Ger Tzadik (Sorta)

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Severe Intermarriage Problems in My Family. Help!

I know what you must be thinking (I say that a lot, don’t I? I guess I go out of my way to mislead people with my post titles.): “But you’re not even Jewish yet! How can your family have an intermarriage problem?” The answer is that it depends on how you look at “family” of course.

So let’s look at the facts. Being raised in the greater Tri-State area, there was not exactly a dearth of Jews around. Much to my surprise, when informed that I was seriously thinking about a Jewish girl, my father admitted that before he met my mother, he only dated Jewish girls. He has the kippas to prove it too. He liked Jews, they liked him. It was familiar, but different. Jews in the area were American, but all the same very Italian (from his viewpoint) in familial relationships, mannerisms, and many other ways. (Except food of course. Sorry, this is one area I will never be a true convert. Thank goodness Rambam didn’t make that one of his ikkarim.) He knew he didn’t want to date an Italian girl, so this was the next best thing.

Next: As I have mentioned elsewhere, my family is of the Italian Catholic persuasion. That means birth control is out (so says the Pope), and large families are in. My father is but one of eight siblings, all of whom now live in the United States, and all within about an hour of each other. They all have families, and all have the requisite number of children. That means the average “small” family function has a minimum of 25 people, and the “large” ones regularly hit 200.

Given all those family members, and the essentially interspersed Jewish population, it seems inevitable that there would be some problematic relationships. The scope didn’t really sink in until a few weeks ago though, when I started doing the numbers. Out of the 20+ something first cousins (of which I am one), four of them are married to Jews, and one other is in a very serious long term relationship. Imagine the discomfort when this realization sank in: My family was doing its small part propagate the intermarriage problem! And that’s not counting the larger family, where the count is unsure at this date, but has to be even larger. (Never bothered to keep track.)

To add some salt to the wound, these are all female cousins, meaning their numerous offspring are not Jewish. Not that this ever mattered before, of course. All of these men were accepted into our family, which is large and loving. As long as the child is baptized and gets married in the church…uh, oops. Still, some of them have been part of our family for almost as long as I can remember (being one of the younger cousins). The idea that there was something off about the arrangement never came to mind before.

Now, however, I am faced with a difficult and uncomfortable situation. You can be certain the topic will never be raised from my end of the conversation, but inevitably they will come with questions, comments, and possibly even sneers. What to do? What about when one of my precious little second cousins comes to talk about THEIR Jewishness? Ignore the topic? Push it aside? Lie? Tell the truth? I have no idea.

There are many accounts of how Ba’alei Teshuva have dealt with these kinds of issues within their own families, but it’s a bit of a strange and awkward one coming from a ger. After all, these guys,( who were slight observant at most, entirely secular at least) might well think they have claim to a more authentic Jewishness….Which is true when relating to heredity. How do you tell them the truth about their decisions and not offend them? I’d be thrilled to hear suggestions, but for now I am going to stick my head in the sand and pretend it will never come up. There are more important things to worry about.


Monday, February 27, 2006

This Blog is a Paradox of its Creator

(Note: I go to pains to try and keep posts as outwardly directed as possible given the personal subject matter, but this one will be pretty much a "me" post. I know they can be boring, but it's seems like it could be important information to have on the blog for later readers.)

The title seems incongruous, doesn’t it? After all, the blog exists as surely as the sun in the sky, and it is being written by someone, isn’t it? That doesn’t make the statement untrue however. The fact that this even blog exists is a truly a bizarre occurrence when viewed from the chair this is being written from. It didn’t really strike me until a comment made my David Guttman caused me contrast my blog with his, and realize how strange it all was.

First, I am a very private person. It generally takes a good long while before I let people get close. Friendships in this context take a long time to incubate. Not many are let into the world of swirling thoughts that help populate the blog. It takes time, shared experiences, and a knowledge that someone will really understand the things that matter before someone is trusted enough with these innermost thoughts and ponderings.

Yet here I am; a virtual bowel movement of emotion, putting it all out onto the web for others to pour over, comment on, critique, and criticize. Why shed that comfort zone? Obviously, anonymity has replaced caution as the security blanket, but eventually I will come out of the metaphorical closet on the blog. The reason to bother with the blog is simpler: Because it’s important to get these stories out there. As other posts have mentioned, there seems to be a dearth of experiential writing out on the web for people who are looking to convert, or in the process of converting. If there’s no safe haven for these discussions, I might as well try and create it. Welcome to a Baby Grand Experiment.

The second, more personally perplexing reason is…I am not really a touchy-feely guy. Being in computers helps reinforce that. Geeks are not known for many interesting personal quirks. Over-emotional is not one of them. No, analytical thought is king. Understanding the workings of the world. Using logic to destroy bad arguments. Trying to understand and control how feelings affect your decision making. These are the things that get my blood pumping. My passions are driven by science. How boring, eh?

You’re now saying to yourself: “That’s all very nice, but why does that make this blog a paradox?” To which I say: Look at the posts! There isn’t a whole lot of discussion about cold hard facts, day to day happenings, or Talmudic though. Here I am, spilling my guts out, talking about my feelings, my hopes, my fears…to a keyboard and the entire Internet. Talk about a break from character! Is it possible to disdain yourself?

Putting away from the hyperbole for a minute, I’ll note it’s not such a great break as the above paragraphs have made it sound. Obviously, the fact that these posts have even been written suggests that I do have a fair understanding of the emotional side of life. By nature introspective, it’s unusual for that internal world to be expressed out in the open like this. It’s been very therapeutic in many ways, as many readers have surely detected by now.

Even still, if I truly step back from my writings and analyze them like I would those of another, it becomes obvious there is still something being withheld. I am not openly exposing my raw emotions here. That could never really happen without some sort of psychotic break. It’s not likely that the Web will ever really see the internal Me that only I know.

Ok now that all that boring "me" stuff is out of the way, what does this have to do with the premise of the blog? I would like to ask that the people who do read and comment continue to ask hard questions and pull no punches. If you see me avoiding a topic, call me on. It may be on purpose, it may be subconscious, or it may simply be that I never considered it. Either way, as part of the process of truly dedicating my life to God, being honest about all aspects of that life is important. This paradoxical blog is part of that process. Gimme a hand if you have a few minutes or questions, don’t be shy.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Shabbat for a Goy: What a Hassle!

