By Rivki Silver
Being a Ba’al Teshuvah or Ger is sort of like being pregnant. Pregnant women are often bombarded with all sorts of personal questions from complete strangers.“When are you due? What are you having? Are you going to have more? Are you happy to be having this baby?” Well, random person behind me on line at Target, I wasn’t really looking to discuss family planning during this shopping trip.
When people encounter someone with a secular past, a very similar phenomenon can occur – curiosity goes way up and common courtesy goes way down. While Ba’alei Teshuvah may have different backgrounds and a somewhat more limited reach in Jewish geography, focusing unduly on the past does zero favors to anyone. Our past is where we come from, but it doesn’t define us.
At the end of the day, we all have similar struggles: to remember to take the wet swimsuit out of the camp bag, juggle all our carpools, pick up caffeine pills before Tisha B’Av and to balance all the personal, communal and spiritual responsibilities we have as Jews.
Here are the top five questions to avoid asking:
- Can you tell me your story?
There you are at a Shabbos table, and you find out that the person sitting next to you didn’t grow up frum. It’s so natural to be curious, and it’s true that everyone has a story, but it’s also true that not everyone wants to or is able to tell their story. Just because someone made an inspiring choice doesn’t obligate them to inspire you on demand. Maybe they’re a very private person. Or maybe they’re comfortable with being open about their past, but they just want to eat their kugel in peace.
- Do you miss eating treif?
First of all, it’s prohibited to remind someone of aveiros they did, so don’t do that. Second of all, why would you want to remind them of the days when they could eat literally anywhere they wanted? Going from having all the choices to only kosher choices is not easy. Also, asking them if McDonald’s fries are really as good as everyone says they are (they aren’t) isn’t going to truly satisfy your curiosity.
- So you won’t have to sit shiva for your parents?
I hope I don’t have to explain this.
- Does your family accept you?
Well, how’s your relationship with your mother-in-law? What’s the level of shalom in your family chat? Family is complicated; relationships take work and aren’t always smooth sailing. Maybe everything is fine in the family. Maybe it’s an incredibly sore topic and you just dredged up a whole bunch of painful memories. At the end of the day, no one’s family dynamics are your business, so skip this question.
- Do you regret making the choice to become frum?
Have you ever been 100% sure 100% of the time about your major life decisions? Have you never encountered challenges and pain that made you, however briefly, rethink certain parts of your life? On the DMC podcast, we’ve discussed the reality of the very normal fluctuations in our religious life on more than one occasion. It’s a lifelong journey and there are going to be ups and downs, for those born into a life of observance as well as those who chose it later.
If you’re thinking to yourself “But I’ve asked people these questions before and they didn’t seem to mind!” That could very well be the case! Sometimes people like discussing these topics. I personally don’t mind fielding most questions about my background, and I’ve also learned how to redirect a conversation when I’m not in the mood to get personal.
Different people have different comfort levels about discussing their past, and a good rule of thumb is that if you don’t know someone well enough to know what they’re sensitive about, err on the side of caution and stick to more pareve topics of conversation. Like politics.
By Rivki Silver
Rivki Silver is co-host of the Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast, a Meaningful Minute Podcast. She is a regular contributor to Family First Magazine and also plays music for all the local day schools in Cleveland, where she lives with her family.
13 comments on “Top 5 Things NOT to Say to A BT”
But sometimes one does want to answer some of those questions, that has to be “balanced in”. Just a thought.
I think what the author is saying is – if you don’t know the person super well, you won’t know if they do or do not want to answer. So don’t ask. You have more to lose ie hurting the person than to gain ie satisfying your own curiosity.
Ya but not always is it for sake of curiosity. Some people are looking for inspiration and growth by learning from one another. Also, a person can say they’d rather not share. Sometimes it’s hard to draw a line. Though I understand how it can be putting them on the spot. Also when someone says can you share your story you can choose what to say and how brief you want to go. I don’t think it’s bad though we should be careful with our words always and think before we speak.
We’re long time BTs and have enjoyed being asked and sharing. It uplifts everyone.
Debby I agree with you 1000%. To quote my mother “everyone is different”. I think it’s unrealistic to expect FFBs to tiptoe around the phenomenon and it can be inspirational for them. If someone is uncomfortable with a personal question they can always create their ‘go – to’ response…as in I only talk about this once I know someone well or it’s a long story etc etc. The world is full of curious people. As it should be.
