Friday, March 30, 2012

Disgusted: Social Media Squashed at Religious Girls School

I'm horrified.

Beis Rivkah High School in Brooklyn makes girls sign NO SOCIAL MEDIA contract. And if they have a Facebook? Fined for $100 or kicked out.

“It’s not a modest thing for a religious Jewish man or woman to be on,” Benzion Stock said.
Because we want our Jewish teens to grow up not knowing how to use and interact with basic technologies that will inevitably be necessary in the workforce? Because we don't want to give our Jewish girls the opportunity to connect with Jews and Israelis all over the world? To build friendships and connections? To find long-lost relatives? To connect with what the global Jewish community is doing and experiencing?

Why don't we just say "You're going to be a stay at home mom, so you won't need it."

Or, you know, we could TEACH our kids how to use social media. No one is doing that. Instead of TEACHING our kids how to use Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, we're shutting them down in fear. We're squashing a beautiful and necessary resource. But since we're so afraid ourselves, we just can't muster the strength for a Social Media Curriculum. Because we don't understand the technologies and aren't willing to, we are harming our Jewish girls! Modesty? Someone should tell that to the entire Chabad movement, then, shouldn't they. Or to all of those Orthodox business owners who sell diamonds or food online. Or to the Orthodox restaurant owners with websites and Twitter accounts.

It's like saying, here are a bounty of amazing books. But since we're not sure how you're going to interpret the texts, and it might brainwash you, we're not going to teach you how to read.

Bravo, Beis Rivkah. Bravo for sending us back in time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: A Dynamic Approach to the Seder

Sitting down to write this blog has, for some reason, been incredibly difficult. I'm not sure if it's because I'm not in a book-review mode, or if it's just that I'm so busy in my work life that I dread having to do anything that isn't sleep. But since I'm staying in tonight at TribeFest (more to come on this, including my awesome encounter with the hilarious Rachel Dratch), I figure if not now, when?

I received a copy of the New American Haggadah -- which people are incorrectly calling the "Jonathan Safran Foer" haggadah -- for review, and I have to say that I'm a fan in some respects and a critic in others. But that's why you guys read my reviews, right? Despite this being a freebie, I do my best to be as honest and forthcoming about my opinions, so here we go.

The unique thing about this haggadah is that it offers a multi-facted approach to the Passover experience --  there are beautiful, visual pieces and images throughout the book, fascinating historical notes, and big questions for big conversation.

I appreciate the introduction, written by Jonathan Safran Foer (who also edited this new version of the classic text), which declares that "This Haggadah makes no attempt to redefine what a Haggadah is, or overlay any particular political or regional agenda (v)." The emphasis of the creators of this haggadah is on the always-evolving and creative nature of the haggadah, because with a changing time and lifestyle comes new versions of haggadot with new artistic interpretations and question-inspiring conversation pieces.

There are a lot of graphics issues with the font spacing throughout the haggadah, which really bothered me. On page 6, for example, the "e" in Exodus appears on a different line than the rest of the word. It seems that there was a rush job or someone jacked something up at the last minute resulting in some really weird issues like this.

I do like that throughout the haggadah are little sections (that annoyingly require a turning the book sideways) that approach a significant issue from four perspectives: Playground, House of Study, Library, and Nation. I'm not entirely clear what each of the categories is geared toward, but Playground tends to be pretty loosey-goosey and cute, although sometimes they seemed a little too flippant (like the Four Children and there being Four Parents). One of the sections I really appreciated was on the idea of the significance of bread, the matzo bread.
Without bread there is no Torah. (Mishna, Pirkei Avot 3:2)
This is the bread of affliction. All who are bent with hunger, come and eat. 
The Nation section discusses this but misses the point. It's too literal. I won't spoil it for you, but I will say that as a note for Passover, when we're told that all who are hungry should come and eat, it is not meant to be literal. Hunger -- like the blindness experienced during the book of Exodus -- is multi-facted. To be hungry is to yearn, to need to fill a void. This might be physical nourishment, but I believe that the idea here is to fill the spiritual void, the neshama is hungry! Don't you think?

I'm also perplexed by the translation of Elo-enu as "God-of-Us." I know that translations are peculiar, but this is one that I've really never seen and I'm not sure what the significance is of not saying "Our G-d." What is your take on this?
A page spread, the design done by Oded Ezer.

The art is strange, and although I don't understand much of it, I appreciate the illumination of certain prayers and powerful words like "And they did us evil, those Egyptians, and they tortured us, saddling us with punishing work" (in the Hebrew of course). Some of the images resemble fractals -- beautiful, brush-stroked fractals.

I want to share so many of the interesting and bizarre historical details, but I don't want this post to be too long and, of course, I don't want to spoil things for you if you plan on buying this specific haggadah. The truth is, I really like this version of the classic, but I don't know how I feel about the aesthetics. Having to turn this large book to its side to read the topical breakout pieces or the historic pieces is quite the pain, and I can't imagine how difficult it would be at the seder table.

