“I’m a BT.” This statement has an air of finality to it, doesn’t it? Like, “I’m a graduate of Harvard Med School”, or “I’m a doctor”, or “I’m a mother”. “I’m a BT” could be right up there with the other descriptors that apply to me: Jewish, female, wife to Stephen, age 47, professional author, mother of three. “I’m a BT.” I like the ring of it. I don’t have to give over the long complicated story of how I journeyed for twenty years as an adult before committed to a Torah way of life. This is the thirty-second elevator speech: “I’m a BT.” Then, the person to whom I’m speaking can nod his or her head in an understanding way. “Ah, I get it. You’re a BT!” Now we understand each other. . .
After I mastered the art of announcing myself as a BT without stumbling over the words, or feeling embarrassed about it, it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the label can be quite misleading. I AM a BT makes it sound like I have graduated from BT school, and I can now pronounce myself as holding a Masters in BT’dom. I AM a BT makes it sound as if I traveled down a road, picked up this identity along the way, and now I am, forever more, a fully formed BT, with all the credentials. I AM a BT is a bit of a cop-out, an easy way to size up a complex journey that is impossible to reduce to an elevator speech. More accurate would probably be this: “I am growing and learning in Torah.” But of course that expression isn’t as jazzy sounding, doesn’t quite sum it up in a few easy to remember initials.
I now find it more accurate to use the expression “I am a BT” to identify the direction to which I am moving — closer towards Torah and the Torah ideals of my long-ago ancestors who stood at Mt. Sinai and pronounced themselves ready to follow Hashem’s commandments. I am no longer moving away and disowning my Jewish heritage, I am embracing it. I am no longer focused on successful assimilation for my children, but rather, successful indoctrination of my children into the yeshivas way of life. I am no longer satisfied with just knowing enough Jewish learning to get by — I want to learn something new every week. I am a BT, growing in Torah, and trying not to be discouraged by how far I have to go, but rather, looking back at how far I’ve come.
My seventh-grade daughter is studying the laws of Shabbos in school. I’ve been fully shomer shabbat for about six years, and to my knowledge there isn’t anyone in our Highland Park community who won’t eat in my home. I pass the test, so to speak. I can hang the BT kashrus certification on my fridge. But just the other day, my daughter came home from school and told me — nicely, because that’s how she’s been trained to speak to her Ima on such sensitive matters — that I was opening the black olive can wrong on Shabbos. I knew not to use the electric can opener. I knew not to tear off any letters from the label. I didn’t know that before I opened the top of the can, I was supposed to puncture a hole in the bottom, so that I would be rendering the vessel unusable. News to me. I’ve opened about 200 black olive cans the wrong way. Please forgive me, Hashem. I am a work in progress.
The longer I am a BT, the longer the road ahead of me appears to be. Way in the early days, I worried about such basics as separating milk from meat, and wearing a hat on Shabbos. I was figuring out how to say the right thing on the Yom Tovim, so that I didn’t just say “Good Shabbos” to everyone when it was a Tuesday. I felt like I was at the bottom of Mount Everest ( or should I say, Mt. Sinai), and the top seemed out of sight. But then, as I started climbing, with the help of some very special teachers, I started feeling more confident. I CAN DO THIS! I can keep a kosher home that even the Rabbi will eat in. I can wear a sheitle and a long skirt and look every bit the part of an FFB. I can go to classes and learn, and learn, and learn, and then practice, and practice, and practice, and I can DO this. I can raise my children to be frum yidden who will also choose to raise their children to be frum yidden. I have returned.
Funny thing about climbing this mountain. I’ve discovered that it’s somewhat comforting to keep looking “down” – it reminds me, when I get discouraged, of how far I’ve come. And I’ve also discovered that there really is no summit to reach when, should I get there, I can just kick back and enjoy the view. Thank G-d, I have three children, ages 8, 11, and 12 1/2 (in 2007), who keep teaching me how much more I have to learn. Thank G-d.
Azriela Jaffe is the author of “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and their Lesser Observant Relatives Can Still Get Along”, which can be purchased at Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.
Originally Published Feb 27, 2007