Letting It All Hang Out

Nope, although the title might imply it, this post is not about tzitzis. It’s about how we respond when the question of one’s BT-ness is brought up. This issue can arise by way of a direct question but more likely it will come up as a result of an inquiry like: Where did you learn? Where did you go to High School? Where did you go to camp? Where did you go to seminary?

I attended public high school at Forest Hills High School. A few times when I’ve been asked where I went to high school and I respond “Forest Hills High School”, people have said “Oh, Chofetz Chaim” (Forest Hills was the home of the main branch of. Chofetz Chaim for many years). Well, not quite.

How do you respond when the question comes up and why do you respond that way? Are you straight foward, simply answering “I’m a Baal Teshuvah” or “I didn’t grow up frum”. Or do you go for something a little less direct like “I came late to the game” or “I’m a late bloomer”. How do you feel when the issue arises: proud, insecure or something else? What are some of the interesting responses you have gotten when you’ve told someone you are a BT?

79 comments on “Letting It All Hang Out

  1. Kiruv Rebbetzin’s comment reminded me that there is one place that I really let it all hang out, and that is with regard to talking with not-yet-observant Jews. I usually find a way to bring up my background as soon as possible in a conversation, as I find it breaks the ice a bit and invites questions I want to answer.

  2. A suggested answer to Ron Coleman’s question in #68 above:

    The Gemara in Berachos 34b makes the statement that Rabbi Avahu says that in the place that BT stand even “Tzadikim Gemurim” (true Tzadikim) do not stand. As proof for this statement the Gemara cites a pasuk “Shalom Shalom Larachok (“to the far”) VeLakarov (“to the near”) Amar Hashem etc.” The idea of rabbi Avahu being that the “far” comes before the near”. Afterwords the Gemara goes on to cite Rabbi Yochanan who says it means someone who was first “far” from sin and then “near” to sin and then “far” (i.e. as you (Ron Coleman)suggest, someone who was first a shomer mitzvos and then left the derech, but then repented and distanced themselves from sin.).

    So the way I understand this, at least according to Rabbi Avahu, a BT who fits under the category of “tinok shenishba” would still qualify to stand where even tzaddikim gemurim do not. However according to Rabbi Yochanan’s interpretation, maybe to qualify a BT needs to have first been close, then far, and then return (i.e not a tinok shenishba).

    So we have Rabbi Avahu to rely on (certainly no lightweight he), and in any case, Misvara (logically) I think the idea here is that the BT has overcome a great test in becoming frum and is therefore rewarded with the special place, which seems to me should apply to someone who had absolutely no background and was in the category of tinok shenishba, but overcame that lack of knowledge and became frum.

    I am no rabbi (though I do feel I have great yichus as the son of a BT) but the Torah was given for all Klal Yisrael to learn, and that is my 2 cents. Would be happy to hear anyone’s input.

  3. I’d like to put a different perspective here, speaking as someone who’s been working in kiruv for a number of years. I myself became frum after college. When I went out in “the field” my husband & I decided it was best to stay quiet about our past. We were dealing with a particlar group of people who just wouldn’t understand. For example, we had one student who went to yeshiva, came back and wanted to talk to me about shidduchim. He started off with” I don’t want to meet any Neve girls”. So What should I tell him – your Rebbetzin is a Neve girl and proud of it! I am very proud of it, but in some settings it’s best to stay quiet. We often had students in a kiruv setting make comments like..”.at the club, well obviously you wouldn’t know about that Rabbi”. We weren’t hiding anything, but we weren’t being open either. Our talmidim assumed we grew up in more modern homes that explained the non-Jewish schools and university degrees. The ones who got close enough to find out were the ones who did respect us for it. Not everyone reacts well to having a Rebbetzin who only became frum after university. I have to say that over time it is becoming easier to be open about things, but I’m still wary of people’s reactions. And in terms of kids, we aim for the making them proud of us and feeling privileged to have the chinuch we couldn’t have.
    I guess in summary, I feel there are definately times when it is beter to stay quiet, you have to know your audience.
    thanks for the discussion, it’s been interesting.

  4. Dear Rachel,
    Thank you for taking the time to write this, it’s really beautiful. IY”H she will return to yiddishkiet one day.

  5. Dear Bas Yisroel,

    Please don’t take these kind of things personally, yeshivas make irrational decisions all the time, I’ve been frum for quite some time now, I learned to play the game & I do feel for you.
    I have had my sleepless nights, but If I felt strongly about sending my boys to a certain yeshiva I kept on davening & pleading w/ G-d why I wanted a certain yeshiva for my boys because ultimately He is the one that decides which yeshiva is the right one for your child & not the principal or a Menahel, who are human beings & can make mistakes. I davened, tried everything I could, pulled every string possible, & then I left it up to Him. If it is not the right place for your daughter you do not need her to be in that yeshiva.

    But, please try to explain to your daughter that whatever G-d does is L’tov. It was His decision.
    I do understand that what happened is a turn off for a teenager, & it hurts me that she is not shomer Torah & Mitzvot, she feels the yeshiva did not act appropriately & that is not a Torah way.
    Don’t look at our Torah from the prism of those who are irresponsible & negligent rather look at it through your own understanding & appreciation of what G-d has done for you & the daily sacrifice of thousands of true believers that give up everything to uphold & protect Jewish values.
    please ask her the following question:
    Is it the composer’s fault if someone is not playing his music right?