Now, everyone has read or heard accounts from (formerly) less-observant or secular Jews about their first Shabbat during some kind of kiruv event. There’s a formula for those kinds of stories, and it usually goes like this: “It was unlike anything I had ever done before. There was singing, dancing, laughter, and wonderful food. The joy on everyone’s face lifted me up. It was the most spiritual event of my life, and I knew this is what was missing from my life.”

I’m sure that many people are moved by their first Shabbat in just that fashion, but it just doesn’t work that way for everyone. An example: Me. I am not a particularly “soft” spiritual guy. While spirituality is very real and important to me, the way I would describe it might seem entirely foreign to others. My girlfriend has commented more than once that I am distinctly Mitnagid and not Chassidish. This is an important bit of background information to know, because it made that first Shabbat…not very special.

I was skeptical of the whole deal to begin with. No nothing for 25 hours? No electricity, no driving, no cooking? Can you read on the computer at least? No? Jeez! How in the world do you eat a decent meal like that? Reheated food doesn’t really sound like a very special holiday to someone who grew up in a household where holidays consisted of enough food to feed an army, made that day, right up until the time to eat.

It’s hard to figure out what to do with yourself when nothing is allowed. My previous concept of a “day of rest” was to stay in bed late, wander around in pajamas all day, watch some TV, read some books, order a pizza, and read some websites. Just generally lazing around. Those days didn’t come around very often, and they were never quite as restful as they would have seemed. Shabbat though? That was a pile of boredom waiting to happen!

That’s not to say that first Shabbat was not enjoyable. It was a distinctly different experience. I still snuck away to check out sports scores and the like, and the light switches were still being used, but otherwise, it was not like any other day. Most importantly, it was easy to see how she and other Jews felt about the day. I just hadn’t decided if they were for real or simply mimicking the actions of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, ad infinitum.

Mind you, this was months and months before the decision to convert, before I knew much of anything about Orthodox observance. I was simply visiting a new friend who happened to be an Orthodox Jew and who had me enthralled to the point where I wanted to learn more about her. Shabbat was a big part of that. I wanted to know why she disappeared on Friday nights only to reappear on Saturday. Why we couldn’t chat for 25 hours when the thought of going more than 8 seemed unbearable.

My appreciation and love for Shabbat came much later, after a number of other “basic” observances. It came with intense studying, really learning what it meant for God to give this day to the Jewish people. It came with understanding the brilliance of the prohibited activities, and how they distract you from the spiritual side of your being. How Shabbat forces you to take your spiritual side seriously. And just as importantly, your relationships with others seriously.

For someone like me, Shabbat gains it’s meaning when you learn and understand why God wants this from you. This is also where I gained a new found respect for the emphasis Orthodoxy places on learning. Without continual learning, even in a seemingly mundane, spiritless fashion, the spirituality that some seek becomes meaningless, or worse: perverted in some fashion.

This Shabbat comes after a very long week of learning, working, sleep, and blogging. It’s hard work to be a good Jew. I can’t wait.

Shabbat Shalom!


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Support Networks for the Terminally Weird

With all this complaining about the difficulties of converting, the impression must be that this is a horrible, lonely process. While that is true to a degree, and part of the reasons this blog exists, it is not the entire story. There have been some rays of light that helped lift spirits when things started to drag. Today, we cover them.

As you might expect, my girlfriend has been supportive…but only to a limited degree. She has refused to encourage me overly much, or make too many suggestions. She knows that this is not her journey, and it does neither of us any justice to ease the burden. Plus, having been frum all her life, how much advice could she give a prospective convert? Her knowledge of the process has been as limited as my own. That said, her quiet but firm support has been invaluable to prevent a meltdown at times.

Most important has been the normalcy of our daily interaction. Even though she is thousands of miles away, being able to chat on IM and the phone about mundane matters is an incredible comfort. Just generally having a good friend helps me feel human and forget about the fact that my old life is slowly withering on the vine. Without that, there could have been some deep depressions at points in the last few months.

The other source of serious support is my personal rabbi. He has been the fountain of Torah that I have drunk from for the last year now. His support has come in an entirely different fashion: Providing quiet advice on how to work with the rabbi who will be converting me. Assigning things to read and study. Welcoming me into his home every Shabbat. Letting me be a part of his family, almost. Without him, I’d still be very lost.

Now on to the unconventional locations support has poured in from. First and foremost have been the Jews of the small new congregation we are forming. All of them are learning for the first times in their lives. They have very few prejudices when it comes to someone like me. To them, I am just one of the guys. Not only does it add a degree of normalcy (which is stretching the use of that term…most of this group is not ‘normal’ in the conventional sense of the word) but it provides a benchmark that learning can be measured against. Becoming frum or converting when surrounded entirely by people far more learned than you can be useful, but it can also be discouraging. It will always feel like you have made no progress in relation to those around you.

To a lesser degree, work has helped. My company allows for flexible scheduling and generous vacation time. People can generally come and go as they please, as long as they complete their work. This makes leaving work early for Shabbat easy, and scheduling days off for Yom Tov virtually free of drama. Company functions can be catered with kosher meals, and there are other observant Jews around to keep me from being a sideshow among the crowd. (Besides the fact that I didn’t used to be acting this way, of course.)

The last unexpected group of supporters has actually been my parents. Their reaction when told about converting was expected…but the relief I felt was palpable. It was good just to get it over with. Since that time, they have been wonderful. Asking questions about what this means for my visits; Trying to figure out how to make the extra kitchen work; Welcoming my girlfriend when she paid a visit to their neck of the woods. You get the idea. All in all, they’ve been fantastic about everything. While it will never be something my mother 100% agrees with, it will not turn into a painful rift in the family, and I cannot thank God for that enough. My family deserves many posts of their own, which they will get in due time.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Want to Annoy a Someone Who is Converting?

