Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Quinoa Debate of 2013

It's back. The terrible quinoa debate from last year (and maybe years before that, I don't know). I wasn't following the debate last year until during Pesach, when Jewish housewives everywhere lamented the horribleness of the quinoa insanity at every Pesach meal I attended:
Is quinoa "allowed" on Pesach? Is it kitniyot? Is it covered with chametz? 

If you need a refresher on what chametz, kitniyot, and gebrochts are, go here. If you don't know what quinoa is, go here. It's protein-packed and delicious. Especially on shwarma. 

But we'll cover a few basics here just to be safe. 

You're not allowed to eat, own, or benefit from chametz during Pesach. I can't even allow my pets to eat food with chametz in it. Chametz is anything made from the following five grains that has also come into contact with water for more than 18 minutes ("fermented"):
  • Wheat 
  • Spelt
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Rye
Kitniyot is a protective fence around the laws of chametz to avoid eating anything that might possibly be mixed with chametz or mistaken for it. I apologize if I get something wrong here, as I don't hold by kitniyot (heck yeah converts getting to choose their own minhagim!). Most people accept that it includes rice, peas, lentils, and beans. As I understand it, the peanut was the most popular "is it or isn't it?" argument item until quinoa became popular. There is also (an increasingly common holding) a ruling that the list of kitniyot is fixed, and no item can be added to the list after a certain date. While I know people who hold by that, I don't happen to know the date.

The Sephardim think Ashkenazi are insane for prohibiting kitniyot, and kitniyot is probably the number one thing Ashkenazim will kvetch about: "I should have married Sephardi!" 

Where does quinoa fit in? Apparently, last year's debate began because a kashrut organization (the OU?) made an announcement two weeks before Pesach proclaiming that quinoa is kitniyot and thus should not be eaten during Passover. Then came an uproar because people had already purchased a great deal of quinoa for Pesach. So then the ruling changed again and said that organic quinoa was kosher for Passover. This opened the organic quinoa black market run by the families who had happened to buy organic quinoa in bulk. Others simply ignored the announcement(s), which isn't a good thing either, if people feel the kashrut organizations are unreliable, ridiculous, or corrupt.

Apparently this week, the Orthodox Union released their annual Passover guide, including a list of kitniyot. The list includes a section of products that "may be kitniyot and are therefore not used." Quinoa fell into that category, but it has now been removed from the list entirely after this week's uproar.

I learned of the latest battle from this blog post: OU812 (or Oh! You are at it Again!). While the debate is now over (for this year, at least), I think this blog post is a great read for people new to the debate or to orthodoxy in general. I love the systematic analysis and the presentation of the issues.

Thanks to the outcry created by blog posts like that, sanity and halacha has prevailed over the more-machmir-than-you tendencies so often present in orthodoxy (and especially kashrut) today.

I have never fixed quinoa, but now I want to make it during Pesach on principle. Likewise, though I don't prohibit myself kitniyot on Pesach, I'm not sure I've ever actually made any. I guess I should get on that.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Conversion Candidates and Dating Websites

It seems like every single (as in "not in a relationship") conversion candidate finally has the day when "it" hits: the overwhelming desire to create a profile on a Jewish dating website. You may not even plan to "use" it, but you need to make one in order to look through the profiles of others. Some do plan to use the profile while converting, especially those going through a liberal conversion. 

The problem becomes...can you? Most Jewish dating sites have restrictions on who is "eligible" for their services, and that often includes converts. A dating site aimed at (or open to) liberal Jews may still require a customer to be a "halachic" Jew, whether that standard is reform, conservative, or orthodox. Even if you have already converted, a site with orthodox standards may refuse to approve the profile of a person with a conservative conversion. This used to make me furious, so I can understand if it makes you angry. Since it doesn't affect me anymore, I'm more open to the "Well, it's a private business..." argument (human nature, I guess!).

The problem is that the sites may not tell you their conversion policy. That's what I object to strenuously. They let you spend three hours filling in your profile, it gets sent for approval, and then you get an email rejecting your profile "because you're not Jewish." One service was kind enough to call me to give me the news in person, as though it isn't hurtful enough to read. After twice being treated that way, I gave them a healthy piece of my mind (as did several others around the same time, I later found out). Hopefully you won't suffer the same indignities that many of us have, but there's still the potential. If you want to find the website's policy, it is most likely in the Help section. You can also contact them before making a profile to save you the trouble.

