Language at Drisha (Language for all)

Crossposted at Jewschool

Words are pretty cool. Sometimes they stay in one place, and sometimes they cross state lines. Sometimes certain types of words spread like wildfire. I don’t mean gossip; I mean words like “cat” or “bank.” For example, I was born in Connecticut, so I still say “pocketbook.” I brought “pocketbook” all the way down to Virginia, where my “pocketbook” encountered everyone else’s “purses.” It was barely a fight. I haven’t traded my “pocketbook” in for a “purse” yet, and it’s been years.

Still, in other environments, some words enjoy an almost guaranteed takeover. When I was at Drisha over the summer, nothing in the kitchen was free for the taking. Lot of things were hefker, though. “Ownerless.” It seemed that as the summer wore on, more and more things were hefker. And kal vachomer, if we were saying hefker we were definitely saying davkaDavka was thrown around like a baseball at Drisha. Once it showed up in our sugya, and once our gemara teacher started saying it, everyone in our class started saying it. Heikhi, how does this happen? Well, for one thing, our class wasn’t picking up much from Talmud 3 down the hall. Our class was together three and a half hours a day, and words tend to spread that way. I don’t know what the other classes talked about but we, Talmud 1, were learning ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son, and that’s where our vocabulary came from.

For that month, our life was the ben sorer u’moreh. Our jokes were ben sorer u’moreh-themed (maybe that was just me). On the last day of class, we bought OU Dairy bacon and grape juice, as an elaborate joke based on the fact that for someone to be a ben sorer u’moreh he must meat and drink wine…but only if he stole it from his parents first (both of whom must look and sound the same). We expanded this into a bigger joke, saying that his parents only owned one item, the clock in our own classroom. When the clock went missing one day, we said the ben sorer u’moreh had stolen it.

Drisha just worked like that. Most of the girls had just come from seminary, so it was an opportunity to re-enter an immersive “Torah everything” environment for them. But for people like me, this was a completely new concept. Of course you’re not going to ask if those donuts are free; you’re going to ask if they’re hefker.

I’m reading a book called Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor. It’s about the language of ba’alei teshuva; when, why, and how certain words or styles are acquired. Not surprisingly, her frumspeak hierarchy is: Periphery, Community, and Yeshiva. As BTs become more involved and invested, she explains, their way of speaking changes accordingly. This isn’t so surprising; after all, if everyone around you is using sav, eventually you will have to decide if sticking with tav is worth making you different. And vice versa. Some BTs enjoy emphasizing their differences from FFBs (she actually opens and closes the book with Matisyahu, naturally). Some want nothing more than to blend in.

It’s easy and linear when someone raised Modern Orthodox is joining a yeshivishe community. It’s a little more interesting to put people from secular, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chasidishe backgrounds into a non-denominational place like Drisha. More than once did I respond to “Shabbat shalom” with “Good shabbos,” which violates all natural laws of language, seeing as I was raised far less observant than anyone else I knew there, and should have used “Shabbat shalom” like the child of secular Reform intermarriage I was. I didn’t start saying “Shabbat shalom,” but they didn’t have to start saying “Good shabbos,” either. Reading from Tanach was interesting. It didn’t default to Modern Orthodox pronunciation as one might expect, but rather a mix. However, the exceptions prove the rule, as far as I’m concerned. Where “Good shabbos” didn’t bring us together, davka did instead.

It’s not limited to words, of course. When I read “the ‘hesitation click‘ is a feature of Orthodox communities,” I knew immediately what Benor meant, and I laughed. She writes that it is a feature of Israeli Hebrew, but as I hadn’t heard it until coming to Drisha, I thought it was just one person’s idiosyncrasy. It spread rapidly, though, and (as I delightfully noted) across denominational lines.

Drisha is one place where language isn’t necessarily correlated with ideological or denominational lines. It’s like its own microcosm.

Learning to be Jewish, or: All the Connotations of “Baruch Hashem”

Let me tell you about the time I first went in to meet the RCA conversion rabbi.

It was the middle of July, and I went straight from gemara class at Drisha to my appointment. I took the train to canal st. and transferred to the J or Z or some weird train nobody ever takes, and met the rabbi inside his shul. He was very friendly, which I’d expected coming in since I had already talked to him via email and he was a speedy emailer (a rare breed indeed). I’d also heard good things through the grapevine about the manhattan beit din.

Anyway, the first thing he asked was the Dreaded Question, “So, why do you want to be Jewish?” (Or as R’ Freundel says, “So, why do you want to do this crazy thing?”) I’d written this whole long application essay on the topic, using words like “true” and “knowledge.” I’m not really one to write a wimpy emotional essay.

“Besides what you wrote in your essay,” he added. “That’s a fine reason, but it can’t be your only reason.”

I stared off into space, trying to look contemplative instead of mad that I had to come up with some crap emotional reason. “I just feel connected to it, I guess,” I said. I wanted to add, “Like a limb,” but alas I didn’t. That seemed to be enough, though, and we quickly moved on to practice.

“Do you keep kosher?” he asked.

“Well…I’ve been trying to more now that I live in New York, and I can now, and…”

“So you keep fully kosher.”


“And you keep shabbos, and all that?”

“Yes.” Pretty simple so far.

“Except for doing one violation, you know…”


He tried to throw me a curveball. He asked me about the types of reshuts and how to carry in them on shabbos, and of course now I don’t remember them at all but luckily I had just learned them in halacha class at Drisha! I named them off and I think he was impressed. Those reshuts seem pretty esoteric, in that I hadn’t heard about the types of reshuts in any conversion books. Curveball avoided. Then he asked me about what you could and couldn’t heat on shabbos, including soups.

“Is that a trick question?” I asked.

“Just answer what you would do personally,” he said jovially.

I said I wouldn’t do it. But he saw through it. He said I had lots of knowledge but I needed more aid in cooking on shabbos. “Kashrut is easy once you know the basics,” he told me. “But cooking on shabbos is a lot more complicated.

“And your views on the Torah…” Oh, there it was! The question I’d been warned about by all my apikoros friends!

I acted confused. “In what way?”

“You know, Sinai, and all that.”

“Yeah, I believe in it. Torah…miSinai…and everything…” He nodded. Just to make it clear, I quickly stammered, “It’s weird that like, liberal jews and stuff, how can you not believe in it and still be practicing? I mean, like in Conservative Judaism…” (I was still on my Conservative Judaism kick at the time) “…basically they say that the community determines observance, and I just think you have to have a baseline cause without Torah what do you have etc.” He gave me a knowing glance and asked me if I could read Hebrew yet.

A quaint question when you just left untranslated gemara class to come to this appointment.

“I can read it.” He pulled out a tanach and said he’d find a nice easy sentence for me to read. I read it and translated it, and for some reason this was when the switch turned on I think because he was highly impressed. He said my hebrew was great, even though I just read about how yaakov went down to the land of canaan or whatever and a year of biblical hebrew at w&m told me that this was pretty standard fare. Nonetheless, apparently it’s impressive judging by the amount of time people have said to me, “Oh, you’re converting? Do you know any hebrew yet? Oh, did you need an english bentcher?” No, I do not need an english bentcher.

He told me I did great on all the questions and said all I really had to do now was learn the “jargon.” It was strange because, out of all the “tests” he gave me, he didn’t test me on my “jargon.”

