The BT, A Stranger In A Strange Land

I became a BT 24 years ago. Prior to that, I was strictly BLT.

Making the transition from BLT to BT was an adventure, filled with memories that profoundly embarrass me to this very day. After all, I didn’t know ANYTHING! I was raised in an assimilated home which spoke very little about G-d, Judaism, or anything even remotely Jewish. How I stumbled into REAL Judaism is another story, not for this post, but I will say that G-d reached out an arm and I latched on.

During my first year discovering Jewish observance, I drove to shul on Fridays and Saturdays. I would park my car blocks away and out of sight. One day, just as I was getting into my car to drive home, my rabbi walked by and saw me. He knew that I drove, how could he not? Still, I said to him, “Rabbi, I was really hoping you wouldn’t see me doing this.” My rabbi replied, serious, yet non-threatening, “What do you want me to do, hit you over the head with a stick?” That must have been a good line since I still remember it.

Then one day I received a phone call from a synagogue member who had an apartment for rent in the community. He asked me if I might be interested? I imagine he must have been shocked when I moved in the next day. Driving on Shabbos would now become no more than a faint memory of a past life. This is just one from a storehouse of retrospectives on how I found my way back to my Jewish roots. As I review the events which led up to my return, and to this very day, it isn’t hard for me to see that Hashem was leaving His business card every step of the way.

After moving into my new home in the community I recall the thrill of one day being invited to my Rabbi’s house for the first time. His father, another rabbi, was also there, a short, stout man harboring a full and neatly trimmed white beard. With a strong South African accent the father asked me, “How are you acclimating?” Too nervous to think with any clarity, I assumed he was talking about the weather, not about my new life’s direction. I told him I thought the climate in Santa Monica was outstanding.

I’m only telling you this little embarrassment in trust that you won’t repeat it to anybody. If we keep it just between you and me no one will ever have to know that it ever happened. In case you are interested, I’ll tell you what my acclimation was REALLY like. Something akin to thawing a caveman out of a block of ice and then dropping him into the house of Emily Post. I can tell you that It was difficult, and it took me a long time to adjust.

Speaking of my new and wonderful community, I would often be invited to people’s homes for Shabbos meals. A number of times, early on, I would use the bathroom of one of my hosts during Shabbos and by sheer force of habit, turn off the light on the way out. Then my reflexive actions would take over as I “quickly” flicked the light back on, hoping that no one would notice. Turning the light off was not really a difficulty since it was without thought. Turning the light back on was much more problematic because, reflexive or not, I knew what I was doing. Inculcating into myself the idea that Jewish law comes ahead of personal embarrassment was a level I had not yet attained.

We former BLTs can be very self-conscious, at least I was. In many cases, people such as myself are opening our eyes to this new and very different world for the first time in our lives. There is so much we do not understand. We don’t know the routines, people are using expressions that are totally foreign to us, and we are in constant fear of exposing ourselves as ignoramusses.

What I yearned for more than anything else was guidance. I wanted people to be sensitive to my situation, to read my mind, to stay one step ahead of me at all times and give me a heads up before I made a fool out of myself. Judaism has a lot of walls and a lot of holes, and I think I made a habit of bumping into walls and falling into holes. I needed a bunch of big brothers.

Here are a few more early recollections to give you an idea.

There was a non-kosher restaurant I used to frequent that had a weekly $3.95 steak and baked potato special…YUM! One evening, just as I was leaving my apartment for that favorite dinner of mine a friend walked over. I said hello, told him where I was going, and then I volunteered, “It may not be a kosher steak, but it’s not as bad as eating pork.”

I’ll never forget his reply, “I don’t know about that.”

Five words, and over 20 years later I’m still thinking about them. What reason did I have for believing that pork was worse than non-kosher steak? Maybe it’s worse, maybe it’s not, that’s not the point. I was making assumptions without any basis in fact to back them up. I wasn’t asking questions and I wasn’t looking for answers. I was making it up as I went along, because it felt right to me. At that moment I realized that my life up to that point had been guided by a secular outlook to the world. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I knew what was serious and what was minor. I knew because…well…I just knew, that’s all.

