Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Seeking Writing Suggestions

A bit of a strange post today. I want to improve my writing, and who better to ask than my audience?

I know that my writing is sometimes construed as arrogant. Problem is (in my opinion) that I have a very formal/antiquated/convoluted way of speaking and writing. I'm also too "to the point" than some people are comfortable with, but that's a separate issue.

Do you have any suggestions for how I can increase the friendliness and clarity of my writing? My voice is particular to me, so I don't want to lose that, but surely there are ways I can improve it. Any particular words, phrases, or sentence structures I should avoid? Do I overuse parentheses and thus create confusion? Are my paragraphs or sentences too long? Should I use more headers or other dividers? Has anything worked particularly well in your own writing? 

Do you know a better way to be "matter of fact" without sounding arrogant to some people? For a long time, I've written that off as "their problem," but I'm tired of fighting an uphill battle in the increasingly internet-based world. An easy way (or so I think) would be to inject more emotion into my posts, but that's not really who I am or what I want to accomplish here. And yet, and yet, I struggle with the fact that if the author were a man... a matter of fact approach, even arrogance, would likely be viewed as "self-confidence." Unfortunately, my research shows that this is a common struggle for female bloggers.

C'est la vie, says Negative Nancy ;)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Answering "So When Did You Convert?"

Kindly curious person or a nosy yenta: "So when did you convert?"
Me: "Uhhh...that's complicated."

I have the feeling I'm not alone here. Do you get confused or defensive or tongue-tied when someone asks when you converted?

It sounds like such a simple question, but it's not. I feel like the date I converted ignores the years I spent in the community (and learning) before the actual dunk in the mikvah. Which conversion should I measure from? What about the fact that my conversion was delayed for a long time because of school, and I would have converted earlier if the circumstances had been different? I worked with two orthodox beit dins, so I could measure from starting with either of them. I'm sure each of you could ask similar questions about your situation.

It was really hard to give a simple answer in the first two years. I felt like saying I had converted 6 months or a year or 2 years ago would give someone the impression that I'm a Jewish n00b. Since most people have more experience with baalei teshuva, who measure their time by when they started the orthodox journey, I worry that others will subconsciously understand my "timeline" in that way. If I measured that way, I'd have 11 Jewish years under my belt! Baalei teshuva have similar measurement problems and can face the same underestimation of their Jewish knowledge. Unfortunately, when I was honest with the short time answer, people did sometimes assume I wasn't as knowledgeable, which just reinforced my defensiveness at the question. Isn't it disappointing when people do just what you were afraid they'd do? I wish I could be comfortable enough in my orthodoxy to not feel defensive sometimes, but I don't know that that'll ever be in the case in America. And it is noticeably worse when other stressors are present, such as health challenges, a death in the family, depression, and other times of anxiety and stress. At those times, I know to be more careful with how I answer these questions. Know thyself to avoid getting in more trouble than you can handle, as they say.

This conversation continues to be a work-in-progress for me, despite the opportunity to try out new answers at least once a week for several years. (I'm very open about being a convert and talking about conversion things, if you didn't know that already!)

I'm at the third anniversary of my conversion, so I'm beginning to feel less defensive about the "short" amount of time since my conversion, but it's still there a little. (But again: how to measure the anniversary? I got the good news in December 2011, but it was January 2012 before the rabbis came back from Israel and we could do the mikvah! Yet most applications ask for just a year, and I feel like I lose a whole year of "my Jewish experience" if I write 2012.)

So what's my best practice so far? I usually say how long I've been in the orthodox community or when I started being interested in Judaism. Or I make the complications of the question clear. Here are some sample answers I've given, based on the situation and the people involved:

  • "Well, I've been in the orthodox community for a total of 9 non-consecutive years, but I finished my orthodox conversion 3 years ago."
  • "Which conversion? I've got two." (Be ready for an hour conversation if you say that.)
  • "I became interested in Judaism and got involved in the orthodox community when I was 19, and I'm 30 now."
  • "That's complicated. I started getting involved at 19, and I'm 30 now, but I have two conversions. I don't think the date of my orthodox conversion is an accurate way to measure my time in the community."
  • "That's complicated. I finished my orthodox conversion 3 years ago, but I've been Jewishly involved for 11 years." (I really like the phrase "Jewishly involved.")
  • "That's complicated. You could measure it in many ways: when I entered the community, when I decided to convert, when I officially started the process for conversion, or when I completed the conversion. And that's even more complicated because I also have a conservative conversion!"
These conversations have always gone well, but I still feel tongue-tied and caught off guard. I always hope that the next time will be easier, but it inevitably isn't.

Unfortunately, these answers aren't the best for someone who, for whatever reason, wants to minimize his or her conversion and/or not open the door to more personal questions. Or if you simply don't have time right now. So what might you say in those situations? Remember that your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice conveys a lot more than these words ever could. Try not to make the person feel like a jerk, even if you think the person is a jerk.
  • "I'm sorry, but I'm running out the door. [Optionally: Maybe we can talk about this another time.]"
  • Along those lines, you could invent a reason to leave: "I'm sorry, I just remembered that I left the oven on/have a meeting. I'll see you later!"
  • "Oh, look at the time! ..."
  • "That's complicated. Could you hand me the potatoes/book/child?" or otherwise change the subject.
  • "I'd rather not talk about that right now, sorry."
  • "I'm sorry, I don't like to talk about this publicly. [Optional: I'm happy to discuss privately some other time.]"
  • "That was a pretty emotional part of my life, do you mind if we don't discuss it here/now/ever?"
  • "I'm sorry, that's not something I'm comfortable discussing right now." (Be prepared for potential pushback because a date is just a fact, right?)
  • With a smile: "Let's talk about something else!"
  • "I don't want to monopolize the conversation..." / "I don't want to keep you from your work."
  • Likewise, if this is a side question, steer the speaker back to the main conversation.
  • Introduce the speaker to someone else nearby.
  • Just say the date of a conversion and move on.
  • Ignore the question altogether and start a new topic: "That reminds me! ..." Insert funny story or interesting fact.
The key: if you said you need to do something else, remember to actually do that something else. If you end the conversation by saying you need to take a phone call, don't stop 10 feet away to chat with someone else.

Often, you'll feel "trapped" in a situation, whether it's the Shabbos table or a guest at your friend's house. Changing the topic of conversation is your friend. Become a Judo Master of conversation manipulation. It's truly an art form. Watch how others do it and learn from both the good and bad examples. I found some more good advice in a very short YouTube video from Howcast [1:06 minutes]. 

These skills will serve you well because they're the same skills we should use to avoid conversations that involve lashon hara. Maybe practicing these conversation-steering tactics in such a personal area will improve your ability to successfully apply them to potential lashon hara without embarrassing the person speaking. If doing this in a conversation about your conversion is an art, then doing it with potential lashon hara is a masterpiece.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Does the Rabbi Choose My Hebrew Name?

Generally, no. Not unless you want him to, but perhaps in some Chassidic communities. However, most rabbis I know would probably feel pretty awkward if asked to name another person. After all, the convert has to live with it for forever. That's a lot of pressure to put on a rabbi.

Unless you are in a Chassidic community where it is common practice for the main Rebbe to give or suggest names to baalei teshuva and converts, I view a rabbi claiming the exclusive right to name you as a giant red flag. What's probably not a red flag: "I think the name X is so you." 

Normally, I'd say there's a lot in between, but I don't think that's the case here. When it comes to a rabbi suggesting a Hebrew name, I think there are usually two polar extremes (based on anecdotes):
A) Your Hebrew name is going to be Y.
B) Have you considered the name Z? I think it might be a good fit for you and your personality.

