Monday, August 26, 2013

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