Gerishe converts

Easy reading version here

[10:47:51 PM] me: did heshy ever write about the gerische converts who are all quoting artscroll n stuff
[10:48:12 PM] ploni: dont think so
[10:48:40 PM] me: i think i have to expose this problem

I was invited over for shabbos lunch after a long fiasco with the rabbi of my shul emailing this lady who he thought I should meet and her emailing me, and planning for next week cause “this week isn’t good.” Finally in her house, I found myself standing inevitably in front of her bookcase, noticing a theme. I immediately saw The Shabbos Kitchen and The Laws of Yom Tov, both the recognizable colors and fonts of Binyamin Frost or Simcha Cohen books. The way you can recognize a Feldheim book a mile away. Then I saw a little cluster of Women’s Issues books, namely the Secret of Femininity, Women’s Wisdom, and Halichos bas Yisrael. And flanking this was ArtScroll to either side, above and below. ArtScroll siddurim, ArtScroll Talmud (her husband’s, I presumed). ArtScroll machzor. ArtScroll Ohel Sarah.

I like to judge people by their bookcases, and this one was saying something pretty clearly. Of course, The Shabbos Kitchen had also made an appearance in the shul’s bookcase, so I thought maybe these were just unusually good reads, despite their so obviously being part of an all-in-one series. Nevertheless, I had to find out if my suspicion was true; why she would have such a strange and generic collection. I pulled out Halachos bas Yisroel and brought it to the kitchen, where she was getting a salad ready.

“Is this a good book?” I asked.

“Yeah, I really recommend it. I read it during…my conversion.” I stared at her, wondering if I should also divulge my secret.

“Hey, I’m converting too!” I exclaimed a little too loudly. Suddenly I realized why the rabbi thought we should be friends.

“Oh, really? We should really talk. Yeah, that’s a great book. I think they sell it at Eichler’s.” The first thing I thought was how lame she was being for not just letting me borrow it, but I figured I had at least three more hours there so I’d better not. Maybe for some reason she wanted to keep it. Maybe for some reason she wanted to keep all her conversion books. Maybe for some reason she didn’t think it was necessary to move on already. But again, I tried not to think about this.

We finally sat down and I talked to her husband a bit while she started bringing the food to the table. Mostly, as soon as he heard I was converting, the conversation revolved around such topics as why tefillin dates would never happen here in Flatbush, and how you “have to have faith in the chukkim.”

After about twenty minutes of this, with her waiting patiently as he kept plowing on, they announced that they had a different kiddush tradition, a “yekkish tradition,” which involves washing for bread before kiddush. Not a big deal, but “much more efficient,” as he said.

“Here, let us wash,” she said to me, leading me into the kitchen. She filled the cup and looked at me expectantly, as if we were really sharing a moment. It was weird. So after all that, we went back to the table and after hamotzi she brought the cholent to the table. She did something I hadn’t seen in a while, which was actually take everyone’s plate for them and serve them. I think she even actually said “let me serve you.” I felt a little uncomfortable, as I always do when the host is doing all the work, and as I always do when the husband doesn’t do any of the work.

The discussion was pretty plain for a while, with the husband doing most of the talking, and mostly talking about his “yekkish traditions,” and her occasionally adding in such trivia she assumed I didn’t know as a mere conversion candidate, such as “we take our husband’s traditions.” This went on for a good while. I think he gave a dvar torah, although I don’t really know what the conclusion was cause he tapered off toward the end as if he just lost steam, without really having planned an actual ending to it. After we ate, the conversation took a turn. I’m the one who brought it there. I asked her what books she had to read for her conversion.

“Well, they do highly recommend the ArtScroll siddur,” she said, naively clutching her Ohel Sarah. She was quoting the RCA website almost verbatim.

“Oh, I already have a siddur,” I added quickly. “I’m a Koren fan.”

They both briefly discussed the fact that they weren’t too familiar with Koren, but that they heard of the Koren Sacks siddur and they knew people who didn’t like it.

“I’m just so attached to my Ohel Sarah,” she said. I gawked at her.

“Really?”

