days to continue our home visits, social programs, and home delivery programs. With your generous support today, we will expand our direct assistance program to provide individual support for Survivors, such as air conditioners, small home repairs, wigs, private car fares for doctor visits, and other one-time financial needs.

In the New York summer heat, a broken air conditioner is a health hazard, and the repair is a small price to pay for a Survivor.

Don’t delay! Click Providing Holocaust Survivors with a Friend to Count On and make a donation to increase Survivors’ independence and dignity this summer!

Our success is only possible because of the donations of time and money from supporters like you. Join me today in supporting the emotional and physical needs of Survivors. iVolunteer NY is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Your contribution is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Your donation of $18, $50, $100, or more will make an immediate difference in the life of a Survivor:
  • $18 delivers 2 holiday packages to a Survivor 
  • $100 covers the cost of training 4 new volunteers 
  • $500 purchases a laptop computer or 2 air conditioners 
  • $1800 covers the cost of a proper Jewish burial for a Survivor who cannot afford one 
If you would rather make a gift over time (for example, $25 per month) instead of a one-time gift today, please contact us and we will be glad to arrange that! You can reach us at info@ivolunteerny.com or (646) 461-7748.

Thank you for supporting our work to improve the lives of Survivors!

P.S. - In return for your generosity, different “perks” are available for your donation, including an autographed book by a Survivor, tickets to our 3rd Annual Gala this winter, and a Survivor-led tour of the Met for you and four friends!

iVolunteer NY is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Your contribution is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Can Yirat Shamayim Make You Neurotic?

This is an honest question. Can the "fear/awe of heaven" make you act in a neurotic way? My gut says yes, when we internalize certain mitzvot in a OCD fashion. 

Not sure what this question even means? Let me give you an example from my own life.

I've realized that I don't use hot water during the week. It doesn't even occur to me to turn on the hot water tap. Not on yontif, and not on any day ending in Y. (Minus the two obvious uses: washing the dishes and taking a shower.)

I'd been living this way for at least two years before I really realized what I was doing. And the reason came immediately: I don't use hot water because I'm afraid I'll automatically turn it on during Shabbat. I know that I am a creature of habit and that I operate on autopilot for many common actions during the day. Flipping the bathroom light switch on Shabbat while still half-asleep is still a serious concern for me, but you can't NOT turn on the bathroom light all week. But hot water? You can do almost everything without it. So my brain decided to tackle this problem independent of my conscious mind.

I suppose there's no harm in it?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Controversies You Should Understand: Women of the Wall

If you don't already know about the Women of the Wall, you'll eventually come across it. If you're lucky, you'll run across it in a news article. If you're not lucky, you'll run into it during an angry rant at a Shabbos table.

Yesterday, the Women of the Wall held a special Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel. And rather than arresting them (as normally happens), the police protected them from protesters. Why? Because three members of the Knesset attended. You can read about it at the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA).

Women of the Wall is "a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls [and tefillin], pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Israel." (From their website.) They have special, arrest-heavy services at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh each month. They may hold services at other times, but I'm only aware of the Rosh Chodesh controversy.

Why is this a big deal? It can lead to a riot. Seriously. Rocks, punches, etc. You'd be surprised. A man may not be willing to walk beside a woman on the street or shake a woman's hand at work, but he can believe that punching a woman in the face or throwing a rock at her is a mitzvah. This is a small minority, but I don't know why we're not placing them in cherem, where they belong. Violence against anyone (whether physical, mental, or emotional) for an alleged violation of halacha is not okay nor is it acceptable in halacha (minus a Sanhedrin), secular law, nor is it behavior befitting a ben Torah. 

So now that we've covered the basics, I'm going to editorialize. You may disagree with me, and that's your right. But hear me out. The condemnation in the community may be the loudest voice, but that doesn't mean it's right (or that it's the right approach to take).

