I read a fascinating pair of articles today. <a href=”http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/190673/the-lives-we-never-lived”>The Lives We Never Lived</a> is Simon Yisrael Feuerman’s account of pondering a secular life from the point of view of an observant Jew, and <a href=”http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/judaism-and-the-twice-born”>Judaism and the Twice-Born</a> is convert-in-progress Kelsey Osgoode’s brief account of leaving her old, secular, and even self-identified atheist life behind. I am, of course, in a similar situation.
For me, the articles interest me because they illustrate the tension I as a would-be convert feel in my life between the secular and the sacred, the spiritual and the earthy, and my “old life,” as it were, and the life I’m slowly but surely stepping into. Contrast that with Shulem “The Hasidic Rebel” Deen, who has written a deconversion memoir about leaving the Skverer Hasid community and religion altogether. (I used to love reading his blog; it felt like the best aspects of the documentary style of reality television, without the cheapjack sensationalism — giving you an insider’s view into a closed world that otherwise you’d never get to see.)
I think there is a lot to discuss in these articles, and I may write more about them, but right now I’m very close to a meeting at work…
Ask post for any other converts or baalei teshuva out there:
When you first started keeping kosher, how did you do it?
How do you handle things like making arrangements so you could have a hot lunch at work?
What do you do when you’re travelling or out running a lot of errands or something and there are limited (or no) kosher options available? (This particularly concerns me with airports, because airport security will confiscate many different kinds of food you try to bring with you beyond say, candy and protein bars — which get boring after a while.)
Did you get a Shabbat food warmer, or a blech? If so, where, and how?
Do you have a water urn? If so, where did you get it?
What do you do about opening the fridge? (Some observant Jews won’t open the fridge at all on Shabbat in case opening it causes the compressor to come on, whereas others will wait until the compressor is on first.)
Are there any other issues you can think of that tripped you up or were difficult to negotiate at first?
Have I mentioned that food is a particular weakness of mine? (This is why I’m portly instead of puny.) Keeping kosher outside the home is going to be a big struggle for me, I can tell, because bastard smell molecules waft into the air like they own the place and make me hungry for things. Today it was fries with gravy. These may be the last fries with gravy I eat, given that I don’t have a deep-fryer and you can’t get decent fries in Israel unless an Arab makes them (Israelis seem to think cold, soggy fries are tasty, for some inexplicable reason; I blame knee-jerk rejectionism of anything British), and I’ve never seen fries with gravy available in Israel anywhere.
Which sucks, because they were bad fries with gravy, really. But as long as I keep working here, and I keep having to go into the staff cafeteria to get cutlery to eat lunch (I’m fairly ideologically opposed to using plastic cutlery on the regular), this is going to keep happening. I guess I’m going to have to start carrying cutlery back and forth with me in my work bag. And hoping that rogue smells don’t ambush me.
I just found a blog by a writer named Yonassan Gershom, who identifies as a Breslover Hasid, and lives on a farm in rural Minnesota. It’s so good to see a rural observant Jew! Not that I’m not a city person, but I’d go absolutely mad without some kind of access to green space, since I grew up roaming around a semi-rural area and in a provincial park that spans part of the (Canadian) Thames river.
In his post, “Nature Deficit Disorder,” Gershom writes about how excessive urbanism has cut a lot of Jews off from appreciating vast parts of HaShem’s world — including, may I say, the odd green vegetables…
I was very lucky, in that I grew up in an area where I could go play in the woods –and my parents let me do it. This was not wasted time — it was learning in a very different way. It enriched my understanding of Torah in ways that my nature-deprived urban brethren often cannot grasp. And it ultimately led to me becoming a Breslov Hasid, because of Rebbe Nachman’s teaching about hisboddisus — the practice of spending an hour alone with God each day. He recommended doing it in a forest or field because, he said, the plants and animals would join in our prayers. And he meant that literally.
Breslovers still try to do that today, although in a city it is hard to find the solitude. But at least they have the teachings about spending time in nature, which many other groups do not. In fact, mainstream Jews have sometimes considered the Breslovers crazy to go wandering in the woods.