  6. Bob….I think that is a wonderful idea! I think it is also good for BT families to make sure they have alot of support and a Rov who is familiar with these kind of issues to help them cope with the issues that come up.

  7. This may be too much to ask, but how about the following idea:

    Nearly every shul and community has established a system, which may be as simple as designating contact people, for extending Shabbos hospitality to visitors. Often, the same system helps new residents whose families have not joined them yet. So…

    …Either through the same channels or different ones, why not launch a new resident orientation function that would guide new arrivals to cope better with all institutions in that community’s life? All practical nuts and bolts that the in-crowd already learned through experience could be conveyed very informally through one-on-one conversations/meetings and follow-up phone calls. No glossy brochures or documentation; this would cost nothing and the informality would help it meet individual needs. A community that really cared about people (and isn’t that where we want to live?) would not tell new residents to “sink or swim”.

  8. Belle, to answer your question…after the fact, I found out that there were other girls that were also rejected. But the FFB mothers (all from Brooklyn) knew the route and knew how to deal with the schools. They didn’t take it personally, they knew how to deal with this situation. I find the BT parents take this very hard, since we so want to feel accepted by the community and school and we have no experience in this kind of thing. Plus we can’t get support from our own parents, I didn’t want to tell my mother what I was going through as it would be a mamash chillul Hashem, so I missed my parents’ support.

    Yes, I really went through the ringer with that one. But Boruch Hashem I survived and got stronger from the experience. Unfortunately, my older daughter did not get stronger from this experience, the whole thing turned her off to her school, and she became non frum as a result, and it is very painful for me. I am davening for her, and I pray that one day she will be shomer Torah and mitzvos. Poor thing, she was only 15 years old when this happened, so young. I daven that she should meet the good and sincere Yidden and will be inspired by them. I think for a BT it is especially painful when a kid goes off the derech (not that it is easy for anyone!)

  9. Wow, bas yisroel, you were really put through the ringer. It must be so hard on your whole family.

    But do you attribute the rejection to being a BT, or just their irrational chinuch methods?

  10. Is there any support for what has been suggested a couple of times here that the the Gemara that says that even tzaddikim do not stand in the place where baalei teshuva stand applies to us “BT’s,” i.e., people who are not technically baalei teshuva in the sense meant in the classical literature of one grew up as a shomer mitzvos, stopped being a shomer mitzvos, and then having actually repented and returned to the proper path?

    I am sure this issue has been addressed on the blog before since we have touched on the issue of whether we “BT’s” qualify as tinokos shenishbu.

  11. I have been reading this comment thread with great interest. Just to provide a slightly different perspective on things, I am an FFB in his thirties whose father is a BT. He became frum in his late teens after high school and attended YU’s Jewish Studies program (JSP) led by Rabbi Besdin A”H. To this day, even after 40+ years of being frum, he will always identify himself as a BT when warranted, and I notice sometimes he seems a bit insecure about it even after all this time (I pointed out to him that at his age he has been frum longer than many FFBs).

    I am and have always been quite proud of him and the fact that he is a BT. I view it as that he had the great strength and will to hold together our family’s chain going back to Sinai, when without him it could have been lost to us. When I think of him I often recall the Gemara that says that even Tzaddikim do not stand in the special place that Baalei Tshuva stand.

    When I see some of the comments in this thread where some BTs may be concerned for their children that somehow the parents being BT will be a negative for the kids, I would say it is just the opposite. If anything I think the influence of my father on me when I was a child and he was a more recent BT, was extremely valuable as I saw the sincerity and importance and hard work he put into being frum (and still does).

    And sometimes I think in moments of personal weakness that compared to what he did in becoming frum, I have it so much easier, and what a resposibility I have to raise my children on the right derech. And I don’t know if in his shoes I could have or would have become frum. Being a BT is a great zechus and merit and source of strength and inspiration for your children.

  12. Hi David. I had a very miserable time with getting my daughter into high school. I had one daughter in the local bais yaakov. When it came time to apply for my second daughter, they called to tell me they didn’t want to take her. we asked why and they said we don’t give reasons. we found out after alot of asking around that they were not pleased with my older daughter, so they weren’t taking the younger one.

    Instead of addressing the older child, they took it out on the younger one. And my younger daughter only wanted to go to this school, which she deserved since she is very frum and very bright, bli ayen horah. So we begged and pleaded and begged and waited for three long months. In the end we could not take the wait for the answer and we sent her to another school.

    I don’t want to give all the details as i don’t want to say loshon horah, but it was a big shock to me and I was very disgusted and it had a major impact on the frumkiet that I worked so hard to obtain. I was very turned off and I didn’t daven for one year after that. Now everybody knows that it is very hard to get into schools, and a BT has to know this is what happens and be prepared to “play the game”. and not be too devestated when they reject you.

    It’s not a good feeling for anybody, but as a BT I so wanted to feel accepted by the community and the school and I took it so hard, I was ill prepared for this. It is unfair to judge one sister and put it on her younger sister, but this is what they do, and it was and still is a major turn off to me. with the help of close friends i was able to recover. hope this doesn’t happen to anybody else. should be a kapporah for me.

  13. From Sephardic Lady:

    “What is more shocking to some than having gone to a public high school is admitting that you had positive experiences there.”

    Well then here’s a shocker for you. :)

    I wouldn’t trade my public high school years for anything! Aside from the fact that I was in NCSY, met my wife, and became Shomer Shabbos during that time, I really enjoyed high school in its own right. I had great classes and teachers, made some good friends who I’m still in touch with, acted in “Student Varieties” (except the Fri night performance), worked on the homecoming float, and was assistant editor of the year book.