From my (American) legal perspective: If Israel is going to be a democracy, they have no right to have such a prohibition at the Kotel, and they certainly have no right to help orthodox groups to intimidate or harm any woman involved. In fact, a democratic government has the obligation to protect minority groups from intimidation and violence and arrest those who would attack the Women of the Wall. The Kotel is a public space holy to people of many faiths. Why is it okay to do this, but not ban Christians and Muslims? Or, like the Muslim authorities on the Temple Mount, ban the prayer of other faiths being spoken aloud? Shouldn't we next be arresting women who enter orthodox synagogues in pants or tank tops? Just as the state has no right to send in police to enforce the standards of a synagogue owned by a Jewish group, there should be no justification for the police to arrest women at the Kotel to enforce the standards of the same Jewish groups. It's just the right thing to do: police protect people from the riot, not help the riot accomplish its goal of silence and intimidation. That is why we have police: enforce property laws and prevent mob rule. 

My halachic understanding: This is where things get very heated and tricky. The "party line" in orthodox conversations is that this is prohibited by Jewish law. What you rarely hear is that it's not really prohibited (if it is prohibited at all); it's just "not done" in orthodoxy. That doesn't make it against halacha. 

What are the women trying to do? Wear tefillin and a tallit and have prayer services at the Kotel. Not all women who attend these events choose to wear a tefillin or talis. Strictly speaking, women are not prohibited from wearing a tallis and tefilin. Rashi's daughters famously did so. It's just "not done" and it's certainly not obligatory on women. (Arguments against it largely center around it being against custom, if I understand correctly.) According to what I learned, women can choose to obligate themselves in new mitzvot, whether it's davening maariv daily or donning tefilin. However, there is a caveat. A women should only obligate herself in a new mitzvah if she's already fulfilling the mitzvot commanded of her. So if a woman is fulfilling her mitzvot as commanded, I don't have a problem with her taking on non-mandatory mitzvot that have meaning to her. But don't fulfill your mitzvot haphazardly and then claim you want more (that you happen to like better for whatever reason). That's caring only about what you want, not what Hashem wants of you. 

Next we will question the sexual orientation of men who separate challah! Husbands fulfill this "women's mitzvah" all the time. Would we have the same objection to men choosing to do another of the "female mitzvot"? I doubt it. But it's the same thing: it's not done as a general rule. And we all seem to understand why men don't obligate themselves in new mitzvot: they have plenty to do! Yet we degrade women's mitzvot by implying it's "less" and also "less worthy" than the mitzvot of a man. If it makes a man feel more important and "manly" to degrade my obligation in mitzvot, then he lacks a great deal of the qualities required by the Torah. It's comparing apples and oranges. We're different. We have different stuff to do. That doesn't make one more valuable than another or mean there's less work for either. The argument is simply non-sensical to me. And implies he has a lot of problems that have nothing to do with me or my mitzvot. 

But this is why I personally don't take vows to take on new mitzvot. There is always something more for me to work on in the areas I'm commanded. I don't need more mitzvot, I need less if I'm ever going to get this right! I also know that I stumble frequently. There is no need to obligate myself to something I will inevitably mess up later. I mess up my own stuff just fine, thankyouverymuch.

