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livredor
Feeling useful
Sunday, 12 November 2006 at 10:31 pm
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I've been meaning to blog about this for ages: just before I visited England, the rabbi asked me to be a witness for two women who were converting to Judaism. A major part of the conversion process is immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath, and the conversand needs to be watched to make sure she is completely submerged and has followed all the proper procedures. Since the immersion has to be performed naked, it would be really inappropriate for a male rabbi to be the witness for a woman's conversion. So he asked me instead.

On the one hand, this is a tremendous honour and responsibility. Witnesses are a keystone of the Jewish legal system and are expected to be religiously observant, morally and spiritually elevated people. And in the case of witnessing a conversion, it's even more critical, because the correctness of the immersion procedure determines whether the person actually becomes Jewish, with all the ritual and status implications for her and her future children that carries. I must admit I was really amazed to be asked; my first reaction was, surely you need someone important for that job! It was hard to overcome that without sliding into arrogance, and wanting to be a witness for purely ego-driven reasons would be really disrespecting the process.

I happened to speak to to redbird soon after getting this request, and she really helped me to come to terms with the idea. It is true that although I am a newcomer to the community, I have been getting involved as much as I can, and my contribution in the shape of turning up to weekday services regularly is not insignificant. I am hardly claiming to be a saint, but I am committed and knowledgeable.

The other issue was that I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of mikvah. It's never been relevant in my life, so I know very little about the laws around it or even the practicalities of how it works. And also, the main reason a mikvah is used apart from conversion is menstrual purity, an observance which is mainly the province of the rightmost end of the Orthodox spectrum and one which it is hard for a liberal, egalitarian Jew to have positive associations with. Luckily, ploni_bat_ploni came to my rescue. She taught me some of the basic laws around mikvah, and explained the practical aspects so I knew what to expect, and made me feel a lot more comfortable about the whole idea. So much appreciation to redbird and ploni_bat_ploni for making it possible for me to do such an important thing well!

I couldn't be more glad I did it. It was such an inspiring and moving experience to be part of such an important moment in two women's lives, and to celebrate with them when they emerged as new Jews.

Talking of contributing to the community, ploni_bat_ploni and I have agreed to take over the running of the egalitarian / alternative service, which has been organized by the same two people for 7 years and they understandably want a break. We volunteered for this before the results of the vote when the community decided to be completely egal anyway, which somewhat diminishes the need for this alternative setup. But we both want some worship where the congregation participate directly and create a nice atmosphere, as opposed to the very formal setup of the main service, and I'm pretty sure we're not the only ones who feel this way. This Friday night was our first experiment in this direction, and it went very well indeed. There defininitely seems to be enthusiasm to make this a regular event.

We met up on Thursday evening to finalize the plans and buy food to offer people, and to start preparing meals for us to eat over shabbat as a 3:15 sunset time (and it's still got over a month to go of getting worse, argh!) leaves no time for any preparation on Friday afternoon. In many ways it was a good excuse to spend a relaxed evening together, as well as being practically necessary. So our prior organization meant we had a nice, non-stressful time between lighting candles on Friday afternoon and going to synagogue for the service itself.

ploni_bat_ploni and are excellently well-matched. I have a lot of experience and knowledge of leading services (such as the fact that I did so almost entirely single-handed for four years in Dundee!), while she is musical and knowledgeable and very good at getting people involved. And we work well together, both in the preparation stages and when we were actually in front of the congregation.

I think about 15 people turned up, people who all positively wanted to be there. And it went really well. Not absolutely without a blip but the general momentum and atmosphere were so good that a couple of minor hesitations were hardly even noticeable. ploni_bat_ploni got people into the spirit with her lovely singing and general presence, and I kept everything grounded and made sure the service flowed through in its proper order. Highly enjoyable, and we're resolved to tackle a full Saturday morning service in the new year.

Afterwards we were on a magnificent high having carried it off, and we went back to ploni_bat_ploni's place for a delicious meal and yet more chatting. ploni_bat_ploni had done something very impressive with a chicken (darcydodo, you should approve, cos she's being very good at reminding me to eat meat!), and something equally impressive with some pears for dessert. If I hadn't been ridiculously tired it would have been the perfect Friday night, and even with being tired it was great.

