Miscellany

You Asked, I Answer

{Super happy to announce that the winner of my Hanukkah Hoopla giveaway is Marla!  Hooray!  You’ve won a custom CD that I’ll put together based on what you are in the mood of.  I sent you an email, so please get back to me within 48 hours so I can get started on your CD!  Congratulations!}    

Last week I started updating my About page.  When writing myself up, I vacillate between doing a “standard” bio, which includes basic information, and a “silly” bio, which includes humorous tidbits and self-deprecation.

Not able to decide which route to go this time, I opted to pass the responsibility onto you, oh readers.  I put out a request on the blog’s Facebook page and also Twitter.

AboutMe

You did not disappoint.  I received a range of questions, some short and easy, others deeply inquisitive.  I’ve arranged them (roughly) in order of lightest to deepest, for your reading pleasure.

What’s your middle name?

Legally, my middle name is Ann.  No “e.” Jewishly, my middle name is Chana.  Also no “e.”

Have you always been a writer? Do you write things you don’t blog? 

Since I can remember, yes.  In my elementary school there was a mock publishing house, where we could submit our writing and it would be bound and fitted with a beautiful (in the eyes of a fifth grader, at least) cloth cover.  There still may be some of those books in storage at my parents’ home.

Do I write things I don’t blog?  Well, I suppose the pieces I’ve published on other sites may count, and I still journal, and every great now and then I will write an actual letter.  But at this time in my life, my main writing outlet is this blog.

Are any of your kids musical? Do you plan on any sort of music lessons for them? 

You’d think this would be an easy one to answer, but really, I’m not entirely sure.  It seems that my children do have at least an interest in music, and they can all hold a tune fairly well.  But I’m never sure if I’m projecting my desire for them to be musical onto them, or if there’s genuine musical ability there!

Actual ability notwithstanding, I will definitely send them for lessons to at least expose them to musical training.  It is good for the brain and all.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a full time stay-at-home mamma?

Sometimes my husband and I play this game where we imagine where we might be if we weren’t Orthodox Jews.  I often say that I would probably be playing in a bluegrass band and living in Nashville.  Probably not married or even in a meaningful relationship, but playing music every night and traveling a lot.

If I were still living my current life but not staying home full time I imagine I would be pursuing some higher degree in the music or education field and starting a music program in the day schools.  That’s kind of my plan for when my kids are older, actually.

How old do you think you are and why?

I love this question!  On the one hand, I still feel like I’m a teenager, in the sense that I feel young at heart, and when I see high schoolers or college-aged people, I can still relate to their experiences more than I can to someone who is at a stage beyond mine.

At the same time, I have more life experience and perspective than I did when I was younger (thankfully!), and so I also can’t relate to the experiences of those kids.  And I do think of them as kids, just as they most likely see me, a thirtysomething mother of four, and think of me as a grown-up.  Thirty-four is an age which may seem impossibly far removed from their lives.

So I guess I feel like I’m 17/34.  Maybe that answer is kind of cheating, but it’s my answer so pbthhhhhhhh.

You have (seemingly) embraced your Judaism so much more fully than when you were younger.  What were the life events that led to this?

And now we’ve come to what I consider the meat and potatoes of the questions I received (also where the post gets kind of long).  It’s true that I’ve embraced Judaism much more fully than when I was younger.  This is, in part, because I had nothing to do with Judaism when I was younger.  Not because my family is unaffiliated or anti-religion.  No, it’s because my family isn’t Jewish.

The answer to the second part of this question dovetails with the next question, so I’ll just answer them together.

How and when did you convert to Judaism, and why through Orthodox instead of Reform or Conservative?

My plan upon completing my undergraduate degree (in 2003) was to attend graduate school and pursue some sort of academic career in music.  This plan was scrapped when I didn’t get accepted to any of my graduate school choices.  It probably would have helped if I had applied to more than three schools, and maybe some schools that weren’t strictly top-tier, but that’s a story for another post.

Instead of going on to higher education, I moved back into my parents’ basement.  Shiftless, I bounced around for a few months, first working as wait staff at a fancy French restaurant, then not working at all.  I half-heartedly perused online job sites.  My father left classified ads on my bed.  I tried to find something in my extremely eccentric wardrobe that would be appropriate for interviews.

In the fall, I started working as a paralegal in a law firm that dealt in foreclosure law.  Oh, it was a far, far cry from my bohemian(ish) life just months earlier.  Instead of playing in jazz combos and hobnobbing with professors, I was working in an office, representing the worst part of corporations.

