Thursday, January 17, 2013

My Favorite Words: Mamish, Davka, and Shtark

As a lawyer, linguist, and all-around nerd, I like words. A lot. I especially like fun words: unusual words for normal concepts, foreign slang, anachronisms, and words that are just fun to say.

Mamish, davka, and shtark all fall into both the first and last category above. They are unusual-to-me words for very "normal" concepts, and they move through the mouth in a fun, playful manner.

You should probably also know these words for practical reasons: they come up in conversation a lot. However, if you can't remember the meaning of these words, remember this: the sentence still makes sense without the word. You don't have to know these meanings.

Mamish: Yiddish derivative of a Hebrew word. Means really, very, exactly, "super," truly, "legit." Personally, I prefer mentally defining it as "super" or "legit."
  • Kochava is now mamish Jewish because the beit din got a favorable one year post-conversion review from the sponsoring rabbi. (I'm legit Jewish!)
  • It's mamish hot out there! (It's super hot out there!)
  • I'm mamish tired.
Some people pronounce it more Yiddish-like: mamishe ("mamish-sha"). For example, "Mamishe gevalt!" Personally, I would translate that as "For crying out loud!" or "Oh good grief!" but there are endless possibilities.

Dafka / Davka: Aramaic word, originally found in the Talmud. According to the succinct definition at UrbanDictionary, it means "Specifically and emphatically, usually with a contrarian connotation." (That's a fancy way of saying it's a sarcastic word.) Other definitions include precisely, exactly, surprisingly, ironically, "of course" (in the sarcastic sense), "just to annoy me," actually, "precisely this way and no other way."
  • "All the best Christmas songs were davka written by Jews." (From UrbanDictionary)
  • She davka only dates men with green eyes.
  • I dafka left my phone there, right on the table.
This article sums it up well: Translatable but Debatable, and includes some fun examples, including a new King James edition including the sentence, “Take now thy son, davka thine only son Isaac, whom thou davka lovest…”

Shtark: Yeshivish word (Yiddish?). Means machmir, strict, holy, exacting, very "frum."
  • You look so shtark when you wear a white shirt and black pants.
  • You bought pas yisroel? Shtark. 
  • No shtark bochur eats dairy on Shabbos.
If you want to read some more fun examples of the word "shtark," check out this post at FrumSatire. Troublemaker Twitpacha friend @noahroth once created a great game of "#myrebbessoshtark." If you don't like cynical humor, you probably shouldn't read anything on FrumSatire. That's your warning. Here are some examples of what you will find in this blog post:
@MarkSoFla #myrebbessoshtark she doesn’t use the microphone on shabbos.
@bukin86: #myrebbessoshtark My rebbe is so shtark Hashem needs to work on his yiras my rebbe
@noahroth: #myrebbessoshtark ZZ Top comes to him for beard growing advice.

If you have other uses or "definitions" for these words, I'd love to hear them! What's your favorite "Jewish" word?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What to Call G-d in Conversation

Let's momentarily get back to the practical, "don't make a fool of yourself" advice that this blog is known for. In this topic especially, I welcome the comments of others. This post is based solely on what I've been able to pick up in approximately 10 years of reading and discussions with others.

The problem: some "names" used to refer to G-d are not "appropriate" in conversation. They'll mark you as someone who doesn't know what you're talking about. But you'll probably have seen them written or heard them in prayers, so it can be hard to determine which ones are "allowed" other than through several years of trial and error.

And before anyone decides to get all "You can't write Gd's names on your blog!!!!1!" on me, a succinct discussion about writing Gd's name or Torah verses on a computer can be found at the Chabad site. If you want to go more in depth, a more technical discussion is available from Yeshivat Har Zion in Word doc format. However, there's an argument whether the word "god" in English or other languages is any different than "Hashem" in Hebrew for the purposes of writing, but that's another discussion.

Likewise, the names of Gd can even be said aloud for the purposes of education, such as teaching someone to say a blessing, answering a beit din's question "what would you say if I handed you an apple to eat?" or a beit din asking you to read aloud from the siddur to test your Hebrew skills. Therefore, I've chosen a middle ground below. For the purposes of educating you and avoiding misunderstandings, I have written the names of Gd below where appropriate. However, because you might print out this post, I have inserted hyphens in those names I'm aware have an "issue" in order to break them into "two" words and thus avoid an issue. 

