There Are No Coincidences

I was reviewing the Parsha Friday morning and I realized that I hadn’t informed my Partners in Torah chavrusa that it was a double parsha. My chavrusa loves to learn and each week he reads *every* Art Scroll note and translation on the parsha.

I gave him a call around 10:15 to tell him. He said that he was just sitting down to learn and he noticed Behar was short and he wondered if perhaps it was a double parsha. At exactly that moment my call came in to tell him that it was a double. Pretty cool.

What’s in a Name?

When I began my journey of return six years ago, one of the first things I was encouraged to do was start using my Hebrew/Yiddish given names, Leah Hudis Esther, or at least Leah.

Not only was it meant to be a new form of self-identification, reflecting my journey of teshuvah, but it also would help me reconnect to my distant past – my Jewish past. How weird, though, like discovering a second personality or running into an old childhood friend.

It had been so long since I used the moniker as a child in parochial school, I had to knock the rust off. I remember my first time at an Orthodox Shul six years ago, meeting the strange panoply of characters that would become my kehilla. Tongue-tied and blushing furiously, I introduced myself as “Leah,” but it came out goyische-style, “Lee-uh” not “Lay-ah,” simply because of nerves.

I realized right away I had blown it. I was mortified. Someone corrected me, not unkindly, informing me, “We say, Lay-ah, not Lee-uh.”

“G-d,” I thought, “It’s just me here. If I really matter to you like they say I do, simple me, can you please help me through this horrible moment ….”

And he did. But that’s a story for another day.

It took me a long time to reconcile the Melanie I remained in my secular (work) life and the Leah I was becoming in my Jewish religious private life. Given my family’s strong opposition to my becoming observant, we fought over it. They thought my using the name Leah was pretentious, which is ironic, since we were all given lovely Hebrew/Yiddish names at birth, like Simcha, Reizel, Devorah and Dovid.

I’m not sure what label you’d affix to my family. We kept “pseudo kosher,” with separate milchig and fleishig dishes and utensils, same for Pesach, but ordered in Chinese every Sunday night. My mother made Shabbos Friday night meals, replete with white tablecloths, gefilte fish and chicken soup, faithfully bentsching licht. Same with the yomim tovim meals, after which we’d watch the hockey or baseball playoffs depending on the season.

We were staunchly affiliated with a large Conservative shul, but were devoted once-a-year attendees.

For better or worse, my parents insisted that I have a “Jewish education” at a Zionist secular day school, where I was taught next to nothing about Torah observance but did learn to read Hebrew, quite handy some 40 years later when I davened for the very first time.

The penultimate middle child, somehow I got overlooked and missed the particularly torturous experience of “serious” Hebrew school learning (Conservative style) and Bas Mitzvah prep. My brothers weren’t so lucky – they had upcoming Bar Mitzvah bashes to worry about. My big sister, the trail-blazing family feminist, had to get ready for a class-action Bas Mitzvah.

Imagine the brain lurch when I came to understand that in the Orthodox world, we devote our entire lives to learning.

Still unfolding, my journey of teshuvah began with an internet conversation several months before 9/11. I stumbled upon an internet messageboard on religion, where I found myself fighting the most virulent anti-Semitism.

And then I argued with an Orthodox Jewish poster, who woke me up to the knowledge that without love of Torah and fear of Hashem, our connection to Judaism was tenuous at best. I ended up marrying that poster, but not before we had a donnybrook over what it meant to be Jew.

What did it mean to be a Jew from my perspective? First you admit you have a problem, put pictures of Sandy Koufax and Leonard Nimoy on your wall, then whip out the checkbook and donate to a Jewish cause. Your job is done.

So when I encountered Eliahu, my husband of almost four years, I began to understand that my definition of “What it means to be a Jew” bore no resemblance to what Hashem expects of us as Jews. I also learned I was on pretty thin ice. As Eliahu wrote, “think of yourself as standing in the middle of a busy freeway, not realizing you’re in danger.”

That splash of cold water woke me from a 46-year slumber, and some days I still feel like I need a proverbial cup of strong coffee to get on with it.

But I always had my given Hebrew name, that tenuous tie to ancestral Torah devotion that somehow got lost in a generation of prosperity, comfort and assimilation.

