Soon, My Children Will Not Be Mine

Orthodox Jewish conversion has a lot of fascinating quirks that a lot of people aren’t aware of unless they’ve dealt with the process directly.  One of them, which I mentioned in relation to my husband yesterday, is the fact that once you emerge from the Mikvah as an entirely new, Jewish person in the eyes of Jewish law, you also emerge with a new set of parents, Avraham and Sarah.  An interesting twist in this happens when a child converts in that, when it comes to Jewish law and ritual matters…they’re technically no longer their parents’ child anymore, but a child of Avraham and Sarah.  When an entire family converts, this means that, from a halakhic perspective, technically, the parents and the children all suddenly have the same spiritual parents and are also spiritual siblings.

This can lead your mind down some uncomfortable, very West Virginian paths if you let it and it is important to have a Rav that can advise you on things like laws of yichud and such if you have older children and are in this situation, but I think those details are best left to Rabbis who specialize in this particular and peculiar area of Jewish law.  This also applies to non-Jewish children who are adopted by Jewish couples and converted as infants or children, too.

The aspect that I struggled with early on in the conversion process was the idea that my children wouldn’t be prayed for with my name, but Sarah’s.  For some reason, that ached in my heart, that if my children were sick or hurt and needed prayers, they wouldn’t be prayed for as MY children, like any other Jew.  My son wouldn’t be called to Torah as the son of my husband, but as someone else’s son.  I have heard, in passing, that there is such a thing as “halakhic adoption” after conversion, but I also had to face the prospect of this being yet another thing I would have to work through letting go of in order to become a Jew and so…I set to thinking very deeply about it.

Like my husband’s journey to letting go of his attachment to his names, it took years and I can say that it’s only this winter that I’ve finally come to a place where this feels good, not just something that I’ll grit my teeth and make it through, but something I see as a positive good.

Part of it is the growing up my children have done since we began the conversion process.  7 years ago, when we first approached a Rabbi, my daughter was just 5 years old and my son 7.  They were still very much attached to me and needed a lot of care.  Over those 7 years, they’ve grown more and more independent.  My son, in particular, is now a 14-year-old, an adult in Jewish law and more and more, he craves his independence as he becomes his own man.  He needs space from me and our relationship shifts and changes as he grows into being more and more my peer than my child.  My daughter turns 12 next week, which is the age she would have become a bat mitzvah.  There are moments where she is still my baby and then the next, I see glimpses of a beautiful, bright young woman, strong and capable in her own right.

It’s already becoming the time of stepping back and letting go of my children so that they can be the people they were meant to be.

That process is so bittersweet.  I worry over them.  I’m intensely proud of them.  I’m annoyed by them.  I long to just pull them back into my lap and cuddle them.  I even ask them for help, particularly my son with jars I just can’t open.  I love them just as fiercely, but often, it’s appropriate to hold back some so I don’t embarrass them or cross the boundaries they’re beginning to make in their own lives.  They change so quickly and most of the time, I’m clumsily trying to keep up with it all.

A big shift happened this winter when we went to visit a Yeshiva and a boy’s High School with my son.  For years, I’d been resistant to the idea of sending him off to Yeshiva.  It felt like I was abandoning him to others to finish raising.  However, visiting these schools and watching the boys there interact with their Rebbes and seeing my son interact as well, I suddenly realized that this could be something really healthy.  Perhaps boys need to go off into a world of men that aren’t so close to them to be stifling and have more influences than just my husband and I.  I realized that my son could not just survive, but really thrive in this environment.  I also saw that he’d have even more support and guidance than we alone would be able to give him.  I suddenly felt like it was time to open up, let others into his life in a much deeper way, and take steps back of my own.

Up until now, my husband and I have been his coach, calling the plays in his life.  Now, it looks more and more like we need to be on the sidelines, just cheering and supporting him from more of a distance, but still his biggest fans.  He needs new coaches to take him to the next level.

