Ger Tzadik (Sorta)

Monday, May 08, 2006

Not Dead Yet

But boy has it felt like it! It's been a very long 2-3 months here for me. Between studying, Pesach, a new job, and other demands on my time, the blog fell way back into 30th place in terms of importance. I am rested and recharged however, and am ready to get back to my posts. The good thing about the long layoff is that it has given me even more stories and time to think about my experience. Look for a real post tomorrow.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

First State of the Blog Address - 3/10/2006

I am traveling today and won't be back to my normal location until Monday, so no new real essay for today. The essays take at least an hour of quiet sit-down time to form themselves, and preparing them ahead of time is very...Not Me. So this post will just be off the cuff.

The blog is 6 weeks old, and there have already been 3,600 page loads, and over 2,200 unique visits. This is awesome. If you've become a regular reader/commenter, please know how much I appreciate your participation in the blog. I've said it many times before, but the blog was half meant to be a personal journal, and half meant to be a conversation. Without anyone to read or comment, it'd only be filling half it's role. Some observations:

  1. The topics keep coming easily and naturally. I feared after the first month of 5-a-week writing the topics would start to start to thin out and it'd get repetitive. Not true! There are at least another 2 weeks worth on tap, and every post seems to create new topics and ideas!
  2. Writing has been more fun AND more vexing than expected. It feels like each topic needs to be written with thought and care, so off-the-cuff posts like this one just haven't happened.
  3. Keeping the soft word count limit that was established after the first week has been challenging, but helps condense thoughts. It's very easy to ramble way past the limit if you just let your stream of consciousness roam everywhere on the screen. It also helps fill in topics that you are leaving light on description and words.
  4. It can be very difficult to write a personal essay without over-relying on "I, me, mine, myself" and other first person descriptors. It feels like these words distance the writing from the readers. Having people identify with the writing in some way is important. The indulgences I have allowed myself (ugh, see?) have been in parenthetical commentaries. (Like this one. But this one doesn't count. Because those first person words aren't being used. This was just an example. ME ME ME. See?)
  5. It's a good learning tool. People commenting have left links, books, and just bits of wisdom that have made this a fantastic learning experience. At some point, these need to be captured into a post of their own so others don't have to go browsing through the comments to see what they can see.

This ramble has taken too long already...but it was lots of fun writing! I ask again, if anyone has topics or subjects they'd like discussed, please just e-mail or ask for them. The well of creativity all this comes from is not bottomless, so I am depending on readers to help refill it from time to time. Even if it might seem off-topic, it's still something that might spark an interesting conversation.

Good Shabbos everyone!

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Marvels of Jewish Geography

After a couple of years as an observer of the machinations of Jewish Geography, I had my first personal encounter with it yesterday. It came quite out of the blue and still seems hard to believe. It’s a shame that this blog is anonymous, since the details are almost too splendid to leave out. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have a new friend who unexpectedly has more in common with me than any normal person would have thought plausible, given the circumstances. Unfortunately dear readers, the details of this unlikely story will remain a mystery for the time being.

There is no better way to really understand both how small, how interwoven, how borderline incestuous, the Orthodox Jewish world is than to watch Jewish Geography in action. For those without a background, Jewish Geography is the dance two (usually observant) Jews engage in to discover how much (not “if”) they share in common. Slight non-sequitur: This is probably the only time mixed dancing in any form is ever allowed. Don’t tell the rabbis though. They might ban it because it could lead to…uhh…mixed dancing? Nevermind.

It’s an awesome sight to watch the no-nonsense exchange of information that takes place when playing the game: family members, friends, neighbors, rabbis, homes, schools, camps, ad infinitum. Inevitably you end up at one degree of separation. The system seems so infallible that when you end up at two degrees of separation it feels like an aberration. You must have screwed up somewhere and forgot a critical person or piece of information. If you ever manage to pull off a clean miss, it would probably call into question your Jewishness!

It’s easy to describe with words, but none of them does justice to the disturbing reality that your world shrinks when you become an observant Jew. The visceral reaction you feel when it happens repeatedly, even when only an observer, is hard to describe. “It’s a small world” is a platitude for the non-Jewish world. Once you’re a Jew, it becomes an everyday reality. (Mercifully, without the song.) It’s easy to see why so many roll their eyes and throw up their hands when looking for their bashert. How simple it must be to cycle through the same crowd over and over again, never feeling like you’ll meet someone truly new and unique.

