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).