Monday, April 23, 2018

When Does Daf Yomi Start Again?

Someone asked this question, and I thought it was an excellent one! The Daf Yomi cycle is approximately 7.5 years. The current cycle was started in 2012 and will end with a Siyum HaShas in January 2020. Then that new cycle will end sometime in 2027. 

You can find a convenient Daf Yomi calendar here.

If you're interested in Daf Yomi, you might also be interested in a memoir I read over Pesach: If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan.

It's about a newly-divorced woman's somewhat impulsive decision to start learning Daf Yomi based on the recommendation of her jogging partner. Follow the mesechtot of Gemara as she builds a new life in Israel. Some facts that may sway whether you decide to read it or not: the author does not affiliate orthodox but her new husband does. She was raised in an egalitarian and observant Conservative family, and her father is apparently a well-known Conservative rabbi. She writes beautifully, in the style of literary fiction, with lots of allusions to the classic literature she loves. Personally, I really enjoyed her feminist approach to and experience of Gemara, but then again, I'm a self-labeled feminist. Your mileage may vary, but I loved it.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Where Should I Sit in Shul?

Anywhere you want. Sorry, if you were hoping for a more detailed answer. This was an actual Google search term for my blog, and I thought it was an excellent, practical question.

Like all places, the front is usually less crowded, but if this is your first visit, you probably don't want to be front and center.

If you're going to shul for the first time, there's no way you're going to be able to predict where other people sit. People like sitting in the same seats day in and day out, and there's actually some halacha that says that's a good thing. But one week won't kill 'em. And if they hassle you, I know how embarrassing that is. But it's a reflection of them and their lack of character/middot, not you. Guests do the best they can, and people should know that. (This is especially true for seats in the back and at the end of rows; people should know better those are always up for grabs to the first taker.)

If someone doesn't treat you right, please don't let them turn you off from going back. I let other people do that to me before, and the only person that punished was me. I let those people bring me down once, and then I let them bring me down again every time after that when I refused to go for fear of being embarrassed again. This is one of my bigger Jewish regrets. Don't be me.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

"B'Shaah Tovah!"

No, I'm not pregnant. But "b'sha'ah tovah!" is the traditional well-wish to women who are. 

Before we continue, let's review when it's ok to assume a woman is pregnant: 

Now that we've covered that, what do you say to congratulate a pregnant woman? You can say "congrats!" There's nothing "wrong" with that. But traditionally, Jews have been superstitious about pregnancies. Not a crazy thing given the history of maternal-infant mortality rates. But it lingers. Many people won't buy anything for the baby until it's born (or may leave it at someone else's house or even on their porch!). I imagine that was a lot easier to do back in The Olde Country™.  Your diapers were just repurposed rags/cleaning cloths. The baby probably slept in your bed instead of a thousand dollar crib. Your neighbors likely could lend anything you need. Babies really don't need very much, especially when you live in a two or three room hut or apartment and there are lots of people to help out. 

But the superstition lingers in the phrase "b'shaa tova," and you know what? I'm ok with it here, even though I'm normally very against superstition. B'sha'ah tovah translates literally as "in a good time/hour," perhaps better phrased as "at the right time." Having been pregnant twice now, that's a really good blessing. I would accept that bracha any day. From their mouth to Gd's ears. In fact, my kids listened a little too well and took their sweet time. It was so bad that my first was induced for being two weeks past her due date. That's a loooooooong time in pregnant time. 

Now the awkward part: how should a pregnant woman respond to this well-wish? It seems there's not a consensus, at least among my sample. I could never decide whether to say "amen" or "thank you," and since I waffled, I always stumbled and stuttered in the moment. Turns out both are considered "correct" answers. But even once I knew that, I still couldn't decide and continued stammering and trying to pick the best answer for the situation and/or conversation. These are the problems we should have, right? 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Birthdays in the Jewish World

If you're an American like me, you're used to birthdays being A Big Deal.

But...they're really not a big deal in the Jewish world. But on the flip side, you'll now have a lot of them! Let us count them:
  • Your English day of birth
  • Your Hebrew day of birth
  • The English date of your conversion(s)
  • The Hebrew date of your conversion(s)
  • Half-birthdays of any of the above

You can choose to celebrate any, all, or none of these days however you wish. Personally, I have six possible birthdays, and I celebrate none of them if I'm being honest. But I don't celebrate much of anything. I'm not a "holiday" person. After all these years, I still feel most comfortable and most connected to the English calendar, so that's what I generally use. Each person comes to a different conclusion, and that can change over time. (Apparently I used to be much more energetic about birthdays. Maybe I'm just getting old and

As a former rabbi of mine once said when I asked what Judaism said I should do for my birthday: "Go buy a lottery ticket." (How's that for one of those throw-away comments you never realize someone will remember 15 years later? Also, if you happen to come across, are we really this old?)

