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!

How to Pronounce Shana Tova

Looking to wish people a happy new year? The internet is here to help. 

There are a few ways to greet people over the coming week, but we're going to start with "Shana tovah!"

Here's a great Israeli pronunciation. You'll notice that the accented syllable is different from what many American Jews say: ShaNAH ToVAH. Americans will often pronounce it with an American accent (no big surprise there, I guess): SHAnah TOvah. If you want to hear some American pronunciation (or Lion King pronunciation), the Ramaz School in Manhattan is here to help with a video: How Do You Say Shana Tovah?

And how do you respond if someone else wishes you a Shanah Tovah? You reply the same. Easy peasy. 

Shana tova! 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Can a Mikvah Turn You Away for Having Tattoos?

No. Just no. 

There is no prohibition against a person with tattoos using a mikvah, either male or female. I have never heard of anyone being turned away from a mikvah, other than single women (but that's a different discussion - premarital sex, not tattoos).

Getting a tattoo is prohibited, but there is no prohibition on what you already have. In fact, you are probably prohibited from removing it! 

You are neither the first nor the last tattoo a mikvah attendent will see. I can reassure you about this because I have tattoos and have used mikvaot throughout the US and in Israel without comment. Tattoos are incredibly common in the BT, convert, and flirted-with-leaving-orthodoxy crowds. 

I find that men are generally the ones most concerned about tattoos at the mikvah. After all, women have to go, but men choose whether to go to a mikvah. Even more, men can attend the mikvah in groups, and the other people using the mikvah with you may not be as rational, sane, or as observant of the laws of speech. As they say, don't judge Judaism by the Jews. But the chances of a bad experience are slim. 

Men, as Yom Kippur approaches, embrace the power of mikvah and don't let concerns about tattoos stop you. (But remember that any piercings will have to be removed.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Can You Go to Synagogue on the High Holidays Without a Ticket?

Well, sure. However, your mileage may vary whether you get in the door, whether you have a seat, or whether people are jerks to you. (All of the below applies to synagogues in any movement - orthodox, conservative, and reform.)

I don't like that shuls charge exorbitant amounts for "tickets" for the High Holydays. I like more Jewish people doing more Jewish things. So while I wish people attended synagogue more often, I'm glad they come any time. However, I'm not the treasurer of a shul (or any other shul position of leadership, baruch Hashem). 

Here's why shuls charge $100 or more (and sometimes much more) to attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
  • Limit the number of people who attend. Most shuls just cannot hold as many people as would like to come. The fire marshall puts a limit on how many people can safely be in the building, and there are only so many seats. Many shuls expand the seating for the chagim, but demand usually still exceeds supply.
  • Likewise, know how many people will be attending. They have to plan, ya know?
  • It's a great fundraising opportunity for the shul. Some shuls bring in more for the chagim than their normal membership funds. 
  • I can't guarantee anyone actually thinks this, but it sounds a bit like a sin tax: "You only come to shul twice a year? How nice, that'll be $300. That's almost the price for a full year of membership, but how would you know? Your poor grandmother is rolling over in her grave."
  • Keep in mind that the reform movement only holds one day of Rosh Hashanah, so your ticket may not "go as far" in those congregations. That may matter to you.

But some shuls (mostly Chabads, but not all Chabad houses) don't charge anything. Like me, their mission is to see Jewish people doing Jewish things. It's in line with their mission statement to make if affordable to attend shul for the chagim.

What if you're already a member of the shul? Shuls differ as to whether the congregant's membership fees cover tickets. Most will still ask you to pay in addition to membership fees. (Remember: fundraising.) 

How do you find a place to daven? Try these:
  • High Holidays Directory
  • Chabad High Holidays Services Directory
  • Google "High Holidays service in *town*"
Remember to arrive early to get a machzor with English (or your preferred translation). You should be able to find siddurim in Russian, French, or Spanish at many shuls.