Adding to my misery was the realization that I did not actually want to pursue a degree in musical academia.  I didn’t want to limit my life’s focus to classical clarinet literature.  Despite my father’s attempt at encouragement by asserting that I could do anything I wanted to (oh American dream, why do you lie to us?), I felt petrified.  I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, so what did it matter if I could do anything?

Reality was hitting, and it was brutal.

Unsure of my future and unable (unwilling, perhaps) to relate to my coworkers, I found myself thinking that certainly there was more to life than this.  Life could simply not only be about finding a job, going to work, discussing reality t.v., and going for drinks after work.

Around that time random people started asking me if I was Jewish.  This was something new and unexpected.  I mean, I still looked like me (though now I was sporting my actual hair color), and no one had ever asked me this before.  But now it was happening with some frequency.  About twice a month someone would ask me something along the lines of:

“So, member of the Tribe?”

“What temple do you go to?”

“Are you secular or religious?”

These unusual queries happened at coffee shops, in the break area outside my office building, at a party at WashU (okay, that one makes sense), at a Tribe Called Quest concert, and other random locations.

Several months into this phenomenon, I had the following conversation with my mother as we were having lunch at St. Louis Bread Company (k/n/a Panera):

“Mom, this thing keeps happening where people ask me if I’m Jewish.  Isn’t that funny?  Hahahahaha.”

“Really?  That happened to my mom all the time.”

What.

“Um, mom, don’t you think that might be important or something?!”

“I don’t know.  I just remember that she had a lot of Jewish clients and they were always telling her how Jewish she looked.”

Stop.  Seriously.

And then, as if this whole situation wasn’t weird enough, I was going through random boxes in my parents’ basement (where I was living, remember?) and found a genetics project from the eighth grade.  For the project I had written to a distant relative who sent over a whole ream of genealogical information, for my mother’s side.  My mother’s mother’s side.

The name of my maternal family that came over from Prussia?  Kramer.  Other names on the list?  Neuman and Miller.

By this point I had basically convinced myself that I had Jewish ancestry, which I thought was pretty cool.  Despite growing up in Iowa (not a large Jewish population there), my piano teacher had been Jewish as was a good high school friend of mine.  I had a very favorable opinion of Jews, and if I was actually part of this illustrious and extremely creative people, that would be amazing.

But I didn’t really know what it meant to be Jewish.  I remembered someone (who had asked if I was secular or religious) telling me to “go to Aish.com.”  So I checked it out.  Initially, I started reading the dating advice, but I also remember reading about the rules of speech (no gossip, no slander, acknowledging the power of speech) and the general social mitzvos.

I was floored.  Here were clear cut social guidelines which made so much sense.  The dating advice was way better than anything I had ever read in a magazine or book.  There was depth and humor and a culture of study stretching back for over a thousand years.  It was like a syllabus for living, which, if followed, would make it possible to understand life.

It was so smart.  I was smitten.

During college I was firmly agnostic, but I had eventually looked into other practices, other religions. None of them held my interest (sorry, other religions, nothing personal).  When I started looking into Judaism, and I saw the breadth of it, which I realized was probably just the tip of the iceberg, I was thrilled.  With this much material, I would never get bored.  There would always be something to learn.

There was one problem:  By the time I had become captivated by Judaism, I had also accepted that there was no reason to believe I had Jewish heritage.  If my family ever had Jewish ancestors, they had converted to Christianity by the time they came to America.  All my early relatives were buried in Lutheran cemeteries.

This was utterly disappointing.  I had been so excited about being connected to the Jewish people, and was so impressed with Judaism.  Just walking away wasn’t a satisfying option.  So, even though it seemed like a bizarre course of action, I decided to look into conversion.

~ ~ ~

My apologies for not answering the entire question here, but this post has gotten quite long, and I’d like to give the second part of the question the space it deserves.  Next week I’ll delve into why I ended up Orthodox and not Reform or Conservative.

Thanks to everyone who submitted a question!  Have a wonderful week.

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31 thoughts on “You Asked, I Answer

  1. Rivki!!! Not that you asked but your conversion story is SO interesting! It really deserves it’s own series of posts. Maybe for Kveller or elsewhere? Or here is good too. It IS your online home. But glad you didn’t give away all the goods in one post. OY. (I can’t help but step into a mentor role not that it’s appropriate per se!)

    1. Anytime you want to step in as a mentor is fine with me! Carte blanche for you, Nina! And thank you for the encouragement. It did feel somewhat misplaced including such a big story in this seemingly innocuous post!