However, I think this version will be most excellent for throwing morsels of knowledge around at the seder table! (One I'm excited about is the Livorno Haggadah that was printed for former Conversos.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Mushroom for a Memory

Last night, as I prepared Kale and Mushroom Soft Tacos, I took a sampling of the mushrooms from the saute pan. Plain, warm mushrooms enticed me to close my eyes and consider the flavor. And in an instant, I was transported back to childhood and the flavor of Fried Mushrooms from the Schwann's man that my mother would deep fry in our open kitchen. My dad was always a big fan of fried mushrooms, fried gizzards (we'd buy them on almost every trip to Dillon's), fried anything. We were a family of fry lovers. But Fried Mushrooms are something I haven't had in probably 10-15 years, and the sensation of a juicy, warm mushroom was enough to remind me of such a simple piece of food.

Our senses are strange like that.

The recipe was simple enough, although I screwed a few things up in the process and will probably add a few things next time. Overall? A fresh, tasty dinner!

1 bunch fresh cilantro, stemmed
1/4 cup olive oil
1 jalapeño, seeded and deveined
(Recipe called for unsalted pumpkin seeds, but I didn't have 'em)
1 Tbls lime juice

8 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 cups cooked, chopped kale (I just blanched mine in boiling water for a few minutes)
8 corn tortillas

Okay, so the first thing you're going to do is place the cilantro, olive oil, jalapeno, seeds if you have them, and lime or lemon juice (again, the recipe didn't call for this, but it really needed some acidity) in a blender or food processor and puree. This was really difficult for me because the stuff kept getting stuck to the side, but if it's not completely smooth, it still makes an excellent topper.

Put about 1 Tbls of olive oil in a saute pan and add the mushrooms, cooking until tender. Set those aside, and throw the cooked kale into the pan to take in the mushroom juices, and heat until just warm. The idea is that the kale you're using is "leftover" but, well, I never have leftover kale. So just go with it.

Warm the tortillas and place equal amounts of kale, the mushrooms, and the green salsa-y stuff on each tortilla. I also topped with gobs of Sriracha because, well, I like things spicy.

Note: Make sure that the kale and the mushrooms aren't too liquidy. This caused my tortillas to break when I attempted to eat them like real tacos. Nobody likes a soggy tortilla!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dear Reader ...

This is now an archive. There is no commenting, no responding, nothing on this end of things. If you have a question about something, feel free to email me.

Otherwise, be sure to find me on where, honestly, who knows what I'm blogging about these days.

I just had to stop this blog cycle. It became to vicious, hurtful, and I've hidden the comments so that those who felt it necessary to speak lashon hara will not have it come back to bite them in the tuches.

Because, well, I'm a good person like that.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Where Do We Go From Here?

I know you're all waiting, waiting to hear about what happened to six years of blog content that used to be here, waiting to hear whether I'm going to continue blogging about Jewish topics that have made me the blogger and Yid that I am today.

The truth is, I don't know what I plan to do. The content still exists online, but it's all private, so good luck finding it. So far, two people have written very different posts about my situation and what came to pass last week. There's the post on Chicago Carless called "Orthodox Blogger Bullies" and there's another up on Mekubal called "Chaviva/Kvetching editor: My Response."

Now, I want to say up front that I didn't ask or encourage either of these posts to happen, but both of these men had kind, honest, and powerful things to say. If you haven't read them yet, I encourage you to do so. I think Mekubal's insight into who I am and what the Orthodox community did wrong when addressing my current life situation and choices is a lesson from which we all can learn.

I've received more than 100 emails and Facebook messages from people apologizing for what I've been through here on the blog and pleading with me to reconsider hiding and no longer sharing my story with the world. I was even surprised that my older brother -- who, I'll admit, I haven't always gotten along with -- spoke out on my Facebook wall about me giving in to the "haters." Coworkers counseled me, friends on ROI counseled me, and, most importantly, Taylor listened as I explained all that was happening and why exactly I was being treated the way I was.

Should I let a few people dictate my choices in life? Of course not. What if those people have the power to destroy me? Well, that shouldn't matter. The only thing I can control is how I react to a situation and how I allow myself to feel afterward.

There was something different about this particular instance of Chaviva-bashing, however. I can't explain what it was, but there was something that struck me as particularly painful. Even when I received a lot of criticism and painful comments back when unveiling that I was even dating a non-Jew, I handled it like I've handled every situation like this. But this time?

I broke.

Being told that you're everything that's wrong with conversion, that you're the poster child for why people don't want converts, being told you're the worst thing to happen to Judaism ... it's hard. It's beyond hard. Judaism saved me from myself, it saved me from a dark, dark place that I was in. Every time I discovered a new mitzvah or way to express myself Jewishly, it felt like crawling out of darkness.

