16 September 2007

a Pint of Bitter, please

My 11 September posting (funny how it does not have such a zing to it when one writes the date correctly... Try talking about 11-9 and see how many heartfelt reactions you get) was not the best piece of teshuvah with which I could have gone into Rosh HaShanah. I did not think about the fact that it may have been a little bit too harsh until much later in the day after I had posted it.

On the other hand, I got published by one of my favorite bloggers, this guy. (Note the salute to Ashkenazi seli'hot later on in the comments.)

It was not kind of me to mix reminiscences of the terrorist attack with my personal condemnation of mixed, pluralistic Jewish education. It was not necessary for me to mention the personal life of the principal, whose methods I disagreed with for entirely different reasons. And you know what they say: "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?"

...But I don't know if that rule applies to blogging. In fact, I do not know if that rule has any basis in halakhah whatsoever.

It is just that, for me, the world that began on that day was a mixture of the sadness and paranoia that we Americans got into, plus my own dive into the deep end of a big, complicated, and somewhat religious Jewish community. It is impossible for me to tell the story of that year of teaching without invoking the terrorism. And it is impossible for me to tell the story of 11 September without mentioning that additional layer of epic disappointment.

So let us take a look at the bright side. If that year had been successful, I may have continued full-time in secondary Jewish education. Or I may have gone back into academia, or into some other career. In any of those cases, my Jewish growth would likely have been stunted incredibly. I had to hit bottom, really rock bottom as far as my employment and family relationship were concerned, to reexamine life to the extent that I did. Without that experience, I may not have decided so quickly to come to Israel. Without that decision, there is truly little chance I would have looked into yeshivah study (and now that I know what it's about, I can confidently say it would have been a stupid thing not to consider). Without deciding to go to yeshivah in Jerusalem, I may not have met my future wife.

Those three milestones occurred within about a week of each other, and in that order.

So, really I should be grateful for that year's experience, right?

11 September 2007

A memorable September day

We had a hint of autumn weather here in Jerusalem a few days ago, which for me is the revelation that God may preserve my soul yet. I am a hot-natured body, and take the months of oppressive heat as a personal reproach. But I will not complain about the weather in Israel.

Instead, I will enjoy the fact that fall weather has the effect on me of madeleines dipped in tea, bringing me back clearly to a time and place in my life when I was truly happy: in Europe, just starting to figure out Judaism, wondering whether and how I could ever become a part of the North-African Jewish community I saw tiny glimpses of around me, but highly enjoying the non-Jewish culture around me, as well. That's for another posting.

What follows is not one of those good memories. It was this time of year, but a couple of years later, when I was living back in America. I was no longer in my wonderful, familiar college town, but in Big City, USA, close to it. I had not particularly wanted to live there, but my conversion rabbi had told me that that would be the only way to get to know his community: a vibrant Orthodox neighborhood full of real people. A place to find out if I really wanted to be Jewish.

So I had found a job in the city: teaching in a pluralistic Jewish high school full of rich children. It was a step down from being a graduate assistant and teaching college students, even though I and my fellow TAs probably thought our life was tough. I rationalized that these high-school students had no doubt received a Prestigious Elite Intellectual Highly Driven Jewish education all of their lives, and would be comparable to undergraduates, at least. Surely it would be the next thing to a military academy.

Given those expectations, the school year would have been a disappointment on its own merits. I did not finish my dissertation, as planned, and the devout Roman Catholic lesbian who was the academic principal of the school made sure that she owned my life, although I had only been hired to teach four classes (and even though she knew I was trying to wrap up seven years of graduate school).

The so-called Judaism I found there was bankrupt. It was either self-deluding (in the case of those who chose to remain religiously Jewish, according to their own personal definition) or cynical (in the case of those who attended the anti-minyan, slept around with each other, and drove to MacDonald's on Yom Kippur to eat cheeseburgers). I invite you to consider the choice of the word "transdenominational" to describe the supposed tolerance of the school atmosphere. Not "pluralistic", but transdenominational, implying movement from one place to another. Well, that is what I was doing, but I was going in a different direction from 99% of the student body.

The lack of discipline nearly turned me postal, and I do not say that lightly. We were told to be tough on students and not to accept their misbehavior and lack of respect, but the hippie-like atmosphere was encouraged by the administration. If I tried to punish students, I was punished instead. I assigned detention once, after a particularly hellish day with 11th graders, and the nun-principal canceled it. The students quickly learned who had more power, and the principals made sure to respect those who were truly in charge (i.e. the signators on the tuition checks, and by extension, their offspring). It became common knowledge by the end of the year that we teachers were guaranteed to be the last ones to know of any important decision.

