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Okay, I don’t have all the answers, but this is a column I wrote for the Jewish newspaper, for which I did journalisty things like research and interview people, so it is my take on things. The most difficult part of it was keeping my own experiences out of it, so maybe I’ll write those up tomorrow (or the next day …)

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In some ways, it is difficult to discern how the broader Jewish community views those who have converted to Judaism. Of course, there is the ‘official’ line, but finding out what people really think can be more difficult. It seems that the best way to find that out is to ask the Jews by choice themselves how they feel they have been welcomed in their chosen religion.

Both the Torah and Talmud instruct that once someone has converted, they are as Jewish as any other, to the point that their conversions are considered irrelevant and not to be referred to. They are not ‘converts,’ but merely ‘Jews.’ But Jewish experiences in the diaspora before the last few decades made Jews very suspicious of those wanting to join them, and there is some evidence that the suspicion hasn’t completely disappeared.

It doesn’t help that Judaism is more than just a religion, but a culture, even an ethnicity. Some – both those converting and born Jewish – question the possibility of successfully joining someone else’s culture.

Add to that the controversy over who does the conversion, that the Orthodox movement does not accept conversions performed by those of other movements, and the question of acceptance is of real concern.

Every Jew by choice interviewed for this article remembers facing negative comments about those who have converted. Ironically, these almost always came from people who did not realize that they were speaking to a convert. Many Jews by choice find it easy to dismiss such remarks, and the people who make them.

Michael Walsh, a Jew by choice whose volunteer work in development in the Jewish community brings him in contact with a wide variety of people, says he has always felt completely welcomed and accepted. He has heard the occasionally disparaging remark, he admits, but says, “The key is to not be sensitive to stupid comments. They don’t represent the wider community.”

He also points out: “It is a glass-half-full kind of thing. You will find what you are looking for.” He explains that he believes those expecting acceptance are more likely to find it.

Another Jew by choice, Wayne Moore, said something similar. He feels you get out of life what you put in, and someone who converts with sincerity and immerses themselves in the community will be fully welcomed.

About the occasional unpleasant comment, Moore says, “No one else’s reactions really matter. I did this for myself. I have a supportive wife and extended family and they are the ones who matter.” That being said, he feels completely accepted by the Ottawa Jewish community. “I have always found it very warm and welcoming.”

While Walsh and Moore haven’t found that their decisions to convert for their Jewish families has made their acceptance any more complicated, Christine Kessler admits she sometimes feels judged by those who think she converted to marry her husband, Gary, a born Jew. She finds this a bit frustrating, especially as she had decided to convert whether she married Gary or not.

The mere fact that Kessler and some others who converted before marriage feel the need to point out that they would have ended up Jewish anyway demonstrates that there is still some stigma around converting ‘just to get married.’ Another Jew by choice, who we’ll call Sara, as she declined to be named for this article, describes her deep frustration and hurt at being asked a number of times if she’d stay Jewish should her husband leave her or die.

“It shows they don’t consider me really Jewish,” she said, “Like I’m just playing at it for my husband.”

Sara was not the only convert who not willing to be named. Their opinion was that while they weren’t ashamed of it and would tell people if they asked, it just isn’t anyone’s business and they see no reason to advertise it.

Sara says the worst comments are the unintentional ones, such as when she told a good friend a Jewish joke. “It was self-deprecating, as they tend to be, the sort that might be considered anti-Semitic if someone Jewish wasn’t saying it, and he said that it made him uncomfortable to hear it from me, since I hadn’t always been Jewish. It made me realize that even though I sometimes even forget I haven’t been born Jewish no one else does, and that really hurt.”

It is possible that those who convert for faith alone rather than to marry someone Jewish manage to avoid some of these feelings of being judged. David M. is a good example. He says he has never felt any negative judgment about having converted, although he does admit that, upon finding out he did it just on his own, people do tend to ask, “What, are you nuts?”

