Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Series: Orthodox Women Talk

I'm part of a new series that asks various orthodox women questions about their Jewish practice. The first post is up today, and you should check it out!

Orthodox Women Talk

The first question: Do you find it boring to sit through endless Shabbat services conducted in a language you may or may not know?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Your English Name Can also Be Your Hebrew Name!

All the conversion candidates named Sarah, David, Samuel, Rebecca, and Alexander can rejoice! 

If you already have a "Jewish name" and you like it, then you don't have to change your name! Rachel becomes Rachel, and Rebecca becomes Rivka. 

However, some rabbis may insist that you use a different name in order to separate yourself from your prior life and because of the precedent of Avram and Sarai (changed to Abraham and Sarah). Some rabbis (and other people) object to this "requirement" because there is no evidence that Ruth, the most famous of converts, changed her name. I personally think that you should have the freedom to either make a break with your "former life" or to embrace this new stage as the natural continuation of your identity. A name can strike to the root of your identity, and that is nothing to play with for ideological reasons that aren't required by halacha. (Those "ideological reasons" being that your "non-Jewish" past is inherently a bad thing that must be rejected and hidden.)

Of course, you can always choose a totally different Hebrew name if you want to. In fact, at least two of my friends have had "Jewish-appropriate" English names and chose different Hebrew names. It caused some confusion for me at first, but maybe I'm just confusion-prone. Whatever temporary confusion there may be, you need to choose the name that resonates with you. Only you have to live with this name. 

Likewise, it is your choice whether you use your Hebrew name on a daily basis or whether you only use it when halacha requires.

And remember that you can have more than one name in your Hebrew name! Let's look at some examples.

So... what if your English name is Rachel Talulah? You could choose some of the following names:
Rachel bat Avraham
Rachel Tirtzah bat Avraham (keeping the sound of Talulah)
Leah bat Avraham
Yael Yocheved bat Avraham
Irit Chaya Shira bat Avraham

Get it? The world is your oyster! (Except not, because oysters aren't kosher.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Can You Have Guests at Your Conversion Mikvah?

Yes, yes you can. But remember, you're gonna be naked. So choose wisely.

But you may be wondering, "Guests?? Why would I want guests?!" There are three types of potential guests:
  • Asking a same-sex friend to be your mikvah attendant (to make sure you're prepared properly and answer any questions)
  • Asking same-sex friends to go into the mikvah room itself to watch you dunk
  • Asking friends of either gender to accompany you to the mikvah and/or greet you afterward
Of course, all of these guests are encouraged to take you out for lunch or dinner afterward!

When it comes time for the conversion mikvah, people seem to instinctively know whether they want someone to accompany them or not. You may not have a choice as to who your mikvah attendant is, but friends and family should be allowed either in the room or outside the room.

Some are adamant about being alone, as I was for Conversion 1.0. It didn't work out that way, but that's how things go. Everyone had the best of intentions and invited guests on my behalf, so I tried to not be upset that my conversion day wasn't going "according to plan." That took superhuman effort because it was such an important day that I had built up in my mind. It was no longer "perfect," and I felt it was really important that I should cross this bridge alone after doing the rest of my journey alone.

Others automatically know who they want to join and in what capacity. However, these hopes can also be crushed by scheduling. You rarely get much choice about the day and time unless you absolutely can't make it (and you'll probably move mountains to get into that mikvah before the rabbis change their minds!). After all, scheduling three rabbis who have other communal obligations is usually trickier than your schedule. But your friends and family... they may not be able to move those mountains. 

So what is it like to have a guest in the mikvah? I didn't find it very stressful; it probably made me less stressed. The procedure: the mikvah lady fetched me from my preparation room, asked all the checklist questions to make sure I prepared correctly, led me to the mikvah, and let me get into the water. Only then did she call in the women I brought with me. They stood with the mikvah lady while I stood with my back to them and the door where the rabbis were. I believe there was also a sheet around my neck for more privacy ("privacy in the mikvah"?? lolz). I was able to joke around with my friends about this very awkward situation because that's how I deal with awkward situations. None of us knew what was expected of us, and we all felt awkward. But because I had my friends there, the awkward was manageable and actually became a great bonding experience. 

Eventually, the rabbis asked their final questions, I had my first dunk, the rabbis shut the door, I had two more dunks, and then everyone sang Mazal Tov. Afterward, the women left the room, then the mikvah attendant gave me my robe as I exited the mikvah. I went back to the preparation room to become presentable again.

And here's where the guilt kicked in. My Southern over-politeness emerged, and I felt horrible for everyone having to wait on me. I didn't take a single minute to think about what had just happened, got dressed quickly, threw on some basic makeup, and ran to greet everyone. ...Wet hair and all. And apparently that is not normal. The rabbis looked shocked and said they had expected me to be much longer. I didn't need to rush. Learn from my mistake. This is one time when everyone understands you will need some time to collect yourself and get ready. Take a few minutes (or more) for yourself.

