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. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Best Pesach Guides on the Internet

It's that time of year again... Pesach. And that means cleaning. Yay, right? 

Preparing for Pesach can feel overwhelming, but thankfully, we're not reinventing the wheel around here. You too can stand on the shoulders of giants!

There are a lot of Pesach guides on the internet, but what they say varies widely. If you've never made Pesach before, how do you know which one to listen to? 

Pesach does not have to stress you out. If you're stressed out, listen to the thoughts you're telling yourself. Usually, you're your own problem. Sit down, make some tea, and then make a checklist. Then evaluate whether your checklist is a) reasonable and b) necessary. Then remove some of the things on your list. You probably let some spring cleaning sneak in.

Here are some really great guides to making Pesach without losing your mind:
Clean for Pesach and Enjoy the Seder (known on the internet as "the Rav Scheinberg letter")

As a bonus, I liked the "pep talk" aspects of these two very different articles: 

Personally, I think I'll take Auntie Chaya's advice and include more wine drinking in my Pesach prep this year. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Can You Use Your Hebrew Name Before Conversion?

Yes! (But in some communities, it may be discouraged or even "not done.")

But doesn't a name need to be official before you can use it?

Nope. That's true both under the secular law and Jewish law. Well, in the sense that neither prohibits you from calling yourself whatever you want whenever you want. Want to call yourself Beeblebop MacShoe? No one will stop you except to help you put on that straightjacket. 

Should you use your Hebrew name before conversion? Or ever? Maybe, maybe not. 

It's unlikely that a rabbi would ever preemptively tell you not to start calling yourself by a Hebrew name, but you may get a talking to after the deed is done, if the rabbi disagrees. If conflict makes you uncomfortable, it would be best to get a green-light to use a Hebrew name pre-conversion. If anyone other than your sponsoring rabbi or beit din rabbis tries to tell you you "can't" do it, ignore them. They're probably just yentas. Be thankful when yentas and haters out themselves. It's much easier to ignore them going forward.

Remember that you are not, nor should you ever be, required to use only your Hebrew name as your name on an everyday basis. It's your name, and you're free to use it as frequently or as infrequently as you like. While most converts do use their Hebrew names in some way, it is not required. (Of course, in some communities, not using a Hebrew name may be seen as a kind of rebellion or as an unwillingness to fully join the community. Even there, it won't be a "rule," it's just "not done." Not my cup of tea, but maybe it's yours.)

In almost all cases, you will choose your own name. It's an intensely personal decision and can take a long time or be blindingly obvious. Only in a very few communities will a rabbi choose your name for you, and those communities are usually Chassidic (though probably only a small percentage of Chassidic communities). Personally, I'm suspicious of situations where one person is given that much power over his followers' lives, and I would view that as a serious red flag. Others disagree with me and feel this is superholy and the name is drawn down from heaven on your behalf. I don't think any rabbi on this earth today has saintly superpowers ("ruach hakodesh"), but as always, others disagree. 

As I say in that blog post, there's a difference between "Your Hebrew name is going to be Y." and "Have you considered the name Z? I think it might be a good fit for you and your personality." One is likely to be seen as forceful and intimidating, and one sounds really thoughtful.

Reality Checks
Your English and Hebrew names are both you, and probably one will speak more to you on a daily basis. For me, that's my English name. However, I am a rare person who converted and still uses her (obviously) English name. People try to say that it's not a "Jewish name" to me, but neither was Alexander or several other names until it became popular. In my case, my name isn't commonly used even in the secular world, but I have a great comeback: "It's very popular in the London frum community, actually." (Or so I've been told. It has since caught on in Northern NJ too.)

Most diaspora Jews have a "secular" name on the paperwork, and many use those names at work. In fact, it's very confusing to do business with people I know in the community because I often have to learn a new name so I can get the secretary to transfer the call to the right person! I tell you this so that you'll realize it's not an all-or-nothing decision, whether you're a convert or BT or frum-from-birth. Almost every person in the community has to deal with this issue at one point or another. Often, we confront these questions multiple times in our lives. can always change your mind. I happen to love my English name and am very attached to it, but I chose a Hebrew name I could see myself using if I lived in Israel. People who don't speak English natively tend to mangle my name, and I'm unreasonably bothered by that, so I probably wouldn't use my English name in Israel. Our self-definition is malleable and always open to re-definition. 


So let's cover some potential scenarios: 

You can be Chaim in shul and Greg in the office.
You can be Chava to everyone new and Elizabeth to everyone who already knows you (unless they want to call you Chava too).
You can be Sarah Leah to everyone else, but always Kara to your mom or other family members. 
You can be Ezra to everyone, but still Mark to the cashier at the liquor store who checks your ID. 
You might be Erica on your job application, then ask everyone to call you Ilana instead when you get the job. 
You can be Kochava online, and Skylar in the real world.
And you'll always be "Mr. Ackertonson?" to the telemarketers. 

Life's funny, and people are weird. Embrace it or you will become very bitter.

