The Darker Side of Kiruv

I hesitated writing this post.  I never want to speak ill of the Jewish people, even isolated parts because I understand how someone reading my words might take that to be all Orthodox Jews, particularly if they’ve had little to no experiences with other Orthodox Jews.  I also hesitated because I kept wondering if what happened was my fault, just like how my son didn’t tell us when a man at shul just picked him up during the High Holidays, scaring him.  I feared if I said anything about what happened, it would either be dismissed as minor or it would somehow have been my fault.

But that’s exactly why things like this happen.  Not every Jew that comes to a kiruv organization wanting to learn more about their Judaism is a good person, but we are commanded to assume that they are.  In this case, though, I was placed in a situation with someone who was known not to behave appropriately.  I’m fortunate that very little happened to me, but I feel like it’s something that BT’s and conversion candidates need to be aware of and to feel like they can stand up for themselves if they’re in a similar situation.

Kiruv is an overwhelmingly good thing.  It’s the word for the process by which non-observant Jews are brought back to observance and thousands of Jews have increased their observance as a result of outreach efforts by observant Jews.  As a result of so many attacks on Jewish identity, generations were raised with little to no idea of what being Jewish could mean for them.  Kiruv organizations like Aish and Chabad work hard to help bring that message to secular Jews who might not even know what they are missing.

However, there are some downsides and I experienced one of them recently at a Shabbos table.

I was a guest, alone in an unfamiliar city and staying with a Rabbi and his wife.  I was already feeling down and unwelcome for other reasons, but I hoped that dinner would help me connect here and feel the warmth of Shabbos.  They had one other guest who showed up late and by the fact that he drove and his dress it became clear that this man was someone they were hoping to bring to greater observance.  He sat down between me and the Rabbi at the head of the table and initially I welcomed him the same I would anyone else.  That’s when things steadily went downhill.

This guest began to make offhand, inappropriate comments and eventually began touching my arm and shoulder to punctuate these comments.  I felt very uncomfortable and I looked to the Rabbi at the head of the table, hoping he would say something to his guest…he didn’t.  I saw him uncomfortable and trying to steer the conversation elsewhere, but it continued until I finally benched (said the blessing for after eating) and went to bed.  The fact that the guest had mentioned that he’d been told by the Rabbi to “behave himself,” told me that this wasn’t surprising behavior from him.  When I spoke about what had happened after Shabbos to a friend, they asked me why I didn’t stand up for myself.  I really felt at a loss.  The Rabbi and the Rebbetzin were right there and I didn’t feel it was my place to cause any conflict at their table.  I told myself it was nothing, just some words and he’d only touched my arm and shoulder.

The fact is…often kiruv Rabbis are in a tough situation.  The person who is acting inappropriately might be a major donor, someone who helps keep the doors of their shul open so that they can do the work they need to do in their community.  Tolerating bad behavior from one might allow them to serve many.  In other cases, the person acting poorly might be someone they see badly in need of help, a Jew on the edge.  The person might be related to someone who is powerful or wealthy.

My host and hostess didn’t speak to me about what had happened afterwards.  They avoided me the rest of my stay there.  I wonder if it’s because they felt awkward about it all or if they somehow blamed me.  I can’t know.  I try to judge them favorably, assuming they were probably in one of those difficult situations or unsure how to handle what was happening.  They were younger and perhaps this was something new to them.  I also thought a lot about how I could handle things differently.  I could have spoken up for myself.  I could have asked him to stop touching me or to stop talking about lewd topics.  Instead, I laughed nervously, trying to find the best time to politely get out of there.  I felt unsafe, jetlagged, and alone.  I couldn’t blame the experience on my halakhic status or lack thereof since it had never come up.

Kiruv is hard and difficult work and I admire the people who engage in it.  They also must often tolerate so much directed at themselves and their families to do what they do.  It may have been that what I went through was minor compared to what they’ve endured.

My husband and I also talked about how we would handle a similar situation at our Shabbos table.  What would we do to keep any female guests feeling safe and comfortable if there was a male guest who crossed the line?  Would that change any if it was a Rabbi or someone important?  (It won’t.)  Are we willing to deal with the fallout if we made someone feel unwelcome for their behavior?  Where are our lines in the sand and where can we compromise?

