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!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Word of the Day: Shtender

Books are a staple of Jewish life. Studying Jewish texts can take over your entire table, since you may need at a minimum: the text itself, a Tanach to look up verses cited, a Hebrew dictionary, and an Aramaic/Talmudic dictionary. You can replace or supplement these with your laptop nowadays. But you still need a lot of table space, and your back is going to get sore from hunching over the table. 

A shtender is a small (usually wooden) frame that holds a book, usually your original source upright (Talmud or a commentary, for example). These frames come in essentially two versions: tabletop and a standing version. The goal is to reduce the strain on your eyes and back. Even better, some feature a footrest! A shtender definitely helps, though it can be difficult to make written notes in the book on it. 

A shtender can also hold your siddur while you pray. In my experience, it's difficult to keep a siddur on the shtender if you don't have the prayers memorized. Or maybe my eyesight is just that terrible!

Usually holding only one book each, they're essentially Jewish lecterns. The word shtender is Yiddish, meaning "stander." To my knowledge, this is the only word used for them today, though there must be a Hebrew term somewhere. They're heavily associated with yeshivot in Eastern Europe, so I'm also unclear when they entered the Jewish world and whether they existed in the classical Sephardi world.

Here are some examples of the standing shtender, which you're probably most familiar with because the shaliach tzibor or the chazzan will often lead davening from one at the front of the shul, sometimes at the bimah and sometimes not. (You can read more about the bimah and the gabbai here.)


You might also find them on the backs of seats in your shul:

The tabletop ones are the kind you most often find in homes or in the beit midrash:


Some even have a locking box so that you can put your books away safely until your next study session. Some uses for locking shtenders include: 
  • Keep your children from losing your place or your book/sefer
  • Store prayer books (siddurim) and other religious texts at your seat in the shul if your community doesn't have an eruv or you don't hold by it
  • Hold your books in the beit midrash so they aren't mistakenly put away - be careful, don't prevent someone else from using a community book!


In my opinion, shtenders are a bit expensive, but they are worth it for the ease, convenience, and saved space. Unfortunately, I'm high-maintenance and want this one that is for the tabletop but adjusts for standing use. My precious...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Practical Judaism" Class Starting January 8 at Kesher Israel in DC

Are you a conversion candidate or baal teshuva or potential baal teshuva in the DC area? Or can you get to Kesher Israel in DC one evening a week? Here's a great class for you! And it's FREE!

I'm afraid I can't find a link to more information, but this is the announcement I received:

"Are you curious about the easy way to kasher a kitchen, reheat food for a shabbat meal, navigate a prayerbook, or understand what's going on at life-cycle events? David Barak will teach Practical Judaism on Thursday evenings from 7:30-8:30 (after ma'ariv), including these and many other topics of interest to folks who are new to observance. The first class is January 8th. Like all classes offered by the Dr. H. Harold Gelfand Memorial Institute of Adult Education, there is no fee and no need to register or attend every session. Hope to see you there!"

Go forth and learn!

Friday, January 2, 2015

How to Ask a Kashrut Shaila

Have a question about something in your kitchen? Did the ever-present chicken soup spill on a dairy plate? Did you accidentally stir it with a pareve spoon? Or perhaps you dropped a piece of cheese in the pot?

Sometimes asking the question is harder than realizing there is a question in the first place. You frantically call up/email the rabbi, only to get back a list of questions that you don't know the answer to or too much time has passed to get those answers. 

Learn to think about these issues below and hopefully you'll remember these factors the next time a kashrut question tries to ruin your afternoon! Even if you are early in your kashrut observance, these questions can help you structure your questions. No special knowledge needed!

First and foremost, put the affected items aside so they don't get mixed up with unaffected items. For example, don't put the spoon back in the drawer or the plate back in the cabinet. Set them aside in such a way that someone else doesn't come along and put it away. (Inevitably, this will be the one time a roommate or family member voluntarily cleans up after you! If this happens anyway, ask your rabbi before throwing out all your forks.) 
  • If it's a food, put it away and don't eat it yet. But also DO NOT throw it away. It may turn out to be perfectly fine! Throwing it away and moving on may be your first instinct, but don't give in. Ask the question. Then you'll know for the future.
  • If it's a pot, kitchen appliance, utensil, dish, etc, don't use it again until you get an answer.

