An E-Mail To My Brother-In-Law

Good afternoon. I wanted to touch base with you and apologize first for not being able to do this over the phone since our schedules usually make it hard to find time.

I realize that you have decided not to have bagels and lox at the brunch for your parent’s anniversary, yet this now puts me in a difficult position. On one hand, I try to keep kosher to the best of my ability, yet on the other hand, I strive to build bridges of understanding and tolerance to others who may not do what ~wife’s name~ and I do. As you can see, if I choose the option of eating strictly kosher it may be detrimental to my relationships with others who do not. And, if I eat whatever non-kosher food that is served than I feel as if I have compromised my beliefs. It is truly a lose/lose situation on my part. Either way, I go home without a good feeling.

Last Sunday, I suggested ~name of kosher establishment ~ bagels, lox, and cream cheese because I thought it would be something we could enjoy and also because I thought it to be a win/win situation for everyone. Since you opted for a lighter option that is also better for your father’s health, perhaps ~wife’s name~ could bring something, and that way you can still serve whatever you would like. I am completely cognizant of that fact that it is not my place to weigh-in on menu selection in your home. I am not attempting even in the slightest to dictate what others eat, only what I choose to eat. What I eat or refrain from eating is not commentary on anyone else’s life despite the fact that is repeatedly seen as such. Not once have I ever told a family member, or anyone else for that matter, that what they are doing is “wrong”.

I hope this e-mail will give you insight into my thought process. If you could see inside my heart you would see that I wrote these words without a trace of divisiveness. I ask that you give us the ability to help us participate and celebrate along with you. I think that misunderstandings that we have had in the past stem simply from a lack of honest dialogue. Both ~wife’s name~ and I strive to correct this and want to break down barriers of misunderstanding that may exist.

Originally Posted September, 2006

Being Thankful for Thanksgiving

When it comes to Thanksgiving, some families within Torah observant Jewry tend to have the attitude: “I’m thankful the whole year. I say Modeh Ani every single morning. Why should I celebrate Thanksgiving?”

The truth is that when I was growing up, as a third generation American with marginal Synagogue affiliation, my family ‘did’ thanksgiving, but it was never a big deal. When I got married, things changed (for the better).

As a married couple, Thanksgiving became a big deal. My wife is a first generation American and her family is totally into Thanksgiving. When we spend it with family or friends we go all out. Turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, my homemade “I can’t believe the’re pareve” mashed potatoes, and apple pie.

For Baalei Teshuva, Thanksgiving is almost the best of both worlds-the secular and the holy. It provides an opportunity to be with family and friends whom we might not normally have a meal with,a meal without the pressure of: zimiros, accidentally turning off of lights, constant explaining of why we make tea or coffee differently on Shabbos, etc.

Over the years I’ve listened to my co-workers complain about the pressure of making such a lavish meal, “All that hard work just to eat food for one hour”. For the Torah observant Jew, Thanksgiving is a piece of cake. We make “lavish meals” every weekend.

I often tell friends of mine that I love Thanksgiving because we can eat like Shabbos, but still turn off the lights and watch TV (although I’m not a big sports fan, so I usually don’t watch the big games).

In recent years, due to geographical logistics we haven’t spent many Thanksgivings with my wife’s family, but some years, we did. There were kashrus challenges, like a limited supply of kosher pots, pans, and utensils, but we were able to make the entire meal kosher. Armed with the ability to kasher an oven and several phone numbers of various Rabbis on speed dial, we really enjoyed to it. The zechus (merit) of the family members hosting our ‘kosher Thanksgiving’ is something they might never understand, but my wife and I do. The memories that my kids will have of spending Thanksgiving with family is something very dear to us. I am very thankful.

Originally Published on 11/11/2006

Thanksgiving and the BT

It’s clear that Thanksgiving is an “issue” for many Baalei Teshuvah. In addition to Neil Harris’ Being Thankful for Thanksgiving, the issue has come up in numerous posts and comments. We have highlighted some of those posts and comments below.

In Can You Really Get Everything You Want at Alice’s Restaurant?
, Rachel Adler sought advice on her first Thanksgiving in someone else’s non-kosher home:

“Thanksgiving, on the other hand, was one of the few holidays that I could spend at home with my family. For the past 10 or so years, we’ve hosted our extended family for Thanksgiving, with our cousins from New Jersey, California, and sometimes even Guatemala coming to the meal. Usually there are over 20 people. This was convenient when I started keeping kosher, since my parents started keeping a kosher house and no one had to make any special arrangements for me… I have a younger cousin, who just got accepted to Washington University in St. Louis, where she’ll be going next year. She’s among the cousins who usually visit us for Thanksgiving. This year, however, her parents want to host Thanksgiving since this is the first time she’s been away from her family and they want her to be able to go home for her first school break. This is understandable, but when my mom told me this yesterday, I asked “What am I going to eat? And what about Shabbat?”… My cousins don’t have a kosher kitchen and, as far as I know, they don’t even know how to keep kosher (besides the basics of no milk and meat) since they, unlike my parents, were never raised keeping kosher… I know that this would be a good opportunity for me to do a kiddush Hashem if I can figure out a way to make this work without causing strife. I really love my cousins. I just have no clue what to do. Any advice?”

Some advice from the comments:



If your aunt is open to you bringing your own food that is what I usually do in these circumstances. In my experience, it is better to discuss this directly with your hosts than have your parents advocate for you. Thanksgiving is usually celebrated Thursday afternoon, right? Could you be with your family Wednesday and Thursday night and then go to an observant family for Shabbat? …I have been doing stuff like this with my family for several years, and I have found that there is usually a way to compromise. I think you are taking a great attitude by thinking of the potential for kiddush Hashem.

Bob Miller:

As an aside, the kosher traveler can now find packaged kosher items in virtually every supermarket, convenience store, and Wal-Mart in the US. La Briute self-heating TV dinners are available in some stores and on-line (check )

Out of Town:

Thanksgiving can be a difficult holiday for BTs. I know my parents were very offended when I wouldn’t eat the turkey at their house when I started becoming frum. I would definitely agree that you should talk to the hosts in advance and warn them that you will be bringing your own food. Those La Briute meals are pretty good and I think they even have a turkey one. Another option is to either buy or make a meal at home, freeze it, then heat it up at their house. Or, maybe you could volunteer to bring one of the side dishes, that way you will have something to eat that everyone else will eat, then just bring your own turkey or whatever. Good luck!


I have the same problem as well…

I would first discuss the situation with the appropriate family members. If you are comfortable, discuss the issue with the hosts. Since you love them and I am sure they love you, they will be happy to help come up with a compromise. This is a ‘better’ situation than one where the hosts refuse to compromise at all. I have done this in the past, and I have found it to be extremely helpful as it eliminates surprises and opens the lines of communication and sets expectations. Especially since Thanksgiving is an eating-oriented holiday, no one would want you to be left out of the eating.

Determine what is the most that you can do on your end. Bring a cold salad, plates & utensils, dessert, appetizers, etc. Do the max that you can do. When we went to a non-kosher house for Thanksgiving last year, I brought appetizers, side dishes, and dessert to ensure that we would at least have something to eat!

Include your family in your Shabbat plans. Since it’s also a family-oriented holiday, maybe your relatives would like to ‘do’ Shabbat with you, or whatever. See what their thoughts are. Maybe you can organize something! (which may be a relief for the hostess from all the cooking)

Now may be the time to be creative… It is obvious that you are willing to do that which maintains family harmony while also staying true to yourself. Being honest will help with that. Good luck!


Something that is definitely worth doing is really learning about kashrut, the foundations behind the halacha, and the very practical end of kashrut (what must have a heksher and what products don’t need a heksher, what is considered sharp/hot and what is not, steam, kashering burners, ovens, microwaves, bishul, and more).

As it is said, knowledge is power, and with some ingenuity, resources, and knowledge, it is more than possible to create kosher meals in a non-kosher home without upsetting everyone.

Goodluck and enjoy Palo Alto. The frum community there is very nice.


Ah – Thanksgiving, the holiday of the BT :) . At least it is for our families.

Neither my, nor my husband have parents with kosher kitchens, yet we have managed to make a totally kosher Thanksgiving meal in their homes. Self cleaning ovens, tin pans, disposable plates and ’silverware’ with maybe a few pots brought in. If your relatives are game, it can be done. This also prevents the issue of ‘why do you have different food’ and ‘what, did I contaminate your food with my fork?’ and so on.


Shayna spoke about how she “lost Thanksgiving” in Painfully Cutting Ties to the Past and the commentors offered support and some insight on the halachic parameters of the holiday.

Thanksgiving was supposed to remain a lifeline with my Before Teshuva world. At first, I stubbornly held on to New Year’s, defiantly rationalizing that we live by the secular calendar, too. But in truth, I’d long been uncomfortable with the idea that we kept our dates by their relation to the death of the Christian deity. (That’s pretty weird for a supposedly secular country.) Halloween was no great loss with the introduction of Purim. And, on Fourth of July, I usually serve my family something sweet and patriotically decorated and take the kids to a quiet spot to watch fireworks.