And after a night's sleep I had a lovely day yesterday as well. A Progressive service in the morning, which was delightful as ever (I read six verses from Torah, another little contribution to my community). And then lunch and a very fun afternoon with ploni_bat_ploni and a cool friend of hers who is visiting from Scotland.

And in a different context of contributing to the community, in the lab we've all been agreed for a while that it would be very sensible to start having group meetings again, so I decided to be the one to bell the cat and suggest this to my boss. His reaction was pretty much: sure, you go ahead and organize it! So I did so, and we had a preliminary meeting on Friday, in the course of which we learnt that our dear absent-minded professor has published two papers and bagged us a share in tens of millions of Kronor worth of funding, and never got round to telling us about it... So that's another way for me to feel more like a productive member of society rather than a pointless newcomer, anyway.


Whereaboooots: Stockholm, Sweden
Moooood: thankfulthankful
Tuuuuune: Carlebach
Discussion: 22 contributions | Contribute something
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From:curious_reader
Date:November 12th, 2006 10:14 pm (UTC)
42 minutes after journal entry
(Link)
Your congregation seem to get better and better. I am happy to hear it.

I felt uncomfortable when I had to go to the Mikva myself. I thought the woman needed to check my body if their is any loose hair or whatever. Obviously non-Orthodox Mikva women don't need to do that. It was not such a big deal as I thought. It is not easy to dive in completely when you have long hair. My hair was always flowing on the surface. Therefore I had to do it several times. I personally don't like to watch naked women although I grew up in a house where my parents are not ashame of their body. It is still different when you see somebody else naked then those people you are used to. I am glad you had no problem. I am sure you did it right. It is nice to hear that you have new Jews. We need more of those. Converts are usually aware of what they are doing and more committed. I am often too frum for most non-Orthodox Jews but not frum enough for committed Orthodox Jews. I did not expect getting that far myself. I love Judaism and hopefully your Converts will stick to it and keep on learning. It is a life-long learning process.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:16 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 08:16 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
In some ways the community is getting better, but it's partly that I'm slowly finding the hidden good bits. And a lot of the improvements were initiated by our lovely rabbi, but unfortunately the community were so annoyed at being improved that they've decided to get rid of him :-( Luckily for us they've kept his improvements, but still.

I didn't have to inspect the conversands' bodies either. The rabbi explained that the basis for this is that in theory, it is the responsibility of the person being immersed to check everything rigorously, it is not the responsibility of the mikvah lady. And we assume these women were sincere in wanting to convert, otherwise the Beth Din wouldn't have accepted them, so we can also assume they were sincere in wanting to carry out mikvah properly.

Nudity can be a weird thing. I'm really glad that both my conversands were unembarrassed about it; I was determined that I would be as matter-of-fact as possible, but if they had been self-conscious it would have been hard not to reflect some of that myself. It's very out of context, too; the idea of saying blessings while naked seems very strange to me, since it's normally a complete taboo. That's on top of the secular taboos as well; I would have no problem seeing women naked in a changing room or at the beach, but in a formal context it's very abnormal.