Six years ago, not long after I told my shocked and worried family that I had become shomer Shabbos and was starting to live my life as an observant Jew, I went to a nephew’s birthday party. Despite the hostility, and the strangeness of my dressing visibly Orthodox (tsnius skirts and shirts) in a very secular family, I insisted on maintaining ties, and made every effort to attend their family functions, studiously bringing along kosher cakes and plastic utensils and participating to the degree I could.

On this occasion, I was perusing the birthday cards my nephew had received and picked up the one I gave him.

And it was signed, “Aunty Leah.”

I hadn’t intended to sign it “Aunty Leah” (I didn’t want start a fight). I didn’t realize I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” I was as shocked and dumbfounded as they were that I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. When had it become so ingrained?

And now, years later, the shock and surprise has worn off. My family is used to the way I live my life and are no longer angry and resentful. I showed them it wasn’t a flight of fancy or a whim, nor had I been kidnapped by a cult.

I showed them I am as much Leah now as I had been Melanie before, yet it is still all me.

So now they send e-mails addressed to Leah. My mom tries to call me Leah, but still lapses into giggles of discomfort and gets mixed up. I take it as a sign of real progress.

The gematria of Leah is 36: 36 candles of Chanukah, 36 righteous people in the world, Yaakov returns to Eretz Ysroel after 36 years away from home, and Rachel dies at age 36.

There is a lot in a name, it turns out.

Two of our newest contributors, Leah and her husband Eliyahu run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.

Music Lessons

As I was putting our seven year old to bed the other night, we were trying to decide what CD he should listen to. He was pushing for something lively (a Piamenta Band disc), but I put on something a bit more mellow instead (Jonathan Rimberg’s Kumzitz CD).

When it started playing my son said, “Abba, is this the guy who wasn’t Jewish?”

Puzzled I asked him what he meant. My son said, “You know, the guy who didn’t keep Torah and Mitzvos when he was a little boy, like you?”

I explained to my son that the artist he was thinking of (Yitzchak Halevi) was born Jewish. He didn’t become Jewish like Tzipporah and Yisro did (he had just learned about them a few weeks ago).

I told him that some people like me, just didn’t grow up knowing about Hashem, his Torah, and never had a chance to go to a day school. To say that they were “not Jewish” isn’t the appropriate term.

I then said that The appropriate term is Baal Teshuvah, someone who returns to Hashem and a life of Torah and Mitzvos. The concept wasn’t new to him, as he remembered when my wife and I were NCSY chapter advisors.

My son then said, “Abba, you’re a Baal Teshuva, right?”

I answered, “Yes.”

He then said, “Cool. So it’s, like, Elul and Tishrei for you the whole year, huh? That’s awesome.”

Impressed and moved by his observation, I could only reply, “It should be,” and I gave him a hug and said, “Shluff Gazunt” (good night in yiddish).

The Man on the Street

Hungarians are not shy. At least during the year I spent teaching in their capital, Budapest, I never observed the slightest reticence among the city’s residents.

No doubt I stood out a bit, riding the local trolley with my untrimmed beard and black fedora — a combination that had blended naturally into the scenery of Jerusalem, from where I had come.

I soon became accustomed to the gazes I drew from other passengers. Unlike most westerners who look quickly away when caught staring, the Hungarians just kept right on staring, as if I were a curiosity on display in the Castle Museum or, perhaps, the Budapest zoo. I tried returning their stares with a pleasant smile, but that just seemed to make their gazes harden, like silent admonitions for daring to draw so much attention to myself and not having the courtesy to instantly make myself vanish.

It was 1992, only four years after the iron curtain had come down, and although traditional Judaism hadn’t disappeared entirely in Hungary, it wasn’t thriving either. The three orthodox synagogues counted barely ten Sabbath observant families among them. In the cavernous Kaszincky shul, founded in 1893, sunlight streamed though cracks in the ceiling on clear Sabbath mornings. On one occasion, my wife found her way up to the women’s balcony where the thick layer of dust she discovered convinced her that no woman had preceded her for at least a decade.