As I have said many times before, I do NOT recommend dating during the conversion process. However, I know better that I can't stop you from playing with the websites (because I am SO guilty of that).

JDate: Ahh, the old standby. Considering that it offers "willing to convert," "not sure if I'm willing to convert," and "not willing to convert," they'll take anyone and everyone. However, you may not like the choices available there, especially if you're a woman. I used JDate in college ("willing to convert") and was surprised how many used the site to look for one-night stands. Apparently, it made their mothers happy because "If you're going to do one night stands, do them with Jewish girls because eventually you're going to like someone the next morning." I'm told this issue is less of a problem post-college. I do know people who have used the site with great success, even a few orthodox. However, if you're in the orthodox process and using JDate, you will get some tough questions from your rabbis. (The KvetchingEditor wrote about a similar situation on her blog: Orthodox Conversion: Beth Din First Meeting.)
Frumster / JWed: The old site Frumster is now known exclusively as JWed. For a while, both sites were available but drew from the same profile pool, from what I could tell. JWed, after many years of not doing so, addresses conversions in its FAQ. It requires "a universally-accepted conversion," defining that as "a conversion to Judaism which has been completed in full and which is recognized by all Jewish streams including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements." In other words, an orthodox conversion. Why they can't just come out and say that confuses me, and I believe it may give false hope to liberal converts who aren't as aware of the controversy. It also makes me laugh that they believe any conversion is "universally recognized."

Saw You At Sinai (SYAS) / YUConnects / JRetroMatch / J-Junction / Sasson V'Simcha Connections: I met my husband through SYAS, but I ended up there because I like their process much better. I don't see a conversion disclosure on their website, nor is there one when you fill out the profile. However, I know from experience that, even though they gladly work with non-orthodox singles, they do not accept non-orthodox converts as members. It's misleading because they ask you to name your beit din, etc, and you are only notified later when they can't verify that your conversion was orthodox. They need to be more upfront about this to save people the trouble and embarrassment. 

In short, it's best to not even bother until your conversion is done, even for curiosity's sake. It might cause more harm to your self-esteem than the dreamy procrastination is worth.

Do you know of any other Jewish dating sites?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Psychological Testing - The Growing Trend in Conversions

I know, this sounds like a "typical Debbie Downer post from Kochava." But I don't think it is, though what I have to say will probably stir a lot of emotions.

Some of you may not know (and those of you who do may have kept silent) that psychological testing is a growing trend in the conversion world. I have had both a psychological "written test" as well as an actual psychological evaluation by a therapist. 

So let's talk about psychological testing in the conversion process. There should be no shame in these discussions, which is why I will describe this issue using my own case as an example.

I wrote previously about my experience in the written psychological test: "A Rabbi Asked Me Inappropriate Questions" Is a Red Flag...But You Probably Can't Do Anything About It If You Want a Conversion. The written exam is definitely the growing trend in both conversions and the job interview process. I've had them in both contexts, multiple times in the job hunting arena. (Thankfully, I got all those jobs, so I suppose that means I "passed.") Written exams have "right" answers, "wrong" answers, and ones that require further evaluation by talking to the person. A right answer for one authority figure may be the wrong answer for another, so don't assume every test is created equal. 

