Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shiur today on Google Hangouts!

Shavua tov, all! Want to learn more about Our Chametz, Ourselves? Shiur will be this evening, New York City USA time, at 6pm! If you want to join the chat, make sure you've downloaded Google Hangout's software so that we can see each other's beautiful faces. Email me at crazyjewishconvert on gmail with your email address so I can invite you to join the hangout. 

Looking forward to seeing you! Chag sameach!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Let's Have a Shiur on Sunday!

With Pesach fast approaching, I did some research into what chametz means to you and me as an aspect of our personality and character. How can we search for chametz within ourselves? What does chametz come to teach us? Wanna see what I learned and share your own experiences and opinions? You're in luck! Let's talk about Our Chametz, Ourselves.

Let's have a blog Google Hangout on this Sunday evening at 6pm New York City USA time. This is the first live (or video) shiur/lesson from me, so it'll either teach you something meaningful or a hilarious story-gone-wrong for your seder. Come get some spiritual inspiration for your bedikat chametz later that evening!

In between now and Sunday, I will figure out how Google Hangouts work. For more information, check out the blog after noon on Sunday (or right before 6pm) to find out where to go. If you have difficulties (or want to help me overcome my Hangouts difficulties), please feel free to contact me at crazyjewishconvert on gmail. I believe my Google+ page is where the Hangout will be based: http://plus.google.com/112672903405144674192/posts

If I don't see you Sunday, have a chag kosher v'sameach!And have a wonderful time at the seder. It's truly one of the best times of the year!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Has Pesach Got You Down?

Pesach, rather than being The Time of Our Freedom, is often The Time of Our Enslavement to Community Insanity and the Vacuum Cleaner. 

But don't worry. It doesn't have to be this way. Realize that most people are insane, and that your house is perfectly kosher even if you don't dryclean the drapes, remove your car seats, or Q-tip the seal around your fridge. Crazy people will tell you otherwise. Consider this a kindness from Hashem to know who you should not take halachic advice from.

The rabbis say that is praiseworthy to be machmir in preparing for Pesach...but instead of taking that so literally, be strict in removing the chametz within yourself: arrogance and pride. What is Pesach peer pressure except arrogance and pride that "I'm SO kosher for Pesach!" It is an Arms Race for who can be "the most frum." Don't buy it. You're kosher, no matter what Frummy McFrumstein says. No one that "frum" is going to eat in someone else's kitchen during Pesach anyway, so why does (s)he need to know how you cleaned your house? Even better, let's all commit to not discussing the cleaning at all! 

Don't let Pesach ruin your Pesach. Please.


Chametz has a specific definition, and most of the things you're cleaning up are halachically categorized as dust or garbage. Don't confuse halacha with spring cleaning, and you'll be less likely to beat yourself up when it's totally unnecessary. 


Want to learn more about cleaning out your chametz?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

How Much Time Should You Wait Between Eating Meat and Dairy?

The Dutch only wait one hour...so why wouldn't everyone choose to hold by the Dutch when you have the choice?

As a convert (and baal teshuva with no family tradition), you can generally choose how long you want to "wait" between eating meat and dairy. You'll often hear that you have a choice of 3 hours or 6 hours, but it's more complicated than that. 

Minhagim include:
"1 hour" by the Dutch community
3 hours 
"Into the sixth hour" (aka, five hours and 1 minute)
6 hours 

I have read there are 4 hour, 5 hour, 5.5 hour, and 5.51 hour minhagim, but I haven't run into that in real life. Perhaps they have fallen into disuse by large groups? 

Obviously (as in all halachic conversations), you should not generalize who holds by how long because there is a great variation among both communities and individuals. However, I've noticed that as more baalei teshuva and converts join communities, there is more standardization within communities.

So what's a good rule of thumb?
  • Well, "the Dutch" don't exactly hold by an hour. I'm told that it's actually 72 minutes. (I believe most people who hold by this Dutch custom today are not actually Dutch - converts do choose this minhag. And remember that the Dutch community was actually Spanish and Portuguese!) The Dutch community often waits between dairy and meat for the same amount of time, I'm told.
  • The German community (also known as Yekkes, though some find that term offensive) holds by 3 hours. It is believed that 3 hours is a chumrah of waiting 1 hour. See, I have chumrahs too!
  • Sephardim generally hold by 6 full hours. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (which was written by a Sephardi for a Sephardi audience - the Rema held differently for Ashkenazim).
  • Ashkenazim are the most variable: 3 hours, into the fifth hour, or 6 full hours.
  • The Chabad community waits 6 hours (whether those are full or not, I do not know), but they can also wait up to an hour after eating dairy. 
  • If someone says they hold by 6 hours, they may actually mean "into the sixth hour." 
  • If you become frum, you will be pressured to take 6 hours. Some batei din may require it. Whether that is 6 full hours or something less, I don't know.