For example, one day a few weeks into the beginning of the year, during one of my lesson-planning hours, a secretary hunted me down frantically to tell me that my class was waiting for me. "Why, I don't have a class at this hour!" I politely told her. She must have been mistaken. And then I learned that a new class had been formed. The subject established. The lesson plans... well, not prepared. The teacher chosen. Guess whom.

Nevertheless I remained senselessly optimistic about the experience back at the beginning. After all, the job paid well and allowed me to move deeply into the Jewish community of Big City, it observed all the holidays, and the fellow teachers there were a great bunch.

One of them was a Yale graduate in Jewish Studies or something like that. He was a scholar and a great guy, a member of the Conservative movement who knew all about Talmudic literature, but laughed a little at some of the "pointless" details of Orthodoxy, just like the Modern Orthodox do. I would see him in the teachers' break room between each class, surfing the news sites.

"An airplane crashed into a skyscraper in New York," he mentioned one day as we were getting coffee and checking our mailboxes for new revelations.

I thought back to a tragic accident that had happened close to the small town where I grew up. A pilot of a private plane had crashed into a television tower. We did not have ABC for years. Then they rebuilt the tower, and another pilot of a private plane had crashed into it — and had died! Another one of those freak accidents, I thought.

During the next period I did not pay attention to the rowdy seniors next door. They were usually out of control. This time, though, they were listening to the radio rather loudly. At some point a guy burst in (as he did every day; it had already become a minhag) and asked if his class could use our television. There had been an explosion in New York, or something like that.

So we watched the news together.

Half an hour later I was running from room to room, notifying the teachers of a school assembly to be held shortly. One of them did not take me seriously, thinking that was my idea of a joke. It them dawned on me that she and her few math students had been completely isolated from the bedlam of the rest of the school. "It's war!" I told her. And that's what made sense to me. Suddenly, one of the students burst into tears. I felt horrible. I had not realized they were not expecting this.

I'd say the school year pretty much went downhill from that point. You know those people who went into an extremely long slump of depression, no matter how unrelated they were to anyone involved in the incident, and no matter how many thousands of miles they lived from Ground Zero? I was one of those persons. Sure, I was functional. I did my job and developed quality relationships that year. I became a close friend to my conversion rabbi, despite being a non-Jew (until several months later) and despite his mega load of responsibility to a community with hundreds of high-maintenance families. But much of the time, especially at home at night, I crawled deep into my memory palace and mourned.

We were sure, back then, that any big American city was going to be next. I couldn't stand to drive under skyscrapers, which was part of my route to and from work. Noises in the leaves outside meant that OBL's guerillas were on the ground and had penetrated the Jewish neighborhood. I bought a firearm (don't worry — I never brought it into the school). The synagogue hired a police officer to patrol the building on Shabbat, and he became like family, although he assured us that his standing around during services was not going to stop anyone serious: why, all they had to do was park a fuel truck out front, and we'd never see what hit us.

Big City was, in fact, one of the places that the media rumored was going to be hit next. My Overly Protective Mother had always loathed and despised this Big City, because it took people out of the country towns, looking for job opportunities to make better live for themselves. And that was somehow a sin. So she certainly wanted me to move out of that place as soon as my contract was up. Besides that, I was living among Heathens and eating their Heathen food, pretending to be one of them, but not recognizing that they were looking down on me like a slave. I didn't have Abraham's blood, after all, and never would.

The pluralistic high-school teaching experience took one wrong turn after another. I learned a lot of valuable lessons, hoping as much for my students, but gladly said good-bye at the end. This situation led to a series of traumatic job- and family-related crises that finally led to my moving to Israel.

I had known I was supposed to go there anyway, since that is the morally right thing for all Jews. But I was hoping that returning to life in Europe, where I had been truly happy, would be in the more immediate future. HaShem saw fit otherwise. I needed to start a family here.

Today I wonder if there is any point in slipping into this funk again, besides that OBL video. So now I live in a partially Muslim country and am slowly learning Arabic. I even understood a few of his words and his references to the Koran. Iran has its cross hairs on us, but you know what? It doesn't worry me. As the high-school coach said on the afternoon of this very day, six years ago, "If we cancel the soccer game, we're just giving the terrorists what they want!" I should be working now, not indulging in such memories. My Israeli wife tells me matter-of-factly not to think about it.

