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?


EEEK! The Clock Really Starts Now!

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…

Shabbat Recap — Flat

I have had, if not the worst cold I’ve had in about 20 years, then a mild case of the flu, probably one of the strains to which I was already partially immune. Plus, Izzy is still sick — he has a “melting ulcer” on his cornea and, while it’s getting better, it still isn’t completely healed yet. So I stayed in.

That said, I’m getting much better about remembering to say the brachot before eating, and I’m hoping I can land a job soon so I can move on to the next phase of my life.

I got the new issue of the OU magazine yesterday — I’m subscribed to it because I sponsored a friend who was running a marathon to support Yachad, a group run by the OU that provides integrated Shabbatons and other Jewish activities for able-bodied and handicapped kids. (Actually, if someone took the Yachad model and made it secular, I’d love to see it implemented all over the place; more kids could benefit from stuff like that. As someone with cerebral palsy, it’s very easy for handicapped kids to wind up essentially ghettoised. Not that I’m against Yachad doing this for Jewish kids, just that all kids should be able to benefit from something like that.) There’s one article in particular, or maybe one section of one article, that I feel I really should write about.

In the meantime, I need to continue trying to get my life beseder. Lehitraot, a bientot, for now.

My Jewish Bookshelf — Book Review-ish: Choosing a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant

This was I think about the first book I bought when I started to seriously consider conversion to Judaism.  I chose it because it is written by a woman, and it explicitly talks about (in detail) how to talk to your family and friends about your conversion.  The book’s subtitle is “A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends.”  It’s fairly comprehensive, and deals with (inter)marriage, adoption, conversion of children, family life, dealing with fallout from your family and friends, and other matters.  It also contains a nice section of poems by converts, including a quite memorable entry by an Asian-American convert who talks about the difficulties in negotiating between Jewish and Chinese funerary customs, for instance.

This book also has the most detailed description of the actual conversion <i>rituals</i> I’ve seen in any book aimed at potential converts so far, which may have something to do with the fact that Diamant is married to a convert and probably got to see it up close and personal.  For someone who worries about everything, this was reassuring, although I’m certain that if and when the day comes, my conversion steps will be both more demanding and less ceremonial.

This book is written from a Reform perspective, which puts it on my “must recommend” list for anyone considering or undergoing a Reform conversion, but it does also mean that parts of it are not really as applicable to my circumstances as descriptions of the Orthodox process are, which is fine, and no value judgement is implied.  I still think it’s a valuable book to have.  It’s well-written, engaging, features “testimonials” from converts that are interesting without lapsing over into being cloying or ridiculous (a fine art indeed), and presents a lot of material, particularly in terms of interpersonal relationships, worth thinking about.

One issue I did have with this book is that much of the “how to talk to your family and friends” material is presented from the perspective of someone who is converting in order to marry a Jew.  Some of the advice still pertains; much of the rest is basically irrelevant.  If I were Diamant and I were interested in doing a new version of the book, I might actually consider trying to talk my publisher into doing an edition specifically for and about couples in which one partner is converting, and one edition that talks about everything else.  I don’t have to get buy-in from my future in-laws, make sure that my parents are cool with my fiance, or any of that stuff, or negotiate how our new Jewish family is going to do holidays with Grandma and Grandpa (as opposed to Saba and Savta) — at least not for a long while yet! — because I am not in that situation.  I do understand why this is probably the focus of the book, though, since it’s Diamant’s own situation, and I suspect that within the Reform context, it’s probably one of the most — if not the most — common reason for conversion.  (For what it’s worth, the married couple the rabbi is currently tutoring have a child who converted de novo to Judaism and now lives in Israel, and they decided to convert after that.)

It’s also not really intended for prospective Orthodox converts, although you can’t fault the book for that, since it says so “on the tin,” as it were.  (The rabbi at Beit Meshugge’s equivalent text on his syllabus is To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life by R. Hayim H. Donin, and I’m told Maurice Lamm’s Becoming a Jew is also an excellent guide from the Orthdox perspective.)  I still got a lot out of the book, enjoyed the poetry, enjoyed Diamant’s eminently readable style and female perspective (somewhat lacking in Orthodox texts), and keep it on hand for fragmentary re-reads.  I definitely recommend this book, particularly for prospective Reform converts, and particularly if you’re expecting to have some tough “talks” with people in your life.

Book Review-ish: The 39 Melochos, R. Dovid Ribiat

This book is on my geirut course syllabus; I gather it’s a standard thing the rabbi assigns.  (I wonder how many converts he’s instructed, as some people at Beit Meshugge have a running joke about the size of his curricular reading list.)  It’s a four-volume series covering the various types of Shabbat-prohibited labours by classification relating to the Mishkan (tabernacle) and how to build it or make its components.

All thirty-nine of these prohibited labour types are divided by “orders,” such as The Order of Garments, which pertains to all forbidden labours involved in creating the curtains surrounding the Mishkan, such as spinning, weaving, and sewing, and all the “child prohibitions” derived from there.  This is a really good approach, because it makes the underlying logic of the Shabbat prohibitions extremely clear.  I’m all about systemisation.

The prose is quite readable, and shares with the best technical writing the quality of being information-dense yet easy-to-read.  My only two real quibbles with the writing style are that it’s obvious R. Ribiat isn’t a native English-speaker, and could have used a better editor to clean up some odd locutions and grammatical mistakes, and that some of the content and/or examples are repetitive.  This book is so good, I’d like to see it be even better by eliminating some of the redundant content (R. Ribiat really likes his Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, I think!) and expanding the number and type of the examples. 

That said, it’s a good guide for the serious Orthodox would-be shomer(et) Shabbat, although it does lean very strict, and certain people will want to talk to their rabbis and/or consult other listings of poskim such as Halachipedia to find halachic reolutions to certain questions.  (I believe I’ve already mentioned at least one where I will lean more liberal than Ribiat.)  I’m not sure of Ribiat’s affiliation, but he seems to lean “rightward.” 

Ribiat himself also does advise consulting your local rabbi throughout the text wherever there are complex halachic questions, with which the book does not deal in any real depth, despite its size. There is a lot of material — thirty-nine “parent” types of prohibited labour, plus various “child” types related to those labours either in the Oral Torah or by later rabbinical authorities.  Some of these are absolutely straightforward, but some are really not readily intuitive.  For example, gluing paper is considered prohibited as a result of the prohibition against sewing, and removing the braid in one’s hair is considered prohibited as a result of the prohibition against demolition.  Note to self — find a non-braid way of protecting against the “pre-Shabbat shower-caused Shabbat morning terminally unfixable bedhead.”

I doubt a non-Orthodox convert would derive much use from this book, unless they were interested in observing Shabbat to the letter, especially since at around $300 all in including taxes and shipping (it was thirteen pounds in shipping weight!), it’s not exactly an impulse purchase item, although if your synagogue or local library happens to own a copy and you’re curious, by all means, have a look.  Some of the examples are really quite funny, and some are at Blu Greenberg levels of practicality.  I suspect I’m going to get a lot of use out of it, and that I’ll use it more in the way one uses a reference book than as a single coherent work (although it is that, surprisingly).

My major issue (I can’t complain too much about the price, as well-made hardcover books are expensive, and well-made hardcover books intended for niche markets are really expensive) with this book is that because the volumes contain the complete English text plus a comprehensive appendix of cited sources entirely in Hebrew (surprisingly readable even with my mediocre Hebrew!), each of the four volumes is quite large…

…and it hurts like blazes if you drop one on your foot! 

(Ow.  This is the Voice of Experience speaking.)