I do not approve of psychological testing in the conversion context, at least how I have seen it being used. Some of my problems:
A) The test is often "too" thorough, as I noted the sexual questions on the test in the prior post. Job interview psych tests don't have those kinds of questions; they focus more on theft, embezzlement, and laziness. I believe a reasonable conclusion about a person's sanity, assuming you can get one from this method, can be done without hitting all the Freudian notes.
B) The test is usually (if not always, in some groups) administered by someone who is not trained in psychology or any related field. I can't know this, but it seems like (based on my experience) someone could simply print this questionnaire from the internet and analyze each question based on the analyst's (can't imagine it's anyone but a rabbi) interpretation of the "correct" answers for that particular question. I find it hard to believe these rabbis have been specifically trained in how to give such a test, much less how to evaluate it or deal with "questionable" responses (or how much weight those questionable responses should be given).
C) It is so easy to lie. As I said in the prior post, I answered honestly, and I know I was an idiot for doing so. If you've ever taken a psychological test, the answers are often very clear: "Have you ever killed an animal?" "Have you ever taken office supplies home?" "Do you take frequent breaks while working?" There are even "how to" instructions for how to pass these kinds of tests! See, for example, eHow. A "bad" candidate can get through this test almost as easily as a "good" candidate, if not more easily. A "good" candidate is more likely to answer honestly and then be punished for doing so.
D) What does it even prove? So maybe you do have issues stemming from childhood physical or sexual abuse. Maybe you do have low self-esteem. Maybe you do have a diagnosed psychological issue. Maybe you are a little nutty. Does that mean you'll be a bad Jew? I don't think those are mutually-exclusive. If the test were being used to spot potential issues and deal with them, that would be one thing. My suspicion is that they're simply a way to weed out "undesireables" or maybe even to target "discouragement" more effectively. I don't believe these tests are being used correctly, and that even if they were, do they really accomplish anything to begin with?
So if I disapprove of psychological tests so strongly, how can I be "okay" with psychological evaluations? Most importantly, psychological evaluations are done by an out-of-house professional: someone unconnected to the beit din (except maybe socially) and who has no stake in your conversion. But it's also a professional: someone who knows what traits to focus on, how to test troublesome issues, and how much weight any issues should be given. And even better, if issues are present, the counselor/therapist/psychologist can explain potential follow-up options and help you get any assistance you may need (or want!).

Psych evals are the growing trend, but no one talks about them. No one wants to say, "Yeah, the beit din sent me to a head shrinker." The Jewish community, particularly in some communities, still stigmatize mental health issues and believe they'll go away if ignored. I was sent for a psych eval, and I knew it was not something you mention to your dates later. Of course, I did, but only because I made it into a funny story or an anger-inducing story as a call to action to protect conversion candidates, as the situation required. As you know, I'm a weirdo. 

My understanding is that batei din are increasingly requiring every candidate to go through a psych eval. In my opinion, this is the best case scenario. No one is singled out; it's "standard operating procedure." It should be (but probably isn't) listed in their conversion application and costs disclosure. (Yes, every beit din should disclose potential costs to you at the beginning, which is getting more common.) Psych evals cost money, and it's money the candidate will have to pay. There may be ways to find a mutually-acceptable person approved by your insurance company or to negotiate reduced fees. As I was unemployed and without insurance, I negotiated a reduced fee (technically, the beit din negotiated it for me because they're awesome guys), but it was still very expensive. In the end, I asked my parents to pay for it as my Chanukah gift that year, and the therapist was very patient and accommodating. 

I believe that a psych eval can be very helpful to the candidate, as well as the beit din. I'm a strong believer in psychology, self-improvement, and personal growth. I'm the annnoying person who reads books about those topics and actually tries to implement them into my life. I recognize that this is unusual; most people are content to address problems when they become a problem, not seeking out problems. My college's motto was "Know Thyself" (like probably 400 other colleges), and I strongly believe in that. Conversion candidates are obviously already open to change and discomfort, so they are in the perfect position to do a self-evaluation of their motives and history and how it lead to this life path. I believe a psych eval can help by bringing in a disinterested third party with professional training to help you identify the path that lead you here. It's also harder to lie to yourself that a problem isn't really a problem until you have an objective observer. That's just human. In short, I suggest that everyone, candidate or not, can benefit from this kind of discussion with a professional.

Problems I'd like to see addressed: How much information and what kind of information is passed from the psychologist to the beit din? Is it merely a "I do/do not believe this person is an acceptable conversion candidate from a psychological standpoint" or "I believe this person is an acceptable conversion candidate from a psychological standpoint, but has issues with X, Y, and Z" or "I do not believe this person is an acceptable candidate for conversion because of X, Y, and Z"? Who gets the info: the entire beit din? Their intern or secretary? Only the administrative rabbi? Only the av beit din? From a lawyer's perspective, the rabbis and psychologists should be paying more attention to the HIPPA issues and create a form that explains what information is being given to whom. (And get the candidate's signature!)

Others are asked to do a psych eval on an ad hoc basis, as I was. However, in my situation, certain bullies had made very public accusations about my mental health. Unfortunately, when someone calls you crazy, it's not very effective to turn the insult around. So I was asked to undergo a couple of sessions (number to be determined by the therapist) with a licensed social worker who was also frum and had worked with many other conversion candidates. It wasn't the most pleasant experience, but it certainly wasn't a bad one. I was nervous and I was angry to be there in the first place, but she did her job efficiently and respectfully. I suppose I "passed," but she did give me her evaluation of my personality and struggles I faced and some psychological options to pursue if I wished. Everyone could use a professional to talk to (and has at least one issue to deal with). However, it's a luxury that many of us cannot afford. But I won't lie to you, I would like to have that luxury one day, as my life has been very difficult in many ways.