How should you choose? I can't tell you which to choose (though I think we should all go to 3 hours like myself), but here are some of the ways people might choose.

First and foremost, what does your community do? It's often easiest to pick the community standard, but nowadays, people move communities often and communities aren't monolithic. There may be no community standard!

Do you have a family tradition? Do you have Jewish relatives who hold a certain way? Or is there family lore about how Jewish relatives used to hold? Even if you were not born Jewish, this can be a great way to create continuity with your Jewish ancestors.

Even if you don't have Jewish family, do you have a geographic/ethnic connection to a particular community? For example, I am from German/Italian background, so that influenced my choice of the German tradition. If you're actually Dutch, perhaps you should take the Dutch minhag to make sure the community is represented where you live! Did you study abroad in a Sephardi country? Do you have an affinity for a particular region or culture?

Do you have a Jewish spouse with a family tradition? Do you expect to marry into a certain community with a particular tradition? 

Do you have a medical reason for needing a shorter wait time? If you are diabetic or have other blood-sugar related disorders, you may need greater freedom to eat frequent meals of whatever is healthiest for you to eat at that time. Medical reasons can even be used to change an already-existing minhag. You should do what is best for your health and consult a rabbi who understands your health concern. At the time I chose, this was my main concern: I had a problem with low blood sugar and needed to eat approximately every 3 hours. The 3 hour choice seemed natural, and many people believe that the hours do/should correspond to the "normal" time between meals. Allegedly, this is the reason why the German community held by 3 hours in Northern Europe (night comes awful early in the winter there). 

Others are party-poopers who say that even if you eat meals more frequently than 6 hours, the rule is the rule. That's a valid argument. These people are holding that the time is related to the time to digest the meat itself or for it to otherwise disappear from your mouth and throat. In other words, it's about the meat and its "aftertaste," not the meal itself.

The question going forward is to ask when you start counting that time... Is it from the time you said the blessings? The time you finished eating meat itself? The time you finished eating the meal? I can't help you yet because I didn't even know this question existed until today!

For more detail and citations: 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Proving "Jewishness"

How does one "prove" he or she is Jewish? 

Most of the time, a simple conversation is all that's necessary:
"Is your mother Jewish? Is your grandmother Jewish?"
"Yes."
"Excellent! Please marry my daughter!"
I exaggerate, but you get the point. Often, a simple question is all that is needed to establish "qualifying" for something Jewish, like being counted in a minyan or signing up for a class.

But sometimes that's not enough...

From New York Times Magazine:
The traditional willingness to trust a person who said he was Jewish, Ehrentreu asserts, presumed that no one had anything to gain by it. Today, he told me, there are ulterior motives — to be able to leave another country and come to Israel, “to be recognized here as Jewish, to be able to get married.” That is, Israel’s prosperity, its attractiveness to immigrants, is now a reason for doubt.

In some ways, being a convert can make the "are you Jewish?" conversation much easier and streamlined. You have paperwork that says "So-and-so is Jewish." Of course, whether someone accepts those papers as a legitimate proof of Jewishness is a different question. If your mother or maternal grandmother converted, you need those papers. You may also have this kind of letter if you were adopted but born of a Jewish mother.

However, even paperwork isn't a given if you lose it or it gets destroyed. Scan it, copy it, place an original in a safe deposit box, do what you need to do. I can't forget a story I heard online of a man with 4 conversions: reform, conservative, orthodox, and geirus l'chumrah because the office building of the orthodox conversion burned down and lost his paperwork!

When it comes to proving Jewishness, things aren't as easy for born Jews, especially those whose ancestors fled Europe around WWII. So what can you do if you need to prove you're Jewish?

Ideally, your parents have a ketubah. Or your maternal grandmother has a ketubah. If not, you provide a letter from an orthodox rabbi who knew both your maternal grandmother and mother and you. These are the Holy Grails of Jewishness. Of course, nothing is guaranteed in today's political rabbinics climate.

