I Can’t Be An FFB – But Will I Always Be A BT

When I first saw the word Baal Teshuva in a book it had a comforting feeling about it. I felt like someone understood me, that I wasn’t alone, and that something special was possibly happening all over the world with people like me turning back to Judaism. I had begun studying on my own without the aid of a kiruv professional, outreach center or even a local sensitive rabbi to guide me. I read through a copy of the Bible in English, found some English translations of tractates of the Talmud, and started to adopt observances and attitudes that I found compelling. When I finally saw that I was not alone, it lifted my sights a bit.

Later, I found out that the term Baal Teshuva is somewhat of a misnomer. I was more technically in the category of a “tinok shenishbah” a child captured by non-Jews. I wasn’t really captured, just merely brought up in a non-observant household. But the Hebrew term applies nonetheless, and it has halachic ramifications. Now the truth is I don’t really want to go around being called a captured baby, even if that’s my halachic status, but Baal Teshuva (master of return) is a term designated for someone who was observant and went away from observance and then came back. So that doesn’t really apply to me.

Maybe I should be called a “late starter” or a “late bloomer”? They just don’t ring true. Alas, I am without a group or a category once again.

On a separate note, one thing puzzles me which is the question of when and if someone stops being a newcomer to Judaism and starts being just a regular old run of the mill frum guy. I mean after all, my son is an FFB at 13 but I’ve been keeping mitzvos and learning Torah longer than him. Is he just a Jew but I’ve got the title BT? Something funny going on there. I guess I can’t be an FFB, but am I still a BT?

In Yeshiva I remember a guy saying, don’t go to the “So and so Yeshiva”. “Why not?” I asked. “Because you’ll always be a baal teshuva if you go there.” I don’t quite know what he meant, but it didn’t sound good. Some people I know would learn the right Yiddish phrases, the perfect hat tilt, maybe even a lisp and pretend to be an FFB. We all want to fit in with Klal Yisroel, but is that the way, with superficials?

Fitting in is more about a sense of belonging, and oftentimes labels can get in the way.

At a certain point the labels become meaningless.

Ana avda dekudsha brich hu, I am a servant of the Holy One, and that’s really all that matters. Isn’t it?

14 comments on “I Can’t Be An FFB – But Will I Always Be A BT

  1. Miller

    I might invest in some audio book cassettes with book for my son. He sometimes puts the accent in the wrong place now that he listens to Yiddish music.

  2. Changed pronunciation is not essentially a BT thing. Many people pick up some (or even all) of the accent of the group they spend the most time with. I recall meeting a Jew from NYC who had been living for some time in Atlanta, and his accent-in-transition was something to behold. Sometimes, I even find myself picking up intonations, etc., of the person I’m speaking with!

  3. I once saw a very funny link describing all of the “tell-tale” signs of a BT-change in pronounciation from Sfardit to heavy Ashkenaz, etc. Anyone else ever seen this?

  4. Rabbi Weiman,your last sentence says it all. That is what really matters.

  5. A have a friend who learnt in a mainstream yeshiva for a long time and was doing great in the Rosh Yeshiva’s shir. The yeshiva had a banquet and he was seated with some bt greenhorns in the yeshiva. He felt a bit rejected not being with his friends. I do not know what prompted them to do that but according to my friend it was to make him feel at home. If this is true that would mean the Hanhalla thinks bts are one big family or at least they are expected to help each other like family. The only rationale to separate friends is to be with family.

    When we meet newcomers do we extend a helping hand or do we feel uncomfortable being with them? I suppose this is a litmus test of how secure we are.

  6. I’m reiterating something from a previous post on this Blog which some may not have seen and that pertains to this thread:

    “Those who fail to discern the qualitative difference of the pre-T’shuva states of having been a Rosha and having been born a Tinok Shenishba run the risk of diffusing a… destructive fallout, … having no real sin to regret the focus of the remorse shifts to the putative sinner(s). Conflating the traditional and contemporary concepts of Ba’al T’shuva makes us regret and feel ashamed of people (including ourselves), experiences and friends we have no business feeling ashamed of or about. It leads to tortured relationships with friends and family, to suppressing rather than sublimating our pre-observance education, talents and accomplishments and, worst of all, it causes us to fixate and waste our energies on “passing” as an FFB rather than on becoming an Ehrlicher Yid.”

