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What is this about (now)

My family and I are orthodox.


We weren’t always. In fact, it was only recently that we really made the switch.

This blog is not about BEING orthodox so much as it is about BECOMING. About how we BECAME orthodox, about how we are still in that transformative process, and which (I suspect) we will likely always be. Becoming, I mean. We will probably always be in the state of becoming orthodox.

Because from what I’ve seen so far, even people who were born into 100% already totally orthodox families are also – if they are thinking and engaged and interested and curious – never the less in a constant process of becoming orthodox.

So whatever your state of becoming – wherever you are on whatever path you are walking – my hope is that you find some part of this that is familiar, and also some part which is challenging, which makes you a little uncomfortable. Maybe more than a little.

Because those moments of discomfort are also moments of growth.

Put It Aside

I started a new job recently. A new exciting job. One that I openly told everyone was my “dream job”. I get to do all the things that I like to do, working with people who are enthusiastic and talented.

Like any new job, there was a lot to learn. So I found myself printing out some of the juicier bits so I could look things over when I was away from a computer. By which I mean Shabbat.

But as I looked at the pile, and imagined how it would help me get ahead. I also imagined the temptation to take notes, to highlight passages, to flesh out ideas.

Which is when a thought occurred to me: “If you put it aside, your commitment will be repaid.”

There’s a well-traveled idea that any money one spends for Shabbat will come back doubled. I believe the same goes for time. If we “spend” our time on Shabbat, focusing on the day and actively choosing not to focus on items from the week, that time will be repaid to us twice over. Maybe it will come in the form of inspiration, or insight, or efficiency.

Or serendipity. I logged in after Shabbat, and found an email waiting for me:

“You know those worksheets I sent you? Don’t worry about them. We scrapped that idea and we’re moving on to something else. I’ll talk to you more about it Monday.”

Oh My How You’ve Grown!

“Siyyum” (SEE-yoom) is a word which means “completion”.

When people study a section of religious text – Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, etc – and finish it, they “make a siyyum” which is to day they have a little celebration to commemorate the job.

This has never made sense to me. So you read a book. It’s nice, but it didn’t seem especially party-worthy.

Added to this is the fact that, like almost every aspect of Judaism, people “study” in decidedly different ways. Some are extremely skilled hard-core students. They can read the text in the original language, have a vast amount of knowledge already under their belt, and worth with a study parther to tease every last drop of meaning and insight from the text.

Or some, like me, need to have someone read the text to them, having it translated as they go, and count themselves lucky if they can remember anything from one week to the next.

And the amount of learning varies as well. Some people make a siyyum on a single page. Some on a whole book. And some only when they’ve completed an entire body of work.

So what’s the point of a siyyum?

I pondered that the other day, as I was adding a mark on the doorframe in my 11 year old’s room, dutifully documenting his progress toward his dream of a promising career as a 6’7″ center for the Lakers (he’s currently 4’11. The kid knows how to dream big even if his genes aren’t on board.)

It occurred to me that, once our doorframe days are over, there isn’t much left in the way of marking growth.

There are a few milestones – driver’s license, first job, diploma, first “real” job, marriage, children, and so on. But those moments are few, and the timing is random, with no guarentee that we will achieve them (or in some cases even want to achieve them).

I came to the realization that day in my son’s room that in the Jewish world, where lifelong learning is not only laudable, it’s expected, a siyyum is the best darn doorpost ever.

EdibleTorah eBooks

As we tip over from the mad rush of December and prepare to ease into another year, I like to take a minute to appreciate the hush and calm that comes after the rush and bustle of various holidays.

This week after New Year I like to take a few moments to pause and regroup before diving into the new year. A chance to take stock, reflect, and think.

And so I’ve held off until now to officially promote the fruit of a few of my labors. If your resolutions for 2016 include making time for thought-provoking reading that doesn’t break your stretched-too-far-after-all-those-gifts budget, I want you to know that over at my other blog, EdibleTorah, we now have 4 ebooks for you to choose from. Each one of them is available for Kindle (on Amazon), Nook (on Barnes&Noble) and also as a free PDF download.

“The Edible Torah”
“The Edible Torah” was my first ebook, and it lays out the why and how of hosting a pot-luck Shabbat experience. It remains one of the things I am most proud of, simply because I was able to put pen to paper and get it created in the first place.

