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The Nuts and Bolts of Becoming Jewish

Just to recap: For years I had been living a much more "Jewish" lifestyle (kosher, Shabbos, and holidays, regular shul attendance) than any of my family or friends. I had embarrassed my dad at restaurants by asking to read the labels before eating the food. I had disrupted family outings because of Shabbos. I had modified vacation plans to work around the holidays. And now, after all that, I had just found out that I wasn't even Jewish. My friends and family, who had put up with my "idiosyncrasies" for years were dumbfounded. I was often the sole voice of Jewish observance, and now it turned out that I was also the sole goy. I think "irony" must be HaShem's middle name. While the irony was not lost on me, I wasn't really laughing at that point. And my friends and family just took it is (additional) proof that I was totally off my rocker on this subject. Their logic was simple (and oft repeated), "You act more Jewish than any of us, and your not Jewish?!?" My response was, "uh... well...". Obviously I needed a better response than that.

The next stage in my becoming Jewish, therefore, took the form of intense investigation into the philosophical underpinnings of orthodox Jewish thought and perspective. I do not mean to say that I gave no attention to observance -- after all, to successfully convert I needed to conduct myself in accordance with halachah (Jewish law). But it does not take much learning to know the basics of kashrus (keep dairy and meat separate, only buy kosher food, don't eat out) , Shabbos (don't turn lights on and off, don't drive, don't cook), and mikveh (basically, just don't). Our life was changing so much, that even those "few" things were almost (and sometimes more than almost) overwhelming enough. The rest of my "free" time was spent on very fundamental questions stemming from "why should I/we do this."

I actually was able to carve out a fair amount of time for that activity. I have two character traits that really helped me along in my endeavor. First, I have never needed a lot of sleep and have even had periods in my life when I struggled with insomnia. Whereas before I would have turned on the TV or picked up a novel, I now picked up a book on Jewish thought. It wasn't a big a transition as it sounds because in graduate school I had spent those hours doing homework and/or research. It actually felt good to again have my mind occupied again.

Another thing that freed up a lot of time was giving up TV. That happened about 10:40PM one night. I sat down to watch TV, but before I turned it on, I asked myself, "Why are you sitting down to watch this TV program?" I tried to answer myself, "Because it's interesting." That, of course, was met with derision; "What? More interesting than the gemara?" Well, I couldn't answer in the affirmative with a straight face, so I told myself, "But I am too tired to learn gemara right now." I should have known better, because I just answered myself, "So go to bed." Everyone knows I don't play nice when it comes to logical arguments, so anyone who knows me just doesn't start. For better or worse, I am stuck with myself; so basically I never again sat down to watch a television program.

Which leads nicely into the second character trait of mine that helped with learning; I am not socially adept. I find making small talk a burden; I can never think of what to say, so I generally avoid it. Seriously, who wants to have conversations like that one about TV all the time? I mean, I do, but conversations like that don't really make you popular at parties. Again, I was already used to that from graduate school. My conversations at parties during college were usually only a few sentences long:
Them: "Hi, what is your major?"
Me: "Physics"
Them: "Oh. You must be smart."
At which point (as I had no snappy come back), they were already frantically looking for a way out. They always found someone they needed to see right away.

Put those two things together: don't need much sleep and don't require a lot of visiting time and you find a fair amount of time every day to read and learn. I also had a one hour commute to work and Torah Tapes were just becoming very popular. The Kollel in Dallas was just starting and they opened a massive (for the time... 100s of tapes) tape library. I was able to listen to six to 10 tapes a week, mostly on Jewish philosophy, from Aish Hatorah and Ohr Somayach. The content was outstanding and really gave me the knowledge and facts that were missing from my background.  But just as importantly, I also learned (from listening to so many great speakers) how to give over the information. So besides getting the information I needed, listening to all those tapes also gave me the information and skills to discuss my life changes with my friends and family. (Yet another example that G-d runs the world!)

Now I was poised with all the information I needed. All I needed to do was to convince my friends, family, and wife. Oh... and me.


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