I have to admit, there was quite a lot of bouncing around and exclaiming "yay new Jews!" involved in the process. You are right, we definitely need more. Interesting that you have found yourself in what hatam_soferet refers to as the grey area, too frum from Masorti / Conservative but not frum enough for Orthodox. At least you have a good community in Assif, even if they are a bit less frum than you on average, and Yakar is pretty close to the grey area from the Orthodox direction. The lack of a denominational home for grey area people sucks whether or not one is a convert, though a male, born Jewish, would have the option of just deciding to daven Orthodox and ignore the ideological issues, whereas a woman would be excluded and a convert would have their status questioned.
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lavendersparkle: Rat
From:lavendersparkle
Date:November 12th, 2006 10:58 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 10:58 pm (lavendersparkle's time)
(Link)
I have to think about who should witness my immersion. Most of the people on my conversion course have Jewish partners who will act as their witnesses. I could just get my sponsoring rabbi to witness my immersion but I don't particularly like or respect her. She keeps on saying things during classes that I know aren't correct and I'm worried that she'd be as sloppy with witnessing my immersion (particularly as I have long hair) and I'm beginning to become a little neurotic about ensuring that nothing makes my conversion invalid. Then again, if I'm doubting my sponsoring rabbi enough to not want her to be the mikvah witness the whole conversion is a bit fucked.
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From:curious_reader
Date:November 13th, 2006 03:53 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Which Jewish string are you converting to? Reform or Conservative? I am converted Masorti. They are quite near to Orthodox and seemingly like the teaching of Kaplan as well who is Reconstructionist. We don't have them in the UK. We have Liberal (who considers patrilenial Jews as Jews and don't require circumcision and immersion) and Reform (who more traditional), Masorti (a bit like Conservative but with Orthodox influence, it took a while to get an egalitarian service) different direction of Orthodoxy. Converts need however to get ultra-ultra Orthodox. They have no choice really. I became Masorti. I almost converted with a quite observant Reform Rabbi. I just did not survive in London when I had the chance. It took a long while until I found a Rabbi who prepared me for the Beit Din and did not require from me getting a private tutor. I taught myself for almost 8 years before I finally converted. I thought it would never happen.
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lavendersparkle: Rat
From:lavendersparkle
Date:November 13th, 2006 04:51 pm (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 04:51 pm (lavendersparkle's time)
(Link)
I'm converting UK Reform. I considered considering Masorti but it would be a lot more difficult to get to a Masorti rabbi logistically and when I contacted a Masorti rabbi to discuss whether I should switch to converting Masorti he said that UK Masorti recognise Reform conversions so I way as well stick with my current sponsoring rabbi. I thought about trying to switch to a different Reform rabbi but then a rabbi claimed that the Beth Din would look badly upon my having switched sponsoring rabbi if I didn't have a very good reason. So I decided that it was best just to stick to my current sponsoring rabbi and get the whole thing sorted as soon as possible.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:29 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 08:29 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
That's a pretty awkward situation, my sympathies. When I saw your first comment I was going to point you in the direction of some Masorti rabbis I know who have in the past been sympathetic to conversands who get more frum during the conversion process. But it looks like you've already thought of that and it's not going to work for you.

A Reform conversion is halachically valid if you accept that Reform rabbinical ordination is valid. And since the obligations regarding mikvah are on the person doing the immersion to verify the preparation process, it's up to you to be rigorous even if your rabbi / witness is not. The only potential problem is being sure your hair goes under completely; can you maybe practise in the shallow end of a swimming pool, getting a friend to watch you, until you're sure that you're always getting it right?

Anyway, I definitely approve of you being Jewish as soon as possible. Judaism will be much better with you in it.
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redbird: default
From:redbird
Date:November 12th, 2006 11:13 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 06:13 pm (redbird's time)
(Link)
I'm glad to have been helpful.
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darcydodo: tea
From:darcydodo
Date:November 13th, 2006 02:42 am (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, November 12th, 2006 08:42 pm (darcydodo's time)
(Link)
cos she's being very good at reminding me to eat meat

Yay! How about eating chicken and drinking milky tea at the same time? :)
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From:curious_reader
Date:November 13th, 2006 03:39 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry
(Link)
The Rabbi who prepared for the Beit Din said I should not eat anything unkosher before my conversion which was in April this year. I know you mean as a joke. But it just made think of different Jewish opinions. Some Jews don't consider chicken as meat. "You shall not cook the kid in its mother's milk" only applies to mammals and not to birds. Properly in the whole Western World is considered as meat but when you go to the Middleast you might still find Jewish communities where they don't consider it as meat. My mum who is not Jewish but originally from Iran did not like it when I added Yoghurt to a meaty meal. Her reason is more a health reason. She does not consider herself as a Muslim but this is also what every Muslim says. However, she has no problem with chicken and dairy products together. She never did a meal with a dairy product and chicken but when somebody made an Iranian meal where the chicken is cooked in Yoghurt she eats it.
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darcydodo: basking shark
From:darcydodo
Date:November 13th, 2006 06:02 pm (UTC)
20 hours after journal entry, 12:02 pm (darcydodo's time)
(Link)
Don't worry, I actually know all that. Technically, livredor tries to hold with chicken not being meat, but she doesn't always succeed. ;)
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:40 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 08:40 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
That's really interesting, that your mother, as a non-Jewish Iranian, separated milk and meat. Cool!