But here's the real question: what happens if you can't afford that exorbitant price? As I see it, you have a couple of options:
  • Stay home and mope
  • Stay home and daven
  • Try to crash the party
  • Shul shop for a place with cheaper (or free!) tickets
  • Ask for a reduced-price ticket
  • Ask for a free ticket
  • Ask around whether a family has an "extra" ticket (usually a child away at college)
All shuls should be willing to negotiate a price, and many will allow students and other low-income people attend for free. I don't recommend crashing the party. I've tried it too many times (hello, pride and ego), and it's blown up in my face almost every time, regardless of movement. A woman working the door accused me of lying about having a free student ticket reserved because my name somehow got left off the list. People have accused me of sitting in "their" seat. Sometimes seats were assigned and I didn't realize it. Some people have asked me whether I paid full price to attend. Door people have treated me less than respectfully for having reduced or free tickets. People are almost always really cranky and rude on Yom Kippur because of fasting (irony much?), and that leads to seat fights and backbiting. I hope your luck is far better than mine. It seems that the chagim are always a time of "character building" for me, whether I seek it out or not.

All that said, don't let me discourage you from seeking a free or reduced price ticket, even if you're not halachically Jewish (yet). The shuls are almost always kind and respectful, and the ones who aren't are committing an aveirah and will get their punishment sooner or later. My experiences are usually extreme because I'm a Murphy's Law Monstrosity. But I also let myself be intimidated by the high prices, and I didn't even try to attend shul during the chagim for the first several years I was in the community. (Shuls are much better today about advertising their willingness to negotiate prices.) The experience would leave a bad taste in my mouth and affect my relationship with Judaism and with the shul for months. Don't let that happen to you. Learn from my mistakes.

It's best to daven with a congregation, but if you can't for whatever reason (injury, pride in poverty, sickness), don't let it ruin your holiday, as I have many times. Make it the best it can be with the resources you have, and make sure you spend some time celebrating with other people. There's always next year unless Moshiach comes.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Round Two of "Orthodox Women Talk" is Up!

Thanks to readers like you, last week's Orthodox Women Talk panel was very successful! Question #2 is up now:

Orthodox Women Talk 

The Question: How does one prep or enjoy Shabbos with young children/while working full time/on long Shabbos afternoons?

Be sure to go join the conversation!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Series: Orthodox Women Talk

I'm part of a new series that asks various orthodox women questions about their Jewish practice. The first post is up today, and you should check it out!

Orthodox Women Talk

The first question: Do you find it boring to sit through endless Shabbat services conducted in a language you may or may not know?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Your English Name Can also Be Your Hebrew Name!

All the conversion candidates named Sarah, David, Samuel, Rebecca, and Alexander can rejoice! 

If you already have a "Jewish name" and you like it, then you don't have to change your name! Rachel becomes Rachel, and Rebecca becomes Rivka. 

However, some rabbis may insist that you use a different name in order to separate yourself from your prior life and because of the precedent of Avram and Sarai (changed to Abraham and Sarah). Some rabbis (and other people) object to this "requirement" because there is no evidence that Ruth, the most famous of converts, changed her name. I personally think that you should have the freedom to either make a break with your "former life" or to embrace this new stage as the natural continuation of your identity. A name can strike to the root of your identity, and that is nothing to play with for ideological reasons that aren't required by halacha. (Those "ideological reasons" being that your "non-Jewish" past is inherently a bad thing that must be rejected and hidden.)

Of course, you can always choose a totally different Hebrew name if you want to. In fact, at least two of my friends have had "Jewish-appropriate" English names and chose different Hebrew names. It caused some confusion for me at first, but maybe I'm just confusion-prone. Whatever temporary confusion there may be, you need to choose the name that resonates with you. Only you have to live with this name. 

Likewise, it is your choice whether you use your Hebrew name on a daily basis or whether you only use it when halacha requires.

And remember that you can have more than one name in your Hebrew name! Let's look at some examples.

So... what if your English name is Rachel Talulah? You could choose some of the following names:
Rachel bat Avraham
Rachel Tirtzah bat Avraham (keeping the sound of Talulah)
Leah bat Avraham
Yael Yocheved bat Avraham
Irit Chaya Shira bat Avraham

Get it? The world is your oyster! (Except not, because oysters aren't kosher.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Can You Have Guests at Your Conversion Mikvah?

Yes, yes you can. But remember, you're gonna be naked. So choose wisely.

But you may be wondering, "Guests?? Why would I want guests?!" There are three types of potential guests:
  • Asking a same-sex friend to be your mikvah attendant (to make sure you're prepared properly and answer any questions)
  • Asking same-sex friends to go into the mikvah room itself to watch you dunk
  • Asking friends of either gender to accompany you to the mikvah and/or greet you afterward
Of course, all of these guests are encouraged to take you out for lunch or dinner afterward!