For a convert on the other hand, it’s an invigorating experience. It’s hard to imagine any other context where you could travel almost anywhere in the world and really *experience* what it means to be part of a family in the larger sense. Even if you have a strong national identity, a strong familial identity, or a strong olfactory identity, not much compares with the look of recognition when two people discover they share something so important as 3,000 years of history. (Trick statement. Strong olfactory identity is something all nations, races, and religions share. Just making sure you’re paying attention here.)

A personal anecdote: On my trip to Israel, while walking through Meah Sharim on Shabbat, we met 3 different people who the rabbi knew from various parts of his life. This was a pattern that repeated itself for much of the trip. Students, old buddies, acquaintances, you name it, he ran into easily a dozen-plus people he knew. Even the old Israeli man at his favorite yeshiva bochur haunt nonchalantly asked where he had been recently. This despite the fact that he hadn’t been there in at least 12 years! The whole thing still boggles the mind to this day.

The fact that I’ve had my first real experience in this area (and wow, is it a doozy!) has had me laughing out loud all night. I said at the time that it feels like another checkmark on the list of required Jewish experiences. Here’s hoping for more of them, and that they never become old.

If any of my readers has their own borderline unbelievable Jewish Geography experiences, please feel free to share them in the comments section. I could read them all day, it’s such a fun topic.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What Are My Minhagim?

It’s a strange question for most Jews, but something that most converts must wonder about at some point during their conversion. After all, the traditions of my fathers are great, but they’re not…Jewish.

One of the questions many friendlier Jews ask when told that you’re converting is: “What are the traditions for converts? Do you get to pick your minhag? If so, what’s going to be your meat/milk waiting time? If you don’t pick an hour, we’ll taunt you for the rest of your life.”

The topic in and of itself is simply confusing to a non-Jew. I remember thinking for quite awhile: “Traditions are great and all, but what’s the big deal? I mean, I understand that we’re bound by halacha, but how does tradition even factor into that?” It’s so far down the list of things to learn about that it doesn’t even register. Like most other concepts, the pieces quickly started falling into place and it’s now more clear why it does matter.

To be honest though, I still really don’t know the answer to those questions from curious Jews. It just doesn’t seem like it should be a priority, so asking the rabbis might give the wrong idea. (“Why are you asking how long after your hamburger you can wait to drink a milkshake. Get out of here!”) There have been sideways conversations about it, and discussions circling around the topic, but no real answers. Someone mentioned the idea that it might be tied to the majority minhag of the community you’re in.

This is a fascinating idea, but it doesn’t really help in my situation. The community I am in is…interesting. I can’t say too much for fear of making it obvious where this place is, but needless to say, the composition of the community, the traditions, and other aspects are unlike any other location in the United States, from what many people have said. That means even if this theory is true, it still doesn’t clarify things.

Really, the question won’t be answered until it is discussed with the converting rabbi and/or beit din. That doesn’t mean it can’t be batted around and played with though. It would require more study of minhag though, their halachic status, reasons they were adopted, etc.

I do have some ideas around this though. I’ve considered ways to work parts of the real traditions of my fathers into my Jewish observance. As a simple example: One that struck me last Pesach was using arugula for maror instead of romaine lettuce. (Seriously…Romaine is a bitter herb?) Arugula is very bitter, very Italian in many ways, and is one of the foods my father loves that I never understood as a child but appreciate more as an adult. The significance of recognizing and appreciating your predecessors in the story of Pesach is obvious, and having that extra touch to make it more personal would only add meaning. Seems like a good candidate for a family minhag, no?

There are other questions too: Do you commit to one set of minhagim immediately upon converting? Can you change before you have children? What if you make aliyah quickly after converting? Can you take on the opposite minhagim (Ashkenazi/Sephardi) if it fits the new community? These are the lighter topics my brain likes to toy with when pondering my conversion. In the bigger scheme of things, it’s not really important in directing yourself towards the service of God…but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating to think about.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Wrestling With a New Jewish Identity

One of the talents I have tried to cultivate from a young age is the ability to step back and view myself from the outside. It has helped keep me out of trouble on any number of occasions, and is probably the best tool anyone has for improving themselves. If you can’t be honest with your evaluation of yourself (both better and worse) there’s not much hope. Using this handy tool, it feels like I’ve had a very good grasp on my identity for most of my adult life now. It is also what makes this blog possible, and not unbearably boring. However, nothing to this point has prepared me to “view” the drastic change to my identity that has taken place recently.

It sounds sort of insidious when stated in that fashion, but it’s not a wholesale identity change in a flush-and-start-over sense. It has simply been a penetration of Jewish thinking, hashkafa, concepts, and even words, into everyday life. If the analogy is glasses that are used to view the world, then what is happening is simply a new prescription instead of ditching the glasses entirely. That’s to be expected whenever you make a dramatic life change, such as taking on a structured religion where there was no religious observance before.