“You know, like ‘baruch hashem’,” he said. I laughed on the inside. He thought I’d have to learn ‘baruch hashem.’ Little did he know I have a blog with a glossary of terms including, but not limited to, ‘baruch hashem.’

I wonder why he just assumed I wouldn’t know the culture at all. I started learning to be jewish long before I moved to brooklyn. I know that you get something living in an orthodox neighborhood that you wouldn’t get living in rural virginia, but I’m really rather shocked that he assumed I would be coming in with nothing. I’d spent the last year making fun of the ‘goyish’ aspects of w&m with my friend, and reading frum satire, and reading orthodox blogs, and listening to shemspeed.

I did learn, however, what it means to be jewish in a jewish community. Externally. And although being in new york has ironically made me less religious, I’m more connected to it culturally than ever before (for better or worse). This has nothing to do with learning the jargon so much as internalizing it in a way that can only be done when you see that everyone else is doing it, if you know what I mean. I could say ‘baruch hashem’ all day long when I’m alone in my room in rural virginia, but it doesn’t really have much meaning until you live in a place where other people are saying it, because then you can see when and in what context. More importantly, you can see how you yourself relate to these other people saying ‘baruch hashem’ in such contexts.

For example, when your friend says ‘baruch hashem’ almost every five minutes, you can start to think to yourself, ‘wow, that’s annoying.’ Guess what conversion books don’t teach you? That’s it’s OK to be annoyed by that ‘baruch hashem’ person you know.

You can see what makes you different.  (The following paragraph is highly ny-centric.) You can learn that everyone went to day school, everyone went to summer camp, everyone has been to israel, everyone lives with their parents well into their 20’s, all the girls get jobs as either babysitters or teachers, everyone goes to the catskills for the summer, everyone goes to such-and-such place for motzei shabbos, you learn that one neighborhood is like this, and the other neighborhood is like that.

You learn how to answer “Oh, do you know so-and-so? Which high school did you go to?” You learn how to shut those questions down. You learn how to talk like you’re constantly giving a shiur (you know what I mean). You learn what different lengths of skirt mean. You learn what makes someone MO meikil or MO machmir (and you’re not really sure if you enjoy the fact that you know this). You learn that there will be tons of people asking for money on the street friday afternoon. You learn more cholent recipes than you wished to hear.

Guess what? It doesn’t have much to do with religion, but that’s how you learn to be jewish.

what to expect when you’re expecting (to leave nyc)

Well, my job is done here. I’m leaving new york in twelve days and when I look back I think I learned a few life lessons. And all it cost me was $4,000 and my soul. I don’t regret it, though. I am going to regret, however, all the questions when I get back. “So, how was it?” “Why did you come back?” “How are you going to be Jewish now?” That last one is the one I’m looking forward to the least. How to even begin?

Luckily, these will be polite southerners asking and not nosy new yorkers, so hopefully it won’t be too bad but in any case I’ll have to–solely with my wit–counteract their thinking that I left because I hate orthodoxy. Oh, they’d like that wouldn’t they? I’m going to begin every conversation with “I love orthodoxy even more now” just to make sure the thought doesn’t even cross their mind.

I’m not about to tell them the real reason. Not really because it’s complicated so much as I know how simplistic their proposed solution will be–“Why can’t you just be conservative/recon? There’s a conservative/recon shul right here!” One thing I won’t miss about flatbush is uptightness and the mitzvah police, but at the same time I have never seen a liberal replication of the community that orthodoxy makes (except maybe hadar).

I think new york did something to me. I feel more intolerant of gentiles who are amused by judaism and while before I could have been at least a little amused with them, now it’s just becoming an irritant. For instance, one of my friends posted this picture from Humans of New York on my fb wall:

He said he saw it and it made him think of me.

Now, I love my friend and he is cool and nice and awesome. But a lot of my friends do this. They see a picture of a menorah or something and it makes them “think of me” cause it’s virginia and I’m the token etc. I mean, it’s cute that they care and stuff, but it’s just like “guys, this is my life, why are you so amused by a lulav.” One thing I’ll miss about new york is not having to be “the jew” or feeling like you’re such a frummy for being the trader joe’s passover section’s only patron. Living here for four months made me forget, if only for a moment, what I’m going to deal with when I come back home.

OK, so that’s the negative character trait I developed. The positive one, I think you’ll enjoy this, is that I feel a bit less judgmental of other jews. This, I’m certain, is something that wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed in virginia. I think I had to see what it’s like to be the renegade living in hiding to understand how other people could feel “bullied by the orthodox.” I still think that wording is a bit strong, but now I can feel what it’s like to do things you wouldn’t normally do alone, by rote, just cause you’re expected to in polite company. I wouldn’t say I was “bullied,” but I could see how someone might feel cornered. Boxed in.

You should know by now that I am a highly acclaimed sociologist. So I like to be in a position to be as empathetic to as many groups as possible. I’m not naturally empathetic, in case you haven’t noticed. And I don’t pretend to “see others’ points of view” when I don’t actually see them. But, going through this whole thing–i.e. becoming a armchair philosopher, becoming religious, becoming highly religious, becoming non-religious, becoming someone who hates aish and, becoming someone who reads aish and, becoming an anti-skeptic, becoming a skeptic, becoming incredibly close to the subject, becoming distant from the subject–has made me appreciate why people sometimes are the way they are.

Before, I didn’t understand what it was to not believe in Judaism religiously but to still be unable/unwilling to leave the culture. Now I understand it. Before, I didn’t understand how orthodox women wouldn’t want to be feminist, now I kinda understand. And finally being in an orthodox community and not having to be on the defensive for orthodoxy all the time, I can understand why liberal jews choose to be liberal. I wish they’d understand how I can want to be feminist and still orthodox, but you can’t have everything now, can you?

i am young and stupid

Car radio: “The husband is the giver, and the wife is the receiver…”
Me: “Whoa!”
Friend: “Oh, did I miss a turn?”
Me: “No, it was just something on the radio….’the wife is the receiver?!'”
Friend: “Oh yeah, that’s something you have to grow up with to really get the full implications of…”

I was telling my roommate a couple days ago, it feels really strange to be not religious no mo, going through the same situations which you had seen through a religious lens just a few months ago. My roommate keeps inviting me to Aish talks. Before, I would have taken any opportunity. I really liked kiruv. But now, while I still think it’s good for what it is and I’m not disparaging it, I’m a little annoyed by it myself. And it’s interesting now to see the same events without blindsides.

My roommate won’t stop talking about this thing she learned in Aish where you know all the Torah in the womb then the angel punches you in the face and that’s why you have that weird philtrum above your lip. I learned that in Aish, too. It’s one of those things they teach you so you can start to see God and Torah in everything, although in another light if you consider it’s just explaining why we have a moral compass AND a philtrum, it’s also a cute folktale. But they still teach it, and in Aish you can’t really tell what’s a folktale and what they actually think really happens. That line was definitely blurred when I was doing Aish.

Anyways, I was walking with my roommate and a friend down the street and my roommate started talking about it again and then my friend started talking about it and they asked me what I thought.

“I know…um, I know the medical version.” I told them about how the face forms at approximately three months, and that indentation is just where it gets done fusing together.