When it comes time for the conversion mikvah, people seem to instinctively know whether they want someone to accompany them or not. You may not have a choice as to who your mikvah attendant is, but friends and family should be allowed either in the room or outside the room.

Some are adamant about being alone, as I was for Conversion 1.0. It didn't work out that way, but that's how things go. Everyone had the best of intentions and invited guests on my behalf, so I tried to not be upset that my conversion day wasn't going "according to plan." That took superhuman effort because it was such an important day that I had built up in my mind. It was no longer "perfect," and I felt it was really important that I should cross this bridge alone after doing the rest of my journey alone.

Others automatically know who they want to join and in what capacity. However, these hopes can also be crushed by scheduling. You rarely get much choice about the day and time unless you absolutely can't make it (and you'll probably move mountains to get into that mikvah before the rabbis change their minds!). After all, scheduling three rabbis who have other communal obligations is usually trickier than your schedule. But your friends and family... they may not be able to move those mountains. 

So what is it like to have a guest in the mikvah? I didn't find it very stressful; it probably made me less stressed. The procedure: the mikvah lady fetched me from my preparation room, asked all the checklist questions to make sure I prepared correctly, led me to the mikvah, and let me get into the water. Only then did she call in the women I brought with me. They stood with the mikvah lady while I stood with my back to them and the door where the rabbis were. I believe there was also a sheet around my neck for more privacy ("privacy in the mikvah"?? lolz). I was able to joke around with my friends about this very awkward situation because that's how I deal with awkward situations. None of us knew what was expected of us, and we all felt awkward. But because I had my friends there, the awkward was manageable and actually became a great bonding experience. 

Eventually, the rabbis asked their final questions, I had my first dunk, the rabbis shut the door, I had two more dunks, and then everyone sang Mazal Tov. Afterward, the women left the room, then the mikvah attendant gave me my robe as I exited the mikvah. I went back to the preparation room to become presentable again.

And here's where the guilt kicked in. My Southern over-politeness emerged, and I felt horrible for everyone having to wait on me. I didn't take a single minute to think about what had just happened, got dressed quickly, threw on some basic makeup, and ran to greet everyone. ...Wet hair and all. And apparently that is not normal. The rabbis looked shocked and said they had expected me to be much longer. I didn't need to rush. Learn from my mistake. This is one time when everyone understands you will need some time to collect yourself and get ready. Take a few minutes (or more) for yourself.

The take-aways: make your conversion how you want it (as much as you can). But don't fall into the trap of anger and frustration if things don't go "according to plan." And take as much time as you need after the mikvah to get ready to return to the real world.

Monday, September 1, 2014

When Is a Convert's Hebrew Birthday?

I'm no fortune cookie, but I see a lot of celebrations in your future.

That's right. You now have all the birthdays. Let's count them, shall we?

Your physical date of birth according to the secular calendar
Your physical date of birth according to the Hebrew calendar
The English date of your conversion
The Hebrew date of your conversion
Rinse and repeat for any other conversions or geirut l'chumrah 
Half-birthdays for all of the above, as according to your minhag

It is your choice whether to count the dates of prior conversions or not. Some would be adamant that you should not give any validity to a non-orthodox conversion (and you probably shouldn't advertise the fact). However, in my opinion, whether you view it as a halachic event or not, it was (hopefully) still a monumental day in your life and on your road to being an orthodox Jew. 

In practice, you'll probably fall into some kind of celebration cycle. For instance, I always remember the day of my conservative conversion because it is Zayin Adar (7 Adar), the day of Moshe Rabbeinu's death. I don't remember the English date. However, it's the opposite with my orthodox conversion. I can only remember the English date and not the Hebrew. But I don't celebrate any of them, including the dates of my physical birth. I'm just not a "birthday" person. 

However, I do celebrate Shabbos Chanukah each year because that is when I learned my orthodox conversion had been approved, and I just had to wait for all the rabbis to be back in town. That is the day I felt such relief and gratitude and like darkness had really turned to light (apropos, no?). 

You can celebrate as many (or as few) of these dates as you wish. They are all your "birthday." If you need to find the Hebrew date, check out the Chabad website's Birthday Calculator

Now, how do you celebrate a Jewish birthday? Beats me. To my knowledge, there is no answer. As my first rabbi told me, "I don't know. Go buy a lottery ticket." #Truth.