Monday, April 27, 2015

How Old Are You Between Your Hebrew and English Birthdays?

Today, I bring a personal question to the blog. Despite over 11 years of being "Jewishly affiliated," I still feel most connected to the secular calendar. Only in the last few years have I made more of an effort to interact with the Hebrew calendar. 

This has created a strange problem, I'm not sure how old I am this week! Last week was my Hebrew birthday, and this week is my English birthday. In prior years, this was more of a theoretical question in my head, but this year...suddenly everyone needs to know how old I am! I have never sputtered more about my age as I have for the last week. Am I still 30 or have I crossed into 31? Am I actually living in The Twilight Zone?

How do you handle this? Does it (should it) matter who asks? For instance, it makes more sense to tell a doctor according to the secular calendar. Does the Hebrew date make more sense when talking to a Jewish friend? Does it matter how cognitively attuned the Jewish friend is to the Hebrew calendar? I'm plenty orthodox, yet I would never call myself cognitively attuned to the Hebrew calendar! It just isn't internalized yet, for whatever reason. So how can I judge how in-touch another person is with the Hebrew calendar? 

We won't even get into the fact that I have four other "birthdays," thanks to my conversions... But we shall never forget halfbirthdays. And that, folks, is how you justify 12 birthday cakes per year. You're welcome.

This should be the worst of my problems. 

So what do you do? 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: Rising Moon: Unraveling the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Moshe Miller

Shavuot will be here soon, and we all know the deep connections most converts feel for the book of Ruth. (Or Rut, as I like to call her.) There's a new book out that'll put a whole new spin on how you read it! 

I was given a PDF of the book in the hopes I would review it, and boy did I learn never to read a serious book in PDF format again. But I digress. I did decide to review it because I think it's a very good book, and certainly one that will make you think. 

Summary: I highly recommend the book. I argued with it to no end, but in the positive, Jewish way. It made me think, and it made me look at Rut with new eyes. I may not agree with all the interpretations the author presented, but now I know a lot more about how Ruth has been portrayed in the Talmudic and rabbinic literature. And I appreciate the book more now, though I still don't "like" it or think it's a beautiful story. (Unfortunately, I think that's the feeling the author wanted me to have in the end...)

I became very excited about reading the book when the first two recommendations on the inside cover were from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Berel Wein (a very famous Jewish historian). In retrospect, I'm surprised at Rabbi Wein's recommendation since I think this book could have used a healthy dose of actual historical context in addition to the "history" provided by midrashim. In general, I felt a very strange dichotomy between the right-wing and the modern. To me (with some exceptions), it felt like the text-based sections could have been written by Rabbi Avigdor Miller, while the essays sound like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Strange, but mostly in a good way.

But let me distract you with its gorgeous cover...

You can buy it from Ktav or Amazon. Both of those are affiliate links, which means I earn a percentage of the price for convincing you it was a good buy (no extra charge to you). Right now, I'm raising money to move this blog onto its own domain and create a "proper" website for this work. Buying anything after clicking these links (or any other affiliate link on this site, which so far have all been Amazon links) will help support my work, which I have done on a volunteer basis for the last 4.5 years. The domain is bought, and the web designer is hired! If you'd like to buy this book anyway, support this blog while you're at it! If you'd prefer to make a straight donation to the site relocation and redesign, you can click the little Donate button on the right sidebar. Every little bit helps!

Now let's go more in-depth...

You saw the "I got a free sorta-copy" disclaimer above, but here's the real disclaimer: I don't like the book of Rut. I don't remember ever meeting another convert who felt that way, though I've met born Jews with similar reservations. Except for the one scene where Ruth stays and Orpah goes, I cannot agree with apparently-everyone that Ruth is "a beautiful love story... until you get to the midrash that says Boaz died the next day" (so well put by my father-in-law).

