Old Life, New Life

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…

How Did You Do It?

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?


Conversion Narratives

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.

Shabbat Recap — On the Clock, Finally!

The local rabbi likes to say there are no such things as coincidences. After Saturday, I’m inclined to agree.

I did get to shul, only to find that someone has moved the service time ahead a half an hour, meaning I was even later than usual (note for the Orthodox-unaware: it’s really not uncommon, at least in Orthodox synagogues, for people to come in late, and/or kind of drift in and out during the service, so I wasn’t exactly disrupting anything), and kind of slunk in, only to find that basically nobody was there anyway.

Rabbi: Well, we have a minyan on one side of the mechitza, but not on the other. So I’m going to give the sermon now, and when we get a minyan on the men’s side, we’ll continue with the service.

Apparently this is the time of year when a lot of the Orthodox community here goes on vacation, which totally makes sense, since nothing’s ticking but the clock outside the kehila, either.

After the service, I was walking back to my bus stop from shul (still coasting on goy privilege so I can keep living here for the time being), the rabbi and rebbetzin caught up to me (I walk slowly) and asked me if I wanted to come back to their house for lunch. I accepted, even though it made me very nervous; I get nervous in unfamiliar social environments to start with, and I always feel like interacting with the rabbi is a real pressure situation. I’m still not comfortable around him yet, really, for some senses of the word “comfortable.”

Lunch was kind of surreal, and the rabbi was doing his best to model behaviour, since in attendance were one guy who comes to shul occasionally but normally goes to the Chabad house near the university; a convert, and his ba’alat teshuva wife whose Jewish education was minimal and curtailed by a mixed marriage (she’s Jewish through the matrilineal line), and who almost became an Anglican minister, at her Anglican father’s urging.

I also got to dine under the fancifully artistically-rendered watchful eyes of five Lubavitcher rebbes. (Apparently no one knows what the other two looked like — there were seven all told.) My friend RH joked in Facebook chat: “A meal with rabbinical supervision of the highest order!” You got that right…

We actually wound up talking until motzei, at which point, the rabbi introduced us to some short videos made by Chabad primarily about R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, called The Living Torah. I mostly found this interesting because I could actually more or less understand the Hebrew in Schneerson’s Yiddish. (I speak not a word of Yiddish.) The rabbi’s toddler son is a big fan, but I don’t know if the family speaks Yiddish at home, although I suspect the rabbi himself is not a native English-speaker, even though he doesn’t have a Yiddish-speaker’s accent. (His actual accent is downright weird, though; it’s not quite New York, and not quite Chicago, and not quite California, and not quite southwestern Ontario, although he does have a bunch of New Yorkisms in his speech. He won’t tell me where he’s from.)

After that, he gave me and one of the other guests a ride home. So now I have the odd distinction of having been given a lift home by a Chabad rabbi.

During the conversation in the car, he also told me that the couple he was mentoring through the conversion process dropped out because they said it was too hard (a fate I devoutly wish to avoid), so he’s available to start teaching me now…

I start my studies in a week!! In the meantime, I’m rereading the three books that will form the first lesson block. I’m on my way, finally!

Things the Books Don’t Tell You

R. Ethan Tucker wrote an article for the Times of Israel describing the halacha around converts’ immersion, particularly regarding female converts. Of course, this is of particular interest to me. I didn’t actually know that many conversion courts require the rabbis to be in the mikveh room with the giyoret while she is in the mikveh water; at least one source I recall reading said that a female mikveh attendant could witness the immersion while the rabbis stood outside (apparently this is the contraposition to Rambam, aka Maimonides), and the local Reform rabbi said that “we don’t make you go in naked.” (I was not under the impression that Orthodox immersions were done clothed.) Other sources simply do not mention it at all. This is an oversight, I think.

I’m sure I have mentioned it before, but this is one reason why, despite not pursuing a Reform conversion, I think Anita Diamant’s book Choosing a Jewish Life is such a great resource — it actually talks about conversion with the female perspective specifically (if not exclusively) addressed. Most other books on conversion I’ve seen so far, while fairly comprehensive, are written by men (usually Orthodox rabbis), who by nature more or less live in a homosocial paradigm, and they seem to ignore the female experience altogether (probably because they don’t actually know very much about it, or it simply never occurs to them).

