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.