“I’m a big fan of ArtScroll,” her husband chimed in.

“You can handle that? The women’s siddur?” I asked her, a bit too incredulous for a casual getting-to-know-you shabbos lunch conversation.

“What do you mean?” I knew she didn’t get what I was talking about, and at this point it was all coming together, the “serving” and the patiently listening to her husband’s bad dvar torah, so I decided to save myself.

“I guess, there’s just so much…um, commentary.” I stopped there to avoid too much argument.

“I guess so, but that’s one thing ArtScroll’s really good for, if you ever want to know the laws of something, you can just look it up in ArtScroll.”

“It’s like, what do they say, you’re looking it up in Rabbi ArtScroll,’ her husband said. “Rabbi ArtScroll. Heh heh.” The conversation was becoming so ironic I could hardly stand it.

“So how is it so different? Why do you need a women’s siddur?” I asked.

 “Well, there’s no blessings for tallis and tefillin,” she said quickly, “cause we don’t do that.”

“I know,” I said, a little indignant that she felt she had to teach me this very basic point.

“There’s also a lot of prayers in the back for shidduchim, to find a spouse, for your husband, for your children’s livelihood…”

“Yeah, cause I really need all those right now.” I could feel the tension between us, but I just couldn’t stop. How could she, especially as a convert, not see that women might have things other than their nonexistent children or nonexistent husband on their minds? She just stared at me blankly.

Later on, I innocently asked if women daven maariv. I suppose I started this, asking her all these questions, but she seemed glad to take on the role of repeating everything she’d just read in all those conversions books on her bookshelf. She said it was OK to do it, but if you do it too often, she tried to explain this to me in simple laymen’s terms, you might actually end up obligating yourself!

“Does that actually happen in practice?” I asked. Her husband stepped in.

“Women shouldn’t daven maariv more than occasionally…Women shouldn’t do it…they don’t want to seem obligated or…obligate themselves…you can go in to the shul Friday night, just to see how they do it, but you shouldn’t become a regular…”

“Wait, so if women shouldn’t do the things they are exempt from, how come women hear shofar and things like that?”

She answered. “Well, women only have to hear 30 blasts of the shofar, but men have to hear all 100.”

“But those women obligated themselves.”

“Yes, now it is required for women to hear shofar.”

“But you just said women shouldn’t do things they are exempt from.”

It was becoming a circular conversation, and I was getting angry that they were both just spouting out things they picked up from random conversion books, and checking the answer against their ArtScroll siddurim, and then giving the answer to me as if it were fact.

“Women shouldn’t do those things that they weren’t commanded to do, so they don’t accidentally obligate themselves,” her husband continued. “That would be a real problem. That was the problem with Rashi’s daughters…you know….they wore tefillin…” The problem with Rashi’s daughters? “Cause later on down the road, you don’t want to have to keep doing these things when you have to take care of small children…”

“Cause most women have small children,” the wife explained. “That’s why we were exempt from the time-bound mitzvot, as they say.”

“Most women?” Blank stare. “I guess in those communities…”

“Yes, in many communities, women can have up to fourteen children!”

“But here’s the thing I don’t get. I don’t have any children. I have so much time in my life. It seems like a cop-out to say, ‘oh, I’m exempt! I have so much time, but I’ll just not do anything!’”

“Yes, and that’s why I daven most of shaharit. When, God willing, I have children, I won’t have time to daven anymore, I’m sure!”

She was acting like a really Orthodox FFB sheitel lady who’d never heard anything different. But she wasn’t. She was a convert. She got all this from books and internalized them. What annoyed me, though, was the fact that she was repeating what these books said, basically quoting them, without any opinion or sidenote on the matter. The books told her she wants fourteen children, so she wants fourteen children. A wise person told me that I am likely annoyed at certain things because I also do those things. This is probably true in this case, cause I’m sure I do quote conversion books and things as if they were fact.

I’ll tell you one thing though, and that’s that I never want to be like this lady. I’m not extremely excited that I’ll have to read this standardized book list, just like the standardized tests in high school, just so I can spout generic conversion book information without really saying anything. Personally, I’d be embarrassed to have the RCA conversion books on my bookshelf…it was as if she thought that once she’d read these, she’d know the corpus.

