Because I’m All About that Base, ’bout that Base, ’bout that (Data)base

Okay, it almost works. I’ve had that damned song stuck in my head all day because of this awesome video of what the song would sound like in the 1940s. I’m slightly obsessed with it.

Let that be your background song as you read this post.

Who am I kidding? You’re transfixed and you’re not even paying attention to this. I’ll give you another couple minutes to enjoy being transported back in time.

And speaking of the past…I return you now to the yeshiva where Erin, the earnest gentile (non-Jew), is working away furiously at her computer, learning the database program as fast as her brain can rewind to pre-Windows software days. Yes, yes, if you’re thinking Oregon Trail on an Apple IIe you’re in the ballpark, at least visually. Except that despite its ancient-looking interface, its capabilities were vast (and vastly underutilized). I might have been able to launch a bochur (young unmarried male, especially a yeshiva student) to the moon if I’d been given training. But…training costs money and I was adequately consistent in my ability to know just enough to get by without.

And yet there was this particular non-software issue that tripped me up at first:

Note that Jews outside of Israel usually have two given names: one in Hebrew and one in the language of their birthplace. The latter name usually appears on the child’s birth certificate, but the Hebrew name is what he or she would be called in religious circles and functions. (from Judaism for Dummies)

Yaakov = Jacob

Dovid = David

Shmuel = Sam

Ahron = Aaron

Tzvi or Zvi = Ted

Yehoshua = Joshua

Moshe = Mark

Mordechai = Michael

You get the idea. So imagine how easy it was for me to miss that the Moshe and Rivka Goldstein in the database were the same couple listed on their check as Marc and Rebecca Goldstein (totally made-up names, by the way). If you’ve ever done data entry or maintained a database, you can imagine how this could lead to many a duplicate record in the system.

This multiple-name issue also complicated student record keeping. Which name should print on transcripts? Which should print on student identification cards? What about mailing labels? Reports? Diplomas? The legal or the Hebrew? Or is the legal the Hebrew? Or is the legal the English? Oh my! In a parallel universe there might be a policy, simple as: “X name prints on X thing.” At a yeshiva? At a yeshiva with an unruly database, no less? Policy, schmolicy.

So after some trial and error I became proficient at transliterating the names in my head. I also became quite proficient at merging database records and reprinting transcripts and diplomas and lists and mailing labels… It was meshuga (crazy) at its finest. “Welcome to the yeshiva family! Oh, and women aren’t allowed to be heard singing, so please turn down whatever that video is that’s playing on your computer.” 😉





Please Don’t Make Me Answer the Phone!

My first days of work at the yeshiva were anxiety-inducing because:

a) I actually wore pantyhose?

b) I broke a kosher rule immediately and felt embarrassed?

c) I was petrified to answer the phone because the people on the other end weren’t speaking English?

d) I was behind on getting my elder care certification?

As the title of the post reveals, it was most certainly…all of the above. But mostly C.

My very first phone call was from a woman speaking incredibly quickly. I thought I heard her ask something about Mishloach Manos but that term meant nothing to me. So I ran to my woman boss: “Umm, there’s someone on the phone asking about something like Mishloach Manos–does that mean anything to you?” Then someone called to say he wanted to give a Yahrtzeit donation. Then another called because he didn’t receive a receipt for his Yizkor donation. And all of these people, in addition to using words I’d never heard, were all sucking on marbles. What should have been sentences made up of individual words were instead long run-on phrases like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious spoken with an east-coast tinge of anger and impatience and delivered with the energy of Dementors.

And it was just as bad with visitors, whose mouths I could see opening and closing but whose words I could not comprehend. Ancient men came from towns all over Europe collecting on behalf of their charities. They all knew Rabbi and asked for him by name. (I will henceforth call the head honcho Rabbi either just “Rabbi” or “my Rabbi” to distinguish him from the multitude of other Rabbis at the school–and because it makes me chuckle to act as if I have a Rabbi of my very own. I would find it just as funny to have a priest or pastor of my own, for the record.) That part–Rabbi’s name–and only that part, I understood. I would escort the men into Rabbi’s office and there would be an eruption of conversation that sounded like German mixed with Pig Latin…Oh! That would be Yiddish.

Yiddish (ייִדיש, יידיש or אידיש, yidish/idish, literally “Jewish”) is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews. It originated during the 9th century in Central Europe, providing the pre-existing language of the nascent Ashkenazi community with an extensive Germanic based vocabulary.