After everything I went through over the past two years, I have struggled to find a way to express myself Jewishly in the way that I always have, to crawl out of the darkness that nearly drove me to suicide near the end of my marriage, and that process was criticized and shat upon by people I once considered friends.

And in that moment, in reading those words by Erik, Bethany, and Skylar, I felt myself drift back into that darkness. That place of loneliness and sadness that existed before I let my Jewish neshama shine through. I felt myself a stain on existence of Judaism. A harbinger of pain and suffering.

I never gave myself a position of power, and I never asked for it. That others give me that power says more about them, than me, I think. And it's something I've realized over the past few weeks. Yes, I understand that I'm in a position where individuals look up to me and seek me out with questions and curiosities -- I'm not your average convert to Judaism, and that story is what I've always committed to sharing. I make no money off this blog, I have no ads, I am committed to storytelling, largely for my own sake.

Stuff You Should Know podcast!
Meeting my heroes of the Stuff You Should Know podcast
gave me some peace of mind in Austin. 
In those moments of hateful speech, I wanted to disappear. I figured, if I just "go away" ... I won't have to break up with Taylor, who I adore, and I won't have to continue bringing harm onto the Jewish community. I was ready to let myself go.

Luckily, I left for Austin and re-entrenched myself in the world of technology and innovation. I found myself among people like me, people who see the power of technology and social interaction via the web. Between that, all of the emails, Facebook messages, blog posts, blog comments, texts, Tweets, and everything else, I felt perplexed. Private versus public, Chaviva versus Kvetching Editor, Amanda versus Chaviva ...

Listen: I don't know what I'm going to do with all of those posts. Yes, I could create an archive and turn off all comments, but I don't think there's a way to delete all the existing comments, and I don't necessarily want to delete them all anyway. But do I want those posts out there? Do I want six years of my life to be available for scrutiny or praise? Do I want to continue blogging about my Jewish experiences? I don't know. I almost feel like it's impossible to not blog about my Jewish experiences.

I am, after all, a Jew.

They can't be divided. Jew, Woman, Girlfriend, Blogger, Educator, Social Media Ninja ...

Just stay tuned, if you will, and we'll see where this goes. Won't you?

Gourmet Grille via Chavi

Can you still call it "grilled" if it isn't grilled? I've never thought of this before tonight when I was cooking a Gourmet Grilled Cheese sandwich to go with my homemade Tomato Soup. I simply buttered the gluten-free bread and cooked in a pan -- no grilling involved! Then I realized, my entire life we never grilled any sandwiches.


The sandwich included Apricot Preserves (Trader Joe's), Sautéed Spinach with Salt & Pepper, Feta Cheese (also from Trader Joe's), and fresh Dill. Sounds strange, right? Well, it was delicious. Absolutely comforting and gourmet, if I do say so myself.

The soup? Well, I can't really say what went into it. Just lots of spices and tomato puree and vegetable stock and, you know, the usual suspects for tomato soup!

Overall, delicious, easy, simple dinner.

Ankletastrophe 2012!

Agh! I'm back in Colorado, but man what it took to get here ...

The last night of SXSW Interactive, we were on the prowl for food when the Austin sidewalks attacked me, my left ankle rolled under me, my right knee hit the pavement, and the searing pain began. And then? Well, then I got really queasy and felt like I was going to pass out. And THEN? Well, I started shaking.

Luckily, I had the ROI Community crew with me and people went into the bar I collapsed in front of, got ice, a first-aid kid, and a cold, wet towel. In no time, our driver was there, and two of the burly fellows (thank you Micah and David!) lifted me up off the sidewalk, deposited me in the car, and I was off with Jen (our fearless leader, the unicorn) to the Emergency Room.

You know, I'd thought -- my entire life -- that I'd never end up in an ER, and if I did, it would be because of my 80-year-old man knees. When I started physical therapy for my knees years ago, the PT commented on how strong my ankles were, so this took me as a surprise, of course.

Luckily, the South Austin Hospital ER was pretty slow, so I got in and out in two hours. The verdict? A badly sprained ankle. "But, there could be a hairline fracture, it's hard to say," said the Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure-style doctor. (Seriously, he didn't really help me feel confident about what was happening with my swollen, pained ankle.

I got a brace and was sent on my way; crutches would have cost extra and the entire thing was Out of Network ... so ... expenses? No thanks. I might have to take up a collection, so, prepare your wallets.

The only nice thing about the entire experience was getting to spend some awesome bonding time with Jen and getting to zip through security and nab a bulk-head seat on the plane. Yes, I hopped into a wheelchair and Jen wheeled me around the airport until her plane took off (seriously, thank you Jen). Then, I was on my own. I now know why wheelchair-using folks have such big guns -- it hurts, badly, to roll around in a wheelchair.