I can think of no better spiritual parents to entrust my precious children to than Avraham and Sarah, the very people who helped to guide so many people of their time to the revolutionary concept of monotheism itself.  I also realize that as a spiritual newborn myself, I’ll need to depend on others now to give my children what I can’t, what I’m still in need of myself.

In my own life, I’ve struggled with the transition with my own parents from child to a sovereign adult.  I can now see more clearly from the other side of the equation just how difficult that transition must have been for them, too.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked spiritually to make that transition with my own children in a very literal way at the same time that they’re at the age of adulthood in Jewish law and I really feel blessed by all the lessons there are for me in this.

Sometimes the very things we feel the most initial resistance to are the things we most need, the bitter medicine that is our cure and, it’s absolutely fitting in a Jewish sense that this cure comes before I have to let go of my children in other aspects of our lives together and accept them as the adults they are growing into.

Plus, I can’t imagine that there couldn’t be a blessing from serving as a handmaiden to a woman as righteous and great as Sarah, giving over to her two new Jewish children that, G-d willing, may grow to bring her blessing with their lives.  It’s almost like being a commoner and raising your children to adolescence and the Queen of the realm seeing them and how special they are and how well they were raised and adopting them into her royal family.  It’s bittersweet to let them go, but such pride at seeing them ascend and knowing how much more able they’ll be now to reach their full potential.

So yes, I am letting my children go, but in the end, I realize they were only ever lent to me to care for and always belonged to Hashem.  I was just entrusted with these treasures of His for a time and it has been an honor.  I’m sure I’ll still be needed for many years to come in different ways and I’ll be so happy to step in, but I’m also glad I’m not alone in raising them the rest of the way.

Mother Sarah, I gladly and happily share my children with you and I know that you’ll love and worry over them with me and together we can daven for them.

What greater gift could I ever give them?

How a Trip to the Ends of the Earth Helped Me Make Peace with Christmas as a Jew

Last week, I traveled to the north slope of Alaska, about as far north as anyone can go, and I spent almost a week in an oil camp.  This was probably the most unlikely place for an Orthodox conversion candidate.  As part of my work there, I had to walk through every dorm room unless someone was asleep and every office and workspace, so I got to know the camp in a way that few probably do.

It was probably about the most Christian place I’ve ever been to.  The dining halls played Christmas music 24/7 since the camp operates 24/7.  They play it all December and it sometimes becomes a bit much even for them.  In particular, “Merry Christmas Ya’all from Texas” gets stuck in your head in the worst way.  There were Christmas decorations everywhere and I was wished a Merry Christmas by kind and well-meaning people everywhere I went.  I guess it was almost like being at the North Pole!  In their dorm rooms, there were symbols of Christianity, bibles, even magazines for bible study.  The announcement board had various Christian bible studies and even services advertised for Saturday night.  To say I felt a bit out of my element is an understatement.

As I ate my reheated kosher meal with Christmas music playing and everyone around me enjoying fresh non-kosher food, I began to rethink my attitudes toward Christmas and Christianity in general.  Why did I feel such revulsion?  Why was I so defensive, so grumpy?  Was it that I felt like I had to openly reject this in order to protect my Jewishness?  Sure, maybe it was presumptuous for people years ago to ask my kids what Santa was bringing them for Christmas, but I’m sure they meant well.  These were people living their faith just as I try to.  They were earnest in their beliefs and the warmth with which they gave their holiday greetings was sincere.  In such a cold place, I didn’t really stick out as being anything different.  My choice of skirts over pants might have been unusual, but just being female there was already unusual, so it was natural they would assume I was Christian like them.

Just because their beliefs never fit me doesn’t mean I need to have such high walls up against them.  In fact, the fact that I was raised Catholic and never found anything there for me should be enough to tell me that I have nothing to fear from Christmas carols.  If I’m truly happy in Judaism, then why not wish the same for them in their faith?

