Monday, March 13, 2023

A Wonderful Resource for Everyday Modern Hebrew (and a Coupon!)

Do you or your family want to learn everyday modern Hebrew? is what I use in my own home/our homeschool. It's just as good for adults as kids. I studied linguistics in college - I know a thing or two about second-language acquisition. (True story: my independent study was about teaching Esperanto to older children as a means of making later third and fourth language acquisition easier. Like a bridge into language learning for American kids with parents who only know English.)

Believe me, I have scoured the internet for Hebrew resources for years. There are few Hebrew resources out there, but this one is very well made, and the quality of the physical materials is high as well. And you also get free access to an app where everything is pronounced at different speeds. (They have many languages - not just Hebrew!)

It's essentially a self-ulpan design, if you're familiar with ulpan. You learn by talking, even if you don't quite understand what you're saying at first. Like a baby learns!

Today and tomorrow (Monday and Tuesday, Mar. 13-14) are the last days to start at the lower pricing before it costs $10 more per box - and you'll keep the lower price for as long as you're a subscriber. Inflation has finally started coming for my school supplies!

Here's a coupon for you to get $15 off your first box if you add in the phrasebook at checkout. Personally, I think the phrasebook is indispensable and worthy buying on its own for the phrases you won't find anywhere else for everyday life. Honestly, where else would you find, "Stop hitting your sister!" I kid, but it's in there. 

The first box has to do with food and snacks, which also delves into the ideas of "I want" and other related grammatical ideas without actually dwelling on the grammar at all. The phrase book covers a whole range of life, not just one topic.

Here’s the link to choose the language you want to start now and save! My referral code is REFK7EAUHQM86.

(I'll also get $15 toward a future box for our family. Otherwise, I have no affiliation with them, just a happy customer.) 

An old photo from my fridge:

Picture of the Snack Time fridge cheat sheet on my fridge with a piece of colorful children's art underneath it.



Tuesday, February 21, 2023

What to Expect the 1st Time You Attend Synagogue

So you've been reading books, scrolling social media, reading this blog...and you think you're ready to go to a synagogue service for the first time.

The mechanics and the level of "oh no what have I gotten myself into I am not ready for this" will be different between orthodox and non-orthodox services only because non-orthodox services will be less unfamiliar and more used to clueless newcomers. So for that reason, I suggest going to a non-orthodox service as your first service, even if you eventually intend to convert orthodox. But you'll probably feel that panicked way no matter which kind of service you attend.


Security & Getting in the Door

Of course, this post is going to be focused on the experience in America because that's most of my experience. Attending synagogue outside of Israel, America, Canada, you may find very strict security and may need to request permission from the synagogue to attend. You may be asked to provide a copy of your passport, and the regular procedure may require a letter/email from your current rabbi. Of course, if you're reading this, you don't have a rabbi. Just be honest that you're considering conversion or have Jewish ancestry and would like to visit to see what a service is like. 

They may very well say no you can't visit, so please don't take it personally. That happened to me in several European cities back in 2007. I didn't visit a single synagogue in a year except the one in the town where I lived and taught. It's not about you or converts or anyone specifically. This has long been the situation, and its solely about security. They don't know you from Adam, as they say. (No Jews say that though, in my experience. Is that a Southern or Christian thing?) Remind me to tell you about the time I was almost arrested in Egypt on a study abroad trip for taking photographs of a Cairo synagogue from the street.

 But let's assume you're in America or somewhere similar. Really, all you do is find out the services times and walk in. Individual synagogues may have a different security set up, and you may be approached by a security team member to ask who you are and why you're here. It's not the most welcoming, but I get it. 

However, be aware that security teams are made up of regular people who have prejudices and can sometimes get puffed up with the "police-like" power. A whole lot of people love watching Law & Order. It's not unusual for Jews of Color or guests of color to be interrogated and actively made to feel unwelcome. 

When I complained in a public meeting with a security team who admitted to doing this (and at least one Black Jew being upset enough to leave and never return), both the team and the community in the meeting erupted into a round of "the ends justify the means" and said they did nothing wrong. It was that person's fault for not understanding and being willing to "take one for the team." They were oversensitive! You gotta break some eggs when you make an omelet, amirite?? 