“They are always joking, though,” he adds. “I do think that not converting for marriage does add to the perception of my sincerity, since I came to it completely on my own. Which is not a fair judgment about people who convert to marry, of course.”

Interestingly, the most obvious source of potential rejection – converting under a non-Orthodox rabbi – had little effect on the non-Orthodox Jews by choice who were interviewed for this article. While some kept within their own smaller Reform community, others are fully involved in the wider community and have found the rabbis of Ottawa to be completely welcoming.

While obviously Orthodox rabbis do not consider these Jews by choice to be Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law), and would not perform a marriage or bris for them, when not in that sort of situation no one spoken to has ever been treated as anything less than a full member of the community.

Clearly, acceptance into the Jewish community is an issue fraught with emotion for many people who have converted. But despite the fact that prejudices and problems still do exist for those who have chosen to be Jewish, everyone interviewed has found Ottawa to be a welcoming and largely non-judgmental Jewish community.

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I got the 1000-word piece in Friday morning, at 1007 words. That’s pretty good. Okay, there’s more to writing than coming in right on the word limit (or almost right on). It is often required that the writing also not suck. We’ll wait and see about that one. J thinks we’ll get flack because conversion in Judaism is a wee bit of a contentious subject and I am no expert, except that I actually did convert. I pointed out that journalists are rarely experts. We just do some research and then throw the article together with a 2-day deadline. But no doubt we’ll still piss someone off. I look forward to seeing who.

(I removed the rest of the post. See above.)

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Yesterday we attended a good-bye picnic for Boo’s preschool. No more little kids here!

It was actually a lot of fun, as older siblings showed up and Asher had the smarts to bring his soccer ball. He ate one piece of sushi and then played soccer for 3 hours with other brothers of (not a single girl played, sigh). This soccer obsession is new this spring – he plays every recess – but I am delighted because he’s doing a typical-and-yet-healthy boy thing, and because he told me, “I suck at soccer. I’m one of the worst of my team, but I love it anyway, so I don’t care.” He also pointed out that team captains pick the players they want and then the crappy players get to just choose their team, so he always gets to be on the team he wants. That’s a new twist on being the last kid standing against the wall.

Maya’s best friend was also there, so we didn’t see her either, and of course all of Boo’s friends were there, so it was happiness all around.

While I was talking to an old friend, he asked his older son (Maya’s age) to get his little sister a piece of pizza. Older son then walked up a few moments later and thrust the plate at Dad before slumping off, rather than walk the three steps more to actually hand it to his sister. Dad sighed and made reference to my blog, and how he is always reading about how helpful Maya is with her siblings. Which got me thinking.

I don’t paint a realistic portrait of my kids, Maya in particular. While I do write about some of the funny awful things they’ve done, I mostly stick to their early years. This is intentional, although I’d love to kvetch here when my kids are being awful. But they know about my blog. At 11, Maya is quite capable of finding it herself. She is also an incredibly sensitive child and it doesn’t take much for her to decide I hate her. So the last thing I need, as she heads into adolescence, is more fodder for her to believe that, especially since lately all it takes is not allowing her to stay up an extra half an hour. Obviously I adore her, even when she’s being annoying, but I don’t think talking about her bad habits here is going to do either of us any good. So I mostly don’t.

It is an interesting dilemma, being a writer and mom, and writing about parenting. I encountered this when I started writing my column, which drew heavily on my experiences as a mom (write about what you know, right?). Later, J framed my first column for me, which pointed out in the second paragraph that while Maya was a precocious child, the other two weren’t (which was sort of a lie because Boo was too, but that didn’t fit into my argument – take note, those who believe everything they read) and now they are all perfectly normal. Seems innocuous enough, but Maya and Asher didn’t think so. “You don’t think I’m special any more?!” she interpreted. “I’m not as smart as she is?!” he interpreted.

I had a lot of explaining to do.