The take-aways: make your conversion how you want it (as much as you can). But don't fall into the trap of anger and frustration if things don't go "according to plan." And take as much time as you need after the mikvah to get ready to return to the real world.

Monday, September 1, 2014

When Is a Convert's Hebrew Birthday?

I'm no fortune cookie, but I see a lot of celebrations in your future.

That's right. You now have all the birthdays. Let's count them, shall we?

Your physical date of birth according to the secular calendar
Your physical date of birth according to the Hebrew calendar
The English date of your conversion
The Hebrew date of your conversion
Rinse and repeat for any other conversions or geirut l'chumrah 
Half-birthdays for all of the above, as according to your minhag

It is your choice whether to count the dates of prior conversions or not. Some would be adamant that you should not give any validity to a non-orthodox conversion (and you probably shouldn't advertise the fact). However, in my opinion, whether you view it as a halachic event or not, it was (hopefully) still a monumental day in your life and on your road to being an orthodox Jew. 

In practice, you'll probably fall into some kind of celebration cycle. For instance, I always remember the day of my conservative conversion because it is Zayin Adar (7 Adar), the day of Moshe Rabbeinu's death. I don't remember the English date. However, it's the opposite with my orthodox conversion. I can only remember the English date and not the Hebrew. But I don't celebrate any of them, including the dates of my physical birth. I'm just not a "birthday" person. 

However, I do celebrate Shabbos Chanukah each year because that is when I learned my orthodox conversion had been approved, and I just had to wait for all the rabbis to be back in town. That is the day I felt such relief and gratitude and like darkness had really turned to light (apropos, no?). 

You can celebrate as many (or as few) of these dates as you wish. They are all your "birthday." If you need to find the Hebrew date, check out the Chabad website's Birthday Calculator

Now, how do you celebrate a Jewish birthday? Beats me. To my knowledge, there is no answer. As my first rabbi told me, "I don't know. Go buy a lottery ticket." #Truth.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What If You're Rejected By or Kicked Out of a Beit Din?

Let me tell you an almost-secret: I was kicked out of a conversion beit din. And I’m not alone. Heck, I wasn’t even alone in my own kicking out: three of us were given the boot at the same time due to one bully's accusations.

But it wasn’t the end of the world for any of us. And it won’t be for you if you’re even unfortunate enough to go through a situation like this. Maybe you apply to a beit din, even meet with a rabbi or three, and they don’t accept you to the program. Maybe you you’re accepted and later kicked out for whatever reason. Either way, there are steps you can take to keep moving toward your conversion if that is your desire.

Really, I’m serious: a rejection by one beit din does not have to completely derail your goal of getting an orthodox Jewish conversion. But what you do after things hit the fan might.

First, and most important, when you get the news…stop whatever you’re doing and take a few deep breaths. Feel your feelings. Really. Let them rush over you rather than trying to force them down. Go to a bathroom, closet, or your car if you’d rather not have a breakdown in front of others. You will feel better and be able to take calm and rational action if you don’t try to repress these feelings. Take however much time you need and cry if that’s your reaction. Your feelings of rage, hurt, rejection, and fear (or whatever else) are valid and justified.

I wish I had taken this advice myself. I got “the news” by email while sitting in a law school class. (The #1 reason I advocate blocking email and social media and other apps in class.) I went into shock. Full-on medical shock. I don’t remember much about the rest of that class, but I think I sat there in silence and panic for a good half hour or more. It was not healthy, and it left a lot of feelings for me to process later, which took much longer than embracing them in the moment would have.

Let’s talk about the steps to take after the initial shock wears off.

2) Sit down in a quiet place and brainstorm what may have gone wrong. Odds are, you weren’t given a reason for your rejection or dismissal. For instance, despite being in the orthodox community for years and fully observant for over a year, this was the “reasoning” my rejection letter gave (and is actually the entire text of the letter, no grammatical corrections):
"As part of its diligence and efforts to maintain an effective giyur program the [Beit Din] looks into the background and references of conversion candidates. We contact references, examine our own data, and try to reach the conclusions which are fair and appropriate under the circumstances.
We have concluded that we cannot continue to supervise your conversion. In truth we question the wisdom of your pursuing an Orthodox conversion altogether because, while it it will open some doors for you, it also closes others. That is ultimately your personal decision, but we urge you to rethink the whole matter. It is a life altering choice.
Either way, we cannot in good faith continue a process which we do not believe is ultimately for your benefit. We share your disappointment that this did not work out, and hope you will reexamine your options to live a fruitful and fulfilling life. All the very best to you."

Think about whether there is some validity to the reason given or whether you know something went “wrong.” But don’t spend too much time here, and don’t let yourself wallow in self-blame. Whatever happened happened, and you have options to move forward and make things right if you actually did something “wrong.”