I feel like this experience, as difficult as it was that weekend, was important to have.  I walked that Shabbos day, my guests having left me on my own after services, and cried, but I also thought a lot about what had happened and what I could learn from it.  I knew I didn’t want any woman traveling alone or whose husband was away to feel that way in my own home.  I also looked at all the complicated layers to the situation, acknowledging that I couldn’t know all the details, either.

To me, it’s here, in the murky place between being a good host to a Jew who obviously badly needs Torah and allowing that which I cannot stomach that the rubber meets the road.  Can I love my fellow Jew while still keeping my home a safe and welcoming place?  Is there a point at which my fellow Jew has separated himself so much from what is good that I can no longer attempt to bring him close?  I would guess that everyone has different lines.  I needed this experience to show me where mine are.  I left the home before my guests had returned after Shabbos, relieved to drive away.  I left my thank you card and hostess gift just the same, still questioning whether I had done something wrong for them to leave me with the lockbox code and avoid me.  I needed this experience to clearly show me what I don’t want in my home and what I don’t want people to feel in my home.

And that particular gentleman, in our home, would have been politely shown the door if a kind warning hadn’t put a stop to his behavior.  He wouldn’t have been invited at all if his behavior was known, Jewish or not, wealthy and powerful or not.

I found my line.

 

Parshas Chayei Sarah – Big Shoes To Fill

In this week’s parsha, Sarah, the spiritual mother of all Jews and particularly of converts, dies and is the first person to be buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the only piece of the land promised to Abraham that he would actually own in his lifetime, but a promise for more.  Rivka is brought to Yitzhak to be his wife and sees him in the field and in what is one of the most romantic passages of Torah, they experience a Hollywood-like moment of “love at first sight.”

There is a Midrash that tells of Yitzhak bringing Rivka into his mother Sarah’s tent, to show her the example of Jewish womanhood that she needs to follow.  We aren’t told much about Rivkah’s upbringing directly in the written Torah, but midrash tells us that her father was a wicked man, even attempting to poison Eliezar.  She wasn’t raised to be what she became, but somehow, she grows to be a young woman thoughtful and kind, bringing not only water for Eliezar, but also his animals.  It seems like Rivka might often have felt out of place in her own family, as if she never quite belonged and longing to be with people she felt more at ease among.  Rivka leaves her own people to travel to meet Yitzhak, leaving her old life behind.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to stand in Sarah’s tent after her recent passing, realizing that you now have to continue what this great woman began.  Sarah was uniquely gifted in prophecy, even more so than Avraham, and was renowned for her beauty.  Even Hashem himself counselled Avraham to listen to his wife.  She bore great influence with him and undoubtedly began to shape the women who looked up to her and follow her example.  Now, though, all those who had come to monotheism through Avraham’s hospitality found Sarah’s tent empty.  It was Rivka’s task to continue to light Shabbos candles and pass on what Sarah had begun to the next generation.

In a way, we’re all Rivka, standing in Sarah’s tent and wondering if we’ll ever measure up to her example.

As a conversion candidate, I definitely have that feeling of joining a people, but without a flesh and blood mother to guide me, slowly raising me and teaching me.  Like Rivka, I’ve had to learn on the job, so to speak, studying the stories of great Jewish women and looking around me for role models.  I have had to find my place in a family that has a long and rich history of tradition as someone brought from outside by a desire to become a part of that tradition.  I stand in Sarah’s tent, hoping that I can do her memory proud, that I can be a suitable descendant of hers in my own home, raising my own children to carry on those traditions and caring for my own family.

I wonder if Rivka ever got nervous hearing of the greatness of her mother in law.  Did she worry that she wouldn’t be worthy of bringing the next generation or did she already have a quiet confidence within her?  Did she simply accept this mission as what she was born to do, without fear she’d fail?

Simchas Torah From My Side of the Mechitza

I’m about to log off, finish my cooking, and prepare for another 3 day Yom Tov, this time including the holiday of Simchas Torah.  Simcha means joy and this holiday is all about the joy that Jews feel when it comes to the Torah.  Other religions certainly have their holy books, but I’ve never seen quite the affection for them that Jews have for the Torah.  Physically, they treat each Torah scroll as something precious and fragile, clothed in soft, rich velvet and crowned with silver and bells.  They reach out to touch it, kissing their fingers or reach out a prayer book to touch it, considering it too holy for human fingers.  If a Torah scroll is ever dropped, the entire community is commanded to fast.