Great. So in my first days at Yeshiva I’d heard English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and even a bit of what is called “Yeshivish.”

Yeshivish (Yiddish: ישיביש), refers to a sociolect of English spoken by Yeshiva students and other Jews with a strong connection to the Orthodox Yeshiva world.

A sociolect?!! Guess what I did upon getting home every night during those first weeks. Yep. I walked the animals, fed the animals, spoke sweet nothings to the animals, then went to bed. I was in a full-on language immersion program that I didn’t see coming.


Thankfully, between my love of words and my love of being thrown into uncomfortable situations (not), I knew how to handle the situation. I became SpongeBobJewishSkirt. I let my brain totally relax and I let the stimuli rush in without fixating on any of it. I let my ears get used to the sounds, I let context give definition to strange words, I asked for explanations but even then I let the answers wash over me like water in the shower. And before long, I had adjusted. My head had wrapped around these new beautiful words and made a home for them in the synaptic connections of my brain. I was used to looking frum, I was passable as an unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman, and I was no longer afraid to answer the phone.

I’m Not an Orthodox Jew but I Play One on TV

The evading started the moment I walked in the door for my interview.

My thought bubble: “Don’t reach out to shake his hand, don’t reach out to shake his hand, don’t reach out to shake his hand.” (Touching between men and women is not okay in the Orthodox Jewish community unless two people are married to each other…and even then it’s only okay sometimes.)

Man Boss #1: “Well, hi! Great to meet you. So how do you know Cruela?” (She will also be referred to at random as Girl #0.)

My thought bubble: “Oh shit, I knew he would ask that. Don’t cuss–there’s NO cussing here! Not even in your head because it might spill out accidentally! How do I know her? Ummm, okay, I can’t say that we’re dating. I could say she’s a girlfriend and that wouldn’t be too far off the mark…”

Me: “I met her at a party one night; we share a close mutual friend.” Okay…not bad, all true…what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him (or me)…

And so this became the story that Cruela and I perpetrated whenever asked how we knew each other. (She worked for a sister organization of the yeshiva, so if I knew someone, it was likely she also knew that someone). It was nice to have an established script because, quite frankly, we’re both shit liars and for largely the same reason: Neither of us has a good enough memory to make things up that aren’t true.

The interview went well, my references gave glowing reviews of my previous performances (wondering quietly why the hell I was choosing to take this job), and before I knew it, I was being welcomed into the “yeshiva family.”

The first order of business was to raid my nearby thrift store for ALL the long skirts it had in my size. For this gig, I would be expected to wear skirts that were at least knee length (pants were NO JOKE not an option) and my shirts were expected to be at least three-quarter sleeve and have a high enough neckline to cover any hint, any whisper, any possibility of cleavage. Shoes were expected to be close-toed unless there was hosiery underneath.

Here’s Emma Watson looking the part (the flats seal the deal):

FrumEmmaWatsonThis way of dressing is an essential requirement of being frum, which means the following:

The Yiddish frum, meaning devout or pious, means committed to the observance of the 613 commandments of Orthodox Judaism. This appellation is generally, but not only, applied to Orthodox Jews, and used by that group as a self-reference. (per Wikipedia)

I often heard it used in such instances as, “So and So was raised frum but is no longer” or “She became frum later in life.” In my case, as a female employee of a boys’ school, I was expected to look ultra-frum (haha–that’s redundant!) in my manner of dress so as not to give the boys any ideas–especially because I was on the younger and bustier side.

Now truly, not being an Orthodox Jewish female, I got off easy on the clothing requirements. Were I Orthodox and married to a man, for example, I would have been required to wear a sheitel (aka wig, pronounced “shaytl”). It is the custom that once married, nobody but a woman’s husband will ever again see her actual hair. The explanation I was given for this by a younger woman in the community is that they perceive of a woman’s hair as a form of self-expression. By keeping this a secret shared between only the woman and her husband, it becomes a sacred, intimate, and private thing.