From the perspective of the rabbis, I think standardized psychological evaluations would also benefit them. There must be few things scarier than telling someone that you believe that she, that individual, needs a psych eval. If you believe (or have been told) that a person is mentally unstable, you have no idea how they will react. Even "normal" people could break down in tears or become angry. When I was sat down for "the psych eval" conversation, I noticed immediately how nervous the rabbi was. I became terrified because I didn't know what could make him afraid! He gave a long explanation of the facts that had lead up to that moment, and then climaxed by saying they had decided the fairest (and most objective) way to deal with the accusations was to ask me to go through a psych eval. To his visible shock, I took it in stride and agreed with him that the situation required it. I wasn't pleased that bullies' accusations were going to put me out almost $500, but I did (and still do) believe that was the only practical option available to the beit din. And I was thankful for the opportunity to address the accusations, as I had not been given that opportunity by others. I felt that my word was being given equal weight finally, and I was thankful.

There is a deeper question that is sidestepped by this post: why is an analysis of a candidate's mental health an issue for the rabbis at all? That is a much tougher question, but the longer I'm in the conversion community, the more I understand part of the reason why. I will not sugarcoat this: there are some really effin' crazy people trying to get converted. Sometimes the craziness is totally harmless, and sometimes it is the sole reason someone is seeking a conversion. For example, in my case, I believe the therapist (I guess that's what you call social workers doing therapy?) explored a great deal into whether I was converting as a means of escaping my past (and I believe she would investigate that thoroughly in every conversion candidate). For example, someone who suffered in a former religion may simply be running to another religion, without really caring for what religion it is. Or someone with a missing or abusive family history may be trying to build a new family and community, again without really affiliating with the Jewish religion. Someone with aggressively religious family may be using conversion solely as a rebellion. Some people may want to build a new persona to escape their history, much as some people lose themselves in World of Warcraft or other "communities." I believe these can be factors that bring a candidate to Judaism (and even keep him or her there), but if it is the sole factor, that person isn't an acceptable conversion candidate under the halacha. Many things bring a person to Judaism, so those factors aren't bad in themselves, so long as there is the sincere affiliation with the Jewish religion and faith. I've written before about some of these factors: Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism? Even if those issues aren't an issue worth blocking or delaying a conversion, it can be very powerful to pinpoint those issues and working through them either alone or with a professional. Know thyself.

ADDENDUM: A smart friend made a very insightful comment that I thought should be included: "The further removed we are from one another and the less known you are as a person to your converting rabbi, the more standard this will become. But instead of seeing this as the inevitable result of concentrating the business of conversion into fewer venues, I guess we can see how this now 'makes sense'. And the more extreme things get the more things will continue to make sense until someone decides enough is enough. Obviously, I'm not in favor of routine psych evals. However, the more extreme the system gets the more 'normal' the extreme will seem."

Monday, February 4, 2013

"Funny, She Doesn't Look Druish."

Erika, the always insightful and clever blogger at BlackGayJewish, wrote a very interesting post recently about her friend's decision to consider getting an orthodox Conversion 2.0. The post was very honest and raised good questions for a person considering "upgrading" their conversion (I hate using that word, but it often conveys the feeling the candidate has about getting a "more acceptable" conversion for whatever reason). She was also kind enough to link to this blog, though perhaps a bit optimistic to call me a "popular blogger" ;)

One comment thread really struck me. The comments primarily debated the treatment of Jews of Color in the orthodox (and non-orthodox) community, and one commenter piped in about her experiences as a blonde-haired and blue-eyed convert. Erika's response reflected a feeling I often get, though in a different context:
"I find it refreshing, if a bit unnerving, that blonde folks get the same 'you don’t look Jewish' comments Is that wrong?" 
It's certainly natural, and even a bit comforting. Right or wrong may be another discussion. 

As I said, that feeling usually strikes me in a different context: I get that #badmiddos feeling when I see a born Jew (especially a frum from birth one) who doesn't know something or does something wrong. It's terrible, and I should not get a positive feeling from that, but I do. It comforts me with the thought, "You're not the only one who makes mistakes. And converts aren't the only ones who make mistakes. People who've done this their entire lives can still get things wrong. You're ok." But, understandably, that insecurity (for lack of a better word at the moment) is very different from the feeling that other Jews are constantly judging your Jewishness based on your superficial traits.