Most rabbis never suggest a name at all. You may only hear, "So what is your name going to be?" or "Have you thought about any names yet?" or "So what name am I putting on the certificate?"

You are always free to ask your rabbi (or anyone else in the community, for that matter!) for suggested names. Sometimes it's fun to hear what names other people think "fit" you. It can make a great Shabbos table conversation with people who know you pretty well.

Important: Remember to run your Hebrew name past a rabbi or other knowledgeable person (particularly someone fluent in modern Hebrew), and do that sooner rather than later. You don't want to be like me. I spent 2 years getting really attached to an unusual Hebrew name, only to find out it's a c > ch sound away from being the word "disease" in Hebrew! 

Go to the Hebrew Names section if you want more advice on choosing your Hebrew name!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happy Chanukah!

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah. Fry up your latkes, gather your sufganiot, and spin that dreidel! 

My Chanukah is off to an inauspicious start. As I wrote earlier, I had the great zchus (LOLZ) to attend Hackathonukah on Sunday. Keeping with the Hanukkah theme, we had all kinds of fried goodies: latkes, jelly donuts, and falafel. Have you ever confused a pile of sufganiyot with hamburger buns? Because I have:

...But my first jelly doughnut of the season was suspiciously missing a "bellybutton." Sure enough, I picked the sufganiyah with no jelly. 

This doesn't bode well for my Chanukah.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A New Approach to Shidduchim

Are you single and living in the NYC area? Do you know someone else who fits the bill? Check out the new dating group Dvash (Honey)! It's shidduchim for singles by singles.

Love Jewish learning, want to meet new people of the other gender, and want to avoid a meatmarket atmosphere? You'll love it! Events are held in Lawrence, NY (the Five Towns), but singles are coming from all over the NYC area.

We have two large problems (in my opinion) preventing dates: 1) judgments that "older singles" must have something wrong with them or they wouldn't be single and 2) places for men and women to meet naturally and get to know each other. 

This group hopefully solves both of those problems. Single people founded and run the group, and they are sensitive to the subtle and not-so-subtle judgments from many "shidduchim" speakers and try to prevent it. They also provide a situation, a shiur, that most members of the orthodox world can agree is an acceptable place for men and women to be in the same room together and speaking to each other. (Sad, huh? But you have to work with what you've got.) I don't know whether men and women sit together, but the shiur is intended to be interactive and there is plenty of opportunity to speak with others informally and as part of the shiur's dialogue. And after the shiur, singles are free to continue those conversations elsewhere. 

Most importantly, this isn't small talk; this is discussion on deep issues that touch each of us. What better way to get a "feel" of the personality of the people you meet? 

You can read more about "The Sweet Approach of Dvash" in the Five Towns Jewish Times.

Gdwilling, this initiative will spread to other communities in the near future, but visitors to NYC are always welcome to attend! 

Do you care about this work? Support it! Dvash is running a fundraiser to create a website and other media that will spread the word about Dvash and keep singles up-to-date on the latest events. The organization is run by singles with dayjobs, so your support is necessary to help make Dvash strong and effective! 

Help create a new approach to shidduchim. Help Dvash create a website!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Surprising Importance of Hackathonukah...To Me, at Least

A hackathon is almost the last place I would expect to be today. I'm not a programmer or coder or anything else technical. But I'm a lawyer for new businesses, and that means I work with programmers and coders. So I figured I should know something about what they do and how they create the products I help them sell. So...enter the idea to learn about hackathons. I even learned that I could participate in one because I can do design and planning. Unfortunately, I'm shomer Shabbos, and that stopped my dream before it began. 

And that struck a nerve that continues to hurt, long after I've converted. I don't mind the restrictions of Shabbat. I don't mind the kashrut restrictions (most of the time). But what still hurts is feeling cut off from so many great opportunities because they only happen on Shabbat. Athletic events, alumni events, concerts, parades, sales, Masonry (yes, I'm female, and I was a Freemason for a year), even my high school reunion. All non-starters. 

I get very frustrated being forced to give up parts of my life for orthodoxy that I don't "have" to give up. I could do these things (or at least most of them), if it weren't for scheduling issues. Such a stupid, simple problem to fix, but I can't because that's how American society functions and the assumptions it makes about audiences.

This is the only major thing I miss from my pre-Jewish life. I'm not sure whether it's better or worse now that I live in NYC, which has exponentially more events I can't attend, but does occasionally have Shabbat-friendly events. So much knowledge and experience is at my fingertips, but remains just out of reach. So frustrating. 

But because of Hackathonukah, I feel kinda normal (even though I only took a class and will view the demos, not participating on a team - hacking hardware was a harder fit for my mad skillz). I've learned so much about my clients and about our ever-changing technology from the class I took and from watching the hackers work. I'm getting to participate in an opportunity I wouldn't otherwise be able to, thanks to two brothers who were also frustrated by the lack of Shabbat-friendly hackathons. More importantly, the people who are actually hackers have the opportunity for a fun, immersive professional development experience. And we get the opportunity to benefit from the creative work of Shabbat-observant Jews that might not otherwise exist. Win-win-win, right?

Kol hakavod to Donny and Oren Kanner for unleashing a pool of underutilized potential. Light is increasing all the time, thank Gd.

The best thing about this has been learning that I used to be a coder back in middle school (who knew Geocities was so useful??), and I've seen that programming isn't the terrifying foreign language I thought it was. It's within reach, and now I'm motivated to learn more so I can actually hack at Hackathonukah 2015!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Remember to Add the (Other) Prayer for Rain to Your Amidah

You probably remember that we added "mashiv ha-ru'ah u-morid ha-geshem" ("cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall") to the second blessing of the Amidah back on Shemini Atzeret. 

But did you remember to add the other prayer for rain last week? I apologize; I would have reminded you, but my computer's been in the shop for a week. But the magical Mac is back, and so am I! 

Which Date?
This change to the Shemoneh Esrei is actually one of the ones I remember best because it seems so strange that we add it on the night of December 4th (5th in a secular leap year). It's a random date, long after we're already praying for that rain in Israel, and it's measured by the civil calendar instead of the Hebrew one. Weird city, right?

This prayer is linked to the autumn equinox, which we recognize with our English calendars but not the Hebrew one. December 4th is apparently 60 days after the autumnal equinox ("equal night," if that helps you remember!). But which autumnal equinox? There is tekufat Tishrei (halachic autumn) and the one on the secular calendar. The Hebrew date for autumn changes each year, but the secular calendar gives us a steady date every year. However, in the year 2100, we'll move a day forward, to December 5 (and 6th in leap years). You learn something new every day! Chabad has an article with the detailed date calculations historically and today, if that floats your boat.

Why the Date Separation?
Let's get historical! There was a break between praising Hashem for rain and asking for rain in order to let pilgrims travel home safely from the High Holydays in Jerusalem. Rain was pretty inconvenient for traveling in those days. Accordingly, in Israel, the prayer is added according to the Hebrew calendar, the 7th of Cheshvan (sources are in the Talmud tractate Taanit.). I didn't know that, and you can read more about why the diaspora developed a different date on the Chabad website

It's important to remember that we still measure the rainy season based on Israeli agricultural needs. Despite discussions about adjusting the prayers to the location of the davener, the same schedule of rain prayers are recited even in the high summer of the Southern Hemisphere. If your community/country needs rain, there is a prayer that can be added to the service elsewhere, and you can always add your own request for rain (or anything else) during the personal petition part of the Amidah. (That's during the prayer Shema Koleinu, the prayer for the acceptance of prayer.)

