The Never Ending Road of the BT

“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

23 comments on “The Never Ending Road of the BT

  1. WADR, I think that walking around and advertising yourself as a BT is a sign of a spiritual inferiority complex. One sees no evidence that the Avos, Imahos, Moshe Rabbeinu, R Akiva or Resh Lakish, to name some of the most prominent BTs in Jewish history, walked around with such an attitude or hashkafa.

  2. I think that for many, if not many BTs, the message as one is more and more integrated into the FFB world is that you are a Lomdan, a Ben or Bas Torah, etc, and that whether you are a BT or FFB loses its relevance- but not to the point where you lose appreciation and hakaras hatov for those who have aided your growth in Avodas HaShem.

  3. Hmmm, tsnius 3/4 sleeve t-shirts with slogans. Pockets on skirts rented out to Coca Cola and Kosher Wine companies. Bands on borsolinos with electronic marquee messages (not for use on Shabbos!). I like it! Good thinking Bob. Yasher koach!

  4. Families (or even communities) hard-pressed to pay for education, etc., can rent out space on their weekday clothing for tasteful commercial messages.

  5. “Then again, I had this brilliant marketing idea to make Nike-brand workout Snoods for frum ladies. I was so annoyed when I saw the Muslims got into sports gear first with the burquini”

    I laughed out loud when I read this. I can just picture a cotton candy pink snood with Nike logos all over.

  6. To: Bob Miller

    “Think of how much info could be communicated and kiruv funding accumulated through the sale of “I’m a BT” sweatbands.”

    Heh, I always felt like I had a flashing neon sign on my forehead, “BT BT BT…”

    Then again, I had this brilliant marketing idea to make Nike-brand workout Snoods for frum ladies. I was so annoyed when I saw the Muslims got into sports gear first with the burquini …………

  7. Shalom Azriela,

    (smile) Sweet story.

    I used to make sure everyone knew in advance I was BT (like they didn’t already), so they would understand when I goofed up. Like having whole conversations with myself after Al Netilas Yadayim, while everyone gave me that weird look. Or thanking my hostess for the piece of challah she passed me. Or, like the time I wrote YA’s name on a snow-covered car — on Shabbos. I hadn’t yet connected that writing your name in snow was WRITING.

    Forgiving yourself for falling short as much as you seek acceptance from others makes the path a lot easier. And instead of embarrassment, we kind of chuckle, give a little shrug, and wonder if anyone would be willing to publish our book “100 Stupid Ba’al Teshuvah Tricks.”

    The day comes, though, when you look back and see how far you’ve come, and what was once utterly incomprehensible is now as natural as breathing.

    And the big “aha” is realizing that you aren’t in competition and it isn’t a race, and that there never will be a finish line.

    It’s all about working at getting better and perfecting the things we know how to do, and then moving on to the next challenge.

    There is no “there.” Each moment is a pearl of its own, designed to teach us some lesson of the mysteries of Torah.

  8. Part of our learning process is to try really hard to understand each detail of observance on some level, but not to punt when we don’t get it.

    I’mJewish should find an approachable, knowledgable Rav and ask if a hole needs to be punched in the can, and, if so, why, and, if not, why not.

  9. I find it fascinating that the short story I told of the olive can opening led to several posts on a different topic — that of whether or not the details really matter so much. This is SUCH a huge question, at the very root of what it means to decide to be observant. Because the real question is — how do we decide which “details” matter, and which ones don’t? In the early years of my transition from Reform to Orthodox, I was constantly resentful of these details and that question did arise over and over again — does G-d really care about this?

    Over time I came to realize that there really isn’t any difference in the question, “does G-d care whether I fast on Yom Kippur or drive on Shabbos?” and the question, “Does G-d care whether I rip the toilet paper on Shabbos?” Every time I decide that G-d does, or does not care, or should or should not care, I’m back to where I spent most of my adult life — orchestrating this religion to meet my needs and wants, and not thinking a bit about serving G-d. I can’t for the life of me figure out why the creator of the universe would give a hoot whether I put a pork chop in my mouth, or cover my hair, or wear skirts instead of pants, or use only cold water when washing dishes on Shabbos. None of it really makes any sense — but I’m starting to see, it isn’t about making sense. When I can come up with a reason that makes sense to me, I feel better, but when I can’t, I have to stop myself from judging G-d, and all of Judaism, for asking something of me that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense because I am limited, but I am working, every day, on trusting the great sages who came before me, who listened carefully and passed along what they believe G-d wants of an observant Jew. Every time I tell myself, “this doesn’t make sense and so I don’t have to do this”, I am entering troubled waters.

    I keep studying and learning because I want to believe that all of it matters. In the end, I am figuring out how to follow the laws, as they are written and told over, even when I don’t know why. And yet, if I could count the number of times I say to myself, “This doesn’t seem like a detail that should matter to G-d”, I would be a rich woman.

  10. Think of how much info could be communicated and kiruv funding accumulated through the sale of “I’m a BT” sweatbands.

  11. This post is significant in that it’s posted on this blog. Why? Because BeyondBT has helped me to “come out of the closet” (no, not THAT closet, chos v’sholom) – but rather the “I’m a BT” closet referred to herein. The point being that there’s an eliminent of judgment that goes with that admission, but now I realize how much I have to be proud of – and yes, it is a long way down for me too, Azriela, and ohmygosh, it sure is a long way up!