To me (with my feminist wiles), Rut shows the powerlessness of women in ancient societies (the same powerlessness we are still vulnerable to today: including domestic abuse, rape, date rape, and the "smaller" discriminations we face in the workplace). Having that be the milieu guiding Ruth's actions makes this a book about accepting the reality you face and making the best of it. Not so romantic and beautiful, even though that may make it one of the most gut-wrenchingly true books of the Bible, especially as a female reader. But that's just how I see it.

I feel a little differently after reading this sefer (it is a sefer, not a "popular" book like I expected it to be). Most importantly, I can now see the universal elements in the story, those that tie it to every man and woman and family... even if I don't always agree with those interpretations. I may have said, "Oh come on, that's really stretching it" a couple of times, but to its credit, the book is consistent in its premise and style.

Speaking of style, I was confused by the book's style at first, but really came to appreciate it as the book continued. It's like a play! You may not know this, but I worked in theatre for almost a decade (set design, costuming, construction, painting, and behind-the-scenes work...not acting). It was going to be my life's work. And I was perplexed to pick up a Jewish sefer with a table of contents that looks like this:

What does that even mean?? I expect many a casual bookstore patron will put the book back based on the TOC alone, which is a shame. It's a really clever way to structure a book about a book, and the author used it well. Really well, in my opinion.

So let me explain. The book of Ruth is divided into Acts, sections of the story that make logical sense. And then he divides them further into "scenes," where he goes through the book line by line with commentary, mostly from Talmudic and later rabbinic sources. Some of Rabbi Miller's own commentary is there, but the majority of his content is the preludes and interludes, which are essays on what we've just read and how it fits into the overarching theme of malchut (kingship) and the other themes he develops throughout. He claims that malchut is "the theme" of the book, but I felt like it was merely one idea among many that he developed. This is a dense book, so the switch-up really helped keep me engaged.

Problem: Yes, this is a really dense book. Worse, you can't read it in one or two sittings, but it self-refers back a lot. And I could never remember what specific thing was said earlier, and I was far too lazy to go look for it since it was only referred by section, not page. For example, "See the prelude to this act." Ain't no one got time for that. 

Second major problem: he creates some very dense, academic ideas, like "emergent identity" and "the poisonous advice of the serpent," and I spent a majority of the book wondering what those terms of art mean. More defining needed to happen, rather that giving a new example in different contexts and hoping you could infer the idea from the examples. However, I appreciated the multiple and detailed examples and did find them helpful. Using only examples without a clear definitional reminder created an analysis problem: too many variables in an individual example to choose which one is the relevant one. You cannot learn these seriously abstract concepts from examples alone. I eventually did find a good definition of "emergent" as applied to identity and other a footnote 2/3 of the way through the book. But despite not having his definitions for his themes, I was able to create my own meaning out of the examples given. Maybe they weren't what he wanted me to get from them, but I certainly pulled a meaning from his words, and I found it interesting and meaningful.

Most of the things I learned included how crazy midrashim can be sometimes. I don't know enough about the availability of midrashim on Ruth to verify this, but I suspect that the author chose only certain midrashim. There is very little conflict between the midrashim presented, and there are conflicting midrashim on almost any event in Torah (in my experience). I know for sure that one very popular midrash was left out: that Boaz died the day after impregnating Ruth. This book prefers to end on a "And they lived happily ever after" feeling. 

Worse, he seems to take the midrashim very seriously as though this is actually a fact that happened. Maybe I'm an apikoros, but I take my midrashim with a grain of salt. Most were written hundreds of years later, many in the middle ages. We are still writing midrashim today! They should not be treated as history. (That's why I believe it is very important to learn what's Torah, what's halacha, what's midrash, what's chumrah, and what's minhag - they're very distinct things with discrete purposes and meanings.) This is where I often groaned, "Seriously? That's really historically/psychologically unlikely." (I told you, I argued with the book a lot. I think of this as the "good" kind of Jewish arguing.) I would have liked to see more influence from a historian like Rabbi Berel Wein. Does it matter whether midrashim happened in real life? No, because that's not the point of a midrash. Perhaps that's the author's perspective, but if so, I would have appreciated that being pointed out. Or perhaps he's of the camp that believes all midrashim are historically true, even though many of them physically cannot exist or have competing midrashim that are in direct conflict. It could be either way, based on the writing of this book.