What I would like to do, if I have the time, is go back into the archives. Not just to replay the memories as I just did, but to review the news reports and let the humanity of the event sink in again. Sure, it might be a downer, but ultimately I think that is healthier than just ignoring it.

31 August 2007

Words that don't exist

I've heard the claim that there are some words that do not exist in Hebrew. What the persons who make this claim are trying to say is that the concept does not exist in lashon hakodesh, the Holy Tongue. Since lashon hakodesh is assumed to be perfect, every word signifies a true reality. So if there is no word for that concept, then the idea is not authentic, but rather a deception of some sort.

I will tell you what they don't mean. They don't mean that you cannot look up these words in a dictionary of Modern Hebrew and find a translation.

I overheard this idea from a rabbi in the context of a mussar seder over the course of several days. I have also heard people say this kind of thing on the street, as it were, so it has some currency. But I have not been able to track down the original source.

The words include, to the best of my memory: fun, adventure, and romance. The list may also include doubt and humor.

I don't know if I believe this claim or not. I mean, I like it because it is thought provoking and makes for good discussion. I like the idea that lashon hakodesh was designed by HaShem and is integral and internally consistent. And it is obvious that innovative modern concepts could only find expression in modern words, like organic chemistry. Sure, I'd like to see that in Tanakh. But I am not going to lose my faith if it is not there.

This may be off-topic, but I do not like the claim that Hebrew was never a spoken language, only written. I have heard this claimed by a few bnei Torah, so it frightens me to think they may have seen it in a credible source somewhere. If they have seen that "inside", I have a hunch that the source said something different from what they think it said. I hate to bring out the cricket bat of "secular education", but... But there is no point in beating down a straw man, so I will wait until someone has show it to me inside to deal with it.

What I can tell you now is that I disagree that fun belongs on the list. "Fun" is, I claim, a true Torah concept and does exist in lashon hakodesh. That will be the topic of another posting. I am also prepared to give romance the full academic treatment. That's an interesting one, and I will probably end up coming to an agreement with the mussar rabbi. But it's the journey that counts.

Meantime, I would like to ask readers if they can give me a source for any of these claims, or if there are any other words that belong on this list.

29 August 2007

Ger Tsedek but not a Jew? - part 2

In another place I once mentioned that I had undergone "a universally unquestionable Orthodox conversion". This was and is not a statement of arrogance, just my understanding how reliable my beth din is in the rabbinic world. As I mentioned before, the shtar that they wrote for me on that day has been accepted in every place I needed it to be: the kollelim, the Rabbanut, the sokhnut, and El-Al security checks.

My confidence is not due to my own personal "worthiness", but to the reputation that my conversion rabbi has and to the quality of the relationship that I built with him while still a Goy. I also studied the halakhah of geirut quite a bit before believing I was ready to do it, and believed I understood what the difference between a genuine and a non-genuine conversion was.

Larry Lennhoff
saw that statement and begged to disagree:
Sorry to disillusion you, but there is no such thing. Some the Syrian Jewish communities in the disapora only accept converts who have frum grandchildren, for example. I also know 20 year chassidic converts who were required to do a gerut l'chumra when they moved to a different chassidic community. Not to mention the recent uproar over conversions by the Israeli Rabbinate, the London Beit Din, plus the controversy over Rabbi Amar and Rabbi Eliyeshev's recent comments.

You can (or used to, and I bet will again) get a 90% acceptance rate on Orthodox conversions pretty easily. The next 8% is harder, and the final 2% is flat out impossible. The key is to let converts know this in advance so that it is not as big a deal if and when they run into it.
So if you are considering conversion, consider yourself forewarned.

Of course, one could argue that the organizations I mentioned above are no proof of anything (especially the last two). Perhaps if it is possible to slip one past the beth din, one can certainly dupe the Jewish Agency.

And on the other hand, one could say that the only reality that matters is that in shamayim, not the checkpoints run by human beings. But that attitude raises difficulties, too. Last year a Jerusalem street vendor (who lived in a cave in the Jerusalem forest) died of a hunger strike in prison because the state refused to let him make aliyah. He was absolutely certain that he was a Hebrew, and called himself "David son of King David". The only problem was that on earth, not in shamayim, he was the son of Native Americans and could not produce any conversion certificate.

In future postings I plan to deal with these problems mentioned by Larry Lennhoff one by one and attempt to get some clarity on them.

28 August 2007

Ger Tsedek but not a Jew?

I was recently interviewing for a job with a high-tech firm. They had an idea for an innovative project, which was to take a group of men out of yeshivah who were ready for full-time work, and to train them for a specialized career in a particular field of high-tech. (I don't want to give away any more than that, in case they would prefer to keep their project under wraps for the time being.)