Inside, I felt some tension ease and I could look at all those old symbols with fresh eyes, realizing that they meant me no harm.  I could smile and wish someone a Merry Christmas, even while letting them know my family and I celebrate Chanukah.  I began to see their confusion for what it was, rather than judgement.  I also found myself looking forward to Chanukah more, where before I’d simply been thinking about all the work for the shul’s annual Chanukah party that was coming up and trying to figure out when I’d find time to make latkes.  It was as if my grinchy attitudes towards my neighbors celebrations had been bleeding over to my own.

It took flying up into the far arctic to melt my heart some to where I no longer felt under attack by Christmas carols and lights, but instead could focus on the joy of my own holiday season and genuinely wish my coworkers, friends, and my non-Jewish family happy holidays of their own.  I stepped off the plane home on Motzei Shabbos with a lighter heart, ready for Chanukah!

Parshas Vayishlach – Wrestling with Angels and New Names

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov famously wrestles with Esav’s angel, gaining an injury and the name Israel.  In the Torah, every nation has its own angel watching over it and we’ve already learned that Esav is destined to be a mighty nation in his own right.  The struggle is dramatic and costs Yaakov, injuring his hip from which Jews derive the commandment not to eat the sciatic nerve of animals.

I sometimes wonder what nation I was born to and if I wrestle with the angel of that nation.

Unfortunately, the Torah doesn’t tell us which of the people that it speaks of wandered through Europe later.  It doesn’t say if Esav’s distant descendants later decided to move to England, Ireland, and Alsace, where my ancestors sprang from.  There are some commentaries that seek to explain which modern day people are at least spiritual descendants of which people in the Torah, but beyond Jews and Muslims, it can be tough to trace even one’s spiritual lineage back to the Torah.  There are some interesting ideas that the ten lost tribes of Israel spread out throughout the nations and that those who successfully convert are descended from these, but most Rabbis seem to think that converts are neshamas that were present at Mount Sinai, but for varying reasons, were born into non-Jewish bodies.  The generations before have little meaning beyond creating that vessel.

In many ways, I could picture Esav as the ancestor of the people of my birth.  My ancestors were pretty tough people, surviving conditions in Western Europe and then being bold enough to cross the Atlantic in the hunt for a better life.  There are certainly plenty of hunters and warriors in my family line and I can say that there was little concern with spiritual matters, at least in the generations I’m aware of.  The people I come from are very practical, stoic people who value hard work and independence.  Giving up some of that independence to be part of a religious community is seen more as weakness than admirable and admitting to feeling moved by anything that isn’t concretely visible in this world is far too sentimental for their taste.

They’re a good people in their way and people like those I was born to are the bedrock that helped build this nation.  From them, I learned how to go out into this world and work hard, hunting for what I need.  I doubt any of them would have guessed that I would one day turn those skills to hunting for something more, something intangible.

Like any conversion candidate, there are times I question what I’m doing.  There are moments when I ask myself why I am choosing to make my life harder and why I am working so hard to join a people…that very often doesn’t seem to want me.  It helps that I never quite felt at home among the people I was born to.  I always had too many questions about things that seemed unimportant to them.  I always had my head in the clouds and a yearning that no one else seemed to understand.  Still, I look at the world around me and I can’t help but admit that there are other places I’d probably be more easily accepted, other lives that I could slide into with relative ease compared to this one, where I am constantly called on to prove I should be here.

It’s at those times that I wonder if I’m myself wrestling with the angel of my forebear and I often wonder which of us will ultimately win.  Hashem knows we’re both stubborn.