Then I lost Thanksgiving.

Rabbaim have poskuned that Thanksgiving has non-Jewish roots. Someone unhelpfully provided us with a pamphlet spelling out the problem. And since no one in the kids’ yeshivas does it, and, more importantly, I’ve lost my rebellious spirit in the realization that no matter how much I bristle, the frum way is usually best, after all…we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving either.

And now I feel a loss on that late November Thursday. I miss the politically uncorrect Pilgrims, stuffing, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Milchig.

Some advice from the comments:


It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Thanksgiving is a “treif” holiday. There was a diversity of opinion among gedolim in the last century on the subject. Rabbi Michael Broyde wrote an excellent analysis of the subject which you can read here

There are enough things baalei teshuva must give up without going overboard and giving up things we don’t have to.


See my response to another post on a similar topic on the suitability of Thanksgiving for BT’s!

Also, I think that some ties must be cut, and other ties do not need to be, or should not be. Here one needs the advice of a posek who “gets it” and who is familiar with your family situation in most cases. We should strive to make “yesses” wherever possible.

This year my parents could not make it,so we were spared some stress with non-Jewish cousins. But my wife still made some traditional dishes, and we talked about Squanto and mekoras hatov.

On the other hand, she refused to make me roast chestnuts, which my Dad always insists on- oh well.

David Linn:

Great comment. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to find a possek or rav who is familiar with one’s particular background and avoid making decisions, especially regarding restrictions, without first asking (we will be discussing the issue of finding a rav a sometime over the next few weeks). Sorry about the chestnuts, Melech.

Shayna – I think that the fact that no other kids in the yeshiva are celebrating is not, in and of itself, a reason not to do it. Sure, we feel peer pressure and we don’t want our kids to be singled out or made fun of. At the same time, we also need to teach are kids the importance of family and permissive individuality.

We are perhaps one of a handful of families in our school that actually has a Thanksgiving meal (my mother made a mean turkey this year, delicious!). At the same time, I think we would certainly be considered “more to the right” than the overwhelming majority of families in the school when it comes to many other social and parenting issues. My wife and I are constantly struggling to strike the balance where our kids understand that just because we don’t allow a particular activity until a certain age and their friends’ parents do doesn’t mean that we are better or frumer than they are. I think that equips them to handle the “peer pressure” when we do things that others don’t, i.e. Thanksgiving.

Teaching tolerance isn’t easy but as BTs that has got to be a priority especially when half of us are here complaining about how many sectors of the FFB world are intolerant of us.

All the talk of turkey and sushi on this site is making hungry!

Moshe Silver:

Hey, BT! Lighten up! FYI, what we now observe as Secular New Year’s Day – 1 January – was observed in the ancient world before the birth of Christianity, and was co–opted by the Church. The reason Christmas Day falls eight days before the New Year has to do with making the beirth of the year correspond with the circumcision of Baby J. As to Thanksgiving, one way to look at it is to say it has Christian Roots. Another way is to recognize that its roots really lie in the quest for relgious freedom. I believe it was the Chofetz Chaim who exhorted his own children to go to America, stating that the future of religious Judaism would be there. The Founders of this country were more religion-oriented and G-d oriented than they were Christian oriented. They were Deists and Freemasons, for whom belief in a Deity superseded adherence to a religion. To this day, there is no country on earth more positively disposed towards religious observance, and more religiously tolerant. You couldn’t be a BT in most other countries in the world – not throughout human history, and not even today – without exposing yourself to physical danger. Here, all you have to worry about is embarrassing yourself by not knowing when to stand up and sit down during the services. Are you going to pasken yourself out of recognizing the blessing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has given us, to be able to be BTRs in the world today? Or are you, like me, going to embrace the one holiday that celebrates G-d and belief, and America all at once?


Rivkah cut to the chase with her American Holidays – Thanksgiving Survival Guide, really short version

For the last several years I have not had to face being around my family during any of the chagim because I had lived in Israel. Saying no to attending family holidays, for many people it is an extremely difficult burden to face. How do you say no when it is family? But how can you say yes to the Pesach Family Seder that lasts about 15 minutes and the Rosh Hashanah Meal both First and Second Night that isn’t kosher or Sukkot Chol Hamoed Lunch that isn’t in a Sukkah even when it isn’t raining. It is so hard because we love our family and we bend over backwards not wanting to alienate them from frumkite, chas v’shalom. But lets face it…knowing that the chagim are all about our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch-Hu and we just can’t get “there” to the loftiest of places in a home where there isn’t Kiddusha…or at least the brand of Kiddusha we need especially on a Yom Tov.

So how do you get out of the holiday of Thanksgiving? It never falls on a Shabbat…ok and it isn’t a Yom Tov… no problem there. The truth is, at least for me, Turkey-Day is the one holiday I don’t want or need to “get out of”. This year, for the first time in many years, I was able to and did attend the Family Thanksgiving Dinner. So here is my Survivors Guide, really short version, to spending Thanksgiving (or July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, New Years Day fill in the blank __ Day) with your family.

It is really important that you are able to do the most important thing on Thanksgiving and that is of course EAT. Waking up early on Thanksgiving, my kosher turkey went in the oven. Quickly the house was filled with all the smells of my childhood. I made everything I needed to feel good at the table… I was able to sit next to my cousins (of course still at the children’s table) and stuff my belly with yummy Thanksgiving delicacies. I even had enough leftovers at home in the fridge to feel very American on “Black Friday”. The mashed potatoes were my “contribution” to the cornucopia feast. Of course they were parve. I couldn’t bring the traditional buttery potatoes to set along side the table of turkey and spiral-cut-you-know-what! At the end of the evening as we all reclined in our chairs, everyone wanted to know how I made the yummy dilled mashed fluffy stuff. They were all stunned to hear about my secret to make them creamy with out milk or butter (margarine and light mayonnaise). Smiling to myself I thought of my own theory. They tasted so yummy because they were the only kosher thing on the table…of course other than my shiny aluminum pan, double wrapped foil peeled back filled with all the essentials: half a turkey breast, a mini portion of yams with marshmallow, challah stuffing, string bean casserole and of course parve mashed potatoes. FYI … you can follow the Libby’s Pumpkin Pie recipe on the label but instead of condensed milk, replace with soy milk and Rich’s cream frozen.

Some advice from the comments:



You did all that on a Thursday night? I am impressed. Did you have turkey for Shabbos?


Thanksgiving is the last holiday one should try to “get out of”. In my mother’s extened family there are/were two huge gathering each year that go back at least 2 generations; Pesach Sedar and Thanksgiving. Both gatherings included 3 to 4 generations, often 50 or more people.

As soon as I became frum the Pesach sedar had to go as it was not even kosher let along pesadik. It just wasn’t an option.

Thanksgiving was another story. Since driving and housing were not an issue, I saw no reason not to continue attending this annual “seudah” in order to maintain ties with my extended family. It was usually held in a treif restaraunt and for a few years my mother would order special meals for us (my two siblings and I, and later my wife). Later on we decided to forgo the special meals as they were more hassle than they were worth and we realized the main thing was just to be together with family, not the eating.

David Linn:

I’ve been doing Thanksgiving at my Mother’s the past 15 or so years (that’s a lot of Turkey!) I’m fortunate in the fact that my Mother is now Shomer Shabbos (a story for another time) and kashrus is not an issue.

If you’re going somewhere where you can’t eat, make sure to bring something that you can eat and that everyone else can eat as well!

Conversation is just as importnat as food. O.K., almost as important as food. O.K., conversation is important too. Thanksgiving is just not the time to synopsize the daf for your non-frum cousin. Neither is it the time to sit on the side with your head buried in a sefer. Try to find common ground. If you follow sports and your family does too, voila. Reminiscences of childhood days may work (if you have good ones). Bottom line is to give it some thought before you get there.


Hey, one of my favorite topics! I once heard an FFB make a crack to a very chashuv Rav, “Jews don’t do Thanksgiving, we thank Hashem _every_ day.” The Rav- very insightful and knew who he was speaking to said, “So what’s wrong with taking one day and doing it a little more?”

In my family, Thanksgiving persists because it provides few challenges. True, it has to be at our house so we can ensure the kashrus, but that’s not a challenge to my non-frum family and some of their non-Jewish spouses. We get together, eat, thank G-d for obvious blessings, sit around and talk, and don’t watch any football since we don’t own a TV. Then they all leave.

My own Rav has told me on many occaisions that BT’s have to work hard to find “yesses” since so much of what we do becomes “no’s” for them. Thanksgiving is a very easy “yes.”

Except when my wife served turkey on shabbos, my son, then 5 or 6, “poskened” “You’re not allowed to serve leftovers from a goyishe holiday for shabbos!”

That’s BBT’s, folks.

