Is Choosing Orthodoxy an Abdication of Personal and Intellectual Choice?

During the first couple of years that I was becoming religious, all three of my local reform rabbis back in Dixie made times to meet with me personally to bring me back to the fold, since I had gone/was going “off the derech,” to the dark side of orthodoxy.

It was a bemusing experience for young, intractable me, and I know it was a frustrating experience for them. (I’m changing names to protect identities.) First was Rabbi Sol Friedman, the head rabbi of our nearly 1000 family Temple. After our discussion, he commented to me that he was disappointed that someone as intelligent as myself would waste my potential in orthodoxy. I later met with the assistant rabbi, Rabbi Barbara Dawson. She couldn’t believe that I was using the sexist Artscroll Siddur and the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which she felt constituted being poreish min haTzibur, separating myself from the majority of the Jewish people who use the Americanized Israeli pronunciation. Last was Rabbi Ralph Feldman, rabbi emeritus. After our conversation, he was convinced that my contention that women and men are equal in orthodoxy was the product of brainwashing.

One claim that all three made, along with many others, however, was that choosing orthodoxy is choosing “the easy way out.” The theory goes something like this: One of a weaker moral and intellectual character needs and wants the structure of a lifestyle that allows an outside authority to dictate every detail of life and every moral decision. These types of people are fearful of the personal responsibility involved in making moral choices and therefore choose orthodoxy to allow the rabbis and the law books make the tough moral choices so they do not have to. In contrast, reform Jews are braver and of a stronger moral character and therefore do not require the moral crutch of the detailed laws of orthodoxy to make their moral choices for them. They are not afraid of individuality and making informed moral choices.

Is this argument valid? I would illustrate the wilful blindness inherent in the above claim with an analogy: Is a person weak-minded if he follows doctors’ and nutritionists’ instructions on how to live a physically lifestyle? An exercise or diet regimen will include, for argument’s sake, a certain maximum calorie count that one is allowed to consume in a given day, and, let’s say, 30 minutes of exercise three times per week. Those are very specific instructions. Although one might claim that letting doctors and nutritionists make one’s health decisions for him is depriving him of his G-d given right to make his own health decisions, this argument would obviously be also false. Why?

Even if one is following the guidance of a nutritionist that he should eat, let’s say, a maximum of 2000 calories on a given day, there is a great level of personal input and creativity in how one meets that standard. He could cook French, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, or Italian style cuisine. He can eat a 100 calorie breakfast, a 100 calorie lunch, and then splurge on an 1800 calorie dinner. There is so much leeway within fulfilling that standard that one cannot say, with a straight face, that one is giving up personal choice by limiting himself to the recommended 2000 calories per day.

In regard to exercise, one can fulfill his weekly exercise regimen by jogging, taking Tae Kwan Do, lifting weights, going to the gym, playing any sport he chooses, or running on the treadmill. The fact that one must exercise does not take away his individual personal choice. There are many ways to carry out the doctors’ advice, and following their guidance is not an abdication of personal choice.

Similarly, there are laws in halacha for every aspect of life but a variety of ways that we carry out those laws, as an expression of individuality. Those aspects of halachic decision-making that individuals are not capable of making on their own because the lack the knowledge and information to do so, are up to the Shulchan Aruch and Poskim to decide, just as the general guidelines for exercise and nutrition are decided by doctors and nutritionists, since they are trained and schooled to be knowledgeable in those areas.

For example, halacha says that one must daven 3 times per day. A man can decide in what Shul to daven, in which paragraphs of Shemoneh Esreh to insert personal tefillos, in what part of the day to be misboded and speak to Hashem in his own words, and in which word, out of the hundreds in Shemoneh Esreh, to place extra kavannah, depending on his own personal nature. And a woman has even more leeway and discretion in when, where, and how she davens.

As another example, people must learn Torah. Aside from learning enough halacha to live a lifestyle in accordance with halacha, the gemara says, l’olam yilmod adam ma shelibo chafeitz , a person should learn that which his his heart desires. Some learn 100% gemara. Others may learn 80% and 10% Mussar. Others might mix it up with Tanach, Halacha, Gemara, and Chassidus.

There is a vast space in halacha that is given to us in which to choose how to serve Hashem . This means that not only does adherence to halacha not take away choice, it actually lends greater meaning to the choices we make. Just as one who makes medical choices without consulting any doctor or expert will end up wasting his efforts on his own ignorant ideas, so too will one who tries to make moral choices without any true authority or expert, will find himself clamoring around in the dark. However, if one allows the light of halacha to illuminate his path, then the choices that he makes within that system will have meaning and direction, rather than a random shot in the dark.

-Dixie Yid
First Published Nov 6, 2007

Getting Beyond the Proofs

In the introductory program of the baal teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem where I was introduced to Torah Judaism, the “Proofs of God and Torah M’Sinai” was the hottest thing going. We fought over them, stayed up until three o’clock in the morning debating them, and spent weeks and months on them. Having a degree in the life sciences I was particularly loathe to drop the idea of random evolution or accept the idea of a soul. After three months of fiery debates, participating in them and also observing some of the best minds of the finest universities getting shot down to the dust, I was pretty convinced.

Then came summer break. With a new addition to my backpack – a pair of tefillin – I made my way with a few guys down to the Sinai for scuba diving and fun in the sun. From my present perspective it’s hard to envision what there was to do on the beach for so long, but suffice it to say that a month later the “Proofs of God and Torah M’Sinai” were a distant mirage. The tefillin didn’t see the light of day anymore.

What happened? It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. One can see valid evidence and be convinced by intellectual proofs, but the influences of peer pressure from the surroundings and physical urges hold sway.

No one brought any evidence to the contrary. I never even discussed the proofs. But the entire edifice crumbled under the onslaught of vacationing youth on the beach.