After dinner, just for kicks, I was starting to get into it, I asked what they’d told her about women learning gemara.

“Women are discouraged from learning the Oral Law,” she said, as if on cue, “but I’m sure women could still pick up a gemara and look through the pages.” It was amazing. She was so gerishe. She had no personal opinions. Well, if she did, she certainly didn’t share them that day. She spoke like a conversion book…if you’ve never read one, they are kind of ironic in that they state their position, usually without sources, as if it’s the only position. The ironic part is that different conversion books have different positions. Their authors are usually pretty opinionated, and it’s rare to find a conversion book that actually states there might be more than one position (usually framed in a phrase such as “most authorities rule what I believe, although a minority do not. We usually follow what I believe though, as it is highly unusual to find otherwise in most communities today.”)

When I originally asked whether Halichos bas Yisrael was a good book, I’d just assumed she’d know I meant “Is it just like the rest of the ‘women’s issues’ books?” I can’t really imagine a woman reading Ohel Sarah and actually getting into reading all the commentary on every single page on how such-and-such a bracha is actually not a requirement for women and if you want to be machmir you should just not say any at all. I guess some do get into that. I wanted to ask her if she felt like she was actually worth anything apart from her husband constantly having to be motzi her for everything or whether she noticed that in lots of ways women were almost legislated out of existence in Jewish law, so much so that an entire women’s siddur had to be made because of the implication that the “regular siddur” is made with men in mind.

I wonder if she ever once suspected there was a double standard, as her husband started lecturing me on how women “should never daven maariv more than just occasionally, because you don’t want to do more than you have to, that’s like saying ‘look I’m better than everyone,’” and then as he immediately segued into all the great chumros he picked up from his lubavitcher days. I wonder if she ever even thought about these things, since they weren’t exactly in any books.

Suddenly I felt a little repulsed. I looked at her husband sitting in his easy chair, as he went on about how mayim achronim “just isn’t a women’s thing” after I asked how women could be exempt after Halichos bas Yisrael just told me it was only a custom to begin with. I glanced at the ArtScroll Hebrew/English masecheta on the table beside him. I imagined him reading it in English, reading the ArtScroll commentary, and paskening for his wife as if she couldn’t just go over and read the commentary just as well. And here he was trying to pasken for me. “Yeah, I hear it’s not a women’s thing, really.”

She checked her Ohel Sarah. “Here, it says mayim achronim is just a stringency. Since it is a custom accepted by men, we do not do it.” Problem solved. And with such self-sufficiency!

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11 thoughts on “Gerishe converts

  1. Laura,

    I’m sure you know by now that Orthodoxy is a spectrum, not a monolith. My wife has no interest in putting on tefillin, but she is in a co-ed Mishnah shiur. We sent our daughters to schools where they had the option to learn Gemara if they chose to do so.

    And I usually don’t sit at the table while my wife fetches the food.

  2. Totally relate to all of this and the other posts that I’ve read. I don’t mean to pull a “I was like you when I was your age,” but I totally did the eating shabbat meals with people with appalling attitudes, and start arguments without even meaning to, and then it would get all tense, and they would feel like they had to assert their correctness, and I would look down on them (justly, I still think). If I can give a global piece of advice from the standpoint of my 30s, somehow life happens no matter what, and no one ends up being as clearly defined as you thought they were. One girl I went to seminary with who asked the rabbi whether it’s permitted to play soccer in public is apparently eating treif chicken wings, according to what she posted on facebook. Lots of girls from seminary who seemed to be way frummer than me turned out just to be experimenting with that, or using seminary as a way to force themselves to be frummer than they would have been otherwise, and they became normal once they got out. Just be yourself and everything works out. I know that sounds like something out of Degrassi Junior High (did you even watch these growing up? — it was part of my high school’s advisory period, but they were also on TV), but really it’s true. You are definitely not alone in your reasons for conversion — I also converted for “men’s” reasons, having grown up Jewish, and I felt alone and definitely in lots of settings I was, but somehow everything fell out well, and I have found people like me everywhere I’ve lived, and I’ve lived in tons of Jewish communities around the US and in Jerusalem. No worries. Good luck.