Prayer services are held every day at the Kotel. Playing devil's advocate for the terribleness for women attending minyan at the Kotel: Often the women's side can't hear the service(s), even if a co-ed group stands beside each other at the mechitza (speaking from experience). Women's tefilah groups exist in orthodox and non-orthodox congregations, whether those groups focus on reading Tehillim together or having a full Torah service to allow a learned bat mitzvah to read from the Torah to other women. Should these groups be banned automatically from the Kotel when we allow them in (some of) our shuls?
Sidenote: If you're a conversion candidate, I don't recommend that you attend (or mention attendance) at a women's prayer group unless it's strictly a Tehillim session. While most rabbis I know of agree it's not "wrong," it's "suspicious" and may show "tendencies" of a future of going "off the derech." Didn't you get the memo that women's participation in any mitzvah "above and beyond" is a warning sign of future rebellion?)
But women reading Torah to other women? Women holding a Torah scroll? Women leading davening of other women? I'm not aware of anything wrong with that, though the minyan-specific parts wouldn't be said. My guess is that a Women of the Wall service does hold that women can "count" in a minyan, but even if they didn't, is there something halachically wrong with them saying the parts for minyan at the Kotel, where there is clearly going to be at least a minyan of men present? Those parts of the service aren't supposed to be said without a minyan, but I'm not aware of a prohibition against women saying them. In fact, many orthodox congregations allow women to recite Kaddish loudly (loud enough for the men to hear) during their time of mourning, though they may require "saying" it rather than "singing" it. More shuls allow women to bentch gomel during the Torah service, though saying it from their seat. 

Why do all of the "egalitarian" ideas above become a null and void argument for the Women of the Wall because most (if not all) of the participants are not orthodox Jews? If orthodox Jews could do it, I see no reason why non-orthodox Jews can't. Add that to the legal argument above, which I think is the proper approach for government authorities. I am particularly disappointed in the statement by the Rabbi of the Kotel: 
"The rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, condemned Tuesday's prayer service. In a statement issued to the media, he said the women brought 'brothers against brothers in unnecessary confrontation' and noted that the wall next to Robinson's Arch has been designated as the area for women's prayer services. 'The Western Wall is the only place shared by all the people of Israel -- and it is not the place to decide or express a world view,' Rabinowitz said. 'I urge anyone for whom the Wall is dear to do whatever he can to keep disputes outside the plaza, and leave the people of Israel one place where there are no demonstrations, clashes and hatred.' "
Isn't protecting the demands of one Jewish group against another Jewish group a "world view" that shouldn't be "decided or expressed" at the Kotel? If that's the case, then both groups should be banned from the Kotel. Or, as befits a democracy, let them both attend. If people wish to protest, they should have the right to do so peacefully. Instead, the group he supports is the one creating demonstrations, hatred, and violent clashes. Not the Women of the Wall. 

Doing what you think is right might lead to a riot. See, for example, the Civil Rights Movement. However, as in the Civil Rights Movement, it is categorically wrong for the oppressor to lay the blame for his actions at the feet of the person intimidated. "She made me spit on her because she wore a tallis at the Kotel (or wore a tank top or had her picture in the newspaper)" should never, ever be allowed to be a justification for conduct in violation of the law, halacha, and being a mensch. You are responsible for your own bad conduct and the chillul Hashems created by it. So own up to it.

At the end of the day, the Women of the Wall should not be a big deal. This unnatural obsession with enforcing the modesty of women is worrisome and looks more and more pathological the longer I hang around the orthodox community. And it's one of the major reasons I am not more "right wing." Though there are many right-wing orthodox people who view these issues reasonably and in proper perspective in comparison with the other mitzvot, these people are overwhelmingly not speaking against the major violations of modesty and derech eretz of the loud, hateful, and sometimes violent "modesty police" in orthodox communities around the world. Their leaders are doing a particularly poor job, usually supporting the poor behavior. And I can't imagine being around people who don't feel the Torah is worth defending against that kind of behavior. Every community has its faults, but I highly value the ability I have, as a modern orthodox woman, to speak about these wrongs and chilul Hashems without fearing that I or my family will be ostracized for it. 

"Your silence gives consent" - Plato

Monday, March 11, 2013

Wint...errrr...Pesach Is Coming!

But don't fret! 

Pesach does not have to be as scary as everyone makes it sound.

Really, truly... preparing for Pesach is not that hard. If you don't have children and regularly sorta-clean your house, you should be able to clean for it in an hour or two. (Kashering the kitchen may or may not take significantly longer, depending on your kitchen and what you believe is required to kasher it for Pesach.) 