Although I had chosen at this point to remain non-religious, I returned to the yeshivah, feeling distant from what had begun to be a tentative tasting of the Torah lifestyle. I needed a base to plan my next step, graduate school or work, so I returned to the dorm. Someone from the administration sat down with me and offered the next stage of programming: Mishnah, Gemara, Chumash, Ulpan. I liked the idea of getting textual, and gaining some Hebrew language skills.

That’s what did it for me. It was a case of “boy meets Gemara, and they lived happily ever after.”
There are no questions for the yeshivah student who is happily engrossed in the intricacies of the Gemara, gaining an intimacy with spiritual Intellect that is the foundation of creation. It is literally the authentic “soul food.”

Now, I’m not naïve. I understand that peer pressure and environment is a two edged sword. I’m not claiming my spiritual experience of the love of Torah is any kind of proof.

What I am saying is the experience of spiritual pleasure in Torah life, whether it be derived from Torah study, prayer, Shabbos, or good deeds, is the counterbalance to the physical urges and egocentric motivations that disturb us from perceiving the truth.

The existence of God is the single most obvious element of existence. What sometimes prevents the greatest minds from perceiving it are the biases of ego, physical desires, and a desire for unrestricted moral freedom.

No one is going to be able to batter ram the truths of Judaism down the throats of millions of secular Jews. Although presenting the evidence for the claims of Torah Judaism is an important first step, and absolutely vital in today’s marketplace of ideas, it cannot be the basis for a commitment to Torah.
This is because a human being generally does not operate on a rational basis. For example, Rabbi Galinsky tells the amusing story of a college professor who passionately lectured to him for hours about the dangers of smoking and then lit up a cigarette after the lecture.

The evidence for the existence of God and Torah M’Sinai is out there (check out www.simpletoremember.com for a selection of the material). A person can and should base his emunah on reason and knowledge. However, the crux of free will necessitates that we need something more to counterbalance the effects of egoism and physical desire, which influence us to conveniently overlook our intellect.

That’s the way to get beyond the proofs. A Jew who is sincerely motivated to become close to God and His Torah has to find an avenue of lasting spiritual pleasure that works for him/her on a personal basis and has the power to overcome the siren song of this world.

First published on Jan 10th, 2008

Why Does it Matter How We Dress?

I think I was fifteen that summer. I got all dressed up in the nicest dress I had with me. Actually I think it may have been the only dress I had with me. It was a sleeveless blue one, and I was even careful to wrap a crocheted shawl around my arms. Our counselors had told us that there was a big sign in Mea Shearim that said that we had to cover our arms when we were there.

That Saturday morning I got thrown out of the synagogue. The women in the little shul in Mea Shearim started screaming at me and calling me names in a language I didn’t understand. I found out afterwards what they were shouting at me. And, when I found out what the words meant, I realized that they had really made me feel like the low words they were shouting at me. They pushed me out of the shul and chased me away, from Judaism. It hurt a lot. I just kept thinking, “Could this be God’s world?”

Back at the youth hostel, I curled up in bed and reread the short essay on the application I had written to go on the teen tour to Israel that summer.

Application for U.S.Y. Israel Pilgrimage July-August 1971

I would love to go to Israel. Many people would love to go because of a lifelong dream they have had. When they even say the word, “Israel” something pulls strongly inside them. I respect these people greatly. I would love to feel something and believe in something as strongly as they do. I admire these people – but I don’t share in their understanding.

I feel, somehow, that Israel could help me. I want to be in the spiritual city of Jerusalem. I want to go to the land where dreams are fulfilled. I feel drawn to Israel like a magnet.

When I was in Temple, I saw an old religious man sitting in the back. He was praying with such emotion, such love, that it made my own emotionless state very evident to me. His face was filled with so many years of thought. I want to go to Israel because when I come back and say “Jerusalem” in my prayers – I will really be there – along with the old man in the back.

Then, still not ready to face the world, meaning my friends, I re-read my most recent diary entries:

July 1, 1971

i am here.

i know very strongly inside of me already that Israel and me were made for each other. after we got off the plane, the bus took us straight to jerusalem, straight to the wailing wall and the beautiful night hit me. the Bible actually came alive. it was spectacular.

I belong to this so much. It’s me. Just by being here, I feel creativity growing in me already. Touching the Wall touched something in me that is buried deeply, afraid to come out. Can I find deep within me the strength that helps that Wall to keep standing?

I can hardly believe it’s for real. The Old City looks like a fairy tale village I’ve been dreaming about for years.

july 5, 1971

The big why is hitting me in the face.

i am so spoiled.

Today we saw the memorial to the Holocaust

at Yad Va Shem.

And now we are sitting around the dining area,

complaining about the food

and our hotel rooms.

But that photo of the man with tallis and tefillin praying,

surrounded by laughing Nazi soldiers,

keeps staring at me.

How strong his prayers must have been,

With a feeling that even went beyond death,

can we still have that kind of strength?

july 16, 1971

there is still an ember glowing which i have been trying to smother. but it will just keep on glowing, probably sinking deeper and deeper into my being. is it a sacred part of me? too much for me even to speak about.

july 21, 1971

when i am praying

when i am listening and learning

i feel like myself.

The next entry, written on July 23rd, would be furiously penned. It would be about being thrown out of the first Orthodox shul I ever dared enter, the one in Mea Shearim. After that, there would be no more entries about seeking spirituality in Judaism. Not during the last two weeks of my tour in Israel, and not for years to come. My budding spirituality was replaced by cynicism. I tried to stuff my neshama down – to cushion it from further blows, but it just kept on popping up.

So I searched for spirituality elsewhere. In other religions, in expressive arts, in the vastness of science, in noble humanitarian causes, in romantic relationships with non-Jews, in all kinds of places. Places that wouldn’t judge me superficially, by how I was dressed.