  3. Btw, on the Davidson book that you mention in an earlier post, the purpose of her study was to contrast the women who became frum with Chabad with those who became frum with Lincoln Square Synagogue. Her study can’t say anything about men because men just weren’t in the scope of her study. The women who became frum with Chabad had more chaotic and traumatic backgrounds, and she hypothesized that the structure and stricture was what they wanted. The women who became frum in Lincoln Square were just after smaller life upheavals such as a divorce or maybe even things like college graduation or a move that had left them isolated and with a space in their life where they might wonder what’s next for them, but no need to feel especially structured. My observation is that men who become much more strict are often reacting to trauma or upheaval in their lives as well, and that’s true also for other religions too — evangelical street preachers seek out people after trauma because they’re more receptive to the message.

  4. Interesting. I guess different converts in different communities are different?

    In my yeshiva (Machon Meir in Jerusalem), which is a BT yeshiva, there was also a conversion program, and in general, I found my classmates to be among some of the most inquisitive, critically-thinking people I have ever met. Almost no one was of the “do it before an authority told me so” sort. It was extremely refreshing. I am no longer there, but I still talk to some of my classmates on Facebook, and I have found, for example, that many of them respond far better to my own libertarianism (which I post about a lot) than the FFBs and non-Jews I know. For example, when I say something like, “Demand curves slope downward, and therefore minimum wage legislation causes unemployment”, they seem more likely than FFBs and the gentile population at large to realize that I am correct. So somehow, in my experience, being a BT or convert tends to correspond to being more critically-thinking than the average.

    So this post here by you was … hilarious but alien to me. Very interesting. Thank you.

  5. I never heard of a yeshiva having a conversion program…
    I always think of conversion as a time where you shouldn’t be too inquisitive, because you’re sort of only there converting because of the goodwill of others, and why alienate them with your apikoros? Still, I have to admit I hadn’t actually met a gerishe convert until this lady. Verily, I really did mean “is this book appropriately feminist you-know-what-I-mean” when I asked if that halichos bas yisrael was any good. It’s like her favorite book.
    It’s weird because even though I pretty much agree with you with regard to converts and BTs, the gerishe convert seems to be a pretty typical case. Similar cases: The Frummer Than You Convert, who pick all the chumros to do cause they’re in the book. Different from Gerishe Converts in that I feel like it’s accidental, and it doesn’t necessarily come with other weird novelties such as picking Hebrew names no one would ever use, like Sarah Rivka or Leah Esther. The Philosophy 101 Convert, who knows just enough to be able to argue a false position for 30 minutes with sources.

  6. I get so frustrated with people who just repeat things that they heard without ever digesting it. It happens with FFBs and BTs..it happens with everyone unfortunately. Judaism is not a religion of blind following, we are supposed to question and dig and understand. My blood pressure was going higher and higher as i read this post. How could you be so ignorant and so wrong and think you are so right?!! Learn, question grow..thats my philosophy.

  7. Has anyone tried to emagine themselves in these people’s shoes? How r they suppose to know any different since they are using the sources given to them.

    How are they suppose to digest it, who tought them to digest it. It was a long road and a hard one just to get themselves where they are.

    The more they learn the more they will do. But their doing depends on what they r learning and by whom.

    Are they not trying to do what they been told is right. The more they learn the more the.y will do as it is very obviouse to me where their hearts are.

    I am a BT and out there it’s so confusing, if even what you read is not what’s followed how on earth is one to undestand.

    A BT leaves everything to do what is right in the eyes of HaShem. But since there are many ways how does one even choose? It seems where ever I look almost BT are criticized. Yet most times there is no help on where and how to go about doing things. So u do what u think is right. How else would any BT know what to do.

    It’s so easy to criticise without offering a solution.

  8. Pingback: Language at Drisha (and beyond etc.) | Jewschool

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