â€œIâ€™m a BT.â€ This statement has an air of finality to it, doesnâ€™t it? Like, â€œIâ€™m a graduate of Harvard Med Schoolâ€, or â€œIâ€™m a doctorâ€, or â€œIâ€™m a motherâ€. â€œIâ€™m a BTâ€ 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. â€œIâ€™m a BT.â€ I like the ring of it. I donâ€™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: â€œIâ€™m a BT.â€ Then, the person to whom Iâ€™m speaking can nod his or her head in an understanding way. â€œAh, I get it. Youâ€™re a BT!â€ 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 BTâ€™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: â€œI am growing and learning in Torah.â€ But of course that expression isnâ€™t as jazzy sounding, doesnâ€™t quite sum it up in a few easy to remember initials.
I now find it more accurate to use the expression â€œI am a BTâ€ 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 Hashemâ€™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 Iâ€™ve come.
My seventh-grade daughter is studying the laws of Shabbos in school. Iâ€™ve been fully shomer shabbat for about six years, and to my knowledge there isnâ€™t anyone in our Highland Park community who wonâ€™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 thatâ€™s how sheâ€™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 didnâ€™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. Iâ€™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 didnâ€™t just say â€œGood Shabbosâ€ 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. Iâ€™ve discovered that itâ€™s somewhat comforting to keep looking â€œdownâ€ – it reminds me, when I get discouraged, of how far Iâ€™ve come. And Iâ€™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 â€œWhat Do You Mean, You Canâ€™t Eat in My Home, A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and their Lesser Observant Relatives Can Still Get Alongâ€, which can be purchased at Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.
Originally Published Feb 27, 2007