According to those I’ve spoken to, most of you will not have an answer at this point. You won’t know why you’re here. Or you’ll have some guesses, but nothing that seems like a legit reason. For instance, in my case, I contacted the four people who had been given as references for my case or had contacted the beit din about me (that I knew of and one had recently passed away). None of these people had been contacted, confusing me further. Where was this background and references the letter speaks of, and who was providing it? If they found bad information, why didn't they contact the references I provided? In the end, the decision was made based on the opinions of two people about me: a bully and the Av Beit Din. It appears (based on what I know about the investigation that followed with my new beit din) that no effort was made to elicit any other opinions or information. Sometimes it's them, not you.

3) People you need to let know: your rabbi (whether or not he is a “sponsoring” rabbi), close friends or family who might be able to help you brainstorm or work through your feelings.

4) Keep on doing what you should be doing. Continue being as observant of Jewish law as you were before the bad news, perhaps even increasing your observance if this was the kick-in-the-pants you needed to move to the next level. Attend classes and shiurim as you were before, unless you find this too emotional. Be stronger than the haters, and don’t let them rule your life. And don’t give them the ammunition to say the rejection was “obviously valid because look at what s/he did after!”

5) Contact the beit din and respectfully request (but not grovel, though it will be tempting) the reason and what can be done to remedy the situation, perhaps including a probationary period.

6) If this fails, ask whether there is an appeals process. It’s preferable if you can ask a different person than the last one your asked/begged. My experience says that the beit din will say there is no appeals process. Because you’re not Jewish, a beit din doesn’t have to follow the rules of the “real” beit din, including appeals procedures. Or that is the reasoning you’ll be given. I’m not convinced because one person (the Av Beit Din - head of the beit din) should not have that much power without any oversight. In that case, a simple personality difference can lead to a real chilul Hashem and prevent a conversion that should happen.
By this time, most people have given up and will leave Judaism altogether or will pursue a non-orthodox conversion. Batei din can use this to "prove" the rejection was warranted, but I'm not sold. If you're treated poorly (or as barely a human being), I cannot blame those who abandon orthodoxy. I believe many Jewish souls are turned away unjustifiably (and/or with unjustifiable behavior). These people are not always lost forever, whether they convert in a future incarnation or simply a few years in the future. Good interactions with orthodox Jews are often key. Keep this in mind if you ever feel the need to speak poorly about someone who "abandons" the orthodox conversion process.

7) If you are told there is no possibility of appeal, consider contacting someone “higher up” in the organization. Be assertive! If you were rejected by a RCA beit din, contact the main RCA office and explain the situation and that you were denied an appeal (and a reason, if that is the case). If you’re working with a private beit din, then your options may be more limited. Look around and ask.

8) If all this doesn’t get you anywhere, don’t lose hope. You will be incredibly frustrated and emotionally exhausted by this point…or full of righteous anger. It’s time to try a new beit din.

Contrary to your fears, being rejected by one beit din does not necessarily “black ball” you from another beit din, even within the RCA system. And you're not necessarily going back to square one. Expect to be investigated and for things to take longer, but you might actually move faster after such an investigation! After being kicked out of one beit din, I was converted within a year by another. But in my case, the accusations against me were about my psychological fitness, but everyone apparently didn’t question my knowledge or my sincerity for converting. Even the apparent-insult of being asked to undergo a psychological evaluation can make your conversion more resistant to challenge and speed things up by addressing several beit din concerns in one fell swoop.

Is there another beit din that covers your geographic area and would be acceptable to you? Most batei din today cover a predetermined geographic area. In some areas, this has created a monopoly on conversion, intentionally or not. And I do mean “monopoly” with all the potential for abuse that word implies. If there isn’t a beit din that “covers” your geographic area, there may be another beit din in a neighboring geographic area that would accept someone from your area.

Wherever your potential new beit din is, consider whether its hashkafa is compatible with yours. If you were with a chareidi beit din, perhaps you should consider a RCA beit din. If you were with the RCA, you may want to consider either a chareidi or independent beit din. There are conversion beit dins arranged by communities or the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). Any beit din not listed by ITIM may not be accepted by the Israeli Rabbinate, but many people do not need Rabbinate recognition. Honestly, many religious communities in Israel don't accept the Rabbinate's conversions, so keep that in mind when you worry too much about Rabbinate recognition. If you're not making aliyah in the foreseeable future, then you don't "need" recognition. And if you change your mind later, you can get a geirus l'chumrah if it is required. Again, not the end of the world (though I would challenge most "demands" for geirus l'chumrah). Even I would get a geirus l'chumrah if someone important enough demanded it from me. This is politics, not Jewish law.

9) If you suffer from a rabbinic monopoly, consider moving to a new geographic area. If you can't do that temporarily (university, for example), consider waiting until you can move. Most batei din will want and/or require you to move to a larger community anyway, especially if you're single. If you are married, past childbearing age, and have no school-aged children, you have much more freedom in where a beit din will allow you to live. You don't need dayschools or other singles, so things are much simpler.