I was crushed by this self-revelation. I didn’t go to that restaurant that night. I missed out on my delectable steak and baked potato. In fact, as of that evening, never again, to my knowledge, have I ever eaten anything that wasn’t kosher, not at home, not with friends, not with family members…nowhere…ever!

All of this restaurant talk reminds me of the time I learned that I was supposed to have a six hour waiting period between eating meat and dairy. As I was now becoming truly observant, I would always wait six hours after eating meat before eating dairy, and I would also wait six hours after dairy before eating meat.

I did this for a year or two before learning one day that the rules for eating dairy after meat were not the same as the rules for eating meat after dairy. There is a particular reason why this discovery profoundly upset me. Why had no one realized that I was new to Jewish observance and that I needed somebody to come forward and provide me with this information? How can I ask people the appropriate questions when I don’t know what questions need to be asked?

Another example I remember which really bothered me was after tearing a paper towel one Shabbos.

“What are you doing?” someone asked me as if in shock.

“I don’t know. Aren’t I allowed to tear a paper towel?”

“NO! Not on Shabbos.”

The point is that many times we former BLTs really do not know what we are doing. We certainly don’t want to look foolish, and we absolutely need YOUR help and input. How sensitive are we, you and me, to the plight of those Jews who really need Jewish friends helping them along? That is the subject of KIRUV. Are we looking out for the genuine needs of our fellow Jews? Are we trying to be ahead of the curve, or are we simply following the curve, often after the curve has fallen off the cliff?

As I write this I realize that Pesach is almost upon us. Does not the son who doesn’t even know how to ask a question come to mind? Perhaps this year, as you read about the four sons at your Seder tables, you will give a bit of additional reflection to the plight of this child in need. I know I will, now that I have reminded myself of what it was like for me.

Eliyahu and his wife Leah run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.

20 comments on “The BT, A Stranger In A Strange Land

  1. R’ Yonason, I suppose that the Slonimer Rebbe was nodding because in a certain sense your name was indeed Zichron Yaakov – Yaakov Avinu.

  2. Shalom Chana,

    I am interested in the size of the Jewish area you are living in. Is it small, or are there choices in observant synagogues and communities?

    Regards, Eliahu

  3. Eliahu Levenson: I didn’t mean that finding a mentor was complex, although it has been an unsuccessful search. What I meant, without going into great detail, is that our family has some unusual characteristics for a BT family, not the least of which being that we already had children (the oldest being 12) when we became BT. When I look for a mentor, and explain our situation, I am usually met with outright disinterest, or a quickly disappearing interest. In any event, not finding a human religious mentor has caused me to daven better, as Hashem never loses interest and surely knows the whole story anyway…

  4. Shalom Mazel,

    Of course you are right. I wasn’t suggesting discounting FFBs. Certainly we need to look to people with more experience. I guess the whole process is very up and down, with mixed results, and certainly both groups should be complementary to each other. Very good point.

  5. it is very good to be in contact with other bt&g, but don’t exclude ffb.
    the fact that it is difficult for bt&g to relate to ffb is part of the growing process, for both parties.
    there is a reason why we say torah i’mesorah.
    the torah part can be aquired from books more easily than mesorah.
    by helping the ffb remember the how and why they do things you are helping their mesorah find it’s torah. by learning how people do things your torah gains mesorah.
    this is one of the many ways the two parts compliment each other.
    hatzlocha rabbah.

  6. Chana,

    I’m wondering if it’s because we’re looking to FFBs all the time, simply because they must be the experts. Perhaps we should be looking to each other more often, maybe mentoring from longer-term BTs, or simply learning and sharing our mistakes in a venue like this.

    I’ve experienced impatience by FFBs, or even blank looks when I ask questions, possibly because they’ve been doing things correctly for so long that they can’t even remember why or even the mechanics. They just do it.

    I’m not sure what to advise, but I’m always putting out little feelers for other BTs out there in the world, and I know it’s like meeting up with a homie when I encounter one. Makes me feel not so odd in making this particular life choice.

    Hang in, sweetie!

  7. One of the biggest frustrations in my BT journey has been trying to find a mentor (probably a Rebbetzin). Granted, our situation is complex, but it seems that I am always looking in the wrong place.

  8. I just found this blog and I find it very inspiring.
    Every time I read a story of another persons unigue journey it’s so uplifting.