    Besides the nice memories, I think that I learned a lot about how to interact with, respect, and appreciate “other” people.

    But let’s just keep this between us, as I really don’t like telling people that I went to public high school. :)

  14. So we can’t rest on our laurels, anywhere at any time. This should not be news to any Orthodox Jew.

  15. Ron, It seems you’re saying that for you integration is a means to the ends of Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself and Kol yisroel areivim zeh la’zeh. That’s great.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of integration, but I think the “I’ve made it” integration is sometimes (perhaps often) damaging. I also know many fine BTs who are not as fully integrated as you or I and are wonderful growth focused Jews who care for their fellow Jews in different, not so public, ways.

    Also, the two examples I gave in my last comment are really just the tip of the iceberg of the dampening effects of “making it” integration.

  16. Mark, I spent a long time thinking about your comment number 55, and I believe I have to take some exception to it.

    I believe integration absolutely is an end in itself. As a few people in this discussion have mentioned, it is very valuable for your kids — this has nothing to do with hiding the truth about your origins from them which, outside of Israel at least, strikes me as a very bad idea. But besides the kids, yes, “rejoining” the main body of klal yisroel as a member in full, notwithstanding your own individuality and all the scars and medals you bear by virtue of how you got there, is in my view inherently beneficial. I believe you can partake fully in the communal-based advantages of certain aspects of Jewish life only if you are a member of the rank and file, and in the thick of things. I am even arguing, as I have in the past, for a certain surrender of individuality in this regard, because I believe that at least for some of us this is a valuable sacrifice from which we can grow.

    I also believe that when you integrate successfully you have the psychological and social tools to deal with the harsh reality that sometimes creeps through about how frum life, and sometimes about what frum people can be like. I am about to make what I think is a very provocative point, but my pondering has helped get me here:

    When a friend tells me that of having been burned — ethically, personally, emotionally — too many times by the shady business ethics of outwardly-frum people (and unfortunately a friend has) — I believe that I must be absolutely part of the frum world to react properly as a Torah Jew. My heart must break, both for my friend and for my people and for the Olam Haboh of the people responsible for this chillul Hashem, but my reaction should not be an inclination to draw myself out of “their circle” (as I admit it sometimes is). The best thing for me and for my friend is for me to take it personally, to be devastated by it, and to feel some level of responsibility for it. And I believe that it is integration that makes this possible, so that when my friend lashes out and asks, “Why do you feel yo u have to defend the frum world all the time,” I don’t even have an answer because the question speaks to an axiom: I am they. They are me. Kol yisroel areivim zeh la’zeh — we are each other’s guarantors.

    I may not convince my friend but just as the Vilna Gaon explains the necessity of “the reflected face” for true love to exist on a personal level, I believe there must be a commitment to the community, with all its warts, for ahavas yisroel to flourish — and that integration is a key element in this formula.

    That doesn’t mean that the unintegrated or unintegrated cannot love their fellow Jew of feel this way. But I believe it is different, stronger, better when you are in the thick of it, and stuck with each other for life. At least — and I usually eschew this formulation, but not this time — at least it is for me. Commitments and bonds, such as marriage, are good things that make us stick out hard times, painful times, for an overall solution that maximizes so much for us. To me, given who I am and how I got here, cultural integration is the way to a closer marriage to the Jewish people.

  17. Albany Jew–I was wondering the same thing! There aren’t enough FFBs in my neck of the woods to permit much (any?) discrimination. I’m sure there is a occasional…misguided…person here but people who aren’t looking for them won’t find them.

  18. I agree with Mark–the main thing is where we are going. My own experience has been that when I am preoccupied with “passing,” I am usually more concerned with externals than my own internal growth.

    These days, I am open about my BT status. I am proud of it. But I live in an area with a lot of BTs (Passaic). So it’s not much of an issue.

  19. Also, a BT has to be prepared that in some of the established large frum communities, it is very competitive to get your child into yeshivah.

  20. Changing the subject a bit (as I am apt to do) I wonder if it better for a BT to live in an established, large frum community or a much smaller, (as I do) less established community where everyone is important and people are less inclined to care if you are a BT. My wife and I get responsibilites, involvements, (and mitzvahs) here that we would wouldn’t dare assume we could do in a larger community. OTOH there are less opportunities for learning, but then again having to seek it out makes it seem more challenging and therfore cherished.

  21. I think it’s important to clearly see integration as a means and not an ends. If we see it as an ends we have the feeling that we arrived and it stunts our Torah growth which is the real ends. I’ll give two examples which I’ve brought up before but I think are worth repeating:

    We were running an event in Passaic and a friend who had been frum about 10 years said that he was no longer a BT. I had a good idea of where he was holding in his learning and his Avodah. I think that having the “I’m not a BT attitude” made him unaware of how far he needed to go and thus less likely to reach his destination.

    At another event, a BT who was now a Rabbi expressed some thoughts which he would not have expressed if he was a FFB and spent at least 7-10 years learning Yeshiva mesechtes after 10 years of Yeshiva Katana education. His confidence in having made it (integrated) as a Rabbi made it possible for him to teach incorrect Torah thoughts to others.

    Integration is not the goal, it is only a means. If we know who we are we have a better chance of becoming who you can be.

