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.”

“Yes.”

“And you keep shabbos, and all that?”

“Yes.” Pretty simple so far.

“Except for doing one violation, you know…”

“Right.”

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 chabad.org, becoming someone who reads aish and chabad.org, 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.

“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!