The Torah is one of the gifts that the Jews believe was uniquely given to us, along with the Sabbath and a few others.  It’s also called a “eitz chaim,” with eitz meaning tree in Hebrew and chaim meaning life.  It’s a tree of life, something to cling to in the stormy lives we live, something solid to live by.  Love of the Torah is encouraged from an early age with even tiny children being brought to kiss the Torah and their first learning of it accompanied by sweets.  When disaster has struck Jewish communities, men have risked their lives to save Torah scrolls, smuggling them out under risk of death.

It’s safe to say that the Torah occupies a unique place in Judaism of joy, love, and reverence.

Simchas Torah is the end of the High Holiday season.  It’s the day we both finish reading the Torah, the 5 books of Moses that are in a Torah scroll and begin right again.  The entire holiday is essentially like a wedding reception, the community celebrating their union with Hashem and the Torah and, like any good wedding reception, there is singing and dancing, with the Torah scrolls brought out of their ark and danced around the Synagogue or, in some places, even out into the street.  It’s a joyful day…except for many women who stare longingly at these celebrations, wishing they, too could join the men and dance with the Torah scroll.

While I’m sympathetic to these women, I’m not among them.

One thing that my long time in conversion has taught me is that we all have different parts to play.  Even after conversion, converts, at least converts today, have a very different set of expectations than born Jews.  I was discussing this with a newer conversion candidate some weeks ago, who was chafing at the inequality she saw.  She realized that while a born Jew can vary in their observance and even simply choose not to observe some mitzvos, that option is not as open to converts.  In our community, the majority of people who attend the Orthodox Chabad Synagogue drive on Shabbos to get there.  Few married women cover their hair.  Most men don’t wear a kippah outside of shul.  Most families eat non-kosher food regularly.  Yet, for a conversion candidate to do any of these would mean they wouldn’t be converted and, after conversion, if a convert decided to make these choices they might have their conversion questioned or they might cause those who were involved in their conversion to be tougher on future conversion candidates.  It’s simply the way things are and I found that being upset about the double standard didn’t help me or my family at all.

Orthodox Judaism is not egalitarian, which is in stark contrast to modern sensibilities.  In the Western world, we’re raised to believe that equality is our birthright and that everyone should be treated exactly the same regardless of their gender or family name.  Orthodox Judaism is more nuanced.  A man may be born a Kohen or Levite and have certain privileges that other Jewish men aren’t born to as well as other restrictions on his life that other Jewish men aren’t constrained by.  Men have different privileges and responsibilities than women.  There is the underlying idea that every human life is equally important and precious, but there is also the idea that what that looks like isn’t always the same.

Among the laws that impact the differences between men and women are the laws that a woman above bat mitzvah age may not sing or dance in front of men, besides very close male relatives.  How strictly that is observed depends a lot on the community.  In actual Orthodox weddings, there is often a separate area for women to dance together, cordoned off with a temporary barrier from the men and I have seen some Synagogues that do something similar for Simchas Torah as well.  To me, having grown used to the idea that some things are not for me as a non-Jew, some things are not for me even after conversion as a convert, the idea that some things are not for me because I am a woman…really isn’t revolutionary.  I am able to watch and enjoy my son and husband dance with the men without envy or jealousy in the same way I can watch my husband wear a tallis without envying him.

I do not need to dance to have joy or to express my joy, but I understand how it can sting to feel excluded from something, particularly when you are coming from a majority culture where exclusion is always seen as a negative thing.

So, as my online world as I scour for last minute recipes becomes filled with women lamenting the inequality of this holiday, I can pause and relate to how they are feeling, but I also realize that I’m not one of them.  I live my life already in a tangle of restrictions and exceptions and I have learned to find joy and fulfillment within that framework.  If I had felt similarly and remained in that place, I probably would not have lasted this long in the conversion process.  Every week, my family, in ways large and small, are excluded and if I dwelled on just that, I would soon be overwhelmed with sadness and frustration.  The same way I choose instead to focus on the joy that still is there in my life even now, I choose to focus on the joy of Simchas Torah, which goes so much further beyond dancing.  There is the joy that of all the nations, the Jews were the ones to accept the Torah and to be given it as a gift.  There is the joy that yet again, we have finished a year long journey through it, reading and studying it and that Jews have been doing this very same thing for thousands of years.  There is the joy of watching new generations encounter the Torah, wrestling with it, and making it their own.