Luckily, I had a doctor's visit already scheduled today and during that visit I asked my new doc what she thought of the ankle situation. Her response shocked me: Stop limping around, put on a shoe with good support, and start moving around on it. Why? So that my muscles don't seize up and not heal right. I still need to ice and elevate when I'm resting, however.


This is good for the impatient side of me, but for the fear-of-medical-stuff side of me, it makes me super nervous.

Have you had a bad sprain? What was your treatment like?

I did like what Jen had to say about the entire experience. In a nutshell, she said that perhaps this was a sign from HaShem that I need to slow down. I'll admit, the past two years of my life have been a whirlwind of exhaustion emotionally and physically, recent events included. Maybe I do need to chill out, take a break, and stop rushing.

Now, if only I could fund a one-month trip to the mountains of Colorado to work on a book and really chill out, right?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


If you're curious what I've been up to, it amounts to a huge pile of free T-shirts and widgets and gadgets and a beautiful privacy iPhone screen from 3M at the "Fast Company" (the magazine) lounge.

I just got to ask Robert Rodriguez (yes, that Robert Rodriguez) a question, as he sat about 15 feet away from me (making me, actually, the world's best girlfriend).

I have a bracelet that's actually a USB drive, a ton of buttons (yes, .net is trying to rebrand itself as the "cool" place for innovative minds -- g'luck!).

I got to be a part of the Reboot festivities at a bar yesterday, and I even got some nice time with the man, the myth, the legend @Daroff.

And? Tons of inspiration. Boatloads. Arkloads, in fact. I have so many cool things in mind for my work at the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, and I'm hoping that by this time next year I'm going to rock out some major nonprofit inspiration.

Color me stoked. And, of course, color me squished!

So, so, so many thanks to the ROI Community for helping me get here for my third year in a row. It's been so amazing to catch up with friends and meet other ROIers!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Austin, Austin, Texas!

Oh baby, it's cold outside! And inside. In Austin, Texas, no less.

I've been here since early yesterday afternoon, and I've spent a measly couple of hours at SXSW Interactive so far. Why? Shabbat, of course! Luckily, tomorrow I fully intend on being the very first person in line at registration -- coffee in tow!

There are three solid days of the festival left, and I plan on doing as much schmoozing, drinking, partying, connecting, and schwag-grabbing as possible. If you're here at SXSW Interactive, let me know, just tweet me @TheChaviva -- if you're lucky I'll buy you a coffee.

Also: Mad thanks to @ROICommunity for putting all of us up in a beautiful house in the hills of Austin and for helping those of us who are here be here. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Clearly, everything from the traditional is gone!

But, I still need a website to look like a capable Social Media maven. So this is a work-in-progress.

Stay tuned for awesomeness.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

So Long, Farewell.

At the request of Orthodox converts and Orthodox Jews everywhere, I'm putting the kabosh on my blog. Clearly, I'm hurting everyone everywhere, without intending to. I'm sorry to all who I have harmed in the production of this blog, and after nearly six years of blogging, this site will serve as an archive.

Of course, if I end up back on the "derech" that Orthodox Jews expect, maybe I'll start blogging agin, but who knows.

This blog has always served as my therapy, as a way to express my thoughts, emotions, and journey to Judaism. I never thought that I would become a "beacon" for Orthodox converts, nor did I think that I would come to loathe denominationalism so much for driving a wedge between who I am and how people view me.

If you have questions about conversion, you might want to direct them to someone who is "on the derech" since I'm a pariah at this point. If you still feel compelled to email me, you've been warned.

To everyone who has supported me -- thank you, eternally.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ask Chaviva Anything!: Did Divorce Hurt?

It looks like I'm back in the swing of finally answering so many questions that people have asked. This one was asked in late December. If you have something to ask -- no holds barred (although, really, it doesn't mean I'm going to answer it if I find it inappropriate) -- just click here.
I know this questions thing is a bit old -- but I hope you can still answer. I know your divorce was amicable, but does it hurt you at all that your ex-husband has moved on so quickly? I'm thinking such a short time for a person to move on is a bit strange.
My opinion? It is strange. My ex met his now wife about two weeks after our get (religious divorce) was finalized, and they were engaged a few months later. They recently got married, and I wish them all the mazal and happiness in the world. But yes, I find it quite bizarre. To get married five months after a religious divorce and two weeks after a civil divorce seems, well, fast. Really fast.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to how we choose to cope with major events in our lives. Having lived in Teaneck in the community that we lived in, I know that there is a pressure to fit the mold of being married, considering kids, toying with buying a house and so on. If I had stayed in the area, I probably would have done the same thing.