And yet seven years later, after too many degrading experiences that I wish I’d never known, I finally found in Judaism, the spiritual sustenance that I was craving. Back in Israel, I found myself wandering one Shabbos morning to that same synagogue. With long sleeves and stockings, I walked in and poured myself into a prayerbook. The women, seeing my newness, helped me find the right pages. And a few invited me to their homes afterwards, to share their simple Shabbos meals.

Why did I return? Only because nothing else ever fit the same deep way. Nothing else lit up my Jewish soul. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t smother that ember that just kept on glowing in darkness. And it yearned for more. A certain sacred part of me would not go away.

The insatiable longing I had for years found the infinite pleasure it was seeking.

I also found again and again the intolerance and closemindedness that can turn so many away. And we, who have returned, despite this, can try to do all that we can to work for understanding, with all those involved.

I hope that I’d never ever throw a young woman in a sleeveless dress and a crocheted shawl out of an Orthodox shul, but I don’t live in Mea Shearim.

I don’t live in the Garden of Eden, either, though.

There, before we internalized physical desires, our bodies served as the pure garments of our souls. Once we had a taste of self-gratification from the Tree of Knowledge, however, our bodies were no longer perfectly aligned with our spiritual essence. That’s when clothes became necessary, and G-d provided us with the clothes we needed. With self-refinement, our physical bodies can journey back to be in tune with our deepest spirituality.

At fifteen, I really think those women in that shul were trying to teach me this. They didn’t know how, and they sure weren’t helpful, but they tried in their own way.

And all I can do is try in my own way too.

Fragile Wings

Where was the freedom promised?

Where was the open sky?

Come on and meet the prisoner,

Who thought that she could fly.

Religious girls in summer,

Blouses buttoned high.

I’d see long skirts, with stockings,

As I would pass them by.

I’d laugh inside me, mocking,

The girls I used to see.

Those girls are missing so much.

How trapped could people be?

But how could I have known then,

Jogging through summer rain,

I strode past them, uncovered,

In years before the pain.

Those girls kept their wings hidden,

And my own wings got crushed.

Why did I jump too quickly?

Why was my childhood rushed?

Crystalline wings they treasured,

Even at that young age.

My wings, I learned, were fragile,

When I hit bars inside the cage.

My wings have long been broken.

Can they still be healed?

Those girls now fly past rainbows.

Tell me, how does it feel?

Inside, I’m thrashing lamely.

Can I get free?

Now that I see the picture –

Reversed, ironically.

Where was the freedom promised?

Where was the open sky?

Here I am. Meet the prisoner,

Who thought that she could fly.

_______________________________________________________________________
Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of ten children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See at Home? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations for both women and children, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

The Book of the People – The ArtScroll Siddur at 25

Assuming I must have missed something — something that would be hard to miss, but stranger things have happened — I did a Google search before I wrote this article:

ARTSCROLL SIDDUR ANNIVERSARY — nope. Too narrow?

ARTSCROLL ANNIVERSARY … Nope.

For all practical purposes, at least as far as I can tell, the 25th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the Artscroll Siddur has gone unremarked.

In a way, this is of a piece with the fundamentally restrained, dignified style of Mesorah Publications. It is also consistent with the central theme of their incredible endeavor, a perspective from which 25 years is, in the scheme of things, pretty small potatoes, and in which the publishers and authors of the Artscroll “series” (really an undertaking far greater than a “series”) see themselves as conduits of something far greater than themselves.

But we can do it for them, and not only because 25 years is, in our individual lives, a very significant amount of time, but because the publication of the Artscroll Siddur in 1984 literally turned a page in the history of the Jewish people.

In a time when more Jews were more ignorant of their heritage than ever before, and more in danger of disappearing from the nation of Israel as identifying Jews in no small part because of the inaccessibility, mystery and intimidation of the tradition, Artscroll fulfilled the dictum in Pirkei Avos, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” A man was needed; more than one, in fact; but fundamentally two — Rabbis Meir Zolotowitz and Nosson Scherman — stepped forward and took the responsibility to do the work.

For all the sweat, heart and brain that was poured into the Artscroll Siddur by these men and those who worked with them, I cannot believe that they could have had an inkling of just how phenomenal this work would be, and how much it would mean to people such as you and me.
Of course they must have realized that never before had the traditional Jewish liturgy — including the full range of responsibilities of a Jew besides “merely” understanding the words of prayer found in any bilingual siddur — become so completely accessible to so many seeking access. They knew that, even if it was not perfect, no more comprehensive, approachable siddur had ever been published in the vernacular for non-scholarly use in the home and synagogue. And they cannot have been unaware of at least the possible “political” impact this assertive broadside from the once-quiescent English-speaking community of strictly orthodox or “yeshiva” Jews would have on the course of Jewish communal and religious life for a generation.

But they could not have realized what it would mean to us to find out that, yes, there is one — there is a book — a siddur — there is one work you can buy that will tell you how to do it: How to go about being really Jewish in prayer and, in no small measure, throughout the day. When to stand in shul; when to sit; what to answer; when to bow, and in which direction — all those mysteries that, observed in our peripheral vision, kept so many of us, too self-conscious or proud to look like complete dorks in an orthodox shul or to require the embarrassing personal tutelage of an insider to even consider stepping through that door.

Now we could learn how to do it, and to some degree why we were doing it, and how much more we had to do, at our own pace; in private; and on an adult level.

This was a gift of freedom that I can hardly imagine Rabbis Zlotowitz and Scherman could have understood they were giving so many of us.

The Artscroll Siddur turned 25 last August, quietly. But the voices it enabled, empowered and amplified — hundreds, no, thousands of Jewish spirits — have not only filled the Heavens with a magnificent raash gadol [great noise] for 25 years, but have unleashed an eternity of song for which so many of us and our descendants will always be grateful.