"Acceptable" Names:
Hashem: Literally means "The Name."
HaKadosh, Baruch Hu: "The Holy One, Blessed be He" (abbreviation: HKBH).
Abishter / Eibishter: "The Almighty." Used in conversation like Hashem, but commonly limited to circles with more Yiddish influences. My understanding is that it is particularly common in the chassidic community. Modern orthodox or "just plain orthodox" people may not know what you're talking about, especially in smaller communities.
Ribbono Shel Olam: "Master of the world." I've only heard this a few times.
Ein Sof: "The Infinite," a Kabbalistic name.
Ohr Ein Sof: "Light of the Infinite," a Kabbalistic name.

As a practical matter, most "just plain orthodox" people will say only Hashem, G-d, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, or maybe Ein Sof (probably only during a shiur on Kabbalah). 

Names Not Used in Normal Conversation:
Ado - nai.
The four letter name of God: YHVH (the "Tetragrammaton").
El: I've never heard this used in conversation, but I could be wrong. As a general rule, "El" is used with an adjective such as "El HaRachaman."
Elo - him.
Elo - hei - nu.
El Shad - dai: Usually translated as "Gd Almighty."
Avinu Malkeinu: I'm not aware of a prohibition against using this, but I don't think I've ever heard it used in conversation except to refer to the prayer Avinu Malkeinu. 
Adon Olam: Same as Avinu Malkeinu above.
Elo - hei Avraham, Elo - hei Yitzchak ve'Elo - hei Ya'akov: Again, have never heard this phrase except in prayers.
Elo - hei Sarah, Elo - hei Rivka, Elo - hei Leah ve'Elo - hei Rachel. Same as above.
Melech HaMelachim: Same.
HaRachaman: Same.
El Elyon: Same.
Yahweh: This name is a gibberish attempt by early Christian scholars to pronounce the Tetragrammaton. Only Messianic Jews and mainstream Christians use this term. If you say this in Jewish company, don't be surprised if they inch away slowly and then run away.
Yeshua: This name refers to Jesus and is primarily limited to Messianic Jewish circles. Again, if you use this to refer to Gd, you will probably end the conversation. However, don't be like me and become afraid of saying the name Yehoshua (Joshua) because you're terrified you'll accidentally call him Yeshua.

Altered Names:
When it's necessary or desireable to use the "unacceptable" names above, it may be possible to say the name with an altered sound or there may be an "equivalent" name.
Hashem (instead of Ado - nai, especially when reading prayers or Torah aloud)
Elokim: Instead of Elo - him.
Elokeinu: Instead of Elo - hei - nu.
Adoshem: I've heard this said a couple of times, but my online research says it can be considered disrespectful.

An interesting fact from the Jew FAQ: "The number 15, which would ordinarily be written in Hebrew as Yod-Hei (10-5), is normally written as Teit-Vav (9-6), because Yod-Hei is a Name."

As I said above, please feel free to post additions, suggestions, and corrections in the comments section.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"A Rabbi Asked Me Inappropriate Questions" Is a Red Flag...But You Probably Can't Do Anything About It If You Want a Conversion

Today, we're going to discuss something heavy, and I'm going to share one of my "conversion woe" stories. 

A rabbi once asked me inappropriate questions. Nothing physically inappropriate happened, and he didn't look like he was relishing every detail of the answers he made me give, but it was inappropriate and exploitative nonetheless.

Unfortunately for him, I had resources to turn to and connections to complain to. But I am the rarity. 

The truth is that conversion candidates are the easiest people in our community to abuse, whether for the sake of rabbinic politics, something illegal, or something exploitative. In my opinion, there are four major reasons for this:
  • A candidate may be uncertain that conduct violates the Torah (or other Jews may assume the candidate has misunderstood the alleged behavior, thereby rationalizing it away)
  • Candidates usually lack people to turn to in the community when things go poorly (especially if the rabbi is well-liked)
  • They lack access to the people they could complain to, and 
  • A conversion candidate knows that the rabbi holds his or her future in his hands. He is the gatekeeper to the candidate's hopes and dreams for the future.
Rationalizations run rampant:
"I'm sure you just misunderstood him."
"He would never do that!"
"Why should I believe you when I've known him for five years?"
"Maybe she's making it up because he didn't recommend her to the beit din."
"But how can I help?! I have no influence over him!"
"The rabbi can ruin everything, so I can't make him angry. Maybe it'll stop/never happen again."
Or worst: no one seeing or hearing anything at all because the candidate is the Child Who Is Afraid to Ask.