“Oh, that makes sense,” my friend said. “That actually supports the idea about the angel, in a way…” They just couldn’t give it up. It reminded me of myself; I went through a long time where I’d spend a whole lot of effort making sure every new thing I learned somehow corroborated with the Aishish things I’d learned. It really did go from just wanting, like, the exodus to be true to finding it very important that everything I learned in Aish be true. It made me feel like if everything they told me wasn’t true, then nothing could be true. I was walking on a thin wire. I don’t blame Aish, though. That’s what I wanted at the time. I was tired of the wishy-washy answers I was getting from liberal rabbis. But I think if you do start to question before the process is complete, you’re going to fall off the wagon.

So I fell off. And I’m going through these situations with a whole different view of the world.

A slightly irritated view.

I don’t know why it annoys me now.

Maybe cause I know that Judaism was the best thing I had in my life, and now if it’s just another dumb thing, then what does that make my life?

Dear God

“No pearly gates, no thorny crown
You’re always letting us humans down”

I still like Drisha. For the first couple of weeks it really helped my observance, cause everyone else was doing it, it was frum but with it, and it was nice cause even though the teachers were all JEDP theory we were all Torah miSinai, and we discussed this occasionally with the teachers, as a matter of fact. It became like a thing. But we respected each other. It was all going very well. But then I started happening. And I started coming to the surface. And everyone there thinks I’m incredibly interesting, “you’re like a frum hipster” one person said, but it’s just cause everyone else went to seminary and Israel and I’m just a poor kid from public school. I like being the diversity and everything, but it’s just underscoring what I’ve always suspected, which is no matter what will I ever really fit in? Everyone at Drisha is so fantastic, but even at Drisha is there a Great Divide. At a certain point, there’s them and there’s me. And that’s what I think. I will never have had a nice upper-middle class Modern Orthodox upbringing, I will never have a nuclear family, I will never have a heimishe extended family, I will never have “that hasidic cousin,” I will never have gone to seminary or yeshiva or camp. I’ll never have those experiences. And that’s what it will be, no matter what I do to try to change myself nowthere will always be then. The Baggage.

So when someone casually says “I just don’t get homosexuality” or “who are Violent Femmes?” I am reminded of this. And every time a teacher at Drisha says something like “I know you were raised to believe that minhagim are also from Sinai” and everyone can relate but me cause I was raised to believe that Judaism was Hanukkah. Not that I don’t appreciate being in different situations. Believe me, I never heard “I just don’t get homosexuality” throughout my whole life. Even in the Bible belt south, I guess that kind of talk was reserved for the Baptist youth groups I was never in. And it’s interesting and everything, sociologically speaking, but I hate that I feel like if I don’t become the type of person who comes out of a upper-middle class Modern Orthodox upbringing, I can’t really be Jewish, not really. And, as I said, I can do whatever I want. I can have ten children. I can stop wearing colors. I can only listen to soft folk and Israeli music. Nothing will matter. I’ll never be that person.

And so hence my last post, a lot of what Judaism “is,” (i.e. what’s not in conversion books, but what just is) is totally out of my scope, for better or worse. Like, for instance, I wanted to deal with my teenage boy hormones, so I did what any good citizen would do and decided to read half the tehillim to knock it out of me. Short of rolling in the snow if you know what I mean. But what are most of the tehillim about? The “enemies speaking of war” and “Hashem will support your burdens.” I’m sure Hashem will support your burdens…if you’re the right kind of person. I tried to imagine being, like, one of my neighbors or something who probably has an easier time believing Hashem will support their burdens, cause their burdens are supportable and not actually condemned by Hashem himself, if you know what I mean. I feel like he wants nothing to do with this. Not sure why, hm, though I can suspect.

And I don’t know who the “enemies” are supposed to be, contemporaneously speaking.

And so, pretty much, what Judaism “is” is that if you’re having trouble you’re supposed to be able to relate to tehillim, but I get my stuff elsewhere. (And that elsewhere is called my post-punk and grunge 90’s music.)

But I try it out anyway. And so I go to the index to see if any of the subjects can relate to me: “On the day of marriage.” No. “At the time of bris milah.” No. “For one’s sons’ success in learning Torah.” No. “Upon giving birth.” No. “For recovery from illness.” No. “When the land of Israel is in danger.” “To have children.” “For success.” “At a cemetery.” These are direct quotes from the ArtScroll Interlinear Tehillim, by the way. I just…I don’t know. Where’s the one for “I’m surrounded by thirty girls all day long and I feel like a boy in the girls’ locker room”? I can’t decide between “For teshuvah” and “An intimate plea for God’s guidance.” Neither seems like an entirely appropriate choice. If I picked the teshuvah one it’d be like rolling in the snow and frankly at this point I don’t really think that’s going to help.

But I also feel like “God’s guidance” is another terrible option. God seems to kinda back out when you’re too “different,” for whatever reason, so I’m also backing out. “God’s guidance” only works when you’re both already bros. Religion doesn’t really seem to want me right now. Behold: I’m immature and irresponsible and play guitar during the nine days. And so it goes.

This isn’t about Judaism. No other religion would do me any more good. This happened in high school. Now I remember why I wasn’t religious. But at this point I have nowhere else to go. Whoops. What I’m doing is what I’ve always done instead, listening to my “sad.txt” playlist which I made specifically for boy in the girls’ locker room circumstances, and when you feel this bad, when it’s between mourning for the Temple and trying to comfort yourself about the fact that you can’t tell anyone about the girl you like, even her, even God, who’s supposed to be there for you, well I generally pick the latter.

Wherein I consider something someone said.

I take 1 1 1 cause you left me and 
2 2 2 for my family and 
3 3 3 for my heartache and 
4 4 4 for my headaches and 
5 5 5 for my lonely and 
6 6 6 for my sorrow and 
7 7 for no tomorrow and
8 8 I forget what 8 was for and 
9 9 9 for a lost god and
10 10 10 10 for everything everything everything everything
Violent Femmes “Kiss Off”

So, Drisha had this chaburot thing where different people gave talks on stuff, and I just followed a group of people into a room, which happened to be housing the topic of Loving God With All Your Heart and All Your Soul or whatever, which I’m not especially into lately. I’m actually surprised–maybe I shouldn’t be–how easy it is to forget about God when you decide he’s not paying attention to you anymore. I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of days, and I wasn’t really paying attention during the chabura but suddenly she said something that related to my life. She said “You can’t just start ignoring God after he gives you everything you wanted,” or something like that, and it made me wonder if that’s what I’ve been doing.

I don’t think of it that way, of course. Like, for instance, I got to move to New York and come to Drisha and even stupid little things like I got a good deal on rent and I just got an interview at a coffee shop and Patti Smith is signing books next week in Brooklyn. My life isn’t too bad currently. But I’m not very thankful. Not cause I’m all “OK God, it’s been real but I’m done now,” but really for the more existential reason that I don’t see a pattern. I feel like–and I’m reminded at regular intervals–that it’s going to be really hard to fit into Regular Jewish Life in the way that Converts Are Expected To. The extent to which it will be hard you can determine yourself I guess depending on the degree to which you know me~

But anyway, it’s like I’m getting all these things just to fail. It’s like when you make a friend who you start becoming BFFs with and you spend all your time with them and then they turn out to be maniacs and just start dragging you down with them before you even saw it coming. How are you going to be thankful when you know that’s what’s about to happen?