Thank you, Artscroll.

How [Do] I Know I Made the Right Choice?

As I became frum [20 years ago at age 19 and fully observant by age 20] and for the first couple of years and afterwards, I would always question “How do I know I made the right choice?”. The answer I came up with then was:

• Everything physical is temporary.
• I believe in a soul.
• I believe in G-d.
• I believe in the Revelation at Sinai.

Those beliefs were the seeds that germinated into a firm conviction of making the choice to become frum with all that it entails. Of course having the commitment to learn four years in Yeshiva and the privileged of learning with VERY patient Rabbonim to field my questions and learning Torah only helped. However, I think one of the interesting dynamics of being a BT is that once you’ve turned your life upside down for something you believe, you will do it again if compelled to do so. So am I frum 20 years later because of habit, community pressure, family pressure, etc? How do I know I made the right choice?

I heard it once said that “Judaism is not a religion, it is a relationship.”. That really captures and underscores everything – I know this is the right choice because I am in a relationship with Hashem. A healthy relationship is a two way street where both define what needs to be contributed in order to sustain and nourish the relationship. So while I may have not initially thought to keep kosher, become shomer Shabbat, observe Taharas HaMipocha, daven 3x a day with a minyan, set times for Torah study etc. – since this is important to Hashem and I want a relationship with Him – then I accustom myself to these things (which may or may not come naturally (most don’t)) to foster our relationship.

Entering into the month of Elul, I am reminded of the verse by Shlomo HaMelech from Shir HaShirim “I am to my Beloved as my Beloved is to me” which makes up the acronym for Elul. So this concept of a relationship between Hashem and every individual Jew being compared to a marriage is not new and Elul is an opportune time to reflect on that.

Marriage has its phases – dating, newlywed and married life. These phases and how they play out in a BT’s experience deserves an article unto itself but the main point is – while dating and being a newlywed are times when feelings of love are overflowing – it is only during the 3rd phase – married life i.e. “I am together with you, no matter what, forever. I am willing to compromise, grow and build a life in partnership with you.” – that living that over time creates real commitment and true love. This 3rd phase is especially real to me because I’m no longer in 1rst & 2nd phases which are often characterized by the “wide-eyed” BT immersed in the beauty of Torah without obligations. Boruch Hashem I’m married, have 8 children [ages 15-1yr], and work as an IT Program Manager as part of an overall Torah lifestyle with all that it entails. Needless to say that while its very beautiful, its also has its challenges. At this stage in life and phase in my “marriage” with all of the “Orthonomics”, I often ask myself “Hey – you are now 40 and living a life based on beliefs and information you had at 19 – how do you know you made the right decision?”.

I know this is the right choice because I am in a relationship with Hashem. So while I may have gotten “married” at 19, I’m in a 20 year long marriage that has been a dynamic relationship filled with discovery, growth, ups, challenges and a love that comes from commitment, not convenience.

Now in Elul it is especially appropriate to review and deepen my “Shalom Bayis”, my relationship with Hashem as the pasuk says “I am to mt Beloved” first, then follows “my Beloved is to me.”.

Wishes for a shanah tovah U’metuka

Should We Teach People That The Torah is the Best Worldly Tool?

When I was first becoming observant, one book that had a great effect on my thinking was Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism. It was written by a non-frum sociologist who immersed herself in two different communities of Baalei Teshuva to learn why they chose to become observant and in what ways they differed. She spent a few weeks studying at a Beis Chana Chabad Seminary for Baalos Teshuva and several weeks with the Lincoln Square Synagogue, a center for many modern orthodox Baalei Teshuva in Manhattan.

One of the major impressions that I had from this book, which, to me, reflected negatively on the modern orthodox approach to teaching Baalei Teshuva at Lincoln Square, was that their whole approach was completely this-world centered. They taught how Judaism and observance leads to a better life in this world. They showed people how being observant was healthier physically, emotionally and socially. They showed people how, if they became more observant, they could have better lives in this world. This was their main approach to outreach.

In contrast, the approach at the Chabad seminary was to encourage the women to grow in their committment to Yiddishkeit by focusing mostly on the spiritual side of it. They showed the people there how they could transcend this world and connect to G-d through keeping the Torah.

My impression was that the more “right wing” approach was to take a more direct route and actually focus on the real deal, which is that religion is supposed to bring a person closer to G-d, not merely a more “effective” life in this finite world.

However, I saw a very interesting Kedushas Levi in Parshas Vayishlach (5th piece) which speaks about this basic concept. He talks about two different stages in a person’s development. He says that when one is first beginning to get closer to G-d, the yetzer hara is very strong. The person is still so steeped in “this-world”, that they have no language or frame of reference for really focusing on the transcendent, which just doesn’t move the person at that stage because he just doesn’t speak that language yet. In order to grow in observance at that stage, a person can only fight their yetzer hara by focusing on all of the good things of this world that a person gets by keeping the Torah. In such a way, the yetzer hara is pacified and lays off a bit, and the person can grow.

But in “stage 2,” when a person is already davuk, cleaving to Hashem, then he should no longer focus on the good things of this world that the Torah will bring him. Rather, he should only focus on giving nachas ruach, pleasure to Hashem as his only motivation. At this stage, the nefesh haEloki, the G-dly soul, is so revealed that one does not need the crutch of focusing on the worldly benefits of Torah anymore to subjugate the yetzer hara. The lure of greater deveikus with Hashem and the ability to give Him nachas ruach through one’s avodah is incentive enough.