When Yaakov won the battle with Esav’s angel, he was given a new name that his children would carry through time…Israel.  The Sages say this marked a great spiritual transition for him.  He had attained a higher spiritual level following the struggle, a level which would be necessary for the Jews to survive everything that would come later, from bondage in Egypt to years wandering the desert, to conquering their own land, to the exile.  The struggle with Esav’s angel revealed the inner strength of Yaakov.  He didn’t become a different person, but rather it revealed who he really was.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that in exile, Jews must be Yaakov and the nature of Yaakov is to have to hide parts of who we are for survival, but in the time of Moshiach, all Jews will be fully Israel, that is, Jews will be able to reveal fully who they are.

Converts gain a new name at the time of conversion, their Hebrew name.

It’s an interesting task to have to choose a name for yourself.  I remember that my children’s names, both English at their birth and Hebrew as we began this process, came very easily and naturally to me.  Some say that mothers are given divine inspiration when it comes to naming their children and last week’s parsha spoke of Leah and Rachel naming their children.  For me, it was as if once I said their names, those names had always been theirs.  They fit them.  I struggled, though, when it came to my own name.  Should I choose a name that fit who I see myself as or who I wish to become more like?  What should my name sound like?  Converts are urged to choose common Jewish names, names that won’t really stand out much in their community or set them apart.  Being a convert alone sets one apart enough.  Every name I tried, though, just didn’t seem to fit the way my children’s names fit them, but then again, I’d often felt like my English name that I’d had since birth never quite fit.

Over the years, I settled on one that I use and it fits in the way that a shirt that isn’t quite right, but you’ll still wear out fits.  I wonder, though, if I do succeed in wrestling the angel of my ancestors and gain Avraham and Sarah as my spiritual ancestors if that name will come to fit me better and feel more like it is simply who I always was, revealed?

Thanksgiving Kosher

Thanksgiving couldn’t be more timely for our family this year.  We’ve gotten so bogged down with so many things and it’s easy to lose sight of being grateful for what we have.  Thanksgiving in Alaska comes during the deepening darkness leading up to the winter solstice, a time that can seem particularly dark even as our neighbors begin to hang their holiday lights.

Our family has a weekly Shabbos table tradition of each of us saying 3 things that we are grateful for from the week we just finished.  Bonus points are given if the person who just answered manages to ask the next person just as they begin to eat a bite of food and sometimes it’s easy to come up with three things and other times it’s a little more challenging.  It always helps us begin our Shabbos meal in the right spirit, though.  In some ways, I feel like Thanksgiving is a great holiday to break up the beginning of winter and remind us of how much we have to be thankful for.

I’ve been particularly in need of a reminder to look more at the positive.  Work has been challenging, the kids have needed a lot of help with school work, I’ve been stressed about getting the house whipped into shape for sale, and I’ve just been kind of down overall, only seeing the challenges and negatives.  As I contemplate sides that go with turkey, I’m also thinking about how I can focus more on all the places we have been so fortunate and deepen my trust that everything is going to work out for the best.

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday for Orthodox Jews.  Some choose not to celebrate it, seeing it as being more of a Christian or non-Jewish tradition.  Some kosher keeping Jews also don’t eat turkey since there is no tradition of Jews eating the bird in the past and kosher laws can be a little tricky with birds.  Our family still eats turkey and we still celebrate Thanksgiving, albeit with kosher recipes.  When it comes to the meal, the turkey is the star of the show and for us that means a fleishig meal, meaning a meal that has meat in it and therefore no dairy.

In Alaska, that means ordering a kosher turkey (or two) ahead of time at a pretty steep cost and then rejoicing when you’re able to find them.  Our two birds each cost about $60 a piece and weigh in around 12-15 lbs, but they’re all ours and we’re grateful to have them at all.  The rest of the year, the only turkey available to us is frozen ground turkey.

Over the years, I’ve found ways to prepare sides without any dairy or using dairy substitutes.  Mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, even the ubiquitous green bean casserole can all be made pareve.  This year, I’m also trying out a pumpkin challah and a pareve pumpkin pie.  There are so many recipes now with so many people cutting dairy from their diet that it’s not hard to pull together a pretty nice Thanksgiving spread.