Oh, and there’s no kiruv either.

Originally published on 11/18/2006

You Used to be So Much Fun – Relating to Non-Religious Family and Friends

Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, Menahel, Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu (LA) gave a 3 part series titled “You Used to be So Much Fun – Relating to Non-Religious Family and Friends”, at the Life After Teshuva conference in Passaic in 2001. More than 230 people attended the conference in Passaic, New Jersey, which was intended to provide ba’alei teshuvah families with lifecycle support — assistance in raising families, adolescent children, etc.

Click on the link to listen to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. (To download either audio file to your computer, click with the right mouse button on the link and select Save Target As).


Here are some of the main points from part 1:

In his introduction, Rabbi Goldberg tells us that he’s not discussing halachic issues. And he is not going to talk about how to change our friends and relatives.

We have to look at what can we do to improve these relationships. What have we done to be part of the problem? We can’t talk our way out of problems that we might have behaved our way into.

Every organization is perfectly aligned to get the results that it is currently achieving. In other words if we keep doing what we’re doing, we will keep getting what we’re getting. If we want to get different results we have to do something different. We have to focus on what we can do, because that is the only thing in our control.

Rav Noach Orlowek said in the name of Rav Simcha Wasserman upon being the asked “What can I do to get my parents to understand me?”. Rav Wasserman replied “To get your parents to understand you, you have to try to understand them. As Shlomo Hamelech says “Just like when you see your reflection in a pool of a water, so to the heart of one person to another”.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l said Shlomo HaMelech uses a pond instead of a mirror, because to see your reflection in a pond, you have to take the action of leaning over. So too here, we have Torah, so we need to make the right moves. Don’t allow Torah to split a family apart.

How do we understand parents? In the second blessing of Shema in the morning we say “Place into our hearts, to understand, to know, to hear, to learn and to teach”. If we don’t understand and know, then we haven’t heard. First we have to know and understand – where are our parents coming from. After we know and understand, then we can hear. And when we reach the point of hearing then we can learn. After we have understood and known and heard and learned – only then when can teach.

The source of so many problems is that we became religious and we went right away into the teach mode. So to build a relationship, we must first listen and understand our parents.


Here is a summary of Part 2, but please take the time to listen to the audio file.

Rabbi Goldberg points out that we can’t hold non observant family members responsible for their sometimes adverse reaction to our Yiddishkeit because we are the ones who went “crazy”. Our parents raised us in a”normal” way and we did the “abnormal” thing. In addition, they raised us to be independent and it is difficult for them when we choose a path so different from theirs. A lot of what we do is a denial of the values that they tried to impart. And that is a hard thing to have thrown in your face on a daily basis. We are sending a constant subtle message that we are rejecting what they have done. From our parents’ point of view, we are kids at risk. We have to do all that we can to improve the situation.

People want to hear about things that will benefit them. If we want to build an understanding relationship the first thing is to show that they benefit because we are now religious. Show them what’s in it for them. Parents and friends see all the things that we can’t do – No more Saturday’s, no more restaurants,etc.. We have to show them that their life is better as a result of our Yiddishkeit. That means a focus on mitzvos between man and his fellow man. Leave religion out of most conversations. Rabbi Goldberg feels it is not our responsibility to Mekariv our parents. What we have to do is avoid creating a Chillul Hashem. Don’t drive them away.

There are a lot of things we can’t do, so we have to create a situation where we say yes as much as possible. A relationship is like a bank account and you have to make a lot of deposits, so when you make the withdrawals you are not overdrawn. Look for opportunities to make deposits. We often need a Rav to know when we can say yes. Rabbi Goldberg states there are surprising heterim, but you need a Rav. If your parents and relatives see that you do say yes whenever you can, then they will know that when you say no, it is because you have no other choice.

Family members sometimes feel that we get some holier than thou pleasure out of saying no. They need to know that we don’t enjoy having to say no to them, we wish we could say yes. Look to take every legimitate leniency, but consult a Rav to determine details. We have to know when to make an issue out of things and when we should let them go.

Uncle Martzi – The Son Who Wanted to Come Back

In the mid afternoon on Passover eve, a special guest would come to my parents home. Martzi Baci. Uncle Martin, my great uncle. I don’t recall him visiting us at any other time, only on Erev Pesach and for the Seders.

His routine was as follows; he’d come in, take off his coat, light up another cigarette,one always seemed to be dangling from his mouth, and head straight the the kitchen which my mother, a wonderful cook herself gladly ceded to him.

An apron tied round his waist, Martzi got to work preparing the ceremonial foods for the Seder meal, hard labor in those pre food processor days, but . Martzi.was up for the challenge Before retiring, Martzi had been a chef running the kitchen at a posh Arizona resort where the guests were millionaires, movie stars and politicians. But even as he worked, he always seemed to have time to chat with a little girl.

“Oh how are you doing with school,” he’d ask.

“Not so good” , I mumbled. I was in third grade at the time, and struggling with arithmetic and hopeless at sports.

“Oh I didn’t like school either. Was no good at it.. You know I was so bad that I flunked the second and fourth grade.”

That story blew me away. Never had I encountered an adult who willingly confessed to struggling with school.

Years later, I discovered that it was a myth, a fabrication, that Martzi had gotten though school just fine and even spent several years at a Yeshiva in his native Hungary.

He left the heim sometime around the first world war. The stories about that are fuzzy. I once heard cousins say that he went pink and found his way into Bela Kuns revolutionary army for a time. Sometime in the early 20s after the Johnson act curtailed European immigration he made it to America illegally, taking a job on a ship and slipping into New York City after the boat docked.

It was in New York that he met his wife, Esti Neni, a good looking divorcee with a child. and papers, the term they used back then for a green card. For reasons that are not known to me, Esther was allergic to religion. In her home, there was no Passover, no Seder, no Rosh hashana , no Yom kippur.

For a long time Martzi went along with it. That was his family, his life. Europe seemed very distant and he went along with the amnesia of assimilated Jewish culture but then one year my mother invited him to join our family and he said. yes. I don’t know what caused him to agree, good manners, nostalgia, or a respect for my mother who lived out the war in Europe and spent a year in Aushwitz but after that he came each year, until his death, when I was eight.

On Seder night Martzi was different, morphed into his childhood persona Mordche, the bochur from Tur Terebes. He spent the entire time immersed in ritual tasks. After he finished preparing the kaira, the Seder plate, he changed his clothing, went to shul and the took my father’s seat at the head of our mahagony dining room table to conduct the Seder. His Seder wasn’t just a prelude to the meal. It was a real Seder, run exactly as his pious father had run it in Europehe Hagaddah straight through without skipping anything.

Looking back on it all, I don’t know how he managed to live inside the paradox, conducting a strictly orthodox Seder and then going back home on the subway a wife who was making sandwiches. He never spoke about it. People back then were reticent, un-analytic, very much in the moment.

I suppose there are those who would call Martzi a sinner, the bad son of the Hagaddah, but they couldn’t have met him, seen him chopping and grinding with the seriousness of a priest in the Holy Temple. I prefer to see him as another kind of son, not included in the Hagaddah’s four categories, but very much present among us, the son who has gone some distance but is trying to find a way back home.

First Published April 2010

The Three Keys To Jewish Happiness – Connection, Connection, Connection

The Improbable Happiness of Israelis

The WSJ ran an article yesterday titled “The Improbable Happiness of Israelis”, which pointed out that Israelis rank 11th of 158 countries in the United Nations’s World Happiness Index, and 5th out of the 36 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on the OECD’s Life Satisfaction Index—ahead of the U.S., the U.K. and France. The author, Avinoam Bar Yosef, asks how can this be given that Israelis live in a hostile and volatile neighborhood, engaged in an endless conflict with the Palestinians and under the threat of nuclear annihilation by Iran.

The Nationality, Culture and Tradition of Israelis

Mr. Bar Yosef posits: “The explanation probably lies in indicators not considered in standard surveys. For instance, a new study by my organization, the Jewish People Policy Institute, looked at pluralism in Israel and found that 83% of Israel’s Jewish citizens consider their nationality “significant” to their identity. Eighty percent mention that Jewish culture is also “significant.” More than two-thirds (69%) mention Jewish tradition as important. Strong families and long friendships stretching back to army service as young adults, or even to childhood, also foster a sense of well-being. All of these factors bolster the Jewish state’s raison d’être.”

Connecting Within Ourselves, To Hashem, and To Others

I would like to suggest a different explanation of Jewish Happiness from a Torah perspective. Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the popular Bilvavi and Da Es seforim, points out that our purpose in this world is rooted in three types of connection: connection between our body and soul, connection between ourselves and Hashem, and connection between ourselves and other people.