After seeing this piece in Kedushas Levi, I realized that both approaches, the Lincoln Square approach and the Chabad approach from that book are both necessary for different people, and for the same people in different stages of their development. I don’t actually know whether the teachers at Lincoln Squqre are actually aware of “Stage 2″ or not. I don’t know if they intended to help influence the members of their community to the more spiritual, G-d oriented, transcendent side of Yiddishkeit when they were ready or not. But the Kedushas Levi is teaching that this method should not be shunned. It is something necessary for each of us in the beginning stages of our avodah (which can often take a lifetime) and should be used without embarrassment because for those of us coming from a secular culture, the worldy benefits are the only ones which will speak to us until we learn how much more is out there.

I don’t think that only one or the other approaches are right. We have to know ourselves to discern which strategy to pursue when fighting our own yetzer haras and which is the right approach when teaching others. We have to know which language we and others understand and which we don’t. IY”H, we should all be zoche to take the right approach in our own inner work and when trying to be mashpiah in a positive and productive way on others.

Originally posted at Dixie Yid

Minhag BT

A BT goes to his Rabbi and says “Rabbi, I’m a Baal Teshuvah and since my father wasn’t religious, I don’t have any minhagim.” The Rabbi, with a hint of a grin, slowly shakes his head from side to side and says “That’s not true.” The BT doesn’t understand. The Rabbi continues: “Your father didn’t stand for Kiddush, right?” “And your father didn’t wear tefillin on Chol HaMoed, right?” OK, bad joke but a good introduction to the subject of Baalei Teshuvah and minhagim.

It seems that there are at least three prominent opinions on the minhagim of baalei teshuvah:

1. The pick and choose opinion which basically says that a BT does not need to follow any particular set of minhagim. He or she can choose which minhagim are meaningful to him. This opinion is most likely partially based on the fact that (in America, at least) there is no one single prominent minhag. Of course, if someone is living in a particular community within which the entire community practices one particular set of minhagim, such as in a chasidishe community or a strong German kehillah he or she would most likely be encouraged to accept such minhagim upon himself;

2. The BT should accept upon himself the minhagim of his or her Rav. This has clear practical advantages such as observing the practice of those minhagim and inquiring about the way such minhagim are conducted. It may also help speed integration; and

3. The BT should research the minhagim of his father’s ancestors based upon either actual knowledge from family members or research into the prevalent minhagim in the geographic locale from where his father came. This has the advantage of connecting to one’s past in a manner that is often of great importance to particular BTs.

Two personal notes regarding my own minhagim. I used to stand for Kiddush on Friday night. I’m not quite sure why but it’s most likely because that is the most prominent minhag I had seen. While learning shulchan aruch and its supercommentaries, it appeared to me that it seemed most proper to stand for “vayechulu…” since this paragraph is considered testimony which is given while standing (even those who state that it is not necessary to stand advise a small seated rise for the first four words) and most proper to sit for the actual Kiddush (either because that more practically attaches the Kiddush to the meal or because it more formally establishes a group and provides those listening with more kavanah). I asked my Rav whether I should continue making Kiddush as I had in the past or whether I should employ the seemingly more “preferable” method. My Rav inquired with others and advised me that, since my usual method was not based upon any family or community minhag, I should stand for vayechulu and sit for the remainder of Kiddush. So, that’s what we do.

The second personal note regards a minhag I had read about where immediately after making havdalah, the family gives tzedakah so as to start the new week with a mitzvah. I thought that this was a beautiful, meaningful minhag and so decided, bli neder, to do it in our home. Now, when we set up for havdalah, we place a tzedakah box on the table. Immediately after havdalah, we pass around coins to the family and any guests so that we can all start the week with a mitzvah.

I’d be interested in hearing how others have approached/been advised to approach the issue of minhagim.

Paths to Torah: Truth or Self-Fulfillment?

There are 70 facets of the Torah, and probably as many paths for an individual to get there as a BT. In my life as a second-time BT, I have taken at least two of them.
Very brief background: I’m a Baby Boomer who grew up in a traditional (kosher but not Shomer Shabbat) household. The synagogue we DIDN’T attend, except when we walked there on the High Holidays, was Orthodox. I went away to college at age 16, dropped all semblance of observance, acquired a Gentile boyfriend; then, when he dumped me, I found a non-observant Jewish boyfriend, and when I was 18 and he 20, we got married.

So how did I come to Torah?

My first path to Torah was through the three children we had together. I looked ahead decades and decided I wanted them to have a Jewish identity, that it would bother me very much if they would intermarry. (It wouldn’t have bothered their father at all.) So, this path was basically one of self-fulfillment: I wanted to perpetuate my heritage through my children. G-d helped me, and I succeeded in giving them an authentic Jewish education and raising them as observant Jews. They have remained so, and have raised observant Jewish grandchildren for me.

In the process of their Jewish education, I learned, too. I saw the truth and beauty of Judaism as I learned. Thus, self-fulfillment led to truth and interacted with it.

But life has twists and turns, and my life included a subsequent marriage to another man, a BT, with whom I had three more children. Unfortunately, there was abuse and violence in that marriage, and I raised the children alone for many years, after which they were wrenched from me; more on that momentarily. Fortunately, thank G-d, they all turned out OK (and also observant), and they too have given me observant Jewish grandchildren.

Life as a single mother in an observant community is not the norm, and it affected me deeply. I did not deny the truth of Torah, but I was weak, and the self-fulfillment was now largely missing. Eventually, when I married my present husband (who is non-observant like the first one was, but not quite like that – he IS open to some limited observances), I lost custody of my three younger children, which is a whole story in itself. That really precipitated my “losing my religion”: I basically went off the derech. (Just for the record, yes, each time I was divorced, I did obtain a kosher Get.)

But, because I had that grounding in the truth of the Torah from my first BT experience, it never totally went away. Some of my sins were acts of rebellion, but most were acts of weakness; the Torah distinguishes among different types of sins in those ways.