So to me it’s interesting to see someone actually discuss this, both socially and halachically, as it specifically pertains to women. (Who is going to write the Giyoret’s Guide to Orthodox Conversion? Don’t say “You are.”) If this is at all of interest, do give it a read. Personally, I’m not too concerned about being in water in front of three rabbis, if it happens, as their eyes and/or imaginations are their problems (and anybody lusting after my ratty old carcass has problems indeed), but I can see how lots of other women would find it intrusive, undignified, and contrary to personal modesty (you could argue that one yes or no, I think, either as that rabbis shouldn’t be looking at the naked bodies of vulnerable female converts because of modesty, and also that it’s obviously a special case carved out specifically by the Rabbinic authorities — hmm, do I sound Jewish yet?).

Anyway, I have things to do to get ready for Shabbat, and time is ticking by. Give the article a peek and see what you think!

Conversion, Politics, and Responses

Bethany S. Mandel has written an interesting piece in the Times of Israel regarding conversion and the status of converts within the larger Jewish community. I’m not sure I agree with everything in it, but it certainly does raise topics for discussion. I’m also not sure that some of the politics in this apply to me, as some of the problems Mandel raises seem to be specifically US problems, and I’m in Canada, although my rabbi did say I would be doing my conversion through the Beit Din in Detroit (I’m not sure why and it didn’t cross my mind to ask at the time), so it may or may not.

I have not had (so far), baruch haShem, some of the problems Mandel discusses. The community at Beit Meshugge has been pretty well uniformly welcoming, and I’ve had no problems with the rav so far.

Mandel’s wish list is as follows, and I’ll add my commentary to each:

    Converts are in a state of persistent limbo.

This has kind of been my experience, as I expected to begin my classes over a year ago, and it really hasn’t happened yet. This is partially due to my inability to schedule study time with the rav, and his busy schedule, though. I don’t know what will happen if I wind up having to move away. I hope I can get to shul this Shabbat so I can talk to him about it. When we discussed a timeline, though, he seemed to feel that I could probably complete the course in about a year, so I can’t complain there. I do agree that setting some kind of critical path plan with objectives and milestones is probably a good idea, if only because it gives the candidate things to work for. (Actually, this is one of the things I really like about R. Aryeh Moshen’s Gerus Guide and its associated programme; it has a structure of gradually increasing observance leading to a fully Jewish life.)

    We have no safe governing body or individual to turn to [in case of issues with the rabbis]

I agree that this might be a problem; I recall Kochava from You’re Not Crazy had issues with her conversion too. I am hoping (B”H) this does not apply to me, because there is no one to go to. I guess that’s one of the peculiarities of a decentralised religion. (An old friend has been needling me a little bit in a friendly way for stating I wanted to convert, and once said, “Well, you know how I feel about organised religion,” and I said, “I’m not joining an organised religion; I’m converting to Judaism.”) I don’t see a way out of this.

    The reasonable costs associated with conversion should be clearly laid out from the outset.

This is absolutely true. I haven’t heard of any costs, and the rav specifically told me he is forbidden to take money for teaching Torah, so there would be no cost for his classes. I hope there aren’t any large surprise bills in my future.

    Communities have welcoming committees for Jews who move to the area but nothing in place for converts in the process.

I’m not sure if I think this is reasonable or not, as a lot of Orthodox communities don’t see that many conversion candidates. In my town, the Reform synagogue seems to attract a fair few conversion candidates, but since I’m pursuing an Orthodox conversion, I’m not really sure if they could help with some of the things I’d need. My advice is to find an unofficial mentor. Talk to people in shul. Go to events, and network.

    Converts are constantly asked to discuss extremely personal questions by strangers

Yeah, welcome to Judaism.

I really hope Mandel never goes to Israel, because she’s going to be bombarded by personal questions, unsolicited advice, and other overtures of aggressive togetherness (achdut, maybe). I had some experience with this at one point. My strategy for coping with this is to have a sort of “elevator pitch” prepared. I’m not really bothered by people’s curiosity; I figure this is a good way to make friends, network, and find allies and possible mentors.

    Help us with matters of Jewish ritual.

This hasn’t come up for me yet, so I really can’t comment on it, but using the tactics I described in the previous point might help with this.

    If converts are expected to provide their “papers” proving their Jewishness for a school, synagogue, or wedding ask born Jews for the same.

I suppose this is fair, although most born Jews have people in the community who can essentially vouch for them, or at least pazam. Again, I’m not sure how I feel about this, as it hasn’t really come up.