Funnily enough, the Talmud discusses that the prayer for rain should actually be earlier that Shemini Atzeret: at the beginning of Sukkot. But why pray for rain right before you're going to spend a week sleeping and eating outside in your hut? We have an obligation to be in the sukkah, so why pray for something that would prevent us from fulfilling that obligation? Though perhaps we should be thankful if it rains since Israel needs all the rain it can get. (Avoiding a cold and inconvenient sukkah is just a bonus, of course - heresy!)

Why Two Prayers?
But the fact that we pray for rain twice continued to bug me, so I looked into it. Solely for your benefit, of course.

The first prayer for rain is actually a praise for rain: “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” It's in the second blessing, known as Gevurot (Strengths/Powers), which is about the powers of Gd; not least of which is raising the dead. Apparently Sephardim have a different and longer version of this bracha. Intellectually, I know that the first three brachot of the Amidah are restricted to praises of Gd, not supplications, but when you call something "the prayer for rain," your brain makes assumptions.

The second prayer for rain is in "the Blessing of the Years." This is the actual request for rain. That makes sense since it's a prayer for a bountiful harvest. 

Removing the Prayers Each Spring
Thankfully, both prayers end at the same time: erev Pesach (the day before Passover).

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Can I Work on Chanukah?

Yep! No yom tov restrictions on Hannukah.

Chanukah 2014 starts on the evening of Tuesday, December 16, and ends on Wednesday, December 24.

It's a rabbinic holiday that came later in our history, so there can't be a prohibition on work. You can fry food, go to the office for a full day's work, turn the lights on and off like a madman, and even do your laundry. And yes, even though sunset happens early in the day, you can wait until you come home from work to light the menorah. 

However, there is a custom for women to not "work" for the first half hour that the Hanukah candles burn (the minimum length of time the candles have to burn - be careful with the cheap candles!). In this case, "not work" basically means, "Mom, sit down and take a load off. You work so hard. Take a break from dishes and paperwork and enjoy the beauty of the chanukiah." 

Honestly, anyone who wants to have a half-hour meditation break over the candles is welcome to do so. Sounds like a great custom to me!

The only caution: don't "use" the candles. Make sure there is another source of light present. You don't want the Chanukah candles to be the only fire/light source in a room to guide your way, read by, light a cigarette on, whatever. Their sole purpose is to "publicize the miracle" of the oil not running out in the Beis HaMikdash. We'll talk more about lighting the candles soon.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Another Round of Orthodox Women Talk Is Up!

You can find the latest Orthodox Women Talk roundtable over at This Way to Eden.

The question for today is...
Reader writes: I‘d love to hear something regarding your favorite way to infuse your lives with Judaism. (Kosher food, Tznius, Shabbat…etc..)

Not surprisingly, I seem to be the person way out in left field on this one. Negative Nancy strikes again! Oh well. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The RCA Conversion Ombudsman Shouldn't Just Be for Women

In the wake of the Freundel scandal, the Rabbinical Council of America announced several measures it will take, including appointing a female ombudsman (or group of ombudsmen) to be available for complaints from female conversion candidates. Honestly, I was surprised. It's a great idea, and I'm glad they came to this realization even before the recommendation panel was established. It speaks well of the RCA's seriousness and that they're addressing this in a practical way (and that they've probably got a smart lawyer involved).

Here is the original announcement:
"The RCA and the Beth Din of America have agreed that every Beit Din assembled under their Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) will appoint a woman (or group of women) to serve as ombudsman to receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion. The name of this person will be provided to all conversion candidates at the beginning of the conversion process. Prospective converts will be assured that their standing in the conversion process will not be compromised by communicating with the ombudsman, and that any such communications will remain confidential to the extent possible."

But what's an ombudsman, you might ask. I heard that funny word for the first time when my mother became disabled from a stroke, and encountered it again as she was re-diagnosed with breast cancer and eventually passed away one year ago. Merriam-Webster defines it as "a person (such as a government official or an employee) who investigates complaints and tries to deal with problems fairly." 

I encountered it in hospitals and nursing homes, places where people are vulnerable in the most physical ways. A complaint taken seriously could literally save lives and prevent elder abuse, whether sexual, financial, or just power-tripping. But apparently it's also in government offices and educational facilities: other places where there is a pronounced power dynamic. I would bet that ombudsmen also sort through a lot of delusions, vengeance, and misunderstandings, but the job is still one of the most important resources we can give vulnerable people. It's a no-brainer that the conversion process should have one (or three). They're proven to be effective for sorting out real v. imaginary problems, handling those problems, improving trust in the system, and leveling the playing field in an uneven power dynamic. 

But should it be limited to female conversion candidates? No way. Should it be limited to only conversion candidates? No, when the situation is still conversion-related.

An ombudsman, in order to be effective and helpful, needs to be available to all conversion candidates and for any convert who has been threatened with inappropriate behavior because of their conversion. Freundel's actions weren't just sexual, and we will do our community a disservice if we pretend these changes are a direct response to Freundel's actions. The issue is that people complained about Freundel (and who knows who else - I know at least one other beit din had complaints because I was approached for my experiences Freundel), and either nothing happened, nothing standardized happened, or nothing productive happened. Some complaints appear to have been ignored, and others were handled off-the-cuff by people with (thankfully for them?) no experience in these kinds of complaints.

Sexual innuendo (or action, chas v'shalom) isn't the most common complaint of conversion candidates. It's about financial misrepresentations, inappropriate financial requests, exercising power for the sake of having power over another's life, and other arbitrary actions that make conversion candidates' lives more difficult than necessary.

It's because you can get kicked out of a beit din without knowing why and with no ability to appeal.

It's because a beit din can hold you to a halachic standard higher than the community standard (that is also an accepted halachic position), simply because they can. What if the conversion candidate believes that is not the halacha? Should she play along (lie), and then follow the community standard after conversion? Ex. television, some tznius standards, cholov yisroel, or wearing a black hat. Experience tells me that the serious candidates get disgusted and leave (and usually convert conservative), while the people who are less serious are the ones willing "to put up with it for a year or two."

It's because a beit din can delay your conversion for a year because they told you move within walking distance of your shul, and when you moved in 1.1 miles away, they said they couldn't work with you until you lived within 1 mile of the shul. So you have to wait until your lease expires.

It's because you can be in the conversion process for 3, 4, 5, 10 years (yes, 10 years), and feel totally powerless to control your life. 

And who knows what else? 

Men and women have an equal need for an ombudsman, even though women are more likely to use it. Women are the overwhelming majority of conversion candidates, so that's a statistical reality, but they're also the gender more vulnerable to abuse in a system populated entirely by men in a power role. That's not good or bad; that's being realistic.

An ombudsman and the RCA need to be more involved to prevent arbitrary wielding of power either because it's nice to have control over someone else's life when you feel like you don't have any control in your own life or because conversion candidates are the weak gazelles who don't know who to turn to. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, there are abuses in the system, and we need a way to deal with them. We're pushing away good people who are destined to be Jews for all the wrong reasons.

Rabbi Pruzansky believes that conversion candidates already have an ombudsman: their sponsoring rabbi. But not everyone has a sponsoring rabbi (I didn't). And neither is it a given that there is trust or even a basic relationship. And while he knows that the local rabbi has no connection to the beit din, that is not something the conversion candidate knows. Also...sometimes the local rabbi is the problem, as it was in my own case, when I was kicked out of a beit din with no ability to appeal or know why. 

Let's review why conversion candidates are the canary in the coal mine of orthodoxy:
From a blog post from January 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 (funny how this post didn't get any traction then but has had over 3,000 hits in the last 3 weeks!)

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.