It is a tough problem, and I’m not the first to discuss it, I’m sure. (In fact, I remember when Anne Lamott, a writer who I adore, announced she would not longer be writing about her son Sam, whose infancy was the subject of probably her most popular book, Operating Instructions. He didn’t like it and she had to respect his feelings on the matter, which hadn’t been an issue when he was a little guy.)

On the one hand, this is my life and how I’m experiencing it. Mothering is a major part of my life and I’d like to fairly reflect my experiences. On the other hand, it is also their lives, and what right to I have to blab about their lives all over the internet?

So I’m trying to find a balance, which includes not telling about how Maya scares me with her ability to psychologically torture her brother when he does not do exactly what she wants (play her game, watch what she wants, stop singing) and how she pretty much grins evilly when she’s called on it, or says innocently, “But I was just playing the piano,” without mentioning that she was singing an accompanying song that starts, “Why is Asher always such a jerk … ”

Okay, so I told about that one. But trust me, there’s lots I don’t tell, and not necessarily because it is bad, but just because it is hers now, and not mine.

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I’ve crashed again, back to the puking. I’m only up because the oven guy is here to check out the broken oven, then it is back to bed. Asher is also sick (although no actual throwing up so far, thankfully) and is blobbed out in front of the TV.

My mention of the friends expecting the baby reminded me of a column I wrote. It was accepted for publication by the newspaper that printed all my pieces, but before it was printed, the nice editor was promoted and replaced by the evil one, who never bothered to return my phone calls or emails inquiring if she would like to keep the pieces her predecessor had already accepted. (This is the height of editor lack of etiquette, by the way.)

The sad thing about this piece is that it is about 2 years old. My friend have been expecting for a distressingly long time, although it looks like this spring will really be it. I should also point out for the benefit of the non-Canadian readers that in Canada, paid parental leave is normally a year.

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Good friends of mine are having a baby. I am delighted. Now that I have finished reproducing, I love any excuse to knit little sweaters and remember what it was like before mine learned to speak and tell me what a mean mommy I am.

My friends are adopting. They need the stamp of approval from the Ontario government, and then they will chose domestic or international adoption. If they decide on international, they must apply to that country and, of course, actually go get the baby.None of that sunk in with me at first. I reacted in exactly the same manner I have reacted to any other of my friend’s announcements of an impending child: “Yay! A baby!”

It’s the same to me – waiting out a friend’s pregnancy or waiting out the adoption process. Of course, it is not the same to them. They get the same excruciating waiting and wondering. But other than that, the journey is completely different.

Of course, there is the expense. With a biological child, the expense kind of sneaks up on you, until one day you find yourself buying a minivan. Adoptive parents pay between $20,000 to $40,000 in various governmental fees for an overseas adoption before they meet their child.And they also have to ask themselves the tough questions before they have the baby, unlike those of us who have biological children. That just starts with one person saying to another, “Hey! We should have a baby.” Or even more likely, “Oops. The ‘yes’ line turned blue. Now what?” Only then, when it is pretty much too late, does one of us say to the other, “Do you believe in spanking?” or “I think cribs are cruel, don’t you?” or “We are going to raise the child in my religion, right?”

Adoptive parents ask these questions before the baby is placed in their arms. Directly or indirectly, they are forced to as they go through the adoption process. While I know it is not feasible to demand the same of biological parents, it is too bad we are not all forced to face those same issues before we take the plunge into parenthood. We would be better parents for it.

When my friends made their announcement, I asked, “Who’s taking the year off?” Which is when they told me that they do not get a year of leave with their baby. They get about eight months. Employment Insurance benefits allow eight months for parental leave. The other four are maternity leave. Because my friends are not giving birth to their baby, because they are filling out form after form, signing cheques left and right, and flying half way across the world instead, they lose out on four months.