If there is one character trait the conversion process is good at building, it is patience. It’s not something many have to spare to begin with, and it is definitely a requirement for many aspects of Jewish life. So the workout isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On a day-to-day basis, my patience is not tried in a serious fashion by much of anything in life. It is not an unusual occurrence to be accused of being the most laid back guy someone has ever met. Work, play, food…all get their due, in their own time. Setbacks and changes to the schedule are just bumps to be navigated.

Heading into the quest, there were no illusions this would be fast or easy. Just a quick discussion with someone who has done it before will provide all the information you need. There are closed doors, rabbis who make you cry, and unbearable amounts of time waiting in ignorant silence. It’s enough to try a true tzadik tzedek, let alone the average guy on the street.

There were points where the uncertainty became almost unbearable. The support network that made it possible to get to this point is the topic of another post, though. The issue that has tested my patience more than any other in the last few months has come as a surprise though: Jews who are just beginning to become more observant.

Now before you get angry at me, let me set up the scenario. The rabbi I learn with is in kiruv. He is an amazing man, trying to start a new community out of the remnants of an old one. His personality is such that he can draw anyone in and make them feel welcome and loved. In a very short time now he has already pulled together the start of something interesting, bringing in a number of Jews in who have never been observant.

By turn of fate, I nave had the good fortune of being part of that process, almost from the start. For a long while I’d come to classes and services regularly. During that time, scenes similar to this would unfold repeatedly: Various different people would come and go at their leisure. The rabbi would expend great effort to get them hooked on their heritage, to want to learn more. Some would come back more often, others never bothered with a follow-up visit. In either case, there never a sense of urgency there. They were there to learn a little more, have a little fun, eat some cholent. Let’s not get too serious here! And there I was, dying to learn more but always being on the outside because of my status.

It has been more trying recently because our little group of people, (myself included) have been together for some time now. I am the only non-Jew, but all of us are on same steep upward ramp of learning, though at different points. The frustration comes in watching the others continue to take their Jewishness for granted. Mitzvot that I would cherish doing are purely optional for them. Watching one gentleman treat his tallis like a burden almost caused me to lean over and say something to the effect of: “I would give almost anything to wear one of those. Try not to treat it like an embarrassment.”

In the real world, that would never happen. I would never humiliate someone in that fashion, but the fantasy rattling around in my head was something to be savored for a moment. To be honest, I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to become more observant at their own pace. It’s a very tough task, and everyone needs to approach it in a way that is most constructive for them. In fact, I have started to become someone others trust to ask questions to, so I am enjoying the feeling that my own learning is helping others. (Don’t worry, this is VERY basic stuff like filling in brachas, simple concepts, or maybe talking about commentaries. Anything even REMOTELY serious just gets an “Ask the Rabbi” response.)

So my patience for others has increased, but not from the same source you might have guessed. I’m not sure what the moral is here, other than this simple one:

I want to be Jewish already!


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Hebrew Name That Solved All Problems Is...

What radical thought solved the name issue? Reflecting on how unhappy the thought of supplementing my name was making me, I decided to think about the problem in a different way. Was there a way to choose a name that would both honor my parents and make them happy? That was when the solution hit square between the eyes.

Before we get to the answer, let’s have a quick family history: My father is an immigrant to this country. He came over on a boat when just a young teenager. His first day in America, he already had a full time job as well as night classes to learn English. Not much about his life was conventional, and certainly none of it was easily won. I know only bits and pieces of his life before he met my mother. This is not because he felt the need to hide it, but because he was never overly nostalgic about his life before he met my mother.

After my folks had met and married, they wanted to get on with making a family. Throughout childhood, the knowledge that yours truly was first fruits of those efforts was unquestioned. After all, I was named for my grandfather in the tradition in my family, no? There was never a question. Once I grew older though, our earlier family history slowly trickled out.

It turns out that my mother had been pregnant a couple of years before my birth. During that pregnancy, she miscarried and lost the child, which they knew was a boy. To even a young adult, that concept is so abstract that there was never any way to sympathize properly with my mother. Looking back, I can recall and recognize the pain my mother had when talking about it. While not an open and painful grief, it is undeniable that she still feels like the loss. He is still a very real person to her in some ways.

Back to my father; one thing I do know is that his best friend after he arrived in this country was a Jewish kid. On the rare occasions Dad talks about him, it’s only with the most glowing terms…terms he doesn’t use even for his own siblings. While not an unemotional guy, he is not one to venture into areas of emotional intimacy very often. Thus, these stories have always left an impression on me.

I am writing in the past tense because he died while they were both very young, perhaps 18 or 19. He had leukemia at a time when that meant a very short life expectancy. He had made such an impression on my father that he planned on naming his first born son after him. If that child had been born he would have had his Anglo name. In fact, before my own birth, one of my father’s siblings went into the hospital to pester my folks into not naming me that, but after my grandfather.

This seems like a sign, does it not? The older brother I never had would have had that name. *I* almost had that name. God was trying to get that name into my life. I’ll just use his Hebrew name, and feel like I’m closing that chapter of my family’s life. Problem solved, happy ending, the end.

Except for one detail: My dad has no idea what his Hebrew name was. His Anglo name isn’t one that lends itself to an obvious translation either. It took awhile to even get him to remember his last name. After all, this was over 40 years ago now, and a name that a young kid from another country could not relate to or pronounce. So I know what name I want, but I don’t know what that name is. I am resigned that nothing about my conversion process is going to be easy.

The bright side is that an adventure now begins. There are a few facts at my disposal. I have a legal American name, and a general time of death. I know when and where he lived and died, and thus can search public records and obituaries, and perhaps find some living relatives. The more exciting tidbit is that my father knows which cemetery he is buried in. It’s a Jewish cemetery of course, not far from the home where I grew up and in which my parents still live.

Look for the next chapter of this story after my next visit home, at some undetermined date in the future.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Picking My Hebrew Name

I have to admit that this is the part of conversion that has been anticipated with the least excitement of any. Yes, less than milah! Thankfully, my parents had me circumcised in the hospital after I was born, and the idea of a little pinprick, even on the most precious of body parts, isn’t a big deal. Guys are designed to be macho after all. Physical pain? Pah!