The interviewer, who was the entrepreneur responsible for the project, was asking me about my experience in university and about what I had been doing since studying this particular subject. And somehow, he stumbled upon the subject of my religious upbringing. I don't know how, since it has nothing to do with that field of study, but I suppose he was asking about it on purpose. Eventually I had to admit I was a ger tsedek. (See this posting about why that bit of information was not listed on my c.v.)

And then he had a strange reaction. Was there a risk of my not being accepted among these former yeshivah guys? he wondered. Would they wonder whether I was really Jewish? Would they wonder why I was working among them?

I explained how I had spent enough time in yeshivah myself, learning under enough rabbanim and among hundreds of fellow yeshivah guys, that I seriously doubted it would enter anyone's mind to think so. If it had been an issue, it would have come up by now.

Besides, I had a renowned American beth din for my conversion, and the certificate that they wrote and signed for me has opened enough doors since then: aliyah, security for El-Al, and marriage through the Rabbanut, just to name a few.

So he explained to me the source of his fears. Geirut is a big mess in Israel right now, he said. He has a child in the Israeli army who teaches English to Russians immigrants who are now Israeli citizens serving in the army. "And of course, no one is allowed to ask right out who is Jewish and who is not," he said, "But our children are going to be marrying their children, and I wonder what will be with the future generations. "

Was I missing something? I was unprepared for such a hava amina. This guy was clearly brilliant and successful, in a land where one does not guarantee the other, and where neither guarantees survival (since the present government punishes success). But either he had not thought this issue through, or I was (and am) grossly unaware of something that he knows.

So I'll give you the simple answer I gave him, more straightforward and less diplomatic than I gave it to him.

A ger tsedek is authentic if he or she converts for the right reasons. And it is usually easy to check that out. How good was the beth din? And is he or she still religious? Because if he or she is not, or never was, they obviously did not know what they getting into. Or they knew what the rabbis wanted to hear, and misled them. Are you going to let your children marry such a person?

My interviewer quickly changed the subject, and we went back to high-tech. (I did not get the job, by the way, but not for that reason.)

19 August 2007

Changing Oneself

While in university I received counseling for... something or other. I was in graduate school and had a good life, working on a doctorate in Comparative Literature with a dream girlfriend (non-Jewish, for the record). But something was getting me down, bad. The girlfriend shot up warning flares, and I said, you're right; I'm going to do something about it.

I have never been afraid of counseling and consider seeking help even when one doesn't need it far preferable to needing it but not getting it. Besides, it was subsidized by the university health services, and I struck up a rapport with the psychologist from the beginning, so it seemed like a great thing to continue.

The doctor helped me understand that I mostly needed help coping with the two women in my life — my erstwhile girlfriend and my mother — both of whom were watching me pursue Judaism, and besides that, cross cultural boundaries where they were not prepared to follow. Much of what we dealt with toward the last of ou sessions was my growth in Judaism compared to the persons around me, in a mostly non-Jewish environment.

I wonder how many budding ba'alei teshuvah go to the university's health clinic to speak with a Christian psychologist in order cope with ba'al teshuvah issues. I wonder how many of those are not Jewish.

We discovered that the biggest sources of frustration, as concerning my mom, was her belief that changes to oneself were undesirable. She regretted my years spent in university education if they meant that I would change who I was. College was for getting a career so you could be financially secure - not for rewiring your mentality.

This philosophy is perhaps related to the differences between the Israeli Orthodox vs. the American Orthodox (or Lakewood vs. Balitmore) approach to secular education. The former is so afraid of those changes, knowing how inevitable they are, that it does not want to risk it. Better to stay in an insular environment than to end up with a hashgafah radically different from that of your parents and mentors. The latter approaches education cautiously but willingly, knowing that there is an inherent value to the arts and sciences. And, plus, that career-and-financial-security thing.

ButI was loving the experience so much that I was prepared to extend it indefinitely. If someone had approached my on the campus lawn and offered a 16-year degree program in Everything You Want to Know with a guaranteed livable stipend, adjusted for inflation, I would have ripped my shirt sleeve back for the blood sample.

The biggest reproof she believed she could give me was, "I haven't changed, YOU are the one who has changed". Or the heart-wrenching, "What has happened to my boy? I did not raise you like this".

My counselor and I would agree: indeed I have, thank you. That is the purpose of education.