If you aren't that lucky, start with your birth certificate and work backward. Document everything, as more proof is always better. And you never know when you may need to re-prove your Jewishness (yes, really). Make backups of your proof and store them in various places, including the cloud (with appropriate identify theft safeguards). Your birth certificate will be the key to begin proving to governments that you are a family member who has the right to request the record of others.

On the bright side, you only need to focus on your maternal side. If you find proof of paternal Jews, it's good circumstantial evidence but not conclusive. I recommend keeping it, but don't spend much time there.

Ancestry.com is really a great tool to use. It will be worth a membership for a month or two while you sort this out. While not conclusive, you can add weight to your argument with a maternal Ashkenazi heritage shown through genetic tests by Ancestry and 23andMe.

Speaking of inconclusive evidence, it's possible that you may never be able to "conclusively" prove your Jewishness. However, you may collect enough circumstantial evidence to convince a beit din to declare you Jewish. If you're in this situation, I recommend getting a ruling from a beit din on your Jewishness, which will give you paperwork and simplify the question for the future (assuming your future circumstances recognize the validity of the beit din you went to). For example, the Beit Din of America does halachic status determinations.

If your proof is too circumstantial, you may be asked to undergo a geirus l'chumrah, a conversion in case of doubt. What is required for a geirus l'chumrah depends on you, the strength of your proof, and your beit din. It may be a formality or you may have to go through a full conversion process. Alternatively, a beit din could find you Jewish, but "not Jewish enough" to marry a cohen. You could find a rabbi willing to marry you to a cohen, but it might be a headache. However, your children should be able to marry cohanim if you continue to live an observant life and stay embedded in the community.

Back to looking for proof...

Start with the state government, if your maternal ancestors were born in the United States. You should be able to request copies of birth, death, and marriage certificates (you don't need death certificates - but if it's all you have, it's all you have). You can check census records to verify your relatives' residences, especially if they have common names. If your maternal line is in the United States, you can try contacting the local synagogues where they lived to see if old synagogue records exist that list them in the membership. Even better, if their gravestone is in the local Jewish cemetery. Get pictures, many of which can be found online (or requested online through websites like BillionGraves).

Look at whether their addresses were in known Jewish neighborhoods. Do you have family heirlooms that are Jewish ritual objects? Do family members have recognizably Jewish names like Yaakov or Shaindel? Did you find record or family lore of any Hebrew names? Do you have family stories that are clearly Jewish? If anyone is still alive who knew the known-Jew, have them write a letter. Is a different branch from the same female relative living actively as Jews today? Again, see if you can get a letter. Even a secular/government marriage certificate can be useful if it lists a rabbi as the officiant. All of this info can help you.

Immigration records can be key to locating your family's overseas origins. Be aware that immigration documents are notorious for misspellings or even complete misunderstandings. Depending on where your family comes from, that will determine your next steps. Generally, you will be looking for records of burial in Jewish cemeteries, presence on a known list of Holocaust victims, synagogue membership records, or ketubot (marriage contracts/Jewish marriage certificates).

It sounds counterintuitive, but the Mormon Church has the largest ancestry databases and resources, and they are free to the public. If you have problems finding information, your local Mormon Church might be the next best stop. Also check out these resources from About.com's Genealogy website.

It's a good question how far back you can go and still be recognized as Jewish by the community. You may be able to prove that your great-great-great-grandmother was Jewish, but everyone since then has been Catholic. Will you be required to have a geirus l'chumrah? Probably, if for no reason other than simplification (or because of doubt that maybe you can conclusively prove things that far back). However, if you're dating a kohen, this may not be a good answer. If you find yourself in that situation, I don't envy you.

Some stories about the effort to prove one is "Jewish enough" to be married in Israel:
How Do You Prove You're a Jew?
You're Jewish? - Prove it!
So You Think You Are Jewish Enough for an Israeli Wedding? Prove it!
A Ruinous Monopoly

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Can You Buy a Conversion?

In short: probably, but it's unlikely you'll find one or be able to afford it. 

The two major "slurs" against converts are accusations that you "converted for marriage" or "bought your conversion." You rarely hear the second one, but it does come up. Ironically, the only accusations I know of were in the chareidi world (ironic since you'd think those groups would demand "higher standards" than the modern orthodox). 

For the first time (to my knowledge) since this blog started in 2010, someone got here by Googling "fast conversion to Judaism." In my experience, many people think the conversion process will be fast and easy...until they actually read about it. That hope is quickly dashed against the rocks of reality. 