Scared people do and say bad things to people they perceive as outsiders, and that applies across Jewish movements. It can happen in a liberal-seeming reform synagogue that claims to be "welcoming" just as much as the most politically conservative orthodox synagogue. Traditionally, non-orthodox synagogues have been unlikely to have a security team, but that is finally changing due to the rise in antisemitic crimes. But let's be clear - 

  • the ends do NOT justify the means, 
  • bad "policing" actually makes us less safe by wasting resources and alienating community members,
  • "the ends justify the means" is not a Jewish value, 
  • and racism and xenophobia are not Jewish values either. 
36 times (or more, depending on who you ask) we are commanded to love the "ger" - the convert, the outsider, the immigrant are all translations of that word.

Parking & Driving

If you're attending a non-orthodox synagogue, there'll be parking available outside the synagogue. If you're attending an orthodox synagogue, you may arrive to find that the synagogue's parking lot has the entrance blocked. No driving is allowed on Shabbat for orthodox people. Even though you're not Jewish/not orthodox, it's considered polite to park a little bit away from the synagogue and walk a block or so. Basically just not parking right in front of the synagogue and driving off in front of the congregation.

What to Wear

Dress as though you were going to a job interview. You want to make a good impression, and you likely want to dress in a fairly conservative manner the first time you visit a synagogue so that you can get a feel for what's "normal" and "socially acceptable" in that community. Men usually wear a suit and tie, women can wear what they would wear to a job interview. In an orthodox community, women should wear a skirt that reaches the knee or lower. All should wear closed-toe shoes.

All of this is up for grabs after your first visit. Dressing in a very conservative manner will help keep your visit as uneventful as possible.

What to Leave at Home on Shabbat and Holidays

Your phone, your smart watch, and anything else that is electronic and/or makes noises. You know that'll be the time someone calls you and you forgot to turn off the ringer. Or your smart watch decides to ping to remind you to walk 200 more steps to meet your goal! Leave them at home or in the car.


If you're male, you may want to grab a headcovering/kippah/yarmulke from a basket near the door to put on your head. This basket is going to be present in almost all synagogues of every kind. If this is a non-orthodox syngagogue, women may take one as well.

You may find a second basket with lacy headcoverings for women that look like lace doilies if you also had a grandmother or greatgrandmother who covered her house in doilies (is that a Southern thing too??). In no synagogue will headcovering be "mandatory" for women.

Beside both baskets, you might find hair pins to help you secure your headcovering of choice. (It's okay to take them to the bathroom to put them on with a mirror.)

Get Your Books

 Next you'll probably grab a prayerbook (siddur), but some synagogues will have them at the seats. It's always okay to ask any random person "Where do I find the prayerbooks/siddurs?" It's not always obvious, especially in orthodox synagogues. This is not a question that will out you as being in a synagogue for the first time because all of us have to ask this from time to time, but it will out you as a visitor to this synagogue.

 If there will be a reading from the Torah, you'll also want to grab a Chumash. They'll be stored beside the siddurim/prayerbooks. They're usually much bigger and thicker. This will apply on Monday and Thursday mornings, and Saturday mornings and afternoon (mincha service). There are other times when we read the Torah like the holidays, but if you realize mid-service that you forgot to grab a Chumash, it's perfectly fine and normal to walk back to grab one. It happens to all of us sometimes.


What If I Have to Go to the Bathroom?

 You can come and go as you need to, like to the bathroom. 

Usually, it's good manners to stay seated and not enter or leave the sanctuary during the Rabbi's Speech. But you'll see people do it, and if you have a bathroom or child emergency, don't worry about it. You may find people stationed at the doors who won't you go back into the sanctuary until after the speech is over. Why of all things this is the "good manners" hill that so many synagogues choose to die on is beyond me. I'd rather they appointed enforcers to make people be quiet during davening, but that's just me. I can barely think in English when other people are talking, without having to think in both English and Hebrew and the ambient noise of other people davening.


How Will I Follow Along?

You probably won't, let's be honest. And that's okay. A siddur is extremely complicated, more like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book than a prayerbook you might be used to. "If A, turn to page X. If B, turn to page Y." There might be a page number board on the wall in the front of the sanctuary, or maybe a person announces page numbers. If you're in an orthodox synagogue (except most Chabad), it's probable there will be no announcement of page numbers at all.

So just sit and stand with the congregation and read some of the prayers that you think they may be doing. For instance, maybe they only announce a page number 2 or 3 times during the whole service. You can turn to that page and spend time working through that section, following the instructions you read.