But I coped by getting out, starting fresh, and figuring out what kind of life I wanted for myself, outside the mold of the expected. A lot of people think I've gone off the deep end by not officially affiliating as "Orthodox" per se (although, let's be honest, it's the closest thing denominationally to what I am, but my dating a non-Jew more or less shoves me out of that camp even though we all know a million people on the Upper West Side have done it, are doing it, or are not concerned with shomer negiah). Would they think the same if I was a divorced born-Jew? Who knows.

Does it hurt? Of course it hurts. When we divorced, I lost the only Jewish family I had ever known -- and let me tell you, that family was the most amazing family a girl could ask for. I lost two bubbes, in-laws who had a pride in me that shone so brightly, tons of cousins (who, thankfully, still talk to me), and so much more. That was the big hurt, losing family. I was so entrenched in their lives, their histories, their genealogies. Hearing my former father-in-law tell me he was proud of me was something that I cannot even put into words. Losing that destroyed me. And when I think about the divorce now, it's the thing that hurts the most.

Wait, I'm lying. Well, half-lying. The thing that ultimately hurt the most was feeling replaceable. My ex found his new wife within a few weeks of our get, within a few weeks of me asking for the darn thing. After all, I asked for the divorce and a week later we were at the beth din making it happen. Knowing that the empty space of "wife" could be filled so quickly is something that continues to damage me. Rejection is hard, and between September and November of 2011, I was rejected by several people who I had given so much to. That rejection tore a piece of the fabric of me, and it has yet to be restitched.

More of an answer than you bargained for? It's been hard to not write about the divorce. I've gone through all the stages of grief and then back again. Knowing what I suffered while in the relationship -- mentally and emotionally -- and then knowing that everything started over so quickly for my ex-husband made me wonder if I was living in some imaginary dream world for the 16 months we were married. It's a fog to me now, and I'm lifting the fog slowly but surely. Thankfully, I have amazing friends here in Denver like @melschol and back East like @heysuburban and, of course, Taylor, to remind me that I'm not replaceable.

The upside is that I've never felt like a failure in marriage. I just made a few stupid mistakes of trusting, revealing, and believing that I won't make again unless it's with the right person at the right time.

Ask Chaviva Anything!: Conversion, Divorce, and Observance

It's been quite some time since I did an installment of Ask Chaviva Anything! so I thought I would take a bit of time and hammer one out. These questions all came from the same person back in November, so I hope they're still reading and will be pleased that I'm FINALLY answering their questions! If you have questions for me, feel free to ask away.

Some of these will be heavy. Are you ready?

I'm curious to hear your self-observations on your religious practice (1) Before you were married,  (2) while engaged, (3) while married, and (4) while divorced. Did you find yourself more strict in certain areas at different phases, less strict?
This is a most excellent question. How to answer? I can say without flinching that my religious practice before I was married was much more "full" if that makes sense. My observance was about me, and me alone. When I got engaged, I was able to begin looking at other observances that I was to be taking on come marriage time. While married, I began to feel a little lost. Living in Teaneck, NJ, my religious practice became more rote because it was easy to be Jewish. You didn't have to think about practice or observance; everyone just did the same things, ate at the same places, went to the same synagogue. I think that while I was married I regressed a lot in the sincerity of my observance. Now that I'm divorced, I'm in a place of reexamining my religious practice. As a result, you might say I'm "less strict" than I was while married or even engaged, but I think that is probably a natural progression for many when divorce comes. Either that, or you throw yourself into strict observance to fill the void. But right now, I'm in a comfortable place.
Could you walk us through the thought process you had when choosing to leave the NY/NJ area as a new single with hopes of remarrying?
Well, for starters, I didn't have hopes of remarrying, and to be honest I still don't. Leaving NY/NJ was a simple choice. I needed to be someplace where I could clear my head and start fresh on a life that was all my own. This wasn't the first time I've done this. I picked up and moved to Chicago once on a whim, and did sort of the same thing when I quit Chicago and headed for Connecticut. I'm a move-on, start-over kind of person. It's just how I function.