10) If you can't move to escape a rabbinic monopoly, your options are very small indeed. But not impossible. If you choose to pursue an orthodox conversion, you will have to find an independent beit din. In the opinion of many (most?), such a conversion is halachically valid, but you can expect more pushback. People will wonder why you couldn't "cut it" with a recognized beit din and will wonder why you chose them. But you can probably get your children into the local schools and get an aliyah on Shabbat. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Your best "revenge," as they say, is living well. The best way to prove haters wrong is to continue living a religious life, being involved, and being an example to the community. You're going to be an example to the community either way (whether that is fair or not), so embrace it and make it a good example. The Jews are the Chosen people, and that means we must be an example to the nations of the world. Within the community, converts are "chosen" in a similar sense. If people know you are a convert, you will be held to a higher standard, consciously or not. You can try to hide your status, and many do, but it's easier to embrace the responsibility and grow tremendously in the process. When converts live proud, the entire Jewish community gets inspired to be better. Don't let rabbinic politics get you down for longer than necessary.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

How to Pronounce the Word Amen Jewishly

Entering the Jewish synagogue, one word in particular might seem familiar: Amen. In the Hebrew world of the shul, it can be really exciting to hear a word you already know! You might already know Shabbat, shalom, and a few other words, but Amen is downright familiar to the average American.

But don’t go around saying “A-men” because that’ll peg you as a n00b immediately. Judaism has a different pronunciation of Amen than you are probably used to. 

Say it with me: “Ah-main” (spelled for the average American English speaker). You may see it written in transliteration as Amein, but don’t confuse that with the German pronunciation of “mein.” And don't be misled by the "How to Pronounce Amen" video on YouTube. Often, I find their videos useful in Jewish contexts, but not for this word. 

This one easy tweak to your vocabulary can make you fit in a lot faster! And you won’t feel like an idiot by learning it the hard way. Of course, most people wouldn't be as hard on you as you will be on yourself. Small changes, big embarrassment feelings avoided.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Book Review: An Appalachian Family of 12 Converts to Judaism

I got the opportunity to review a new book from Artscroll! There has been a great deal of buzz around this book here in the NYC community, and I think it's justified. This is not the average "frum" story. But you may not react to it exactly how the publishers hoped.

First, here is the blurb from the Amazon page:
From the Appalachian backwoods comes a family so amazing, a true story so incredible, and a light so bright - it will illuminate our own lives as well.
When Sheryl Youngs married John Massey, she looked forward to a life based on the Biblical principles her parents, members of a small but fervently religious congregation, had instilled in her.
What she didn't expect was to be making that life in a shack on a mountain in impoverished Appalachia. [My note: without plumbing and sometimes electricity!]
And she didn't expect that she would end up living on that mountain, homeschooling her ten children.
And she most certainly didn't expect that somehow, incredibly, miraculously, she and her entire family would discover the truth of Judaism, the beauty of Torah - and the Jewish People the entire family would ultimately come to join.
This is the story of the pastor's daughter who became a Jew, mother of ten Jews, all devoted to Torah learning and mitzvah observance. It is a story of struggle and search, of searing disappointment and unlooked for hopes, of questions asked and prayers answered.
Most of all, it is the story, told in her own words, of a woman whose deep love of Torah is an inspiration to us all.
What a crazy story, right? That's a very accurate description of the story. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book with the hope that I would review it.

Short Version:
I think The Mountain Family is an excellent gift for the non-Jews and the frum-from-births in your life. These people will be rightfully awed by this surprising story and its crazy twists and turns. I don't think you could write a novel of this story because people would dismiss it as absurdly unlikely. I happened to speak with some FFB yeshivish people who had already read the book, and they were over the moon about it. I totally get why. 

Personally, I think the book should have ended about 100 pages earlier, but that comes down to the author's choice of whether this book is about the conversion story alone or a memoir of the author. They chose to make this more of a memoir, but I think it would be more powerful if it stopped earlier.

Many of us love hearing about the story of other converts, so I think many converts and candidates will want to read this book for that reason alone. However, there is very little about the actual process and learning, if that is your primary interest in reading conversion stories.

And because truth is stranger than fiction, last week another Southern family of 12 converted:
Original story in Vos iz Neias
You can even contribute to the McJunkin Virtual Wedding Shower!

Both the McJunkin and Massey families lived in rural GA and began their Jewish lives in the community of Chattanooga, TN. Like the Masseys, they are allegedly considering moving to Baltimore. Why Baltimore? Why not, I suppose. Actually, the question of why the Masseys moved to Baltimore has stuck with me. No reason was given other than "finish the conversion" (my paraphrasing). I don't understand why Atlanta wasn't suitable. That's my main lingering question.

Have you read The Mountain Family? Do you plan to? If you liked reading about Appalachia, you might also like reading the totally-not-Jewish All Over But the Shoutin' by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Rick Bragg.