In many ways, cooking Shabbos each week makes cooking Thanksgiving a lot less daunting.  You become used to pulling together a formal dinner every week, so what’s one more?  Besides, you can COOK on Thanksgiving!!!!  To me, that makes Thanksgiving positively relaxing after all the Yom Tovim of the High Holiday season.  I love having the kids in the kitchen, helping out with their favorite dishes, music playing, and the familiar smells and tastes of my childhood.  With so many other holiday traditions that needed to get the boot when I chose to convert, it’s wonderful to have one holiday that still translates.

At first, I initially wrestled with whether or not we should keep Thanksgiving, since it isn’t really Jewish.  In my mind, though, the more I thought about it, the more I found it fit.  What’s more Jewish than a meal that brings family together to focus on all that Hashem has given them?  We wash our hands and say brachas rather than grace and we bench after the meal (benching is the blessing for after a meal with bread), but the desire to take time out of our busy lives to thank our creator for a successful harvest and all that we’ve been granted, I think, is a deeply human desire.

I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, if you celebrate.  If not, it’s not that long until another warm Shabbos!  This week, with the temperatures outside dipping into the negative F, we’re planning to spend a warm Shabbos at home, resting up to return to the Shabbat RV and the cold next week!

Shabbos, Cold and Dark

Last Shabbos, I was curled up in my arctic sleeping bag.  Granted, that particular sleeping bag was a little overkill for the night we were having.  The temperature in the RV was only in the 40’s, not below zero.  Still, it was a taste of things to come as we each did what we needed to do to stay warm.  The kids were curled in blankets and jackets and our crockpot dinner was welcome warmth.  Shabbos began early, although not as early as it will.  It was the last Shabbos for a while that the kids were able to do a full day of school.

Cold, like hunger, gnaws at the spirit, with patience wearing thin and small discomforts magnified and yet, there was a pride we all felt and a connection to previous generations of Jews who braved all kinds of discomforts or even danger to keep the Sabbath.  We’re far more fortunate in that there are no dangers for us and even our discomforts are mitigated by modern technology.  There is camping gear here in Alaska that allows people to camp even in the most extreme conditions and we even had a shelter and the ability to have warm food.

I’m preparing for an even darker Shabbos.

In a few weeks, as soon as some equipment arrives, I will need to travel to Kuparuk, an oil drilling camp.  It lies just inland from the arctic ocean, far north of the arctic circle and not far from the northernmost point of Alaska.  Yesterday, I attended a training that is mandatory for anyone going to these kinds of camps where I learned just how extreme an environment it is and about all the dangers and what to do to avoid those dangers.  Each module, essentially, was all about another way to die there.  Polar bears that never hibernate and see humans as food make grizzly bears seem cuddly by comparison.  Cold that can kill in a short period of time if you aren’t prepared for it.  Contagious disease that spreads quickly in confined quarters.  Poisonous gases released from far below the frozen permafrost.  Cold so bitter that machinery stops functioning.  Darkness that lasts months.

I will only be up there for a week or two and the company that has contracted us is providing me kosher food.  I’m working with my local Orthodox Rabbi to work out candle lighting times and I’m taking a coworker with me who I will train to do this work and it’s likely that he’ll handle any future trips like this.  It feels almost like preparing for a week or two on a moon colony.  I will spend a Shabbos or two there, among the oil workers, in a long night that takes months until the first dawn, far from home and family.

Yet, even there, there could be opportunities for connection, for warmth and for Judaism.  Who knows if one of the workers might see my sheitel and casually mention that his mother was Jewish?  Who knows what inspiration might come from spending this time in a place so foreign, so extreme?  At the very least, I am sure I will have some time for uninterrupted reading and davening.  The questions I have are interesting ones that make me wonder about future Jews.  How will space traveling Orthodox Jews handle Shabbos and candle lighting in the constant night of space?