The World Stands on Connection Via Torah, Service, and Acts of Kindness

The Mishna in Avos (1:2) says the world stands on three things, Torah, Service of Hashem, and Acts of Kindness. The Nesivos Shalom says that the world refered to in the Mishna is our personal world which we build each and every day. Torah provides us with the concepts and mitzvos that enable us to use the material world in a spiritual way – which connects or physical bodies to our spiritual soul. Service of Hashem is accomplished through prayer which connects us to Hashem on a daily basis. Acts of Kindness, both large and small, connect us to our family, friends and community.

Happiness is the Result of Completeness

The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. When we are connected within ourselves, to Hashem, and to other people, we are more complete and the happiness flows. Happiness is not the goal of Judaism, but when we accomplish our purpose through the pursuit of three types of connection, happiness is the result. If we are not feeling the resulting happiness, then we are not pursuing the connections properly.

May we continue to pursue our connections so that we can soon witness the day when Hashem is One and His Name is One in the eyes and hearts of the entire world.

My Non-Observant Sister’s Wedding


My sister got married on Sunday, and I have written down some thoughts I have, the day after. I wondered if I could post them to beyondbt, as I could use some chizuk from others who have experienced similar things.

7th November 2011

Last night they finally got married. And it’s a major anticlimax for me. My sister met her boyfriend 5 years ago, when I met my husband. In that time, I have got married and had two children and she has continued dating him. They got engaged on New Years Day this year and moved in together a couple of months after and yesterday they stood under the chuppah and are now husband and wife.

I had been so thrilled for my big sister. She is 3 years older than me (31) and it was about time too. Now her relationship which has been so worrying to all the family is a kosher one and all is done and dusted.

They tried so hard to include us, the caterer was kosher, we had a hotel room paid for in the swanky five star hotel for us all, and a babysitter paid for the whole day so that we would be able to enjoy the wedding and that our children would be able to participate when they could and be looked after when they were too tired or noisy. I had an outfit made to measure which was as tznius as could be, as well as really gorgeous. But the whole event just underlined to me just how not frum they are, and how different our lives are.

The dancing was the hardest. We are a musical family and it was just so hard to not be able to join in the dancing. It wasn’t that I wanted to be dancing to “Living on A Prayer”, but I wanted that I would be able to be fully taking part in my sister’s wedding. My sister, who I love so much, who I am so so happy that she is finally in a committed relationship, that she is a wife, I wanted to be able to celebrate with her by dancing around the room, like I do at my friends’ weddings and even strangers!

But I had to stand on the other side of the hall, trying to bite back the tears. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to be emotional at your sister’s wedding, so I didn’t have to explain them. But it was so so hard to feel part of the celebration.

They kindly hadn’t filled me in on any of the details of the night as they knew I wouldn’t be able to attend and that I’d prefer not to know things which will upset me. But one thing I did know was that she, her friends, my mum and her mother in law had all learnt a dance routine which they performed to the rest of the guests. I wanted to see it, but then it was so painful to not be one of them doing it. I should have been able to perform a shtick with my sister, but instead I couldn’t, because they are just not frum. It really really hurt and I nearly ran out of the hall to not collapse into tears. We really are a very musical family and singing and dancing are such a way that we express ourselves. Not being part of the dancing was far more difficult than I had imagined.

Yes, she looked beautiful, yes the shul was magnificent, and the hall for wedding looked spectacular with the attention to detail incredible. The wedding favours, flowers made out of ribbon with sugared almonds enclosed looked enchanting. The real flower arrangements classy and refined. But that’s it. It was all the superficial details of beauty without the depth of a frum wedding. The best man’s speech was cringeworthy, all the silly things the groom had done growing up. I couldn’t bear it. When Michael gave his speech, I had the briefest of mentions, something along the lines of, “and thank you Jacqueline, my beautiful new sister in law”, which as well as being in contrast to the great shpiel about her other three bridemaids who are friends was bizarre for me to have anyone other than my father or husband tell me that I look beautiful. It was such a formulaic thing to say, rather than being applicable to me. No mention was made of my son (who was a page boy) or daughter (little bridesmaid). I’m sure that was just an oversight, but when I was already feeling sidelined, it didn’t help.

It all just made me feel like any old guest at the wedding rather than the sister of the bride.

The bedeken was beautiful though, and I mean that honestly. It was just the immediate family and I was called in for that, although they asked that my children weren’t there (which made sense, they’d never have stayed still or quiet and it was a tiny room). Both fathers blessed their children and his Dad even spoke to him about the meaning of the words, who Efraim and Menashe were and how that is applicable to him. The Rabbi at the chuppah spoke really nicely about the unity of the two families, and our families are families which really do work on keeping in touch with distant relatives. The chazzan happened to be an old neighbour of ours who sang beautifully. It was really special.

But then the party was just so so not.

When we’re in our frum bubble, it is so easy to forget what it is like to not be frum, and here it all was in all it’s glory.

I suppose that because they are so respectful of us when on our turf, I don’t realise what they do when they are in their own environs.

I had one cousin telling me all about the octopus and other interesting foods he’d eaten on a recent holiday to the far east, and how that’s really his sort of thing because he really likes prawns etc. He wasn’t trying to make a point, he was just sharing details of what he’d been up to.

Then there are my non Jewish cousins flitting about from various intermarried parts of the family.

And my little 4 year old chareidi son, in his kuppel and tzitzis, totally overtired, and during the meal, dancing to the background music. Thank G-d he isn’t any older yet, because it would have been far more problematic. He won’t remember what the lady singing looked like (I won’t go into it), or what the music was. He is just a musical boy and he wanted to dance.

At the end of the wedding, everyone kept coming over and telling me how lovely, beautiful and delightful my children were, which was nice, but I do wonder what he will tell the Rebbe tomorrow in school about what happened at Auntie Elizabeth’s wedding.

I just wish that they were all frum and that we could be fully part of each other’s lives. I want to say, I try my hardest, but maybe I don’t. I do try hard to maintain the contact with the non frum parts of my family, to remain parts of each other’s lives, but this event just made me realise how very different our lives are, and how it isn’t really possible to be fully part of each other’s lives even if we wanted to.


When the Secular Little Cousins become Teenage Cousins

Fresh from my annual time share vacation with the secular family, I want to write for the Beyond BT readers on a topic that I think needs some further exploration and discussion.

Logic says that the longer we are working things out with our secular family, the easier it gets. Everyone finally realizes that the orthodox family isn’t going to change its mind, and they didn’t really join a cult. They get used to the fact that there are some simchas we aren’t going attend, and they don’t make as much of a fuss ten years into it, as they do the first time you send back the R.S.V.P. with a “sorry, we cannot attend.” You’ve figured out how to eat in mom’s kitchen, or at least, everyone accepts the fact that you’ll bring your own food. Yes, it’s absolutely true that in many ways, on many occasions, it gets easier. So if you’re a new B.T., take heart – you won’t spend the rest of your life trying to convince your mom that you really do mean it when you say that you can’t eat her lasagna with meat sauce, even if she’s the best cook this side of the ocean.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and here’s one: When the kids and the cousins start growing up and become pre-teen, or teenagers.

Every year we assemble the entire extended family for a week at a time-share in the mountains. It was accepted when we didn’t come for Shabbos and chose mid-week instead. They rolled their eyes a bit when we brought in a wheelbarrow of food because kosher food wasn’t available for purchase, and we didn’t want our kids to feel deprived all week long. They even eventually accepted our rule that sister and brother can no longer sleep in the same bed. In many ways, we’ve worked out a lot of issues, but. . . .

I wasn’t prepared for how DIFFICULT it becomes when the little cousins who once played with each other on the floor, and talked about barney and sesame street, now talk about “hot” boys, my space, and IPODS. When the kids were little, the differences between all of the cousins was not as pronounced, and other than making sure that the kosher kids only ate the kosher food, it wasn’t much of a problem.

Now – my girls aren’t supposed to do mixed swimming anymore, and I caught a conversation between my oldest daughter and her teenage cousin who couldn’t quite believe that my daughter has never had a boyfriend. Now the teenage cousins bring their computers and IPODS and videos to vacation, and none of it is Jewish. Now my 10-year old son’s eyes can easily be diverted by his teenage cousin’s non-tnius dress, or lack of dress.

In the beginning of the week, my kids think their cousins are weird. But after only a few days, they start looking fascinated, and that’s the biggest problem. I don’t think it has ever gotten to the point where they’d want to trade places, but one never knows what can happen when that thought is introduced for even a day or two. And, what really bothers me is that I want my kids to feel really privileged and lucky to be frum Jews. I worry when the “other side” starts looking attractive, and our way of life seems to be making them “miss out.” (Yes, of course we can give the speeches to our children about how the secular kids are really the ones missing out, but hey, kids are normal, and some freedoms in life look very delicious at times to them).