Long Version:
I found this book to be much more complicated than the average reader will. In fact, I've had to wait several weeks to let my dust of my feelings and opinions settle so that I could bring more objectivity to this review. Honestly, this review has been incredibly difficult to write.

Let's do some more disclaimers! (I'm a lawyer, right?) I also affiliate as an Appalachian. Granted, I grew up in suburbia in the foothills, but Appalachian culture and history was a very real presence in my life and remains important to me today. For instance, my children will also be indoctrinated by The Heartland Series. However, my dad actually lives up in the mountains now, so it has been my "home" officially for almost 10 years.

While I grew up as "the city cousin" (HA!), most of my family still lives in the rural South, some in conditions similar to The Mountain Family even today. My dad grew up those kinds of surroundings, and I experienced some of them myself when my grandparents were alive. Of course, in my family (unlike the Massey family), there were further issues of drug addiction, alcoholism, and abuse. I'm honestly shocked that the Massey family managed to avoid those all-to-common problems in Appalachia. 

In other words, I am not coming to this book as an outsider would. I packed all my emotional baggage for this trip. 

The author mentions the idea of "thinking poor" when she moves to Appalachia, and it really influenced how I read the book. I have seen "thinking poor" in action all my life. I even have some struggles with it myself. Here is a good description of the problem from a Washington Post interview with some behavioral economists: Being Poor Changes Your Way of Thinking About Everything.
The scarcity trap captures this notion we see again and again in many domains. When people have very little, they undertake behaviors that maintain or reinforce their future disadvantage. If you have very little, you often behave in such a way so that you'll have little in the future.
I couldn't find it, but I read an article several years ago that perfectly summed up this idea on an everyday basis: when you are forced into this scarcity mentality, money begins to seem like something out of your control. So you spend it as soon as you get it "before it goes away." This idea was brought home to me by a family member who buys worthless things in the checkout lanes at Walmart during every shopping trip. Keychain flashlights, knick knacks, whatever. The money is there, better use it before it goes away, and you get this strong psychological reward that wears off about 30 minutes later. Before you know it, all that money is magically gone without having any idea where it all went, thus reinforcing the idea that your money just "goes away."  

One common result of this mentality is learned helplessness. I hate hearing about the animal studies that confirmed the idea of learned helplessness, but it is such a clear visual of this psychological idea. In one of the many depressing studies involving dogs, researchers trapped dogs in a small place with an electrified floor that prevented escaping. Even when the electrified floor was removed, the dogs didn't try to escape. They just laid down and gave up. It is nearly impossible to renew their faith in personal autonomy, which you can see in abused animals all the time.

Why do I talk about all this psychological mumbo jumbo? It's why I don't find The Mountain Family to be particularly inspirational. Who am I to judge, when I was not there and I don't know all the facts? I agree. But with all my familial baggage, I can't help but second-guess the choices made throughout the book. What the author portrays (and many readers will see) as deep bitachon, I'm more likely to see as learned helplessness leading to passivity or avoidance. The frequent moves alone really triggered this idea for me. I am also always looking for the next step; am I running from my past and even the present? Perhaps. I've been thinking about that a lot lately.

You know one thing this book did really right? The author was brutally honest about her struggles with depression after the death of a family member (trying not to spoil anything). I'm very thankful for that chipping away at the stigma of mental health issues. 

Then my enthusiasm gets undermined by the nearly constant emphasis on the evils of the secular world and how the Massey family were inadvertently raised with "frum standards" because of their strict Christian faith. I think this is part of the deep yeshivish love of the book (as I said above, I only spoke with yeshivish people who had read it). As converts and baalei teshuva know, FFBs can often be suspicious or downright dismissive of our past as full of drugs and orgies and tank tops. The Mountain Family shows that a convert can come without that "baggage," and I think certain communities find that less threatening. In the book, the statements about being raised without contamination from the secular world reaches the point of "I think thou dost protest too much." It became grating, and I believe it shows this family has the same knee-jerk reaction to a "secular" upbringing, which does not have to involve any sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. I think it will reinforce current stereotypes about converts and BTs while this family protests, "Oh, that's not true about me! How sad for those other guys." Personally, I feel like my secular background is thrown under the bus as depraved and valueless, which is an idea Artscroll often promotes. Heck, promotes isn't even the right word. Perhaps "portrays as the Truth with a capital T"? 
Likewise, I think the book missed an opportunity to deal with a very real problem for converts: shidduchim. As you may have guessed since the author's last name is no longer Massey, she remarries later in life. She is (thankfully) very successfully matched with a man who has had a lifelong medical issues (despite the detailed descriptions of his condition, it is never named - this was surprisingly annoying to me, and I'm not sure why). To her credit, she mentions (I can't find it now) that some people would view it as a natural match to put together two "undesireable" singles (my word, not hers). In only one sentence, she hits a very real worry of converts and disabled Jews. But instead of taking the time to unpack it and make a "teachable moment," she writes it off along the lines of "but we were really well suited to each other" (again, my paraphrasing from memory). This could have been a real Kiddush Hashem to point out how wrong that perspective is and how harmful it is to klal Yisrael and how it violates the mitzvah of not oppressing the ger. Neither the first nor last time a good opportunity will be wasted for convert awareness.

