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.


One thing I didn’t expect about being religious was the amount of guilt it would involve. All the time. It was worse in the beginning when I knew more rules than I knew what to do with, having read all the machmir orthodox halachic conversion books and not living in a place where I could actually do it all. Strangely, this tension had no real reason–I never believed in the afterlife, and logically I knew that “as a non-Jew,” I didn’t have to do any of it. I could quit and no one would be the wiser.

That guilt increased tenfold when I was affecting other people. In Virginia, I knew enough to know that I shouldn’t cook for Jews. I did anyway. I knew that I couldn’t say kiddush for them. I did anyway. These were unobservant Jews who wouldn’t have done it themselves, and so therefore I was also faced with the conundrum that I ought to do it, since I did know it, so I wouldn’t have to face the prospect of being a vehicle for them to break any mitzvos. I am still unclear on what my obligation is to Jews, if any, given that I have the knowledge that I do. I’m pretty sure I’m in a situation that not many people find themselves in.

In New York, telling people I was still converting made me nervous, even though I would gladly offer that I was raised Reform or even “secular.” But what if they asked me to light a shabbos candle “with them in mind”? Be motzi them? “Just tell them,” you say. “It’s easy.” It’s not so easy. I don’t think you know how frightened I am by the prospect of watching someone realize they wasted their food/time/goodwill/life on some gentile. I don’t know. I don’t really believe in humanity that much or anything, so I don’t really think they’d equally want me there if they knew my “true” “identity.”

(Nor did I want them talking down to me once they knew.. “Oh, did you need an English bentcher? You know what bentching means don’t you?”)

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 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.