If you do choose to go by your Hebrew name in one or more of these contexts, you'll always have someone who gets it wrong or refuses to change over. You have to consider whether you can live with it, whether the battle is worth it if not, or whether this person needs to be in your life at all.


But should you really do all this before conversion? My only caution is that once you start going by a name, you should stick with it. It gets too confusing, and it hurts our games of Jewish geography if you change names a couple of times. People might start getting Judgey McJudgerson about it and wonder if you're right in the head or noncommittal about this conversion business. You might start looking like a poser, and everyone hates posers. 

If you're not sure about your name (remember that it's a lifelong commitment), don't use it yet. Ask your friends whether it fits you, ask your family how it sounds, say it out loud in the mirror a few times, but don't start putting it on job applications. 

You can even ignore the question of a name altogether until it gets closer to your conversion. Or only delay the decision on whether to use it or not. Procrastination is ok, and the beit din is unlikely to ever ask you how you plan to use your Hebrew name. On the other hand, they might ask you those questions if you start asking people to call you by your Hebrew name.

A note on last names: unless you intend to legally change your last name, I don't suggest using a "Jew-y" last name just to "fit in" better. If you get caught, people will think that's weird and suspicious. You might even be viewed as a security threat.

Once you've converted, you're pretty much stuck with the name, so you can use it or not as you like. Before then: kick the tires, but don't commit until you're ready. 

More about Hebrew names and legally changing your name can be found on the Hebrew Names page!

So... when did you start using your Hebrew name, and why then? If not, why not?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

How to Use a Hot Water Urn on Shabbat and Yom Tov

Hot water urn. Electric kettle. Hot water pot. Coffee urn. Hot water heater (not to be confused with the one for your sinks and showers). Water boiler. Hot water dispenser. Pump pot. Whatever you call it, it gives you hot water.

Before I entered the Jewish community, hot water urns only existed in hotels and conference centers. In fact, I didn't even know what they were called. Now I've got one in my own kitchen, and so do most of the other people I know. 

Do You Need a Hot Water Urn?
No. You don't. 

Some people will try to tell you it's a (almost-mandated) custom to have a hot drink on Shabbat. It comes from the battles with the Karaites and is the source of the custom to eat hot food at Shabbat lunch (for example: cholent). Whether or not you believe there is a "requirement" to eat hot food on Shabbat, there is no such "requirement" for a hot drink. If you don't want or can't work out hot food on Shabbat, a hot drink is a great alternative. You can also "fulfill" the custom at someone else's house. There's nothing that mandates you need the hot items in your own kitchen, so there's nothing to worry about if you're eating out.

You only "need" a hot water urn if you want to drink coffee or tea or another hot beverage on Shabbat. I haven't seen it done personally, but I suppose hot chocolate is fine. Don't see why not. Making a soup with it...probably not, even if it were technically allowed. (And I don't know if it is.)

Many people don't even use the hot water urn, but always keep some water available in case a guest wants tea or coffee. Even if no guests are planned! It's common to offer these drinks after a meal, but not a faux pas if you don't. We just like being fancy. It's much more common in the winter, and much less common in the summer. Common sense, ya know.

How to Use the Hot Water Urn:
We talked about making tea before, but let's go over it again and in a more expanded fashion:

As a fundamental halachic principle, you should know that this water is (should be, if working properly) hot enough to "cook" things according to halacha. It is hotter than the level of yad soledat bo. In other words, it's really hot. It will burn you. And that means it will "cook" anything it comes into contact with that is capable of being cooked, so be careful to not spill it on foods. Which foods are capable of being cooked is a bigger and more difficult discussion that really isn't relevant to most of us, so just try to avoid spilling it on any food to be safe. 

This only applies on Shabbat because "cooking" is allowed on yom tov.

  1. Put hot water from the urn into a cup. This is the kli sheini, the second cup. The hot water urn is the kli rishon, the first cup, the heating element itself. 
  2. Pour that water into another cup. This is the kli shlishi, the third cup. Pouring into yet another cup lowers the temperature so that the water is ruled halachically incapable of "cooking." However, it may still be really hot. Be careful. Everyone eventually does the science experiment to see whether it really does feel cooler in the second teacup, so don't feel shy when you do it.
  3. Most Americans use instant coffee or a tea bag. You can even get instant coffee in tea bags! People differ as to whether the instant coffee or the tea bag should be added to the kli sheini before or after the water. 
  4. Alternatively, if you're British or machmir (stringent), you may use tea essence instead of a tea bag. This is the traditional method. It's essentially concentrated tea that you water down with the water from the urn. Again, people differ whether the tea essence should be placed in the kli sheini before or after the hot water.
  5. Let's talk about tea bags. Allowing the use of a tea bag instead of tea essence is a famous ruling from Rav Moshe Feinstein. 
  6. There's also a potential problem with borer, separating. Removing the tea bag from the cup would be separating bad from good, which isn't allowed. You can always choose good from bad, so you can pour the perfectly-steeped tea into yet another cup if the tea bag bothers you. Most people just leave the bag in (I'm not cultured enough to taste a difference). My understanding is that some people hold you can remove the bag with a spoon, so long as you also remove a little tea with it and don't squeeze the tea bag in the process.
Fun note: instant coffee is easy because it's already cooked. There's debate on whether tea leaves can be cooked, but everyone seems to agree we avoid the dispute and accept the kli sheini solution.