Despite being whiter than white bread, I get the same "funny, you don't look Jewish" comments for my red hair and small nose. Yes, I have really gotten comments about my nose not being big enough. And I get the same comments others mentioned in the comments section about my English name. As I've said on here before, I don't go by my Hebrew name in "real life," and I don't really have any intention to. I am who I have always been, my conversion is merely the natural progression of my life, and that persona includes my name. I understand why converts choose to go exclusively by their Hebrew name, but that's not the path for me. (Sucker for pain, I know.) My name is a point of pride to me, and I do get some #badmiddos pleasure out of my new answer for "But X isn't a Jewish name!" I can now say, "Oh, it's becoming very popular now in the London community, and even in New Jersey." Before, I could often say, "It's a Dutch name" and the questioning stopped immediately. Since almost no one in America knows any actual Dutch Jews, they usually leave me be because they realize they can't defend their point with certainty anymore. Maybe that is a Jewish the Netherlands! 

But really, the answer is either "No name is a 'Jewish' name" or "Of course it's a Jewish name because I'm a Jew." However, neither answer really fits in my mind, and I'm not sure why. A name is just a name. Hair color is just a color. Eye color is just a color. Only when those things are put together is there a person (with a few additional ingredients, of course). A Jew is a Jew and a person, and both come in every combination. 

Of course, the real response to those questions should be, "Why does it matter? Oh yeah. It doesn't." Of course, I'm still trying to find a way to say that a bit more nicely and less "I'm totally going to embarrass you in front of all these people by making you look like a racist or an idiot." (Even if you may believe either or both to be the truth.) I've definitely determined that "Oh yeah? That's what the Nazis said when they saw me!" is also not the best answer. But honestly, that's what the question makes me think of: scientific racism.

If your WWII education was as poor as mine, you may not know that the Nazis classified other "white" people as subhuman based on racial scientific theories. I would have thought they were "Aryan," but the Nazi Regime also had a sterilization, slavery, and eradication plan for the Slavs, which includes Russians, Czechs, and Poles, among others. Racial science can be used against any group of people.

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as "looking Jewish." At best, you can describe your bespeckled, big-schnozed, friend with frizzy brown hair as "looking Ashkenazi." But even that's just an ethnic description. Your "-stein" or "-witz" could be a born-Catholic. Appearance and name are totally meaningless when it comes to whether that person is Jewish, either halachically or culturally. And you can't duck the question by saying, "Oh yes, that nice black lady is Jewish, but she must be a convert." She may FFB five generations after an ancestor converted or an FFB of Ethiopian descent. That Indian lady may be b'nei Menashe. That Hispanic guy may be from the (quite large) Jewish community of Mexico City. That Nordic beauty may actually be Hungarian. And yes, maybe any of those is a convert, but maybe so was the parent of your frizzy friendwitz.

The question is pointless and, if anything, one guaranteed to be negative. I know that people think "Oh, you don't look Jewish" is usually intended as a compliment (at least toward a "white" person). In other words, "Oh, you're not as ugly as the rest of us Jews! You look like a shiksa!" Even if it is your intent to compliment, it is wrong to put down the Jewish people in such a way, equating the word "Jew" with "ugly." And it's not even remotely true. So just stop already.

I don't know how this discussion started in the Jewish world, but it needs to end. There's nothing positive to be gained from it.

Maybe people will question me less when I change my name to Snarky Snarkstein.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Blessing for Converts

Just a quick thought before Shabbat this week.

Reading this week's parsha, Yitro, I was hit with the desire to read Ruth. The story of Ruth has never struck the same chord in me as it seems to with other converts and conversion candidates, but today something did strike me.

Boaz, in his first conversation to Ruth, blesses her: 
"I have been fully informed of all that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband - how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and went to a people you had not known yesterday or earlier. May Hashem reward your deed, and may your payment be in full from Hashem, the Gd of Israel, under Whose wings you have come to seek refuge."
All conversion candidates have trials and tribulations when they seek refuge under the Shechinah, no matter how "smooth" the process may seem to an outsider. May you be similarly rewarded and may your friends and family recognize the emotional difficulties you face(d).

Shabbat shalom!