When I think of everything that the Torah represents to Jews throughout the world and generations, as well as to my family, in some ways, I feel more comfortable with just a reverent kiss than with dancing.  There is a joy that is more intimate and personal for me that doesn’t need an audience to be real, that isn’t improved or made greater by any more movement than the movement of my siddur to the Torah and to my lips, as if everything I might have expressed in wild dancing is now concentrated and distilled down into this small act.

And in that act, I am perfectly content and envious of no one.

The Power of Perception and Choosing Piglet Over Eeyore

I have a very wise, non-Jewish friend who often will say something profound and then later I’ll discover that the idea she’s spoken of already exists within Judaism.  It’s become almost a running joke with us.  One of the ideas that she believes very strongly in is the idea that our perception of reality has the ability to shape our reality.

You can see this in science, where they’ve proven that the very act of observing something with a preconceived notion will make a researcher more likely to see outcomes that support their preconceived notion.  We all experience it much more concretely in our lives when we have a friend like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh who is very negative and can see only the worst in every situation or when, as children, we decide to look for something.  As a child, my family would pick morel mushrooms in one of our small forests on our land.  It never failed that none of us would see mushrooms until one of us had found at least one, but then suddenly, we’d see them everywhere.  When you’re looking for something in the world around you, you tend to see more of it.

This idea also plays out in Judaism, where often we’re told to focus on the good and it will be good, to not dwell on a possible negative outcome and to always believe that the good will happen.  I see this play out among my friends as well, with Orthodox friends frequently giving a “Baruch Hashem” when something unfortunate happens, instead focusing on the idea that it could have been much worse.  Most recently, I had an Orthodox friend in Israel who had a pipe burst in her kitchen over Rosh Hashanah.  Instead of being upset that her kitchen was a mess for the holiday, she was instead grateful that it happened over the holiday because everyone was home and able to find what had happened soon after the pipe had burst, minimizing the damage.  She was able to see the good even in a soaked kitchen.

Conversely, I have friends who are bikers who view the world as a scary and violent place and are always fearful of a fight.  Consequently, they often do find themselves in fights.  I have other friends who view the world as a very unjust place and as a result, everywhere they look, they find injustice that must be fought against.  I have friends who feel that men are oppressing women and find evidence of this all around them and others who fear the world is being destroyed and again are granted all the proof they need to support these fears.  It is as if there are seeds all around us for whatever flower we want to see, just waiting for our attention to sprout.

To me, it is a testament to the power of co-creation that Hashem gave each of us when He made us in His image that we have such amazing power to shape the world around us just by the lens through which we choose to view it.  I’ve had some amazing examples of this in my own life.  One was the recent storms and watching my friends react to them.  One friend was focused on how unprepared most of the cities were and how much better the response should have been and as a result, he was very upset about the storms even though his home was left untouched.  Another was focused on how many people were helping each other and all the volunteers rushing to offer aid, as such, she was inspired by the kindness of all these strangers.  Both were looking at the same events, but both came away with a completely different experience of them.

Which brings me to my re-entry into the “real” world from my holidays.  Yesterday I wrote about an experience with our own home, both here and on Facebook.  My intentions were to share something positive, given that so much of what we are fed as information lately is negative.  I wasn’t intending to upset anyone or brag and, Facebook being what it is, I limited the audience of my post there to only my Jewish friends, people I thought would be most likely to understand the lens through which I viewed what had happened.  I expected that a few people might notice or comment on my post, but that many just wouldn’t be interested, but I didn’t really expect anyone to be upset.