    The conversion process for those of Jewish heritage should be accelerated and unique.

I agree with this, where the person has been raised Jewish, at least. Since I’m adopted, hypothetically there could be a chance I actually have Jewish ancestors, although I suspect not. I wish I had some kind of magical Jewish origin story, but I’m afraid I don’t. In any case, my learning process would be about the same as any other prospective convert’s, because I wasn’t at all raised Jewish, and I’m flying blind.

    Converts deserve to be treated with the same love and care as Jewish orphans from the moment we become Jewish.

I’m not sure I agree with this either, but a kehila should be doing its best to welcome converts in any case.

    We should not have to live in fear about the status of our conversions in perpetuity.

Yes, I agree with this. I’ve seen entirely too many stories where people’s conversions weren’t respected for one reason or another, and the actions of Mandel’s rav shouldn’t affect the halachic status of her conversion, although for political reasons it might. I do worry about this a little bit, but I guess I’ll have to burn that bridge when I cross it, and not before.

I do think there are an awful lot of converts who seem to have been left in precarious situations, and I think in general Jewish organisations need to be more proactive in helping converts, although I can understand why they aren’t necessarily. Between the massive weight of cultural resistance to the idea of converts, a thousand years and more of well-deserved distrust of outsiders, and a lack of “market,” as it were, the issue of lack of outreach is basically inevitable (at least within Orthodoxy), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this situation persists. Thanks to Mandel for at least starting a conversation, though.

Further: If you’re interested in seeing an incredible discussion of the politics surrounding this issue, as well as what the tensions between the Orthodox world and other movements of Judaism, I encourage you to read the comments on this article. (I normally encourage people not to read newspaper article comments, as they’re usually about a half-step up from YouTube wharrgarrbl, but the Times of Israel has really good, respectful commenters for the most part. Even the abrasive Orthodox supremacists in the bunch seem to know their stuff, and are worth reading even if you disagree with them, just to get the flavour of the thing.)


I included the word “furtive” in my slugline because I haven’t told very many people of my plans to convert yet.  I want to be further along in the process (like actually proving that I have a chance to succeed) before I drop a bombshell that big.  The few people I’ve told are a good friend of mine who went through a religious conversion experience, a secular Jewish friend in Portland, and a few of my close religious Jewish friends in Israel.

I think some few of my friends and relatives won’t really be surprised, but my mother in particular might be hurt, especially at Christmastime.  My mother is the original Christmas freak.  I hate Christmas, have for many years.  (I have never identified as a Christian, even though my family are at least culturally Christians, and I don’t believe in a historical Jesus.)  I used to make a point of reading Harlan Ellison’s infamous “Fuck Xmas!” essay every year on Christmas Eve, just to give me the strength to get through.  The “holiday creep” of the last decade or so has been making me progressively more aggravated.

Even though my family is pretty small, Christmas is a big production Chez Parents de Sara-Elisheva.

I’m expecting a lot of behind-my-back talk about me in the family, but that’s not exactly news.

My sister will probably just chalk it up to my being inexplicably weird, which is how she basically thinks of me anyway, and might make some comments about why can’t I just be normal.

I haven’t told my boss yet, and while you’re probably thinking my religious life is really none of my boss’ business (and you’d be technically right), I work with a group based in Jerusalem, and I was hired to provide North American time zone coverage for my job role, and also to cover Jewish holidays.  (I like to tell people I’m the group’s shabbes goy.)  I can’t exactly do that if I’m not a goy anymore, can I?  (Of course, this job is indirectly responsible for convincing me to convert to Judaism, so I’m not sure whether I should appreciate the irony or the literary parallelism.)  I’m really not sure how that will impact my job.  I’m pretty sure they can’t fire me (although I’m not sure how protected I am if changing religions means I can’t fulfill some of the terms of my initial hire), and my performance ratings are good, but I’m nervous.  They don’t cover this stuff in those “Guides for the Would-Be Convert.”

I’m certain this will cause some rifts with my friends, particularly when I can’t (or won’t) join them for dinners out and Friday night movies anymore.

It’s already put a probably breaking strain on my relationship with my pseudoquasiboyfriend in England, but that was going to happen sooner or later anyway, as we’ve really grown apart in the last few years.  If anybody ever tries to tell you that you don’t change a lot in your middle thirties, don’t listen.

There are probably other ramifications I’m completely missing at this point, but…