The state of Jewish life was hardly surprising. Although the Nazis had occupied Budapest for only six months before the end of the war, they succeeded in exterminating virtually all the Jews outside the capital. The years of Communist rule after the war brought even greater spiritual devastation, with most Jews forced into adopting gentile names and coerced into discarding the last vestiges of a Jewish identity already unraveling after three generations of widespread assimilation.

So any bearded, black-hatted Jew wearing his Judaism on his sleeve was bound to attract attention. One episode in particular stands out.

I was waiting at the trolley stop when a man passed in front of me. I wouldn’t have noticed him at all if he hadn’t noticed me.

He might have been in his fifties, but the crevices etched into his face would have suited a man nearing a hundred. His flushed and ruddy complexion suggested an intimacy with alcohol; his clothing was soiled and threadbare. With downcast eyes and bleak expression, he shuffled along as if the strain of miserable year after miserable year had wrung every ounce of resilience from his body and every scrap of purpose from his soul.

He glanced in my direction, his gaze briefly met mine, and he stopped. His eyes grew wide as looked me up and down. He raised his hand tentatively and uttered a few incomprehensible words.

I smiled and shook my head, spreading my hands to show that I didn’t understand.

Slowly, almost fearfully, he reached out and touched my tzitzit, the fringes hanging from my waist, then brought his hand to his lips. He reached up and touched his fingers to the brim of my hat, then kissed his fingers once again. Again he spoke, and again I shook my head.

By then, a remarkable transformation had come over him. The beaten down expression had disappeared, replaced by a look of astonished exhilaration, as if he had just witnessed the resurrection of the dead.

He raised his hand above his head and shook it as he turned his eyes toward heaven and uttered what could only have been a benediction. He reached toward my face, stopped himself, tenderly touched his fingers to the lapel of my jacket, kissed his fingers one last time and, with a look of wonder and restored hope, shuffled on his way.

I can only imagine what prompted his reaction. Did he recall the days of his youth, before Communism cut him off from the faith of his people? Did he remember the trappings of a sainted grandfather or teacher?

His astonishment was born from his conviction that, at least in his homeland, people who looked like me were extinct. The discovery that some remnant of his past still survived lifted the weight of misery and hopelessness from his shoulders, if only for a moment.

One man on the street, one minute of nonverbal rapport, left a more poignant impression upon my memory than one whole year in the “Paris of the East.”

One man on the street reflected all the despair and all the hopeful triumph of the Jewish people in exile.

One man on the street, who had all but forgotten who he was, not only found his hope reawakened, but reawakened my own hope in return — that the countless Jews who do not remember, Jews who still don’t know who they are, Jews like I was once myself, may one day find their own way back home.

The Night Hashem Did the Rest

By Ruby Ginsberg

My son had a Rebbe in first grade who used to tell the boys “You do your best and Hashem will do the rest”. At no time has this credo been more meaningful to my family and me than on one summer night three years ago.

With the kids back from sleep away camp, we were getting set for a family vacation to Montreal. Aside from fun and family togetherness, a good family trip should have its chinuch aspect as well. Towards that, we took upon ourselves, as best as we could, the challenge to daven three times a day with a minyan while on the road. Together with finding accommodations and attractions along the way, our planning included mapping out the minyanim across our route.

And so, on day 1 we headed north, and after spending the afternoon at Howe Caverns, we made sure to arrive in Albany shortly before sunset to catch mincha and maariv. And on day 2 after shachris, we drove through the Adirondacks. After marveling at Hashem’s wonders at Ausable Chasm (“The Grand Canyon of the East”) we made sure to arrive in Montreal in time for mincha and maariv. Once in Montreal, with its vibrant Jewish community, davening with a minyan was not difficult.

For Shabbos, we found a chalet in Mont-Tremblant, an hour north of Montreal, in what was somewhat similar to the bungalow colonies of the Catskills. Yeshiva had already started for the children of Montreal, so we barely had a minyan, but a minyan nonetheless. The upside of that was that everyone packed out on Sunday morning, leaving our family with a private lake for swimming and boating. You don’t give up something as rare as that so easily, so we stayed well into the afternoon. We packed up and headed back into Montreal for an “early” 6:00 P.M. mincha. And then we were faced with a dilemma.

The first maariv in town was at 8:00 P.M. If we were to wait, then we would complete the 6.5-hour drive to Queens close to 3:00 A.M. One of our sons had his first day of Yeshiva the next day, and subjecting him to that was just too irresponsible, even for me. So we set out for home at 6:15.