Seems pretty relevant today, right? Except that people were complaining and not getting anywhere. Hell, the person who investigated my situation was Freundel himself! That's a screwed-up complaint investigation process if you ask me.

I had been blogging here for 2.5 years before I wrote that. Why on earth would I have waited so long to share this serious problem? Because I had finished converting with another RCA beit din and had gotten married two months earlier. I finally had the "freedom" to speak up, without worrying about sabotaging my conversion or my shidduch prospects. (Though I suppose someone could negate my conversion - just try making me get a geirus l'chumrah!) Even then, I had to ask my husband's permission and make him realize that speaking out on these issues could one day affect our (currently non-existent) children. Baruch Hashem, he saw the importance of sharing it.

Likewise, I was told not to share the fact that I was kicked out of a beit din and not allowed to know why or to appeal. For my own good and the good of my future children, you understand. People wouldn't understand and would make the wrong assumptions about me. I honestly think the men who gave me that advice meant it kindly and to protect me from yentas, but it was still bad advice. Because it isn't talked about, no one knows there is a problem. Only last July did I finally decide to come out of that closet: What If You're Rejected by or Kicked Out of a Beit Din? (though I had shared it individually in many conversations and thus knew people usually didn't scream "burn the witch...I mean apikores!").

I was the oddity who had connections to other orthodox Jews through the internet, and they were my cavalry. I had also been blogging here for about six months, and that gave me access to a lot of people who might not otherwise have taken me seriously. Obviously I cared about Judaism, and they could even see I was knowledgable. Who else has those resources and street cred? Very few. Who or what can a conversion candidate turn to?

Another example:
If a person is in the conversion process for more than 3 years, we need a second opinion, and the ombudsman can alert the RCA to that need. Is it a personal problem with a rabbi in the process? Is there a disagreement over what standard the candidate should be held to in an area of halacha? Is this a family and the family members should be converted as they become ready (like the celebrated The Mountain Family)? Should the candidate be cut loose? What on earth is going on there?? Obviously something is up and needs to be reassessed. And if the candidate is just taking a long time (for whatever reason: whether health, family, financial, education, housing situation, etc), at least we will have an outside verification that the system is working like it should and that both sides understand what the delay is. Rabbis are funny about assuming that the conversion candidate knows what the problem is. The rabbi may have even said it, but it got lost in an emotional conversation or was said off-hand. Let's make sure everyone is on the same page.

What about after the conversion process?
In the Freundel case, there have been accusations of inappropriate requests for monetary donations, complete with insinuations that such support would be necessary for him to continue to vouch for their conversions. It's not a problem for a rabbi to ask a convert for money for whatever cause; it's a problem when only converts are asked or asked for larger amounts because they have a "special relationship" with the rabbi. That's just good fundraising, right? That person owes you on some level, and it's your fundraiser duty to recognize that and use it for the greater good. But from the other person's perspective, that can feel like exploitation and an implicit threat to his or her conversion. It's tricky, and we need to recognize that.

It's past time for ombudsmen in the conversion process, but not in the limited role the RCA has initially announced. I hope they realize that female conversion candidates aren't the only vulnerable people in this situation and that sexual situations are not the only threat.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Join Me for a Live Radio Broadcast TODAY!

I just got word that I'll be a replacement guest on the first episode of Rabbi Eliyahu Fink's new radio show! Please pray for me that I avoid an attack of my Foot in Mouth Disease.

Join us at 1pm Eastern time or you can listen to the archived version later! Listen at

The topic is what the conversion process should look like and if Bethany Mandel's Convert's Bill of Rights accurately represents the experience of conversion candidates today.

(Again, I'm sending this from my phone while traveling, so I apologize for the briefness or any typos.)

UPDATE: Here is a direct link to the archived podcast.

Rabbi Pruzansky's Blog Post Told in Memes

I have not been as vocal as I should have been about the conversion/exploitation of women balagan lately. I can blame starting my own law firm, and that's part of it, but it's all so complex, and I didn't know what I could add to the conversation. A fire has finally been lit under me, but I'm traveling, so I hope to publish something longer soon. In the meantime, my phone can provide a short post that sums up the most-shared article I've seen on these issues: a blog post by Rabbi Pruzansky announcing why he's stepping down from heading the Bergen County, NJ, conversion program:

I'd make that a pretty link, but my phone and I are having technological difficulties. 

Let me sum up that blog post for you: 

And then the overwhelming public reaction: 

I'll highlight some of the issues without going too in-depth right now:

Sexism: Don't worry your pretty little head, girls, we rabbis know best. If you feel that you were exploited, manipulated, or sexually harassed and you don't live in DC, then you're probably just over-sensitive or whiney and wanting a quickie conversion. Tough luck, honey.

More sexism: even talking publicly to women about these issues is a good enough reason to drop your mic and walk off the stage. Sure, oppose women as "quasi-rabbinical figures," but sitting on a committee that will make recommendations (no guarantee the RCA will actually accept those recommendations) is too much. We can't let women tell rabbis what to do, no way no how, even when they're just making non-binding recommendations.

Women can't change conversion halacha: besides the fact that many of the examples the rabbi shares about conversion are not halacha (one year minimum process, for example), he totally misses the fact that this committee will have almost nothing (if anything) to do with halacha. It's about derech eretz. But derech eretz is self-evident, just like abusive behavior, right? If that were true, someone forgot to tell newlyweds. Men and women generally have trouble communicating even in the best of circumstances, much less in such an unequal power dynamic as orthodox conversion. 

Total disregard for conversion candidate emotions: the Mikvah isn't what makes this rabbi uncomfortable, it's the hatafat dam brit (circumcision part of conversion). You know what's wrong there? He only mentions HIS reaction to it, not how the person feels. That's hella disconnected from the reality of conversion candidates. 

Nationality analogy: sure, America makes you live here for five years before letting you become a citizen. Did you know that during those five years, you can't work, send your kids to school, or date? Oh wait, they don't. Your life is not on hold according to the whim of one human being with no oversight. (I used to think there is oversight, but now I know better.)

Hm, that turned out a lot longer than expected. My thumbs hurt.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

UPDATED: Need Some New Dance Moves for Simchat Torah?

I know, you've already mastered all the smooth moves you need for a Jewish event: you can dance in a circle both clockwise and counterclockwise! But maybe you want to switch it up, or maybe the dance circle is moving too painfully slow and you're tired of stepping on other people's toes.

Or maybe you have a different problem. Maybe you're the person who runs away or who tries to fade into the wallpaper when dancing is involved. Perhaps this video is even more important for you... for when people peer pressure you into dancing or just outright drag you into the dancing area.

There's a YouTube video for everything.

Her best advice? "Have a dancing face. Put some attitude into it!"

My only criticism? There were so many great cheesy dance moves left out!  You can't leave out the Roxbury or the Sprinkler or the Cabbage Patch. But I admit that the video would never end if we included them all.

So rather than do that last-minute cleaning or cooking, I want you to turn up the music and get funky instead. You need the practice so that you can bring it on Friday.

What's your favorite cheesy dance move? Mine is the buttfloss dance. And yes, that is actually a video of me. Shameful, I know.

Unbeknownst to me, my friend Reina posted 5 MORE Simchas Torah dance moves for you! She's a dancer and dance teacher, so you should probably take her advice!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

UPDATES A GO GO: Reporters and Detectives Seeking to Talk to Freundel Converts

Just passing this along as an FYI.

Steven Weiss of The Jewish Channel is looking to talk to people who converted under Rabbi Freundel in DC. If you're not already aware, Freundel has been arrested on charges of voyeurism related to an alleged camera in the mikvah. The most detailed story I've seen is in the Forward.