    From “Crafting a New Nomenclature” – February 21, 2006

    It seems that whether or not we develop an appellation that ‘hit’s the spot’ Rabbi Weiman has definitely concentrated HIS efforts on becoming an Ehrlicher Yid/ Avda D’Kudsha Brich Hu. Go from strength to strength!

  7. As a BT and a parent of two FFB (under the age of 6 1/2), it’s easy to get caught up with frum labels. My wife hit the nail on the head when our first child was born. She said, “how cool is it that our son will always know what Shabbos is.” That is. Do your best and daven that your children should be shomer Torah U’Mitzvos!! Great post!!

  8. Rishona,

    I know quite a few people who I would NEVER have believed that they were ever “not FRUM”, based on how they act. Again, it’s what you are now, not in the past…..but, you should never have to apologize for your past, either. It’s part of who you are (were). I really believe that we are each on an individual path to serving Hashem in his or her own way, and the roads we’ve traveled to get to where we are today are just part of what Hashem has planned for us. To me, it’s the only way to look at life.

    As an aside, I think I’ve heard it said by some (alluding to what you wrote to close your statement about being BT is a great thing, which I agree with) that BT’s are more enthusiastic about Orthodoxy…sometimes yes, sometimes no. I know lots of FFB’s who are not observant by “rote”, but, it’s that BT’s are getting a new lease on their spiritual life, and are just so enthusiastic about it all.

  9. Not pointing the finger at anyone in particular (I’m just thinking out loud), but I think that preoccupation…no, obsession about ones past is not healthy. Every morning, we recite “Modeh Ani” to give gratitude to Hashem for restoring our souls. Before sleeping we entrusted our souls to Hashem’s care. So does he have a self for the BT souls and a seperate self for the FFB souls? If your current actions and devotion to the mitzvot and participation in the covenant is just as high as your FFB peers, why should a BT feel less in any way?

    All Jews should strive to do teshuvah each new day they are granted life. Rather born shomer mitzvot or not, all Jews should strive to maintain their end of the deal with Hashem and support other Yidden to do the same.

    (I personally think being a BT is a great thing…)

  10. It is true, some people really do notice the hat tilt, the walk, pronunciations, school history, and who you’re related to. I would like to believe much of that is not to put down Baalei Teshuvah, it’s just to frame them in their mind, so they know who they’re talking to. (It might help them determine if they will throw in yiddish when they converse with you, or something like that.) Chassidim can also tell each other apart. A Belzer chassid has one look and a Gerrer chassid has his. I’m sure that when a Gerrer chassid notices another Gerrer chassid walking down the block (that they don’t know) they take notice. That’s just human nature.

    While it’s true that the term “tinok shenishbah” means “captured as a child”, that is purely for halachic reasons. Years into being frum, once you DO know what to do, that term has no bearing on defining the BT.. I know many, many Baalei Teshuvah who know far more Torah than your average FFB! (You might even say that an FFB who grew up in a culture of mediocrity and might compromise on many areas of halacha because “nobody I grew with keeps those halachos” is a tinok shenishbah of a different sort)

    The less you think about it and just go on doing what you need to do, the less that matters to those “who know your history” and to you.

    After 2 or 3 decades, there’s so many of your personal experiences that you’ve shared alongside those born into it, that it becomes much less relavent.

    Enunciating words correctly, having a degree and a good job, being able to pay full tuition for your kids, having leadership skills, etc. are all great assets to the frum community. No need to apologize for where you come from. BTs are an invaluable asset to Klal Yisroel, even if we can’t find the right word to describe exactly what BTs are!

  11. Yes Rabbi Weiman, that really is all that matters. Thanks for reminding us of that yet once more. Funny about the lisp, my son always says “everyone in Monsey has a lisp”. Impossible of course, but funny.

  12. Rabbi,

    This sounds like what I wrote a couple of months ago about whether I’m a BT or not. I grew up in an observant household, sort of (my mom was mostly Frum, while my dad A’H was not, but we always knew that it was Shabbos or Yom Tov, since my mom lit candles, and I didn’t go to school or work (later on).

    I think in a sense we are ALL BT in some way. I would not worry about “labels”….you know in your heart that you’re a Frum Jew TODAY…no matter that you weren’t always this way. Don’t worry about “fitting in” so much. I mean, you want to go where you’re accepted and will feel comfortable, but don’t let it get in the way, as you said.

    May Hashem give you chazak.

  13. if no longer being considered a BT means “being just a regular old run of the mill frum guy”, then I would say my answer to: Will I always be a BT would be “Hopefully, yes!”

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