I immediately started making maariv calculations. Albany? We get there close to 10:00 P.M.– too late. Queens? After 12:30 A.M. — too late. Not looking good. Somberly, I informed my wife that we were about to lose our perfect streak. Her response is the hallmark of the akeres habayis: “There is no way”, she replied “that you are going to miss the last tefilah b’tzibur after missing not a single one till now. Figure something out.” Whoa.

So I thought for a while until it occurred to me that Monroe/Kiryas Yoel was somewhere near Thruway exit 16, which we would pass around 11:30. I had never been there before, and I certainly don’t know their minyan schedule, but the Satmar community must have a minyan factory that operates well past midnight, right? A bit short on the details, but a plan was in formation.

10:30 P.M. New Baltimore rest area. Time for a rest stop. As we waited for the ladies to finish powdering their noses, I noticed a chassidishe fellow standing by himself. Great! A chance to flesh out The Plan.

“Sholom Aleichem. Are you from Monroe?”


“Would I find a minyan there in about an hour or so?”

“Sure. Even later. You’re looking for a minyan? There’s a heimishe oilam here. We could probably pull one together now.”

HERE??? In Yennemsville, N.Y??? At 10:30 at night? How could that be??? But sure, enough, within minutes a minyan had gathered, and we davened tfillah b’tzibur in the corner of the parking lot in New Baltimore, N.Y.

The joy that I felt davening that maariv under the stars, completing our perfect streak, is indescribable, and something that I will remember for the rest of my life. Hashem had sent us a gift. He delivered us a minyan. We had tried our very best. And Hashem did the rest.

The Ratio of Cows to Grandchildren

I’ve recently picked up the book “The Kiruv Files” by Dovid Kaplan and Elimelich Meisels (Targum Press 2003). It’s quite a good read with chapters on many issues faced by newly minted BTs. It’s also pretty funny. Here is a particularly interesting excerpt:

You may have heard of Yitz Greenbaum, one of the early Israeli Zionist leaders and a man notorious for his antipathy toward Torah and religious Jews. He is famed for his statement “One cow in Palestine is worth more than a million religious Jews in Europe.”

Well, bearing that in mind, read the following story told to me by a Rebbe of mine.

One afternoon my Rebbe was busy with various tasks, overseeing the sundry details of running a large yeshivah, when someone came running up to him and said, “Rebbe, you’ve got to come to the conference room right now. We’re interviewing a potential student for the yeshiva.”

My Rebbe, not grasping the uniqueness of this particular interview, said “Look, I’m kind of busy right now. Maybe someone else can do the interview.”

“But, Rebbe, you don’t understand. This is not just any student. This is Yitz Greenbaum’s grandson!”

“Really?” He exclaimed. “This I’ve got to see. Yitz Greenbaum’s grandson on his way to becoming a religious Jew! To witness how Hashem has brought it all full circle, that is truly a miracle!”. He immediately dropped what he was doing and went to meet the young man.

Another descendant of a distinguished politician of Greenbaum’s era also came to learn in a famous yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. This boy’s grandfather was a brilliant Marxist theorist and revolutionary, one of the most powerful people in the world, a leader in a country devoted to eliminating religion completely. The country: Russia. The politician: Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, otherwise known as Leo Trotsky, confidant of Lenin and creator of the Russian Red Army.

Yitz Greenbaum and Leon Trotsky, two brilliant, rebellious Jews, each convinced he had discovered the real solution to the Jewish problem–the abandonment of Torah–in exchange for a utopian political system.

Now they and their movements have crumbled in the dust, while the Torah they tried to eradicate is not only relevant and flourishing, but has become the province of their very own [grand]children.

“Mah gadlu masecha Hashem –How great are Your works, Hashem.”

pp. 40-41

Confessions of a Bayou Jew

One of the great things about the internet (and this blog) is the ability to make friends with others that you probably would never have otherwise met. Through a comment here on the blog, I became friends with Amishav. Here, he shares the backstory of his “in progress” teshuvah path.

Confessions of a Bayou Jew

Well, its about time I fessed up I suppose and came clean with the whole story.