Click here for the Kindle Edition | Click here for the Nook Edition | Click here for the PDF version

The Condensed Guide to the Weekly Torah Readings
This book came out shortly after The Edible Torah, but was almost done on a dare from my good friend Jeff Fink. He challenged me by saying that there were innumerable commentaries and summaries of the weekly Torah portion  but he had never found something concise enough to use as a quick reference, let along get the sense of the ark of the narratives. He all but threw down the gauntlet and challenged me to do something with the 7 years’ worth of EdibleTorah invitations.

The next weekend, I had the book more or less sketched out. A week later, it was published.

Click here for the Kindle Edition | Click here for the Nook Edition | Click here for the PDF version

“Technically, These Are Some Random Thoughts”
Around September every year, Jews all over the world celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. However, it’s not – to put it in business terms – a year-end review. It’s a job interview. the month before Rosh Hashana (called “Elul” in Hebrew) is the time for getting one’s balance sheet in order. To help with that, a bunch of folks from all walks of life participate in #BlogElul: A daily prompt provides the theme and people riff on that – sometimes a few hundred words, sometimes an image, sometimes a poem or just a single sentence. It’s something I’ve done for a few years now. I thought I’d add a twist and also do an I.T. Professional’s version of #BlogElul and post the essays on my technology-specific blog: A reflection on each of the daily prompts and what they mean in an I.T. context. You’re probably thinking “Leon, this is a Jewish thing and completely outside the scope of my experience or interest as an I.T. Professional.” To which I emphatically reply: Yes and no. If you have worked in I.T. for more than 15 minutes, you’ve likely been involved in a large development project, system roll-out, or upgrade. And as the date for the big cut-over approaches, there are usually daily status updates. Consider this the notes from my status updates before the roll-out of “TheWorld v.5776”.

Click here for the Kindle Edition | Click here for the Nook Edition | Click here for the PDF version

“Echoes of Elul”
Back in 2009, I wrote an essay titled “Interview Season” where I shared my thoughts on what the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) meant to me. Some time later Rabbi Phyllis Sommer began her now-famous “BlogElul” writing challenge. The idea of #BlogElul resonated with the thoughts I had put down in my essay, so I was inspired to participate that year, and each year since.

With a few years under my belt, I decided it was time to bundle up those efforts into this anthology.

Click here for the Kindle Edition | Click here for the Nook EditionClick here for the PDF version

What if I Try Harder?

There’s an old saying that makes the rounds in karate classes, about a student who is eager to learn. “It will take you 2 years to learn this technique”, the teacher tells the student.

“What if I work twice as hard?” the student asks earnestly. “Then it will take you 5 years.” the teacher responds.

Confused, the student asks “What if I work day and night on it?”. “Then you will never learn it at all.” comes the reply.

Hebrew has been like that for me.

Now I’ll be the first one to admit that I have NOT been working day and night on it. But the harder I work at it, the slower it has gone. This frustrates me because I’m usually good with languages. Every language is different, and Hebrew has A LOT going on that you don’t find in French or Spanish. But it can be a real confidence-shaker to suddenly be bad at something one usually counts as a strength.

Recently, I came to a kind of peace about this. Maybe God didn’t want it to come easy. Maybe I needed to experience how the other half lived. Maybe my time for being good with languages is done. Or maybe Hebrew just isn’t my game. Whatever the reason, the situation wasn’t going to change just because I fretted about it.

And for now, even if I’m not reading Hebrew better, I feel better about myself while I’m reading Hebrew. And maybe that’s a start.


Near the beginning of our Jewish Journey, the discoveries were grand, complex, and life altering. Looking back now, I can appreciate that we continue to wrestle with issues and traditions, but they are far subtler in nature.

For the record, we are now firmly settled in with 6 hours between meat and milk. While it has caused some in the family to become fleish-a-phobic (notably Pandora and daughter “I” – see “who’s who” on the side for details), overall we are managing well.

For the un-initiated, “fleish-a-phobia”  is the condition where one avoids eating meat now to ensure that they are able to have ice cream in half an hour should the opportunity present itself.

With all of that said, here was the view from our journey, circa 2010. You can find the original post here:

I know this is bothering me way more than it should. But it still is.

In our pre-Kosher days (or perhaps it’s more accurate to label them our “proto-kosher” days) we just focused on separating meat meals and milk meals. We didn’t change the dishes, we didn’t worry about utensils or containers. We simply avoided eating cheeseburgers, muenster-and-baloney sandwiches, or cheesey-beefy noodles.

Oh, and we steered clear of bacon-wrapped shrimp, of course.

Sounds simple, right?