I can’t relate to all the stuff we’ve been reading lately about the rabbis who will go through all obstacles cause they believe so strongly in olam haba or how you have to “love God as you love your wife” and I just don’t get it. I mean, maybe before I didn’t REALLY get it, but I could imagine it and I could get into it. But now I can’t even listen to stuff like chaburot about Loving God With All Your Heart, cause it’s going over my head lately. I’m not connecting to it. Instead, I ask: “Why? And how? How are you supposed to feel strongly about this distant and seemingly flaky if not downright inactive God?”

Moreover, I don’t see how it’s possible. According to all this mussar, you should just get all your joys from Torah and mitzvos. I did, and it was very nice, but that was when I think I was living under a delusion that I could fundamentally change because of Torah. But it’s not happening. And now it seems like Torah and mitzvos are just secondary, if not getting in the way altogether. And it seems like I, in turn, am outside the radar of Torah. Like it wasn’t meant for me. Like it’s meant for straight married people, preferably in their 30’s. I’m, like, not its target audience. Why try? Even trying to make it even seem like I could be its target audience seems arbitrary.

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.


“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!


So, here’s one of those things you just don’t think about until you’re surrounded. My friend (hey bro) showed me a Nachman quote where he said something like “When you know a tzaddik and you actually get to know him you might become disappointed to find he’s actually just a regular guy on the outside, doing things like shopping. Similarly, you’d think eretz yisrael would be so holy, but it just looks like a regular place ! However, don’t be disappointed because holiness has to be through the everyday world,” or something like that.

I don’t know what people expect when they decide to convert or start becoming baal teshuva–in a way, you’re going to do it no matter what you expect–but I have a feeling that lots of people expect something a little different than what there actually is. For example, when I started Drisha I didn’t really know what to expect but I guess I expected there to be a higher percentage of really frum girls (I imagined a lower percentage of really cool girls cause I got a good group and they rock I’m just fawning, I love them) and a lower percentage of academic classes. By academic, I mean History of Liturgy where we’re learning about how there was a “mistake in Proverbs,” or something like that. He talked fast.

So, my chevruta doesn’t like davening, I don’t know if she’s religious or not but she just revealed this one day, and ever since she revealed it I feel kind of bad for her during mincha and bentching which now I can’t unnotice that she sits them out. I’m not offended or anything, but it made me feel a little embarrassed that I’m doing it. Similarly, I know a lot more people who tell me how they’re not religious anymore even though they went to day school than I do people who are still religious. Also, now I’m more attuned to people who are probably orthoprax (usually cause they say stuff like “oh I don’t do that” etc.) The majority, I think, are people who are religious but don’t think halacha is important, and are really more socially halachic. This is all since I’ve been in New York.

And then I went to Eichler’s to get a masechet sanhedrin to learn about the lower beard at Drisha and the guy started looking in a place where it wasn’t and he was all “oh I don’t think we have that here, everyone must have took it,” and I was like “I think sanhedrin is up there” and he was like “no those are the seforim,” and I don’t know what the difference is but it went pretty much exactly like this @ 2:22:

It’s tough.

It’s just really weird going back to my neighborhood after being at Drisha for ten hours. We’re like passing ships in the night. But this isn’t about the difference between my neighborhood and Drisha. Drisha is great, by the way. It’s like school camp, as I told my sister. Sometimes we get free food. We have field trips. We have “announcements” at 3:00. I never went to camp or anything, and I failed 4-H Camp, so this is great.

Maybe I’m just being a baby, but I always felt like when you’re in such a fragile state as being a convert or BT, anyone, not just me, it’s important to be around people who aren’t orthoprax. I don’t know about the statistics at Drisha, but it just makes me feel lame all over again being around people who might very well not believe in those fairy tales or whatever. If my chevruta, who else could there be? Not “it’s not all literal” people, but literary criticism people. I’m taking History of Liturgy, after all. I mean, I like Drisha, but there’s a lot more “look at this manuscript and let’s look at the editorial changes” than I thought there’d be. Someone else mentioned this too, so it’s not just me! And it’s like my Torah Is A Lie class in W&M all over again–I feel like the only one who actually believes this nonsense and it just makes me feel lame. I know “holiness is through everyday events,” like R’ Nachman is saying, and ideally what everyone else is doing shouldn’t affect anyone’s life, but I just think it’s important during a certain point to be around people with whom you’re on the same page. You’re like a small infant when you’re a certain stage of converting/BT.

So this guy, man

So I went to Drisha orientation today and parts of it was like acting class, and for a brief second I wondered if it really was true that it’s assur for women to learn Torah without doing yoga first. But I didn’t let it get me down, because–get ready, readers–I found it to be a positive experience. We Learned Each Other’s Names. We went Row Boating. More importantly, during row boating, I was in a boat with a girl and as we passed this Chasidish family in another row boat, she said she feels compelled to say things like “What time is Shabbos?” to Jews in the street and stuff.


So we are currently soul mates. I appreciate the row boating, but I have to admit I wondered if yeshiva boys ever go row boating and do getting To Know You Exercises during yeshiva orientation. Or yoga.

However, I think I’m exuding something I have no control over. One girl asked me if I “went to Sternberg, cause no offense you look like you went to Sternberg.” I was wearing a pretty long skirt. But it was laundry day, I swear. I don’t even know what Sternberg is.

But anyway, then I was walking down the street in Park Slope after that and this guy came up to me and asked me for a clip for his kippa. So I gave him one, and he was like “Where’s Atlantic Ave.” and I was like “I don’t know” and he was like “Oh you don’t live here” and I was like “No, I live in Flatbush,” and he was like “Oh really, cause it just so happens that I do too, what a coincidence!” The the questions started being fired.

He didn’t ask me if I went to yeshiva. He asked me “how yeshiva is going.” It’s going great, guy. He asked me where I went, and I couldn’t think of any names of ladies’ seminaries and I wasn’t about to say I just came from Drisha, so I said “Oh, I don’t go anymore,” or something like that. Perhaps he was trying to figure out how old I was. I don’t know if he was just happy to find someone who looked haredi, which apparently I did that day, or someone who would talk to him, which I am too nice so I had this whole convo.

He asked me if I was Ashkenasic or Sephardic. Why? I don’t know. I felt like there could only be one reason, and that reason made me say “Well, good luck finding Atlantic Ave., just take the subway right there, I have to go into this grocery store now.”

I don’t know what I’m exuding, but apparently I am some kind of reasonably friendly seminary student.


So I have this rabbi now, I only met him once so far, and I’m not so sure he likes me so much, with good reason probably, but that’s beside the point. He suggested I go learn in various different venues, including mostly upper Manhattan for reasons only he can ever know. I don’t know if this is an actual task I have to unlock to get to the next level or if it was just a friendly suggestion. Nevertheless, you can’t take any chances in a situation like this so I went to a Tehillim Study in the East Village, at a synagogue that I know for obvious reasons.


Let me preface by saying it wasn’t bad. It was fine. It was neutral. But I don’t know how I feel about going to a 45-minute Torah study when it takes two hours to get there and come back. That’s one thing.

The next thing, OK call me an ageist, but I’ve spent so much time with people older than me I’m starting to forget how old I am. Even at Hadar, people are in their mid-20’s. Where are people my age? Are they playing video games? Skateboarding? I really have no idea.