Oddly enough, some people were.  Most were relatively mild and it came down to them wanting someone to blame.  Why didn’t our painters lock the house for us?  Why didn’t we leave a key with a neighbor or call someone before the Yom Tov?  Why didn’t we plan better?  For them, there was comfort in thinking that it was human negligence alone that led us to the situation we were in and they were satisfied when I freely admitted that there were several things we could have done differently so as not to be left in that situation again and that we were working on those things now.  The way I see it, their concerns and objections were well-intentioned and reasonable.

Then I had one friend whose objections to what I wrote were more theological and she was much more upset.  To her, my entire interpretation of what had happened made me a bad person.  To her, it was extremely presumptuous to credit divine protection for the fact we hadn’t been robbed when during that same weekend, a hurricane and earthquakes had left other people in other parts of the world homeless.  Did we think we were so special or that us observing the Yom Tov so worth of reward while these people deserved death and destruction?  How could I be happy about our belongings being safe when mothers in Mexico were mourning their dead children?  How in the world could a just G-d save my home while destroying theirs and how could I believe in such kinds of calculations?

I really was taken aback by the passion in her arguments.

I had written what I had written before even checking the news, having been offline through the holiday.  As a non-observant Jew who is very involved in social justice, she had been online throughout and following the news carefully, so she and I were coming from very different viewpoints.  I was not intending in any way to minimize the suffering of anyone, but merely thanking Hashem for our good fortune.  I don’t live in a world where there is only a certain amount of good fortune to go around where somehow my family receiving goodness subtracts from the amount of mercy available to others.  A friend wisely pointed out that many of those families who had lost their homes were probably thanking Hashem that their lives had been spared with just as much sincerity as I was thanking Him for our possessions being saved…were they too in the wrong since other lives had not been so fortunate?

In the end, I realized that nothing would help my friend feel any better or better understand my perspective.  We simply live in very different worlds and, glimpsing the hurt and anger in her world for a moment, I don’t think I would want to trade mine for hers.  I can celebrate one friend’s success or good fortune without feeling that I have let others who are suffering down and I live in a world where suffering and joy can both exist and where I choose to focus on joy while still doing what I can to relieve suffering.  I can’t imagine how hard it must be to feel like you must focus only on whatever is “wrong” in the world until every problem is solved before you can be happy over the smaller things, where suffering and injustice must constantly be ranked and weighed to decide who is allowed to rejoice and who must be silent.

There is much we can work on in this world to make it a better place and so many places where we can work to help those less fortunate than ourselves, but I don’t think we need to deny our own gratitude for what goes on in our own lives to do it.  I believe Hashem created us with the capacity for far more complexity, for the ability to reach out in concern for others while still feeling joy within ourselves.

I also can easily admit that I can’t explain why my house was spared and so many other homes destroyed this weekend.  It’s far beyond me to know why so many earthquakes have shaken Mexico lately and not Anchorage or why hurricanes just keep pounding Puerto Rico.  I don’t automatically assume that the people in either place have done some great evil that deserves divine punishment…I simply can’t know why they have been chosen to suffer these things and I do feel compassion for them.  And, without any contradiction to me, I am also grateful that no one stole our belongings.

I choose to look for the good and to look for things to be grateful for.  I choose to look for the people who rise above disasters to help each other.  I choose to be inspired and to donate what I can to help them rebuild.  I choose to believe that Hashem is good and that if I can’t see the good in what has happened, it’s a matter of my perspective not being wide enough to see all the ripples from whatever has happened.

I make these choices when I look at the events of my life and the world around me because those are the choices that bring me joy and make my life more meaningful and help lift me up more to a place where I feel like I have more to offer the world around me, rather than dragging me down to a point of feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.  Perhaps that is childlike or simplistic, but I’ll also freely admit that my Jewish learning is probably more at a child’s level right now, more at what a 7 year old might know…and I’m ok with that.  I’ll keep on growing and learning and I feel like being an optimist is a better way to help me continue doing that.

I can let someone else be Eeyore in this story.  I’m content to be piglet, albeit a kosher version.

 

An Unexpected Sacrifice

I have covered my hair for many years now, but underneath, was always a long, full head of hair.  My husband asked me to keep it, even if only he saw it.  He enjoyed running his fingers through it after I took off my wig or scarf and let it down at night.  It was his secret garden, a delight for him alone.  Keeping it was pretty high maintenance, particularly as I moved from scarves to wigs.  Every morning, I had to wrap it and curl it up onto my head and secure it there with pins, then put on a wig cap, then a wig.  I was limited in what wigs I could buy because I needed such a large cap to contain it all, but it was worth it to see his happiness when I would let it down and my hair would tumble down my back.