You can contact him through Facebook or email him at steveniweiss at gmail. Here is his Facebook post:
I've been working on an investigation into Rabbi Barry Freundel for many months, and I hope to publish the first installment tonight/tomorrow. I've been speaking about it in vague terms until now, never naming any specific rabbis, but the cat is now out of the bag. So, if you haven't spoken with me, and have anything substantive to share about the rabbi, the conversion process, the RCA, or similar, please message me and we'll talk. I'm granting carte blanche off-the-record status to anyone who reaches out to me; anything you tell me will be as if it's going into a black box, and will never be spoken or written of by me until and unless we reach a further agreement in which you explicitly grant me such permission.
Please share this status far and wide.

If you converted in DC, you are probably worrying about the validity of your conversion. In short, I don't believe you have reason to worry. And if you are still concerned, there are ways to arrange a geirut l'chumrah, but I think that is overkill (as a general rule, of course) unless you are asked to do one. However, you may be contacted by the police if any footage of you (Gd forbid) surfaces during the investigation.

The JTA (Jewish Telegraph Agency) is also looking to talk to RBF converts. Contact Gabrielle Birkner at gbirkner (at)

If you believe you may be a victim, please send a photo of your face, your name at the time of conversion, and any other relevant info to George Desilva (MPD) at
george.desilva (at) Footage may go as far back as 2010 or even earlier, though the charges currently only go back to June 2014.

More reporter info:

Amanda Borschel-Dan, with the Times of Israel

Suzanne Pollak, Senior Writer at the Washington Jewish Week

What Is an Av Beit Din?

When you start corresponding with a beit din (whether to ask for an application or after submitting your application), you will generally be talking to the Av Beit Din. So what is he and what does he do?

Av Beit Din translates roughly as head of the beit din. Av generally means father. 

Depending on how big or small the beit din is, the Av Beit Din is generally the rabbi who oversees the program and its practical details. He is your contact person, the one you will email with questions or concerns. Your Av Beit Din could be different from your friend's even if you're using the same beit din, but that is unusual. 

He may be paid and working in an official, full-time position. He might work part-time. The beit din may have a support staff or there may have a rabbinic intern or it might just be this rabbi. He might even be a volunteer, doing this in addition to a pulpit position or other full-time position.

He will usually not be the "highest ranking" rabbi on "your" personal beit din. Usually, at least one rabbi with "name recognition" will be included on your personal beit din because that's how our society works unfortunately. Ugh, that was a lot of air quotes. Bear with me here.

Overseeing conversions is generally not seen as a "sexy" field that the community appreciates, and it takes a ton of time and energy that could be spent publishing papers or giving talks. Appreciate the professional recognition that your Av Beit Din may be foregoing by choosing to work with conversion candidates. Even better, it's often thankless work that opens him to criticism if a convert or candidate goes off the rails. Who do people criticize first? The gatekeeper, who also happened to have the most contact with the person.

Of course, none of this guarantees he will be warm and fuzzy and fun to hang out with. You may not even like him. But you don't have to like him. Really. That sounds depressing, but it's actually a very freeing thought: if you aren't best friends, that doesn't reflect on who you are as a conversion candidate or as a Jew. This is essentially a business relationship. (Likewise, remember that this is a business relationship when you feel the need to overshare with your rabbi. That's not your relationship; avoid TMI when possible.)

Generally, you should not take matters over his head. If you like another rabbi on your beit din better, I'm sorry, but you should still keep the Av Beit Din assigned to you as your point of contact. That's his role in this process. The information will go to him anyway, so by involving a second rabbi involved with the beit din, you're making more work for everyone involved. Unless you have a really good reason, stick to the Av Beit Din when you have official business for the beit din. Of course, if there is a serious problem with the Av Beit Din or the beit din as a whole, find out who you need to talk to instead. (Easier said than done, I know. We'll talk about that another day.) Very few problems are that serious, and most of the ones that are involve potentially illegal and definitely unethical conduct. I'm not talking about a personality clash or "that was unfair."

Hopefully your relationship with the Av Beit Din will be a source of strength and positivity to you. But don't get upset if it's not. Keep your eye on the prize.

Can you think of anything I forgot?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Problem: You Must Own the Lulav You Are Shaking on the First Day(s) of Chag

Unfortunately, this "problem" is already over for this year, but I want to address it now in case someone thinks it applies to all of chag. And of course, it'll be here, ready for you as a reminder before Sukkot of 2015.

Owning the Lulav Set

On the first day(s) of chag, you must "own" the lulav and etrog you wave. That means one day in Israel, and two days elsewhere. Shorthand: whichever days are celebrated as "yom tov." In theory (no longer in practice), the second day might actually be the first day because of an error in spotting the New Moon. You can borrow a set the rest of the days without issue, so long as it's kosher. Remember a) that some people have higher standards for what makes a set kosher, and b) being a plant, it can get damaged easily through use.

Where do we get this ownership rule? From Leviticus/Vayikra 23:40: "And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period."

But that doesn't sound right because you see that many families share one lulav set. So how does that work? Legalisms, that's how. I'm a lawyer, so you can trust me when I say that legalisms are not restricted to Judaism. That doesn't make me feel any better when I feel that a legalism is silly, so know that you're not alone.

"Borrowing" a Lulav Set

So here's what you do if you need to "borrow" a lulav. Find someone willing to let you use his set. Some people won't - I've seen it, but I can only guess at reasons. Most likely, it is a fear that you will break it and make it unusable. As we said above, they're easily damaged, and it can be hard, if not impossible, to replace them during chag.

Once you have a kind person who will give you his set, the person will "give" you the set "as a gift" (conditioned on its return). Because, you know, you might try to keep it, so we have to protect the owner against this possibility. Jewish law allows something to be a "gift" even if both parties know it should be given back. However, if you are borrowing from someone who is unfamiliar with the halacha, this doesn't work. The person must intend to "give" it to you, not just "lend" it. With just a little awkward conversation, you can make sure that you both understand what it happening. (If you are concerned that the person thinks you're "just borrowing" it, remember to be kind and tactful if you want to clarify the halacha. Don't just assume, and don't be a jerk about it. The person who doesn't know the halacha is the person you should be most kind to.)

You use "your" set, then you "gift" it back to the original owner. 

Special "Borrowing" Situations

So...what if there is more than one person who needs to "borrow"? You make a chain! Easy peasy.

What if you're part of a family that has one set? Generally, because men are the ones obligated in the mitzvah of lulav, the set "belongs" to him. Women can do the mitzvah (and are encouraged to do so), but at the end of the day, he's on the hook, so it should be his. So what if the husband isn't home and someone asks the wife or an older child to borrow the set? It's valid if the "real owner" would have given it if he were there. A minor child can't give the set. 

Who is the "presumed owner" in the home of a single mom? If there is a child over the age of bar mitzvah, he has a high obligation than mom. In a house of daughters and/or sons under bar mitzvah, the owner is presumably the one who purchased it. 

What about roommates? I'd assume it is owned by the person who bought it, and a roommate cannot give it to another. Of course, you can always come to another arrangement.

Can you give someone else's if it's left on the seat at shul? No, don't be a jerk. 

When Kids Are Involved under bar or bat mitzvah. That's a great question too. In Israel, this isn't a problem. Since you only need to "own" the set for one day in Israel, the parents bentch lulav, then "give" the set to a kid because children should practice (this is called chinuch). The kids can share it as they wish since they are not yet obligated until bar or bat mitzvah. 

Outside Israel, there's a problem because the adults need to "own" the lulav set on Day 2. The kids don't have the halachic ability to "give" the set to a parent because they can't make contracts and transfer property. That means that once a parent gives the set to a child on Day 1, the child cannot return the gift to the parent for his use on Day 2, when he must still own the set used. What does the parent do on Day 2?