Some people give brachot to others, in the idea that we have a special connection to spiritual energies on our birthdays. That's not my thing, and I don't really understand it. But it's very common practice to hand out brachas or ask if people in your social media feed need a bracha for something. I'm all for more brachas in the world and more supporting each other.

In that vein, today happens to be one of my Hebrew birthdays. May you all find what you're looking for and may it be good for you. May we all have a year of health, happiness, community, connection, personal growth, professional fulfillment, parnassah, and nachas from our friends and family. And let us say...amen.


So there you have it. Go buy a lottery ticket. And get yourself a cookie. You deserve it. Give someone or your entire social media feed a bracha if you like.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Israel Creating a Worldwide Jewish Conversion Outreach Effort?

Well, color me surprised. Apparently an Israeli government committee has proposed a worldwide program to interest people in Judaism and conversion. You know, since they really love the converts, conversion candidates, and patrilineal Jews they already have in Israel. #NoNotBitterWhyDoYouAsk

Last week a committee appointed by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs suggested that Israel reach out to the tens of millions of people around the world like Sanchez who have an “affinity” to Israel largely because their ancestors may have been Jewish. 
The ministry, which is headed by Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, a settler supporter, created the committee in 2016 to discover how many people have Jewish ancestry and to propose an outreach program. Once these communities are identified, the committee said, Israel should launch a pilot program to teach willing communities about Judaism and Israel, and to offer Hebrew-language lessons. Those who express a strong and genuine desire to become Jewish should be assisted to convert and possibly make aliyah.According to the committee, an estimated 5 million have distant Jewish relatives while another 35 million are descendants of communities that were forced to abandon their Judaism. An additional 60 million people, whether descendants of mainstream Jews, Jews who were forced to convert or members of other communities, but who either don’t know about their Jewish ancestry or don’t care, are another group primed for potential outreach, the committee said. 
In the report’s introduction, Dvir Kahane, the ministry’s director general, said connecting with “tens of million of people” could potentially foster “support for Israel and aid in the struggle against anti-Semitism.” 
... DellaPergola questioned why the ministry may reach out to millions of people who aren’t eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return at a time when it has failed to convert the roughly 400,000 Israeli citizens who immigrated under the Law of Return, most of them from the former Soviet Union. 
“I would expect that the first concern of the government of Israel would be devoted to the 400,000, which absolutely isn’t the case. The rabbinate converts something like 5,000 of them a year.” 
At this rate “it would take 100 years to convert half a million citizens. Their numbers are growing and the government’s policy is akin to emptying a boat with a tiny spoon,” he said. 
What can I say about this? Israel can't even sort out the conversion system it already has or that system's relationship with the conversion systems already in place around the world. But sure, let's create a new system on top of the current system rather than fixing (or even using) the current system, and I'm sure it'll all work out. Let's just admit this is about demographic warfare and not religion. I'm pretty tired of conversion being used as a political tool/target/boogeyman.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Halacha in a Nutshell: Autopsies

Sure, let's jump right into a hot, emotional topic. Autopsies. 

A strange revelation about myself and my Jewish journey: Jewish death practices are a big part of how I got interested in Judaism. When I was young, my mother became certified to sell burial plots. (Yes, apparently you have to get a particular education and license for that. Given the potential for elder abuse, I assume that's why.) So from a relatively young age (somewhere between 10-12), I knew a lot about American death practices, and they horrified me as a general rule. I assumed we just buried people respectfully in a box and they eventually decomposed into dirt. We don't. In fact, many regulations exist to prevent exactly that: keep our decomposing bodies from mixing with the earth and entering the water table. Given the chemicals we use to preserve the body for several days or weeks before an open casket funeral, that's probably a good idea honestly.

So I began thinking about what I wanted for myself when I one day died. And I became very vocal about these issues with my parents and any time it came up in conversation. I used to tell people "just throw me respectfully into a ditch." Don't tell the government or I might end up in a steel box surrounded by concrete. 

When I first discovered Judaism online at 19, some of the mourning practices were given as part of the introduction to Judaism. And I've found that's common among introductions; at least some death practices are given very early in your exposure to Judaism as a general rule. Those spoke to me, and they reflected the deep feelings about death I had cultivated so many years before. It was the first confirmation that maybe Judaism is where I should be.

But autopsies. Those are complicated. And I continue to have complicated feelings about them. 

In short: autopsies are generally prohibited. This is to respect the person and their body. Routine autopsies are seen as unnecessary and disfiguring for no purpose. And honestly, I agree with that, even though I'd never considered it before. After years of Law & Order, I guess I assumed every body always gets an autopsy and that this is both normal and necessary. But it's not. The family can say no in almost every case. (I'm told there are some states with laws that can mandate an autopsy over objections, which makes sense when you think about how many murders are committed by family and romantic partners.)