Five things to keep in mind:
1. Crumbs are not a "kezayit." They're garbage. Ask Aish if you don't believe me.
2. Neither you nor the dog will be eating any chametz that may or may not exist under your fridge, car seat, or heavy furniture.
3. Don't take "unfit even for a dog to eat" quite so literally. Case in point: the standard is not "poisonous" in most communities. As Rabbi Soloveitchik famously said about a dog who ate toothpaste, "Your dog is crazy." As interpreted by rabbis I know, "You trust a dog to tell you what's fit for a dog to eat?!"
4. Just because you're required to search for chametz doesn't mean you actually have to FIND any. You're not required to hide any. If you insist on hiding some token chametz, please remember to write down where you hid them (and don't make them bigger than a kezayit!).
5. If you pay a person to spend hours vacuuming the pages of your library, I will nominate you for involuntary commitment to a psychiatric ward.

See? Aren't you more relieved already?

I'm not the only person who says that Pesach prep should not give you a mental breakdown.

If you're uncertain about your community's "theoretical" standards for Pesach (because many OCD-inclined people choose this mitzvah for their entry to the Extreme Machmir Awards), discuss these posts with a friend, mentor, your rabbi, or any other Passover-celebrating Jew you may have access to (if you lack those other resources).

Fair warning: if you're loud-mouthed about how relaxed your Pesach prep was, don't be surprised if people refuse to eat in your house. They could even refuse on principle if you "follow the rules" but your method looks "different" (for example, kashering your kitchen counters instead of covering them). But on the other hand, never be surprised if someone refuses to eat in your house during Pesach. People be cray-cray. A fair number of people refuse to eat in anyone's house during Pesach.

#ProTip: the best part about converting is that you get to choose your minhag. Trust the Sephardi about kitniyot! 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

UPDATED: The Hidden Costs of Orthodoxy

Everyone agrees that living an orthodox life is expensive. However, it's more expensive than you imagine it will be. (Keep in mind this post does not take into account conversion costs.)

You know the regular expenses:
Keeping kosher is expensive
  • Start-up costs to turn your kitchen kosher by nearly tripling your kitchen supplies
  • Kosher meat
  • Kosher cheese (especially if you're cholov yisroel)
  • Not always having a generic brand available kosher
Raising kids is expensive
  • Private school tuition, especially when there isn't any competition in the area
  • Kosher-friendly daycare/babysitting
  • More clothes to get destroyed/outgrown and replaced: tzitzit and kippot in particular
  • Wedding costs for those children. Yes, you're probably going to have to save up more than a house downpayment.
High Holyday "tickets"
  • The laws of tzedakah are complex and depend on your individual circumstances. But that is an automatic deduction of your take-home income every year for the rest of your life.

But there are some costs you may not have thought about. 