In many ways, this is not very different from any other kind of abusive relationship: a power differential being exploited by someone with bad intentions who knows the victim either would not be believed or would be too afraid to speak.

My case was thankfully very mild. It could have been much worse. And I don't know whether his "boss" came down on him for it, but I do know that my complaint was heard by the most appropriate authority figure, and that he was shocked and bothered by my story. He heard me, and he took me seriously. And of course, I wonder what happened after that, but I trust that person enough to think that he did the right thing. I can't say that I don't wonder though. [UPDATE: That "boss" was Barry Freundel, so who knows what came of that.]

The worst part in my case was that the situation could be very hard to defend as inappropriate. On the surface, it looks up and up, until you really listen to the conversation being had. And I agree that everything but the discussion was on the up and up, as far as I can tell.

As part of an evaluation to be considered for conversion, a rabbi gave me a psychological test. While I don't know, I suspect that he is not a trained psychologist or social worker, so an untrained person interpreting a psychological written exam as a means of determining someone else's entire future sounds like a bad idea. ...I digress. (But will return to the topic of psychological evaluations soon.  Those are actual interviews with a mental health professional separate from the beit din. It's a growing trend - and I support it.) [That promised blog post: Psychological Testing - The Growing Trend in Conversions]

So there I was, spending forever filling out this test. It asked the questions you would expect from a psychological exam. Those ones where you usually know what the "right" answer is. "Have you ever tortured small animals?" "Do you think the government is out to get you?" Ok, maybe not quite that obvious, but you've probably taken one of these exams before. I have twice; both job related. One to work in a grocery store, and one as a personality test to determine whether I would "fit in" to a law office. I suppose I passed both of those, and I seem to have passed this one with the rabbi. But not without some healthy embarrassment.

It has been several years, so this may not be exact, but one question was "Have you ever had any sexual acts that some people may find unusual?" I do specifically remember the "some people may find unusual" because my lawyer sense tingled. As happens many times a day, my brain stops, I get an annoyed look on my face, and I say, "Well. That depends." Who is "some people" and what are their perceptions of appropriate sexual behavior? Are we talking about secular people my age, secular people  the rabbi's age, or conservative orthodox Jews? I think I even wrote "that depends" on the test because I hate answering Yes or No when I don't believe either answer fits. So yes, in other words, I was not a virgin by that point in my life, though I was certainly more conservative than most people my age. It's weird to out myself that way, but it's necessary to understand the story, and this story is important to tell.

I turned in my "exam," and waited while the rabbi read the answers and marked the "worrisome" ones. We sat down to discuss those questionable answers that might point to an off-her-rocker-Kochava. That question obviously came up. I explained my hesitancy with an answer as I did above: depends on which "some people" you're talking about. And maybe *I* would believe that group is insanely repressed sexually because they insist on just lifting up the nightgown in a dark room. Who knows? And I suppose I'm an idiot for giving the answer I actually thought rather than providing the obvious "correct" answer. Again, I digress.

My questionable judgment aside, what matters is how the conversation unfolded. I explained the general kinds of "acts" I wasn't sure if that question was asking about. For all I know, maybe it's talking about dungeons and dominatrixes. But that wasn't enough. I was then asked to detail how many boyfriends I had done these things with and basically detail my entire sexual history. I'm no psychiatrist, but I don't think that level of questioning is necessary for an intake exam. This was the first time I had met this man, and this was perhaps the fifth minute of seeing him.

He sat there calmly and otherwise acted professionally. I couldn't see under the table, so who knows what may have been going on there. Whether it was for the purposes of creating new fantasies or a pure abuse of power, it was inappropriate.

And the average conversion candidate, as I did, would sit there and answer the questions. Because this man holds your future in his hands. I pursued the conversion a while longer with this man because it was the only conversion option available to me. However, my distaste increased, as apparently his did with me. [Added later: I was eventually kicked out of that beit din, but I had already made plans to move to another state precisely because this beit din held a conversion monopoly, and I wanted nothing to do with it. A side topic: I was told not by both Barry Freundel and my new beit din to avoid discussing this issues "lest someone might doubt your conversion." I generally agree with that advice, but I think the reasonableness of that advice is precisely why abuses can flourish - we're not supposed to talk about it.]