  2. Oh my gosh, Rivki. This is all so fascinating. This is WILD. I never knew all this about your background. My admiration and respect for you (and your parents for raising you to be the person you are!) are now even greater than already before I read this post. I am eagerly (and somewhat patiently) awaiting the rest of your story in the next blog post. Thanks for sharing your life story so openly.

  3. Rivki! First of all I’m so glad you are moving back here. Also I read this post with bated breath. I love hearing/reading how and why people became Frum. It’s disappointing that you stopped in the middle, can’t wait for the next installment. :-) Shifra Schonfeld

  4. 1) I’m a Rivka Chana, too! Can we make a club?
    2) What a fascinating/cool/weird thing to totally be thinking you might be Jewish and then not being. Until you decided to become Jewish. Which I’m totally interested in finding out more about (like everyone else who commented).

  5. What a wonderful, engrossing post! I like especially the part where my question is answered–with a video!!! What color was your hair? (I believe this salient response is appropriate considering the substance of your post.)

    1. It’s one of my favorite videos. He has such a mischievious look on his face.

      My hair has been many colors: Blue, blonde, blonde with pink tips. And a number of more “normal” colors that were from a box.

  6. I love everything about this post. Did I know you converted to Judaism? I don’t think so. Thank you for sharing your life with us!

    Sent from RASJ’s iPhone

    >

  7. I am on the edge of my seat! I did not realize you were a convert—but I feel like you wear Judaism so naturally, it makes sense you came to it at some point in your life. Can’t wait to read the rest!! (I’m sort of a hybrid FFB/BT/Chabad kiruv project/It’s Complicated so I love hearing other people’s stories:)

    1. Thank you! It does feel like this was the natural progression of my life, though objectively it came out of left field! I’m glad I acted on all the crazy hashgacha that was happening at the time.

  8. This was awesome! Thanks for posting. I’ve always been interested in your conversion story. I love how you write with this dry sense of humor while talking about a serious topic. Some people get very melodramatic when they talk about things like this (I’m probably one of them, come to think of it), but I like your non-heavy tone. Looking forward to hearing the rest of it. Sorry to hear about your difficult time between undergrad and beyond. I relate to that. :)

    1. Thanks Mindy! And thanks for the very nice words on my writing. As hard as it was when I didn’t get into graduate school (I wrote some extremely melodramatic – and bad – poetry about it at the time), I can see now how it was really for the best.

  9. Amazing!!! It’s so refreshing to hear your conversion story. Since I grew up religious, it’s quite easy to fall into routine and take being Jewish for granted.

  10. Rivki, I was reading so methodically through your Q & A’s and then was floored when I read you were a convert. I would NEVER have known. I too cant wait for the next instalment! Forget the posts. I think you with your background, beautiful writing ability and natural positive outlook on life should write a book! You can inspire so many people… especially the people who are lacking meaning in their lives. So happy to have you as an online friend, IYH one day a real one!

    1. Yeah, I’ve been under the radar about it for a long time. Thank you for the kind words and the encouragement! They say writing a book is like having a baby, and I *just* did that, so maybe sometime in the future. We’ll see. And I would love to meet you for real someday!

  11. Rivki, I like others are amazed. You wear it so naturally! And so learned. Wow!! You would be the perfect “Partners in Torah” partner!!! I think you have such a joie de vivre for life judaism and just everything!!! Love reading your stuff. Can’t wait for installment 2. Btw how did you learn so much, Hebrew and judaism, so fast?? Amazing stuff!!

    1. Thank you!! I actually do have a Partner in Torah, and I really enjoy learning with her (though I do feel like I could be a better Partner myself, but there’s always room for improvement, right?).

      As for the learning, I think it’s a combination of Hashem giving me a knack for languages, and that when I was first getting into Judaism, I had a job which was mainly glorified data entry, so I listened to Torah Tapes like eight hours a day while typing at my desk! Seriously! I’ve always loved learning, and I didn’t have any demands like family, children or housekeeping to distract me from focusing exclusively on Judaism. And after I converted, I spent a year at Neve.

      Oh my, this comment practically turned into a post!

  12. Rivki,

    I love how spontaneous questions can lead to an introspective post. Your candor shows in your conversion story. Excavating your religious beginnings and coming to your own conclusions reflects an evolved perspective on questioning what works for you. It is so easy to give in to what you are taught, but a harder look requires patience to decide what narrative works for you.

    Looking forward to reading more of your pieces.

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