  22. Rachel:

    While I agree with you that ultimately it is a source of pride to be a baal teshuva (what really is our choice? did we control how we were born?), there are many layers of emotions about this, especially after being frum awhile. First there is the pride and the enthusiasm. Then there is the sense of confusion and ignorance over not knowing basic things about your chosen community — examples might be knowing how to learn for men, knowing how to follow the service in shul, how to keep kosher, and other sociological things like the difference between knitted yammies and black yammies, what the accepted toys, games and clothing for your kids are, etc. Things any second grader could tell you.

    Then there develops on some level a sense of shame over not knowing these things, which propels one to try to cover it up, just like anyone would try to cover up their ignorance in any other situation. Also the shame of knowing how many aveiros they did earlier in life. This can be pretty powerful, as the teshuva process is not one dimensional or a one-time affair.

    Then there is the strong desire, like others said, of just wanting to be normal in one’s community, and avoid penetrating questions from all and sundry. Not everyone is so enlightened and is fascinated by one’s story. There is a very strong desire to spare our children these questions by other children who in their innocence and lack of guile might ask uncomfortable questions.

    This normalcy is important for children’s development, in feeling secure in one’s identity and being able to teach them right and wrong at a stage where they don’t understand shades of gray. Although I don’t agree with Aryeh Leib, I’m sure this is why they follow the approach they do.

    I am a strong supporter of integrating baalei teshuva as much as possible, as I don’t see any benefit to flaunting one’s baal teshuva-ness, and I do see negatives such as perpetuating false and negative impressions of baalei teshuva of “not getting it.” However, I believe that integrating should not be done at the expense of one’s own sanity and individuality and honesty to one’s children. Part of being “normal” is fully accepting Hashem’s plan for oneself be’simcha and transmitting that to one’s children. One also has to honor one’s parents and acting like you are ashamed of them is not honoring them.

  23. I think the main question we have to ask ourselves is this. Am I embarressed that I am a Baal Teshuvah? If I am, why is that? I am not embarressed that I am a Baal Teshuvah. When people ask me, they are usually asking out of curiosity and are very impressed to know that I am a Baal Teshuvah, and it makes me prouder to be one! My children are also proud that they have parents who chose to be frum against alot of odds.

    I do understand that after a while, it gets tedious to answer all the questions people do ask. I used to joke that i am going to make a recording of my life story to play for all the questioning people. You can answer a few questions and then change the subject, they will get the hint that you don’t really want to talk about it!

  24. “The other day my mother took out some old family albums to show my kids. My wife immediately got nervous and told me to tell my mother not to show them to my kids. How would we explain all of those pictures of me looking the way I looked and doing whatever I was doing?”

    Uh, “Because Daddy wasn’t observant back then”? Surely they can figure out that Grandma and Grandpa aren’t currently observant, so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to figure out that Daddy wasn’t observant either until a certain age.
    What’s the big secret?

  25. Aliza, alas and alack! Jewish geography is how people otherwise unconnected people seek to find ways to connect — via uncovering common people, places, experiences. Most strangers, indeed, do not have much to say to each other. You may however be an unusually talented conversationalist. I hope you’ll forgive the rest of us, though!

    I agree with you that when it becomes an interrogation — as it indeed often does — it is not a fun game at all.

  26. In response to (Reply #9) David Linn’s question, “Have you ever gotten a positive response after you’ve told someone that you’re a BT?”

    The most positive response I’ve ever gotten was, “Oh… that’s nice.” Not very encouraging, but whatever.

    And to (Reply #11) Ron Coleman, I don’t like the whole Jewish Geography thing. It turns into a nast game, really. If you can’t keep up and don’t know the same people, most people lose interest in talking with you. Or at least that’s the case with me. I don’t like that. I like normal conversation, I don’t like when it turns into a game.

  27. Hey, Cousin Charnie:

    Have a great Shabbos. Same to all the rest of you (dare I expose us?) BT’s.


  28. Let’s see – Ron found his twin sister, and I think Ellen is definitely related to me. Which is to say (as I’ve said here before – probably too many times) – I am who am because of the fact that I’m a human who has been growing since my day of birth, not only since I became frum. My kids seem to be proud of me as well, and it gives me an edge in warning them about the “outside world”, because they know I’ve experienced it. Or at least that’s what my daughter wrote in her seminary essay.

    One thing missing from this entire discussion is – doesn’t it make difference who or why the question “are you a BT” comes up? Most of the time I’m pretty open, after all, teshuva is nothing to be ashamed of. However, if the question is just being asked in a nosey way, I’m more inclined to dodge it. The only time it really bothers me is when I recently had to fill out the section “mother’s Jewish education” on my son’s Mesivta applications. However, his older brother has successfully gone through Mesivta even with those somewhat ambiguous answers.

    Last week I was looking through our family photos with one of my kids. It’s interesting to watch how I’m still growing just by looking at the pictures – it’s obvious that I’ve grown in tznius between the time my oldest kids were born and now. And that’s what it’s all about -continual growth.

  29. Our children certainly were aware of our background. Whenever someone asks us, we mention where we were born, went to high school, college and yeshiva. IMO, it is a shame that a BT has to sacrifice his or her unique background nad journey to Torah observance to meet the sometimes bizarre criteria of the FFB world.

  30. I am not in your face type of gal, BUT reason to be proud of my BT-ness is brought down in Talmud numerous times & held as something to look up to; where the FFBs are a lot of the time in violation of “Mitzvot Anashim Melumada” (doing mitzvot out of habit).