A better question: why is the parent "giving" the ownership of the set to a child in the first place? Since it's chinuch and the child is not yet obligated, then the parent can lend the set. So I don't understand why this is a question in the first place, but the Gemara says it is, so it is. I have seen an argument that the child would be making a bracha in vain if the child were not "given" the set, but since the child is not obligated whether he owns it or not, I would think that the bracha is "in vain" regardless, but we say it anyway because it is chinuch. ...And this is why Rav Moshe Feinstein says the best case scenario is to buy a set for each of your children, if that is feasible. I'm not going to give you a "this is what you do" for this situation because my research shows that there is a lot going on here, and people may rule differently. So...ask your rabbi if this case applies to you. (But when in doubt, you can always get another person to "give" you his set.)

This seemed like it would be such a simple blog post, right? You know when you say a word so many times that it loses all meaning? I feel that way about "lulav" right now.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What is the Symbolism of the Lulav and Etrog?

The lulav and the esrog might be the strangest-looking ritual in Judaism, but there are some common symbolisms you should know. There are two major "theories" of what they represent, so let's go through them! That way, you won't be caught unawares this chag. And then we'll discuss two more symbolic theories so you can sound like you totally know what you're talking about and have been discussing Sukkot's deeper meaning for ages.

Parts of the Body

Once you know this analogy, you can actually see it (at least I do). And if that doesn't make this weird ritual even weirder, I don't know what will.

Etrog: Heart
Palm Branches: Spine
Myrtle: Eyes
Willow: Mouth

As you use the lulav and etrog to worship Gd, so do all of these parts of your body worship Gd.

The Four Types of Jews

Since unity is one of the major themes of Sukkot, we look at the lulav and etrog as a collection of the various types of Jews. However, I think this particular symbolism is more likely to make you disparage another Jew than bring unity. 

Each "person" is classified according to his learning and his deeds. A nice taste symbolizes learning, and a nice fragrance symbolizes one's good deeds. 

Etrog: Has taste and fragrance, so this represents a Jew who is learned and practices good deeds. 
Palm Branches: Taste and no fragrance, which represents a Jew who is learned but does not do good deeds. (See, you just thought about who might fit that bill, didn't you? That's why I don't like this exercise. #BadMiddos)
Myrtle: No taste but fragrant, so this is the simple Jew who does good deeds.
Willow: No taste and no fragrance, so I guess that makes it the rasha of the group. But perhaps the one who is learned and does not do good deeds should be considered even more a rasha because he should know better?

I prefer to look at this analogy as being parts of ourselves. In certain mitzvot, you may be the etrog, and in others, you may be the myrtle. But on the other hand, maybe you're the willow for mitzvot you don't understand, and maybe you're the palm branches when you feel defiant of a mitzvah you know.


As a bonus, here is another symbolic meaning of the 4 species: they represent the agricultural abundance in Israel and Gd's role in creating it. Each items is tied to a particular habitat in Israel, and water is required for each. As we enter the winter, so begins the rainy season in Israel. In fact, this begins the time of year when we daven for rain in Israel during the Amidah 3 times a day. (Don't forget to add those parts!) This symbolism leads to people call shaking the lulav a "rain dance," and that's too pagan for my tastes.

Unified Field Theory

Yes, you read that right. We're going to dive into theoretical physics! (One of my favorite subjects!) 

I don't trust myself to summarize this theory, so you should just read it here from Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman (it's very short, I promise). But here is the general idea:
"By shaking the four species outward to the six directions of space and then bringing them back to our hearts, we unify and sanctify space within time."

Does any of this symbolism resonate with you? Tell us about it!

Chag sameach!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Basic Timeline for a Three Day Yontif

As you probably learned over Rosh Hashanah, three day yom tovs require a lot of logistical awareness. I thought it might be a good idea to write it out to help you plan the 3 day chag coming up this week. However, this timeline is written for 3 day chagim generally. Always double-check the times in your shul's newsletter or other zmanim calendar (examples: MyZmanim, the OU Calendar, and the Chabad Calendar), and make sure you write them down!

Wednesday Night

Make an eruv tavshilin, if you will need to cook food for Shabbat on the yom tov
Remember to light a fire that will last until Friday night candlelighting (yartzheit candle, gas stove, etc)
Locate your machzor; it's so helpful.
Light candles and make shecheyanu blessing at normal candlelighting time, but you can light until the start of the evening meal if you light from a pre-existing flame (bracha, then light, no eye covering)
Note: I'm told that Sephardi women don't make a bracha on yom tov candles. So if that doesn't apply to you, skip it.
Mincha for weekdays
Maariv for festivals


Shacharit may start earlier than normal, remember to check
Mincha may be longer than normal
Maariv will be later than normal (after three stars, but exact timing can differ significantly by community)
Light candles from a pre-existing flame after the time of 3 stars, but you can light with a bracha so long as people are still awake and could benefit from the light (bracha, then light, no eye covering)
On Rosh Hashanah, make a shecheyanu blessing, but wear something new and have that newness in mind (there are other ways to fulfill the "newness," but this is often the easiest)
Remember to let the match extinguish itself


Shacharis may start earlier than normal, remember to check
Light candles from a pre-existing flame at normal candlelighting time (light, cover eyes, then bracha - like normal)
Remember to let the match extinguish itself
Mincha may be longer than normal
Shortened Kabbalat Shabbat because you're transitioning from "holy" to "holy"
Maariv at normal time


Note: you need to eat your eruv tavshilin items before Shabbat ends - check the latest time according to your community
Regular Shabbat shacharit with festival additions, if applicable
Shabbat lunch
Regular Shabbat mincha with festival additions, if applicable
Seudah Shlishit, if you do that
Weekday Maariv with Motzei Shabbat additions
Regular Havdalah, but check your machzor just in case

In total, you need to plan for as many as 7 meals: 
Wednesday dinner, Thursday lunch, Thursday dinner, Friday lunch, Friday dinner, Shabbat lunch, Shabbat Shalosh Seudas (not everyone does this)

I hope this is helpful!

Monday, October 6, 2014

How to Pronounce Sukkot

Succot, Sukkot, Succos... but for some reason, you never see it written Sukkos. 

Don't rely on the "How to pronounce Sukkot" video on YouTube. It's a computer voice with a British accent that is actually trying to say Sukkos. Don't bother with this other computer-generated-Brit sound file either and for the same reason.

Accented Syllable
There is actually not an accented syllable difference between Hebrew and Americans using Sephardi pronunciation: SuKOT. When you get into American Ashkenazi-speak, the accented syllable changes: SUKkus.

A minor difference you may have noticed above: I only included one K in the Sephardi pronunciation. You don't hear Suk-KOT, instead you hear Su-KOT. The Ashkenazi Americans have a K sound in both syllables: SUK-kus. 

Hebrew Vowels
The U is pronounced "oo" as in "suit." The O is pronounced as a long O sound, like "coat."

American Ashkenazi Vowels
The U is pronounced "uh" like book. The second syllable is not pronounced like "us" the word, but it's very close. I can't think of an English word, but there is the Yiddish word shtus (silliness, nonsense, stupidity, junk/crap as a value judgment). Maybe this vowel sound doesn't exist in English...

But whatever you do, don't pronounce it "suck-it." That's one of my favorite "Oh no, what did I say?!" moments ever, and this time, it wasn't me!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What Is Daf Yomi and How Does It Work?