Maternity leave, the explanation goes, is meant for the mother to recover from the birth. I had difficult pregnancies and even I did not need four months to recover, but that is beside the point. I am not arguing that birth mothers need less time. I am just horrified that adoptive parents supposedly do.

Cathy Murphy is the Director of Adoption Services at Children’s Bridge, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping parents adopting overseas. A mom of two adopted children herself, Ms. Murphy says, “Adoptive parents need at least as much time to adjust to parenthood as biological parents, if not more. Many children come to us with significant problems, and they are also grieving the loss of their caregiver. Often, parents end up taking unpaid leave to give their children the time they need.”

Several adoptive parents took the government to court in the late 1990s over this issue, when biological parents received six months paid leave and adoptive parents were allowed only four. They lost, and when the new legislation came into effect at the end of 2001, it continued the old discrimination.

Ms. Murphy points out that the government is becoming more sensitive to the needs of adoptive parents. In its last budget, the federal government announced a tax break to compensate for some of the costs of adoption. “It doesn’t end up being much,” says Ms. Murphy, “but it’s a start.” As well, the provincial government has announced the removal of the $925 ‘processing fee’ charged for overseas adoptions.

But none of that gives the adoptive parents more of what they really need: time with their new child.

My friends are having a baby. The process they are going through to become a family is different than the one I went through, but the result is the same. The politicians who came up with this law should be ashamed of themselves for treating that child as though her family is less important, less deserving of the time to become a family.

I’m breaking out my knitting needles and preparing to welcome that child wholeheartedly into my community. I would like the federal government break out its amendments and do the same. Then, when a new child arrives, no matter what her journey, we’ll say together: “Yay! A baby!” Because that is all that matters.

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I supposed to some Americans, whining about 8 months instead of a year seems a bit, well, childish, given the criminally-short paid parental leave they get. But it is the unfairness of it that pisses me off so much, the treatment of adoption as somehow a lesser route to parenthood. Even if biological parents got 4 years and adoptive only 3, it’d still be wrong and unfair, even though, compared to so many other places, it would be great.

I also have to credit (or blame, depending on your outlook) this piece for my discovery of the blogging world. In researching it, I stumbled across a huge world of adoption blogs, a couple of which are in my blog roll, and from there other parenting blogs, etc.

Okay, the oven guy says he has to order a part, so the damn stove is out of commission until Friday morning. But it is a cheap part, so I won’t complain. I’ll just go back to bed.

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the virtues of boredom

I have a moment or two of peace, as J has taken the kids to swimming lessons. Then it is off to my brother and sister-in-law to visit our kittens. Well, they aren’t ours any more, since we gave them to my brother, but we still feel sort of like they are. In the summer, we took in a pregnant stray cat and fostered her and her kittens. We found homes for all five kittens and the mom, and the best part is that since my brother took two and a good friend took another, we still get to be in regular contact with them.  

We are also going to conduct our annual ritual of child torture, also known as taking the Christmas photos for the grandparents. All my parents want for Christmas is a photograph with all five grandchildren. Thank goodness for digital cameras. I take about 100 shots and can usually manage to find one with all the kids at least looking in the right direction.  

Maya, in particular, is delighted because it drives her nuts when we just hang around the house on weekends. That kid wants her whole life scheduled with fun fun FUN. Hey – this would be a good place to put the column I wrote about kids and boredom. It is a bit of a lie, though, because although Maya is better about amusing herself at times, she isn’t nearly as good as the end of the column suggests she is. It made for a better ending though. As J likes to say – why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

 Do you remember when you were a kid and it was summer vacation and your best friend was at the beach with her family and you said to your mother, “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do,” and your mom said, “Your room needs cleaning, you could vacuum the living room or you can walk the dog,” so you left her alone and found something fun to do, like peel a golf ball? 

I don’t think that happens much anymore. Between summer camp, soccer practice and our constant desire to enrich our children’s lives, there is little room for boredom.