    If it was smth. to be ashamed of we would not know about Rabbi Akiva’s life before Teshuva and not have a special commandment of Vehavtem EtHager (you shall love a convert) beyond a commandment of Ve’Ahavta Le’Reyacha Ka’mocha. It is because of sacrifices a convert or BT makes to get to where he is.

    We are not drones to integrate, we are individuals for whom the entire world was created. And I am proud to have kept my faith in spite of the challenges that FFBs can not even imagine. Our Judaism is not handed to us on a silver platter, we nurture it out of the mud & dirt of this world.

    I think that FFBs should integrate into the BT world, not the other way around, maybe Moshiach will come sooner.

    I hope this answers your question,

    Happy thoughts ;)

  31. Growing up in Cleveland in the 60’s, the frum community was small enough that almost everyone in it knew everyone else. I was 16 when I became fully Orthodox and was known somewhat as a “wunderkind” there for making a decision like that early on. I also managed to convince my parents (with humongous difficulty) to send me to the day school/yeshiva there. So when I moved to Brooklyn, which I thought would be a thoroughly uplifting frum experience (wrong), I already could tell people I graduated from Yavne (the Telshe Yeshiva girls’ school), and no further questions were asked, other than “oh, do you know so-and-so?”, to which I could almost always gleefully reply that I did. In Cleveland, it never occurred to me that being a BT was something to hide because I was “outted” immediately, but when I came to New York, I suddenly had gotten the feeling that being a BT was somewhat of an anomaly. This was painfully confirmed by a friend’s cousin whom I was set up with and went out with 3 times (back in the day, many parents did not go through the CIA backcheck that most people seem to submit to now), when he told me he’d have to break up with me because his parents weren’t happy with their belated background check knowledge that my parents were “very fine people, very traditional, but not fully Shomer Shabbos”. (Yes, I know I would have been spared that if they’d checked from the beginning, but, whatever).
    After that very profound rejection (I was crazy about him and thought we were moving in a very positive direction) my being a BT became my deepest, darkest secret, except to those closest to me. But today, many, many years later (I was 16 in the 60’s, you do the math), I’m wiser, have reclaimed my past (not by losing my frumkeit but by integrating that self with who I’ve become), and through some very tough life lessons, have learned to become and “admit” to all of me. I must say it’s been liberating, and has allowed me to begin my renewed BT search, i.e. not the one that limits me in order for me to fit into the FFB community, which was what it was until fairly recently. I suppose the fact that all my kids are married (one divorced) makes it easier. But in truth, some of the issues they went through outted me in other ways anyway, even before they got married, so it eventually became pointless to play “pretend” anymore.
    My most recent secret: I still get that residue thrill that I can tell people I graduated Yavne High School in Cleveland. Wish I could get past that, but oh, well.

  32. Jacob, you raise important issues, and I kind of missed your earlier comment.

    The issue here with “truthfulness” about “identity” is complex, because part of what America is about in our time is the ability to create your own identity and not be bound by where you come from. Why can’t “yeshivish ballebos” be my “true identity” — because my grandparents joined the Jewish Labor Bund in the 1920’s?

  33. Personally, my own kids (though older than yours) are proud that their parents are BTs (and for whatever reason, their friends think it’s the coolest thing).

    I don’t have kids yet, but this made me laugh. There is no way I would have thought it was “cool” if my parents had decided to become more religious. My parents were the antithesis of cool when I was a teen. I really hope I can say “My kids think it’s cool that I am a BT” some day. That would be really cool (at least to me).

  34. I think the whole question on what you tell your kids is very different. Aryeh Leib, did you ask a Rov who has experience with BTs his thoughts?

    I agree with Mark that if your kids end up viewing you as being disingenuous, that might be a much bigger issue. Eventually, your kids are going to start wondering why: they never saw pictures of you; you never speak about what you used to learn when you were in yeshivah; everyone in your family doesn’t wear a yarmulke, they never get to go to Bubbe and Zeides for shabbos, etc., etc., etc.

    Personally, my own kids (though older than yours) are proud that their parents are BTs (and for whatever reason, their friends think it’s the coolest thing).

  35. Interesting questions.

    Living in Israel it’s not so clear to most people that I’m BT. They’ve heard of a handful of major cities in the states, so when I say I grew up in “tiny town in New England with no frum Jews” they don’t know that from “Lakewood.”

    OTOH, back when I had my maiden name I was sometimes asked “Oh, is your father Jewish?” (it was a very Xtian sounding name) (and the answer is no, but actually his father’s father was, so I guess it’s a Jewish name?). In Israel it was even more problematic:
    security agent: X–is that a Jewish name.
    me: no
    sa: one minute please
    sa: you’ve been randomly selected for a security check. Would you mind stepping over here please?

    Ahh…the good old days. I have to say, I’m glad my kids will have a much more Jewish name, and one that’s much easier to spell to boot.

    As for being BT, I’m actually happy to let people know. I don’t announce it, although I do sometimes use my old enormous Tshirts from various campus activities as maternity clothing. I’ve never had a negative response, although I have had a lot of questions. I used to be a lot more self-conscious about it, but I’ve realized that pretty much everyone, BT, FFB, or non frum seems to be inspired/curious about BTs so I like to give them that little boost of knowing “hey, another one who decided it’s worth it to do all this–cool” or “wow, it really is possible to start from scratch and learn all those hebrew prayers.”

    The most memorable response I got was when a group of teens from Beit Shemesh grilled me on my “teshuva story” for a while and finally decided it was “boring.” Apparently they had expected something much more dramatic. Anyway, I told them a bunch of clearly fictional and much more lurid BT stories, and everyone was happy.