Then remember and/or write down the circumstances ("writing down" may be writing the email to your Rav):
  • What type of food, dishes, etc were used: dairy, meat, or pareve?
  • Where was the food: stove, oven, microwave, blender, food processor, on your plate? Further, it matters if you were pouring it or if it spilled out into another "vessel" versus being in the vessel on the fire (aka inside the pot on the stove). The circumstances would probably make this clear to the rabbi, but I wanted you to know there's a difference.
  • How was the food being prepared: boiling, roasting, baking, frying, microwaving?
  • How hot was the food involved? There are several ways to measure "yad soledat bo" ("from which the hand recoils"), but a general rule of thumb is whether you can hold your hand in it/against it. For example, if you were handwashing something, the water by definition is not hot enough. (Which is why it's interesting that the community generally holds that kitchen items should be handwashed separately, especially since there's soap involved. The more you know, the more likely you are to become an apikores! Or Sephardi. Rav Ovadia Yosef wrote a teshuva that allowed meat and dairy items to be washed together in the dishwasher because of the presence of soap. There's a fun halachic history at Ohr Somayach for the nerdiest of nerds.)
  • Or was it a "sharp" kind of food like lemons, garlic, hot peppers, pickles, radishes, onions, potentially "very salty" foods, etc?
  • When was the last time the items were last used? The key time frame is whether it has been used within the last 24 hours for meat or dairy.
  • Last but not least, if you've made it this far with a problem: how much food is involved and what would be your loss if it were declared treif? There's a difference between a Shabbat meal for an upperclass family on a Wednesday and a poor family who cannot replace the meal. There's also a difference between your lunch and a wedding meal for 200 people. Some things cannot be saved no matter what, but sometimes this could be a factor in favor of ruling leniently.
If you remember to look for these facts, you'll ask better shailahs and your rabbi will be able to give you a clearer answer with less back-and-forth! 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Seeking Writing Suggestions

A bit of a strange post today. I want to improve my writing, and who better to ask than my audience?

I know that my writing is sometimes construed as arrogant. Problem is (in my opinion) that I have a very formal/antiquated/convoluted way of speaking and writing. I'm also too "to the point" than some people are comfortable with, but that's a separate issue.

Do you have any suggestions for how I can increase the friendliness and clarity of my writing? My voice is particular to me, so I don't want to lose that, but surely there are ways I can improve it. Any particular words, phrases, or sentence structures I should avoid? Do I overuse parentheses and thus create confusion? Are my paragraphs or sentences too long? Should I use more headers or other dividers? Has anything worked particularly well in your own writing? 

Do you know a better way to be "matter of fact" without sounding arrogant to some people? For a long time, I've written that off as "their problem," but I'm tired of fighting an uphill battle in the increasingly internet-based world. An easy way (or so I think) would be to inject more emotion into my posts, but that's not really who I am or what I want to accomplish here. And yet, and yet, I struggle with the fact that if the author were a man... a matter of fact approach, even arrogance, would likely be viewed as "self-confidence." Unfortunately, my research shows that this is a common struggle for female bloggers.

C'est la vie, says Negative Nancy ;)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Answering "So When Did You Convert?"

Kindly curious person or a nosy yenta: "So when did you convert?"
Me: "Uhhh...that's complicated."

I have the feeling I'm not alone here. Do you get confused or defensive or tongue-tied when someone asks when you converted?

It sounds like such a simple question, but it's not. I feel like the date I converted ignores the years I spent in the community (and learning) before the actual dunk in the mikvah. Which conversion should I measure from? What about the fact that my conversion was delayed for a long time because of school, and I would have converted earlier if the circumstances had been different? I worked with two orthodox beit dins, so I could measure from starting with either of them. I'm sure each of you could ask similar questions about your situation.

It was really hard to give a simple answer in the first two years. I felt like saying I had converted 6 months or a year or 2 years ago would give someone the impression that I'm a Jewish n00b. Since most people have more experience with baalei teshuva, who measure their time by when they started the orthodox journey, I worry that others will subconsciously understand my "timeline" in that way. If I measured that way, I'd have 11 Jewish years under my belt! Baalei teshuva have similar measurement problems and can face the same underestimation of their Jewish knowledge. Unfortunately, when I was honest with the short time answer, people did sometimes assume I wasn't as knowledgeable, which just reinforced my defensiveness at the question. Isn't it disappointing when people do just what you were afraid they'd do? I wish I could be comfortable enough in my orthodoxy to not feel defensive sometimes, but I don't know that that'll ever be in the case in America. And it is noticeably worse when other stressors are present, such as health challenges, a death in the family, depression, and other times of anxiety and stress. At those times, I know to be more careful with how I answer these questions. Know thyself to avoid getting in more trouble than you can handle, as they say.