Let's look at an example that struck me really wrong: The author spends a lot of time citing sources that demonize Orpah. According to various sources, Orpah may have kissed Naomi goodbye, but she immediately develops a strong hatred of Naomi and Yisrael and sets out to destroy all the Jews (though I admire the author's very creative suggestion that this hatred could be caused by what is essentially a de-programming from a self-imposed cult obsession with Naomi).

Ruth Rabbah (a collection of midrashim) has this to say about it: 
"The entire night after Orpah separated from her mother-in- law, she slept with a company of one hundred soldiers. . . . R. Tanhuma said, there was a dog as well."
Wow. Stop right there. Let that sink in for a minute. Orpah acts like any normal woman should have and went back to what was familiar... so we slander the hell out of her for not making the hard choice Ruth made. I was disgusted by this treatment of someone who is presented kindly in the text as a real human being with reasonable limitations. (If I only had a dollar for every time a born Jew told me, "I could never make the choice you made to convert!") We can discuss another time how Rising Moon apparently conflates anal and doggy-style sex as the same thing and prohibits both according to halacha, despite the several Talmudic sources that say any form of consensual sex that respects both partners and is intended to eventually lead to procreation is absolutely fine. And that is how we rule on the issue (unless you're Gerer chassidim). I just had to share that very frustrating section, but here's the real point I want to share about midrashim and why we needed more of Berel Wein's historical influence:

Apparently Orpah is the great-grandmother of Goliath, just as Rut is the great-grandmother of David. Coincidence?? I think not! But let's look at this seriously. Rut and Orpah are from Moab. Goliath is a Philistine. Those countries are in opposite directions from each other with Yehuda in the middle, so what is seriously the likelihood of this happening? The Philistines lived on a thin strip of land along the Mediterranean, approximately from Gaza to Lebanon. Moab is a mountainous region of Jordan. Yisrael live in between. So Orpah "turned back" (in fact, her name means back, which is why we apparently assume she has a lot of back-facing sex) to her home in Moav, and then she later crossed over Yehuda to birth Philistines? Right. 

Likewise, do I agree with the midrashim that "prove" that Boaz and Naomi and Ruth all knew the immense historical import of every single action they took? No. That argument gets me pretty annoyed. Here's the example that sent me over the edge:
"With the giving of this gift [measuring out 6 barleycorns in Ruth 3:15], Ruth and Boaz return to the intense historical awareness that permeated their relationship at their first meeting. Once again Boaz hints to Ruth that she is destined to be the mother of malkhut. The six hours spent together between midnight and dawn are embodied in the six grains of barley, which represent their future: six outstanding descendants who will be described as possessing six exceptional virtues."
Did they really feel or think that? I don't believe so. As a general rule, I don't think it serves us well to put our Biblical forefathers on pedestals (like the common effort to "prove" that none of our forefathers sinned... the honest grappling of fallible humans with Gd's commands is one of the things that attracted me to Judaism over Christianity in the first place!). So that midrash got a good, old-fashioned "puh-lease" from me before moving on.

So I've shown you several of my issues with the text. (Honestly, I could debate this book and its contents with you for days. It was hard to pick which ideas to highlight!) But didn't I say I liked it? Yes, I enjoyed the ideas that emerged from his reading of the text, even the challenging and problematic ones, but especially the ones related to conversion. Overall, I most enjoyed the author's own commentary. Hashkafically (philosophically), I agree with it (can't lie there), but it was also far more in-depth and developed than any line-by-line textual analysis ever could be. It was a complete argument rather than a collection of individual arguments, and that made it more enjoyable to read.