This is not an isolated incident, based on conversations with others. And it's not confined to a few rabbis. This is relatively common, especially the more "benign" abuses of power. And no one feels safe enough to seek help, and those who do are inevitably thrown under the bus by the rabbi, the community, or both. When it's the word of a "goy with a goal" versus the rabbi, you know who will lose. It's sad to say that I've generally stayed quiet about my problems, except for sharing these kind of general details in face-to-face conversations to explain some of the problems in conversion today. But I never would have written about them here. I was trying to get converted! And after that, I had to worry about my shidduch value! Now that I'm converted and married, I feel a strange sense of relief that I can share some of my "conversion woes" to help re-start the larger conversation about rabbinical abuses in conversion and how the system is generally broken. If you have suffered, you are not alone. And one of the most comforting and freeing things anyone ever told me: a psychological evaluation isn't required for smicha. Rabbis can be crazy. Rabbis can be sociopaths. Rabbis can be power-hungry. It's rare, thankfully. Very rare. But the people with those qualities can find easy prey in the conversion community, and some do.

Yes, it gets even worse. There are actual really horrible abuses that have been committed against conversion candidates that became public scandals, but we'll talk about them soon. Sorry to give so many teasers for future posts, but this post would be ridiculously long if I explored the whole topic here. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Israeli Election Ad Attacks Russian Converts

In a jaw-dropping moment of public relations FAIL, the Israeli political party Shas released an election ad stereotyping and bashing Russian converts (perhaps all Israeli converts?).

Here is the video. There are Hebrew subtitles on the video, but if you click the CC button on the bottom so that captions are on, the English translation will appear.

Now, this isn't totally out of left field. There has been constant debate about the halachic status of "Russians" in Israel since the fall of the USSR. (I always feel weird calling people from all areas of the USSR "Russian," but that appears to be the word used.) Under the Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent could immigrate to Israel, and thousands and thousands did. Halachically, many weren't Jewish or the documents that could have proven their Jewishness were unavailable. a problem. The line between "church" and state in Israel sometimes doesn't exist. Especially in family law. Marriage, divorce, etc, is governed by religious courts rather than secular ones. Jewish, Christian, Druze, and Muslim courts, if I recall correctly. Therefore, sometimes it can be hard to determine which court the "questionable Jews" should use. They identify as Jewish, and many do convert, though some insist that a conversion was unnecessary.

So what's the problem? They can't marry Jewishly (legally) in Israel because the Rabbinate won't approve it, and there is no secular marriage alternative. They will have to leave Israel in order to marry. Israel recognizes all marriages performed abroad (even same sex ones, I'm told), but ones within Israel must fall into one of the religious courts. If you don't fit that mold or can't get approval from them, you have to marry somewhere else. I'm sure there are other problems, but this is the primary one: fight "intermarriage" and have certainty about children's halachic status.

The debate has centered on how to convert the Russians without the correct papers in order to make sure everything is on the halachic up-and-up. Problem: many in the community are not religious and have no intention of becoming observant. They are traditional or maybe not even that much. After all, the Soviets went to a lot of trouble to repress religious expression. So what's an orthodox Rabbinate to do? Everyone's got an answer, and then someone else always vetoes it. Individuals have pursued conversions through the Israeli Rabbinate, including many people who were never observant and had no intention of becoming observant, leading to some questioning of the validity of their conversions (ironic for us Americans, right?). Others have proposed mass conversions akin to the U.S. citizenship ceremony.

The most interesting part to me is that, based on my understanding, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has been one of the biggest supporters of more "traditional" ("lax" according to his opponents) standards for conversion, which would allow halachic conversions for many of these people. Rav Ovadia is often described as the head of the Shas party, but my understanding is that he is more the "spiritual head" than an actual political leader. Either way, it would be ironic that they are slamming the perception of his own rulings in these cases. Thankfully, this YouTube page says that the ads have been removed "for the sake of peace." Rather than it being the right thing to do. Yeah.

I won't lie, it's a difficult dilemma. But it's not appropriate to stereotype and shame Russians or converts as a political tactic. I think I prefer my election mudslinging the old fashioned way.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

New Page: The Test

As promised, the new and improved "conversion test" is posted! I took it down almost a year ago, but before then, the test was the number one search engine path to this blog. Hopefully you newbies will find something on the blog worth staying for after you've seen the test!