That first month after the religious divorce -- the get -- I was in a head-spinning place of "Meet someone super religious right now and get married to them right now." Luckily, I got out of that headspace. My ex-husband went that route, whereas I went a different route. I reevaluated my family background, my religious headspace, my wants and needs, and at the current juncture, I have no desire to get married or have kids. There are a lot of reasons for this that I haven't discussed on the blog (shocking, I know), but it's a decision with which I've definitely made peace.
What systems of support do you wish existed for the potential convert, convert engaged with a beis din, and the convert post facto (a Jew)?
The essential system of support should simply be whatever community the convert -- at any stage -- lives in. There shouldn't be a need for some kind of special community or foundation to support the convert, but that's an unfortunate reality and it is why there are organizations devoted to assisting converts in Israel. So I run my Conversion Conversation Group on Facebook for individuals at all stages of the process, and I've found that just having a safe space away from the eyes of rabbis and the prying community has helped so many feel comfortable.
If you could pick one time period of Jewish history in which you could witness (i.e., live through it) what historical period/events would it be?
Without a doubt the Middle Ages. It was such a tumultuous and inspiring time to be a Jew, I think. I would have loved to meet Ovadiah ha'Ger, Maimonides, and the like. There was so much movement between Europe and North Africa, and I think that experiencing Egypt during this time would be quite beautiful. On the same note, I would have loved to float around Europe at this time!
What mitzvos do you feel most connected to? The least?
Without a doubt, I feel deeply connected to prayer -- simple things like the Shema and Modah Ani. They keep me on a cycle of waking and sleeping, living and dying. I also feel deeply committed to kashrut, the true roots of kashrut and what it means to understand food and consumption. On that note, I'm also connected very much to tzniut, in all of its forms, but especially in speech. As for those I'm least connected to, that's a good question. I suppose taharat ha'mishpacha (family purity), largely because the span of my marriage that I observed it, it was a dismal experience. Mikvah in that realm, too, held little comfort for me. That being said, when I observed mikvah for conversion, it was an incredibly powerful experience.

Also: I think that living in -- or at least regularly experiencing -- Israel is a huge mitzvah. That's probably the one I feel most connected to overall!
How connected to your "old life" do you feel?  Meaning how has your mentality changed since becoming more observant/converting in terms of world view, politics, priorities?
The truth is, I don't think that I've changed much, outside of feeling more worldly and interested in how the world functions and how it understands religion, peoplehood, race, ethnicity, and identity. Converting to Judaism and becoming more observant has taught me that our (the Jews) greatest enemy is ourselves. I find it constantly troubling how Jews are willing to join forces to fight outsiders but insist on continuing to judge and break down one another. (A great example: Reform Jews recently spoke out in support of Beren Academy when they were told that their basketball game couldn't be rescheduled. How is that relationship the rest of the year?)

I think, if anything, that I've simply come to be who I always was: curious and searching, believing with a sound mind and full heart that there is one G-d and that our actions in this life are what matter the most. Those are values and a mentality that I have held since I was a child, and those are the things that led my neshama to really thrust itself into the spotlight and led me to realize my Jewish self.

Beans, Beans, Esther's Favorite Treat!

A little over two years ago, I wrote about a bizarre situation in which it seemed as though HaShem was listening to my every thought and providing answers and meaning without fail. It was freaky.

I have little moments like this every now and again, but it's happened again and I can't help but share it with you all. It makes me feel at ease to know that HaShem will provide.

Last Saturday night, Taylor and I were at Target shopping for my Mishloach Manot goodies. I originally had had a plan about doing something according to Caffeine Dreams, but it just wasn't flying. Then, I thought what about something about being a kid again, but that also didn't fly. And then, I got this urge to do something with beans. I didn't know why, but I suddenly had an array of bean-themed items at the ready in my cart. I kept trying to come up with some creative wordplay -- "It's BEAN a rough time for the Jews!" but it just wasn't floating. I've spent the past week trying to figure out how to make it work, without luck (and that goes the same for my gluten-free hamantaschen adventures).

Then, earlier today, I was floating around taking a Purim Quiz when I saw something that caught my eye: Chickpeas for Purim.


Then I read on and learned the following:
According to tradition, while Queen Esther lived in the court of King Achashverosh, she followed a vegetarian diet consisting largely of beans and peas so that she would not break the laws of kashrut (dietary laws). For this reason it is customary to eat beans and peas on Purim.
No. Way. Seriously? Beans on Purim? It's bashert! 

It's little happy moments like this that remind me how close my relationship with my Judaism is. How sometimes everything is threaded together without us even knowing it. 

And now I bet you wonder what's going to be in my Mishloach Manot, right? Well, as soon as I hand them out, believe me, I'll let you know. Until then ... 

Learn to Eat Like Esther on Purim!

EDIT: Sources for this minhag are ... Targum Esther 2:7and Midrash Panim Aherim 63 and 64 (the Talmud, Megilla 13a, also mentions that Esther only ate permitted food, and one could deduce that that would necessitate a vegetarian diet).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pledging Jewish Allegiance: Part II

You can read the first part of this multi-part look at Pledges of Jewish Allegiance and responsa about conversion in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries here

I think -- and this is me, of course -- that when it comes to conversion to Judaism, the concern of the rabbis and the born-Jewish community is one of honesty, sincerity, and dilution of the Jewish people. Oddly enough, in Pledges of Jewish Allegiance, a "warning" narrative is mentioned to show just what can happen when you don't welcome the convert with open arms. The source is an aggadic one, which means that it's not legal but rather a narrative from which we can learn something, and it comes from the Tractate Sanhedrin.
What is the purpose of [writing in the Torah], "And Lotan's sister was Timna"? -- Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, aluf Lotan, aluf Timna; and by aluf, an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, Timna went to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz, the son of Esau, saying, "I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation." From her, Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? -- Because they should not have repulsed her. (29)
The passage doesn't state why Timna should have been accepted, but it does suggest that "when people are turned away, the implications for Jewish security in the future can be very problematic." Hell hath no fury like a potential convert scorned? 