If you're a French press nut, Chaviva has a great discussion about them. I had no idea real coffee could be fine! The more you know. 

Alternatives to a Hot Water Urn:
  • Teapot or kettle on a blech or Shabbos plata. Be careful of the rules for putting it back on the heat. Review them with your rabbi because they can differ significantly from community to community.
  • Use a thermos. If the hot water is from a thermos, there's no need for a kli sheini. The thermos is the second cup from the heat source!
  • Heat a pot of water on a blech or Shabbos plata. Again, this leads to the issue of replacing the pot. It can also be a serious safety risk.

Potential Halachic Issues with the Urn Itself:
Best practice: buy the simplest one you can find. The more bells and whistles, the mo' problems. Thankfully, it'll also be the cheapest!

The heating element. Most hot water urns immediately boil the water once it's turned on, and then it has a separate temperature to keep the water hot. Some use two different heating elements, some use one with a temperature adjustment. Both should be fine. It's a problem if the temperature changes based on the amount of water left in the urn. Then, your actions are changing the heating elements. This is an uncommon problem, but you should be aware of it. Buying the cheap and easy water heater should ensure you don't get this kind of feature.

Timers. This one is a question for your rabbi if you really want to put the heater on a timer. It's easier to just boil the water before Shabbat and leave it on for 25 hours. Like a crockpot, you can use a timer to turn it off after you're done with it. However, there's a huge risk the timer messes up and it turns off early and you're left without. I eventually stopped trying after ruining too many cholents. It might be possible to arrange a timer to turn it off at night and back on in the morning, but I don't see it. Your savings on the electric bill and the earth would be small, so try not to feel bad. One of my favorite finance blogs, The Simple Dollar, even did a sample cost analysis for you!

Dials. If your hot water urn has a dial, don't adjust it on Shabbat. Authorities differ on whether you need to "disable" the switch in some way, such as putting tape over it or covering it. As for yom tov, you should be able to adjust the temperature up (not down), but you should talk to your rabbi because it's a complicated area and it depends on your specific machine. Fancy water heaters with a "Shabbos mode" will disable any switches for you. But why pay extra for that?

Water level indicators. Even a stringent view on the relevant halachot apparently leads to the conclusion that a water level indicator is fine. No less than Rav Ovadia Yosef permitted it, so you have plenty to rely on if you want that feature.

Lights. Are there lights that go off or on in reaction to something you do? For instance, does a light come on when you push for water? That's a problem. If it turns off and on according to the heat of the water, that might indicate there's a halachic problem with the heating element (as discussed above). Most urns have a light that simply indicates that the heater is on. That's fine.

Outlet placement. Be careful that you don't trip a breaker and knock out your power. That would be inconvenient, to say the least. Test the outlet you want to use more than 10 minutes before Shabbat, especially if you live in an old house.

Can you move the urn around? That's an excellent question: is it muktzah? Well, you're already touching it to dispense the water, so my gut feeling is that it can't be muktzeh to touch a different part of the urn. However, your mileage may vary. Why do I even bring this question up? When the water gets low, you may need to tip the urn forward to get water out the spigot. You might also want to slide the urn farther back on the counter so that the spigot doesn't drip on the floor.

Can you drink all the liquid in the urn? Related to the question above, can you drink enough of the water than you need to tip it over? According to the interwebz, some poskim hold that if an urn would be damaged if it were emptied, you aren't allowed to use it at all. That doesn't make sense to me, but I saw several people mention it. On the other hand, I'd think it would be a problem if the urn has a safety shut-off when the urn is empty (which many do). However, I saw that it was permitted to finish the water even if it would turn off, which also surprised me. I'm zero-for-two here. Either way, it seems to be a good idea not to let the urn become empty on Shabbat or yom tov. Cut off your guests before it becomes a problem, either halachically or ruining your nice appliances. 

Should you throw out any water left after Shabbat? There is a halacha that uncovered "standing water" left overnight (only when beside your bed?) is a halachic problem. Bad mojo (for lack of a better word; the same stuff you wash off your hands after sleeping), snakes leaving poison in it... there are a couple of reasons given for it. Ask your rabbi if this is a problem for you and if so, what the parameters are. Many people do throw the water away (try "recycling" it in your garden or to cook or wash with) just because they don't like the taste of "stale" water. It's not a halachic thing.  My initial thought when I saw this argument: the person said you have to throw away the water after Shabbat because the water sat overnight. However, with that logic, you couldn't use the water at all on Shabbat day because it sat overnight on Friday. Obviously, that's not what people do. Also, the water is not uncovered (there is a lid), so it shouldn't fall into this issue in the first place, and I believe it only applies when the glass of water was beside or under your bed. Why would you put it under your bed? Who knows. Personally, my water urn often chugs away through Sunday night before I turn it off. 