  36. At some point your children will definitely find out. If your kids perceive that you misled them, then there could be problems.


    Its interesting that this discussion draws our focus to where we came from (BT or FFB), where we are currently holding (indistinguishable from FFB, obviously BT), but distracts from the most important factor of Torah, where we are going.

    The thought of having “made it” is dangerous for all observant Jews (BTs and FFBs) and it is unfortunate that we (as BTs) have bought into this.

  37. We were advised by an FFB rabbinical type person that there is no need to burden kids with having to know that you were not raised frum. Personally, this statement has always somewhat troubled me as it is my nature to be more open than guarded.

    However, on the other hand I can surely hear the point he is making, that our FFB kids already have alot to contend with, why should we have to go out of our way to tell them our past, which isn’t always so savory, especially if they’re not even asking.

    The other day my mother took out some old family albums to show my kids. My wife immediately got nervous and told me to tell my mother not to show them to my kids. How would we explain all of those pictures of me looking the way I looked and doing whatever I was doing? Agian, they’re just kids. Why burden them with explanations about why I had my shirt off in this picture, or why I wasn’t wearing a kippah, or why this or why that?

    My kids know that our parents aren’t frum, but they sort of just accept that and don’t ask many more questions. Here and there they will ask something, but then we just tell them that Nana or Popa don’t do this and that we can daven to Hashem that maybe one day they’ll appreciate doing mitzvos and keeping the torah.

  38. Curious, Rachel,

    What do you have against integrating?
    Pardon me if I sound harsh, I don’t mean it that way, I just can’t think of a better term:
    Do you like being “in your face” about your BT-ness, and if so, why? Is it pride?

    I am a strong proponent of integration, in case you couldn’t tell :)

  39. This rarely comes up in my neck of the woods because 99% of the people in my area are BTs or are kiruv workers. On the rare occasion that it does come up, I’m always upfront about myself, mostly because there is no point in being vague, my lack of depth in learning will become obvious sooner or later. I don’t know what I would do if I thought I had a shot at being perceived as FFB.

  40. Hah, Ron :) If you tell people you’re my twin, they’ll never think you’re FFB!

    Is “sociological surfing” like Marx & Engels meet Jan & Dean?

    And in the Weird & Hilarious Simile Championship-
    Bob Miller for the win!

  41. I meant this fun part of Ron’s game, that “Because I’ve shown that to some extent I’ve got something they don’t. I can pass ‘by’ them… not so clear they could do the same in ‘my’ spaces!”

    Is “sociological surfing” like Marx & Engels meet Jan & Dean?

  42. Actually, I love it when they ask me, I am very proud of being a BT, NO ONE STANDS IN OUR PLACE. I am absolutely straight forward. Are you kidding me, I’m almost happy that I’m not an FFB. What do they know about being frum anyway… ;)

    I am actually a bit nervous that my kids are FFBs. I tell them of the Mesiras Nefesh their parents had/have for getting to where they are today. I don’t like the idea of trying to be integrated, I like to be myself & teach my kids to be individuals as oppose to copies of each other. Don’t get me wrong, we have plenty of good friends that are FFBs, BUT a regular FFB will never understand what a BT goes through.

    Most of the time they look up to the fact that I’m a BT. ….And, those that choose to stay away, what can I say… IT’S THEIR LOSS.

  43. The game of seeing how long I can go before letting on the truth has nothing to do with snobbery, Bob, but I guess what you’re getting at is what I said about my thoughts were when they do find out. I don’t think it’s snobbery because there’s no value judgment or inference of superiority. It’s simply sociological surfing.

    In fact once I let on, both they know and I know that my yeshiva background is necessarily superficial compared to someone of my age from their background, and that I am never going to be as temimisdik internally as a lot of a FFB people are. (Some BT’s can be and are. I’m just not one of them.) So I pick a little “up” on the way “down”

    Believe me, I have spent more time writing about this today than thinking about this topic in any active sense until now.

  44. It is not a matter of pretense. Heidi put it very well: One wants simply to get along in a given environment and not be an object of curiosity or special attention, unless it is on the terms of one’s own choice.

    I can completely understand Ron’s feelings here, as it’s my own inclination. My only fear in following the inclination is that, by so doing, I am feeding into that prejudice against BTs. Personally, I found my discomfort with this fear pushed me to be more open about being a BT.

    What distinguishes the “game” from inward snobbery?

    Maybe the lack of both malice and a sense of superiority? After all, there would be no shame in incorrectly assuming Ron was FFB.

  45. I’m sorry, I am not “mekabel” the reverse snobbery here. It is not a matter of pretense. Heidi put it very well: One wants simply to get along in a given environment and not be an object of curiosity or special attention, unless it is on the terms of one’s own choice.

    There’s also just a kind of fun game to it, frankly! How long can I go before they figure it out? I think upon reflection, the way I “feel” when they find out — when they find out basically when I’m good and ready — is “gotcha!” Because I’ve shown that to some extent I’ve got something they don’t. I can pass “by” them… not so clear they could do the same in “my” spaces!

  46. Like Ron, I also come accross as a “lifer” to many. But I studiously try to correct the record, whenever it’s relevant, saying something like “I didn’t grow up in such a context.” Sometimes it happens because I can’t respond to someone’s Yiddish; other times when I’m struck by a giant chiddush in learning that I just can’t help but contrast with something I know from the “old world.”