You might have empathy for my mother's position, having a son who rejected his family's religious and cultural heritage to be what I became. I'm occasionally reminded of that by Jewish naysayers who ask me, "How would if your child grew up and said she wanted to become a Christian?" (Yeah, yeah, whatever. That can be the subject of another posting.)

But I believe it is an untenable position that making changes in one's life, even a total rehaul of one's most dearly held life principles and points of reference, is inherently wrong. It will not hold up to logic, and more importantly, it goes against Jewish philosophy. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as mussar.

The dean of a yeshivah for ba'alei teshuvah here in Yerushalayim has a famous dictum that he tells parents who accuse his institute of brainwashing the guys who attend there. He tells them, "We don't do brainwashing here. Our job is dry cleaning."

And although I felt my identity in jeopardy when I began attending that very yeshivah, I recognize now that my real problems were often elsewhere, and sometimes in my own imagination. The me of four years ago could have looked at me now superficially and said, "Listen to you, penguin boy. You became with the rest of them." But I would argue that as much as I fought to retain my identity, I also picked my battles. I allowed change to happen where it needed to happen.

An example: recently, when pursuing a new job that would have been a total a change in career, I needed to provide references to my prospective employer. But after four years in Israel, three of which I had spent in yeshivah full-time, and a couple more years before that having been out of university, I had a tough time knowing who to go to. Who would be able to vouch for me, either academically or in the career world?

I ended up asking my Gemara rabbi to be a reference, and explained to him half-apologetically that I cannot ask my old professors because I'm hardly the same person that I was five years ago.

"I should certainly hope not", was his quick and cheerful answer.

18 August 2007

What exactly is a Ger Tsedek?

First things first. There is a common misconception that the words "Ger Tsedek" mean in English, "Righteous Convert". Not so. This is a mistranslation.

The word "Ger" in the Torah means (according to Jastrow):
  • a dweller (see Shabbat 104a)
  • and
  • a stranger, especially a proselyte, a convert to Judaism (see Yevamot 46b; Berakhot 47b)

The first definition allows for persons who have no interest in the religion per se, as in the example of a Ger Toshav, a person who wants to live among the Jewish people in the land of Israel, and so renounces idolatry and keeps the seven Noahide commandments. He or she gets citizenship in the land of Israel, and of course is not obligated to keep 613 mitsvot. (This status is not in effect today, by the way — as far as I know.)

Jastrow also mentions a Ger Me'husar Kaparah, a proselyte who has not yet offered the korban that he is required to offer. I assume we converts are all technically in this category. I don't know what the ramifications are, but I have not knowingly encountered any in my own life. I seem to have the full rights, privileges, and obligations of a naturally born Jew.

Hey, wait! Maybe that's why I'm not allowed to marry a Syrian or Mashadi Persian girl! They're waiting for a korban!

Jastrow also lists the categories of gerei sheker, those who convert with impure motives, and gerei arayot, "lion converts", those who are converting out of fear. These and other cases are interesting, but we will not go into them now.

What I want to explain here is the grammar of the term "Ger Tsedek". "Tsedek" is a noun, which means "righteousness" or "justice". We view the Torah law as the ultimate expression of such.

The word "Tsadik" in Hebrew is an adjective meaning "righteous" or "just". (It also has a nominative function, but for now I'm explaining the misconception.) Thus, if you wanted to say a "righteous sojourner", you might indeed say "Ger Tsadik".... Which is not proper terminology in the Jewish tradition.

This is not to cast aspersions on fellow blogger Ger Tzadik, who is presumably making a play on words. (I discovered him only recently, and plan to make a full study of his blog in the near future.)

In Hebrew grammar there is the concept of "semikhut" or juxtaposition. The easiest way to express this would be to show that we do the same thing in English. String two or three nouns together, and the first one becomes a modifier for the second one, and so on:
humanities department
Israel Defense Forces
soda bottle
world mask

Whereas adjectives work the other way around: place the adjective first, and the noun second:
international economy
dull lecture
meticulous detail
Great Britain
Holy Roman Empire

In Hebrew, the order of adjectives is opposite what it normally is in English, as in that last example. But juxtaposed modifying nouns come first:
Beit Knesset: "House of assembly", i.e. a synagogue.
Melekh Yisrael: "The king of Israel"
Beit Din Tsedek: "A court of justice"
Sifrei Kodesh: "Books of that which is Holy"
and finally:

Ger Tsedek: "A convert of righteousness"

Meaning this. It is not that the person himself or herself is inherently righteous or just. That may be true, but it takes work. The concept that they converted to, that which they chose as a definition of their life's guiding principle, is righteousness: tsedek.