Choosing Minhags (Customs)…or Not?

The snow is still piled high, but the sun is setting late, nearly bedtime already.  Spring in Alaska is a time full of contradictions and calling Pesach cleaning “Spring cleaning” never quite seems to fit…and yet it does.  Even if more snow may come, the days growing strangely long tell my body that summer is coming and the ice will melt.

For Orthodox Jews, cleaning for Passover is also a time of contradictions.  It’s a time we face demons left and right, deciding how stringent we will be and which customs we will hold to.  For a convert, there’s sometimes less pressure if you’re still in process because if you make a mistake, it’s ok, you’re not obligated yet.  This is all practice.  There is also, though, the difficulty of having too many choices sometimes.  Converts can take on any customs they choose, if they have no real tie to any custom.

For us, we have family who are Lubavitch and we daven at a Chabad shul, so the customs that would seem most natural for us to take on would be those.  However, Lubavitch Passover customs are a thing unto themselves since they hold by some stringencies that many do not.  For years, I’ve stubbornly resisted those customs, whether it’s the tichel in my hair, the cholov stam yogurt in my cup, or the gebrokts on my Passover table week long.  It’s not that I don’t feel drawn to the Lubavitch view of Judaism…I very much do.  It’s just that some of these things seem SO hard and I wonder if it’s necessary for me to take them on.

And so, for 7 years, we’ve kind of gone back and forth between different customs, but always feeling a pull toward the Orthodoxy we know best and see lived by my husband’s mother and stepfather.  I love the warmth and joy of Chassidism.  I don’t always love the stringencies that seem to come along with it.  I’ve often wondered if it might be easier if I had less of a choice, if I’d been raised from birth identifying with one community rather than being free to choose one.

But…a convert has choices galore.  I could even choose to take on Sephardic customs!  Rice on Passover is mighty tempting, but you quickly learn that every custom you choose has pluses and minuses.  Checking every grain of rice at least three times for Passover doesn’t sound quite as appealing once you study it, nor does further restrictions on what blessings you can say as a woman.  Every custom has another side to it.

This year, I’m not yet at a place I’m ready to trade my tichels for my sheitel every single day, but I am going to try Passover using Chabad customs, bli neder.  Since I don’t have to be quite as strict with my kitchen preparation yet, it seems like a good time to give it a try and see if holding off gebrokts until the last day, peeling my vegetables, and boiling my sugar are really the big deal I’m making them out to be.  So, we wait until the last day to eat matzah lasagna and matzah brie, is that really enough to keep me from taking on the customs that seem like they’ll be the best fit for our family?  Will I feel differently about other customs I’ve been resisting later, when I’m in a place where cholov yisroel is easier to get and I can find a sheitel with a bigger cap?

Or, maybe I’ll try it and decide that, no, that’s not something we need.

Each year is filled with these small experiments and decisions, helping us learn and grow and find out what we will do each holiday, each milestone.  To me, it’s probably a big part of the journey for either a Ba’al Teshuva or a Convert.  The way is less defined and often, you have to learn more to make your own choices, but there’s also that feeling of choices being wide open.  Our family chooses how we will do our Seders, which songs we will sing on Shabbat, and a dozen other choices that begin to shape what kind of Jews we are and what we will share with future generations.

For now, I’m just going to try this, making no promises or oaths to continue it if it doesn’t fit us.  One day, maybe we will join our Lubavitch family in their customs…or not.  For now, it’s all like trying on clothes to see what fits and letting go of what doesn’t.

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