    Yet, while my honesty and sincerity is often highly respected, I still find that the majority of people would prefer NOT to hear about it! It makes them squirm; wonder why I’m exposing this wound!

    This has often perplexed me, but recently I’ve been concluding that the nature of being “normally frum” is something like being a fish in water. While it may be true that the occassional fish that made it out of the frying pan, flopping onto the floor and sciddadling into the bucket, then managed to be transported back into the sea is a MIRACLE story… still, when it’s told with pride by someone who seems so much like you, it’s a THREAT because you always thought those two worlds were irreducibly seperated.

  47. Ron,

    IMO there’s no correlation between the anecdote of the one who received chizuk from observing the inter-generational Bar Mitzvah and my own perception of supposed gatekeepers in your defined chevra.

    At the risk of digressing here’s a snippet of an article from William F. Buckley about 30 years in what was likely a shot at the rising sceptre of identity politics.

    Someone asked his friend “Do you like Jews?..Blacks?..Hispanics?..Trade Unionists?” to which he replied “no” to each category. “Then who do you like?” continued the interlocutor and the reply was “My friends!”

    This made an impression on me and serves to some degree as a lens in determining my social circle. Some are FFB (including wife and chevrusa of 6 years) and some are BT like myself. All seem to steer clear of raising (or lowering depending on who you ask) one’s identity into political terms.

    The observer at your Bar Mitzvah IMO was one who could appreciate your background and apply it to his own situation in a constructive way (the ideal of friendship perhaps) without anyone needing to sacrifice truthful elements of one’s persona in the quest for (real or perceived) acceptance.

  48. I’ve never had anyone interrogate me like I’m hearing described! I have been asked where I went to high school, and I usually answer “Public School” with a shrug and without further details, and the conversation goes on. And a frum HS student got rather wide-eyed when I mentioned that I met my husband when we were both students at Cornell. (I dropped out for lack of a major/career choice, he has two degrees.)

    But I have friends who did grow up frum and still went to public school! And as a (traditional/conservative) child, I begged my mother to send me to Yeshiva, and was told (without looking into it) that it was “too expensive and there aren’t scholarships.” And I wanted to go to a “real” yeshiva, not a Conservative one. The funny thing is my not-frum grandparents sent their kids to yeshiva day schools! Not my father, since his blindness prevented them from accepting them, but his currently non-observant siblings. And my mother was a student in Beis Yaacov of Baltimore and Yeshiva of Bensonhurst, along with a multitude of public schools. (Her family moved a lot when she was a kid.) They raised me Conservative, but are now leaning towards Modern Orthodox, and attend a YI shul.

    So I’m not sure where you went to school has all that much bearing on your current lifestyle, after all. There are a lot of other factors.

  49. I would not want to pretend that H”BH’s plan for me was something different than it was, in order to fit in with a particular group.

  50. Nechama,

    For me, it is not really a matter of caring what others think… I am not ashamed of being a BT and would never pretend to be anything else. However, at least I have found, that when someone finds out that I am BT, there are a million questions that come along with it. I am a somewhat private person, and do feel awkward sharing one of the most personal experiences of my life with total strangers who are curious. So, when I am vague in answering, it is not about being ashamed. I will proudly tell my kids or anyone else close to me anything they would like to know. However, at a social gathering, with a total stranger, I do not feel I need to explain why I am not related to anyone they know or why I went to a public school.

  51. Nechama,

    I, personally, feel the way that you do regarding not caring what others think. But, I’m not the whole world (though it was created for me ;) )and others fell otherwise, as you can already see from some of the comments.

    Here’s a comment that I posted on an earlier thread in this regard:

    “Having been at the discussion in Rabbi Greenman’s home, I can say that many of the participants felt that FFBs often judge BTs negatively and that the problem is more prevalent than many FFBs believe. I think it’s probably somewhere in the middle between what Rabbi Greenman perceived and what the participants felt but, really, isn’t even a low level of negative judgment too much.

    I think the issue is very individual and, perhaps, is dependent to a certain extent upon the level of integration. My personal experience is contrary to Miri’s point that FFBs won’t allow BTs to align themselves with them. Of the four of five families that are our closest friends, two of them are FFBs and we are as close as friends can be from borrowing sugar to sharing meals to sleepovers (for the kids!), to learning together, to sharing our problems and giving advice to vacationing. I think that this area, too, is very individual.

    I think that “integration” needs to be defined. Does integration mean that no one can tell that you are a BT? Does it mean that you dress like the FFBs in your community or is it something more subtle.”

    There are some really excellent related points in that thread: Rabbi Yitz Greenman on Integrating Into the Frum Community

  52. Honestly – who cares what peoples responses would be? I almost feel as you post this question that you are ashamed to be BT. I kow the attitudes out there – and I think we perpetuate this ourselves!

    Frankly many Rabbis will tell you that it’s more rightous to be a BT because you made a choice and a commitment to Hashem on your own as opposed to not knowing a life any different. They also say that we should all be BT bc we should all have a goal of moving toward a closer relationship tp Hashem..

    just my 2 cents

  53. Jacob, it’s a fair question. I notice you focus on patronizing or paternalistic thinking, and not on worse stuff, so I will just answer that.

    At a certain point, I decided I wanted to be a member of the club, yes. Ultimately I have proved myself and been admitted, not into any particular inner circle, but generally speaking into the community of yeshivish baalebatim by virtue of knowing the sprach, knowing what to do with a sefer and being generally familiar with many of the main sugyos, and being sensitive to the mores of the group.