A good sheitel is not cheap. The better the sheitel, the more real hair it will use. And one sheitel generally won’t do. Most women have at least two–one for everyday wear and one for Shabbos (which I’ll elaborate on in a future post). My frum friend told me she has a few of those foam head-forms on her dresser and that’s how she stores her sheitels when they aren’t in use. I’m thinking that could scare the hell out of hubby on a middle-of-the-night bathroom run in the dark!

sheitels on foam headsA good sheitel is truly almost indistinguishable from real hair. Because I wasn’t expecting it (in all my ignorance of Orthodox Jewish culture), I was a bit shocked the first time I realized my woman boss was wearing a wig. She scratched her head and the whole unit of hair shifted back and forth in a suspicious way. I felt super stupid for not realizing it sooner, and from that point forward I couldn’t unknow that the women were wearing sheitels. I enjoyed observing the various levels of qualities and styles. There are even women in the community who specialize in cutting and styling sheitels. The perfect job for an introverted hair stylist!

It takes a newly married woman some time to get used to wearing a sheitel because they are hot and itchy. The learning curve sounds steep, rough, and mostly unavoidable. The thing most women prefer to use as a hair cover, especially when minding the children and cooking and cleaning, is known as a snood (rhymes with food, not wood). This is a blingy one, but it gives you the idea:

blingy snood

Not being an expert on this topic, I’m going to refer to this cool blog I just found called Wrapunzel. If you’re curious to know more about head covering, why it’s done, how it’s done, what the possibilities are…this seems to be a great resource.

My particular frum style turned out to be quite hideous. I brought the laziness to it that I bring to all endeavors involving putting clothes on my body. I had a few skirts that I alternated with the same five tops. I never wore jewelry or makeup. Sometimes I was only minutes out of bed before reporting for duty. Only my footwear changed with the seasons. I figured, “Hell, you want me to look unattractive to these boys? No problem!”

I was always happy to see other frum women looking cute, though. 😉

Oy Vey! You’re Writing About WHAT?!

This post is dedicated to Carey, a woman I am humbled to call friend. She is brilliant, creative, passionate, empathic, and totally comfortable with both power and vulnerability. She’s the smartest (and therefore sexiest) person I know and she inspires me by example not to be complacent. I’m infinitely grateful to have her in my life.

The other night we were catching up after a long spell of not seeing each other and I was telling her (and the people to either side of us, I suspect) stories about the couple of years I worked for the Orthodox Jews. I mentioned that I’ve wanted to blog about it but that I hadn’t figured out how to balance telling my stories with being PC (because boy have I been nailed to the cross for not being PC!). She told me in her gentle manner to get over it…so I did. Thanks, Carey. You opened a massive can of worms.

Let us begin:

Yeshiva is a Hebrew word meaning generally “a Jewish school for religious instruction.” Also:

1) a school for talmudic study

2) an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical seminary

3) a Jewish day school providing secular and religious instruction

(Does anyone else’s brain read “seminary” as “cemetary?” Mine does…and then has a great laugh. Haha!!)

Anyway, the yeshiva I worked at is a boarding school for boys in grades 9 through 12. There’s also a Beis Medrash (college program).

Here’s what I mean when I say Orthodox Jew:

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis Rally In Protests Against Army Drafts

This is also an Orthodox Jew, of the Chasidic variety, and this is NOT who I’m talking about (notice the difference in hair and hat):


The men of my yeshiva keep a lock of hair long enough to tuck behind each ear but they don’t do the long side curls that the Chasids wear. Their black hats are a source of great pride, especially among the younger men (and yes, the kippah, which is synonymous with yarmulke, which is pronounced yamaka, is still worn under the hat).


This is a society in which hat boxes are a common thing—among the men! How cool is that? Some of the students even had these plastic hat-carrying devices that helped them transport their very expensive hats safely as they traveled.

Now hopefully we’re clear on exactly which Jews I’m talking about.

You Worked Where?!

My general modus operandi in life is to see every situation as an opportunity to observe myself and those around me. I’m the lab rat of my own reality and in this particularly long experiment the name of the game was

“Don’t pin the kippah on the DYKE because, Baruch Hashem,

she’s a woman and we’re Orthodox and that’s NOT okay.

Oh, and what do you mean by dyke?”

This, my friends, is the first of many posts I will share about my experiences working for the Orthodox Jews. I will endeavor to educate, draw lines, blur lines, offend (inadvertently but most inevitably), and entertain.

Walking into the yeshiva every day was stepping into a world that is not mine. It’s also a world that has very little room for someone like me. It was a fantastic and oftentimes beautiful adventure, though, and one I look forward to sharing.