Toveling the urn. We're all afraid of toveling electric stuff. It's a common concern. Here is a great and simple breakdown of how to tovel an urn, and even better, they acknowledge that some poskim hold that items that could be damaged by toveling don't need to be toiveled. Ask your rabbi if you're really concerned about toiveling an electrical appliance, but be assured that pretty much all electrical items for sale in the U.S. can be safely toveled thanks to increased safety standards. A very short-term exposure to water is planned for in safety testing, but there is always a risk it could damage the item. It will probably also void the warranty. 

Health and safety. The sides of a hot water urn are very, very hot. It's tricky to place it somewhere that is both convenient and keeps children from being able to touch it. The spout often needs to hang over the edge of the counter, so don't burn your feet... or a child or pet running under you. You can apparently get an insulated cover for the urn, but "completely enclosing" it may be a halachic issue even if you put it on before Shabbat. Talk to your rabbi about the specifics if that interests you. The interwebz say that pump pots are safer around kids, so perhaps just go with the easier answer. (But they also say pump pots aren't as durable.)

#ProTips for Owning an Urn:
  • Use filtered water, Brita or otherwise. This will help prevent some of the buildup on the inside of the urn, and you'll be able to clean it less often. 
  • It cleans easily with water and white vinegar. You can 1) turn it on and boil the vinegar water or 2) let it sit in a stronger solution of vinegar water for a half hour or so. Either works fine. Rinse once or twice and you won't taste vinegar, even if there's a little vinegar smell left. If you hate the smell of vinegar, Google will give you 300 other ways to clean a water urn. 
  • If your spigot dips a little, make sure to place a plate or something underneath. In this case, I would slide the hot water urn off the edge of the counter when you need it rather than putting a plate on the floor. 

Happy drinking! (Is it St. Patrick's Day already??)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Is Yoga Allowed?

It's World Yoga Day! Maybe you think yoga is just for Indians and hippies who idolize Indian culture. Maybe you've tried it, and maybe you haven't. Or maybe you love yoga. 

As you become more religious, can you continue to do yoga? Or maybe you'd like to try yoga for its scientifically-proven benefits to health and wellbeing?

Answer: it depends. It depends on whether your community forbids it outright or whether your community allows the practice when done in a tznius manner. I'm not aware of any major groups who say it's totally ok in every context, though there are certainly people who treat gyms differently in regard to tznius (like going to the doctor - this can play out in several ways as we'll mention below). The opinions probably differ whether you're a man or woman, given the potentially-suggestive nature of the movements and the tightness of most people's clothing. (In case that's not clear: the men are going to have a harder time getting "permission.") So whichever way you go, and you can change your approach over time, you'll find other people doing it too. Whether that's right or wrong isn't for me to say.

The best advice I can give you is don't ask a shailah (halachic question) if you aren't willing to abide by the ruling. If you feel strongly toward yoga and will find it hard to give it up, you shouldn't ask unless you know the answer you're going to get. "But that's rabbi shopping!" you might say. No, I'm saying don't ask the question; I'm not advocating that you look around for a rabbi who will give you the answer you want (though you wouldn't be the first or the last to do that). In theory, just because you're not ready to abide by a negative answer now doesn't mean you won't be ready one day. And then you can ask. Can ask; I'm not saying you should ask. I can't answer that for you either. 

Whatever you do, don't set yourself up for failure by asking a shaliah when you're not ready; it can snowball into disregarding other rulings. More immediately, it can lead to a lower self-esteem: Why don't I have more willpower? Why am I not pious enough to give this up for Gd? Have I made a horrible mistake with this Jewish stuff?

A major problem is that most rabbis know nothing about yoga, how it's practiced, what the practice is actually like, how the types of yoga differ (which could make a difference), etc. If you ask a question and the rabbi responds too quickly, be wary. He should certainly ask follow-up questions about the specific situation, and he should probably ask another rabbi who is more knowledgeable on the topic. 

So let's talk about some options. 

Beware of religious stuff. There are many yoga customs and practices that involve Hindu religious practices, and Hindus are polytheists, so we get into real old-school Biblical pagan problems. I didn't know much about them (and you're not liable for punishment if you don't know what you're doing) until I read the book Wrestling with Yoga by Shelly Dembe. However, most people believe there is a danger in subconsciously exposing yourself to these things, even unknowingly. She writes extensively about how she encountered these problems as a baalas teshuva and yoga teacher. Some of the things that can be problematic, as I remember it: the bowing (watch out for idols in the room!!), "Namaste," and the Sanskrit names of postures. Maybe you find teachers who don't use those practices or ignore them when they come up. Just because the class bows and says Namaste doesn't mean you have to too. (And no one cares that you don't, speaking from my practice years ago.) Some authorities believe it is beyond redemption and is exclusively an idolatrous religious practice. I'm not sure anyone could possibly leave a Bikram hot yoga class with that opinion, but that was my experience.