As it becomes more and more part of my identity though, the real issues of becoming Jewish grow more clear. On more than one occasion recently, I have had to stop from saying something in Hebrew in general conversation. This is and of itself isn’t unusual. Being a dedicated computer geek often means having to substitute the wonderful shorthand of technology for speech that lesser humans can understand. (I am continually self-evaluating, I never said it always worked…yeah, gotta work on the arrogance a bit.) It takes a second to realize that not only is it not the lingua franca of casual conversation, it’s so foreign that it would stop conversation dead and move it towards a conversation about yourself and why you even know it.

Being your average middle-class white guy for most of your life doesn’t prepare you to be on the outside of the larger American society looking in. Not that there has been an instant ejection of self-from-life of course…just the slow recognition that I no longer share the same reality as my coworkers and friends. Not because they have changed, but because I have changed. It’s quite a shock every time some event brings this to the fore again.

This is probably the hardest part about a Jewish Orthodox conversion in general for an intellectual introvert. You are slowly withdrawing from social life as you knew it, and immersing into an entirely new and foreign one. The learning itself is relatively easy. It comes naturally to you, and brings you real joy. On the other hand, creating a new social support network is a difficult and at times terrifying job. It’s something you never excelled at, never particular enjoyed, and you’re doing it out of sheer desperation for a sense of community to cling to.

In this regard, I am fortunate that my personal rabbi is around my age, and an irrepressible extrovert. He loves people, loves helping others, and thankfully, has taken a shine to me. He has been the key to getting Shabbat invitations with families in the community, suggesting places I just show up to learn, etc. I really do love the man with all my heart. I shudder to think what the last year would have been like without his guidance. (It was hard enough as it was.) I hope the opportunity to take these experiences and extend a friendly hand towards someone else presents itself. It seems like I owe it to the world for my good fortune.

This post has rambled WAY more than I would have liked, but being pressed for time can do that. It’s also hard to keep a good reign on existential angst in around 700 words. (The self-imposed soft limit set for posts.) The topic will probably be revisited on a more focused level at some point in the future.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Speed III: Self-Destructing Shul - Staring Keanu Reeves

Attending your first weekday minyan, it’s hard not to get the feeling that there is an unnatural urgency to praying. If the pace of prayer drops below 550 words per minute, the whole place will go up! Since the last post was a wonderfully fun exercise in list making, it seems like as good a time as any to do another. After careful analysis, it has become obvious that there are many distinct stages in the process of learning how to daven “properly”. The time it takes to transition between them depends on how quick a learner you are, how easily you adapt to reading Hebrew, and how quickly you can memorize things. Let’s examine the stages now:

  1. Totally Clueless – You walk in, pick up a siddur, open it up, and….feel utter despair like never before in your life, because you have no idea what’s going on. This can be helped only with a beginners minyan essentially.

  2. Big Events – You can now identify big parts of the services easily. Shema (“Hey, it’s in bold, and everyone is saying ‘SHEMA’ loudly!”) The Silent Amidah (“Whoa, everyone got quiet and is shaking back and forth.”) The Torah Reading. (“Check it out! Torah!”)

  3. Sing Along – You now can keep up with most of the singing parts, as long as they don’t go too fast. The silent parts seem to happen at an unbelievable pace though. You think to yourself that everyone has to be faking it. Following the full flow of the service is much easier now.

  4. Important Hebrew Parts – Now you finally do the big prayers in Hebrew. The Shema, the Amidah, bits of other parts of the service. You still struggle to keep up, and have to cut some parts to stay with the minyan, but you get there. You still spend most of your time in English though. Pesukei D’zimra and Tachnun still seem to go faster than you can believe is humanly possible.

  5. Full Hebrew, Half Speed – Now you can do everything in Hebrew. Just not as fast as your average weekday minyan. Plus, your kevanah probably isn’t what it could be if you didn’t have to concentrate so much on just getting the right words out.

  6. Full Hebrew, Full Speed – You can now blaze through the entire service, finishing ahead of others sometimes, and have proper kevanah since you are comfortable with everything you are doing. (Note: Since I am not here yet, I still think this level is fictional and you folks are pretending. I do that to preserve my fragile ego.)

There are probably substages that could be identified, but that would require work…so nevermind. If pressed, I would put myself somewhere between stages 3 and 4 right now. Singing has helped tremendously in terms of remembering certain sections. It’s much easier to remember Lecha Dodi, Shema, and Aleinu when you have a tune or cadence in your head for them. Once they’re there, you can speed up and slow down the tune as needed.