Daf Yomi is the practice of studying one page of the Talmud daily in a seven year cycle. By "page," we mean two "normal pages" front and back of one sheet of paper, also known as a folio. One page a day for a total of 7.5 years. And at the end, we throw a big party known as the Siyum HaShas! Agudath Israel of America throws the "main" American party, but you can find local siyums and larger ones in Israel and other countries. [I would link you to Agudath Israel's website, but there is none. I'll save you from that hour of confused Googling I had about a year ago.]

Some other Daf Yomi-related words to know
Daf: Page, as we said above. A page in the sense of a folio.
Amud: One half of a folio; or what you would normally call "one page."
Seder: Order. Plural is sedarim. Groups tractates on a similar topic together. For example, we are about to start Seder Nashim (women), which includes seven tractates dealing with women, marriage, divorce, vows, and family life. These six groupings are transferred from the groupings of the Mishnah,  the foundational text of the Talmud.
Masechet: Tractate, which basically means book. It's a subsection of the Talmud determined by the tractate of Mishnah it covers, which is broken down roughly by the subject matter. The plural form is masechtot
Siyum: Means "completion," but usually refers to a party or meal thrown to celebrate the completion of something religious, generally a tractate of Mishnah or Talmud.
Shas: Another name for Talmud (or Mishnah by itself?). It's an acronym for shisha sidrei, 6 seders/orders.
Rashi: Rashi's commentary on the Talmud is printed on the inside margin of the Talmud page. Rashi is primarily interested in "what is the plain meaning of this word or phrase (the pshat)?" If a person studies only one commentary on Talmud, it is the Rashi. Even if you don't "study the Rashi," you can often find useful information there when you have a question.
Tosafot / Tosefot / Tosafos / Tosefos: A commentary written after Rashi's that is printed on the outside margin of the Talmud page. It was written by many people, the baalei haTosefot, and seeks to harmonize the Talmud across tractates, which is contrary to Rashi's "localized" notes. Even though the Tosafists respected Rashi (and included his sons-in-law and grandson), they don't hesitate to correct Rashi when they disagree with his interpretation.
Gemara: Talmud is made up of both Mishnah and Gemara. Gemara is a later commentary/elucidation of the Mishnah, and both are included on the Talmud page. The words Talmud and Gemara are often used interchangeably. 

What is studied in the Daf Yomi?
For the most part, the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) is the basis of Daf Yomi. However, there are a few masechtot of Mishnah that don't have a corresponding tractate in the TB. In those few cases, we temporarily shift to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud). 

There is a greater push for studying the Talmud Yerushalmi. There are Yerushalmi Yomi calendars and programs, but they aren't standardized and coordinated with each other like the Daf Yomi cycle. However, because the Yerushalmi is shorter than the Bavli, the cycle lasts 5 years.

Who learns Daf Yomi?
Men and women both study Daf Yomi, though many more men do than women. However, there are men out there who don't think any orthodox women study Daf Yomi (or Talmud in general), and there are many of those who believe women are halachically prohibited from doing so. Those conversations can get awkward fast, as I learned from the perplexed and/or horrified stares I sometimes got when this would happen during my full-time study last year:
"Oh, so what do you do?"
"I'm learning Gemara."

How do you learn Daf Yomi?
While traditionally studied in Hebrew, you can learn the Daf in English (as I am doing now). It's not perfect, but Daf Yomi is a quick overview of the Talmud. It is not in-depth study, nor is it intended to be an in-depth study. And don't feel bad if (when) you fall behind, because that happens to most people at one point or another. And some people, like myself, live perpetually behind.

Many people attend an in-person class on the Daf, but there are literally dozens of podcasts and online shiurim you can listen to at your convenience. Most last approximately an hour, but there are shorter versions available. Rav Etshalom's Daf Yomi shiur (also available as a podcast) was highly recommended to me, and it averages 15-20 minutes. Shiurim fill in the gaps in the text and help you make the connection to related ideas in other parts of the Talmud, in halacha, or in history.

I used to be afraid of Daf Yomi. But then I saw the blogger Dov Bear post a question on Facebook last year (paraphrased from memory): "How many and which tractates have you *actually learned*? Daf Yomi doesn't count." I had never realized how cursory the Daf Yomi study program really is, especially for those who struggle with Hebrew and Aramaic. So don't be afraid of tackling Daf Yomi, even for just a short masechet. Give it a shot and see what it's like!

How to learn Daf Yomi in English
Locate an English version online, which will likely come from the older Soncino version. The English isn't so "modern," but it's usable. You can find it for free as a PDF at or in Kindle versions on Amazon (a complete list of the masechtot available on Amazon is available here).

The English versions available online don't have the Rashi (and certainly not Rashi translated into English), but you'll often learn more about Rashi's statements in the shiur. If you want to study the English version of Rashi (and Tosefot?), you will need to get actual Talmud books. The new Koren series (or the older version, Steinsaltz) is the most common method today for English learners. Each Koren masechet is released in time for its position in this Daf Yomi cycle. The Koren is written by Rabbi Steinsaltz, and thus, is basically an updated version of his older set (with more bells and whistles and explanations, I'm told).

Each day, read the appropriate Daf and listen to a shiur or podcast that is easy for you to understand. If you aren't following the discussion because of many Hebrew or yeshivish words, look for another. There are many you can understand without Hebrew or yiddish knowledge. Most people listen to the shiur after reading the Daf, but there is no rule that says you must do it that way. Learn in a way that makes sense for your brain.

You may want to switch up the shiurim you listen to or listen to a longer shiur when a Daf particularly interests you. You can also find shiurim that cover an entire topic or the entire tractate in order to get a feel for the forest instead of focusing solely on the trees.

I've created a page here on the blog to bring all these resources together for beginners who wish to learn Daf Yomi in English. You can click "Learn Daf Yomi in English" in the header above (or in this sentence).

Where are we in the Daf Yomi cycle now?
You can always find the current page or mesechet on a Daf Yomi calendar. They're available all over the web. You can even add the current Daf to your Google calendar with Calendar ID:

Tomorrow (Monday, October 5, 2014) is the first day of Tractate Yevamot in the current Daf Yomi Cycle. This is the first tractate of the Seder Nashim (women), which deals with marriage and divorce.

Yevamot is one really interesting tractate in the Talmud Bavli. It's very difficult, primarily because you'll have to figure out family relationships that more closely resemble a soap opera more than life today. Bigamy, incest, and levirate marriage, oh my. It lays the foundation for the laws of marriage and divorce that follow in other tractates of Seder Nashim. 

Want to learn something else? 
There's a great calendar that compiles many different learning cycles on one calendar. But be warned, the website is very basic and not always as functional as you might want in 2014. 

If you want a simple yearly study of Torah, consider the following ideas:
Parsha study each week will get you through the Torah in one year. We're about to start Bereshit, so what better time to begin??
Studying approximately 2 chapters of Neviim and Ketuvim (NaCh) a day will allow you finish the entirety of Tanakh in one year (if you also read the Parshas each week).

What are you waiting for? Get learning!

Friday, October 3, 2014

How to Pronounce Gmar Chatima Tova

It's that time, folks. The Ten Days of Repentance. People are probably saying a long Hebrew phrase at you, and you're trying to figure out what the heck it is. Don't feel bad. The first year, I was really confused for a week or so, and then it stopped, and I forgot all about it. It took me three years in the community to finally put on my big girl panties and ask someone before I forgot. After all, people only said it for a couple of weeks, and then I could live in blissful ignorance the rest of the year.

Like "shana tova," there is a difference between Israelis and Americans as to which syllables are accented. Also, Ashkenazim (theoretically) say "g'mar chasima tova." However, according to my searching on the internet, it seems like the "chatima" version is becoming the overwhelming choice. A very interesting observation, but I have no answer why this phrase is becoming Sephardi-default and not 1,000 others.