You're fine by most people when you're in your home with a DVD or other video class (well, maybe not men). Depending on how you normally dress inside your home, you may be able to wear as little clothing as is comfortable or familiar for you. Of course, that also depends on your practice during niddah if you're married, and around roommates if you have those.

There are frum yoga teachers who teach single-gender classes! However, the men are probably out of luck. These teachers are hard to find because they're usually private teachers who host classes in homes, rather than in a studio. Ask around. Facebook Pages is usually a good place to search for individual yoga teachers. Yoga by Leah is one teacher popular among my friends.

Some people are able to find public single-gender yoga classes. In my experience, this has been surprisingly harder in NYC than the other places I've lived. And there's a lot more demand from men here than I've encountered before. Of course, the frum men are out of luck yet again. I've never seen an all-male class. Here and with the frum teachers I mentioned above, your experience will vary based on your interpretation of how you can dress in a single-gender situation outside your home (some follow all the same rules, some say anything goes, and there's plenty of middle ground too). Haircovering can be a sticky issue in these situations, depending on how you interpret the mitzvah/custom. That's a problem in any exercise situation, but yoga is more problematic because of how much your head moves. 

Some people attend regular yoga classes. Some hope that no men will show up, and some don't care. Some dress like everyone else, some dress tznius, and some dress more modestly but perhaps not to their normal tznius standard. Some start the class tznius and will lose some clothing (and/or a headcovering) if no men show up. Potential problem: windows and glass doors exposing you outside the yoga room.

Overheating can be a real concern if you do yoga while tzniusly or modestly dressed, so stay hydrated and invest in great wicking exercise clothing. If you always cover your toes/feet, make sure you buy socks with grippy bottoms to prevent sliding. Safety first!

Now here are some Jewish books about yoga!
Wresting with Yoga is the only one on this list I've read. It's a spiritual memoir about a frum woman's Indian-influenced past colliding with her now-orthodox present and how she tried to reconcile the two. I wish it had gone into more detail, particularly about repeated mentions that her rabbi prohibits blank-mind-meditation without ever saying why it might be a problem. 
Mussar Yoga: Blending an Ancient Jewish Spiritual Practice with Yoga to Transform Body and Soul I love Alan Morinis' mussar books, so I'm sure this is a great book.
Torah Yoga: Experiencing Jewish Wisdom Through Classic Postures I don't know anything about this book, but it sure looks interesting!
Alef Bet Yoga: Embodying the Hebrew Letters for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being Now this one is just fascinating-looking. It reminds me of acting out letters in Kindergarten, which explains why there's also a kids' version of the book

Are you curious about yoga? If you are already a yogini (look, another religious word!), has your yoga practice changed as you progressed along your spiritual journey? Did you give it up when you became religious or are you thinking about starting a practice now? Have you had unexpected run-ins with yoga in your community? 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Are You Near NYC? Join the Meetup Group!

In a way that was unimaginable when I started this blog 4.5 years ago, there is such a powerful online community for converts and conversion candidates. I'm very proud to have been a part of that, though it still boggles my mind that so many people know this blog. (I've had a few awkward experiences of celebrity lately!)

So what's missing? An in-person conversion community

In a stroke of genius during such difficult times, the DC convert community pulled together and created a Meetup so they could be there for each other. By all accounts I heard, the Meetup has been a great success and a blessing to those who attended. Several of us in a Facebook group discussed growing this model to other cities, including NYC. I didn't really have time because of work and some personal things, so I waited to see what would happen.

A couple of months went by, and nothing happened. So because I'm a sucker for pain, I created the NYC Orthodox Conversion Meetup Group

I originally intended to create a Meetup specifically for the Queens and Five Towns area because that's where I live, but it turns out that Meetup groups are very expensive! ($120/year! I have clearly not appreciated my other Meetup groups enough!) Because of the unlikelihood that we'll create 5 separate Meetup groups at that cost level, this group covers the entire NYC area, including Northern New Jersey and the Five Towns (just over the Queens border into Long Island, if you're not familiar with it - and yes, it's actually five separate towns). 

That means the Meetups will rotate among these areas:
  • Manhattan
  • Brooklyn
  • Queens
  • the Five Towns
  • Northern NJ (most likely staying in Teaneck)
Even though the events are locations-specific, you can attend any event that interests you and is convenient for you. Don't feel that you can only attend the Teaneck event if you live in NJ or the Manhattan event if you live in Manhattan. That is not the case! Come to as many events as you can! (And if you're coming into town on vacation, contact me, and I'll see if there's a Meetup while you're in town!)

There are currently 5 Meetups scheduled between this week and late March. Once you are approved to join the group, you'll be able to see specific information about the dates and times.