Most importantly, I am in love with his statements that Ruth's past matters and should not be ignored. As a convert, one of her many strengths is that her past experiences are a "unique contribution" to Yisrael and should not be assimilated away. That's been on my mind a lot lately (remember how I said this fit my hashkafa?), as I have been considering writing a post about whether the goal of a convert should be "full assimilation" so that no one would guess the person is a convert. I'm tired of seeing that bandied about in Facebook conversion groups as the goal we should be aiming for. Who says? If that's your goal, fine, but don't say that has to be every convert's (or candidate's) goal too. It sets a nearly-impossible standard, and I'm not sure it's a good standard in the first place, either for converts or for Yisrael, for exactly the reason the author gave: we have something special to contribute.

This was one of my favorite passages from the book (despite my hesitation to believe that Ruth actually knew her actions would have any effect on Yisrael achieving the purpose of Creation): 
[author had just cited Pesachim 87B: "God exiled Yisrael among the nations so that they would ingather converts..."]
"Ruth now understands that if Yisrael is to embody what Creation is meant to achieve, it must include the entirety of humanity. There must be room for the assimilation of converts. She realizes that she can actually offer something that Naomi cannot. The purpose of geirut is to bring the world to Yisrael; the convert is not to leave the world behind. Therefore, it is no longer 'And the two of them went.' Instead, it is Ruth of Moab who has returned from the fields of Moab. And it is as the Moabite who has returned that Ruth makes her enduring contribution. She remains Naomi’s daughter-in-law. She is still 'with her' (imah). But she is now independent of Naomi, having grown fully into her own identity and history." p109 [emphasis mine]

Speaking of preaching.... As a convert and advocate, I took great exception to the fact that all the citations in the endnotes are listed in Hebrew only. As the author says in the introduction, "The endnotes generally provide further sources, many of which are given in Hebrew on the assumption that a reader looking for primary sources would be familiar with that language." I don't think that's a good assumption to make anymore, as English translations are widely available on the internet to anyone willing to search. As someone personally weak in Hebrew texts (but getting a little better every day), this prejudice is a pet peeve of mine. It takes years of dedicated effort to become proficient in Hebrew texts (and women have far less opportunities to become proficient than men do, especially outside Israel). When so much is available in translation (understanding that no translation is perfect), this unfairly and unnecessarily cuts a large percentage of Jews off as too unsophisticated to understand or dig deeper, so they should just rely on this person's interpretation instead. You see this very commonly in halacha books, where the alternatives, leniencies, and other mitigating factors are often only mentioned in Hebrew footnotes or facing text because someone who can't read Hebrew obviously can't be trusted with anything less than the most machmir opinion. (Two books shown to me have said this explicitly in Hebrew, but most aren't that brazen.) This is a serious problem caused by our near-monopoly orthodox publishing industry, and they should feel shame for creating a problem when there doesn't need to be one today. It is disheartening for those of us who didn't benefit from a thorough Jewish education, it makes us feel less-than as Jews, and it's also a great deterrent to trying at all. Because of this kind of talk, many people even don't realize these sources are available in English and other translations. And even when you are developing your proficiency, the pervasiveness of Hebrew-only citations makes it overwhelming. There is a middle ground here, but I have not seen a single orthodox sefer stand on it. I look forward to being proven wrong. 

Rant over, back to the book...
Earlier in the story of Rut, the author focuses on the total lack of religious practice being part of the conversion of Rut (according to the text), and the very little religious practice education required by the Talmud, and comes to the conclusion that "There is no provision for accepting a convert who searches for religion. There is no law that states that it is even permitted to accept an applicant who claims a philosophical belief in Judaism. The only basis for accepting applicants is if they claim that their life will be complete only if they join Yisrael."

Pretty provocative, right?! Should it be? I don't know. The question is how you understand "joining Yisrael" and what that should entail.

There is no shortage of other interesting debates, from the conflict between chesed-dependence and mitzvah-coercion (super interesting!) to jealousy to the meaning of malchut (I found this less interesting, but maybe it's just me) to the role of humanity to yibum as a reconciliation for Cain and Abel (mind blowing, to me). 