Today, he chose to cut it for me.  With wigs, it’s generally easiest to have either long enough hair so that you can pull it easily up onto your head and secure it…or completely cropped close to the head.  After watching me wrestle with my hair this Shabbos, he told me he was ready, that he wanted to try my hair cropped short, to see if he could learn to love it that way and if it would be easier and more pleasant for me.

And so, I met him in our backyard, my hair freshly washed and tied in a low ponytail.  He waited, with scissors and his beard clippers.  As he cut the pony tail off, I half-expected it to hurt, for that hair to have feeling.  Instead, it cut off easily and painlessly, my head suddenly lighter.  Then, he asked me to lean over and he began, very gently, tenderly, trimming my hair close to my head, being so careful not to pinch.

As the fluffy clouds of my hair fell I realized the weight of this.  This was more than just my hair, which of course could always be grown back.  This was him making a sacrifice, him surrendering to his faith.  This was something that would at least take years to undo, if we chose to.  Even more so, this was making a very conscious choice.  Up until now, if I’d wanted to, I could have taken off my wig or scarf and walked out as anyone else.  Now, it wouldn’t really be possible.  This was making a even stronger commitment to our lives together as an Orthodox Jewish couple.

The clouds of hair that fell to our feet were grayer than I expected, grayer than they would have been years ago when we first began this journey.  I began to feel the cool morning breeze on my neck, on my scalp.  As he finished, he tenderly placed a hand on my head, pulling me to him and I leaned into him and we both just breathed deeply.  It wasn’t sadness…it was a weight of significance we both felt.  There was very much a feeling of him making a sacrifice and commitment to our path in a way he hadn’t been ready to before.  There was a feeling of lightness, like during a fast, a feeling of having let go of something at last that was weighing us both down.  Whether I grow my hair back or not, there was a feeling that this changed something deep and integral and the way he had lovingly and carefully done it himself was moving.

It felt right to do this the week before Rosh Hashanah, the morning after we first said Selichos.  It felt like this was his way of affirming Hashem’s Kingship and showing that he’s ready to take the next step forward.  For me, it felt like he was showing me that he loves me, hair or not that there is a kind of unconditional acceptance of me that is awe inspiring and in return, I was showing my willingness to follow him, hair or no hair.

I am proud to be married to such a man and so grateful to be walking this path alongside him.  I sometimes wonder how many men would have the faith to undergo what he has, but I also wonder if what he has had to go through has in part strengthened that faith, like iron in a fire.

Wherever life takes us and whatever happens to my hair, I will never forget that moment, his loving care cutting it all and his embrace after that told me that I am loved beyond anything external, that I am accepted no matter what form this world gives me, and that we are together, both just as committed to not just conversion, but a life of Torah after.

I can’t think of any better way to prepare for this Rosh Hashanah.

 

Fall Flu, Learning to Dress Like a Grownup, and Iggy Endures!

We had a VERY restful Shabbos and by restful, I mean that most of our family spent it sleeping with a nasty flu that set in toward the end of the week last week.  We would wake to daven and do kiddush and such, then sleep.  At one point, only my husband still had his voice and had to bench for all of us.  It was that kind of Shabbos and even though the Shabbat RV is rolling again, electrical issues solved, we opted to stay home and warm and dry.

On the very bright side, Iggy the cat must have more of his 9 lives left because he seems to have made a miraculous recovery!  He’s even well enough to be very grumpy when we have to give him antibiotics and is back to his old self, glaring at Sam the dog and getting into things.  We’re happy not to have to worry about the end of his life just yet, but it is a good reminder to discuss how to handle that with our Rabbi.  Things like euthanasia and sterilization of pets are sticky halakhic topics that often require creative solutions so that we don’t violate Jewish laws.