It is very long, and it may make you wet your pants in fear. But don't be afraid. You got this.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Reverse Bucket List: An Unlikely Tool to Combat Conversion Frustration

If you haven't picked up on this yet, I'm a Type A list maker extraordinaire. I love lists and checkboxes and forms. This means that the beginning of both the Jewish and secular years make me re-think my lists and habits. It's always much worse as the secular year approaches because it seems the entire world is thinking the same thing, and you can't escape it. Of course, I don't want to escape it. I love productivity and personal growth literature and tools, and they've changed my life significantly over the years. 

My conversions weren't immune to this attitude. I made learning lists, observance lists, scheduled increases in observance on my Google calendar, and otherwise acted like a crazy person. For example, there is the observance checklist page here, but I also sought out every conversion "test" I could find. (Yes, that page is coming back soon, but I need to rework it.) 

But this week I discovered a very different way of using lists. It's not groundbreaking because I know other people use lists to mark the past rather than plan the future, but it had never occurred to me as a useful thing to do. Maybe you also haven't considered the power of the retrospective list or specifically how that could be applied to the conversion process.

I have had a very good year in many ways, including finally finishing the orthodox conversion and marrying an excellent man. However, it's also been a very hard year in many ways, and times are still tough. Stress drives me to organization, and it's been a very productive few weeks. One of the ideas I had was to finally create a bucket list. If you don't know the concept (I never saw the movie), it's a list of things you "must" do before you die. I suppose I don't take it that seriously, but I liked the idea of making a list of things I'd like to do eventually but that don't deserve a spot on my regular "someday" list. So far, I have over 200 entries, ranging from travel to learning to experiences. (I'm trying out Wunderlist for the first time to house these lists. My "normal" lists live at Remember the Milk, which I highly recommend.)

As I made this massive list, I noticed how many of the "suggestions" I found online that I'd already done. Then I came across a "Reverse Bucket List." It was a list of "bucket list" activities the author had already done. It was midnight and I wasn't sleepy, so that sounded like a fine idea.

When I finished, I remembered what an interesting person I am. I frequently get complimented on being interesting, but I always reply that I'm really a very boring but happen to tell a good story. My theory is that I'm a really interesting person on paper, but pretty boring almost all the time. 

The reverse bucket list reminded me that I've accomplished some great things in my life, and I felt very grounded and content. The stress had subsided, if temporarily. Then I realized how great a tool this could be for the stressed-out conversion candidate. 

As my former roommate reminded me as I lamented my conversion woes before Chanukah last year, things are always darkest before the dawn. And erev Shabbos Chanukah, I got "the call" to schedule my conversion mikvah. As I talk to other converts, it seems common that we fall very low and feel the most frustrated when things finally turn around for the better. 

In times like that, the reverse bucket list can remind you how far you've come and how much you've accomplished, whether Jewishly or generally. You can make a list of the observances you've taken on, the subjects you've learned, the books you've read, the positive life changes you've made, the "accomplishments" you've achieved, the ways you've grown. The possibilities are endless, and your list might include entries from all these sources. In fact, some of them may be useful for your conversion rabbis (or may even be required), such as a checklist of topics learned with a tutor/mentor or books read. 

Hopefully, when you're done making such a list, you'll feel some inner calm and beat back the monsters of self-doubt and frustration. 

Because I find that it's always easier to learn from an example, below is a list of some of the entries in the "I survived..." section of my own reverse bucket list. My list also included sections for cool places I've visited, weird food I've eaten, things I've learned, things I've accomplished, etc. I thought this part would be the most interesting to you, assuming you care to read it at all!

I've survived...
Three hurricanes
The Blizzard of 1993
Swimming in the Dead Sea (Ouch! It burns!)
Law school
Getting my tonsils out at 20 (It can be very dangerous as an adult.)
Being hit head-on by a tractor trailer truck (I was not driving.)
Two Jewish conversions
Driving from the Pacific to the Atlantic...four times...with pets.
Saturday night of Mardi Gras in New Orleans with my dad…at 17 (Awkward. We were there for a college interview, not Mardi Gras.)
A broken engagement
Starting a blog and not being a failure at it
Planning a wedding
The deathtrap known as a ferris wheel at Coney Island
A combination Eastern/Western toilet (Double eww.)
Internet dating before it was cool
Seeing a dismembered body in a motorcycle accident

As you can see, there is no rhyme or reason to this list. I simply wrote what popped into my mind at the time. Some of these things were very bad, some painful, some scary, and some just funny in retrospect. But it reminds me how strong I am and how many obstacles I've overcome in my life. I survived those things (and many more that I didn't publish here), so I can survive anything life throws at me. Empirical evidence says so. 

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!