That is a mistake.  I am a big believer in boredom. I am not saying I like to be bored. I find it maddening to be trapped in a doctor’s office without a book, forced to flip through three-year-old Cosmos. But some boredom is good, especially for children. It presents the opportunity to find original ways to alleviate it. Boredom builds character and imagination.   

My eldest daughter is a big believer in being amused constantly. Until recently, the most common sentences out of her mouth were, “Is it fun for kids?” and “Can’t we do something?” I would reply that the whole point of life is not just having fun, but really, it is a reasonable assumption on her part. Instead of just kicking them outside, modern parents are encouraged to schedule every moment of their kids’ lives.  

Quite frequently, one of my kids will return home from a play date with a friend and tell me what fun it was, that the mom played board games and made muffins with them. Camp Counsellor Mom: unleashing a torrent of amusements for the children so they will not be forced to think for themselves and possibly whine at her.  

I do not want to be a camp counsellor. I do not have the other child there so I can play with two of them. My idea of a play date is that some kid comes over to play with mine and they leave me alone to read my book. My eldest, in particular, has been strongly resistant to my insistence that she figure out how amuse herself. The younger ones are better at it, particularly my son. He once spent hours in his room building an elaborate web across his bunk bed with scotch tape.  

I am not saying that his ability to scotch tape his bed will make him a successful adult, but it might make him a more interesting one. And probably a happier one.  But it just might make him more successful too. Look at Albert Einstein, who had an unremarkable school career and ended up as a technical assistant in the Swiss patent office. Instead of being bored by doing work that was intellectually beneath him, he spent his time thinking, and in his spare time wrote and published most of his significant work. Of his life at that time, Einstein said, “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” Tell that to the Baby Einstein video creators, who do not even want infants to be bored. 

When portable video players for cars became available, my husband begged me to agree to one for long trips, driven crazy by out daughter’s demands to be amused. I resisted valiantly. When I was a kid, my family took long camping trips, and I have nothing but good memories of sitting and looking out the window as I daydreamed, of playing games with my brothers or reading. I wanted my children to have that experience. “It’s good for them to be bored! Stimulates the imagination,” I argued. “It’s killing me,” replied my husband. 

I finally caved last summer, when we drove out to the Maritimes. Our eldest was eight years old and appeared to have learned nothing from all my enforced boredom. But, to our surprise, we hardly used the DVD player. The kids were great in the car. We played music and sang along, played Twenty Questions and spent a lot of time watching the beautiful view.  

After eight years of being told to figure it out herself when she asked me what to do, my daughter finally developed an imagination. She now likes to pass the time by writing and illustrating books for her little sister. As I write this, all three kids are building a house from a cardboard box for their turtles, which happen to be rocks decorated to look like turtles. They have learned how to rely on themselves and to amuse themselves, all thanks to boredom. And best of all, they are now rarely bored. Dorothy Parker summed it up beautifully: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

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Precocious kids

Boo is freaking me out figuring out how to write all by herself. She figured out how to write her name ages ago, then went to work on the rest of her family. Letter’s are very personal to her – N is mommy’s letter, M is Maya’s, etc. The other day, I came into her room to find she’d written her name, with last initial, on all of her drawers (so everyone would know whose they are, like we’d get confused). When I questioned how she figured out the last initial, she explained that I had told her that her last name begins with H, then made a huh sound. Then said her friend Hannah’s name begins with an H – huh – so she remembered how Hannah made her letter and just did it the same. I was so impressed I forgot to be annoyed that she’d written all over her dresser.

She also likes to amuse herself in the car by writing down lyrics to songs she invents. This involves demanding I spell sentences and she randomly writes the letters down on a pad of paper. It goes like this:

“How do you spell ‘We are from a family?”

“W.”

“How do I do a W?”

“It’s like an upside down M.”

“Okay.”

“E.”

“Is that Emma’s letter?”

“Yes.”

“A.”
”I know that! It’s Asher’s letter!”