So there's my honest reaction to the book. Goodbye any possible future review books from Artscroll? Rabbi Artscroll and I already have a complicated relationship, since I see value in the secular world and secular knowledge, and I believe that insularity is dangerous to individuals and to Judaism as a whole. But this book was a step in the right direction, small though it may be. I'm glad I read it, despite all the baggage it unearthed for me.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Is a Convert Ashkenazi or Sephardi?

When choosing a minhag (custom) or halachic opinion, you might think there are two choices: Ashkenazi or Sephardi. That's not quite accurate. Ashkenazi and Sephardi are geographic categories, but they are not inclusive of every group. There are many "ethnic" groups within Judaism: Mizrachi, Ethiopian, Yeminite, B'nei Menashe, Kurdish, Lithuanian, Chassidic groups (in some communities this may be akin to an ethnic grouping that shows a geographic origin), etc. Each group can have its own minhag or halachic ruling. Because of this, the "Ashkenazi" community may have several options for you to choose, even if you are choosing to actively associate yourself with Ashkenazi tradition.

As a general rule, you are an Ashkenazi or Sephardi based on the community you live in when you convert. If you are single (and especially if you're a single female), you can change your "affiliation" upon marriage to someone with an established family heritage. Only if you want to, of course - though some will tell you that you don't have a choice. (Though marriage has a way of mixing customs around even for those of the same heritage - every family is different because of this.)

But most converts are not completely Ashkenazi or Sephardi. Because of the unsupervised nature of most converts' Jewish education, we pick up customs and rulings from everywhere. In fact, we're given the halachic freedom to choose the minhag we want, though we may be required to take the halachic rulings of our current community (which is not a given nowadays). 

In effect, no matter which kind of community you learn with and convert with, you probably have a mishmash of traditions. And you know what? That's ok. Embrace that freedom rather than seeing it as a weakness. Arguably, few Jews today have a "cohesive" tradition because of changing tides within the community at large. Baal teshuvahs pick up a mishmash of traditions too (and sometimes even have the same latitude of choice as a convert), then they have kids who carry on those mashup traditions. Members of communities often consider "their Rav" someone who is not the leader of their community (often a Rosh Yeshiva from a yeshiva or seminary), so few communities have a cohesive community tradition. There are a lot of Ashkenazi/Sephardi marriages today, which creates kids with a cornucopia of traditions. Converts are not the only one with Jewish traditions equivalent to a Girl Talk mashup song (some NSFW language).

But really, what are you? Because people will ask, and you'll need to come up with an answer. I personally call myself "Ashkenazi by Default." What do you say?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Which Siddur Should I Choose?

As we discussed earlier this week, a siddur is one of the first purchases you should make on your Jewish journey. But there are a lot of siddurim on the market, so how do you choose one?

1) Get a paper one. Don't rely on a phone app for all your davening needs. For one, you'll want a prayer book you can use on Shabbat and holidays when your phone would not be allowed. There's just something about a physical prayer book. Your intention, your kavanah, will suffer if you daven regularly from your phone. An app or website should only be used when necessary. You and this book will forge a relationship through good times and bad. Or maybe I'm the only person weird enough to think you can form relationships with books.

2) Ideally, use the same siddur your synagogue uses. It's easier to learn one format, one order, one translation. Different nusachs have slightly different orders and translation. Even within a type of siddur (especially Artscroll), each edition may have a slightly different translation. That probably doesn't matter to your average Frum-from-Birther, but if you daven regularly in English, you will eventually memorize that English, and a slightly different translation will trip you up and slow you down. You may prefer a different siddur than your synagogue's, but I believe your life will be easier (and you will learn faster) if you use the same one as your synagogue. YMMV. As you become more fluent in Hebrew prayer, you'll be able to move between siddurim with ease. My advice: wait on that siddur with the slightly better translation or prettier font. Your needs and desires for your siddur may change over time as you improve.

But what are your options? Here are the ones I know; please comment below to let me know if I missed any! 
Don't know the difference between Ashkenaz, Sefardi, and Sfard? Start here!

Artscroll: Let's not fool ourselves. If you're an English speaker, you're probably going to end up with an Artscroll Ashkenaz edition. Artscroll is the PC of the siddur world, for good or for bad. Most shuls have the older (but totally usable) edition, but you may want the new Wasserman edition. The only practical difference between the two is slight differences in translation and the Wasserman has slightly easier-to-read font. Nothing major is different in the translation, but it can give you pause when you have the English of one memorized. 