But some people feel entitled. Those people dislike being treated like the rest of us and feel that standards are really just "suggestions." If you have the right connections and/or enough money, you can make anything happen. (This should not be confused with a "squeaky wheel gets the grease.") I expect these kinds of unethical demands are more common in "rich" cities like Los Angeles and New York City, and in those who are related to shul leadership. There's nothing like your shul board or your major donor demanding a conversion, when denial or delay could jeopardize your job - so it's not always the rabbi's "fault." That is a very complex situation.

On the other side, you have people who feel they have to resort to distasteful methods to accomplish what they believe is right in a corrupt system. For example, the recent controversy of the woman who was converted as an infant 35 years ago and had her conversion rejected by the Israeli Rabbinate when she sought to get married in Israel. She admits, but will not identify, that her situation was "resolved" once "powerful connections" stepped in with protectsia (special influence that is possibly as mafia-sounding as it sounds like). Is this wrong or right? I don't know what to tell you.

With rabbis being human, I'm sure there are rabbis who have a price. I personally don't know of any (and please don't post your accusations here; those comments will not be approved). There are certainly rabbis who reject conversion candidates for corrupt reasons, more than accepting them. There is unfortunately a history of crooked rabbis in conversion; Leib Tropper being the foremost example of recent memory. 

If you're here to covert seriously, be aware of corruption red flags, and get out while the getting's still good. If something feels wrong about a request for money or to see you privately, trust your gut and review the facts with someone removed from the situation. Give the benefit of the doubt the first time (and maybe a second if it's truly unclear), but eventually you'll either have to speak with someone in authority in the community or go to another community. If you acquiesce to a corrupt rabbi, you will also fall when he is exposed. And Gd-willing, he will be exposed.

It is a sad truth, but you may be thrown under the bus no matter how you deal with a corrupt (or mentally unbalanced) rabbi. But thankfully, I am confident that you'll probably never have to deal with something like this. However, we should do our best to take seriously those who believe they have been wronged. And to shun and ex-communicate rabbis who abuse conversion for their selfish goals. If you are in a bad situation, get help. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Looking to Learn Some Torah?

Few orthodox institutions allow conversion candidates to become students. However, one organization in New York City has a history of being conversion-friendly: the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. It is not explicitly an orthodox institution, so admission is open to Jews and conversion candidates from any background. However, the teaching is "traditional" and in accordance with orthodox views (but open to questions and dissent should you want to share it). Of course, it teaches women Gemara and other rabbinic texts, so that makes it a radical institution in America. Most of its programs are women-only, but some programs are open to men.

There are three summer programs, most primarily aimed at college-aged people. You can find out more at their Summer Programs page. If you are comfortable with the Hebrew alphabet, there is likely something for you to study this summer at Drisha! There is also an introductory Biblical Hebrew class offered over the summer and in the fall semester. In six months at Drisha, I went from the aleph bet to studying Gemara, so they can really work wonders!

If you're looking for Talmud study next fall, Drisha is creating a (co-ed?) morning Gemara program. It is not advertised on their website, but they plan to offer it 3 or 4 mornings a week 9am-noon. The days and levels will depend on who signs up, so don't be afraid to apply if you've never studied Gemara before! As I understand it, tuition will be waived for those who commit to regular attendance. If you're interested, please email Ariella Newberger at anewberger@drisha.org!

In addition, there are other classes that are great for relative beginners, like Beginner's Pashanut (studying commentaries on Biblical text). The schedule and class offerings change each semester, so you should check out the finalized offerings next month.

What do YOU want to learn?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Do You Need Help with Your Siddur Pronunciation?

Lately, I haven't blogged as much as I would like, for many reasons. However, I do have time that I want to use to help others.



So I'm setting up shop as a tutor. I'm not the most knowledgable person you might find, but I know my limits and I'm patient. I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong or I don't know. I also know what it's like to stand in your shoes as a conversion candidate or recent convert (and in many ways, as a baal teshuva).


I am considering creating some formal classes at a later time but starting with such a simple thing: pronouncing prayers in the siddur. I struggled with whether I was pronouncing prayers correctly, but I was embarrassed to ask others and I was hesitant to "waste" someone's time with it. But it's not a waste of time, and I'd love to help you with something that is so simple yet so important to our lives. Alternatively, I can help "check" your pronunciation if you're more confident in your Hebrew. I am no Hebrew pronunciation expert, but I think I can help you. And in return, I expect that learning with you will teach me many things too!


