Sunday, April 27, 2014

The First Two Books You Should Buy

When you decide to start exploring Judaism, the number of books and websites is overwhelming. But really, all you need is two books. Everything else is just productive procrastination at this point.

  • The Tanach
  • A Siddur
Tanach: The Bible
"But I already own a Bible!" you might say. "I just won't read the New part!"

I understand; that's totally logical. But that's not going to be very helpful to you.

You know this, but people (especially Americans) often forget: translation matters, and it can be manipulated. Further, remember that the Christian scriptures are translations of translations. In most cases, the "Old Testament" will be the Hebrew translated into Greek translated into Latin, then translated into English, probably just "updating" the archaic English of the King James version. (I just read a fabulous book on the New Testament and its translations: Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Bart Ehrman!) Worse, the included books may be different! (You know that the Protestant and Catholic bibles have different books included, right?)

So yes, you need a "Jewish version" of the Old Testament. Though still in translation, it'll be only Hebrew to English, and the "translation choices" will be made with Judaism in mind. Remember that even then, a specific section could be translated very differently and still be within the Jewish perspective. Midrashim will often pick up on that. 

There are two most popular versions of Tanach (which includes the Chumash - the 5 books of the "Torah" - and the other books you may have previously called "The Old Testament." 
The Artscroll Tanach (as of right now, the smaller Student Edition is more expensive)

Note that neither of these sefarim - books - will be what you use in synagogue on Shabbat during Torah readings. That book will, most likely, be the Artscroll Chumash. (Chumash is only the first 5 books, while the Tanach has all 24 books.) If it is important to you to have the same book as you use in shul, then buy the Artscroll Tanach because the English translation and commentary of the first 5 books should be the same as you would have in shul, but you'll have the benefit of the "extra" books without buying 2 books. If you're nerdy like me, you may want the JPS at home so that you can see a different translation before reading the Artscroll one during the Torah reading at shul. Alternatively, you can also read the Chabad translation on their website's Torah portion section. Personally, I really enjoy seeing how JPS, Artscroll, and Chabad translate ideas differently so that I can get a fuller understanding of the Hebrew. Chabad's printed Chumash is the Gutnik Chumash. I don't know whether this edition is the same translation as that on the Chabad website, and everyone I've asked doesn't know either, but I hear it has a great deal of commentary included.

Siddur: The Prayer Book
Then you'll need a siddur: a prayer book. Jewish prayer is very...regulated, for lack of a better word. It's formalized. But don't forget that your prayers in your own words are just as important and meaningful. However, you'll need to learn the Jewish approach to prayer, which has many benefits after the initial sticker shock of "who has enough time to say all these prayers every day?!"

But which siddur? The list of available siddurim grows every year, and now you can even get several different siddurim on your phone! A) You'll want a paper one instead of only a digital one. B) Your best best is to use the same siddur your synagogue uses. If you don't have a synagogue yet, you should probably start with the Artscroll Ashkenazi one, since it is the most used in America. There is a pocket-size edition, which is great for a purse or backpack, but I suggest getting a full-size version first because the font is larger and easier to read. The full-size edition will be especially helpful for reading vowels when you move into the Hebrew text.

For more about choosing a siddur, which out the post Which Siddur Should I Use?

Which siddur do you use, and what do you like about it? 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

New Page: No Stupid Questions!

Have a "stupid" question you're afraid to ask? Tell me, and I'll ask it for you!

Check out the new website page, No Stupid Questions, in the bar above. I was inspired by a search term that was my own favorite "stupid" question: Can you flush a toilet on Shabbat? Check out the page to see my response! 

You've already learned what's bothering Rashi, so what's bothering you?? 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shiur today on Google Hangouts!

Shavua tov, all! Want to learn more about Our Chametz, Ourselves? Shiur will be this evening, New York City USA time, at 6pm! If you want to join the chat, make sure you've downloaded Google Hangout's software so that we can see each other's beautiful faces. Email me at crazyjewishconvert on gmail with your email address so I can invite you to join the hangout. 

Looking forward to seeing you! Chag sameach!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Let's Have a Shiur on Sunday!