The most challenging aspect of this problem is that it’s not one my secular family would understand. I can say, “sorry, can’t come to the simcha on Shabbos, mid day, an hour’s drive away.” But how can I possibly say, “sorry, I don’t want to expose my children to their teenage cousins, your sons and daughters?” It will never happen. These words I wouldn’t say, other than in a forum like this. Their kids are fine people, just not harmonious in many ways with ours. Those who have taken the stand that they will not allow their teenage children to “be exposed”, if that works for you and your family, amazing. It would never work in our family. My parents, and brothers, and nieces and nephews would be so insulted, there would be permanent damage. All we can really do is talk to our children about it, prepare them, protect them as much as possible when we are there, and then talk about it in the car on the way home. And, like most of you, our get-to-gethers are infrequent.

I would suggest that there be some discussion about this issue on this forum. I’m not writing with a solution, but rather, with an acknowledgment that this is a source of trouble, and unlike many other issues that get resolved over time, I think that this issue gets much more problematic as the kids grow older, not less so. Especially for those of us that maintain a commitment to ongoing connection to extended family.

Best to you all –

Originally published 9/17/2008.

Jewish Guilt

Nearly thirty days ago my mother passed away, quietly in her sleep after a protracted illness, and I wanted to share some of my feelings and experiences, as a baal teshuvah keeping the Halachos interacting with a non-observant family.

An incident occurred at my mother’s funeral that I thought would be appropriate to discuss on Beyond Teshuvah. On my way to the U.S. to attend the funeral, my wife called while I was still in the airport in Israel and offered to call my brother, who lives in a different state than my parents, and recommend he pack an old shirt, in case he wanted to tear kyriah. “Okay,” I said, “why not tell him about it? At least he’ll have the choice.”

At some point after I arrived and we took care of the burial permit and other arrangements at the cemetery, I told my father and my other brother about the Jewish custom of kryiah, and the reasons behind it. I explained that we tear a garment to show that we believe the body is only a garment for the soul. We express our pain in this tangible way, but in a way that comforts us that only the exterior garment is lost; the soul lives on forever.

“Very well, but we aren’t going to do that,” they said. The next day, my brothers and my father prepared black ribbons to wear on their coat sleeves, and put on their best dress shirts. I am not the one to be pushy about religion, especially with my family. I was relieved that at least there was going to be a Chevrah Kadisha involved in the funeral.

That was a big concession by my brothers. When my brother was informed of my mother’s death, he immediately called the mortuary located in the local cemetery where my parents bought a plot twenty years ago. They arranged to send their workers out immediately. Then he called me, in Israel, and I suggested finding a Chevrah Kadisha in L.A. (over an hour’s drive away, without traffic).

I phoned the local Chabad Rabbi, probably the only Shomer Shabbos Jew in town, who I knew from previous trips home, and he got involved. My brother agreed to phone him, but told him that my Mom wanted a Reform ceremony, not an Orthodox one. “This has nothing to do with Reform or Orthodox,” the Rabbi said (I heard later), “this involves the difference between a traditional Jewish way of doing things, with a 2000 year history, or nothing.” My brother took the number of the Chevrah Kadisha, but only reached their beeper service.

Meanwhile, the workers from the local mortuary arrived. In what is to me an amazing display of the pinteleh Yid (the Jewish spark), my brother sent them away and waited for the Chevrah Kadisha to get back to him. He was in my parent’s home where my mother passed away; she was in hospice at home. The nurse was gone, and he was alone with her body. At this point, he told me, he was only doing this for me. He didn’t know what my mother would have wanted, and he didn’t believe it made any difference. The Chevrah Kadisha came a couple of hours later and relieved him of his uncomfortable, uneasy post.

Readers of Beyond BT understand the importance of the meaningful and respectful traditions of Jewish burial—the taharah, purification in a pool of water, tachrichim, burial shrouds, shomer, who watches over the body 24/7, and burial in a plain wooden coffin in the ground. However, my family had no familiarity with these concepts at all.

Afterwards, they extolled the praises of the Chevrah Kadisha Mortuary, who acted with great sensitivity, efficiency, and respect. They really went the extra mile (or 75 miles, at 2:00 am), and made a big kiddush Hashem.

My mother was in hospice; I expected what was going to happen. But still, I was totally unprepared. No one wants to consider these things. But it would be a good idea to have a plan for kosher Jewish burial, some information, like phone numbers and the like, and if possible and appropriate, to discuss the matter beforehand with our family members.

At the funeral, the Reform Rabbi who led the ceremony at my mother’s request, called on the husband and the sons to step forward to tear kyriah, which he went on to explain. I was surprised, but before I knew what was going on, everyone recited “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” responsively after the Rabbi (I mean everyone, even my brothers’ non-Jewish coworkers and friends of the family), and we all tore our shirts.

A few days later, I asked them why they decided to tear kyriah in the end? After all, they wore expensive shirts, and they had the black ribbons anyway. They said: “Rabbi L. (the Chabad Rabbi, who also spoke at the funeral) took us aside and spoke to us about the significance of kyriah. Then he said, ‘Really, it’s a question of what’s more important in the final analysis, a $25 shirt or your mother’s soul?’”

“Yeah, you know,” added my sister-in-law, “Jewish guilt!”

They didn’t seem upset in the least, and when Rabbi L. arranged for minyanim in my father’s home, they put on the shirts with the kryiah.

I have always been apprehensive about “religious coercion,” especially with family members. But if I didn’t get Rabbi L. involved, would my mother have had the Chevrah Kadisha? Probably not. Would my family have torn kyriah or said kaddish during shivah? Definitely not.

What are your thoughts and feelings about using Jewish guilt?

Originally Published Nov 28, 2006

The Making of a Passover Seder

Chapter 1 The Great Pesach Divide

I don’t think there are many days in the year that can cause greater strife in BT-Familial relations than Pesach. I think the reason for that is twofold. First, Pesach is a holiday that involves a high level of kashrus scrutiny. Second, many non-religious people take Pesach seriously on their level and a BT’s unwillingness to eat in their home often comes across as offensive.

Growing up, one seder was always held at my Aunt’s house, approximately 45 minutes away by car. Although my Aunt and Uncle weren’t religious, they were fairly traditional and they took Pesach seriously. My Aunt is one mean cook and my Uncle (he should rest in peace) always prepared the entire seder, complete with written explanations for each participant to read at the appointed time and his strawng awshkenawzi pronawnciation. He also freshly grated horseradish that could clear a stuffed nose from across the room. Other than my eternal fear of botching the four questions, I actually looked forward to those Seders every year. I was one of the few youngsters who stayed with the older men to complete the hagadah long after the others had retired to watch a post-meal hockey game. The seder at my Aunt’s was also pretty much the only time of the year that my extended family would get together.

So, it was with great trepidation that I approached my parents when I was approximately 16 and told them that I was no longer willing to ride in the car on Passover. At the time, I thought I might have more easily launched the first missle of WW III but, though my Aunt was not pleased, my parents handled it as well as could be expected and my Aunt, I think, eventually forgave me.

Chapter 2 A Teenager’s Seder
To my parents’ credit, they decided that if I wasn’t willing to go to my Aunt’s, they would stay home as well. That meant that I would have to prepare the Seder. Every year I would meticulously prepare my father’s hagadah with notations, explanations and parts so that he could “lead” the Seder. My father a’h, mother, brothers and any guests bravely persevered as we completed the entire hagaddah both nights for years. Knowing that this experience would not be the most pleasant one for the others, I did everything I could to try to make the seder relevant to them. I would spice it with history, family remembrances, riddles, jokes, etc. (One year we went through an entire scientific analysis of the process of leavening, another year I contacted the seder participants and asked them to submit advance questions about pesach the answers to which I researched and presented at the seder)

Chapter 3 The Seder in My Own Home
Though I am only in my mid-30s, I have been preparing a seder for the past 20 years. I think that my early seder experiences have helped fashion the seder I presently run. I am blessed with my own children now and I try to prepare a seder that is fun, interesting and relevant to them and any guests. Our seder is becoming well known for our children’s Ten Plagues skit (especially the famous water into blood scene, a must see), mixed minhagim (I have incorporated many of my Father In Law’s sephardi minhagim), interesting niggunim (kadesh, urchatz… to the tune of the Egyptian National Anthem) and the signed, notarized statement I procured from my wife and mother-in-law promising that they will not stay up all night the day before Pesach. I still think the time my father-in-law, already in his 70s, stood on his chair like a little boy to recite the Four Questions so he could get a chocolate covered marshmallow was the best.

Though my decision to break from my extended family’s passover seder was a difficult one that had relationship reprecussions, it forced me to develop a deeper understanding of the Hagadah and to (I hope) prepare a seder that is interesting and meaningful to its participants.

First posted on April 10, 2006

A Baal Teshuva’s Letter to His Parents – Part 2

By Rabbi Benzion Kokis

Part 1 is here

Ideal scenarios rarely occur exactly according to plan. I would like to focus on what alternatives would be fair for you to expect, given our upbringing. I am going to look at three scenarios:

1. Your sons marry non-Jewish girls;
2. We adopt your ideal scenario;
3. We become more religious.

Let’s start by looking at the track record. The family trend, as it stands now, seems to favor intermarriage.