So anyway, I can just guess, inductively speaking, that most of these Learning Opportunities I go to will be mostly retired people. That’s cool for them and everything, but think of it from my perspective. Four years ago, I was still in high school. I’m not relating to these people. It’s sort of reinforcing the common idea that kids-my-age have that organized religion is sort of stodgy. Maybe it’s even a little confusing because people keep saying to me, “Well, if you can’t fit into the community, you might as well give up now,” but really? Is this it? Is retired people The Community? Like, how does this even happen? Maybe this is the reasons kids aren’t into religion–they see what I see. It’s like this documentary I was once about this Christian rock festival–they interviewed this kid and he said he tried going to church but it was just a bunch of old people and slowness, and this was more his speed. So it’s not just me “not trying hard enough to be a part of the community.” I still get to use my age as an excuse for a couple more years. I mean, I know I for one would rather be as a rock festival than church. And then it’s awkward because they don’t usually see “young blood,” as I’ve been called once, so you’re that weird person. I’m imagining it like they see a random new young person who’s really, really interested in the senior shuffleboard team that’s been gathering every week for the past five years.

One thing I like about Hadar is, as much as I like Tehillim Study and everything, it’s a completely different vibe when you’re around people your own age. It doesn’t feel like I’m just passing the hours.

But also, say I went to Manhattan every week for Learning Opportunities. Which I do. This is such a disjointed thing to do, it’s not anything like a class with an actual agenda, it’s completely piecemeal, and is this efficient? I mean, if I do have to unlock this task to get to the next level, how are you even supposed to tell if you ever even learned anything? For instance, today in Tehillim Study Class, I didn’t learn very much. Likely this was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t paying attention, but I could have learned just as much from one page in a book. A page of the introduction. Maybe I’m supposed to be going to these Learning Opportunities in order to meet people and establish some semblance of community. But, see point #2. Also, that’s not really going to happen even if I did meet people my age in upper Manhattan. I don’t need friends in upper Manhattan who I’ll never see again. I mean, I don’t know. More than likely he just made such a weird suggestion because I made the mistake of telling him I wasn’t doing anything this summer.

Wrong Place, Right Time

I am just too worldly for my own good. I went to some thing at Hadar Monday night, and I personally thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. At first I wondered why it was in a Reconstructionist synagogue, but then it occurred to me that it might possibly be because  their congregation’s not in there very often. But anyway, it was the first time I saw a large cluster of people actually close to my age for once, although I have a feeling I was possibly still the youngest by at least a couple of years. And for once they seemed like they knew what they were doing, and in a sense it was even an improvement on the few Orthodox clusters I’ve ever known, since I don’t suppose there was a way someone would join Hadar just out of momentum or, like, tradition.

So basically, during the How To Lead Davening class that I went to, complete with a syllabus even though I’m not paying for it or anything, I learned that participants would have to Lead A Practice Service Using The Nusach You Learned. And even though it’s not real, it made me think about all the instances I have to tell people I’m “still converting,” and tell them the entire tale. It comes up more than you’d think. If I’m not counting in a minyan I’m counting in someone’s zimmun. I told one guy it was “too complicated” when he asked me about my “background,” and it’s just horrid. It’s like a massive secret that no one can know. I don’t like to tell people cause I feel that they won’t want to talk to me anymore, particularly after they’ve invited me for shabbos or let me be their roommate…I mean, I’m in pretty deep as far as that’s concerned but at the same time I should tell certain selected people cause they might know someone who can help me get out of the wreckage. But probably they don’t, so it’s risky.

I just emailed the RCA beit din, and they said, “Yes, indeed, your sponsoring rabbi is ideally the shul rabbi,” and do they even begin to comprehend how difficult that is? Now I have to like this rabbi I haven’t actually met yet, and he has to like me. I’m already going to the most “liberal” of the Flatbush minyans here according to sources, and even so I skipped last week cause I didn’t find it very inspiring. I liked Hadar better.

And yet…I’m too worldly for my own good. Someone told me that RCA likes to revoke conversions if you get too “egal” after your conversion. That’s stupid of course, and I’m getting really sick of these rumors about revoking things, but perhaps it’s true. And how could I find out before it was too late? I couldn’t. I’m not really sure what my options are, but I’m starting to feel like that’s my only option. Most people, I think, would recommend RCA first. So basically, if I have RCA I can’t have Hadar and if I have Hadar I can’t have Orthodoxy. And I’m really starting to want to punch people who tell me that “The Orthodox are letting you into their lives! You have to adapt to them, not they to you! They have no obligation to you/you have no right to complain or have any problems! They have ‘no reason to accomodate you’!” These are the people who say if I find even one complication I shouldn’t even try anymore, cause obviously I was meant to be a Noahide. Cause “maybe your mission in life was actually to be a Noahide! Being Jewish is hard you know!” Thanks for that advice, cause I haven’t heard it before.

Monday night also included this lady’s talk about “Identity.” Little did she know I was her target audience:

One who is half slave and half free: works for his master one day and for himself one day–are the words of the house of Hillel. The house of Shammai said to him–you have established his master but himself you did not establish! He cannot marry a maidservant, since he is half free, and he cannot marry a free woman, since he is half slave! Should he be idle? Has the world not been created but in order to be fruitful and multiply? As it says in Isaiah “he did not create it to waste but formed it for habitation”…Rather, because of tikkun olam, they force his master to make him a free person…The house of Hillel reversed their opinion, and taught the opinion of the house of Shammai. (Mishnah Gittin 4:5)

She said that you can’t be “half a traditional Jew and half a person of contemporary values,” which is a nice message and everything, but I extrapolated it in my mind to mean many things. First of all, obviously I am this person. I am also idling. And it makes me want to throw up. I can go to Hadar, and I can go to the Flatbush minyan, but I’m not doing anything. I can’t move forward. Was I created to waste? Is it all for naught? Half slave and half free. How much longer can someone go on in a liminal state?

And also, she made some sense when she said that you can’t be half one thing and half another thing, because my entire life is pretty fragmented like that. There is Flatbush and there is Hadar. There is Jewish and there is gentile. I’m in a variety of different worlds, not all of them do I actually want (i.e. I don’t actually want the “gentile” part obviously.) Like Kate Bush says, ‘Can I have it all? You can’t have it all.” But whoever says that is an asshole because I’m not trying to “have it all,” whatever that means; I’m just trying to not be fragmented.

What I’m trying to say is, that’s not allowed apparently. If you’re having a hard time finding your place, you’re obviously just “trying to have it all.” If you like Hadar and Flatbush, you’re “asking them to accomodate you.” (Whoever “they” are.) Apparently, conversion wasn’t meant for people who are already in the middle of taking classes at two yeshivas at once. Apperently, that is too complicated. Apparently, it was meant for people who want to live in one place for the rest of their life and get married immediately and maybe get a degree in Banking and just Settle Down. I am 21. I can’t do it! But then I think, “What am I doing here? Do they know there is a flaming gentile in their midst?” Perhaps it’s an inferiority complex. More likely, though, is that I’ve been doing this way, way too long with no actual progress. I haven’t actually changed (i.e. I didn’t suddenly want to go to Hadar just to be rebellious). This was an organic process. And to that end, it’s been and is going to continue being pretty messy. I’m not going to deny this obvious fact. Sometimes I wonder “Why me, obviously I can’t be this stable Banker,” but that’s inconsequential. I’m just watching the train crash.

Throwing up now.