“E.”

“Okay.”

“F.”

“What’s that one?”

“It’s like an E, but missing the bottom line.”

“Okay.”

And so on. Keeps her endlessly amused.

We think she’s brilliant, of course, but we have the perspective of our experience with Maya to keep us grounded. She was a very similar preschooler, and has turned into a perfectly bright but normal kid, not freakishly smart or anything.

I’m going to take this opportunity to post the first column I ever got published. It is long, sorry about that, but you can always skip it if you want. But it fits right into this topic. It is about a year and a half old now.

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My eldest child was a precocious baby. She walked at 10 months old, spoke in full sentences before she was a year and a half old and was toilet trained a month later. We thought she was the most marvelous child ever.

She grew and we had two more children. Our others did not display the same remarkable abilities, and after a few years, we realized that our first no longer did either. Now eight years old, she is a fairly intelligent child who works hard at school and gets pretty good marks. We still think she is marvelous.

In discussing programs for gifted kids with a friend of mine, I pointed out that like my daughter, some children are precocious when young, but it does not guarantee genius. This friend asked me what ‘enrichment’ we had provided, and assured me that her genius was just lying dormant. If we gave her the right opportunities, her natural brilliance would once again shine through. It is as thought she thinks we keep the kid locked up in a cupboard when she is not at school.

The assumption was that as parents we have failed to nurture our daughter’s genius. It is our fault, for not putting her in fencing, violin and tennis, for not buying her the right toys and computer games, or waving flash cards in her face at dinnertime.

Instead of understanding that she was insulting my parenting skills, my friend believed she was reassuring me. Once I fixed my parenting problems, my child would once again shine. But I do not need my child to be a genius. Since when did average get to be such a bad thing?

All parents think their kids are wonderful – clever, bright and cute. But now it seems that many parents only feel validated if the rest of the world also recognizes their child’s brilliance. This attitude puts incredible pressure on both children and parents, especially if the child is ‘just’ normal.

Judith Warner, author of “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” suggests that mothers, in particular, behave this way because modern society forces them to. Without social responsibility for families, she argues, mothers must force their children to excel in order to be successful.

I don’t quite buy it. I do not believe there was a time when society as a whole held itself more responsible for children, and yet my mother and grandmother did not feel this compulsion to prove theirs was the most brilliant child around. Their concern was not that Junior be the best, the smartest, the most gifted. They hoped simply for their kids to grow up and get a decent job, marry well and be reasonably happy.

I do not have an answer as to why my generation is compelled to prove little Tiffany or James is so remarkable. Perhaps it is because we are the first generation to grow up with a mind-boggling abundance of media, and we believe everyone deserves that 15 minutes of fame. Since we have not gotten it for ourselves, we will get it for little Tiffany.

I do know we are doing our children no favours if we raise them to believe that achievement is everything. For one thing, not everyone can grow up to be the best. We will end up with a generation of children who either think of themselves as failures because they are not first at anything, or who nurture a deep resentment because the rest of the world has failed to recognize their genius.

More importantly, all this emphasis on what a child achieves can mean we are failing to teach them what is truly important. We are not focusing on raising good people.

Joseph Telushkin is an American rabbi and author who frequently speaks and writes about parenting issues. In a speech several months ago in Ottawa, he pointed out that parents communicate their values to their children through praise, and when they save their highest praise for academic or sporting achievements, their children come to understand that achievement is of paramount importance. And he asks what happens to the child who does not excel in school or sports. When are they praised?

Imagine our world, said Rabbi Telushkin, if all parents reserved their highest praise for a child’s good deeds. We would raise a generation of children who valued kindness and charity above all.

I am not suggesting that children cannot be academically or athletically gifted and also kind people. All I am saying is that even if your children are not gifted in any way at all, even if none of their achievements are outstanding, as long you raise them to care about the world and the people around them, you will have raised the most successful children of all.

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