I kept a “kosher corner” in my kitchen for when my children would come to visit. Gradually I accommodated them in other ways, such as turning the refrigerator light off before Shabbat. And don’t think that didn’t “draw fire” (pun intended) in the household! It’s one of those little things that was big at the time, but which my husband has long since accepted.

I remember, quite clearly, when my daughter – who was probably about 10 or 11 at the time – was davening and wanted me to daven with her. I picked up the Siddur and tried to, but I burst into tears and said I just couldn’t. Too many observant people had hurt me along the way.

It was only after we moved to the Dallas area that I really did start coming back. DATA (Dallas Area Torah Association), the local Kollel which offers all kinds of outreach connections, held classes which I began to attend. In a way, with my previous BT background, it was as if I had gone back to kindergarten; but I needed these refresher courses, and most of all, I needed to be accepted in the non-judgmental way DATA so excels at. The warmth and the love of these genuine Torah Jews in Dallas brought me back the second time – and so, here I am, a second-time BT.

That’s just one woman’s personal journey. Can I generalize from it? The Torah is the epitome of truth, and most of us can recognize the honest truth. I think that ability is in our souls. But, it’s also how that truth is presented. Are the people presenting it living in the way that it commands? For most of us, I think there does have to be a self-fulfillment factor. Ultimately we are supposed to follow Torah Lishmah, for its own sake; but meantime we have to utilize factors that are Lo Lishmah, not for its own sake. We need both the spiritual/intellectual satisfaction that comes with the truth of Torah, and the emotional satisfaction of feeling happy and fulfilled, in order for Torah to “stick”.

The Path of a Bas Noach Baales Teshuva

By Alice Jonsson

Attempting to describe my turn towards Hashem and Torah, while being brief, is a challenge. Here’s my attempt.

Imagine a 10-story-tall catapult. But instead of a boulder the size of a VW bug, its cargo is you. Because this catapult has been cranked back slowly, each tooth clicking into place, for thirty-six years, the energy behind the launch is tremendous. You find yourself being rocketed through space, old grudges, all of the axes you were grinding, mountains that you were carrying on your shoulders are one by one falling away, making you lighter and lighter, increasing your velocity. Convinced this bizarre dream will end with a violent splat — or a human shaped hole in the middle of a field of corn with you at the bottom — you find yourself not rocketing but gently coasting at great altitude, experiencing true joy and relaxation. When it comes time to land, instead of racing towards the earth, your landing is more like a leaf flitting back and forth in the breeze, making a lazy descent towards the grassy field.

The field is a good place to end up, because that’s where you will do some great work. Despite the fact that you feel like a lunatic, albeit a gleeful one, you take the advice of a very wonderful rabbi half way around the globe and go for walks talking to the old corn stalks, ravens landing on power lines, and the grasshoppers that land on your sweater with a chirp way too loud to come from such a tiny creature. This is your synagogue and they are the congregation. There you can talk to the perfect God for you, even though this still strikes you as being totally bonkers, and amazing things begin to happen.

Of course this is a totally irrational and unscientific thing to do. But it works. Quickly. Even though you aren’t Jewish, this rabbi’s advice fits you like a custom made suit. You learn that you don’t need to be Jewish to believe in Judaism, and that there are seven laws just for you. Negative emotions that plagued you for decades dissolve, leaving you not your old self, but a person you never were. Lessons accumulated over millennia by Sages living near the Dead Sea, or deep in the woods of the Ukraine, guide you through grocery trips, dysfunctional family dinners, and help you to not lean on the horn in traffic jams.

Well, that’s how the journey began. Three years later, we live in the big city. The cornfields have been replaced with subways and burglar bars. It’s a good thing Hashem can be found anywhere because that all sounds a bit depressing, yet the tranquility found in those fields persists. We live near shuls and kollels, minyans and lunch and learns. And just like when we lived in the country, I read Jewish websites, listen to cds in my car and lectures on my MP3 player, anything to maintain the connection to God. Now that we’re in the city, Torah classes are part of my life as are a hodgepodge of fellow Torah believers: Western European Ashkenazi, Hassidim, Iranian Jews, Sephardim from Morocco, Sephardim from Mexico, Sephardim with lush Southern accents and plaid flannel kippas, soon-to-be Jews, thought-they-were-Jews, and even Gentiles-who-wish-they were Jews.

Where do Bnei Noach fit in? It’s clear that any newcomer to the world of Torah runs the risk of becoming overwhelmed by the labyrinth of traditions, commandments, communities, and politics, let alone a Gentile. But to my mind it doesn’t matter if you are a BT from a line of rabbis ten generations long or your dad’s a Methodist who married a beauty named Shoshanna. There are times you will feel in. And there are times you feel out. And when that ‘out’ feeling starts to wheedle its way in, I return to the cornfield, only this time it’s a broken sidewalk, and I’m pushing a red stroller ferrying a blonde two-year-old clutching a water bottle. Hashem is right there with me again to remind me that I am one member of an enormously complex congregation who know that the Torah is the blueprint. And that He is always there with me. And with you.

I recommend with great enthusiasm any of the cds by Rav Shalom Arush and Rabbi Lazer Brody available on Lazerbrody.typepad.com. And for a terrific, accessible approach to Torah techniques for coping with negative emotions, The Trail to Tranquility, by Rabbi Lazer Brody. Many of the techniques that have worked so well for me and for my family are described therein.

This piece was originally posted on Dixie Yid.

Being a BT and a Ger

When you meet someone who has become observant, they are usually either a Ba’al Teshuva or a Ger. I am both.

I grew up, like much of the current generation, in a relatively assimilated family. It is said that the majority of the Jewish community, outside of orthodoxy, are marrying non-Jews. Some of the non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism, but since those conversions are generally not done under halachic auspices, the non-Jewish spouses continue not to be considered Jewish. So what has become of the children of these marriages. Obviously, the children of those couples, where the husband is Jewish, are not halachicly Jewish, yet many of them were raised as Jews and believe that they are Jewish.