An important caveat: the group is limited to orthodox converts, orthodox conversion candidates, and people considering an orthodox conversion. The goal is to connect converts within the orthodox community; that way, we can deal with the special challenges and celebrate the special joys of living as a convert in the orthodox community. If you've left orthodoxy or converted outside the orthodox community, this group probably wouldn't be helpful or relevant to you unless you're considering joining an orthodox community. 

Converts and candidates from all communities are welcome: modern orthodox, Yeshivish, Chassidic, Open Orthodox, and everything in between. I will do my best to schedule events at places that are acceptable to everyone's interpretation of halacha, and I may need help doing that. If you have specific requirements other than glatt kosher and chalav yisrael, please contact me to let me know. (Other than yichud and the food, I'm not aware of any halachic problems meeting in someone's home - please correct me if you know of any other concerns.)

Privacy is a key goal of the group, but nothing is perfect, especially in a community as large as NYC. My goal is that this will be a safe place to share your struggles and challenges and to celebrate your joys. An in-person community should have existed long before now, and I'm sorry I didn't think of it earlier. But then again, I'm a hermit, so perhaps this is all a terrible idea ;)

The first group of meetings are simple "meet and greets" where we'll meet for dinner and conversation and to discuss what you want to see from this group. I need ideas for events and locations, people! 

However, there is one conversion group Meetup open to the public! We're going to watch the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amselem at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Sunday, February 22. Because the schedule is only released one week at a time on Thursdays, I can't guarantee the time until later this week. I anticipate we will attend the 2:40pm showing. Meet out front at 2:30pm so we can grab seats. If you arrive later, we'll meet you after the show is over! Dinner afterwards to discuss the movie is optional but encouraged! (Give me restaurant suggestions! It seems that the pretty-universally-accepted restaurants I knew near there have closed, and I'm not sure how far people are willing to walk.)

Get denial should be a topic near and dear to the convert's heart, both because it's flat-out wrong and because get denial reflects the same powerlessness and abuse of power that can (and does) affect converts both here and abroad. Get denial and conversion abuse are cut from the same cloth. If both groups support each other, we can affect change for individuals and also for the whole group.

I hope you'll join the Meetup group, pass it along to the converts and conversion candidates you know, and/or join us to watch Gett and support Israeli cinema! And while you're at it, support ORA: Organization for the Resolution of Agunot!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Traditional (Ashkenazi) Shabbat Menu

Shabbat dinners were one of the most alien things about orthodoxy to me. Not only was the food weird, there was just SO MUCH OF IT. My family didn't do multiple courses or even dessert most of the time. Yes, my white trash family just took food from the pans on the stove.

Also... it was unnerving that almost everyone was serving the exact same meal. Did they get together and decide this? I began to wonder if it was a halacha to serve chicken soup and gefilte fish. Thankfully for me, it's not. Though some communities hold there are mystical meanings to serving certain foods and/or serving them at certain times. 

So what does the "traditional" Shabbat meal look like?

First off, in America, it's going to be an Ashkenazi-centric meal. Even Sephardi families within an Ashkenazi community may tone down the spiciness or unfamiliar foods simply to not freak out the neighbors and guests. You'll also find many mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi families, and the food will tend toward the background of the husband, as a general rule. (The path to a man's heart is his stomach, or so they say.)

Thankfully, things are getting more varied every Shabbat. The internet and the growing number of Jewish cookbooks are introducing new dishes left and right, both Jewish in origin or not. You'll also find a growing number of theme meals, like Mexican or Italian or Chinese or sushi. Shabbos tables look very different than they did even 10 years ago, when I entered the community. People are more adventurous with food today, and there are more kosher options. However, you'll still run into the "traditional" meal more often than not.

Rules of the Shabbos Meal

  • Pace yourself. There will usually be a lot of food. (I have no idea how people afford these meals regularly.) #ProTip: ask for the full menu at the beginning so you can pace yourself effectively.
  • Feel free to say no to food. You'll feel rude, but don't. If you know you hate gefilte fish, it's ruder to take and not eat it. But this is hard. Just try telling your host you don't want soup. I get questioned every time, and it can be very uncomfortable. 
  • Likewise, someone will eventually force food on you. Take this behavior as gracefully as you can, whether you actually take the food or not.
  • Unless told otherwise, the meal will be meat, not dairy. And there will be actual meat served. 
  • Remember that most people eat meat and fish only as separate courses, using separate dishes and forks. Remember to get your fish fork back to the kitchen before the meat comes out.
  • If you have a dietary restriction, tell your host in advance. Don't try to "make it work" because it often won't (Murphy's Law), and then the person will feel bad that you don't have any food.
  • You might be able to bring a dish or pre-made item. If you're not yet Jewish or don't keep kosher, there are many things you can bring. And don't forget to get them to the host in accordance with halacha.