Hello Tzitzis Double Feature Sunday

[6/9/2012 11:58:19 PM] proteinprotection: wtf is ‘ultra orthodox’ exactly
[6/9/2012 11:58:28 PM] max elstein keisler: the ppl around you
[6/9/2012 11:58:35 PM] proteinprotection: people just say that word blithely like it’s nbd
[6/9/2012 11:58:40 PM] proteinprotection: they don’t seem ultra
[6/9/2012 11:58:45 PM] max elstein keisler: chassidish and yeshivish
[6/9/2012 11:58:45 PM] proteinprotection: like i know they’re who people are talking about
[6/9/2012 11:58:51 PM] proteinprotection: but they can’t be ultra, they can’t be!
[6/9/2012 11:58:57 PM] max elstein keisler: well youve frummed out
[6/9/2012 11:58:58 PM] proteinprotection: they’re so innocuous!
[6/9/2012 11:59:05 PM] proteinprotection: BUT I LOVE THEM
[6/9/2012 11:59:08 PM] proteinprotection: how can they be ultra
[6/9/2012 11:59:15 PM] max elstein keisler: i think yeshivish is a bit less crazy than chassidish also
[6/9/2012 11:59:25 PM] proteinprotection: i saw a fur hat earlier 2day
[6/9/2012 11:59:30 PM] proteinprotection: just one though
[6/9/2012 11:59:45 PM] proteinprotection: I can’t believe my people are ultra

First, let me outline the reasons why women don’t wear tzitzis, i.e. why they haven’t caught on, particularly in Brooklyn. Particularly in Flatbush. Some of these guys are pretty open about the fact that they’re wearing a wool TK, evidenced by the fact that they are wearing it on the outside of their clothes. Others have one that’s longer than their actual shirt, so the whole piece of fabric seeps out from the bottom. Others have tzitzis that they obviously haven’t changed in like 30 years, and still others have tzitzis down to their ankles. I think all of this is rather endearing. Still, I could see how many upstanding women wouldn’t think it so. I don’t think the reason it didn’t catch on with women is because of the halacha (women still sit in a sukkah), or because it would interfere with everyday tasks (you can easily tuck that crap in). I think it’s because it “doesn’t look nice.” This, I suppose, is why some men even here don’t wear them out, and why lots of others put them in their belt loops. I also happen to suspect that another reason they didn’t catch on is because getting them out of the way to go to the can would be a whole ordeal for women.

Men seem a lot more freewheeling about these kinds of things; about whether it “looks nice” or not. And anyway, when you can’t just wear a button-down shirt every day, the fashions make it almost impossible. How are you going to wear a bunch of wool/cotton under a tight-fitting shirt? Under two other layers? Women would have to change their whole wardrobe.

Next, let me outline the reasons why women shouldn’t wear tzitzis, particularly in Brooklyn. Particularly in Flatbush. You might get killed. I see why they haven’t caught on, but I also see why they won’t be catching on for a while. I mean, death is quite a threat. I don’t even want to think about the consequences. It’s too bad too; one of the mysteries of life, why that’s a bigger deal than women not covering their hair, for instance. There are lots of non-observances that are handled pretty well by everyone else, but extra observances! Extra! There must be an ulterior motive. So basically, my advice is women shouldn’t wear tzitzis, particularly in Brooklyn, particularly in Flatbush, not because it’s morally indefensible (indeed, people have tried to prove it is, to the extent that women are allegedly “doubly exempt” and things like that), but because you might get killed.

“But,” you say, “what about Manhattan? Surely people are more accepting there.” I suppose people would be more accepting, but only because the ratio of gentiles is higher there. And truly, the threat of death can follow a person through different boroughs. Nonetheless, there are also Orthodox Jews there, and they, I suspect, will give you a death glare. Sometimes they walk in pairs, so double death glare. Nothing could be worse. Moreover, what if you get on the subway train? Starting in Lower Manhattan, you never know who might get on that train! It could be a guy reading tehillim. It could be a pack of seminary girls. It could be a guy with a “Lubavitch Headquarters” gym bag.

You definitely have to be a certain type of person to assuage the overwhelming fear for your life that could come from such encounters! Many women are not this type of person. And why do all that for something that “doesn’t look nice”?

Bedsheets lady: 1, Laura: 0

[5/31/2012 10:20:07 PM] proteinprotection: I’m still the only non-domestic woman i’ve met here so far
[5/31/2012 10:21:02 PM] max elstein keisler: yeah see thats why you do not fit ortho brooklyn
[5/31/2012 10:21:12 PM] proteinprotection: cause i’m not domestic?
[5/31/2012 10:21:14 PM] max elstein keisler: yeah
[5/31/2012 10:21:18 PM] max elstein keisler: and not from brooklyn
[5/31/2012 10:21:19 PM] proteinprotection: i mean that’s obvious
[5/31/2012 10:21:31 PM] max elstein keisler: it wasnt before you moved
[5/31/2012 10:21:34 PM] max elstein keisler: to you
[5/31/2012 10:21:39 PM] proteinprotection: well I sort of knew
[5/31/2012 10:21:47 PM] proteinprotection: nice frum women don’t listen to shemspeed
[5/31/2012 10:22:00 PM] proteinprotection: now it’s just becoming clear 


So, the other day my roommate’s friend came over to help my newly engaged roommate try on dresses. My roommate is pretty cute about it and everything, she calls him her “chosson” and every time I see her it’s like this was her whole goal in life fulfilled. But anyway, her friend came over after a while of that, introduced herself to me, and cheerily took the sheets from my bed. Apparently, they were hers and I tried to silently imply that now I would have to sleep on basically a bare plank of wood for all the good my bed will do me now. But she took my sheets anyway. So I had the rest of the day to go shopping for sheets.

Luckily, I knew a place down the street that randomly sold house supplies, such as (slightly used?) tablecloths, towels, and bedsheets. It was like no one place I’d ever been.

“Hello!!! Hey, you there! How can I help you? What are you looking for?” shouted a guy at the counter.

“I just need the cheapest bedsheets.”

“Well let me just help this customer then I’ll be with you soon!” I went over to look at the bedsheets and people kept streaming in and the guy kept saying Hello to them. An old Jewish lady came out from the back suddenly, and after saying a friendly Hello to the ladies who kept incessantly walking into the store, she made a beeline to me.

“What are you looking for?”

“I need the cheapest sheets you have. Is this the lowest price?” I asked, pointing to a $19.99 sale on a 3-piece set.


“My roommate took my sheets, so. You know. I just need a basic replacement.”

“Well, you need a pillow case, this one has a pillow case with it, very important,” etc.

“I already have a pillow case,” I said.

Confusion. After about five minutes of hemming and hawing and turning away from me to greet lady after lady who came in obviously knowing each other from childhood, she turned back to me.

“You’re a nice young lady, soon you’ll get married, right?” I chuckled. “You need a bed that looks nice! Here, you need a nice blanket cover.”

“Wait, what’s a blanket cover?”

“You put it on top of your blanket to make it look nice.”

“Oh!” I was still confused, but politely I said, “Well! I learned something new today.” She started picking up blanket covers, and I started asking how much this was all going to cost. She just kept saying I needed a bed that looked nice. Then some lady walked in and just started talking. I think they knew each other because they started talking about the importance of having a good towel set.

“I think I’ll get eight. I’ll have to get eight because this and that reason.”