Maimonides, writing in the late Twelfth Century, discusses the idea mentioned in the last blog post of intention at length when detailing how to handle a potential convert.
The appropriate way to perform the commandment [of conversion] is that when the convert comes to convert, we investigate him lest [he be converting] for money that he will receive, or for some position of authority that will come his way, or whether it is because of fear that he wishes to enter the religion. If he is a man, we investigate whether he has cast his eye on a Jewish woman; and if she is a woman, we investigate whether she has cast her eye on a Jewish man. If no inappropriate motivation is discovered, we inform him of the magnitude of the weight of the yoke of Torah and of the tremendous efforts required from Gentiles to perform [its commandments]. If they accept and did not change their minds and we see that they have returned out of love, we accept them. (30-31)
The new and interesting thing about this is that it suggests that the court be compelled to investigate, not that the court simply turn someone away because their motives might be suspect. You will notice, oddly enough, that in this bit from the Mishneh Torah Maimonides says absolutely nothing about acceptance of the mitzvoth (commandments). After all, the text merely says that the potential convert is "informed" of the weight of the yoke of Torah -- not that he or she must accept it or be fully educated on it prior to conversion. In later responsim, rabbis will use these ambiguities to support their own points. 

And then, of course, there's this, which comes later from Maimonides, is a big deal, and I think that this should inform how we view conversion today. 
A convert whom they did not investigate or to whom they did not make known the commandments and the punishments [for not fulfilling them] but who was circumcised and immersed in front of three judges is a convert. Even if it subsequently becomes known that he converted for some ulterior motive, once he has been circumcised and immersed, he has been removed from the status of Gentile, and he remains suspect until his righteousness can be verified. Even if he returns to Gentile worship, he remains in the category of a Jewish apostate whose marriage is a valid marriage. (32)
BAM! This very passage from the Mishneh Torah, says volumes about the convert -- volumes that many modern rabbis seem to ignore when they think that they can revoke a conversion. Even in the Beit Yosef, Rabbi Karo follows Maimonides' claim that all conversions are valid, regardless of whether the courts have investigated and that it is "obvious" that failure to accept the commandments does not render the conversion invalid after the fact (36). It also must be mentioned that both Maimonides and Karo agreed that every case with conversion is different, unique, and specific to the time and place and that every court must handle the case accordingly. In essence, there is no simple way to hold every potential convert to the same process and same procedures. 

In just about everything that Maimonides says regarding the convert, it is clear that he values and respects the position of he or she who joins the fold. In a query from Ovadiah ha'Ger as to whether he should amend the liturgy and avoid phrases like "God and God of our fathers," given his status as a convert, Maimonides had this to say:
You should recite everything as it is, and do not change anything. Rather, you should pray as every Jewish citizen does, whether alone or in public. The critical point is that it was Abraham our Father who taught the entire nation, who gave them the wisdom and who made known to them the truth and unity of God. He battled against idolatry ... and brought many under the wings of the Divine Presence. ... Thus, anyone who converts until the end of time ... is a disciple of Abraham our Father and a member of his household. ... Thus, you should say "our God and God of our ancestors" ... -- there is no difference here between you and us. 
It's statements like this, from one of the greatest sages of all time, that makes me wonder why we've fallen so far. 

I'll conclude with this portion of the series by saying that many rabbis in later times who sought to make it "easier" to convert followed the position of the Beit Yosef in the emphasis on the discretion of the court while also debating what exactly "for the sake of heaven" means in Maimonides' initial dictum about the conversion process. In future posts, you'll see how confusing and convoluted the debate becomes based on the writings of Tractate Geirim and the works of Maimonides. 

Still: Think back to what Maimonides says about once a convert, always a Jew. Why can't we live by this simple dictum? 

Pledging Jewish Allegiance: Part I

Not that long ago, @bethanyshondark hooked me up with someone who provided me with a review copy of a book that is more than right up my alley: Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa. I'm only halfway through the book, but I felt compelled to write about what I've already read. There are some definite positives and some very clear negatives to this book which were apparent from the get-go. The upside is that the collection of responsim in English translation is, in and of itself, invaluable. I'm able to overlook some very egregious "errors" because of this.

The authors of this volume are David Ellison and Daniel Gordis, the former is the president of Hebrew Union College (a Reform institution) and the latter is a popular speaker on Israel and is the president of the Shalem Foundation. The book was written over a period of a decade, according to the acknowledgements, and I imagine the push to get it printed now, at this very moment, was because of the increased intensity in the U.S. and Israel over the "Who is a Jew?" question regarding conversion.