With Pesach fast approaching, I did some research into what chametz means to you and me as an aspect of our personality and character. How can we search for chametz within ourselves? What does chametz come to teach us? Wanna see what I learned and share your own experiences and opinions? You're in luck! Let's talk about Our Chametz, Ourselves.

Let's have a blog Google Hangout on this Sunday evening at 6pm New York City USA time. This is the first live (or video) shiur/lesson from me, so it'll either teach you something meaningful or a hilarious story-gone-wrong for your seder. Come get some spiritual inspiration for your bedikat chametz later that evening!

In between now and Sunday, I will figure out how Google Hangouts work. For more information, check out the blog after noon on Sunday (or right before 6pm) to find out where to go. If you have difficulties (or want to help me overcome my Hangouts difficulties), please feel free to contact me at crazyjewishconvert on gmail. I believe my Google+ page is where the Hangout will be based:

If I don't see you Sunday, have a chag kosher v'sameach!And have a wonderful time at the seder. It's truly one of the best times of the year!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Has Pesach Got You Down?

Pesach, rather than being The Time of Our Freedom, is often The Time of Our Enslavement to Community Insanity and the Vacuum Cleaner. 

But don't worry. It doesn't have to be this way. Realize that most people are insane, and that your house is perfectly kosher even if you don't dryclean the drapes, remove your car seats, or Q-tip the seal around your fridge. Crazy people will tell you otherwise. Consider this a kindness from Hashem to know who you should not take halachic advice from.

The rabbis say that is praiseworthy to be machmir in preparing for Pesach...but instead of taking that so literally, be strict in removing the chametz within yourself: arrogance and pride. What is Pesach peer pressure except arrogance and pride that "I'm SO kosher for Pesach!" It is an Arms Race for who can be "the most frum." Don't buy it. You're kosher, no matter what Frummy McFrumstein says. No one that "frum" is going to eat in someone else's kitchen during Pesach anyway, so why does (s)he need to know how you cleaned your house? Even better, let's all commit to not discussing the cleaning at all! 

Don't let Pesach ruin your Pesach. Please.

Chametz has a specific definition, and most of the things you're cleaning up are halachically categorized as dust or garbage. Don't confuse halacha with spring cleaning, and you'll be less likely to beat yourself up when it's totally unnecessary. 

Want to learn more about cleaning out your chametz?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

How Much Time Should You Wait Between Eating Meat and Dairy?

The Dutch only wait one why wouldn't everyone choose to hold by the Dutch when you have the choice?

As a convert (and baal teshuva with no family tradition), you can generally choose how long you want to "wait" between eating meat and dairy. You'll often hear that you have a choice of 3 hours or 6 hours, but it's more complicated than that. 

Minhagim include:
"1 hour" by the Dutch community
3 hours 
"Into the sixth hour" (aka, five hours and 1 minute)
6 hours 

I have read there are 4 hour, 5 hour, 5.5 hour, and 5.51 hour minhagim, but I haven't run into that in real life. Perhaps they have fallen into disuse by large groups? 

Obviously (as in all halachic conversations), you should not generalize who holds by how long because there is a great variation among both communities and individuals. However, I've noticed that as more baalei teshuva and converts join communities, there is more standardization within communities.

So what's a good rule of thumb?
  • Well, "the Dutch" don't exactly hold by an hour. I'm told that it's actually 72 minutes. (I believe most people who hold by this Dutch custom today are not actually Dutch - converts do choose this minhag. And remember that the Dutch community was actually Spanish and Portuguese!) The Dutch community often waits between dairy and meat for the same amount of time, I'm told.
  • The German community (also known as Yekkes, though some find that term offensive) holds by 3 hours. It is believed that 3 hours is a chumrah of waiting 1 hour. See, I have chumrahs too!
  • Sephardim generally hold by 6 full hours. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (which was written by a Sephardi for a Sephardi audience - the Rema held differently for Ashkenazim).
  • Ashkenazim are the most variable: 3 hours, into the fifth hour, or 6 full hours.
  • The Chabad community waits 6 hours (whether those are full or not, I do not know), but they can also wait up to an hour after eating dairy. 
  • If someone says they hold by 6 hours, they may actually mean "into the sixth hour." 
  • If you become frum, you will be pressured to take 6 hours. Some batei din may require it. Whether that is 6 full hours or something less, I don't know.