I love a book that stretches my mind and my assumptions, and Rising Moon does that. (But could he please explain where the name Rising Moon comes from? I assume it's about the coming of David? Just say so. I hate loose ends; blame the OCD.)

Let me share one area that really challenged me... a question I never thought too much about:
What does Gd's curse to woman, "you will desire your husband, but he will rule over you" (Genesis/Bereishit 3:16) mean

I never really thought about it. As a modern woman cognizant of the struggles women face and have always faced, it made intuitive sense. The author creates/cites (and of course I can't find it now...stupid PDF) the idea that the curse means that woman will want to initiate sex with her husband and be unable to (timidity, fear, social expectations, I forget why), while her husband will rule over her as a baal (master). Very interesting, and something that remains very relevant today. I can buy that, and I've added it to my personal understanding of this pasuk.

But the discussion got me thinking about this idea and what it could mean in the larger sense, and how this curse has grown into the feminist struggles we still have today. I have to admit that I have a weird love of post-apocalyptic fiction. Mostly books, but I also enjoyed the show Revolution and now am catching up on The Walking Dead. It's one thing to think about the physical vulnerabilities of women in ancient (or even near-modern) times, but post-apocalyptic fiction reminds me that there's only a tenuous protection for women in our society. In any war zone, even today, women's constant threat remains rape, gang rape, and murder. Even during small scale riots like we sometimes see in the United States, rape is a real threat for women caught in the crossfire. Savagery smolders right below the surface of our modern lives, and that is why I find post-apocalyptic fiction so frightening: it feels realistic. That is why I can't ever believe Ruth is a "beautiful" story. It's a woman (actually 2 women) doing what she has to do to survive: attach herself to a strong male who can protect her from society and starvation. That is why we are halachically commanded to protect the widow; who else will protect her and care for her? Once I sat down and thought about it, this is what I always assumed the Torah meant when it curses Womankind. And what a curse it is; I think about it every time I walk alone at night.

Rut is smart, strong, loving, loyal, and has an admirable acceptance of grim reality. There's beauty in her... And there's even beauty in Boaz and his efforts to do the right thing with the limited reality they have. But in the circumstances Ruth faces and the decisions she must make? There is no beauty there. No amount of midrashim saying they were madly in love will ever convince me that that love existed, and even if it did, whether it was an important factor in deciding to do yibum. Boaz can do the "right thing" with kindness and compassion and respect, and is that any worse than doing it because he was so turned on by her (yay shocking midrash - really, you can't unsee it)? 

So you've heard my take on Rising Moon. But maybe you'll come to a different conclusion. Go read it and tell me what you think! You can buy it here from Ktav or Amazon

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Conversion Crisis" Panel Discussion on May 17 in Manhattan!

If you're near NYC or can get here on Sunday, May 17, there's a three hour panel discussion you don't want to miss. 

Conversion Crisis: Is the System Broken? will host two of the biggest names in conversion, in addition to the President of the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ):
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Rabbi David Novak

Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Angel have done a lot for conversion candidates and converts, and I'm personally really excited to get to hear them speak for the first time! 

Did I mention it's technically free? ($10 suggested donation.) Go to the event page for more details and to RSVP.

UTJ may sound familiar. It did to me, and that brought up a few warning bells in my mind, so I think it should be addressed in case this history is important to you. As I understand the history, the UTJ was originally formed as a "right-wing" conservative movement, so to speak. Some people were concerned about the increasing lack of dedication to halacha as the conservative movement has traditionally defined it. Personally, I was really impressed with a lot of the writing they used to put out because I believe it reflects what the conservative movement is supposed to be, and I used to be conservative. (I was already conservative at the time of reading most of those materials, if I remember right.) 