  12. I’m Jewish’s question is often asked.

    Here’s one answer from Simple to Remember:

    Does G-d really care whether I switch a light on/off on Shabbat? Have three drops of milk in my chicken soup etc.?

    In Judaism, greatness lies in the details. And so it does in nature or technology. A computer missing one tiny microchip probably won’t work at all. Try tuning into a radio station close but not exactly on the station. The result is an awful lot of noise. Try baking a cake at 450 when it was supposed to be baked at 400. Instead of a tasty dish we get a burnt cinder.

    Spirituality is the same. Harmonizing ourselves with spirituality requires that we tune in exactly to the right station. It requires a focus on details. The devil is in the details, as they say, but so is the spirituality. This is how G-d made His world and He therefore cares very much about the details. It makes sense that if G-d made the physical world that way, He also made the spiritual world that way.

    And why did He create it so? Because the real test for us is not whether we can do something heroic and get a medal. We are all capable of running to help the little, old lady who fell down in the street. The heroic moment brings the best out of most of us. But, can we sustain this sensitivity and relating day in and day out.? We are all capable of smiling some of the time. The great person always smiles when it is appropriate. We all have a great pray – maybe when we really need something. The great person prays like that three times a day. He/she is always patient when he/she needs to be, always connecting with the pain and the joy of others, never overeating. Oh yes – greatness is in the thousands of little everyday realities. And that’s just what G-d is looking for.

  13. I’mJewish
    February 27th, 2007 08:31 9
    I’m shomer Shabbos myself,

    What does your shemiras Shabbos entail? Does God care whether you engage in such “trivia” as not turning on a light or not cutting toilet paper?

    Perhaps you need to examine some basic issues.

  14. I’m shomer Shabbos myself, but I still fail to see how trivia such as whether or not to punch a hole in a can to render it unusable is really part of growing in Yiddishkeit. Growing in trivia is more like it.

  15. >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.

    Also, Sephardi Lady:

    See Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa, Chapter 9:2 (in Hebrew). There are poskim who allow to open cans lechatchilla if the way is to throw them away after opening, as is the case with olive cans, provided you actually do throw the can away immediately.

    So even if the minhag is to be machmir for the other poskim and make another opening on the bottom, you didn’t actually do anything wrong in opening those 200 cans.

    Anyway, the point is well taken. We are all a work in progress.

  16. Nice article. But, I believe there are very valid opinions that say you can open cans on Shabbat without puncturing because you have no intent to create a kli since you will throw away the can immediately. Don’t quote me on this, but definitely check it out with a Rav.

  17. I’m curious, do most people say “I’m a BT” or “I’m a Baal/as Teshuva” when they’re talking to someone in real life. For some reason (maybe its a Freudian reason?) I get tongue tied when I say “Baalas Teshuva” so I usually make a joke about trying to be 100% compliant but still needing a little bit of work.

  18. Óra,its actually Kingda Ka I missed the g first time around.Knowing that ure such a sincerely devout stickler for general rules,regulations and immediate consequences, I figured I would preempt the correction lecturing and avoid the consequences ;-)

  19. I’m not so sure that its a path, the given Bobby or Betty the BT is traveling tenaciously along on.I think its more of a roller coaster oriented amusement park with fun for the whole family.
    I think repentance and related happenstancings are the kind of emotional life altering moments thrill seekers at an amusement park generally experience.
    You got the awesome thrill rides (kinda ka , top thrill dragster)heavy mussar stuff …… Hard to experience especially the lines and or attention needed to focus but worth it.
    You got the cotton candy for all the sugar çoated concepts out there perfect for vain with s thin veneer of depth individuals.
    Then you got those never ending circuitous rides and chumrahs that just make you puke.
    Çhukim and those flabbergasting games of large basketball and small net for adorable stuffed animal winning go hand in hand.
    For the spiritual family outings you got lovely scenic boat rides and holidays.
    Bumping cars and all the different sects within Judaism trying to toot théir horn the loudest and knock the other guys structure and essence until he either stops playing or just switches cars and takes the subway.
    Ferris Wheels are like certain high schools that only care about théir sparkling image and théir tickets , ignoring the clear as day fact that the riders are just goin round and round and round until they fall off or just get married.
    Its really hard trying to remember why your working so hard trying to experience as much of the amusement park as possible before the park closes.Its even harder knowing which rides to wait for and which rides to leave for a different day.Its always good to get the seasons pass but that’s definitely no guarantee or anything.
    Personally I would do Top thrill dragster at Çedar Point and Kinda Ka at Six Flags oh and definitely the tea cups at coney island. Happy teshuva riding !

  20. Azriela,

    You know what? You have to think that you are always growing in Yiddishkeit, and never, ever stop. You can’t ever say, “This is it! I have scaled the mountain…I’m @ the summit”. If you do that, then you can’t grow anymore, and you could regress. Think of it as a mountain that has no summit, it just keeps going and going and going (apologies to the Bunny from the commercial!). I once heard a Rabbi say “We are all BT’s”. I think that one of the reasons we read the Torah again and again, every year, is that we can always find something new every time we read a particular Parsha.

    Keep climbing that mountain, Azriela!


  21. People who announce “I am a BT” know what they mean, but the people who hear this can have wildly differing mental images of BTs, anywhere from “social misfit” to “bringer of Mashiach”. Depending on who is being addressed, the announcement needs specific added details to foster understanding.

Comments are closed.