If you're interested in learning with me once a week via Skype (Thursday evenings or Sundays), please email me at crazyjewishconvert on the gmail server. Don't mind the weird way of saying that; I try to avoid spambots.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Need a Purim Costume Idea?

My dirty secret is out: I hate dressing up in a costume on Purim. To be fair, I don't care for dressing up at any time, whether that's Halloween, a party, or ComiCon. I can't explain it, but I know I can't be the only one.

However, most people love dressing up for Purim, and I do like seeing other people dressed up. 

Perhaps you've never experience a frum Purim before and don't know what to wear. Purim sounds like Halloween, but are your sexy nun and sexy ghost costumes from 2 years ago still appropriate? Shockingly, no. 

Coming from a secular American background, I can't help but compare Purim to Halloween. When planning a costume, imagine if Halloween were truly family-friendly and about having relatively wholesome fun. Costumes will often be nerdy or downright dorky. I'm looking at you, group of people dressed as the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Some costume parameters to consider: tznius (modest), preferably not intended to be scary (too Halloweendik in many communities), and cross-dressing is allowed. Couple/family costumes are common, and group costumes are more common than in the non-Jewish world. You will probably see many "Jewish joke" costumes, playing on Biblical/Talmudic quotes or community stereotypes.

And surprisingly, don't worry about whether your costume is shatnes, a mixture of wool and linen which is normally prohibited by halacha. Apparently Purim is the one day when you can wear shatnes d'rabannan, according to the Rema. If that interests you, you should ask your rabbi what that means.

Here are some costumes ideas for Purim:
Queen Esther
Mordechai
Haman
Kohen Gadol
An animal
Audrey Hepburn
Bob Ross
Bonnie and Clyde
Borat
Cartoon character 
Clown
Cop
Cowboy
Doctor
the Doctor Who reincarnation of your choice
Fairy
Gangster
Harry Potter character
the Hebrew Hammer
Hippie
Indiana Jones
Mermaid
Movie character
Ninja
(Pregnant nuns should be expected in most communities, but I personally don't recommend mocking another faith)
Orbit Gum Lady
Pirate
Pop culture character
Prisoner
Redneck
Royalty
Sherlock Holmes
Sparkly vampire
Superhero 
Tourist
Waldo
Viking

I hope this got your creative juices flowing, and I look forward to seeing all your great costumes!

Next year, remember to hit the Halloween sales for wigs, colored hair spray, costume make-up, and costumes!

Friday, March 7, 2014

How to Pronounce Achashverosh Without Embarassing Yourself

(Just kidding, you'll probably still embarass yourself! Remind yourself: builds character!)

It's that time of year again...when you try to avoid saying Ahashverosh despite all the talk about Purim. I often mispronounce Jewish words, and I'm generally okay with that, but the name Ahashverosh is so long that my failure is much harder to ignore. ProTip: Call him "the King" instead.

You can find an introduction to Achashverosh at Jewish Treats: Who Was Achashverosh?

Unfortunately, no one has made a video for how to pronounce Achashvarosh, but there is one for the English name Ahasuerus, which sounds nothing like the Hebrew! I'm sorry, but that is a dinosaur; not a king.


I'm going to do my best to help you out. If you know of a recording that is easy to learn the pronounciation from, please post it in the comments!

Here is my attempt to write it phonetically:
a (short, somewhat like "ah") - CHASH - vay / vei - ROSH
The stress is lighter on the last syllable than the second one.
If you can't pronounce the "ch" sound reliably (or at all), don't worry. People often pronounce the name (lazily?) as Ahashverosh instead of Achashverosh. In fact, I didn't know it was the "ch" sound until just this year when I began working with the Hebrew text. It is an old Persian word, so tripping over it does not reflect on your Hebrew skills. This name is complicated and you may need to re-learn it every year like myself.

To hear the name Achashverosh in its natural habitat (speech, of course), check out the Purim shiurim (lectures) on YUTorah.org. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Achashveirosh: Silly Fool or Master Manipulator? by Rebecca Belizon
Did Esther Convert in the Palace of Achashverosh? Conversion and Jewish Identity in History and Halacha by Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel
Who is Achashverosh: A Character Analysis Through the Eyes of Chazal by Rabbi Jesse Horn (requires more comfort with Hebrew phrases)


Shabbat shalom!