  • You're generally restricted to areas with a higher cost of living. Even in small communities, the housing within walking distance of an orthodox synagogue is not going to be in the cheap part of town. 
  • You will likely have more children than you would have if you had remained secular. The lesser-discussed aspect of "Keeping Up with the Steins" is that there is more pressure to have larger families. While an only child is becoming the norm in the secular world (says the only child blogger), it is still relatively uncommon in the frum world. It's not unheard of, but people are going to assume you have an only child because of medical issues, not as a personal choice. So multiply your expected child costs from above by 2 or 3...or more. You'll get some discounts for multiple children (assuming you can get them accepted to the same school), but it's not a significant savings.
  • Holiday costs. You think about this, but rarely think about it. Buying matzah each year is always surprisingly expensive, even after I've done it for almost a decade. Your food costs in general will be much higher for every holiday and probably Shabbat as well. Travel, cleaning for Pesach, purchasing wine regularly, etc. The little things can add up significantly.
  • Job sacrifices. You may have to take a lower-paying or less prestigious job because of Shabbat restrictions. You may have to take a higher-paying job you don't like as much because you need to pay dayschool tuition. 
  • Vacation sacrifices. If you don't work for an organization that follows the Jewish calendar (or closes on Jewish holidays), you will use your "vacation" days for holidays. I personally know many people who use all their paid vacation days to cover holidays and still have to take personal, unpaid days to get all the holidays...and that doesn't include taking off for chol hamoed. And we all know how "vacation-like" holidays are, so good luck finding that relaxation intended to create a revitalized and refreshed employee. You may also be responsible for finding people to cover for you or even to pay for that replacement. On the other hand, if you work on the billable hour system, then only Gd can help you come the High Holydays. Don't lose your job.
  • Hidden dayschool costs. That "Annual Dinner" is several hundred dollars per plate, and it's not totally "voluntary." "Suggested donations" are rarely ever "voluntary" when the dayschool is involved. 
  • Aliyahs and honors in synagogue. Personally, I am very bothered by the concept of "auctioning" honors. I understand that this can generate a large amount of money for the synagogue, but the very concept makes me cringe. However, it's not just holiday honors that are paid for. You may be expected to make a donation for aliyahs. There may be a "suggested" donation amount for it, possibly even extra for getting mishaberachs. This is a good question to ask when interviewing a new shul. 
  • Social events. $15 for a synagogue dinner here, $40 for an event there, $75 for a shul fundraiser there. If your shul is like the ones I've attended, almost no "social" event will be free. If you can't afford to go to the shul social events, you will eventually feel isolated from the community (speaking from my experience in two communities).
  • Mikvah fees. After you're married, you could be "donating" $10-40 per month to the mikvah for its use. 
  • Buying books. I view this as primarily a start-up cost, but the "maintenance" costs of your library will certainly be higher than the average secular consumer. However, in my experience, the people who make this a major expense would have done so even if they were secular (though maybe not as costly in absolute terms). People like me would spend ridiculous amounts of time and money expanding their library even without Judaism, and the bibliophile nature of Judaism is usually a major draw of conversion to begin with!
  • Women's haircovering costs. If you're female, you've probably considered this cost. However, you have likely underestimated the maintenance costs. Even if you stick to the "cheap" haircoverings such as hats, berets, and tichels, you're going to need to "update" or replace items every few years. Sheitels are more complicated than I'm familiar with, but know this: they're expensive, and they don't last as long as you would hope. Or you lean too close to the stove and melt the cheap synthetic one. They'll need to be replaced every few years as well. The costs you're definitely not thinking about are dying sheitels, getting them cut, or getting them styled for special occasions. 
  • Clothing alterations. A commenter has suggested this, but I don't believe alterations are necessary to make clothing tznius. Also, this is a problem the conversion candidate should have considered from the time he or she became tznius. The only times I've found alterations to be necessary are with formal clothing, such as formalwear, and alterations would be necessary even in the secular world (though perhaps not quite as much). That's my 2 cents. If anyone knows of situations I'm not considering, please comment below.
  • Traveling around Shabbat. This is often more of an annoyance than a cost, but I don't have kids yet, and I could see how that could easily change once kids are involved. It's an annoyance that I can't go somewhere "just for Sunday," I need to plan it around Shabbat as well. And if I'm now going to be away for Shabbat, I need to find accommodations and meals. When you're more than one or two people, you likely won't be as comfortable asking to stay in people's homes, and thus may need to pay for a hotel. (Remember that you're limited to hotels that have alternatives to electronic keys!) Perhaps flights are more expensive if you fly to include the whole weekend, but I'm less knowledgeable about that. Driving costs should remain the same, though you still have the annoyance of your travel times being dictated for you. 
Can you think of any other non-obvious costs of the orthodox community?

Of course, almost all costs and "suggested donations" are negotiable. However, don't expect as much of a discount as you'd like, if any at all. Being middle class or below in the orthodox world practically guarantees a few slices of humble pie a year.