My great-grandparents were still fairly observant, but markedly less so than their own parents. Grandpa’s generation can be described as “traditional”, but they would bear little resemblance to their grandparents.

Most of Grandpa’s nephews and nieces married out. As each generation drifted further from the source of Torah Judaism, this is unfortunately the result. The intermarriage rate in our family is worse than the national average.

Ask yourselves, how Jewish will the next generation be, if the mothers didn’t feel that Judaism was important enough to marry a Jewish man?

Therefore, it would seem to be quite likely, that at least one of your sons would have married a non-Jew. By becoming religious, I have made the odds considerably better in your favor.

Then again, we could all aim for your ideal package. But the reality is, that each successive generation tends to take on less religious practices. Your ideal is that we marry girls of a similar level of observance that we keep at home. This is not such a simple thing, as at least 50% of the Jewish girls are going to marry out, and of the remainder many are a lot less observant. I don’t think you would feel comfortable if we married Jewish girls who served up pork.

Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect exactly the same level of observance. I am taking on more, A______ seems to be taking on less, and R________ is still young, so it’s too soon to tell.

The only remaining alternative is that we become more religious, and take a leap back toward our great-great-grandparents. We would marry glatt kosher girls and live very happy lives (and be considerably less likely to get divorced!). You may safely assume that I at least will follow this path.

The way I see my life progressing, I will, with the help of G-d (who is now rather important in my life), meet most of your “ideal son list” . I know I will be happy, and I pray that I will be successful. I know that I won’t marry a non-Jewish girl, and will (G-d willing) marry a nice kosher girl and have as many children as possible. I might even join the Masons and keep up my golf subscriptions. I will also look after you both when you are old and gray.

Tell me, would you not be very happy if this is how my life turned out?
(The casual, conversational tone reassures his parents that their son has not become a stranger. He is not preaching or pontificating to them, and he is clearly trying to communicate in terms to which they can relate.)

The process I am going through is very difficult. You must wonder why I am doing it. Why would I want to keep Shabbos, rather than going to the game? Why should I keep kosher, when you know how much I enjoy Chinese, Italian, and fish and chips? Why go celibate, when I could continue to exploit my good looks, charm, sophistication and wit, to their best advantage? Why would I want to spend hours a week learning Torah, when I could spend the time watching T.V.? Why would I want to get up at 6 AM and put on my tefillin, when I could easily just roll over?

It might sound corny, but I believe in G-d. I believe that He gave us the Torah, and and that we as Jews should live by it. I don’t see it as dated or irrelevant, but rather as deep, beautiful, and very relevant to how we need to operate in this very complicated world.

I believe that living the kosher way will make me a better person, and more content with life. The more I accomplish, the happier I am, the more I learn, the more complete I feel, and the more I know, the better I become. I feel I am growing all the time.

I realize that going through your minds right now is the thought that I have been brainwashed. The integrity which you have taught me, however, does not enable me to ignore what I see as correct. Don’t think for a moment that I accept anything without questioning it. I question almost everything. I spend lots of time standing around arguing points with rabbis.

Part III is scheduled to be posted tomorrow.

A Baal Teshuva’s Letter to His Parents – Part 1

By Rabbi Benzion Kokis

It is often very difficult to have a calm discussion with family and friends about the changes a ba’al t’shuva has made. There is too much emotional baggage, too many sensitivities that can be hurt, to expect a rational dialogue. On the contrary, it is much more likely that the discussion will be a catalyst to dredge up old resentments, and result in more, not less, acrimony.

What has proven to be much more effective is communicating through the almost forgotten art of letter-writing. Granted, in our day of mobile communications and instant messaging, the thoughtful articulation of ideas on paper seems almost quaint. But in this context, it has a tremendous advantage, because it creates the opportunity for a message to be gradually absorbed at an emotional distance. There is no need for immediate give and take, and there is time for much more than knee-jerk reactions.

We would like to present here a letter that was written by a ba’al t’shuva to his parents. He was traveling home to England for the first time since becoming religious, and anticipated a lot of turbulence and hurt feelings. One of several brothers, he had been given a “traditional” Jewish upbringing, meaning a secure sense of being Jewish, but only a smattering of knowledge, and token observance of Shabbos and holidays.

Along the way, we will spotlight certain facets of the letter that reflect, sensitive and skillful communication. We will present this letter in three parts with comments in parenthesis.. Here is part I:

My dear parents,

I hope this letter finds you all in good health. I am going to be home on the 24th of July, and I am looking forward to giving you both a big hug. I am not the best letter-writer in the world, but am now putting my best pen to paper. I feel that it is very important to share with you some of my thoughts and feelings before coming home. I want to have a close relationship with you, and a letter is the easiest way for me to give you an awareness of where I am religiously.

(An emotional tone has been set. He is communicating because he loves his parents, and, realizing that the changes he has made could cause problems, he hopes to avoid this by having a mature discussion before coming home. He has made it clear that far from being oblivious to the family connection, he seeks to maintain that warmth, and let it be a vehicle for enhanced understanding.)

In America the question, ”Where are you holding?”, is asked by religious people to those like myself who are becoming more observant. The question is where are you, on what stage or level, and implies that there are many levels one can be on.

I would like to share with you where I am “holding”, and show you what a positive thing it is for me. I would also like to allay some of your fears about a “religious lifestyle”, and your role in my life. I would love it if you could, but I don’t necessarily expect you to understand why I am becoming religious.

(He acknowledges his parents’ trepidation about the impact his becoming a ba’al t’shuva may have on the family, without blaming or indicting them. In addition, their understanding of his life changes will be welcome to him. In other words, in the emotional sense, he is still very much their son, whose parents’ validation is significant to him.)

My becoming more observant is a testimony to the upbringing which you have given me. The values you taught me are all part of a Torah way of life. You gave me a Jewish education from the beginning of my schooling: King David, classes at shul, Givat Washington, and Carmel College. You even encouraged me to go to Manchester Polytechnic rather than to St. Andrews University. You have given me nothing but support and encouragement all the way along. You laid the foundations for my religious observance.

(Telling his parents that he views his rather dramatic life changes as a continuum of his upbringing, and not a radical departure, reassures them that he is not rejecting them. Their relationship is intact, although many details may have shifted.)

So, why am I writing this letter? My difficulty is where I am “holding”. In a sense, I now know too much to go back to the level of observance I held before coming to America. I am concerned that you will feel that I am becoming too religious, and going too far.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I feel you have always wanted for your boys. Let me paint what I see as your ideal picture:

We would all marry nice Jewish girls; be happy, successful, and live comfortable lives; have children (2-4); go to shul every Shabbos, keep the same level of kashrus, traditions, etc., that we grew up with; give to JNF; join the Masons; and look after you when you are old and gray.

Ideal scenarios rarely occur exactly according to plan. I would like to focus on what alternatives would be fair for you to expect, given our upbringing. I am going to look at three scenarios:

1. Your sons marry non-Jewish girls;
2. We adopt your ideal scenario;
3. We become more religious.

Part II is scheduled to be posted tomorrow.

Showing Respect For Your Family

By Rabbi Benzion Kokis

In the interaction between a ba’al t’shuva and his family, very often the religious issues, in and of themselves, aren’t the source of the difficulties. Rather, the family’s perception that for the ba’al t’shuva, all that matters are the religious issues, and their impact on family and friends is irrelevant- that is painful.

This is why the communicating that there is in fact a certain level of conflict and turmoil is so vital. The awareness that my commitment to Torah and Halacha are complicating the lives of people whom I love and care about, can make such a tremendous difference in how these situations are received. The “sigh” has to be expressed.

But one may be moved to respond….Just a minute! Does this mean that a ba’al t’shuva should be apologetic about his commitment?! Isn’t this a lack of respect for the fact that Torah is true, and it’s my family, albeit through no fault of their own, who have deviated from the way Jews lived throughout the ages? And you want me to feel like I’m doing something wrong??!!

This is where finesse is crucial. Granted, on one level, the demands of Halacha, such as the requirements of kashrus, are absolutes. The weight of truth, and the historic devotion of the Jewish people over the centuries to Torah, are all on the side of the ba’al t’shuva. Yet, in terms of family dynamics, he is the one who changed the rules! Every family unit has an unspoken “contract”, an expectation of how its members relate to each other. On a human and personal level, the level of trust within the family unit, the contract has been changed. The ba’al t’shuva is the “belligerent”, because in terms of the relationship, he has changed the terms of the family unit and “caused” the “complications”.

What impact does this have? Are we saying that this affects the requirements of the Halacha?

Certainly not!

What this does mean is that a responsibility lies on the ba’al t’shuva to anticipate potential problems, and make every attempt to minimize their impact. For instance, there could be creative ways to satisfy the demands of kashrus without compromising, in a manner that will be less of an issue for his family. He should sit down with a Rabbi and describe the challenges that he will face, and find out what he can do to accommodate the demands of the situation .