“Yes, I think that’s a good idea.” And then they started rapid firing prices, towel philosophy, and the contents of her guest list all in the same conversation. It was very New York. And I just stood there like a big tool, not knowing how to buy sheets without help. Cause none of that crap had prices on it. I almost left, but the way I was standing trapped me. Finally, the towel lady went somewhere else, and the old lady turned back to me again and started talking about the necessity for a blanket cover and how it’s very essential to have a nice uniform-looking bed, and even if I already had a pillow case I needed one that matched. She showed me a couple of sheets.

“What about this one?” I said. “It’s nautical!”

“No, no, that’s not for you.” She showed me a floral one.

“Oh, that’s nice too.” Upon this acquiescence, she started showing me blanket covers that matched that.

“This is a good set, because we have this blanket cover right here that matches that very color!”

I watched her fumble through the shelf of blanket covers for a while, still not really knowing whether “blanket cover” was really just another word for “quilt,” and hoping it was. Again, I asked for a price and again she didn’t answer.

“So yeah, I just need some plain sheets. I don’t need anything fancy.” She stared a while, trying to figure me out. “I’m poor.”

“Where are you from?” she finally asked.

“Um, down the street. Off of J, I guess.”

“No, where did you come from?”

“Virginia? I just moved here.”

“Ah, so you’re from out of town!” It all came together to her at that moment.

“You can tell? Can you really tell?”

“Of course I can tell! Only an out-of-towner doesn’t know what a blanket cover is.”

“Yeah…” She was not making me want to buy this blanket cover so much anymore. Then another lady walked in who the old lady knew, obviously, and they started talking and I took this as my cue to stealthily walk out.

I took the train to Target, which was more familiar territory, though that’s not to say that bedding is a familiar territory to me. I saw “shams.” I saw “duvets.” I saw “duvet covers.” I have no idea what these things are. Honestly, I don’t care to know what these things are. And as I wandered through the aisles, looking at $25 bed skirts and $45 Egyptian blankets, I thought to myself “This is not an out-of-town thing. This is a lack of domestic prowess thing.” I know, because in my family we have literally been using the same sheets for twenty years. I still have Snow White sheets. We haven’t bought a new pillow for God knows how long. We don’t buy new things. Actually, this might be a poor thing. We don’t have bed skirts. We don’t have “throws.” We definitely don’t have those fancy but useless pillows people sometimes like to put on their bed “just for decoration.” There is no decoration. And ironing things? Are you insane?

So I was lost in the bedding department, to say the least. And if that makes me an out-of-towner, then I’m an out-of-towner.

I ended up buying one of those “bedding sets” they make for hopeless people like me.

That bedsheets lady made something pretty clear to me, though. After all, “I am a young lady and I will be married soon”! Of course I should know everything there is to know about bedding. That’s just the way of the world. In Midwood, Brooklyn. If I was ever confused about the “woman’s role,” I’m sure not anymore. It’s not that people constantly talk about blanket covers on the street and if I don’t recognize the word it’s cause I’m not used to the street jargon. This isn’t like how I still can’t pronounce the word “shul” correctly (to be fair, I don’t think I pronounce much English correctly either). It’s that I don’t know anything about the most integral part of being a nice frum woman.

My mom is pretty wise. When I told her about my neighborhood, she said “Oh Laura, you know Jewish woman all want to get married, that’s all they think about, having children and cooking and cleaning! Is that really what you want for your life?” I had to think about my answer. I basically told her it was OK because no matter where I go I won’t fit in, which I am used to by now. But it’s making me think now that I really could never be one of them. I think to be a nice frum yeshivish woman you have to be born knowing how to cook and take care of babies. I see lots of younger girls pushing baby carriages. I can’t imagine me doing that when I was their age.

But ironically, I also see little seminary girls on skateboards. I’ve never seen so many girls on skateboards. I also saw a middle school girl wearing a hoodie with a skull on it. I don’t know what happens between this and adulthood, where every single woman past high school age that I see seems pretty much the same so far. I’m trying not to judge, and who’s to say some of them aren’t great Talmud scholars on the inside, but somehow I doubt it. Cause like the bedsheets lady said, that’s just not done. It’s not the ideal. I guess it’s just like being a man here and not going to the beit midrash or wherever they’re going. If you’re not like that, it doesn’t make you interesting and diverse, it makes you and out-of-towner.

I feel like most women who want to convert in this kind of community do it because the lifestyle appeals to them. Women, at least, do it because they like the idea of “family” and “community” and stuff. That, of course, was the last thing I ever thought about, and now it’s backfiring. A wise person commented on my last post to say that it’s not “giving up” to want to keep my band pins and computer music. This was theoretical until the bedsheets lady. She really put things in perspective. It’s not even a Flatbush thing, probably. The MO people I’ve met were pretty into the whole hosting->cooking->marriage->children thing too. I’m not against the family values ladies! I just can’t do it!

Couldn’t get ahead / I just couldn’t get ahead

So, I’ve lived in Flatbush for about 24 hours so far, and I have to admit that I definitely feel like everyone who looks at me knows that I am from out of town. It’s kind of funny though, since I’ve been trekking from here to the Upper West Side, and when I’m here I feel so modern, but when I’m in Manhattan I feel way too frum (but it’s cool cause I and hopefully everyone else knows I just came from Flatbush and that’s my excuse). I don’t really know what people are thinking about me in Manhattan, particularly the guys with black hats on the train going back to Brooklyn. They also probably can tell I am from out of town. I really do wonder what image I’m projecting; I feel like they’re like, “Why u even tryin’?” Also, there’s a giant seminary here so all the kids know way more than me even though they’re 12, and it’s stupid because now the tables are turned and I am that fool who doesn’t know the basics. Touché.

So, you ask, what do I see here? I see lots of guys with long coats but I also saw a guy with techelet. I saw a great beard on the train today, and I see lots of black kipas, which you can get at Eichler’s, and they come in like 40 different sizes, but only one color. As for the ladies, I see lots of baby carriages, lots of sheitels, lots of long black skirts, and lots of frum woman “shell plus plain shirt” fashions. There are also some MO people here, which I can tell when the men wear cargo shorts and the girls wear hoodies and band tees, which I also saw today.

However, I’m worried. It’s not that I want to be an Upper West Side person, it’s just that I keep messing with my own plan. It’s not even that I want to be egalitarian. (Whatever that even means anymore.) I moved here of my own free will specifically to get away from the old go-to, the “Do Judaism Laura’s way” free-for-all which I’ve been doing for the past two years. It’s not working. It would be easier to just be UWSMO (I made that up; it’s beautiful)…but that would be more of the same; more of what’s not working. I don’t want to do the old “pick whichever halachos make you happy;” I want a system. I’m already taking it for granted that I’m not going to fit into that system very well…partially because I’m me and partially because I’m coming from the outside…but what would I be doing if I just went straight to the trad egal/YCT world? But what would I be doing if I went to the “frum but only cause we were raised that way” world? I’m coming here to change inherently, although I wouldn’t have said that before obviously. I know it would be really simple to just stay the same and then put chavura Judaism on top of it or whatever, like nothing ever happened. I could wear my tzitzis again. But what would it do if they just let me do whatever I wanted all over again?