I had previously mentioned on my blog that my family originally came from Germany and that they had settled in South Louisiana, particularly the Donaldsonville area- which at one time was the Capital of Louisiana. From there they moved a bit down the Bayou LaFouche to Napoleonville, where they had a store and a plantation that specialized in sugarcane production.

The matriarch of my family, Caroline Schrieber was extremely successful and had amassed a small fortune of 94,000 dollars by the time she passed away in 1904. But things were not going well for my family Jewishly. We don’t know why, or exactly when, but the sad truth is that my family converted to Catholicism and were baptizing their children by the nineteen teens.

Still though, as late as the 1950s according to my mother, aunts, and uncles, our family was not so affectionately referred to as, “those damn Jew bastards.” You would think that this would raise the eyebrows of my mother and in fact it did. I was told that my mother’s generation did ask my grandparents why they were being called Jews. It didn’t make sense to them to be called Jews because they were practicing Catholics. The answer that they got from my Grandparents was, “The people in the town are confused. They are calling us Jews because we are Germans and they don’t know any better.” This excuse was sufficient for my mother, and she lived her life as a practicing Catholic.

Read more Confessions of a Bayou Jew

Nothing Just Happens

Although there were 74 mitzvos in the parsha this Shabbos, I said a Dvar Torah about Amalek and I happened to learn the piece in Strive for Truth about Amalek with my son. Both pieces emphasize the usage of the word Karcha (happened) and stress that Amalek’s philosophy is that things just happen, as opposed to our philosophy that Hashem’s hand guides all.

Davening Sunday was nice, and after davening I read a page from the Chafetz Chaim’s lesson a day. We started learning different Shmiras HaLashon seferim after davening about 10 years ago and since I suggested the practice, I’ve been doing the reading. However recently I’ve been davening at a later 7:00 minyan, and last Sunday I was away, so I haven’t read in the morning for about 2 weeks. The piece I read this morning was about Past History (Day 8) which states:

Another area involving Loshon Hora is that of past history. It is forbidden to relate something about an individual’s past which either the speaker or the listener considers shameful, though in reality it is not shameful at all.

Our Sages teach that “at the place where baalei teshuvah stand, perfect tzaddikim cannot stand: (Berachos 34b). Thus there is nothing shameful about being a baal teshuvah. Nevertheless, it is forbidden to related that someone is a baal teshvah if either the speaker or listener looks down at such people.

Nothing just happens.
Read more Nothing Just Happens

A Picture of Pure Sacrifice

A friend once approached me in a professional capacity and asked me to represent him in some contract disputes. He was a very well renown photographer who had just become Shomer Shabbos. The problem was, he had 6-9 months worth of Shabbos affairs booked.

He walked away from all of them and, in my estimation, close to one hundred thousand dollars!!

He doesn’t know it but, in many ways, that guy’s my hero.

The Spirit of Shabbat and My Car Alarm

In the community I was involved with in St. Louis in my pre-marriage days, a particular family hosted about 25 people each week for Shabbat dinner and I had the privilege to be their guest several times. It seemed to me that this family represented the epitome of the baal teshuvah experience: beautiful home filled with yiddishkeit everywhere, wonderful food that seemed without end, fascinating dvars, lively conversation. Both husband and wife came from very different backgrounds; she attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government while the husband lived a fun life in Brazil. Their adorable daughter symbolized the bright future that lay ahead for them, and quite possibly for all of klal Yisrael, so giving was their spirit and energy.
Read more The Spirit of Shabbat and My Car Alarm

Whom to Thank

“Rabbi, is there a blessing to thank G-d for saving your life?” Rabbi Goodman absentmindedly muttered that this was an unusual question no one had ever asked him before. Peering at me from over his wire rimmed glasses he asked,” Are you a member of my congregation?”

It was five in the afternoon and the Reform temple was closing with most of the lights turned off for the night. The Rabbi haltingly reached for his overcoat while glancing at his watch and hesitated for a moment. Placing his briefcase on the floor he eyed me curiously as I answered, “No Rabbi, I am not.” My heart sank as I suspected my question would remain unanswered and imagined the Rabbi rushing home to his family. Instead Rabbi Goodman said, “Come with me,” as I followed him into his office.
Read more Whom to Thank