The Courses

Kiddush with wine or grape juice
At lunch, kiddush might be made on other alcoholic beverages, like liquor or beer

Everyone will leave the table to wash their hands before eating bread. If your hosts are Yekke (German), this washing will take place before Kiddush. Either way, you'll stay silent between washing and eating the bread, minus any responsive Amens. People often hum or mime. It's often a silly time, especially when kids are around.
When everyone returns, the blessing over bread will be made. The bread is cut, and slices/pieces are handed out.

Salad Course:
The bread with "salads." These can include Israeli salad, chumus (often written hummus in America), babaganoush, tachina (also called tahini), Turkish salad. #Irony: those are all Middle Eastern/Sephardi foods.
May also include "real" salad.

Fish Course:
Will probably be done at the same time as the Salad course, but I've seen it separated too.
If any course is removed, it will be this one. Followed by reducing the number of salads.
Gefilte fish is often the fish of choice, but you might also find herring, salmon, or any other fish. 
Gefilte fish is often served with a bit of carrot and with purple horseradish on the side. The horseradish is purple because it's colored with beets. Why? Why not.

Generally will be chicken soup. You might be asked for what you want in the soup. This may include, but is not limited to: chicken meat, matzah balls, vegetables, or chicken bones.

Main Meal:
Pace yourself. Just when you think they've brought out all the platters, there will often be more platters. 
Meat, meat, meat. I have several friends who always serve at least three types of meat. Maybe two beef dishes and a chicken dish or the other way around. 
Kugel is usually a given, but they're getting more creative with kugels: broccoli kugel, cauliflower kugel, butternut squash kugel, etc. Traditional kugels are either potatoes or noodles (two main types: Yerushalmi and Lokshen kugel).
Assorted other vegetables and starches (potatoes, rice, couscous, etc).

Dessert, Coffee, and Tea:
They're probably going to be full of sugar and fat. But otherwise, there's a lot of variety here, and you'll often have some fresh fruit too. 
You'll be asked whether you want tea (and sometimes coffee).
Coffee or tea will usually be brought to you, so you can avoid some of the problems in making tea on Shabbat. The coffee will be instant coffee, and some even come in tea bags!

That is seriously a lot of food. No wonder I gained weight when I joined the community. And now that I have a different, vegan-ish diet, there's not a lot of Ashkenazi foods I eat. When in doubt, go for the veggies, bread, salads, and fresh desserts. You won't go hungry, even if limited to those.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Word of the Day: Tznius v. Tznua

Women in Beit Shemesh, Israel, won a great victory today for Judaism and human decency. Beit Shemesh has been having some problems between some factions of the chareidi community and the modern orthodox/non-orthodox community in Beit Shemesh. Most of you probably know about the elementary school girls who were spat upon outside their school and called sluts and whores in 2011. This lawsuit will force the municipality of Beit Shemesh to remove the signs promoting "modesty" (what an interesting definition of modesty they have!) on public buildings and structures. The city has apparently refused to remove them, leading to this lawsuit. 

The modesty "warnings" included billboards excluding women and signs on public building reading: “Dire Warning: It is forbidden to walk on our streets in immodest dress, including slutty clothing worn in a religious style.” It was signed “residents of the neighborhood.”

The women allege that the signs promote a threatening and violent atmosphere towards women and has actually lead to violence towards women. Thankfully, the court saw reason. You can read more about the story here: Women Activists Celebrate Legal Victory Against "Modesty Signs" in Beit Shemesh.

But that brings up something I still struggle with: the difference between the words tznius and tznua. In our sometimes-crazy society, we put an inordinate amount of attention on the physical trappings of modesty, but only for women, of course. That means you see and hear the word tznius everywhere. It's one of the first "Jewish" words I learned, in fact. But I constantly misuse it, grammatically. And probably so do you.

What's not tznius today: Makeup? Skirts with spandex in the fabric? Any sign of butt curve in that skirt? Lipstick? Long sheitels? Luxurious wigs? Wearing a scarf instead of a wig? 

So if we're going to talk about tznius all the time, we should learn how to use the word correctly. I am the #1 offender here. In fact, it's not correctly used in the last paragraph! So maybe I'll learn better after writing this out. 

Tznius: noun 
Tznua: adjective

Helpful rewriting of sentences we women hear way too often:
[Adjective] That dress isn't tznua, I can't believe she's wearing it!
[Noun] We need to promote tznius among our women; these sheitels are getting out of control!
[Adjective] I heard her kids got kicked out of school because she's not tznua. 
[Adjective] Why are you complaining that the school makes you dress more tznua to pick up your kids? It's for the children!
[Adjective] It's a shonda that she dresses so untznua around the children. (Catch yourself: you'll want to say untznius here! Notice how involved the schools are in enforcing tznius standards? Not an accident. Attack her through her children.)
[Noun] I can't really judge the burka ladies because they're doing such teshuva in tznius. (Yes, I have heard this multiple times in conversation, even after the same person declared these women insane.)