A new name though? That turned me into a bit of a mess. I did some quick research and found out, fortuitously, that my name actually has Hebrew origins! While this seemed like a stroke of luck at the time, I was told that it’s really not a “name” among Jews, except as a surname. It’s more of an object/location. So with that seemingly simply solution shoved sideways (apologies to those with lisps) no further thought was expended on the topic.

As time went on though, more and more people started asking some pushy questions: “Have you picked a name yet?” “What name are you leaning towards?” “You obviously have a name in mind. What is it?” It’s almost unconceivable to them that a person wouldn’t decide as soon as possible on the new name for their life. I know some other converts “in process” who decided that before almost anything else!

I, on the other hand, had yet to even turn a critical eye to the REASONS for avoiding the topic, let alone the answer. With the realization that decision time really was looming, a starting point was needed. After a bit of reflection, the cause of the mental roadblock became clear: I like my name. My name represents a lot about me. It represents the tradition of my family: eldest sons among siblings named for their paternal grandfathers. It represents the place of my ancestors. It represents the values of my family. Simply, it was a gift from my parents.

It amuses me to even say that because the name causes no end of grief sometimes! People have a hard time pronouncing it. Spelling it can be a challenge for those not familiar with ethnic names. It can generate some gender confusion for others who THINK they know ethnic names. I’m sure anyone who only has a Hebrew name can relate to those problems as well. Maybe the 13-year-old me would have ditched it, but the much older and wiser version writing this blog loves everything about it. It’s mine, and it’s a central part of my identity.

At the core of resistance to choosing a new name is the feeling that I’d be rejecting something of great value that was a birthright. I realize that it is supposed to reflect the ideals of life begun as a newborn Jew, not of the life one has led to that point. Just use the name of one of the forefathers, or perhaps the name of a true ger tzadik, right? None of these inspire me in the same way as the name I’d be leaving behind.

Before anyone comments, I do realize I get to “keep” my given name, and will be called by that name for the rest of my life. That isn’t what’s at issue here. After an entire life of taking names for granted, being presented with a choice to make about my own has forced meanings to the forefront, not just sounds. Glibly picking any name won’t do, and using the criteria of great men of past generations doesn’t resonate.

So this was the unhappy state of affairs heading into Shabbos this weekend. No name, and no interest in thinking about the problem at all. At this very moment though, while writing not long after Shabbos, there is a solution! One which has me grinning from ear to ear and feeling exultant, even jubilant! What is it? Well, I’ll save that for the next post…


Friday, February 17, 2006

Shh! Be Vewy, Vewy Qwiet. This Blog is a Secret.

Well…kinda. After all, you’re reading this aren’t you? Not a very good secret in the traditional sense. Specifically, the blog is a being kept secret from the rest of my life. I’ve told a grand total of one person that I am writing this. Let’s talk about why.

First: I know what you might be thinking if you’ve read the blog up to this point, but the one person who knows isn’t my girlfriend. It’s not that I don’t want her to know about it, it’s just that this blog isn’t really about her, or us. It’s about my experiences while converting. I hate saying it that way because it sounds so self-indulgent, but it’s true. She is a busy woman, who has her own life to worry about right now, and I don’t want to forcibly inject the blog into her world. We discuss all of this stuff on our own already.

That said, I fully expect her to find it and figure it out at some point, or perhaps mention it independently at which point I will fess up. I’m actually quite looking forward to that, since the posts and comments have already created lots of food for though. I have said nothing to be ashamed of, sheepish about, or disappointed with. You can be certain it will remain that way.

No one in the office knows about this blog. What would that accomplish? Not much, so it will probably remain forever a secret at that location.

No family members know. While they’ve been supportive, they really don’t understand. Not at the level of what I am discussing here. I would much rather their knowledge of my new faith, and my reasons for following that faith, come in more measured ways through me.

None of the Jews I see and talk to on a regular basis know about the blog. Its been mentioned before, but the biggest reason is my still uncertain status in the community. While the people around me are openly very nice, it’s just too risky to let this be out there. There is no control of how people will react to what they see here, so the prudent course of action is anonymity.

No, only one solitary friend has been told about it. I told her because of the desperate human need to share a secret with someone, and because she’d probably find it interesting. She’s someone who can keep her mouth shut, and we don’t have a shared social network after years of living in different parts of the country. The rest of my friends may learn about it in time, but either they don’t care, or they fall into the same category of “wrong audience” as my family.

So as you can see, dear readers, you are in on a secret. Truth be told, I could not conceive of a better arrangement. While some use the cloak of the Internet to hide from and snipe at those they disagree with, my purpose is one that could not be accomplished in any other forum; namely, a real dialogue with people who live the life, without having to worry about always watching the words or questions that flow off the fingertips.

It sounds cowardly when said like that, doesn’t it? Asking hard questions in an upfront manner should be encouraged at all costs, yes? But this is the price of being powerless. Since I cannot object or change the way rabbis or others in my community might react if I misstep, I have to be on guard. I am quiet but inquisitive in person, and explore out on the Web. In many ways I am like a supremely curious child who does not know exactly what the rules, expectations, or punishments of the adults around me are. I want to explore the vast world in front of me, but I don’t want to get grounded for a month if I accidentally break the cookie jar. Problem is, I love cookies so…


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Would I Still Convert If I Were To Be Dumped?

The simple and true answer is “Yes!” The more nuanced response would be to ask another question: ‘When?’

The reason ‘When?’ is matters should be obvious. After all, I haven’t always known what I know now. I haven’t always had the experiences I’ve now had. I haven’t always cherished memories of Israel in my head. ‘When’ is very important indeed.

If you had asked a year ago, the response would be different. I had just barely scratched the surface at that point. I felt the tug, caught glimpse of the gleam, heard the music from afar…but there were more questions than answers. There is no way to guarantee that I would convert without the love of another as my backing force!

For the record, she knew all that as well. She never told me I needed to convert. Never suggested it as an option. Never even hinted at what I might do if I were interested. I took those steps myself. What she did do is discuss the topics I had questions about: Marriage, life roles, expectations, oddities the average non-observant Jew wouldn’t know, etc. Given that information, I could obviously put two and two together: If I wanted a life with her, I would essentially be a bystander at best, a pariah at worst.