However, even if I try to stay and make it work in Flatbush, I’ll probably be found out pretty soon that I’m too modern. I thought I was just pulling off the “Oh, I’m just 21 and with it” look, but I just don’t know. The problem is that these other girls buy their clothes special apparently, from special tznius stores or something, and all my clothes are from Goodwill and it’s weird–you wouldn’t think this initially but even my denim skirt isn’t, like, standard. And that costs money, mate. I feel like being poor is going to play a pretty big part in my being modern, cause I can’t afford these specialty store clothes. Like, I’m looking at websites right now and they’re charging $44 for a regular black skirt. Non, non et non.

I don’t want to be modern or egal or yeshivish or frum but with it (whatever that means). I just want to be me, as far as clothes are concerned anyway. But I feel like what you wear kind of determines who will accept you in life. And I might be too eccentric for the normal yeshivish ladies here. But I’m not rejecting the yeshivish ladies. It’s not that I want to do “whatever I want” so much as if I tried to be a normal yeshivish lady it might be laughable. And you might think this is crazy, but I’d rather live in a really frum community and be the liberal one than live in a really liberal community and be the only frum one. I’ve done that already, and it wasn’t cool. (Also, to be clear, I don’t mean liberal like “I secretly believe the Exodus was a feminist myth” so much as “I’m going to Drisha” liberal.)

I was talking so much about pluralism in my last post, and I’m still into that, and this again is why it’s stupid that I have to convert. I have to STAY IN ONE PLACE for a long time. That’s stupid. But I know I need a home base otherwise I’ll just float around and never get anywhere. Converting or not, I still think I need a community, even just in order to branch off from it, you know? It would be cool if I could find an actual frum halachic community which wouldn’t be like “Why don’t you wear pants lol” and would actually have rules and not just let people run amok with their “pluralism” and “subjectivity” but can also appreciate my band pins and possibly taking computer music composition classes.

Is it giving up to want to keep my band pins and computer music composition? I feel like there’s a fine line between giving up your core personality in order to be more frum, and giving up the extraneous stuff that you might be attached to but isn’t helping your soul. However, I would be pretty sad if Matisyahu, for example, my posek, had decided that being a singer wasn’t tznius and decided to be a regular guy instead, I would be pretty depressed. But then again, he has his Chabad and stuff, and he didn’t just decide to be MO just cause they would accept his rappin’ or whatever. Also, Y-Love. Like I don’t know what goes into their decisions but they have their beliefs and THEN they have their rappin’ after that. I feel like if I just went the easy route and went trad egal** or “practice how you want” or whatever, I would give up my beliefs FOR the rappin’.

And that’s wack!

** You: “You don’t believe in egalitarianism?”
Me: “They really have to explain their halacha to me before I get into it. There’s a way egal can work, but too easily can it devolve into ‘we don’t like this halacha so let’s just change it for the sake of equality.’ Like, for me, maybe I’d want to learn gemara, but I feel like if I’m only doing it cause I think it would be cool, it won’t help me very much. Also, I can’t respect an egal community unless women’s ritual responsibilities come with ritual rights, which is where Conservatism went wrong.”

Pluralism and New York and stuff

I’m currently in a hostel which all I can say is it is definitely building my character. It’s not that bad, but 1.) I’m the only American 2.) Somebody took my shampoo.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that after my last encounter with that Conservative minyan (see last post), I’ve had many opportunities to go to other places. I went to an egal minyan at Shaare Zedek on Friday morning, and to the Prospect Heights Shul Friday night and Saturday morning. By the way, last Friday was the ~first Orthodox shul I’ve ever been to~ what a milestone.

I have some things to say about it. First of all, it was inside of a thrift store. That was cute. The mechitza was on some kind of clothesline. You guys, the mechitza is not that bad. I sort of liked it. I liked not having weird old men sit behind me. However, obviously, being me, I did happen to notice that 1.) The singing was a little more boisterous on the men’s side. I heard clapping, although I did look over and I’m pretty sure it was just the rabbi. 2.) On Saturday morning, most of the women showed up during musaf, wtf? Cause that’s definitely the most important time to show up? I didn’t get it, because if you’re going to miss any davening you’d think it would be ma’ariv. But anyway, there were like ten to fifteen men and I was the only woman for like fifteen minutes. Whatever. The whole time, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be on the men’s side. I ended up deciding that it probably wasn’t so hot over there, because some of those guys were weird. Like, one was way too excited to point out errors in another guy’s Torah reading skills. And anyway, near the end I was starting to feel the burn, it was going on three hours after all, and I just feel like if I was on the men’s side I would start to feel like they were caving in on me. Of course, some of the ladies were weird but it was funny because one lady was singing loudly and she was a bad singer but in an endearing way. So basically, the women did sing but they weren’t clapping and junk. Maybe cause there were less women, oh well.

And also I’ve been slowly but surely deciding that those apologists who say “women don’t need to be in the synagogue cause Judaism isn’t actually based in the synagogue, it’s just become that way” is kind of true. I mean, the last part anyhow (don’t sleep through shaarit, guys). I don’t like the whole synagogue scene that much. I don’t know, it’s like get me out of there. I would probably hate it if I HAD TO hang out with those guys three times a day and three hours on shabbos when I daven better alone anyway. This idea that Judaism /= the synagogue was reinforced by the fact that a lot of my hanging out with my new Orthodox acquaintances last shabbos was done outside of shul. And we actually did Jewish stuff. It was different. I helped someone make dinner for eight people, we actually washed and bentched OUTSIDE of the synagogue and IN SOMEONE’S HOUSE (SCANDALOUS). And I heard a guy walking down the street in Flatbush saying “Like the gemara says…” and the next day I met a lady who said she was part of Storahtelling.

Now, here’s the reason why I’m not so worried right now about any of these shul men/women problems that have been dominating this blog for a long time. I just went to a trad egal minyan (I don’t want to say Conservative, but I think some of them go to JTS) where one girl led the davening and I spotted another girl wearing tzitzis (!).  And anything I didn’t get out of that, I filled in the gaps Friday night at the MO place. And similarly, it’s gradually occurring to me that I’m currently in New York, and I think I underestimated the amount of options that were here. You CAN be that guy who talks about the gemara while walking down the street, and you can be that lady who’s in Storahtelling. I feel like I’m a special snowflake who needs certain things–women friends who wear tzitzis, Jewish theater and Jewish rap, but also women’s yeshiva and Orthodox mechitza davening–and if I’m going to get that anywhere it’s going to be New York.

I know that when you convert you basically have to stay in one place for the duration of it and then for a year of probation, but I feel like New York’s middle name should be pluralism. And not stupid pluralism, which is where I’m  the only diversity where everyone else is Reform and I have to accept them but they’re allowed to think I’m a freak. I think it’d be pretty normal to go to one shul for certain things and another for other things. Unlike what it really, really seemed like in my little Southern town, pluralism (good pluralism, not stupid pluralism) is in.

For example, the day after I got to New York I went to the New Voices journalism conference and I personally thought it was pretty cool cause it was the first time I saw Reform and MO people getting along and actually being friends and stuff (there was one Chabad guy but he came and left). And then I went to shabbos dinner at someone’s house and there was a guy who said “I don’t ride my bike on shabbos” but there were also girls texting, but the real point is when that guy said “I don’t ride my bike on shabbos” there wasn’t a giant onslaught of why that’s so stupid.

Can you tell I’ve been traumatized?

One thing I liked about my time hanging out with them: they talked about halacha occasionally! They talked about who gets the year long kaddish and other various trivia.