How should you choose? I can't tell you which to choose (though I think we should all go to 3 hours like myself), but here are some of the ways people might choose.

First and foremost, what does your community do? It's often easiest to pick the community standard, but nowadays, people move communities often and communities aren't monolithic. There may be no community standard!

Do you have a family tradition? Do you have Jewish relatives who hold a certain way? Or is there family lore about how Jewish relatives used to hold? Even if you were not born Jewish, this can be a great way to create continuity with your Jewish ancestors.

Even if you don't have Jewish family, do you have a geographic/ethnic connection to a particular community? For example, I am from German/Italian background, so that influenced my choice of the German tradition. If you're actually Dutch, perhaps you should take the Dutch minhag to make sure the community is represented where you live! Did you study abroad in a Sephardi country? Do you have an affinity for a particular region or culture?

Do you have a Jewish spouse with a family tradition? Do you expect to marry into a certain community with a particular tradition? 

Do you have a medical reason for needing a shorter wait time? If you are diabetic or have other blood-sugar related disorders, you may need greater freedom to eat frequent meals of whatever is healthiest for you to eat at that time. Medical reasons can even be used to change an already-existing minhag. You should do what is best for your health and consult a rabbi who understands your health concern. At the time I chose, this was my main concern: I had a problem with low blood sugar and needed to eat approximately every 3 hours. The 3 hour choice seemed natural, and many people believe that the hours do/should correspond to the "normal" time between meals. Allegedly, this is the reason why the German community held by 3 hours in Northern Europe (night comes awful early in the winter there). 

Others are party-poopers who say that even if you eat meals more frequently than 6 hours, the rule is the rule. That's a valid argument. These people are holding that the time is related to the time to digest the meat itself or for it to otherwise disappear from your mouth and throat. In other words, it's about the meat and its "aftertaste," not the meal itself.

The question going forward is to ask when you start counting that time... Is it from the time you said the blessings? The time you finished eating meat itself? The time you finished eating the meal? I can't help you yet because I didn't even know this question existed until today!

For more detail and citations: 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Proving "Jewishness"

How does one "prove" he or she is Jewish? 

Most of the time, a simple conversation is all that's necessary:
"Is your mother Jewish? Is your grandmother Jewish?"
"Excellent! Please marry my daughter!"
I exaggerate, but you get the point. Often, a simple question is all that is needed to establish "qualifying" for something Jewish, like being counted in a minyan or signing up for a class.

But sometimes that's not enough...

From New York Times Magazine:
The traditional willingness to trust a person who said he was Jewish, Ehrentreu asserts, presumed that no one had anything to gain by it. Today, he told me, there are ulterior motives — to be able to leave another country and come to Israel, “to be recognized here as Jewish, to be able to get married.” That is, Israel’s prosperity, its attractiveness to immigrants, is now a reason for doubt.

In some ways, being a convert can make the "are you Jewish?" conversation much easier and streamlined. You have paperwork that says "So-and-so is Jewish." Of course, whether someone accepts those papers as a legitimate proof of Jewishness is a different question. If your mother or maternal grandmother converted, you need those papers. You may also have this kind of letter if you were adopted but born of a Jewish mother.

However, even paperwork isn't a given if you lose it or it gets destroyed. Scan it, copy it, place an original in a safe deposit box, do what you need to do. I can't forget a story I heard online of a man with 4 conversions: reform, conservative, orthodox, and geirus l'chumrah because the office building of the orthodox conversion burned down and lost his paperwork!

When it comes to proving Jewishness, things aren't as easy for born Jews, especially those whose ancestors fled Europe around WWII. So what can you do if you need to prove you're Jewish?