While researching this post, I ran across a great blog post that sums up a lot of my frustrations, written by Rabbi Eli Fink, but posted on DovBear: Tznius: Is Following Halacha Sufficient? My research also shows that I shouldn't be faulted for my constant use of the word tznius for both tznius and tznua because everyone else seems to be doing it too.

Here are the highlights I love:
This is an expected response because we hear about it all the time. "People are following the "rules" of tznius by covering what needs to be covered." "But they are still not really tzanua because they "miss the boat" on tznius and are still "too attracting"." You know the drill… 
Here's what I have been thinking about since reading that answer on Is this the only place in Orthodox Judaism that halacha is not enough? For some reason we also demand that the adherent to halacha find the "spirit" of the halacha and adhere to that as well. 
...I'm not saying that an Orthodox Jewish person would not want to dress in a modest way, rather, that in this part of Judaism, for some reason, halacha doesn't seem to be "enough". 
One more thing. If you read the sources in halacha about tznius, it is all about what MEN cannot do. Men cannot read krias shema if a woman in not covered properly. A man must give his wife her kesuba, UNLESS she was an "overes al das" (with witnesses and proper warning). It doesn't say a WOMAN MUST… in any of the sources I saw. I just found that interesting in contrast to today's rhetoric of "Women must do this… Women may not do that… etc..."

Like Rabbi Fink, don't misunderstand me: dressing tznius (dang it, tznua!) has made a great change in my life, and has been a big part of my everyday life for several years now. (Even though many chareidim would say my clothing is not tznius. Dang it again! Tznua.) But I don't need other people policing my clothes, and I find it incredibly offensive that segments of our society focus on women's clothing (and gossip - those chatty women just can't help themselves!) to the exclusion of almost every other mitzvah obligation or good middah (praiseworthy character trait). Tzniut is far more than clothing, and many in our community seem to have forgotten this, to their detriment and ours. See also: Can Yirat Shemayim Make You Neurotic? 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: Meatballs and Matzah Balls by Marcia A. Friedman

If you know anything personal about me, it's probably that I LOVE books. I get many review copies from various sources, but not usually on Jewish topics. I'm a voracious reader; a couple hundred books a year. For realz. Not all unemployed people are down at the race track, you know.

However, there's one genre I have little to do with: cookbooks. I'm not a frequent cook, and when I do cook, I just throw things together rather than follow a real plan (and the meal usually reflects my haphazard style). 

But a different kind of cookbook came to my attention. It's Italian/Mediterranean food inspired, written by a convert, and the book includes several essays about the author's Jewish journey. How could I say no to that?? The author sent me a free book in the hopes that I would write an honest review, and lucky for her, her book is awesome: Meatballs and Matzah Balls by Marcia A. Friedman.

I usually find cookbooks pretty boring reading that just results in me stuffing my face (or only looking at the pictures). I loved the inclusion of essays about the author's life, though of course each one left me with more questions and wanting to have a long chat with the author about her incredible journey. Even better, each recipe starts with a short note about the recipe, whether its history, its relevance to the author, or some helpful tips. 

And let's not forget the photos. I wasn't so crazy about the cover of the book (for some reason, I wish there were only two bowls instead of four...maybe it's the OCD?), but the photos inside are fantastic and mouth-watering. I subjected the rest of my family to a new picture every few minutes while I was reading! I think they were a little glad when I finished it :/

There are helpful tips throughout, which made me feel I could trust the author to not lead me astray with hard-to-follow recipes, no matter how complicated they look. Granted, most were not complicated sounding, but I'm a little gunshy when it comes to cookbooks. Which brings me to an important point: I would classify this as an Intermediate Level cookbook. If you don't know what a Dutch oven is or how to use one, I would recommend having Google/YouTube nearby and prepare to Phone a Friend, if not having the friend help out in person. In my life, that means calling my dad a couple of times per recipe when I try something new. Personally, I wouldn't attempt most of these recipes without some Lifelines the first time I made them.

As you can imagine, an Italian-inspired cookbook is heavy on the dairy, which makes for some very creative substitutions in classically meat-and-dairy Italian dishes (and they sound awesome!). All the recipes are kosher-friendly, but there are notes about alternate preparations for those who don't keep kosher. There's also a Passover-specific section, though many of the recipes are kosher l'Pesach or easily made so.

Unfortunately for me, I went vegan-ish a couple of months ago. (If you want to become a Parevore too, check out one of my other Twitter accounts, which is where I hide all my chizuk - stuff to help me stay strong: @KosherJustice) So unfortunately...most of this cookbook is off limits to me because I'm not skilled enough to make substitutions for the dairy recipes, and I've found that many dairy substitutions aren't really worth it anyway. However, I do sometimes eat meat, and there are some pareve dishes.

But how I wish things were different! Dairy has always been my BFF, even though I'm horribly lactose intolerant. I want to eat everything in this cookbook, so if you aren't yet on the plant-based diet bandwagon, I highly recommend this cookbook, even if you aren't normally a "cookbook person." Go get your copy!