But what if foul play is suspected? An unexpected death of someone who seemed healthy? What about when a young person passes away without warning and maybe had a congenital health issue that could also affect siblings still living? What is there's a public health concern, that maybe this person is part of a larger health outbreak like food contamination or tampering? What if you need to rule out suicide under unusual circumstances for the purposes of qualifying for a life insurance policy to care for the person's children? (We can discuss suicide in halacha another day.) These are very complicated questions, and families have to make decisions quickly and under intense emotional circumstances. Many families say no to autopsies far beyond a line that I'm personally comfortable with. And that is their right. I imagine that different rabbis could come to somewhat different conclusions too, if presented with a specific shailah. But we all agree that the overarching concern should be that we must remember this is a person and they should be treated with the utmost respect. All questions should be viewed from that perspective. Seek out a posek to discuss your case if you're ever in this situation. Preferably, seek out one you know and trust already, but you can always call the rabbinical associations and they will help you.

How does this affect you? Please please please draw up a living will (also called an advance directive or advance health care directive). This is an important idea for so many reasons. Only you can answer the questions of what your priorities are at the end of life or when you're incapacitated. Jewish law impacts almost all these questions. You can learn more about them from the orthodox perspective at this PDF from the OU, and it has links to sample living wills you can model your own on. Everyone old enough to be reading this blog post and understand it should consider these questions and consider making a living will. That's not just me talking as a lawyer (and you can do this with no lawyer needed - just a notary usually). I'm saying this as a child who has had to make these decisions for a parent who could not communicate with me. This is one of the best gifts you can give your family, and Gdwilling, you should be 120 years old before they realize what an awesome gift it was.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Two Articles for You: Imposter Syndrome and the Passing of Someone in Our Community

Over Pesach, I did some light magazine reading, as orthodox people seem to do in huge numbers. (Not normally my thing, but somehow it happened this week.) The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes a couple of free magazines that are sent to member synagogues, and I picked up two of them. I'll share two of the articles here that I think are noteworthy to the conversion/BT community, and I'll share some others later. These are from a magazine called Ignite, the magazine of the group NCSY, the National Council of Synagogue Youth, basically the youth movement of the OU.

A practical note: For some reasons, it doesn't appear that the articles are published as a stand-alone web link. So these links go to a PDF of the actual magazine, but each link should take you to the correct page. Just in case it doesn't, I've noted the correct page numbers at the bottom of this post.

Let's start with Imposter Syndrome. I've had an article about Imposter Syndrome rolling around in my head for several years, but funnily enough, Imposter Syndrome was part of what's kept me away from the blog here. In a nutshell, Imposter Syndrome is that nagging feeling that you're not good enough, don't know enough, and that your successes are just because people haven't figured out the real you. But they will! You'll be found out! Most likely, they'll find out because you made a fool of yourself finally. You've just been lucky until now, not talented or knowledgeable or hardworking. Imposter Syndrome seems to affect women in much higher numbers in the professional realm (where it's most discussed and studied), but I've seen hints of it among almost everyone in the conversion/baal teshuva community at one point or another. 

This article about Imposter Syndrome was so spot on for us: the editor of a new siddur asks, "who am I to teach anyone about prayer and connecting with Gd?" I feel that way about my own prayer life generally: "who am I to speak to Gd? Why would He listen to me, especially since I'm so bad at prayer and/or a bad Jew generally? Why should I pray when I know I won't have good kavanah (intention/mindfulness) because I'm tired/angry/rebellious/bored/doubting and/or know I'll have a baby and/or toddler yelling at me? Aren't I doing more damage with a bad or irreverent prayer than not praying at all?" I could go on, but most of you probably know this feeling intimately, even the frum from birth crowd feels this way sometimes (often?). 

The second article is sad but inspirational. Jennifer Mendoza Alkon, a young woman of 24, passed away suddenly, and only after did her friends and family realize her true impact in the lives of others. The article would be powerful enough anyway, but one of the first sentences caught my eye: "Jennifer grew up in Seattle in a family that was in the process of conversion..." I assume that means Jennifer herself converted, but you never know. But I do know that the conversion of any family member in a family with children is one of the hardest conversion situations because there are just so many moving parts to manage and people to keep on the same page. That family has been through so much already, and now this. Thank Gd for the comfort of stories like this article details, but that's obviously not the same. And it's a loss to all of us as a community to lose such a kindhearted person who knew how much work needed to be done behind the scenes. If you're interested in continuing Jennifer's legacy, there's more information at the end of the article how you can help. May her memory be for a blessing.