It's also perfectly normal and okay to ask any random person, "Excuse me, what page are we on?" Most people are very happy to help, and they may volunteer page numbers as we jump around through the service. (But you might be surprised how many times you hear, "I have no idea either.")

 It's okay to pray in your own words and your own way at any time.

Then What?

That's pretty much it. Just sit and stand as everyone else does, and eventually the service will be over.

After the Service

Celebrate - you made it!

There may or may not be a "kiddush" (after Shabbat morning services) or "oneg Shabbat" (seems to be a reform Friday night thing) or other social gathering after the service. 

Most services end by people just turning around and going home. Maybe you'll be approached by someone who noticed you're new, maybe not. If there's a social gathering, you're welcome to stay and socialize!

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Reflections 11 Years Later

It's been just over 11 years since I completed the orthodox conversion process that created this blog. What's changed? What's it like "on the other side"?

Last month, I saw my conversion anniversary on the calendar and made a note in my planner. ...And then I completely forgot about it until a week after the anniversary.

So that's about how it's going. It's...normal. Just life. I don't think about it often.

But would I feel that way if my world and the rest of the world hadn't also changed so much, so fast in the last 11 years? I don't know. 

People who convert are often people comfortable making big changes. Not everyone is capable of overturning their lives completely. Conversion is rarely the last big project for that kind of personality. But I also think most of us would agree that the last 11 years have been unusually eventful compared to the decade before.

For myself: Long-term unemployment due to the aftereffects of the 2008 recession, marriage, infertility, becoming a caregiver for my mother and then her death,  Hurricane Sandy, new communities, being diagnosed ADHD, later learning that I'm autistic, raising young kids, #MeToo, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of racism, antisemitism, and fascism, Covid, losing my job to Covid, the current bipartisan Covid denialism while living as a high-risk family, becoming a small-scale farmer and herbalist, homeschooling my kids, the death of my beloved elderly dog 2 weeks ago. There's always something.

I still haven't been inside a Jewish space since February 2020 because of the lack of Covid precautions. I've had to build a new way of living in a world that fundamentally doesn't care about the safety or well-being of me or my family, and that includes Jewish spaces in my experience. (No, I'm not interested in your Covid denialist or minimalizing comments. I've heard it all.)

I became a volunteer political organizer in secular politics several years ago, and I only realize now that I've long been a political organizer here. I've been advocating for the rights of conversion candidates and against racism in our community since 2010. I've fought repeatedly with the Powers that Be to hold conversion abusers accountable, both in my case and in others. Three guesses how successful those efforts have been at creating systemic change! But we've built a community, many more people know their rights, and many have validation that red flags are in fact red flags, not their imagination.


It's been a lot, both internally and externally. My conversion is old news in my world even though it dominated my life for so many years.

Does that mean it'll be like that for you? No way to know. But I think we all find that our conversion eventually does fade into the background as our lives move forward. The mundane and the emergencies eventually keep you too busy to think about it much anymore. It doesn't affect your day-to-day as it did before. And if it was abusive or otherwise traumatic (as it can be even under "good" and well-intentioned circumstances), it can take time for those wounds to heal. But they do eventually stop hurting so much on a daily basis. 


So what's the upshot here? Whatever you're struggling with now will eventually be over, and it'll be old news. Nothing is forever, and no one is ever alone. Others have been there, and we've gotten through it. You can too. But whatever happens, nothing stays the same for long. New problems, new celebrations, new people, new goes on.

You're gonna be okay. You're not alone.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

What Is a Chumrah and What Is Halacha

If you haven't discovered it already, 2 Jews equals 3 opinions! And it is entirely possible for all of those opinions to be correct. How is that possible?? I'm Jewish, so I could give you 18 answers to that question.

The best answer I can give you is that Judaism is not only NOT a monolith - Judaism isn't intended to be a monolith. "There is no Jewish Pope," as people like to say. (Not anymore that is - that would be the Kohen Gadol in the destroyed Beit Hamikdash and presumably again when the Temple is rebuilt.)


In Judiasm, multiple answers can and are valid. We have a strong tradition of different communities having different rulings, and this is codified in the Talmud/Gemara. Much of the Talmud, written down approximately 1,500 years ago, consists of "Rabbi A says X, Rabbi B says Y, they debate, and either no answer is given or both are declared valid." 