Where there is a will, there is almost always a way.

Snow Instead of Flood and Paddling Your Own Canoe

We spent this past Shabbos in a hotel and wow did that feel positively decadent after so many Shabboses in the Shabbat RV 2.0!  There was unlimited running water, heat, soft comfy beds with all the fixings, like smooth sheets.  We had a mini-fridge I was able to stock with snacks and food and it was all about a block from the Synagogue.  It was a nice treat, to be sure!  It turned out to be great timing for us to be waiting on the windshield repair for the RV, too, because this past weekend we happened to get the first snow of the winter season and it was a little easier to greet it with good cheer when we had a nice warm hotel room to return to.

As we read last week’s parsha about the flood, snow drifted down in front of the shul windows in big, fluffy flakes, thick enough that I couldn’t see the mountains beyond, which have been white now for a few weeks.  It was interesting reading about all the rain when we were experiencing snow and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of early homesickness for Alaska, even though we haven’t left yet.  It’s hard sometimes living with one foot in one world and the other poised to step into the next.

All this talk of building arks had me thinking about something that had come up in an online discussion group for conversion candidates the week before.

A prospective convert was frustrated with her learning, specifically that her sponsoring Rabbi and community didn’t seem to have much in the way of organized learning to help with her conversion process.  I thought back to our process and how we’ve learned along the way and I realized that while we’ve been very fortunate to have wonderful, willing teachers along the way and to find the resources we’ve needed, this has mostly happened because we were already looking for them.  I’ve only heard of a few stories of more organized “conversion classes” and those were mostly in large cities.  Even in those stories, I’ve often heard that the students were disappointed in the class or needed to add in extra resources.  I often think that the sheer amount of information most conversion candidates need to learn should be enough to discourage the insincere, but I’ve also seen that it’s often necessary to be like a hunter when it comes to learning, willing to chase down whatever book or class is needed.

Much of our learning has come through reading lists.  The RCA has a good one for starters and there are a few other recommended reading lists out there.  I also find that asking my Rabbi for recommendations for books on a specific topic is a good idea because sometimes he or the Rebbetzin will have books they like that aren’t on my reading lists that give me a new perspective.  Our bookshelves are filled with books on the three major mitzvahs of kashrus, Shabbos, and Taharas Hamispacha, along with a slew of other Jewish topics.  I’m also always poking around our Synagogue’s library.

From the reading comes questions and from the questions often come the teachers we need.  Asking a friend questions about what I was reading about Taharas Hamispacha led her to suggest we have a chavrusa (kind of like a 2 person study circle) for it.  Asking a Rabbi I knew about some Hebrew words I was struggling with was what sparked his offer to teach me more reading.  Asking questions of one of the teachers in the local day school landed us a recommendation for a tutor for the kids.  Once our community saw that we were already putting in the work to learn, opportunities popped up often.

This is one area of the conversion process that conversion candidates DO have a lot of power to impact their own process.

Much of the process is out of our hands and in Hashem’s hands.  It’s hard to know what a Beis Din is looking for when you speak with them or how they know a candidate is ready.  It’s hard to know what abstract timelines the Rabbis involved may have in their heads and it’s even sometimes tough to know exactly what you should or should not be doing to be making progress.  Still, you can always be learning, especially today with SO many resources available right online (I have a list of learning resources, too).

There really is no reason to be waiting for someone to spoon feed you information.  The worst that happens is you wind up learning something that maybe doesn’t fit with your Rabbi’s particular perspective, in which case, you have an opportunity to ask him for his and for resources that fit with it.  As long as you’re not getting lost in kabbalah, but instead concentrating on the basics of mitzvah observance, it’s tough to go too wrong, particularly if you’re using mainstream orthodox resources like the ones recommended in most conversion groups.  I’ve also found that there are so many layers even to what seems simple that it’s hard to run out of things to study, even when I narrow down my focus to just what is necessary for conversion.

