Gebroks or Non-Gebroks…That is the Question

Being kosher seemed like a good way to be a true Jew, so I called the local Chabad House, and a nice man came and did the job. He finished, turned to go, and I asked him what I was allowed to eat. He sketched out the basic symbols and wrote “cholev yisroel” and “pas yisroel” on the bottom. I had no clue what they meant, but na’asai v’nishma: knowing nothing, I was machmir to only buy products listing those words.

Then Pesach approached. I called the same friendly man who told me to only buy things that said “non-gebroks.” End of conversation.

Thus began my Pesach minhag.

Although less naive about minhagim, my husband’s approach is always, when in doubt, you can’t go wrong by following the strictest guidelines.

Living in Monsey, it’s no problem being cholev yisroel. But gebroks gets us down year after year after year.

Pesach is the most resonant Yom Tov for most of us. I grew up gleefully eating on Yom Kippur, oblivious to Shabbos, but with a strangely nostalgic attitude about Pesach. We always had some facsimile of a seder. In speedy English and occasional bouts of broken Yiddish, my father attempted to imitate his father’s seder, while the kids snuck more and more Manishewitz. I didn’t really “chup” the point of this strange ritual. What lasted and lasted in my memory was the matzoh meal pancakes.

What an utter disappointment to make teshuva and resurrect Passover, and then find that the totem of my memory was taboo on the Yom Tov itself!

The concept of minhagim is an uncomfortable one for a BT. We all have them, but they were buried in the generation(s) of assimilation. Who knew what would be lost back when my great-grandfathers davened next to the FFBs’ great-grandfathers in the shtetl shul? Who knew that I would be only one out of dozens of my ancestors’ progeny who would regret history, and devote her life to piecing back together the broken line?

What of our history is “kosher”? Yes, I grew up eating gebroks, but I also grew up eating BLTs and dating non-Jews, practices that I am most definitely not going to pass down to my children.

How can BTs sort out our legitimate fossils? Knowing that my grandparents emigrated from there, is it okay to research Lithuanian Jewry and then adopt the customs of those frum Jews? How much has survived in my DNA? Is it because I’m a “yekkie” that I’m on time, or because I grew up inculcated with the Protestant Work Ethic?

Does aping the actions of mentors or emulating the habits of sages create a meaningful tradition? What about when there are several legitimate practices? Why do I have to tough out the “minor” fast days–my FFB female friends eat or only fast half the day, just like their mothers did. Must we also shun garlic on Pesach because two centuries ago it was transported alongside grain, and so it became some families’ practice not to use it? At what age should I put away the bobby socks and hold my pre-schooler up to the tznius standards of the big girls? How do we answer with conviction when our kids ask which way our family holds?

It’s kind of scary: at what point does twisting open the soda bottles on Shabbos morph from a habit to a tradition to an immovably holy practice that will be passed down from generation to generation?

Originally Published in April 2006

First you Think in Secular and Translate for Yourself; Eventually you Begin to Think in Frum

I spent the first 25 years of my life big into non-conformity. I prided myself on digging hipper music than my high school friends, choosing a trendy college too cool for grades, eating vegetarian, camping through the USSR before glastnost, living in the East Village, and on and on.

Becoming a B.T. was the ultimate in non-conformity. One friend (now a prominent psychiatrist) tried to de-program me. Maybe I was a Ms Magazine subscriber but I couldn’t shake off that pull toward Yiddishkeit.

In other words, to so radically turn your back on your comfort zone–family, friends, career, even language–you have to be a risk taker, a non-conformist.

But…living frum. That’s the ultimate in conformity. Boy, was it hard the first years. Doing things just because it’s the frum way was, at time, impossible to digest. Squelching my well-honed instinct to disagree. Giving up T.V. All the forbiddens of Shabbos. Keeping a neutral expression at racist speech. Shaving my legs. Realizing that the right thing to do or say was pretty much the opposite of my instincts.

I think you have to be an actor to be a successfully assimilated B.T. And daven that after a while, you fully embody your character.

Originally Published Dec 13, 2005

UnInspired

Thirteen years ago, The NY Times ran a puff piece on the Weddings page about me. A unique angle for their “Vows” column–anti-establishment editor burns her Ms. Magazines and ties the knot in all-concealing gown. Driven by the kiruv fever that often hijacks the newly frum, I was quoted insisting that my new lifestyle was the truly liberated way, and declared that I certainly wouldn’t be one of those sterling-polishing housewives.

All these years later, I wish I had a second in my carpool driving, toilet scrubbing, challah kneading, essay-grading, homework-supervising, grocery-shlepping life to polish some silver. Instead, I long ago packed the good stuff away and substituted ersatz silver from the local Odd Lot.
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Those Five Magic Words

“I never would have known!”

What a thrill I feel every time I hear it. But as Rabbi Greenman so movingly describes, how healthy is it to want to “pass”?

Like all of you, I’ve explored so many stages of BT-hood; found the truth beyond those early idealized visions of the frum world. The amazement and longing that lured us to this world have matured into a grounding of understanding, regret, flashes of cynicism, and…moments of amazement and longing. Rather than suffer a damaged self-image (as warned by Rabbi Greenman) by not wearing my journey on my sleeve, I’m proud I’ve found a comfort zone: I’m proud that my instincts and impulses are frum ones.
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The Parent Trap

Why are we always placating, mediating, even apologizing?

Why do we have to feel like we’re the ones mucking up family tradition?

Why do we always have to explain how it’s really not so hard or different to do things our way?

Why must we look the other way or come up with rationalizations for our kids when our relatives dress inappropriately/kvetch about how the mechitza demeans women/run to the bathroom to answer a cellphone on Shabbos/mix up the milchigs and fleishigs in the kitchen/ask for the billionth time what could possibly be wrong with taking the kids to the movies/insist that their level of Judaism is the “normal” way to be.
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Painfully Cutting Ties to the Past

Thanksgiving was supposed to remain a lifeline with my Before Teshuva world. At first, I stubbornly held on to New Year’s, defiantly rationalizing that we live by the secular calendar, too. But in truth, I’d long been uncomfortable with the idea that we kept our dates by their relation to the death of the Christian deity. (That’s pretty weird for a supposedly secular country.) Halloween was no great loss with the introduction of Purim. And, on Fourth of July, I usually serve my family something sweet and patriotically decorated and take the kids to a quiet spot to watch fireworks.

Then I lost Thanksgiving.
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