My first decision was not “I shall convert” but “I shall find out more about this on my own.” This was easy to do, because as I have mentioned, she lives thousands of miles away. (A topic for another post.) So if you’d have asked me The Question at that time, the answer would certainly have been: ‘No.’ But my goal was not to convert instantly and ride off into the sunset. It was to figure out what I really thought, and what this could mean for me and my ephemeral spiritual world. I couldn’t refuse God if this was his way of coming to look for me, could I?

I began by searching for whatever teachers, wisdom, or knowledge that could be found. As my learning grew, my love for Torah, Mitzvot…heck, EVERYTHING, grew. As with any growing processes, there were some rough spots and transition points. For awhile, if asked, perhaps you would have gotten a ‘Maybe’. I was now convinced this is what I wanted to do…But there was some comfort knowing I could back out should it be necessary. Maybe some requirement would prove untenable to me. Or perhaps if I got dumped I might have a change of heart. Ah, the guts of this post, and the naked truth, for a period of time. This is what the rabbis so desperately want to avoid when they grill you, and I understand. It’s their responsibility to make sure God is served, not me.

Keep in mind that it is hard to give an answer about your mindset in the past, and in a situation that did not arise, yet still call it 100% fact. No one can detach their rational minds entirely from their emotions, and I know that I wear colored glasses here. Still, I honestly believe I would have at least continued to learn, but at a less urgent pace. Take that for what it’s worth. (Not much, but more than nothing.)

The transition point to the resolute “Yes” I stand behind now began when I really started making observance part of my day to day life. Going through Chagim. Consistently keeping Shabbat. (Or as close as I could manage.) Making it to minyan on a regular basis. Seeing the same people and rabbis all the time. In essence, feeling like I’m growing into part of the community. Seeing how the Torah has made this community something that I so desperately want to be a part of just cinches it! That is why I am 100% convinced I am on the right path, independent of anything that happens or doesn’t happen in my relationship. At the same time, my sadness would be greater now than ever before without the relationship. Each new day I get a new appreciation for what an amazing woman she is, an appreciation I couldn’t have without Torah.

Now I just hope I can communicate my conviction clearly to my rabbis. My writing skills eclipse my speaking skills when I am nervous. Please, as Joe Schick did so wonderfully yesterday, ask the hard questions if you have them. You can’t hurt me, and I think it’s good to evaluate myself and my motives. Others have insights that I can never have.

Footnote: This was a hard post to write. It took me over 2 hours, whereas the rest have been ~30 minutes. I have so much to talk about here that being concise (something I value) was brutally hard. I also always feel I have to evaluate my thought process to see if I am trying to convince others or myself. Not an easy task. I did get ideas for at least 3 more posts though.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What Do My Friends Think? - Jew Edition

I was thinking of making this one long post, covering my friends in general, but I figured that would make it overly long and keep me from concentrating on the unique experiences I have had so far with my friends of differing backgrounds. This was something I had wondered about before I took the plunge. I had an idea that this would not necessarily be the most popular decision among the non-observant Jews that I was friends and acquaintances with.

I was never too worried about my real friends. I knew even though they weren’t observant, they would probably be happy I was choosing to be a Jew. Still, I had to hold my breath a little whenever the topic came up. It seems like most of them knew it was coming though…either through experience, or just because I wouldn’t shut the hell up about other Jewish topics, including the reason for my sudden interest. (May have been a hint to them I think.)

The first person who I told about my decision to convert was a friend from South Africa originally. He’s not non-religious, but he’s not orthodox either. At the time I was just getting used to the various denominations; their differences and how strongly they identified within themselves and away from “others”…so when I talked to him about how he practiced I was mildly shocked because he was impossible to pin down. Seems like from his standpoint, there were Jews and Goyim. The only difference in Jews was degrees of observance, and he felt fine in any shul, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, whatever.

Instead of pressing him on how strange that was, I let it slide. After all, he was happy and excited for me, and I wanted to enjoy that for a bit. The more I thought about it though, the more I was surprised by how much truth there was in his view of The Tribe. (His preferred term.) Most Jews who DO positively identify as religious would disagree with that sentiment, but it seems like from the standpoint of God, there are only Jews and Non-Jews, and some Jews do more of his will than others. The conflict comes in when Jews claim they know what he wants them to do. (I’m leaving out the more recent conflict of “Who Is A Jew?”)

Later reactions, especially among acquaintances, were generally lukewarm at best. One coworker, an Israeli now living in the U.S, looked at me like I had cracked and started treating me very coolly. I was very disappointed with that because we had an excellent working relationship prior that was doing wonders for the both of us. Maybe he was afraid Torah was contagious?

I don’t have as many Jewish friends in my new location as I did where I grew up, so the cross-section of my experience is smaller than it might have been 10 years ago. I’m sort of curious what the reactions will be at whatever the next reunion milestone will be. I am such a drastically different person than I was at the time that I can’t help but marvel at it myself.

I might make this more of a recurring theme if and when I encounter strange reactions to who I am down the road. Also, feel free to leave your impressions and ideas about my converting, converts in your community, converts in general. Feel free to be as brutally honest as your heart would like, I have a very tough skin and won’t take it personally. (Since you really don’t know me, personally.)

Keep an eye out for the follow up “Goy Edition” tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

But What About the Kids?

This has been one of the questions in the back of my mind since early adulthood. For a very long time, I was able to keep it there. After all, I had a career to worry about, fun to have, responsibilities to juggle, and a life to live. Sure; how I was going to raise a family was on the list, but it didn’t have any urgency to it. Given how few and far between I typically went between serious relationships, and how slowly they progressed, I figured I’d have plenty of time to deal with that problem when it got to me.

By “how to raise a family”, I mean how to effectively transmit my values and life lessons to children in a satisfactory way. The way of my parents was straight out. It’s not that it didn’t work. My parents and my religious upbringing raised me to know what was right from wrong. What it didn’t do was convince me there was an intellectual attachment to those teachings. I read the works of Jesuits and other Christian scholars. I know there are places these ideas are debated. I just didn’t see a place for myself there. (Plus: Celibacy? No thanks!)

So I ended up feeling I couldn’t walk into a Catholic church, every Sunday, and participate in sacraments like the 3 C’s: Confession, Communion, and Confirmation. Not only would I feel phony, but I don’t think going through the motions does children as much service as being able to teach them about your faith from your heart.