Furthermore, the more his family has to make adjustments to accommodate his new requirements, the more he has to express his love and appreciation to his family! After all, they are, in their own way, being moser nefesh to allow him to be religious. If, on the contrary, he seems to take their adjustments for granted, and conveys an attitude that since he’s living in an authentic Jewish way, it behooves them to adjust to him, this will definitely leave a sour taste with his family.

Even in situations where accommodation turns out to be impossible, despite the efforts that were put in, the fact that the ba’al teshuva made the attempt still expresses to the family that their feelings are important to him. Very often, this can neutralize much of the pain and hurt that would otherwise occur.

Spiritual Black Ice

I don my trusty backpack for my early morning walk to the supermarket, stocking up for Shabbos cooking and tonight’s dinner before the sun even rises. This is how I start my day, while my husband is davening in morning minyan, while my teenage children catch the last moments of slumber. The calendar says that it is winter, but we’ve hardly had any snow except for that weird storm in October no one expected. Still, it is bitter cold this morning, and I walk slowly, navigating the icy, slippery sidewalks of Highland Park, NJ.

The weatherman warns of black ice, the hidden danger of a pavement that looks dry and safe, but it is really an ice skating rink in disguise. My morning walk is not enjoyable, nor at any pace one could consider it exercise. Having endured two serious sprained ankles and four different foot surgeries in my adult life, I am not eager to take an ill-fated step on black ice and find myself looking up at the sky. I find myself planting each step with care, never looking up from the ground, and for the entire walk, I keep thinking about black ice.

Black ice. Danger that looks harmless. Danger that can catch you by surprise in a moment’s notice, rendering you injured, or at least embarrassed, before you even have a chance to intelligently respond. Black ice, an oxymoron of sorts, as ice is supposed to be clear, crystal, colorless, yet this is not. Black ice, a winter nemesis.

Black ice. My teenage daughter who is learning how to drive is ready to take on the highways, the famous New Jersey mergers, even, be still my heart, drive one of my other children some place they need to go. She’s a good driver. It looks safe. Black ice. Be careful.

Black ice. My other teenage daughter wants to take the bus to Brooklyn to shop. She’s old enough, she says, to travel with her teenage friends into the city, to enjoy shopping with Mommy’s credit card, and without Mommy. It’s time, she says. It would be soooo much fun. She can handle it. But can I? Black ice. Who will be on that bus, in the city, how can I trust?

Black ice. My husband of eighteen years and I are two very busy professionals, and working day and night to care for children and household. We joke that we’ve probably been on five dates in the past five or even ten years. It’s not something we do, and as the children get old enough that we can see their imminent departure from the house, I can’t help but worry. Our marriage is solid, committed; we are kind to one another, always on one another’s team. We need to find our way back to each other again, to set aside the responsibilities that overwhelm us, and to reconnect. Black ice. I don’t want to be one of those women who marries off the last child, looks at her beloved husband, and doesn’t know him anymore.

Black ice. Two close relatives have entered cancer treatment in the last two months. You wouldn’t know it from looking at them. They visit the outpatient clinic every day for their daily radiation treatments. The doctors tell them their prognosis is good for a complete refuah. The radiation should do its job to shrink the tumors, and B’ezras Hashem, they will grow older with no return of the cancer. Except for the daily outing to the cancer treatment center, one wouldn’t even know that inside of their body, a battle rages on. It all looks so normal. Two old people still enjoying their life, and looking forward to the next simcha. Black ice. When will they fall? When will Hashem decide to take them, to allow the tumors to take control, to end a life still very much being lived?

Black ice. The secular family now consists of several secular teenagers. When we get together – infrequently, but it does happen – my teenage daughter is intrigued by the conversations she has with her secular cousins who have boyfriends, and a social life nothing like she’s ever experienced. How harmless are these conversations, as infrequent as they are?

Black ice. It looks like nothing, until in just a few seconds, you find yourself on your toucas, wondering what happened.

Azriela Jaffe is the author of 26 published books including, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” and “After the Diet, Delicious Kosher Recipes with less Fat, Calories and Carbs”, both of which are available directly from her at She is also a holocaust memoir writer, privately commissioned by families who wish to write up the life story of the survivor matriarch or patriarch of their family. Visit for more information about her work, and visit for more information about the worldwide movement she founded to bring more kavod into erev Shabbos.

Originally published Jan 17, 2012

The Cowardly Baalas Teshuva

By Yentl Eisenberg
Reprinted from

We were invited to a celebration in honor of my niece’s high school graduation. Just a nice simple dinner at my brother’s vacation home down the shore.
Only there were potential problems.

There are always problems, but this time I really didn’t want to deal with any of it. We are frum and the rest of the family is not. They are really nice about it and try to accommodate our needs. Only, it’s never really good enough.

There are the problems of kashrus, of where to get kosher-enough food.

There is our relatives’ insistence on serving wine to make a toast, non-kosher of course.

And then there’s the complicated family politics, this one won’t talk to that one. That one is too liberal, this one is too right-wing. Further complicated by a diverse array of spouses, the exes, the soon-to-be exes, the “companions,” the children of girl-friends, children of second marriages, significant others, etc.

And then there’s me, the crazy religious one with 10 kids and a zealot for a husband.

In a room full of Jews, they all agree on one thing: nobody likes Jews who think like me.

The questions are insistent and invasive. At first they seem genuinely interested in the answers. But as the hour passes, it becomes evident that I have entered a trap to show how inferior and useless religion is. How can I ascribe to a way of life if I don’t know “why” I am doing these senseless things? How can I live a life of poverty, because as frum people, we no longer have the same material aspirations as them?

And then there is the deeper trap. The obvious glaring difference between a life of material plenty and comfortable religious non-observance vs. our life of material hardship and what they see as overly strict religious adherence. As my grown son said, “I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that a person can have two houses. One to live in and the other just for weekends and vacations.” We don’t even own one house, let alone go on vacations.

I have kept away from these innocent family gatherings for 20 years. I knew it would be too difficult to gracefully figure out the kosher food thing (with hand washing and bentching, not to mention arranging mincha davening etc…). I stayed away from the parties that were held at someone’s poolside to avoid the bathing suit problems. I stayed away from the vast riches of upper middle class American Jewish success so that my children wouldn’t become tempted by the glitz. I stayed away from the relatives so that I could avoid the intellectual and emotional Inquisitions.

Which today leaves me with a burning question.

I know that I am living the Way of Truth—the Way of Torah and Hashem. I am supposed to be a Light Unto the Nations.

So how come I am such a coward when that Nation is mine?

A Letter to My Brother – Explaining Some Lifestyle Choices

This is the email I sent to my secular brother because he keeps asking me questions about my 21 year old son’s future. We live in Australia and he lives in America where I am from originally. It can be very challenging for BT’s to explain their lifestyle choices to the secular relatives. Even after 27 years of my being frum my relatives find my choices hard to understand. The Beyond BT readers may find this email of interest:

Dear ( ),

I have been thinking about your email in which you asked me some questions about Shmuli’s future, will he marry an American, if so will he live there, and so on and so forth.

I am sure you would agree that in life one can never anticipate all the myriad of possibilities of what could happen. Almost any given situation has an almost incalculable number of outcomes that could occur. It is logical then to assume that it would be futile to think that one is in total control or can avoid an outcome that one cannot anticipate. Simply put, we mortal finite beings cannot predict the future.

When one lives a life of Torah and mitzvos one gets used to living with a certain outlook. Basic to this outlook is the idea of having full trust in Hashem who runs the world. We have to do our part in this material world. We cannot sit around waiting for money to pour in from heaven like manna and everyone would agree that would be ridiculous. On the other hand, we also show a lack of trust in Hashem if we panic over the future, If we get worried and lose sleep over an unpaid bill or start to worry about what could happen in 2, 3, or 5 years from now. A Jew with trust and faith in Gd knows that at the end of the day we are not in control. If we did what we had to do, we worked at a job or a business for instance, we did the physical things necessary for something to happen, then we step back and let G-d do His job. Nothing can be granted us without Hashem’s bruchas. Our Torah learning and mitzvos make a vessel for Hashem’s bruchas.

So I cannot tell you the answer to your questions except for the following:
Shmuli is a young Lubavitcher scholar who is going to follow the Rebbe’s directives in all things in his llfe. The Rebbe wanted the young scholars to sit and learn Torah full time (after they receive their Rabbinic ordination) and look for a match at the same time. So that is what Shmuli is going to do in NY at 770 where he will learn Torah full time and G-d wiling prepare himself and work to finding his match. Then after marriage, as the Rebbe instructed, he will spend the first year learning Torah full time in Colel (yeshiva for married young men). After that he will start worrying about making a living. At that point all options are open to him: business, Rabbinics, shlichas (outreach), getting professional training, he wil decide after completing Colel.

We pray that with G-d’s help he will be successful, and if G-d forbid Moshiach should tarry, that he will find his match easily and quickly.