Why did your rabbi tell you not to eat unkosher food before your conversion? ploni_bat_ploni was trying to corrupt the conversands into pigging out on one last cheeseburger in the last few hours they had left before they became Jewish!
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From:curious_reader
Date:November 18th, 2006 09:03 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry
(Link)
The Masorti Rabbis expect the person to be really serious about it. Masorti is quite near to Orthodoxy but they don't check them out, of course. I was living for the last 3 years very frum and kosher since I left my parents permanently. Whenever I was not living with my parents I didn't eat meat either because it was not available as kosher (like in Germany while I was house sitting my grandma's house) or just too expensive. Now I live near a kosher butcher who has reasonable prices. I have high lack of iron that is why I need to have it again. I find meat with cheese especially warm disgusting. I even get sick from that combination. But I could have gone to my relatives for example and have some beef or lamb which is not from a kosher butcher and ad Yoghurt to the rice. I have to learn more Iranian recipes to cook the same wonderful food like my mum or other relatives. Well, I know a simple one with mince beef or lamb.
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From:ploni_bat_ploni
Date:November 13th, 2006 09:15 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Oy! Now you're pushing it.... ;-)
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livredor: Amelie
From:livredor
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:43 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 08:43 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
*squirms* Oh, PbP is no use for that, she's really frum and consistently Ashkenazi as well. In fact, her influence is the other way; after I'd left her place full of delicious chicken (she put grapes in the stuffing, how cool is that?!) and came home, I felt sort of bad about drinking milky tea before I went to sleep. Even though that was completely illogical because I am not supposed to care about milk with chicken, and because tea-before-bed is clearly a separate meal from dinner.
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darcydodo: default
From:darcydodo
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 02:46 pm (darcydodo's time)
(Link)
*frowns at you*

What ever happened to principles? :P

I'll see if I can't manage to phone you at some point when I'm home for Thanksgiving (so late-ish next week).
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livredor: yum
From:livredor
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:49 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 08:49 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
I have principles! I'm just, you know, malleable. And ploni_bat_ploni has different principles and that confuses me. Don't frown at me, you're scary.

We should definitely speak on the phone, yay. I think I may have an invitation to Thanksgiving, I have a cool American colleague who has half-invited me. I need to confirm with her this week though.
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From:ploni_bat_ploni
Date:November 13th, 2006 09:19 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Honest to G-d, I couldn't have done this service without Livredor. I was crapping myself in my wee pants. Having learnt Hebrew on my own as an adult, I can totally daven from any siddur, no matter how obscure, but leading davening out loud is a whole different matter. I stumble over the pronounciation and syntax of words, especially when nervous. I didn't quite felt prepared enough and Livredor was a soothing, loving presence who really kept me grounded. It felt a lot safer that way.

Anyway, we did good, we even provided nosh, which was appreciated, and I think we have enough of a basis to continue.

Livredor: thank you, thank you, thank you for doing this with me!
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livredor: portrait
From:livredor
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 08:46 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
The same to you, very much so. I completely couldn't have done anything worth doing at all without you, and I'm extremely grateful to you for teaming up with me. We really do complement eachother particularly well in this. I hadn't thought you might be nervous, because you are such a confident person and you obviously know what you're doing. But I'm glad I was soothing.
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From:ploni_bat_ploni
Date:November 18th, 2006 03:35 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry
(Link)
Bleh. I am more insecure than you think...
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livredor: Amelie
From:livredor
Date:November 18th, 2006 03:41 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 03:41 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
Oh goodness, is it week already?! Shavua tov. I hope you've spent most of today asleep. Just about everybody I spoke to in shul today asked after you, including our dear J who interrupted me in the middle of davening to inquire, and I quote, what's happened to your other half?
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From:ploni_bat_ploni
Date:November 18th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry
(Link)
Whahaha! Our hypothetical Lesbian relationship is really taking off, my dear!

I did spend the day asleep. Then I had like an hour to daven shacharit-musaf-make kiddush-eat lunch-bensch-daven mincha before the sun went down again.

I had a bit of a rough Erev Shabbat, but I'll blog about that. Feeling kinda down and depressd. Have another P. activity to go to but I am really not in the mood...

Shavua tov to you too. Hope you had a restful Shabbos!
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curious_reader: Oposum
From:curious_reader
Date:November 18th, 2006 09:56 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry
(Link)
I also want to give it a try when I am confident. lethargic_man recorded for me the bits I am not sure about. Additionally I have a Reform service CD borrowed from snjstar. They recorded all singing bits of the Carlebach Shabbat evening service. I am often not very sure about every word either and still make mistakes. I understand you are nervous. I also want make sure to be quite perfect before I do it.
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