It comes in Pocket Size. Let's take a minute to talk about pocket size siddurs. They're great for carrying in your purse or backpack, but you will want to consider how to minimize the damage from frequent travel. I prefer the hardcover edition, and a friend suggests placing the pocket size in a plastic sandwich bag to prevent the book accidentally opening and damaging pages.

Koren: The Koren is the most popular siddur among my friends, and it's gaining a foothold in synagogues. However, not many shuls can afford to switch over all their siddurim. The biggest difference in the Koren is that the English text is on the right and the Hebrew on the left; that is the opposite of other siddurs. Also comes in Sepharad (Sephardi), Pocket Size, and its older edition. The Koren is particularly popular among religious Zionists because it includes many Israel-specific instructions and prayers. I bought my first Koren specifically for my first trip to Israel so I could take advantage of that information.

As you become comfortable davening entirely in Hebrew, I suggest the Koren Talpiot edition. It is only the Hebrew text, but with instructions in English. I don't know of any other siddur with that format, and I find it much easier to use Hebrew when the instructions are in English. It's easy to pronounce Hebrew when you don't have to understand what it says! (Of course, knowing what you're saying is always preferable and may sometimes be halachically required. Let's talk about that another day.)

Birnbaum: Boo hiss... stay away from the Birnbaum, English daveners! The Birnbaum edition is the old-school "Thou Makest Thine Face Shine Upon Thee" edition. (I just made up that phrase and in no way guarantee it is readable.) Every shul has a few Birnbaums laying around, and if you're really late, you may get stuck with one. If you daven in Hebrew, it's not a big deal to use the Birnbaum. But if you daven in English, you will fall into a bog of language. I didn't know it, but the Birnbaum has a fascinating history: it was originally intended to be used by both orthodox and conservative congregations!

Tehillat Hashem: This is the Chabad siddur. Since many Ashkenazim (also?) attend Chabad, note that there are slight liturgical differences from nusach Ashkenaz. If you attend a Chabad regularly, you should definitely buy this version. If you use an Artscroll at home and the Tehillat Hashem at shul, it'll be difficult to get an intuitive feel for the service. Also comes in Compact Size.

Metsudah: From what I can tell, the Metsudah is just a kind of interlinear siddur (see below). I don't believe it is attached to any particular group, but it is an orthodox siddur. There is an older version.

Non-orthodox siddurim:
Siddur Sim Shalom: The siddur of the conservative movement.

Mishkan T'Filah: The siddur of the reform movement. Previously, they used The Gates of Prayer.

Kol Haneshamah: The siddur of the reconstructionist movement. 

Hillel: Even the student group Hillel has a siddur! I don't actually know whether this siddur is appropriate for the orthodox, but I'm told it's a great learning tool and an excellent choice for a "learners' minyan." 

Bonus reading: The U.S. Military just came out with a new siddur that seeks to incorporate all the movements into one siddur: U.S. Soldiers Getting First New Siddur Since World War II.

But wait...there's more! You not only have to choose among the "brands" of siddurim, keep in mind that there are special editions you may want to add to your collection, now or later.

Interlinear: An interlinear siddur helps you learn what you're saying as you daven in Hebrew. It can be formatted in two ways: a) English words are printed directly below the Hebrew word (Artscroll) or b) short Hebrew phrases written beside their English translations on the same page (Metsudah). To my knowledge, every prayer text (siddur, Tehillim, etc) by Artscroll is available in an interlinear version. 

Transliterated: This is when the Hebrew text is written in English letters, making it easier for an English speaker to daven in Hebrew. For example: "Shema Yisrael." Beware: transliteration has its place and can be incredibly useful, but it can also become a crutch. A transliterated siddur may also include an interlinear translation. 

Weekday: For a smaller siddur to carry during the week, consider a weekday edition. Also comes in interlinear and transliterated. Currently, the Koren doesn't come in a Weekday version. Personally, I daven most often with an Artscroll Pocket Size Weekday siddur that I keep in my purse.

Shabbat and Festivals: As you can imagine, this siddur is limited to Shabbat and holidays. Also comes in interlinear and transliterated.

Machzor: A machzor is just a holiday-specific siddur. You can buy a machzor set that includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. Koren has recently released machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and people rave about them. While you can buy them separately, you can save some money by buying sets of two (RH and YK) or five. Available in different nusachs and interlinear, and all those in pocket size. They also come in many colors and cover materials. Additionally, there are other machzorim-like editions such as Tisha B'Av/Kinnot (Artscoll and Koren) and Slichot.

The Ohel Sarah: This siddur is for women and published by Artscroll. I do not like it, and I do not recommend it. It was my first siddur. But this siddur belongs in the idealized 1950s, where all a woman did was care for children and pray for more. I am particularly bothered that I didn't know what Tachanun was for over a year because it's Do you have any idea how weird Tachanun is when your siddur says nothing about what's going on around you?? The page where Tachanun should appear has an annotation at the bottom: "The practice of saying Tachanun after the Shemoneh Esrei was never established as obligatory. Since it is based on minhag (customary practice), there are numerous exemptions to saying Tachanun on many days [what a poor way to say that]. Without a clear indication that women accepted this practice, it is presumed that they never did." So...we won't even bother printing it. Heck, let's stop printing Ma'ariv while we're at it! Don't waste your money. /rant.