Here is the slow version of an Israeli accent. You'll obviously want to speak faster than this. I couldn't find a recording to an American accent or the Ashkenazi phrasing, so I suppose you're just going to have to act Sephardi!

But if you really insist, this is the best I can do for you: G'mar (one syllable, identical to the Israeli recording) chaSIma / chaTIma TOva. 

Whatever pronunciation you choose, I suggest practicing it at home before using it in conversation. Say it several times out loud until you get all the kinks out. And don't worry, you'll still trip over the words a few times, and probably again each year when you bring it out again. It happens to even the best of us.

You can find more about the literal translation of g'mar chatima tova on the Learn Hebrew website.

And, because I know you're wondering, you answer "G'mar chatimah tovah" with the same. You can even switch it up by responding "shana tova" instead. (I guess that's the method to take if you don't want the other person in the Book of Life this year?)

G'mar chatima tova to all of you!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Do You Need a Hebrew Name to be "Jewish"?

Nope. Whether your name is Shaindy or Sunshine, Chaim or Christina, Mendy or Moustafa, you are Jewish if you're Jewish. Now, who qualifies as Jewish is a much bigger and hotly debated question! 

If you're Jewish (by whatever definition you're using) and don't have a Hebrew name, you can continue to live without a Hebrew name if you want. 

If you want to take on a Hebrew name, then just choose one. You don't need any special ceremony, but you can be "officially" named during the Torah reading. If you're a man, they'll call you to the bimah for an aliyah and do the naming as part of the Misheberachs after your aliyah. If you're a woman, then a man will get an aliyah for you or you can appoint the gabbai/reader/rabbi to read it during the "official" Misheberachs (after the third aliyah, if memory serves). Mi sheberachs are traditionally used to pray for the ill, but anyone who needs a blessing can be included. 

The Torah service is one way of making it public. But be careful that a zealous rabbi doesn't name you before you know it or before you're ready. I know of one person who was named at the Torah but had no idea until the rabbi came up and excitedly said, "So did you hear me name you??" Don't be that guy, rabbis of the world. Make sure people know beforehand. This should be special.

My only advice is to sit on your name choice for a few months (or more!) to make sure it's "right." If it still feels good after a few months, go for it. If you're still uncertain, wait a little longer. Some people wait for a year or more! The only reason you may need to speed up your decision process is if you need to use that name soon. For instance, you're getting married or having a geirus l'chumrah done (to remove any uncertainty about your Jewishness). If you think you need a Hebrew name in order to get a Jewish divorce, then I've got some bad news: you cannot have a marriage that requires a religious divorce without having used your Hebrew name at the marriage on a ketubah. On the other hand, that means less work and no mamzerim from your future relationships! Always look on the bright side, right?

If you need to use a "Hebrew name" in the meantime, for instance if you ask someone to pray on your behalf or need to fill out an enrollment form, you can use your English name. For example, Amanda bat Jennifer or Andrew ben Stanley. Remember, your Hebrew name is a "legal name," so it only has to be used in very limited circumstances.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Impostor Syndrome After Conversion

Let's get in some deep psychological stuff today. Let's talk about impostor syndrome. Sometimes (okay, maybe a lot), I feel like a Jewish impostor.

We'll start with a visit to my Inner Monologue:
After 10 years in the community and almost 3 years after Conversion 2.0, I still wonder if I was really, totally sincere. And if I wasn't, am I still Jewish? Will I have kids people think are Jewish, and they'll get married and create an intermarriage without realizing it? Do I really believe in Gd? Am I doing mitzvot for the right reason? When I fail to do a mitzvah (or blatantly do something wrong), is that evidence that I wasn't serious? Am I a fraud?
As someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I've been known to ruminate a bit. A whole lot of a bit. I also believe that people with OCD tend towards hypermoralism (not just about ritual observance, as a Redditor talks about - funnily, I never thought about connecting hypermoralism to OCD rituals related to religion since it's mental v. physical).  That doesn't mean I act "really morally" all the time. But it does mean that I think a lot about my motives and the moral implications of the actions I take, especially after the fact in the middle of the night. As you know, there are often several moral angles to any situation, and I may be scrupulous in one kind of morality and not another. Or maybe I just had a bad day or something triggered a different fear and led to an overreaction. But I'm always working on my own morality and whether my actions are in line with what I "preach." 

Impostor syndome is a really common psychological problem, if you've never heard of it. It's (surprisingly?) very common among the most successful people in our society. I had never heard of it until I saw a video of Tina Fey discussing her struggles with it. Of course, I can't find that video now, but here is a similar quote:
"The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh God, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!' So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud."
That quote comes from the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. I don't think women are more susceptible than men, but that's the focus of the book. I haven't read it (yet), but here is a great quote of how the author describes Impostor Syndrome:
You're “always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You feel as if you’ve flown under the radar, been lucky or that they just like you. If you dismiss your accomplishments and abilities, you’re left with one conclusion: That you’ve fooled them.”

And boy, does that describe conversion sometimes. LifeHacker suggests that Impostor Syndrome is actually a good sign. Would I rather not have it? Yes. But thanks for making me less like a failure, LifeHacker. A for effort.

While I may struggle with these questions more than the average bear, I think impostor syndrome is alive and well for many (most?) converts at one point or another. You've "made it," but what now? 
Quoting a prior blog post: A very wise rabbi once told me that a common problem with converts is that they fail to realize "there's no there there."
We often focus on the goal of conversion without making longer-term goals beyond conversion. Then the mikvah happens, and we're supposed to just start living as a Jew. That's a huge shift of your self-perception from the person struggling to get in the door to being Average Jewish Joe. Compound that with still feeling like the same person you always were, and you can doubt whether "the change" happened:
Who am I? Where do I belong? Do I fit in? Is this the right place for me? Have I fooled even myself?
My conclusion is that it's normal. I don't believe there is a real "change" at the mikvah in our self-perception. Change happens so much more gradually. You may "feel Jewish" long before you enter that mikvah or you may struggle to "feel Jewish" for the rest of your life. All I know is that I feel like me. Just Skylar. (And that's a major part of the philosophy behind why I don't go by my Hebrew name, speaking of overthinking things.) I happen to be Jewish. Perhaps that is closer to what FFBs feel?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Stephen Colbert, the Atone Phone, and a Jewish Conversion for Wilco Frontman Jeff Tweedy

I happen to be a big fan of the Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert is a fellow Charlestonian, so I can hipster you by telling you that I've probably been stalking him longer than you.

I was catching up on last week's episodes and caught a great segment called The Atone Phone, where Jews can call and ask Stephen's forgiveness. And what do you know, Jewish conversion came up! 

Jeff Tweedy, frontman of the band Wilco, says here that he converted this year. I immediately jumped on to Google to learn more about it!

I didn't find anything new, but I found an article from the New York Times in 2009 that included this gem:
Q: I hear your older son had a bar mitzvah this year. What did you think of the process, as a non-Jew with a Jewish wife?
A: I was just so proud of my son — he really nailed it. I sang “Forever Young,” by Bob Dylan, and everybody cried. We have a very liberal congregation, and there’s a lot of acoustic-guitar strumming.
A longer version of that answer is available on Uncut (not a Jewish publication, funnily enough).

I don't know which movement he converted with (let's not play the "Who Is a Jew" Game), but it's wonderful to see someone who obviously converted for the sake of Judaism. It's hard to raise children Jewishly if you aren't Jewish, and those parents who choose to convert l'shem shemayim are truly admirable!