This conversation continues to be a work-in-progress for me, despite the opportunity to try out new answers at least once a week for several years. (I'm very open about being a convert and talking about conversion things, if you didn't know that already!)

I'm at the third anniversary of my conversion, so I'm beginning to feel less defensive about the "short" amount of time since my conversion, but it's still there a little. (But again: how to measure the anniversary? I got the good news in December 2011, but it was January 2012 before the rabbis came back from Israel and we could do the mikvah! Yet most applications ask for just a year, and I feel like I lose a whole year of "my Jewish experience" if I write 2012.)

So what's my best practice so far? I usually say how long I've been in the orthodox community or when I started being interested in Judaism. Or I make the complications of the question clear. Here are some sample answers I've given, based on the situation and the people involved:

  • "Well, I've been in the orthodox community for a total of 9 non-consecutive years, but I finished my orthodox conversion 3 years ago."
  • "Which conversion? I've got two." (Be ready for an hour conversation if you say that.)
  • "I became interested in Judaism and got involved in the orthodox community when I was 19, and I'm 30 now."
  • "That's complicated. I started getting involved at 19, and I'm 30 now, but I have two conversions. I don't think the date of my orthodox conversion is an accurate way to measure my time in the community."
  • "That's complicated. I finished my orthodox conversion 3 years ago, but I've been Jewishly involved for 11 years." (I really like the phrase "Jewishly involved.")
  • "That's complicated. You could measure it in many ways: when I entered the community, when I decided to convert, when I officially started the process for conversion, or when I completed the conversion. And that's even more complicated because I also have a conservative conversion!"
These conversations have always gone well, but I still feel tongue-tied and caught off guard. I always hope that the next time will be easier, but it inevitably isn't.

Unfortunately, these answers aren't the best for someone who, for whatever reason, wants to minimize his or her conversion and/or not open the door to more personal questions. Or if you simply don't have time right now. So what might you say in those situations? Remember that your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice conveys a lot more than these words ever could. Try not to make the person feel like a jerk, even if you think the person is a jerk.
  • "I'm sorry, but I'm running out the door. [Optionally: Maybe we can talk about this another time.]"
  • Along those lines, you could invent a reason to leave: "I'm sorry, I just remembered that I left the oven on/have a meeting. I'll see you later!"
  • "Oh, look at the time! ..."
  • "That's complicated. Could you hand me the potatoes/book/child?" or otherwise change the subject.
  • "I'd rather not talk about that right now, sorry."
  • "I'm sorry, I don't like to talk about this publicly. [Optional: I'm happy to discuss privately some other time.]"
  • "That was a pretty emotional part of my life, do you mind if we don't discuss it here/now/ever?"
  • "I'm sorry, that's not something I'm comfortable discussing right now." (Be prepared for potential pushback because a date is just a fact, right?)
  • With a smile: "Let's talk about something else!"
  • "I don't want to monopolize the conversation..." / "I don't want to keep you from your work."
  • Likewise, if this is a side question, steer the speaker back to the main conversation.
  • Introduce the speaker to someone else nearby.
  • Just say the date of a conversion and move on.
  • Ignore the question altogether and start a new topic: "That reminds me! ..." Insert funny story or interesting fact.
The key: if you said you need to do something else, remember to actually do that something else. If you end the conversation by saying you need to take a phone call, don't stop 10 feet away to chat with someone else.

Often, you'll feel "trapped" in a situation, whether it's the Shabbos table or a guest at your friend's house. Changing the topic of conversation is your friend. Become a Judo Master of conversation manipulation. It's truly an art form. Watch how others do it and learn from both the good and bad examples. I found some more good advice in a very short YouTube video from Howcast [1:06 minutes]. 

These skills will serve you well because they're the same skills we should use to avoid conversations that involve lashon hara. Maybe practicing these conversation-steering tactics in such a personal area will improve your ability to successfully apply them to potential lashon hara without embarrassing the person speaking. If doing this in a conversation about your conversion is an art, then doing it with potential lashon hara is a masterpiece.