I hadn't heard anything from them for a couple of years, and when I saw this post, I thought maybe I was remembering the name of that organization incorrectly. A friend confirmed that is the same group, but their FAQ and other documents now describe themselves as "trans-denominational" and emphasize a break from the conservative movement and from all movement labels. I'm throwing this out here in case you are opposed to supporting the work of such a group (better to warn you now than find out when you arrive) or if as a conversion candidate, you're afraid of how attending one of their events could harm you. I personally believe this would not harm you, especially given the respect generally accorded to Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Angel (even by those who disagree with them). Nothing's a given, especially when rabbinic politics is involved, but I think no one would be penalized for attending this event. If you were to be punished for attending, I'd see that as a red flag that something is off and perhaps you should consider a new rabbi(s). But if you're really very worried, get approval in advance from your sponsoring rabbi. 

So come. We'll hang out and maybe even learn something! 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Plan for Next Year's Pesach RIGHT NOW

You've done it. You've survived Passover. Cue tearing open the cabinets and returning life to normal!

But wait! There's more! 

Sit down and write down everything you need to remember for Pesach 2016. Before you forget, before all the carbs make your brain fuzzy, before you throw away something you should keep for next year instead. 

It's tempting to rampage through the kitchen and put life back in order (I know because I started doing that!), but don't act so fast.

  • Clean your Pesach stuff before you put it away. This is the hardest part because you just want. it. gone. Be patient, grasshopper. 
  • Pack it in some kind of reasonable order that will at least keep things from breaking. It doesn't need to be pretty or alphabetized. Make sure you mark the box "Pesach" so that non-Pesach things don't accidentally get mixed in. I prefer a giant, clear plastic box with a locking lid.
  • What will be left out to "become chametz" and be used from now on?
  • Consider what might be reusable next year, even though you'd normally throw it away. (Maybe your counter covers?)
  • What did you eat a lot of? What needed to be replenished or replaced over chol hamoed? 
  • Which recipes went well, and which were a flop?
  • What did you run out of?
  • What didn't you touch at all? 
  • Did you accidentally discover some chametz over Pesach? Was there kitniyot that wasn't put away (if that applies to you)? Make sure those places gets a better cleaning next year. This happens; don't beat yourself up about it.
  • Did you discover during Pesach that something is chametz or kitniyot that you didn't realize beforehand? Note it down so you don't forget next year. Again, this happens. It'll be ok.
  • Did you discover during Pesach that something wasn't a problem and doesn't need to be put away next year? Make a note.
  • What was actively gross, disgusting, or disliked and shouldn't be bought again?
  • How did your preparations work? Maybe you need a stronger counter cover next year? 
  • What should you buy next year, and will you buy it now or later? Maybe the paring knives you bought are too short? Maybe a pizza cutter would be great to cut your matzah pizza?
  • What do you want to upgrade next year? Maybe get a proper dishrack instead of the one from the Dollar Store?
  • Do you want to use permanent pieces next year instead of plastic and paper goods? Watch for sales over the next year and put them away with your Pesach goods.
Remember that you're not obligated to make these changes next year, especially if you note a lot of things you want to buy. It just exists to help you prioritize your preparations and spending next year. Those decisions don't have to be made now. Brain dump and walk away.

Kosher on a Budget suggests doing this in a note on your Google Calendar (or other electronic calendar of choice) so that you'll automatically be reminded of these notes. Personally, I've started keeping a Word (Pages, actually) document/timeline, and I made a reminder to check it in my to do application, which happens to be ToodleDo. What's even better? Do both! Whatever works for your brain.

Your future self will thank you. Imagining the calm look on your face and the peace in your day next year can help motivate you to take action today for the benefit of tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

#ProTip: Go Get a Haircut Before Pesach

Here's the best practical tip you'll get this close to Pesach: go get a haircut, hippie. Don't forget. Someone always forgets, and that someone will probably be you.

In all seriousness, don't forget to get your hair cut, especially if you're a guy. Otherwise, you might start looking like a hippie over the next few weeks, and no one wants that.

On the second night of Pesach, we start counting the Omer. During this 50 day period, it's customary not to get a haircut. Different groups measure the custom differently, but they all agree that it counts between now and Lag B'Omer. (To my knowledge, if there is a correction in the comments, I'll update this.) That's a little over a month. Most of you can live without a haircut for a month if you have to, but why put yourself through the inconvenience? It's also nice to go into chag feeling so fresh and so clean-clean. In fact, it's a mitzvah to get cleaned up before a chag! Haircut, new clothes, do something special for yourself as a way of bringing honor to the holiday. (But don't use that as an excuse to justify bad financial decisions.)