While I do envy the converts I know who have wonderful, warm stories of a sponsoring Rabbi who really took them under their wing and closely guided their learning, I don’t think that’s the majority experience of converts.  I think most of us have to put in our own work and I think most congregational Rabbis already have so much to do in a day it’s a wonder they sleep at all.  There is also something to be said for doing that kind of work yourself.  While I may not have as close a relationship with one Rabbi, I have been gifted with a lot of different teachers each with their own perspective and gifts.  I’ve also come across so much extra knowledge that I might have missed out on if I hadn’t had to go searching myself.  I learned to not be quite so shy about asking questions and networking to find tutors, rather than feeling lost if I didn’t have a good guide.  I was able to learn about the halakhic times for prayer from a very punctual Yekke Rabbi (Yekkes are Jews originally from Germany and as a gross generalization, they’re usually on time and strict about measuring things), Jewish Spirituality from a Lubavitch BT, teshuva from a Yeshivish Rabbi, and a lot of other subjects from the perspectives of Jewish teachers and Rabbis who loved their subjects.

While it is important to attend local classes, I found that doing my own study was just as important, to help add to what I was learning as well as show the Rabbis working with me my commitment to learning.  An Orthodox Jewish life is one of lifelong learning and it’s definitely one area of Orthodox life that is open to conversion candidates even before the mikvah.

There is a tendency in a lot of communities to assume that you have everything you need unless you start asking for it and showing that you are serious.  Many smaller communities have people at various stages of observance and often other people won’t want to make someone uncomfortable by offering them resources they might not want yet.  Passing a book on kosher to someone who is happy with where they are, kashrus-wise, might be seen as rude or judgmental.  I’ve found this is true not only when it comes to learning, but also when it comes to things like local kosher food resources, places to stay for Shabbos, and any number of things.  If I ask questions and show that I’m already putting in the work myself to find what I need, then often offers of help come.

It all starts with paddling our own canoes, even if we’re a little awkward with it and our canoe is leaky.  Then, I find, Hashem does bring what we need to keep on going.

Don’t Lose What Makes You, YOU! Advice for Orthodox Jewish Converts and Baleei Teshuva!

The times that I have fallen in love, I’ve had a tendency to lose myself in the man I’ve fallen in love with.  It’s a pleasant kind of loss of identity and it happens slowly, subtly until I realize that I suddenly have new habits, preferences, and tastes.  Similarly, over the years, I have watched those newly in love with Judaism lose some of themselves as they took on observance.  I’ve even been that person myself (usually when I write any conversion tips, it’s so others can learn from my own mistakes!).  It’s one of the side effects of one of those early stages of love, the heady infatuation part.

The problem with this often comes later, when reality sets in, both in love and observance.

In love, after the glow wore off, I’d find that I really didn’t like that food I’d been trying to like because he liked it or that hobby that he really enjoyed.  Then, I would have to be honest with myself and him and find my own preferences again.  Mr. Safek LOVES tabletop roleplaying games.  For those unfamiliar with these, they can be very involved, with complicated math to tell you whether or not you’ve killed whatever monster has “appeared” and backstories written for your character, down to painted figurines.  He revels in all this, completely geeking out.  Initially, when we got together, I tried to be all about it, too.  I painted figures for him and went with him to games and tried to be interested.  Once the glow of just doing something with him subsided, though, to a more normal level, I realized…I really find this kind of gaming rather tedious and boring.  I’d rather be reading a book or knitting!

In Judaism, this often takes on the form of a person who previously wasn’t observant suddenly taking on very strict observance or very specific customs and throwing away things like their favorite clothes, music, movies, or hobbies because they simply aren’t “Jewish enough.”  At first, anything Jewish is automatically better, more authentic, and more worthy of time and energy, but after the initial excitement of “being Orthodox” wears off and the day to day reality of Orthodoxy sets in, this can become a problem.