But how do I communicate my faith to my kids? My journey was long and introspective. I read a lot about the world’s religions, about philosophy, about history, and about battleships. (I didn’t say I was single-minded. Give a nerd a break.) The conclusion I finally came to was: There is an unknowable God. I don’t know what he wants from me or the world, but right and wrong exist because of Him. I think the Judeo-Christian value system more closely reflects His kindness and will in the world than any other. I wish I knew how to worship Him. Intense, huh? Did it shake you to your core? I bet your lips are quivering and heart is racing. I'll give you a moment to collect yourself.

Ok fine, it’s not exactly Rambam, but no one has ever accused me of being a Rambam. (I was once called Rumbum…I think. That night is kind of hazy. Anyway…) That simple set of value statements served me well! It kept me searching for some kind of faith system that would ring true. Enter into my life the woman who I didn’t think could exist, and now here we are on my blog.

Once I started learning how central to Jewish life the family is, how critical learning is, how important a parent’s role is required to be in a child’s life…I knew I had found an answer to that question that had lingered for the last 10 years at the back of my head. Now I just had to begin soaking up that knowledge as fast as my brain would let me.

When talking to the rabbis who I wished to have help me convert, this is one of the (many) reasons I mentioned for my interest. They made sure to mention, quite correctly, that Judaism and the Torah weren’t just meant to make nice families. While obviously true, they didn’t do the topic justice either. The Torah and mitzvos have their own purposes, but one of the results of them is the undeniable success of the Jewish family. It’s very hard to argue against 3,000 years of unbroken tradition. I feel much better knowing that my children will be part of that tradition, instead of the one I made up in my head in a fit of existential panic.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Politics in Conversation and Conversion

One thing that people comment on in conversation is that I don’t seem to have an opinion on <hot button Jewish topic>. Local, national, or Israeli, I will not be chiming into most non-Torah discussions the Jews around me love to have. That I don’t HAVE an opinion couldn’t be farther from the truth, of course.

I am an opinionated guy. I have an opinion on almost everything, and given enough information, can form an opinion on a topic quickly. The difference is this: I just am not going to share hot topic opinions with most people, and certainly not with those I only know casually. Note that this is generally true in most areas of my life, but is particularly true among the Jews who I interact with in my community on a non-regular basis.

“Why is that?” you may ask. The simple explanation is that I know how strongly and emotionally individuals can be about politics. Jews in particular seem to have an affinity for loud, vehement, and sometimes angry political arguments. That’s great! As I have mentioned before, I grew up in an ethnic Catholic household. I’m used to passionate arguments with lots of gesturing and yelling, and no hard feelings at the end of the night…most of the time.

The “most of the time” is part of the problem here though. When you’re an outsider, you can’t know enough about people to be sure the conversation will be a straightforward discussion which will be forgotten when it is over. Since my status is continually unsure, I know I can’t afford to upset the wrong people. Leaving the wrong person with the wrong impression is just asking for trouble.

Enter a conversation with someone I am acquainted with, but not much more: Perhaps this person hold grudges easily. Or doesn’t trust anyone who won’t side with Republicans, because they do what is best for Israel. (I lean slightly toward the left, as you might guess by my comments on DovBear or GodolHador.) Or just generally doesn’t like goyim. Either way, taking a stand on a topic they feel strongly about may leave them with a negative impression of me. If they have the ear of one of the rabbis on the va’ad that I don’t have a personal relationship with, maybe he gives me a bit of a hard time to make sure I’m not going to be a problem. I’ve encountered all of those types of people above, so I know they’re not figments of my imagination. I avoid the problem by staying quiet.

It’s hard being on pins and needles all the time. This is why the world of blogs is so appealing to me right now. It’s fantastically informative AND cathartic for me to vent some of my self out into the world of Jews. It does make me worry though because I feel slightly inauthentic when I am in situations where I feel I have to avoid topics entirely. I am a naturally quiet person, but I am not meek. What will people think when I start feeling more at home and start coming out guns blazing? Will they feel duped? I doubt it, but it something I have to consider.

So to those of you who have been reading and commenting on my blog, and the other fantastic Jewish blogs out there: Thank you! It’s helped me understand how my personality will fit and be received as a Jew.


Friday, February 10, 2006

Benefits of Becoming Frum via Conversion vs. BT

No suspense, here’s the biggest one: No one is trying to convince me that being frum is easy as pie. (or cholent, whichever is easier for you.)

In fact, it’s just the opposite. When I first started out, I got anti-kiruv. I got mild rudeness, distance, and no one investing any time into my soul. I got all the explanations as to why it stinks to be a Jew, and why it especially stinks to be a frum Jew. I got told that Jews are doing just fine without me. I had the Noahide Laws explained to me more than once. I got everything except encouragement.

All of this is understandable of course. I knew what to expect before I even started. I had read up a little on what it means to convert, both to the convert and to the rabbis. It wasn’t a shock, but it still takes some intestinal fortitude to keep coming back for more. Being continually rejected as a person takes it’s toll on your self esteem.

Now what's interesting is that along the way, I saw what it means to be on the receiving end of kiruv, with the benefit of a detached perspective. I know what you might be thinking, but I didn’t actually go the Chabad route. The rabbi I approached initially is a kollel guy, but this kollel also has kiruv as part of their mission. So less glamour and polish, but more down to earth facts.

So while I was a wallflower, (Trying not to be noticed too much, but still wanting to absorb) I got to see how the kiruv message worked. It was everything you’ve seen and heard elsewhere, so I won’t bore with details. It was, however, a very jarring experience for me. I had to sit and watch as others were welcomed with open arms, hugs, and smiles into something that I so desperately want for myself.

It’s a humbling experience to watch others reject or treat with indifference something that you cannot have. It’s true that you only appreciate the things you don’t have, not those which you do. When you crave learning, being told: “I’m not sure we should be teaching you that just yet” is like being denied chocolate when you’re with a world class dessert chef. I know it’s back there, just give me some!