Tehillim: While technically a book of the Tanach rather than a siddur, people often daven Tehillim from a dedicated Tehillim book (Artscroll and Chabad). Tehillim also come in interlinear, transliterated, and English-only editions. (My favorite is The Book of Psalms in Plain English.) Of course, Tehillim come in all sizes, including pocket size. There are literally dozens of editions of Tehillim with English translations; go to a Judaica store to browse them in person to find one that speaks to you. There is no shortage of Tehillim apps, but most are Hebrew-only. 

Apps: As mentioned above, there is no shortage to Tehillim apps. Siddurim are harder to come by. The most popular seems to be the Siddur app by RustyBrick (maker of many other quality Jewish apps), but Chabad recently released Tehillat Hashem as an app. Amazingly, despite a great deal of effort, I can't find a website for the Chabad siddur app, even on their main website. Search for Siddur Tehillat Hashem directly in your app store of choice.

Websites: There are surprisingly few English translations of the siddur online. Most modern English translations are probably protected by copyright laws. However, you can check out The Open Siddur Project and The Transliterated Siddur (not a complete siddur). If you bentch after meals with transliteration, adding a bookmark on your phone to the bentching on The Transliterated Siddur is great on the go!

What do you daven with? How do you like it? What would you improve?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The First Two Books You Should Buy

When you decide to start exploring Judaism, the number of books and websites is overwhelming. But really, all you need is two books. Everything else is just productive procrastination at this point.

  • The Tanach
  • A Siddur
Tanach: The Bible
"But I already own a Bible!" you might say. "I just won't read the New part!"

I understand; that's totally logical. But that's not going to be very helpful to you.

You know this, but people (especially Americans) often forget: translation matters, and it can be manipulated. Further, remember that the Christian scriptures are translations of translations. In most cases, the "Old Testament" will be the Hebrew translated into Greek translated into Latin, then translated into English, probably just "updating" the archaic English of the King James version. (I just read a fabulous book on the New Testament and its translations: Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Bart Ehrman!) Worse, the included books may be different! (You know that the Protestant and Catholic bibles have different books included, right?)

So yes, you need a "Jewish version" of the Old Testament. Though still in translation, it'll be only Hebrew to English, and the "translation choices" will be made with Judaism in mind. Remember that even then, a specific section could be translated very differently and still be within the Jewish perspective. Midrashim will often pick up on that. 

There are two most popular versions of Tanach (which includes the Chumash - the 5 books of the "Torah" - and the other books you may have previously called "The Old Testament." 
The Artscroll Tanach (as of right now, the smaller Student Edition is more expensive)

Note that neither of these sefarim - books - will be what you use in synagogue on Shabbat during Torah readings. That book will, most likely, be the Artscroll Chumash. (Chumash is only the first 5 books, while the Tanach has all 24 books.) If it is important to you to have the same book as you use in shul, then buy the Artscroll Tanach because the English translation and commentary of the first 5 books should be the same as you would have in shul, but you'll have the benefit of the "extra" books without buying 2 books. If you're nerdy like me, you may want the JPS at home so that you can see a different translation before reading the Artscroll one during the Torah reading at shul. Alternatively, you can also read the Chabad translation on their website's Torah portion section. Personally, I really enjoy seeing how JPS, Artscroll, and Chabad translate ideas differently so that I can get a fuller understanding of the Hebrew. Chabad's printed Chumash is the Gutnik Chumash. I don't know whether this edition is the same translation as that on the Chabad website, and everyone I've asked doesn't know either, but I hear it has a great deal of commentary included.

Siddur: The Prayer Book
Then you'll need a siddur: a prayer book. Jewish prayer is very...regulated, for lack of a better word. It's formalized. But don't forget that your prayers in your own words are just as important and meaningful. However, you'll need to learn the Jewish approach to prayer, which has many benefits after the initial sticker shock of "who has enough time to say all these prayers every day?!"

But which siddur? The list of available siddurim grows every year, and now you can even get several different siddurim on your phone! A) You'll want a paper one instead of only a digital one. B) Your best best is to use the same siddur your synagogue uses. If you don't have a synagogue yet, you should probably start with the Artscroll Ashkenazi one, since it is the most used in America. There is a pocket-size edition, which is great for a purse or backpack, but I suggest getting a full-size version first because the font is larger and easier to read. The full-size edition will be especially helpful for reading vowels when you move into the Hebrew text. I plan to go more in depth on the "which siddur?" question later this week, so hold on to your seats!

Which siddur do you use, and what do you like about it? And which siddur to Sephardim generally use? (I don't know much about Sephardi shul norms.)