The men: According to custom, no getting haircuts and no shaving during the Omer (well, the applicable period of the Omer, according to your custom or community). That's not absolute, but it's a strong custom. Many men do shave during this time for either professional or "shalom bayis" reasons. I have found these "excuses" (heters, to be more precise) to be relatively common among the normally-clean-shaven modern orthodox. Many wives hate beards in our society, and they can create a real shalom bayis issue. Shalom bayis is far more important than this custom, so custom yields. The question many ask (usually men) is whether a wife should just accept the importance of this custom and "suck it up," so to speak. That may be the practice in some communities, whether they say so or not. For whatever reason, the rabbis have pretty consistently held that we womenfolk are not required to "suck it up." Why? We want you guys doing things that create babies, and that's unlikely when the woman is grossed out. #Fact. That seems to be the reasoning, from my perspective anyway. 

Interestingly, I have seen men cite shalom bayis when in reality, their wives don't care either way. (This brings up the excellent question of why someone would ask another why he is clean-shaven, which seems like a very rude question to ask in the first place. Best case scenario: you get a answer that shows why it's halachically allowed. Worst case: you embarrass the man and "out" him as someone violating halacha/custom/practice, and what gives you that right?) These men just don't want the itchiness, feel self-conscious, or any other number of reasons for not wanting to have a beard. Whether that's right or wrong is not the discussion; I'm just sharing what real people are doing in real life. 

As a whole, more men are growing beards during the Omer because Lumberjack Chic has become popular and professionally acceptable. However, that is only if the man can grow a beard in an "attractive" way, according to our society's style. Those who are patchy or scraggly or will grow a long beard very fast may encounter more resistance from a professional job standpoint. Of course, if you work with food, you will have a different set of considerations and regulations to deal with if you choose to not shave. If that's the case, sit down with your boss before you start growing the beard. It may be just as problematic for your boss as you. For instance, if she or he needs to order beard hairnets (yes, those exist!). 

Can you clean up the beard or trim it? I don't know the answer to that question, but my guess is no, since haircuts are also verboten. This is why men with Lumberjack-worthy testosterone levels may run into problems in the office. No one wants to play "co-worker or hobo?" Many workplaces have a written policy with beard-grooming standards, so check your beard before you wreck your beard. 

What about the women? Most women follow the custom to not get haircuts just the same as men do. The question is whether women have actively chosen to take on this minhag or whether women believe (mistakenly, according to nearly everyone if not everyone) it is obligatory on both sexes. If you're female and you have this custom, I have seen at least one tshuva (written ruling) that said that married women should get a haircut during this time if it affects (or will affect) their haircovering. For example, if your hair will get too long and be unwieldy under your haircovering choice (wig, hat, whatever), then you should get a haircut regardless of custom. From what I remember, the threshold for discomfort was very broad and inclusive, perhaps as low as an inconvenience. The mitzvah of haircovering trumps the custom, according to this teshuva. Whether haircovering is a mitzvah (and if so, what the parameters are) is a different discussion, but this position allows a haircut even for haircovering women who hold it is obligatory. (In fact, the argument is less strong if you believe haircovering is not a mitzvah or is a mitzvah that is not mandatory today - then it's custom v. custom, and which trumps the other?)

What about non-head hair? Women can definitely shave/trim/wax any non-head hair during the Omer. Yes, any. I don't know a definitive answer for men, but I believe the customary restrictions only apply to the head. What you do with the hair on the rest of your body is between you, Hashem, and possibly your wife. So if you're Michael Phelps, you're probably a-ok, especially since then swimming would be your profession. As you saw above, parnasah matters when making these rulings that affect your personal appearance.

So pick up your phone and call your hairdresser for an appointment right now, before you forget.