While doing “kiruv” work on college campuses, I developed several rules of thumb about how to tell whether a student was halachicly Jewish or not, through experience. One of them was by the student’s last name. If the student had a name like Goldberg or Rosenfeld, they were not Jewish. And if the student had a name like Diaz or O’Brian, they were probably Jewish. Intermarriage is so rampant out there that the likelihood is that almost every student has one non-Jewish parent. If they have a Jewish last name, then it is more likely that their father is the Jewish parent, and their mother is not Jewish. Whereas if the student had a non-Jewish last name, then in all likelihood the Jewish parent is probably their mother. Such are the ironies in a world of rampant assimilation.

Growing up, I was of the Goldberg/Rosenfeld variety. My father grew up in a reform Jewish household and my mother grew up belonging to the “Church of Christ” denomination. She married my father and converted to Judaism in their local reform temple. They brought me up Jewish in their reform temple. I was relatively involved in Jewish life as a reform Jew who was not halachicly Jewish. Later in life when I became interested in becoming observant, I learned that I was not considered Jewish according to the Orthodox standards I was learning about. I think that most other Jews, upon learning such news, would be turned off and reject that highly unpleasant message. However, my parents and community taught me to be open-minded towards others’ views, so I accepted that there were differing opinions about my Jewishness.

In addition to the normal hurdles faced by Ba’alei Teshuva, I also had to go through much of the same gauntlet that other Gerim go through because I had to go through a conversion to become Jewish, even though I had always considered myself Jewish until that point. There certainly were some interesting and amusing events that took place during that period when I was getting ready to be megayer, as I was living in all other ways as a frum teenager. One interesting fact, that I only found out about years later, was that there had been a meeting in NCSY’s national administration about whether to let this Shomer Shabbos/Negia/Kol Isha, tzitzis laiden kid who wasn’t Jewish on one of their trips to Israel.

Over the years, I have only met a handful of other Ba’alei Teshuva who had to go through Gerus because of the Jewish status of their mother. Most people are “regular” Ba’alei Teshuva who were always Jewish but became observant. It seems that it must be difficult for people in my situation to find their way back, which is a bit disappointing to me. If there are any of you out there, please comment! Hashem should help all of His children come back to him!

-Dixie Yid (http://dixieyid.blogspot.com)

Looking for the Jew in Every Crowd

I often wonder what the catalyst was that sparked my return to Judaism. I mean the real catalyst. I can name you the month and the year when I took the first step to where I am right now — mitzvos observant, Shomer Shabbos, a baalas teshuvah just out of the nest. It was June 2001 to be exact, just four months before the defining moment of 9/11, when our whole world changed.

Oh, I know what crashed open the door for me. A Jewish forum like this one was my gateway to frumkeit, having conversations with people like my now-husband Eliahu about Judaism and what it really meant.

It all started with an argument. Don’t many beginnings? I was adamant I was just as much a Jew as any Torah observant Jew. I used the argument I’ve often heard from other Jews determined to defend their secular way of living. You know the one — “Hey! I’m just as much a Jew as you are. They would have made me wear a yellow star just like you.” As if Hitler was the arbiter of who is a Jew. Interesting that we do that — use fiendish Nazi policies to defend our Jewishness.

But I think my journey started long before those internet conversations that fascinated and ultimately ensnared me.

I graduated from my predominantly-Jewish public high school and forayed out into the world carrying a massive block of Jewish granite on my shoulder. Was it guilt? Was it fear? Was it defiance? Was it self-protection?

Virtually the first words out of my mouth at college were, “Hi! My name is Melanie and I’m Jewish, so there. If you don’t like me, I understand.”

I was expecting rejection, and made it easy for them.

I was always very worried I wouldn’t be accepted out in the real world, having gone to a Jewish but secular parochial school and then public schools that were 80-90 per cent Jewish. Pretty well all my pals growing up were Jewish, although I did have one good Catholic friend. The black rosary beads on her dresser and the crucifixes on her wall were repugnant and fearsome to me, yet we were great buddies.

This “I’m Jewish, so there” attitude was understandable. I grew up knowing about the horrors of the Holocaust and was fully indoctrinated into the “we Jews are different” worldview. I was well aware we were the object of much hatred and derision. And so I maintained this attitude, always fearful that I would be rejected because I’m Jewish.

This attitude underscored and permeated all of my friendships and my conversations. I’d stridently argue for Israel and rail against anti-Semitism. I ended friendships if they hinted at anything less than total support and empathy. I stopped talking for years to a friend when, during a conversation he said to me, “Oh you Jews and your Holocaust hobby horse. Why don’t you get over it already.”

I realize now that, as immersed as I was in the secular world, I never felt comfortable. I was always holding my breath, waiting to be found out.

I once had a summer job during college packing schoolbooks in a warehouse. I turned myself into a pretzel trying not to appear Jewish to this warehouse full of uneducated goyim. One day, I got busted. It was the year of my sister’s wedding and I was so excited. I was blathering on about her Sunday wedding and suddenly there was dead silence. “Sunday? She’s getting married on Sunday?” someone asked.

Stammering, I said, “Oh well, yeah, Saturday and Sunday. It’s a whole weekend thing.”

Not one person was convinced.

Sometime later that summer, the same lady piped up and said, “I always knew you were Jewish.”

“How?” I asked. “Your nose,” she said.

Over the years, I came to realize that everywhere I went, no matter what the situation, I always looked for the Jew in every crowd. And found them.

I had a GPS System for spotting them. I kept a mental roster, a who’s who of Jews in any particular situation. At my college. At my tennis club. At work. Everywhere I went.