Even still, I don’t envy many BT’s their experiences. While I will never know the joy of reconnecting with my true ancestral heritage and the traditions of my forefathers, I go into life as a Jew unconcerned that wool is being pulled over my eyes. I move into a frum lifestyle after years of effort; not by simply being encouraged to take on as much as possible as soon as possible, without understanding the implications.

(Psst. I’d still rather be a BT, because it would mean I am a Jew.)


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cascading Conversions: Reform→Conservative→Orthodox

This has been a topic of interest to me since I started studying. A number of the converts I have met in the local and larger community have gone through this kind of process, and was something I had to at least think about before I made big decisions. However, it was never really a realistic option because of my catalyst for this change: My observant girlfriend. The context for others who convert this way often seems to be an existing mixed marriage or relationship, and their arc often traced the above path. Frum Jews have met the people and heard the stories as well, or perhaps read The Bamboo Cradle, which documents a similar experience by a BT couple who had adopted a non-Jewish child.

  1. Family/Couple is confronted with a life event that brings religion to for the forefront.
  2. Family investigates becoming more religious, starting at the most outwardly accepting starting point, Reform.
  3. Family finds something missing that is important to them, but isn’t ready for everything being Orthodox means, so move over to Conservative.
  4. Repeat the above once they find out their conversion isn’t recognized for some important function or reason.
  5. Start working with an Orthodox rabbi.
  6. Decide to be a fully frum family.

I’m oversimplifying of course, and not doing the topic any justice. I bring it up because it has some relevance for my context. On the surface, these thoughts passed through my mind early, before I really knew much about being Orthodox. “Wow, sounds like they put you through the ringer before they convert you as an Orthodox Jew. Could be years. Why not just convert Reform? They're much more welcoming. A Jew is a Jew, right?”

Feel free to laugh at my naiveté. My problem was that I knew enough about Reform to feel like I would be walking into another religion that was not internally consistent, which was a large part of my disillusionment with Catholicism. So even in the back of my mind, I knew that would be a non-starter.

Conservative and Orthodox were unknown quantities though. If not for the fact that I had motivation to start off via Orthodoxy, I might have been lured by the more halachic nature of Conservative Judaism that preserved some of the egalitarian and future-minded ideals that I still hold dear. It’s much more appealing to a learned, secular outsider than the seemingly parochial and patriarchal nature of Orthodoxy.

In the end though, I think I would still have been unhappy after a time if I kept learning. I would want to know more about why the changes in tradition were made after thousands of years, and I would have kept probing. It may have taken years for me to even figure that out for myself however. This is one area that the heavy demands for constant learning pay off quickly. I've learned so much so fast that I came to see the wonderful consistency through the generations that Orthodoxy holds dear. (I've also seen the number of slightly crazy traditions with no good reason, but that's a topic for another post.)

There was also the issue of recognition of my conversion in Israel that I had to consider. Not something I could take lightly since it's not a path I want to close off. In the end, I am happy with my choice, but I recognize it’s not for everyone. Some of these issues will mean nothing to other prospective converts. Others will have their own important issues at driving them along their way in life.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Giving Up Jesus Is Hard To Do

Actually, no it’s not. Not even remotely.

One of the strangest and yet most amusing things I have been told by numerous rabbis is that many people who decide they want to convert think they can keep believing Jesus was the messiah. Now, I think I can understand how some Jews can be twisted around by the cultural forces around them to turn to Jews for Jesus and think this makes sense. What I don’t understand is how a Christian can come to the decision to become Jewish and not consider how that fits with their current beliefs.

For me, this was never a problem. Every time I’m asked: “You do realize you have to stop believing in Jesus, right?” I have to look at the person like they’re an alien. Part of the appeal of Judaism for me is that I have never believed Jesus was the son of God made incarnate. Even from a very young age when I was certain of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, the Son of God concept was so strange and abstract to me that I didn’t know what to do with it.

The issue for me is probably the same as it is for most Jews, I would think. The concept of a single God above and beyond the world precludes this whole…incarnation as man in the flesh thing, doesn’t it? Certainly the theology I was taught emphasizes that there is only one God. When I asked for explanations as to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the responses were less the impressive. Maybe I’m just too dense to understand how that’s supposed to work…but I doubt it.

So when I found out that giving up on the J-guy is something many Christians struggle with, I was fairly shocked. Again, not that someone can hold those beliefs dear, but that they haven’t already let them go by the time they make the decision to become a Jew. I’ve heard more than one tale of people who were already along the way to full observance of Halacha before this point came up, at which point they had to stop or at least pause for some time to consider if they could make the Leap of Faith.

Or more appropriately: Leave of Faith.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Where Are All the Gerim?

I’ve looked around the web, and found only a few other gerim out in the Jblog world, and even then only recently. (Thanks It’s got me wondering why there are so few writing about their experiences.

One of the most profoundly earth shaking set of writings I read in my initial studies were the essays recorded in Maurice Lamm’s Becoming a Jew. After some basic learning I knew some basic ritual and philosophy, but not really what it meant to pursue a path of conversion. Here were people talking about previous life experiences that were so similar to my own that I had to go back and read it again just to be sure I wasn’t putting my own words into their mouths! (Fingers? Eh.)

So I sort of expected to find other people relating their experiences out on the web where you don’t need a publisher to express your thoughts. I was hoping there would be a forum for thoughts and questions about Orthodox conversion. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed at the lack of representation. (Note that this was more than a year ago, before SushiKiddush started his excellent blog. I admit that I stopped looking after awhile and only found his recently.)

I actually created this username and blogspace around that time, with the idea that I would start recording my experiences here. You’ll note from my archive; that plan didn’t really go into effect. Once I started reading real Torah blogs, I realized how little I knew and was afraid of sticking my foot into my mouth. I don’t regret that decision, because that may very well have happened. I won’t say I’ve learned so much in just a year, but I do know enough now to stay away from topics I know little of, and can say the right things when needed.

The time has come now for me to really start putting this out there. If nothing else, I’d like to keep the focus of the blog on conversion specifically, so that I keep my eye on the goal, and others can find someone to talk to if needed. I can be online rebbe for gerim. The Gerer Rebbe you could say. (What’s that? Already been done? Drat.)


Monday, February 06, 2006

Why Not Just be a Tzadik Ben Noach?