Observance is essentially a collection of habits that are based in Torah and combine to form an Orthodox or frum life.  Given this, tossing out everything you were before you decided to become religious works about as well in the long term as going off to a spa for three weeks to lose weight.  Sure, as long as you exist in this different world away from your “normal” life, you’ll eat healthy, exercise, and have all these great healthy habits, but what about when you return home?  Similarly, the challenge for both converts and BT’s (Jews who weren’t raised Orthodox, but later take on observance) is to find a way to integrate these new habits into their life.  Throwing away everything that made you who you are and simply taking on the persona of what you think is the ideal Orthodox Jew very rarely works long term.  What happens when the only choice you think you have is to either never enjoy the things you once did or go completely and utterly off the derech?  (OTD – giving up observance, going off the “path”)

This is partially why everyone encourages converts to take on observance slowly and to be moderate in their observance, but beyond that, I think it takes learning how you can still do many of the activities and pursue many of the interests you had before you came to Orthodox Judaism, but within the confines of Jewish law.  In this way, it’s less a question of “either or.”

In some ways, many converts have an easier time grasping this than born Jews becoming religious because we already have to find creative halakhic ways to navigate things like holidays with our non-Jewish family or eating with non-Jewish family.  We’re used to having to find some kind of middle ground between our pasts and our presents that is still allowed by Torah since there is a major mitzvah to honor one’s parents and in most cases our parents aren’t converting with us.  I’ve often seen more tension when a child of secular parents decides to become religious because there can be more pressure on the parents to accommodate their child’s new observance.

I’ve had a few interests or hobbies that I just couldn’t find a way to fit into an Orthodox lifestyle, but, by in large, with the help of Rabbis, I’ve been able to integrate most of who I was into who I am.  I take an aerial yoga class, something I came to enjoy during our break from our conversion process.  These classes involve a really wonderful mix of flexibility, strength, and endurance and I find them fun as well.  As we returned to our conversion process, I had already been sidelined from my classes with some minor health issues I was working through, but I was a little sad about the idea that I wouldn’t be able to take them back up again.

That’s when it finally occurred to me to ask a Rabbi if there might be a way for me to do these classes, but not violate Torah laws.  We looked at who takes the classes, whether there are windows in the building men could look through, what clothing do I need to wear to be able to do the activity and how could that be made modest?  What kind of music do we work out to?  I found tznius workout skirts with built-in leggings and undershirts and tops as well as headcoverings that don’t slip even when I’m upside down.  The classes are almost always all women, but there are windows, so we sided on the side of greater modesty and I avoid the kinds of classes that would have immodest positions and any classes that could work in any of the spiritual aspects of yoga versus the fitness parts.  I’ve been back for three weeks so far and while I might not be the most fashionable looking woman there, I’m very glad to be able to be there and without compromising following Torah.

This is just one example and after a while, it becomes fun to look for ways to do things in a way that is consistent with Torah law and then check with a Rabbi to see if I’m on the right track, like a puzzle to solve.  We’ve done this with camping trips, with my upcoming work trip to the North Slope, and with our hobbies and the kids’ public schooling.  Sometimes, the answer is, “No, there just isn’t a way to make that work with Torah law,” but more often than not, it’s more about how we do something than if we do it all.  By making old interests and hobbies as well as time spent with non-Jewish friends a priority even if it involves some creative problem solving, our family feels more cohesive in our observance and more positive.

It might not fit with a more stringent view of Orthodoxy, but it’s a balance that is approved by my Rabbi, fits within halakhah, and allows me to be me and an Orthodox Jew.  I make time for hobbies I enjoyed long before conversion ever entered my mind and I find new insights in many of them from my Jewish studies.

I think it’s important, for long term success, to be able to form a Judaism that enhances one’s life rather than reduces it to a long list of “don’ts” and where there is a will, there is often a halakhic way to find compromises that allow for a kosher life that is sustainable and full of joy.