And I think that is what really has kept the pilot light burning in me, waiting for the right trigger to turn me on. This cultural identification. The knowledge that out there are people like me with a connection dating back 3319 years to Har Sinai.

I first struck out on my own when I was 21. It was 1978 and I had taken a summer internship on a newspaper in the northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie, just across the St. Mary’s River from Sault, Michigan.

There were less than 15 Jewish families in a population of 40,000, and it was all pretty well French, Italian and Indian. A most Catholic city.

Here I was, all alone for the first time, far from home. I was so green you could have planted me.

I had been given the name of a woman to call so she could show me around and have me over for a meal with her family. I was too shy to call, and so I went out hoping to find the one synagogue in the city.

I found it, with Hashem as always guiding the way. It happened that all of the Jewish women in the community were there that day preparing for their Hadassah bazaar. I was very homesick, and it was wonderful to run into these 10 or so Yiddische mamas. It gave me the boost I needed to settle into the job that would launch my career. Sitting in Helen’s kitchen, looking at Manischewitz matzoh meal in her cupboard, was just like sitting in my mother’s kitchen.

I puttered along for the summer, and one day, I stumbled on a plaque near a small church. The plaque said, “Ezekiel Solomons, the First Jewish Settler in Sault Ste. Marie-Among-the-Hurons.” I just about fell down in astonishment.

A Jewish fur trader? Here? Yep.

It just goes to show you how small and connected the Jewish world is. You can find us anywhere. In every crowd

The Choice

People ask me all the time why I became religious. For the longest time I didn’t have an answer. I’d attended public school my whole life. I played varsity sports and was even nominated for Prom Queen. When I told people I had decided to attend Yeshiva University in New York they were flabbergasted. Why hadn’t I decided on UCLA or USC like most of my other friends? What is a yeshiva? Do you want to be a Rabbi? I’d explained to them that I liked the idea of the co-curriculum that Yeshiva University offered. In addition to the Liberal Arts and Science classes that other colleges offer, Yeshiva required all students to take a full course load of secular subjects as well as classes in Judaic studies, Jewish history and philosophy, and the Hebrew language. To be honest, I liked the idea that these classes were required. It wasn’t up to me whether on not to take a class. It was the rule.

Growing up, my parents made sure we knew our heritage. We attended a synagogue with a traditional Rabbi and were sent only to Jewish summer camps. We went to services on the High Holidays and my brothers and I had our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at 13. I, mostly for the party and presents, but so be it. We happily ate my Granny’s latkes every holiday whether it be Chanukah, Passover, or Thanksgiving. We were, in my eyes, an ordinary Jewish American family. But to me, going to temple, having a Seder, dancing the horah at my Bat Mitzvah, they were all physical things. I wasn’t connected to the spirituality of these events.

The camp I attended every summer in Southern California was run by an Orthodox group. It was an interesting mix. Half of the kids came from observant homes, the other half were public school kids just like me. So as you can imagine, they infused a lot of Judaism into the camp day. Each morning started with prayer groups. The religious kids were given a prayer book and each one had a chance to pray on their own. The rest of us would sit with a counselor singing Jewish songs and learning a couple of prayers. I remember being so envious of the other kids. I saw them swaying back and forth with their eyes closed murmuring things in Hebrew. I remember thinking, how cool is that? It was as if they were having their own little meeting with God. All I felt like I was doing was singing words to a tune. I wanted to know how to do what they were doing.

Being a typical preteen, when posed with the option of a Shabbat program with my youth group or a Saturday morning softball game I chose softball. An optional prayer class or a trip to the mall and 7/11, I chose the Slurpee. I liked the idea of increasing my understanding of Jewish observance but could not be compelled enough to give up all the other things I enjoyed doing. Therefore, as it came time to choose a college I guess I realized it was time to make things happen. I could choose UCLA with its active Hillel that offers abundant classes on Jewish topics, or I could choose a university where Jewish class attendance was not voluntary but was expected of the student body. Finally at age 18, I decided to opt out of the easy choice. Instead I decided to trek cross country to attend Yeshiva University in New York City and begin my formal Jewish education. It was this choice that changed my life.

While at the University, I attended all the beginners track Judaic studies classes. I took beginners Hebrew, beginners Bible (starting with Genesis, of course), and beginners Jewish philosophy. But the classes that interested me most, were essentially pertaining to how to lead a Jewish life. It was in these classes that I learned what it means to believe in God, how to observe Jewish life cycle events, and the topic that forever intrigued me, how to pray. It reminded me of when I was in camp growing up and how badly I wanted to daven like the other kids. Not only did I learn how to pray and what to pray, but I learned why we pray. Prayer is sometimes referred to as service from the heart. It literally is an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with God. We can praise Him for everything he has done for us. We can ask him for the things we need like good health and sustenance. And we can thank Him for always being there for us and listening to us when we need Him. Before I learned this, the only time I really prayed was while opening my report card or while stepping up to bat at my softball games. I finally understood the spirituality of it all. Its not just murmuring words. Its about feeling what you are saying and speaking from your heart, not just your head.

I’m not saying I’m perfect. No one is. Everyday I feel like I have the opportunity to do more with my life religiously and spiritually. I took my religious growth very slowly. I believe all Jews have a flame ready to burn brightly within them. All they need is a spark to ignite it. I’ve seen people take on too much too quickly on their path towards observance. These individuals were not able to hold on to that spark. I started small, reciting blessings over food, going to synagogue on Shabbat, and most recently, reciting mincha, the afternoon prayers, every single day. Everyday I feel like I have the opportunity to do more with my life religiously and spiritually. Everyone is capable of being a good Jew. It takes just one act, one mitzvah to get started. Go visit a friend that’s in the hospital. Make a commitment to learn Hebrew so you can follow along at services. Give to charity. Whatever it may be, its these little acts that help perfect the world and make living here a more peaceful experience.