The first thing that caught my eye in this book was the fact that the entire first chapter discusses the "geir" as meaning convert in the bible. I don't know how many times I have to say it, but there is absolutely zero proof that any use of the term in the bible meant anything other than stranger.
Jewish tradition permits the convert to join the Jewish people but often makes it difficult for him to do so. Even the Bible's word for "convert," geir, reflects this conflict, for geir means not only "convert" but "stranger" as well. The Bible refers to the convert as a geir even after he has joined the Jewish people. (14)
I can't express how distraught I was after reading this. The truth is that I really just wanted to put the book down at this point, because from an academic (and personal) standpoint, this is ignorant academics. In most of the instances in the Bible where this term is used, the understanding is that the individual being called a geir has simply tagged along with the Jewish people, he or she is a stranger among the Israelites. There is no formal layout for conversion at this point in the Israelite narrative, and the closest we truly get to someone in the bible converting is in the story of Ruth, who says that the Israelites will be her people and that their G-d will be her G-d. Other than that, the closest perhaps is Yitro (Moshe's father in law), but even there the rabbis and scholars struggle with whether he "converted" to become an Israelite as he joined the people and then subsequently left -- problematic when community is so important to the conversion narrative.

That being said, the meat of the book is interesting and informative about how we got from the Nineteenth Century to now and what exactly shaped modern-day rulings and concerns about motivation, acceptance of the mitzvoth (commandments) and what that means, and so on. Before I cut myself off (because I don't want to write five-million word long blog posts) I do want to share one thing that will set the stage for us that comes from Tractate Geirim, a minor tractate not formally part of the Mishnah (Oral Torah) and typically dated somewhat later.
Anyone who converts [in order to marry] a woman, for love or out of fear, is not a convert. Thus, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah used to say that all those who converted in the days of Mordecai and Esther are not [valid] converts, as it is written, "and many of the populace were converting to Judaism, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them." And anyone who does not convert lesheim shamayim [for the sake of heaven], is not a [legitimate] convert." (24)
The interesting thing about this particular passage is that it informs what the rabbis discuss in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries -- but not in a way that you might expect. Ultimately, this very specific dictum is brought into question amid a rise in intermarriage and the Enlightenment period.

So I'll leave this one at this for now. Stay tuned for a multi-series look at some of the responsim and exactly what they mean for us today.

Particularly! Look out for what Maimonides has to say on the whole thing. It might surprise and delight you!

Are You Friends with Esther?

[Come tomorrow, I'll post images of my OWN hamantaschen!]

As you all know, I work at the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education as their social media ninja (that's not the title on my business card, but come on). I was tapped to write the March newsletter bit on Purim, and this is what I came up with.

It’s the month of Adar, and that means it’s time for Purim, one of the most festive holidays in the Jewish calendar. Everyone is a’twitter with talk of mishloach manot (gift baskets), hamantaschen, costumes, festive meals, Megillat Esther readings, Purim shpiels, carnivals, and more. Commemorating a time when a young Jewish woman, Esther, rose to power to become Queen of Persia under the tutelage of her guardian Mordechai, the Purim story tells of Esther risking her life to save the Jews from the evil Haman. The story concludes with the Jews turning the tables on their enemies, who are punished in place of their intended victims. This miracle is the major theme of Purim, and it’s clear that — although not mentioned in the entirety of the Book of Esther — God is behind the scenes “pulling the strings.” The story of Purim gives us hope that no matter the circumstances, redemption is right around the corner. It took just one person — Esther — putting herself in harms way by speaking out against an imminent evil to save an entire people.

So what if the Purim story were unraveling in today’s times? Would Esther be blogging her tough decisions? Would Mordechai be writing on Esther’s Facebook wall “Risk your life! Save the Jews!”? And what about Haman, would he unfriend Esther after his plot was ruined?

The reality today is that you can find Pinterest boards full of images of delicious varieties of hamantaschen, costume ideas, and Purim decorations. You can hop over to YouTube and find plenty of Purim-themed videos or visit Facebook to “like” Queen Esther. You can even listen or watch the Megillah read online! But Esther probably would have used social media for more than just finding the fun and entertaining pieces of Purim.

In our modern, digitally social world, local and international events of persecution make it to the internet in no time. The internet is a great place to plan your Purim party or to connect with others about meal ideas, but it’s also a powerful means of social action. If you haven’t taken the time to check out how we’re using social media, we urge you to hop online and test the waters of Twitter or Facebook to see how you can impact change in a new, virtual environment. Whether it’s donating to an impactful organization or speaking out against injustices, you cannot imagine the power your virtual voice can have.

Be a modern Esther, and help the essence of Purim go viral! Best wishes for a festive Purim!

To be honest, I was surprised that my past writings on Purim are pretty nil. Have a favorite d'var or blog post written about Purim? Let me know!

Also, if you need a really good laugh, read this.