A question that some have asked of me, and one that I first had to answer for myself before I even decided to convert. After a little studying of the Noahide laws, I walked away very impressed, and yet also a bit empty.

Impressed, because this was a big problem I have had with Christianity: The core belief that you must believe as they do or suffer eternal damnation. This never sat right with me, especially since I could see and experience all the righteous people in the world who did not believe Jesus was sent to be their savior. What explanation and justice is there in the world if those people are punished eternally for their good deeds in this life? I knew there must be more, and here it was.

Then empty, because the foundation of learning that created these laws was closed off to me. I am by nature a voracious reader and learner. I must understand how things work to be satisfied and move on to a new area of learning. Simply being told: “This is the way it is, now move on”, is a fantastic way to make me angry. This was one of my big problems with my Catholic religious learning, after all.

I also had comfort in knowing that I could convert and have my family still be part of my life. I know to the core of my very being that my parents are righteous, god fearing people. They went above and beyond the call of duty to bring up a family that would be moral, ethical, and believe in God. The fact that the church could not convince me of God was not their doing. Regardless, I could not, EVER, convert to a religion that makes my parents heretics or evil in any way. That would be my first indication that something is wrong.

So this puts me in the position of feeling that I am in fact a good Ben Noach, but craving more understanding and learning, and of course, having no real future with someone who has just opened my eyes to an entire new world of learning and God. This made the entire situation untenable to me. I had to learn more, and in order to do so I had to convince people that I really wanted to convert.


Friday, February 03, 2006

Why Convert Orthodox? Part II

Part I

So here I am, cruising through life. I am comfortable, secure in myself, but am having the darnedest time meeting anyone who I can relate to on a serious level who isn’t cracked in some way at the same time. By this point in my life, I had given up on “trying” since that never got me anywhere. The circumstances I met my girlfriend under were almost the opposite of what you might consider a normal way to meet people. This might make sense when you consider that she, as an observant Jew, probably wasn’t on the lookout for a goy like me at the time either.

We start talking about topics other than religion and have an instant connection. The conversation ranges all over the list of the world’s topics, up to and including important things like family, ethics, morality, spirituality, life goals. It’s at this point I start finding out what it really means to be an observant Jew…and I find that I have never really known what it meant.

My problem of course, is that I had never really met someone who managed to both be a part of this world, full of knowledge, and yet at the same time full of Torah. My previous experiences around Orthodox Jews mostly had to do with insular groups who always gave off the impression that they mistrusted you and felt they were better than you. Needless to say, this is not the way to impress anyone outside your own world.

Now I had my first peek at what Torah really meant, and it was very interesting. At the same time, I knew that this wasn’t who I was, so for quite some time it was just an interesting footnote in my mind. I was glad to find someone who could speak with me on the same level about moral and spiritual matters, (something my friends tend to lack the vocabulary for) but I wasn’t about to go rush off and convert. That’s crazy talk!


Thursday, February 02, 2006

From Popes to Gedolim

One thing I have noticed during this process is that not many people are surprised I am Catholic. It seems like a disproportionate number of converts and prospective converts were raised Catholic. A commenter on an earlier thread asked about this, and I have my own theories which may or may not have a reflection on the real world.

I grew up in the Tri-State area. Just as it is the largest concentration point for Jews in the US, the same is true for Catholics. The proportions may be different, but the effect is the same. Thus to me, Jewish culture was just as much a reality of growing up as anything I was raised with. It wasn’t at the center of course, but it wasn’t foreign by any stretch.

I grew up with Jews, my folks had Jewish friends and bosses…You get the idea. Now as I mentioned before, none were observant, so it’s not like I got a real dose of what it would mean to convert Orthodox. Even still, I think that alone clears a lot of the initial hurdles. It removes the feeling that this is an entirely alien way of life. I’m not sure a Lutheran from the Midwest would ever feel the same way with as much ease.

The second part has to do with the day-to-day basics of the religions. Catholicism and Judaism share some basic structural concepts: Dogma and Ritual. The execution of both are obviously very different, but in many ways it made me feel a lot more at home than I have ever felt with my Protestant friends. Their observance was too directed from within themselves.

Now, I consider myself a very smart person, to the point of quiet arrogance at times. (That I need to work on.) But I never have been so arrogant as to think I can identify the will of God and do what he desires. So that method of worship seemed like guessing at best, and supreme human arrogance at worst. Now if you take the 30,000ft view, you realize that this same kind of reasoning is why Judaism as I knew it never appealed to me: I knew mostly Reform Jews.

So you can imagine; when I started to learn more about Orthodox observance, I was in for quite a shock. It was foreign, sure…but it also had a very strong appeal of truth to it. That was the first big step for me.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Why Convert Orthodox? Part I

The question at the heart of the blog. The reason is actually quite simple. While I would love to say that it was an epiphany from on high, and that I decided to do it purely Lashem Shemayim, that’s just not true. The truth is much more mundane and common: I met someone who was observant and got knocked off my feet.

Now, that statement right there is what draws so much skepticism and sneers from the Jews I meet who want to hear my story. Rightly so, might I add. The problem, of course, is that it does not do my decision any justice at all. I like to be honest, and the truth is that this was the initial catalyst.

Now does that mean that I immediately decided I would convert, no problem, no questions asked? Of course not. It didn’t even cross my mind for months; not just because of what was involved, but because I wouldn’t do something that would violate my sense of self just for a relationship.

I have spent a good chunk of my life in introspection, evaluating my strengths and weaknesses, and trying to improve them both. One thing I was comfortable with, in terms of how I approached the world, is that I was as internally and externally consistent as I could manage. One thing I had decided upon early after my religious upbringing (Roman Catholic) was complete, is that God is real. However, no organized religion I had encountered did Him any justice.

This included all forms of Judaism I had casually studied, including Orthodoxy. To an outsider studying from books, the differences between the various denominations seemed to be about how much dogma and ritual each retained. Orthodoxy seemed like the worst of all worlds to me. Very dogmatic like the Catholic church, and a whole mess of restrictions to boot. Of course, this missed thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy, but since I had no Orthodox Jews to talk with about it, my conclusions seemed sound…