The silent parts are a little harder. The tactic for the Amidah, as suggested by a rabbi, is to take one blessing at a time, do it in Hebrew over and over again until you’re almost doing it by heart, then move on to another one. Of course, this means you’re doing the rest of it in English or your native language, but small steps first. When you recite the same prayer 3 times a day, 6 days a week, it’s amazing how fast you begin to memorize the Hebrew, even if you don’t really understand all of it.

The parts that are still entirely lost on me are the Pesukei D’zimra, Ashrei, and Tachnun. It just goes WAY too fast to even have a prayer. (Oy. I typed that one out before the double meaning hit me. Now I can’t change it…too painful, must share.) I am looking for ways to get some more parts of those into my head other than just pounding it into my head repeatedly.

The best way to get better is repeated practice of course, but I am looking for suggestions and tips here. Anyone have their own little personal tricks that let them get into the groove of davening more quickly? I’ve been searching (unsuccessfully) for recordings on the web of parts of the liturgy that can be sung, since it has helped so much to date, even just in my head. An archive, CD, or anything of that sort would be greatly appreciated.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Awkward Moments for Converts-in-Process

A note on this post: It is meant to be both informative and humorous. It was not designed to single out any group or person. Where it might sound harsh in places, none of this really bothers me as much as it might appear by the writing. The community I am in treats me wonderfully, no doubts about it. Enjoy it for what it is!

Being a convert-in-process is filled with awkward moments waiting to happen. Often, you have no idea you’re about to be confronted with an awkward moment. After awhile though, you become familiar with a few specific ones that occur most often. Here are some of my favorites in no particular order.

Minyan Nothing like praying before you pray. How’s that? Well, before you daven, you pray that there are already 10 men there when you show up. This is more relevant when you’re not going to a familiar minyan. There’s just no way to make it clear that you don’t count towards a minyan other than standing up and essentially announcing that you’re not Jewish. Unless at least half of the guys there hear it, they all will say at some point: “Hey, we have a minyan, let’s go.” Some people just don’t pay attention.

Bonus: Weekday Shacharit Being offered teffilin and having to reject them. Either you tell the truth, or they think you’re some kind of weirdo for rejecting the mitzvah. Instead, they just think you’re a weirdo for being there. You can’t win some battles. *sigh*

Double Bonus: Shabbat Torah Honor Being in a strange shul with generous people who want to find a way to honor their guests and visitors. Thus, they offer to give you hagbah or some other Torah honor. This makes the teffilin rejection seem like child’s play!

Goyim Trash-Talking Try sharing the awkwardness with others! Become peripherally involved in a conversation with some healthy trash-talking about how silly/stupid/annoying all goyim are. The best part is when those who know you start looking at the ground and shuffling uncomfortably, which causes the person talking to look around with a “What? Is the rabbi right behind me? What’s going on?” face. Classic.

Bonus: Ger Trash-Talking Just like the above, except instead of goyim, now the topic is gerim. The best part here is that the knowledge of you converting won’t stop some people. The typical response to any strange looks from others is: “What? I’m not talking about him. I’m talking about those others!” (Note: I actually don’t mind this one, because I actually can sympathize. Still, you’re commanded to love all converts, right? I am putting it here because OTHERS feel awkward only because I am there, which in turn makes me feel awkward. Vicious cycles I tell you.)

Presumed Stupid Until proven otherwise, of course. For whatever reason, people will assume the fact that they’ve never met you, and that you are convert, to mean that you know diddly squat about being an Orthodox Jew. While of course that was true once upon a time, the whole POINT of the conversion process it to learn a lot, as fast as possible. You don’t stay eternally clueless. That means people should be taking at least a little time to try and gauge your aptitude before sticking you in the “Duh” bucket.

“Presumed Stupid” Irony Corollary These are often people who are becoming newly observant themselves, or aren’t even in that category yet…but feel they have a handle on the whole “Jewish” thing better than any non-Jew could have. Then, watching them do something that is known to be forbidden, you have to find as gentle a way as possible to tell them without embarrassing them. (My technique? “I think I read somewhere that there is something about X that could be a problem. I don’t know though, you should probably ask the rabbi.” This despite the fact that I know full well it’s not allowed, and sometimes even from where…but some people would be mortified to be corrected by someone like me.) It’s impossible for the aftereffects of this situation to not be awkward though, because in the end, they knew you were right about something they didn’t know.

There’s a ton more on this list to be sure…it seems like the entire first few months are designed to be nothing but awkward! This seems like as good a start as any. This may become a recurring theme, but honestly, as my comfort level increases, my awkwardness decreases. It may have been a better series 6 months ago. We’ll see how it goes. Shabbat Shalom!

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