Ideally, your parents have a ketubah. Or your maternal grandmother has a ketubah. If not, you provide a letter from an orthodox rabbi who knew both your maternal grandmother and mother and you. These are the Holy Grails of Jewishness. Of course, nothing is guaranteed in today's political rabbinics climate.

If you aren't that lucky, start with your birth certificate and work backward. Document everything, as more proof is always better. And you never know when you may need to re-prove your Jewishness (yes, really). Make backups of your proof and store them in various places, including the cloud (with appropriate identify theft safeguards). Your birth certificate will be the key to begin proving to governments that you are a family member who has the right to request the record of others.

On the bright side, you only need to focus on your maternal side. If you find proof of paternal Jews, it's good circumstantial evidence but not conclusive. I recommend keeping it, but don't spend much time there. is really a great tool to use. It will be worth a membership for a month or two while you sort this out. While not conclusive, you can add weight to your argument with a maternal Ashkenazi heritage shown through genetic tests by Ancestry and 23andMe.

Speaking of inconclusive evidence, it's possible that you may never be able to "conclusively" prove your Jewishness. However, you may collect enough circumstantial evidence to convince a beit din to declare you Jewish. If you're in this situation, I recommend getting a ruling from a beit din on your Jewishness, which will give you paperwork and simplify the question for the future (assuming your future circumstances recognize the validity of the beit din you went to). For example, the Beit Din of America does halachic status determinations.

If your proof is too circumstantial, you may be asked to undergo a geirus l'chumrah, a conversion in case of doubt. What is required for a geirus l'chumrah depends on you, the strength of your proof, and your beit din. It may be a formality or you may have to go through a full conversion process. Alternatively, a beit din could find you Jewish, but "not Jewish enough" to marry a cohen. You could find a rabbi willing to marry you to a cohen, but it might be a headache. However, your children should be able to marry cohanim if you continue to live an observant life and stay embedded in the community.

Back to looking for proof...

Start with the state government, if your maternal ancestors were born in the United States. You should be able to request copies of birth, death, and marriage certificates (you don't need death certificates - but if it's all you have, it's all you have). You can check census records to verify your relatives' residences, especially if they have common names. If your maternal line is in the United States, you can try contacting the local synagogues where they lived to see if old synagogue records exist that list them in the membership. Even better, if their gravestone is in the local Jewish cemetery. Get pictures, many of which can be found online (or requested online through websites like BillionGraves).

Look at whether their addresses were in known Jewish neighborhoods. Do you have family heirlooms that are Jewish ritual objects? Do family members have recognizably Jewish names like Yaakov or Shaindel? Did you find record or family lore of any Hebrew names? Do you have family stories that are clearly Jewish? If anyone is still alive who knew the known-Jew, have them write a letter. Is a different branch from the same female relative living actively as Jews today? Again, see if you can get a letter. Even a secular/government marriage certificate can be useful if it lists a rabbi as the officiant. All of this info can help you.

Immigration records can be key to locating your family's overseas origins. Be aware that immigration documents are notorious for misspellings or even complete misunderstandings. Depending on where your family comes from, that will determine your next steps. Generally, you will be looking for records of burial in Jewish cemeteries, presence on a known list of Holocaust victims, synagogue membership records, or ketubot (marriage contracts/Jewish marriage certificates).

It sounds counterintuitive, but the Mormon Church has the largest ancestry databases and resources, and they are free to the public. If you have problems finding information, your local Mormon Church might be the next best stop. Also check out these resources from's Genealogy website.

It's a good question how far back you can go and still be recognized as Jewish by the community. You may be able to prove that your great-great-great-grandmother was Jewish, but everyone since then has been Catholic. Will you be required to have a geirus l'chumrah? Probably, if for no reason other than simplification (or because of doubt that maybe you can conclusively prove things that far back). However, if you're dating a kohen, this may not be a good answer. If you find yourself in that situation, I don't envy you.

Some stories about the effort to prove one is "Jewish enough" to be married in Israel:
How Do You Prove You're a Jew?
You're Jewish? - Prove it!
So You Think You Are Jewish Enough for an Israeli Wedding? Prove it!
A Ruinous Monopoly