So in a nutshell, those positions from the Written and Oral Torah are the "halacha" and there can be multiple "correct answers" to any halachic question. "The halacha" - the "minimum standard" - is rarely clear-cut, often has multiple answers, and often depends heavily on the context of the question and the person asking.


So if multiple positions can be valid, what is a chumrah?

A chumrah is going "beyond the letter of the law." One example is the idea of hiddur mitzvah - going above and beyond to make a mitzvah beautiful, like buying the most beautiful menorah or etrog.

All agree that it is generally an admirable thing to go above and beyond the halacha (generally, so long as it is done with the right intention but even that is up for debate). However, a chumrah is by definition *not* required by the halacha. It is a voluntary assumption of something *beyond* the halacha. Anyone who tries to tell you that a chumrah is the minimum standard is wrong by definition.

But on the other hand, a "chumrah" can become "the halacha" if it becomes pervasive community practice for a very long time. That is discussed widely in the Talmud, where the rabbis note the basic halacha, but that the community usually went above and beyond (especially in kashrut/kosher food issues), so that that position then became the "minimal halachic standard" because the entire community had accepted the stringency as the minimum. Most chumrot began life as a minhag/local custom.

So let's look at a common example conversion candidates run into. This is why you find (so so so many) rabbis saying that "the halacha" is that women must wear stockings on their legs, because in many chareidi and chassidic communities, those communities have accepted stockings for well over a century as a minimum standard to fulfill the mitzvah of tznius ("modesty," for lack of a better English translation). But of course, each community argues over what color those stockings must be, whether they must have a visible seam, etc. That debate is a discussion for another day.

But even if a chumrah is binding on one community, it is not binding on communities who did not accept that as common practice. No matter how much some YouTube rabbi tries to tell you otherwise.

So what does this mean for you? Always take any statement of "the halacha" with a grain of salt. Says who? Is that halacha or is that a minhag or is that a chumrah? Is it d'oraita or d'rabbanan? Does your halachic authority hold by this? Does your community hold this way, or is this another community's position? What does your community actually do, regardless of what they may say?

I don't mean to sway you from what you are doing if you want to take on a chumrah. I just want you to understand the definitions we're dealing with so that you can make informed decisions (and I want you to not force your chumrahs on other people).

Just because someone tells you something is "halacha" doesn't mean it is "the halacha" you personally are obligated to do. And if you're a nerd fascinated by every detail of Judaism, which I've found most conversion candidates are, it's just dang interesting to know and understand what the basic halacha of a question is, and what chumrahs and minhagim exist for that same question. And it makes you a better Jew! After all, that's almost entirely what the Gemara is - debating what's the rule for a specific situation and why.

On any specific question, check with your rabbi, but you should also develop a feel for how your rabbi deals with chumrot and minhagim - many rabbis play fast and loose with the distinctions between halacha, chumrah, and minhag and don't really seem to care about the distinction. And some react poorly to being asked what kind of position X is. 

If it's important to you to know the difference, make sure you say so. But if you're still in the conversion process, that may not be the wisest question to ask because some say it suggests insubordination and a lack of respect for authority, which they may also call halacha shopping (#NoNotBitterWhyDoYouAsk). This can be true even with non-orthodox rabbis, so don't assume this is an orthodox-only problem. 


Ideally, find a rabbi who will take your questions positively and with the respect they deserve. But that's not always possible. If your local/sponsoring rabbi isn't that kind of person, then it's perfectly okay to have a second person for these kinds of questions, and that may be a friend or mentor rather than a rabbi (even better if your friend or mentor also happens to be a rabbi!). And I'll let you in on a secret - your rabbi doesn't have to know you have this other person. Because just having more than one person to ask about halacha could also be seen as insubordination, lack of respect for authority, and halacha shopping. For example, I've always advised that a pet owner get a rabbi specific for pet issues who is also a pet owner - but that doesn't mean you have to tell your rabbi that you have a "pet rabbi." After all, no one wants to be made to feel like you don't trust them with a question they feel capable of answering, even though my experience personally and professionally in the conversion space has taught me that most rabbis are completely unqualified to answer pet questions. They don't know how much they don't know.

Don't be afraid to ask questions, but use good judgment about who you ask those questions to and how you phrase it. The situation for the inherently curious conversion candidate has gotten even more toxic in the years since my own conversion. Keep being curious, even if it scares people who want you to shut up and not ask questions. This is your one, beautiful life. Learn everything!