  9. Thank you Marty, and Shayna and everybody else who is contributing to this discussion.

    I’m keeping tabs on the replies here today. I am very close to this subject on a daily basis, and I think this is the first I’ve ever posted my own story online.

    Regards, Eliahu

  10. Eliahu,

    You didn’t know better at that time….that should not be held against you. I believe Hashem judges us as we are now, not for your past (read that: bad things done).


  11. Shalom Rabbi Goldson,

    Ha ha…

    The following occurred during the first meal I was invited to at my rabbi’s home, it was for Shabbos dinner. The dining room table had a plastic cover and a fancy embroidered tablecloth over that.

    I was very uncomfortable during the meal. Everything was so new, and here I was a guest at the greatest table of my life. Without even realizing what I was doing, before the meal was over I had ripped my section of the plastic table covering into shreds from some kind of nervous reaction.

    It wasn’t one of those thin throwaways plastic covers either, it was something that had a semi-permanence to it. Subconsciously I must have thought it was one of the use-it-once and throw it away covers. Thinking in retrospect however…it wasn’t.

    Nothing about my erratic behavior was ever said to me, and I never spoke of it either. Today I would apologize profusely to the rabbi and his wife for my apparently uncontrollable psychotic episode and try to make amends, and to Hashem for the Shabbos infringement, albeit without intention.

    Kol tuv, Eliahu

  12. Eliahu,

    May Hashem bless you! I hear where you are coming from….all BT’s, at some point or other, need guidance and understanding, not people who might look down at them because they don’t happen to be FFB’s. Remember, you are always growing…there is ALWAYS something to learn; you are never finished…even FFB’s could attest to that!


  13. Hello To Albany NY,

    Enjoy your ribeye. I myself would rather use faux sour cream than margerine on the baked potato. I’ve met a number of “FFBs” who are horrified that I would even entertain the idea of such a meal. Now that I am fully “acclimated,” I actally get a kick from that kind of trepidation. That’s probably about as evil as I get anymore.

    Regards, Eliahu

  14. Reminds me of the time my rebbe took me to the Slonimer Rosh Yeshiva’s Purim seuda. I was the only non-shtreimmel at the table. At one point the Rosh Yeshiva asked me something in Yiddish. I assumed he was asking where I learned, so I replied, “Zichron Yaakov.”

    He smiled back at me and nodded. Then my rebbe whispered in my ear, “He asked you your name.”

  15. Great post!

    It is always fun to read about someone else who had very similar experiences and how they worked them out. I did the kosher turnover by slowly eliminating things from my diet. Pork was first, but I still had that treif steak for quite awhile. It was a strategy, but I guess I also saw the steak as less egregious. Actually, I’m getting hungry now for a nice kosher ribeye and a potato with parve margarine. See you later!

  16. One would like to think, though, that you could have been told that you shouldn’t tear the paper towel in a less – horrified? confrontational? disdainful? – manner. Something more like “Oh, I guess you forgot that you shouldn’t do that on Shabbos” would have been just as effective, without intimating that you’d deliberately violated everything imaginable.

  17. Shalom JDM,

    That’s why I’m delighted to have stumbled on this website. It is so rich with experience that I can relate to on many levels. Good luck in your BT journey!

    Leah L

  18. I really feel for this part: “I would park my car blocks away and out of sight. One day, just as I was getting into my car to drive home, my rabbi walked by and saw me.”

    When I went to Chabad for Rosh Hashana the first time (when I was living across town) I parked a few blocks away as well. Turns out I parked two doors down from the rabbi’s house! *Busted*

    I could comment on all the parts of your post. I’m going through a lot of it right now, as I learn more. Thanks for pointing all of these out. Even though I know it happens to everyone, it’s nice to be reminded of that now and then.

  19. This is brilliant. I’m with you all the way! And it brings up (again) the lament we “former BLTs” have that kiruv shouldn’t stop as soon as someone commits to Shabbos. The stage two of acclimating may be less thrilling–and it lasts a whole lot longer–than turning someone on to Yiddishkeit, but that void desperately needs to be filled. I also was crying out for a mentor. Everyone I tried was busy, not interested, fearful of dealing with another potentially nutty BT. Looking back, it must have been the hand of Hashem that kept me from quitting out of frustration and lonliness!

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