Like most Jewish ideas, a seemingly simple idea can be totally bolloxed up by thinking about it too much.

It starts innocently: does “together” mean “on the same plate” or “on the same table”? If you go from one room with a cheese board to another room in the same house with lunchmeats, is that OK?

No, of course not. Because someone could be still savoring the flavor of a great piece of brie when they pop a delicate slice of brisket in your mouth and BOOM, you’ve mixed meat and milk. In your mouth.

(Side note: I used to do this all the time, but with chocolate milk. First you take a good long pull from the milk jug, leaving just a little room left over. Then you stick the end of the chocolate syrup bottle into your mouth and squeeze. Finally, shake your head vigorously until your vision blurs or you hear your neck snap. Then swallow. Everyone did that when they were kids, right?)

Ahem. Back to our discussion.

The Rabbis of Antiquity thought of that, of course (the cheese and meat thing, not the milk and chocolate syrup thing) and came up with a statement: don’t eat them together, and give your mouth time to clear itself of the previous food item.

For some Rabbis that meant either washing your mouth out or eating something that was neither milk or meat (a piece of bread fits the bill). Thus, they reasoned, you are pretty assured that bits of gouda aren’t still sticking around in your mouth when you start a bite of brisket.

Later on, Rashi was asked about time – like if you had a meat meal and didn’t eat bread, how long before you could start on a dairy dish? “Between meals” was the answer.

The problem was that “between meals” at that time was about 6 hours!

Skipping ahead, today we have the Dutch, who wait 1 hour, some folks from Germany who wait 3 hours, and everyone else, who waits 6. Except for the people who don’t.

Simple, huh?

So my family and I come onto the scene and try to answer the very earnest (and hungry) sounding K, asking if he can have mac-and-cheese for dinner even though he had a bologna sandwich for lunch.

A wrong answer looks like this: “Well, bud, let me look online, then get a book from the library, and then I’ll call the Rabbi and see what he says. I should know sometime next week.”

Originally, what we did was wait 1 hour either way (meat to milk or milk to meat). As we learned more, we waited NO time between milk and meat, but we still waffled about the time between meat and milk.

See, without a family history of waiting 3 hours, we’re TECHNICALLY obligated to wait 6. But lots of people we know only wait 3 hours.

On the one hand, we don’t want to just pick and choose observances to make it easy on ourselves. On the other hand, we don’t want to pick the hardest possible ruling just to prove how tough we are.

Honestly, we’re still on the fence about this. Like I said at the start of this post, I know this is bothering me way more than it should. But it still is.


Is This Food Kosher?

Not long after we enrolled my son in Jewish Day school, he sat at the dinner table and asked “Is this food kosher?”

At the time, we were at the very start of our journey to a more observant lifestyle. We did not think we would end up part of mainstream orthodox. In fact, our decision to enroll him in a Jewish school was based more on his urging (“I want to go to a school where I can be Jewish all day”) than our own need for him to spend part of his day learning Hebrew and Halacha.

So my answer was honest, if a bit simplistic (he was only 8 at the time): “Well, buddy, the box that the food came in was kosher. But the pan I cooked it in was not.”

I thought that would do the trick. I was forgetting that with him, a simple answer NEVER did the trick.

“Well, ” he said, chewing thoughtfully as he spoke, “I get to eat kosher food all day at school. So when am I going to get to eat kosher food at home, too?”

I was out of bullets. Anything more was going to need to wait for my wife. When she got home, I brought her up to speed. What followed was a family discussion about what it would mean (to our family) to keep kosher. What kinds of food we would no longer eat, and in which combinations. My wife and I didn’t know everything (looking back, we knew just a fraction) but it was enough to convey a clear sense of things.

And the most surprising thing happened.

For some reason, as parents, we carry around a belief that if kids know how complicating or difficult something will be, they will automatically shy away from it. This belief causes us to minimize or simplify difficult things that we want our kids to do, and over-explain things which we don’t want them to do.

But the reality is that, if a difficult task is presented truthfully and in an age-appropriate way, kids will often choose something which is difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with how hard it is. Maybe they want the end result. Maybe it’s simply how they want to be seen. Maybe the difficult thing embodies an aspect of who they want to be.

Or maybe kids intuitively sense that the things which are challenging are also the most meaningful.

Whatever the reason, my wife and I discovered that “being kosher” was – despite it’s difficulty – on the menu in my home. The kids were up for the challenge, which means WE had to be up for the challenge.

That isn’t where all this started, but it was one of the major steps along the way