We’re still recovering from the flu, but I needed to be back at work today.  Often, when I’m not feeling well, I actually dress up more for work.  I find that feeling more pulled together as far as what I’m wearing can sometimes help me feel more pulled together in other ways, too.  To that end, lately, I’m also working on polishing up my wardrobe a bit.  Living in Alaska can tend to push a person more towards ultra-casual or even some strange outfits.  People regularly wear the same clothes they’d wear fishing around town and it’s not unusual to see people just wear their snow boots in shul.  (Ok, I’ve done it, too!)  With all our more stylish visitors from the lower 48 this summer, I was realizing that it probably would be a good idea for me to learn how to dress myself a little bit better, while still fitting tznius (modesty) standards.  It’s really easy to settle into a kind of tznius way of dressing that’s pretty frumpy, particularly when you’re on the short and stocky side like me.

So, I joined a capsule wardrobe group on Facebook.  The idea of a capsule wardrobe is that you have a much smaller number of total wardrobe pieces, but that they all mix and match well so you can make a wide variety of outfits.  For my capsule wardrobe, I’m going to use one of the guides found on the Classy Yet Trendy website, but substitute in the appropriate length skirts for the pants and add in layering shells as needed.

In most Orthodox Jewish communities, skirts need to be below the knees so that when you sit, your knees are not showing.  However, some communities don’t really wear really long skirts, either.  Often, you can tell what community a woman is from by how she dresses, similar to how you can sometimes tell what community a man is from by his kippah (yarmulke) or other dress.  For me, skirts below the knees, opaque tights, shirts below the elbows, collarbones covered, and shoes that cover my toes are all kind of a given.  In some communities, some colors or all bright colors are avoided, too.  As a conversion candidate, the more you blend in with everyone else around you, the easier it is to feel comfortable.

In Alaska, we have the challenge that what is considered appropriate for converts or those in the process of conversion is a lot different than what the general community considers appropriate.  In other communities I’ve been in, I’ve seen less of a gap between the two, but up here, with as casual as life is, there is a much larger gap, so sometimes dressing to please your Rabbi in some communities may leave you feeling frumpy or the odd one out.  It could be an extra incentive to move to a larger, more observant community!

For a woman looking to dress modestly, there are actually a lot of wonderful resources out there now.  There are whole online stores with modest fashions and Facebook groups you can join that even post sale items that are modest or can easily be made modest.  For me, the challenge has been more finding a personal style within the confines of what’s considered modest that still feels like “me” and fits my personality and lifestyle.  It’s easy to throw on a long skirt and a baggy shirt and layering shell and call it a day, but a little harder to look pulled together and cute, but also my age and in style, all with those constraints.  There are some women, though, that make it all look so effortless and manage to be stylish, attractive, and modest all at the same time!

So, as I focus on the goals I want to accomplish in this coming New Year, I’m also looking to polish up my wardrobe so I can better fit in with a bigger, less fishing-oriented community as well as polishing up my mitzvos.

The Beautiful Captive – Parshas Ki Teitzei

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) is a doozy.  Even just from a perspective of trying to process it all, this week’s parsha has 74 of the Torah’s 613 mitzvahs in it, so that’s a lot to take in.  Interestingly, though, this week’s parsha also has a lot of mitzvahs regarding women.  My dear friend over at her blog, Jewish Thoughts, has already begun to wrestle with this weeks’ parsha in her post a few days ago, Parshas Ki Teitzei:  I Have No Answers.  It’s a really good post and you should check it and her blog out.  Every week, she gives a great Dvar Torah there.

For me, there’s a unique perspective that I bring to parshas like this one in that both the portions that can seem problematic as they deal with women and relationships between men and women apply to me, so too do the portions that deal specifically with non-Jews and non-Jewish women.  This week’s parsha begins with a real big one that hits these intersection points:

If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives, יכִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ:
11and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take [her] for yourself as a wife. יאוְרָאִ֨יתָ֙ בַּשִּׁבְיָ֔ה אֵ֖שֶׁת יְפַת־תֹּ֑אַר וְחָֽשַׁקְתָּ֣ בָ֔הּ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ לְךָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה:
12You shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. יבוַֽהֲבֵאתָ֖הּ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ בֵּיתֶ֑ךָ וְגִלְּחָה֙ אֶת־רֹאשָׁ֔הּ וְעָֽשְׂתָ֖ה אֶת־צִפָּֽרְנֶֽיהָ:
13And she shall remove the garment of her captivity from upon herself, and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month. After that, you may be intimate with her and possess her, and she will be a wife for you. יגוְהֵסִ֩ירָה֩ אֶת־שִׂמְלַ֨ת שִׁבְיָ֜הּ מֵֽעָלֶ֗יהָ וְיָֽשְׁבָה֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ וּבָֽכְתָ֛ה אֶת־אָבִ֥יהָ וְאֶת־אִמָּ֖הּ יֶ֣רַח יָמִ֑ים וְאַ֨חַר כֵּ֜ן תָּב֤וֹא אֵלֶ֨יהָ֙ וּבְעַלְתָּ֔הּ וְהָֽיְתָ֥ה לְךָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה:
14And it will be, if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes, but you shall not sell her for money. You shall not keep her as a servant, because you have afflicted her.

It’s not hard for me to imagine the plight of the woman in this section here.  Her people have been conquered by the Israelites and probably most of the men in her family have been killed.  She is now a slave and among the other captives taken from her homeland and, lucky her, a Jewish man finds her attractive and desires her.  So, the Torah creates this situation where she comes into his home, shaves her head, lets her fingernails grow, and mourns her lost family for a month.  At the end of the month, best case scenario, she must marry her captor whether she wishes to or not and worst case scenario, she is freed but without a penny to her name, essentially with her hair grown back about a month and the equivalent of a bus ticket to wherever she wishes to go.

The explanations I’ve heard for this mitzvah are mostly that it was meant to stop soldiers from simply raping female captives, which is sadly even now common in war.  By creating rules about how a man can take a captive woman as his wife, the Torah acknowledges that this is a common urge among soldiers in war, to claim the prettiest among the conquered peoples’ women as their own and instead of simply telling the men “no” which they likely would not follow, a procedure is given that would stop men from casually taking these women and give the women some protections if the men did desire them.

The Torah often speaks of the dangers of men taking wives from other peoples, so another explanation given is that this law is there to try to stop that from happening, with the idea that in most cases, once this woman has shaved her head and begun mourning for a month, her newness will have worn off and the man’s attraction will have cooled and in almost all cases, he would then let her go free, thus avoiding a marriage which might later lead him into idolatry.

These both are very practical responses.

I do take some comfort in the idea that the IDF doesn’t regularly practice this mitzvah, but the modern woman in me still asks, “What about this woman’s wants and needs?  Is she not even asked IF she wants to marry this man?”  The Torah is silent over whether her consent is required at any part of this process.  How is this that much better than rape?

And then I realize that the mitzvahs deal with the reality of our world, unflinchingly, not with the world as I might want it to be.  You don’t have to look far in the news to find stories of women and girls that are taken as slaves and raped as part of warfare.  Their consent is never asked and many spend years enslaved and abused.  That is reality as much as I don’t like to think about it.  While our technology may have changed, human nature remains and warfare often brings out the very worst in humanity, particularly where the most vulnerable are concerned.

What the Torah seems to be trying to do here is to force some responsibility for the women trapped in this situation.  He does not get to simply take her right then and there and then leave her to her plight.  He must wait and he must provide for her while he waits.  Then, after that month, he has to decide if he really wants her and if he does, it must be as his wife, with all the rights any other wife would have, not as a slave.  He can’t sell her off to anyone else and must support her as he would any other wife.  Ostensibly, she would convert and become part of the Jewish people and her children would inherit as his children.  If he decides not to have her, he must set her free and send her wherever she wishes to go.  In many cases, it probably would have been one of the few ways she would have avoided being a slave for life in these circumstances.

If human nature was perfect, no soldier would ever rape an enemy’s women, but human nature is not always perfect and the mitzvos are written to help improve us.  I may not find the plight of the beautiful captive perfect, but it is so far better than the reality of warfare without the mitzvahs, even today that I can see the good in it.

The truth of human nature, written within the Torah, is sometimes a hard and difficult truth.  It’s like a mirror in which we see a true reflection rather than the reflection we’d like to see.  Torah challenges us to look at that reflection as it is, not as how we’d wish it to be and wrestle with that disparity.

I’m just glad my husband never had me shave my head and let my fingernails grow before he married me, but then, he also did not have to conquer my people, either.