My husband is a BT, and he would be comfortable with most if not all the comments/questions.
That said, like ALL people, religious, not religious, Jewish, not Jewish, rich, poor, young or old, some people are more private than others. You need to assess your situation and take your cues from the person you have met. That’s true in all areas of life. And this is most especially crucial when meeting someone who chooses to be an observant Jew.
When I had on two separate occasions given birth, a few months later the same women met me in Shul and asked when the baby was due. She hadn’t learned her lesson the first time, when my reply was thanks, but that I actually had given birth a few months prior. After making her second faux pas, two years later, when she realized she had made the very same gaffe twice (and despite my not saying anything pointed to her), she said a quick good Shabbos and I never saw her again. She was a nice person, too. No one wants to feel embarrassed, so it is really crucial to think before we speak. Especially when you don’t know if someone is expecting or just struggling with her weight.
These are all my favorite questions! haha. I understand these might be private and a frum person should know that its Asur to remind someone of their past if it involved sinning. Let me tell you about the time i tried to eat eel! it was so salty and gross. I really do miss chipotle when I think about it but most things are out of sight out of mind. Does my family accept me? Acceptance vs Approval is a big thing. If someone isn’t frum they obviously don’t approve or agree with frum life but accept it otherwise they would be frum themselves. Ok the shiva for your parents thing is like omg. I think I may have accidentally said something like that once to a convert. Not a good thing. Asking someone at the table to tell everyone your story can be publically embarrassing since most people are deathly afraid of speaking publically. However, duties of the heart says something like we can’t get into heaven if we don’t inspire others about Judaism… so if your story of finding G-d isn’t inspiring then maybe you havn’t found G-d because by definition its AWEsome!
Can you tell me your story? – I have no problem telling my story. If it can inspire one person its worth it. Many FFB’s appreciate it and are amazed.
Do you miss eating treif?
They are just curious. I dont mind the question.
So you won’t have to sit shiva for your parents?
Maybe I haven’t learned enough halacha yet but i know many BT’s who have sat shiva for their parents.
Does your family accept you? Also, I have a great relationship with my non frum parent’s vis a vis my choice to become frum, I am happy to discuss.
Do you regret making the choice to become frum?
This is also a great opportunity to express how regardless of my life not being perfect, after 20 years of being BT, i NEVER have regretted my choice. Its inspiring to others to hear that.
This is just my experience. I understand that not everyone is as comfortable with questions, but most people are just curious.
Just as a follow up to my own comment, I think the message I got out of this which I agree with 100% is that there is a right time and place for everything and some people are less comfortable than others answering questions and we should all do our best to be sensitive to that. Thanks for the article!
I just want to say that I am BT and I LOVE being asked these questions and sharing my story. I feel so grateful for the life I have been blessed with and am thrilled to share the light with others and lessons I’ve learned from my past. I am not ashamed or trying to bury my past, I build on it to become the strongest and fullest version of myself. Of course it is important to respect the space of people not interested in sharing, but what a shame if people are afraid to ask someone who actually is open and excited to share.
Rivki, this was great! So well said well written and funny. It’s been passed around a BT group I am part of, we loved it. All the commentors who like telling their story and or answering the questions Rivki describes : Great! Go ahead! No one is stopping you. But the point here is, some of us get really tired of it. Or it feels intrusive or inappropriate to some of us, and or we just aren’t in the mood that day. Especially after decades of being frum, it can get old. So it’s just a watch out warning for those who may miss the point that not everyone wants to talk about their own personal business when others ask.
I think everyone is different. An FFB can NOT assume that a BT is willing to share their story so quickly. Especially because its not something that happens in one day, its over the course of many years and a major emotional upheaval in most circumstances(speaking from personal experience). Most people are well meaning and see everyone as part of their “family” so they have no issue asking anything to anyone. It’s not an easy cultural nuance to pick up on. In short, the sensitive people will take heed to this and the insensitive(even well meaning) will hopefully read this and get a clearer picture that not everyone enjoys sharing their life story while eating cholent.
Correction a baal tsheuvah has to sit shiva for their parents if they were Jewish. Only a Ger does not.