I’m certain that I wouldn’t like being a Breslover Hasid, but I do like nature, and I feel strongly attached to the mitzvot to be kind to animals, and to respect HaShem’s world. I’m also a gardener, and spent a lot of time on farms when I was growing up; I rode horses for twenty years, and spent enough time pitching hay and mucking out to be really unbothered by nature generally. And this is one area where I really seem to differ with my rabbi, alas, and most of my kehila, who seem to treat both living animals and plants generally with some vague suspicion. One of these days, I really should wander into the woods and daven, just to do it.
I just got an e-mail from the rabbi; he has called the Beit Din I’m going to be under, and they have sort of tentatively agreed to see me at their next meeting. I say “sort of tentatively” because the supervising rabbi says they already have fifteen candidates on their docket (!!) and feel like they don’t need one more, but that I should go ahead and submit my application package anyway.
I note that they do want to have periodic “progress meetings” with candidates, and also that they require candidates to live a fully observant Jewish life for a year before they’ll consider conversion. They said they might not be able to see me until after Rosh Hashana, and then another year after that! Yike. At least this seems to give me some space to get my living arrangements sorted…
Now I should get back to work, so I don’t wind up losing my employment or jeopardising the chances of having my contract extended…
BBC did a documentary called Make Me a Muslim, about female converts to Islam in the UK. I’ve watched it twice now, and I’m linking it here because I think that even though it’s not about Judaism (where is the documentary about female converts to Judaism?), it shows a lot of issues related to conversion, and particularly conversion to a more traditional or restrictive religion. It’s interesting to see the universalities as well as the differences, among people who have embraced faith, or a different faith than the one they grew up in. (I grew up secular, personally.)
Funny: As a prospective Orthodox Jewish convert, the sequence where the one convert speaks of “halalifying” her wardrobe really speaks to me, particularly as I “efsharified” (“tzniutified”?) my wardrobe too!
It’s also significant to me that it’s about female converts — primarily, from the presenter’s perspectve, as “Why would these women take on all these restrictions?”
I also liked the parts where the presenter talks to the converts’ families, and the converts talk about their families, since this is a huge issue for me as well. I’m still not “out” to most people, including my family, although the rabbi and I are planning on talking about this next week. This documentary also talks about the difficulties converts can have being accepted into their new communities, and about struggling with practice, all areas where would-be Jews also may have problems. I think this is a must-watch for anybody who’s interested in the religious conversion experience, even though it’s specifically about Muslim converts.
I’m now in an awkward situation vis-a-vis my conversion, in that I waited a pretty long time to even start studying with the rabbi, and now, it’s six months, give or take a little, and he’s already expecting me to make major lifestyle changes — and I know this will only increase once we start learning about Shabbat. Not that I don’t already try to observe Shabbat as much as possible, but it’s still a logistical challenge at this point.
On top of that, everything I’ve read about conversions indicates (although my friend RH didn’t seem to think this was so) that the Beit Din usually likes to meet with the candidate multiple times over the course of their study and practice process, basically to assess their sincerity and gauge their progress. I imagine some spot-quizzing and Hebrew reading demonstrations are also required. I was also under the impression that they generally liked for prospective candidates to go through at least one year of observing Jewish holidays, which I have not done (see “I’m BAAAAACK!”, where I talk about doing Ta’anit Esther/Purim as my first real Jewish holidays).
Now it feels almost like I’m being rushed into living completely Jewishly before I’m actually ready. I honestly wasn’t expecting us to be this far along in the course curriculum by now; many, many, many people I’ve spoken to in person about conversions are of the opinion that it usually takes years (although, to be fair, I did come in with some knowledge of Hebrew, and a relatively high amount of Jewish literacy for a non-Jew). I also don’t really feel I’m ready to take these steps yet, as I’m still struggling with remembering to say the brachot, and various other things.
On the other hand, there is part of me that (I can’t deny) just wants to drop everything, find a nice apartment near the shul like, tomorrow, set up my kosher kitchen immediately, and begin my new Jewish life as soon as possible. My pragmatic, risk-averse, hard-headed (read: stubborn), raised-by-Scottish-people-money-watching side disagrees, however.
What am I gonna do?