    This is not a crime. Everyone has a different definition of what sort of companion he does or does not consider grating, and what sort he seeks. At my shul, as I said, all the guys I am thinking of admire that a guy from my background can more or less fit in with bnei torah albeit display a somewhat larger vocabulary, and raise “normal” and academically and socially successful yeshiva kids (who speak very good English, thank you, Bob!). At my most recent son’s bar mitzvah, one such came up to me and remarked at the experience of hearing my father’s halting recital of the brochos, then my much more confident one, and at the same time my sons exemplary leyning. He almost had tears in his eyes and said it did wonders for his emunah.

    That’s patronizing, paternalistic? I will take it.

  54. For some reason this almost always makes me a little uncomfortable. I just answer the questions asked, and do not volunteer any more information. Sometimes people will ask why my parents would send me to public school, and I just reply that I didn’t grow up frum. The people who don’t care just leave it at that, the people who are genuinely interested will probe further.
    One situation that I always find awkward is when people try to figure out if they know someone from my family. My maiden name is VERY common in the frum world, but I am related to none of them. If the person is really going at it with Jewish geography, I just explain that my father came from a very small family.
    I certainly do not think that a person should lie about their past, but at the same time, just because we did not grow up frum, does not mean we need to share our entire life story.

  55. Ron,

    This will likely turn out more nasty than intended so apologies in advance.

    “I valued the reputation as “the most normal BT.”

    So any possible problems with patronizing or paternalistic attitudes on the part of those classifying and defining you is secondary to reaching the prize of being “in with the boys”?

  56. Those are last year’s words, anyway, Bob. Also khop. All very ’80’s, really. You need teenage boys in yeshiva to keep you up on this.

    Aliza, it’s not as bad as it seems. People want to get a handle on you — not necessarily, or let us say not only, in order to pigeonhole you, but also to connect. It’s just Jewish Geography.

  57. I don’t know if this blows my cover, but I have held out so far and not used the words “takeh”, “davka”, “mamash” and the like to punctuate my conversation.

  58. AJ,

    Take off that White Castle t-shirt, it’s an easy tip-off.


    Have you ever gotten a positive response after you’ve told someone that you’re a BT?

  59. I get the question a lot, of where I went to high school. In the beginning, I was scared to answer so I would ignore the question. Later on I decided I should be proud that I went somewhere not the norm for the religious Jew, and I share it.

    Now when I tell people, they just stare at me for a second then continue to interrogate me. I hate it. Why is it any of their business and how does it even begin to tell them anything about me?

    When people find out I’m a BT they either stare, speechless, or interrogate me on my life and how I came to be where I am today. It’s annoying!

  60. It is so painfully obvious that I am a BT that no one asks me the question. (I hope it is different for my kids) But I am not that sensitive, although when someone uses a phrase that I have no idea what it means I am often embarassed to ask. Having said that, when I walk around Albany in a kippah, many people assume I am some kind of Rabbi.

  61. As a (bad) Yiddish speaker and a native Brooklyner who actually did time in a “real yeshiva” and who has made it his business to assimilate a decent amount of adopted cultural memory of the velt, they don’t see through unless I let them — or unless they insist on asking about high school! In all seriousness, when it does come out, I really have no “issue” with it. I’m certainly not ashamed of my background, and I find many people are impressed with “how far” I’ve come.

    This happens so seldom these days that I can hardly even conjure up how I feel. (I am right now passing the “halfway mark” right this minute or so.) Most recently a frum man in my office, whom I’ve known for months, seemed surprised when I mentioned my BT status in passing (I thought I’d already told him). I just confirmed, yes, I did say I’m a BT, and kind of pretended it didn’t mean anything, and we went along our business.

    I just don’t want to walk around with a “BT” sign around my neck. Some people are sufficiently self confident, or sufficiently inured to what other people think of them, that they don’t give this a minute’s thought. But I am not; I’m very sensitive to my place in “social space,” for better or for worse.

    That, incidentally, is one reason I studiously ignored this website, and the seminar that preceded it, as long as I did, although I knew about it, and even though I have always remained involved with Aish, etc., I wanted my “in town” identity to just be glatt and unremarkable — even among those who know me as a BT (as most people my age in my shul do), I valued the reputation as “the most normal BT.” Axiomatically this means the one who doesn’t talk about BT stuff.

    That worked until someone I couldn’t say no to insisted that I jump in… Now look! Social space my foot.

  62. With polite firmness

    “I went to public schools in _____ville”

    and if applicaple

    “learned in Yerushalayim after college”

    The astute questioner will get it. No need IMO for further disclosure with blunt catch phrases that could appear contrived.

  63. Bob,

    I didn’t know you were a New Yorker! (Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you). I agree that false pretenses are not helpful.


    LOL, power to the people! You’ve said before that you pass for a “lifer” pretty much wherever you go, how do you feel when someone “sees through”?

  64. I answer in Yiddish. They don’t usually realize I’m telling them a speech I memorized for a camp play about the inevitability of the proletarian revolution!

  65. People rarely ask where I went to school, but, if they do ask, I just say where. Nobody’s going to mistake Stuyvesant HS or MIT for some yeshiva! It doesn’t make me all that apprehensive; the inquiring person will either want to be my friend or not. What good is a friendship built on false pretenses? I can’t recall any really interesting responses.

    There’s no point in announcing with fanfare “I’m a baal teshuva!!”, but I’ll say yes if someone wants to know.

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