Shoshana was one of our original Beyond BT contributors and we want to thank her for thinking about the Beyond BT readership and sending us this email to post.

Dealing with Non-Frum Family Summary

A fellow BT has written a good summary about Dealing with Non-Frum Family based on some posts and comment threads on Beyond BT so we’re reposting it here with permission.

There’s a lot of discussion about dealing with non-frum family in the Beyond BT site. It’s a hot topic for all baalei teshuva’s because we all go through it to some degree. It’s also a very sensitive topic as everyone has different types of relationships with their parents and families to begin with.

Here’s some tips other Baalei Teshuva have provided:

– Almost every BT has to resolve conflicts with their parents, it is a normal process.

– Obviously every parent and every situation is different, but it does need to be pointed out.

– There is an emotional factor of rejection that the parent often feels when the BT chooses a (radically) different lifestyle.

– There is also an implicit (and sometimes explicit) statement that what I’m doing is right and what you’re doing is wrong.

– One general approach is to be as accommodating and accepting as possible and over the long term expose the relatives to the depth and beauty of Torah.

– Another approach is to encourage mitzvos observance (positive and negative) whenever possible in a reasonable manner.

– We generally should set the rules in on our own houses, but we should consider which rules to set and how to gently enforce them.

– When our children are negatively effected by non-Torah behaviors we have to weigh that factor in heavily.

– We need to internalize the truth that our non observant relatives are good people and impart that understanding to our children. Non-observance is generally due to a lack of knowledge in our generation.

– If we focus on growing together, perhaps there will be less conflicts (oops, thats from the next Mussar post).

– BT conflicts with parents can be shalom bayis issues and a rav should be consulted.

– Every time you do or say something think whether it will create a Kiddush Hashem or Chillul Hashem.

– Most important word that summarizes this entire thread – tolerance!

To read more visit these popular posts & comments:

1. Dealing with non-observant parents

2. Alienating family & breaching values

Trying to Keep the Peace

By Jonathan

I first went to Yeshiva when I was in my mid-20’s after graduating college. My oldest brother’s wife is an unabashed Catholic. When he made what they call a bar-mitzvah, the pressure from my parents, who were alive at the time, was very great. My Rebbe called a well known Rov who was known for understanding baalei teshuva but also towed a hard line, justifiably so, in these areas. I remember sitting in the office as my Rebbe spoke to the Rov z’l in Yiddish. Since I understand Yiddish pretty well, I knew my Rebbe was giving this every sympathetic touch that he could. I knew he was advocating for me.

My Rebbe said to the Rov, “Would the Rov speak to the bochur and tell him?”

I still remember the tone he used in these few words, “I am mispallel for your mesiras nefesh not to GO!”

I did go. Of course, I knew not to, nor did I want to “daven”with them in their services. So I showed up at strategic points that would be more family oriented. Came to the Friday night dinner, walked over after shul Shabbos morning etc.

When another family “simcha” came up a couple of years later, a relative said to me, “We haven’t seen you in so long.”

I responded, “Don’t you remember I was at ______ bar-mitzvah?”

“Oh, you were there?”

I have always recalled this story with charata that I did not listen and I made a point of telling myself that when the situation would come up again, I would do better.

It did and this Rov was no longer living.

I went to a preeminent posek to ask all of the pertinent shailos. Everyone would agree that his word is golden in p’sak.

He gave a completely different answer. He told me I should go! The situation was also different. I was closer with this brother who was making a “bar-mitzvah” and he factored in the family relationship and thought there would be more harm done in the long run by not participating.

He told me I was allowed to be in the reform sanctuary at the time of their services. He told me I should do everything they do, just not daven. I davened privately and then came, and mingled with all of the family. I remember this brother was happy to see me there and I think I knew it wasn’t so easy for me.

The other factor that is important here is the intermarriage already took place many years before. He approached this very secheldik: he said they know you don’t approve of this. They know you look different and think differently. Nevertheless, family is family and you have to do all you can to maintain the relationship.

It worked for a time.

Now, both of my parents are in the olam ha-emes and this brother and I have not spoken in years because he is openly hostile to my frum lifestyle.

Boruch Hashem, I have no regrets because I listened to daas Torah

Chaim and David Linn – the Cover Story Article on Hamodia Magazine This Week

David Linn and his brother Chaim are the cover story of this week’s Hamodia, so we thought it was appropriate that we repost this piece and the great song Chaim wrote: Davey Pray mentioned in the Hamodia article.

Yasher Koach also to regular Beyond BT contributor Michael Gros for penning the article.

Live on the Radio: The Seeds of Teshuva of a Nascent Rock Star

I previously posted a little bit of my brother’s story here. Here’s the prelude.

Back when Chaim was Jonny, he and I lived in different worlds. He on the West Coast, I, in the East. He, a bohemian dabbling in New Age religion and eventually “Messianic Judaism”, I, an observant BT. He, fully living the life of a single, recent college grad, I, a Law School Student in my Shana Rishona (first year of marriage) expecting my first child.

The best advice anyone ever gave me was my Rov telling me not to cut ties with my brother, even after he wrote me a letter advising that he had accepted Jesus as the messiah. My Rov told me “Let him know that you think what he’s doing is wrong but tell him you love him and will always love him and tell him that you will be there for him if he ever needs you. Do not cut him off!”
Read more Chaim and David Linn – the Cover Story Article on Hamodia Magazine This Week

Guess Whose Not Coming to Dinner?

Ever since making aliya decades ago, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve been visited by collateral relatives. So it was with great excitement that I learned that cousin Adele her daughter Jan and Jan’s two young daughters would be in the Holy Land and that they wanted meet for dinner. Immediately, I extended an invitation and Adele accepted for them all.

Right away, I marked the date on my calendar and began counting down. What a fun it would be to see Adele. Thirty years my senior, Adele was a member of my family’s rapidly dying older generation and she was a great talker, funny and full of life and chock full of stories from the old days, precious recollections, I longed—living apart from any relations, I longed for her to share. As to Jan, I didn’t know her very well., but given my warm feelings to her Mom, I saw her as a potential friend.
As much as I was excited, I my stomach was in a knot. I was aware that both Norma and Jan were intermarried and their spouses would be coming along
Could I host them? What we would do about wine, washing , benching and yarmulke wearing?

When a prominent kiruv rabbi assured me that that having the entire gang, was a mitzvah—especially since Jan’s kids who were halachic Jews, my stomach unknotted. And when the rabbi added that the non Jews could wash and bench a broad smile settled on my face.

This was going to be a wonderful evening I told myself. I would be a modern day Sara Imenu bringing the strangers into the tent and winning them over with my Glatt Kosher Martha Stewart hospitality.

When Adele told me that she was salt free and Jan a vegetarian, I scoured cookbooks and cooking blogs to find the best recipes and I even bought new table linens to make everything look pretty.

I had high hopes for this evening, sky high. As I saw it, Adele who had initiated the trip and was picking up the tab was ripe for Teshuva.. Now nearly eighty, she was reeling from a devastating personal tragedy—the kind of event leads to a spiritual search. Adele loved chulent and kishka and used expressions like nishtugedach in her everyday conversation. Tom her third husband was a half Jew, from the wrong side but he shared Adele’s Judeophilia.

As to Jan, though I harbored less hope Her husband was a 100 per cent goy–Polish, but her kids were full fledged seedlings of Avraham Avinu. Who knew how high they could climb, especially after dinner at my house?

But as the date grew near, my stomach knotted again. The spiritual futures of six souls and so much could go wrong. The meal could flop or it could simply not hit the spot for people accustomed to Cordon Bleu.Adele or Jan or one of the grandkids could appeared dressed in something outrageous. Was I to preempt that potential disaster with a cautionary phone call or would that strategy be off putting?

Even if the food worked and everyone’s clothing was okay, the conversation could hit a snag.. One of my kids could say something rude—or one of theirs or one of the adults could say something outrageous.

But before I could devise a coping strategy , Adele left a long message on my voice mail. She was cancelling, pulling. The family was just too busy; their guide was wearing them down. She was so sorry and she hoped that we’d meet the next time I was in Coral Gables, Florida—which would most likely be never.

Maybe Adele sensed my overly high expections and attendant anxiety or maybe she or Jan or the kids or the husbands were freaked by the prospect an evening in a hareidi home or maybe Adele was telling the truth, that they were simply too pooped out to visit their only blood relations in the entire middle east.

I will never know that true reason why the dinner didn’t happen.

What I do know that this is all for the best. Rejection is Hashem’s form of protection. This family reunion was not meant to be. Our paths were not meant to cross at this time. Perhaps because neither I nor my family were up for this challenge or perhaps because of problems on the other side.

But that doesn’t eliminate the sadness. I’m sad, full of regrets, mourning the evening’s unfulfilled promise, just as the Shehina mourns for the millions of estranged Jews who never visit the relatives at all.