1 JAN 2020
The following article about me was posted in Ami Magazine
Becoming Frum As shared by Jan Buckler
Right around the time I turned 40, my family and I, conservative Jews, were at a Pesach program in Arizona. “What’s the difference between nissim and niflaos?” the scholar in residence asked during his first class. He leaned forward on his shtender and scanned the small crowd for an answer. Then he handed out study materials with copies of the Gemara that his answer was based on.
I’d never seen anything like it—the heavy text down the middle with smaller passages in various fonts filling the sides. I could work out which side of the page was up, but I had no idea what the rabbi meant when he referenced Rashi or Tosfos, and I had no direction on how to find them on the page.
Although I couldn’t follow the sources, I still appreciated the class. The scholar in residence led trains of thought through a complex map of Talmudic discussions and advanced theories in physics. As someone with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, I appreciated being introduced to a deep side of Judaism that I’d never encountered in my years of conservative sermons. When the rabbi’s intense back and forth came to an end, I immediately made a mental note to sit in on all his classes that yom tov.
When the rabbi quoted a Gemara, a few learners would join in to compare passages or offer a contradicting opinion from another masechta. They were equipped with knowledge that I didn’t have, something I mulled over several times during that week. I’d lived four decades as a traditional Jew—kiddush on Friday nights followed by TV; fully kosher at home, kosher style when we ate out—and yet I never heard of something as foundational as Talmud.
I was still thinking about the gap in my Torah knowledge a few weeks later when I was meeting the mashgiach from the Pesach program for lunch in Manhattan. While waiting for him to arrive at the restaurant, I scanned the notices on the bulletin board at the front door. One of them, yellowed around the edges and too brittle to even sway breeze much in the breeze, was an ad for Partners in Torah, a program that paired study partners. That evening I punched in the number that I had copied down and called to arrange my first Gemara chavrusa. A rabbi from Young Israel and I began learning Maseches Brachos one night per week.
A few months after tip-toeing into the world of Talmud, I switched jobs. Every day, a coworker walked by my desk dressed in a suit, tie, and hat. Obviously he was Jewish so one day I stopped him and asked where he was headed. When he replied that he was on his way to daven Mincha, I asked if I could join him. At mid-day, we’d join the minyan in the Aguda offices on 84 William Street, just across from where we worked.
We arranged to arrive 15 minutes before minyan so we could exchange ideas about the parsha. One day, the doors to the beis medrash were opened early and I saw the conference table full of towering fruit platters and heavy trays of cake. I was given a seat and began to partake.
“Who gets the mazal tov?” I asked the person closest to me, assuming that they were celebrating a recent simcha.
“All of us,” he answered. “We just made a siyum.”
Even though I had learned some of Brachos, I still had no idea what a siyum was. I gestured to the laden spread, “Can we make another siyum like this tomorrow?”
“You’re out of luck,” the man told me. “The gap between this siyum and the next, Bava Basra, is the longest.” I tilted my head in confusion, after which he realized that I had no idea what a siyum was. “I’ll tell you what though,” he said after explaining, “We can’t have this spread every day, but if you join our daf yomi shiur I will at least make sure that there’s always fresh coffee and cookies.”
It took a week for me to rearrange my schedule, after which I began leaving work for an hour mid-day to join the shiur. I would sit at the table with cookies and a cup of coffee and try to follow along in my fresh-off-the-press Bava Basra Artscroll gemara.
Time and again, I was enchanted when the ancient texts had morals that were significant in my 20th century life. The worlds described in the Talmud captivated me and the shallow sermons at the conservative synagogue we drove to each Shabbos lost their rapture. There was no room there to grow in the way that Talmud prescribed.
“Am I studying Gemara because it’s an intellectual exercise or because I want to live the life I am learning about?” I asked myself during almost every line of Maseches Shabbos. By the time we made the siyum I was no longer driving to shul.
When it was clear to me that I wanted the frum life as my own, I scheduled a meeting with a local Orthodox rabbi. He’d spoken with many a baal teshuva before and knew exactly what I needed: “There’s a great program in Israel—why don’t you go there for 12 weeks?”
“Rabbi, I’m married,” I explained. “I can’t just uproot and leave town for a few months.”
He thought for a minute and leafed through some more pamphlets on his desk. “Oh, look at this one. It’s in America so you can stay local.”
“What about my job?” I wondered. The rabbi was out of brochures that could help. None of the programs he knew catered to me, because at 40 something years old, I was far from the traditional baal teshuva. Instead I continued with my shiurim, learned from my home and built a new life by taking one step at a time and trying not to slip backward.
The small changes meant many tearful nights and angry mornings in our home. When you build a home with someone, you start by choosing a direction and set expectations on how to get there. What happens when someone decides to pave a different road?
“Where’s Jan,” our friends would ask my wife and grown children when, again, they showed up to shul alone. My wife didn’t know how to answer, how to kindly explain that I prefered to daven at home than in the shul where we had history. Being the only frum person in our home put a strain on our family that left painful, visible scars.
Meanwhile, I spent more and more hours on daf yomi. In order to try to keep up with the experienced learners, I arranged to study with a chavrusa before the shiur. And as much as the chavrusa and the shiur itself helped me, I wanted to know the information well enough for it to remain in my head for a while. When I heard about a noontime shiur with Rabbi Feivel Mashinsky, a Klausenberg Chossid, I joined that as well. I sat spellbound as Reb Feivy explained the sugya, his clear narration often peppered with stories about the previous Klausenberger Rebbe.
My college years at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, a federal academy similar to West Point, drilled the discipline needed for the extensive studying. I also learned that it was a matter of priority; if understanding the daf was important to me, I would bring a sefer to learn in the waiting room at the doctor, or the subway, sleep less, and drink many cups of coffee.
Five years later, my wife joined me in becoming frum. And then five years after she was chozer bteshuva, she was diagnosed with cancer. It only took fourteen months for her to leave us.
After the grief thinned, I met a woman at a Shabbos meal who later mentioned that her family was Klausenberger Chassidim. I flashed back to the hours listening to stories in Rabbi Mashinsky’s shiur and knew she and I would marry her. There was no greater comfort than a connection stemming back to the very reason I chose this life.
After my latest siyum, my new brothers-in-law mentioned the milestone to the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Shmiel Dovid Halberstam Shlit”a. “I want to be at your next siyum,” the Rebbe told me the next time I spoke to him.
“Unfortunately you’ll have to wait seven more years,” I pointed out, taking a moment to appreciate that I’d gone from being ignorant about the Talmud to personally discussing my studying with this great goan.
No, the Rebbe shook his head and held up three fingers.
This summer, three years from my meeting with the Rebbe, I plan to b’ezras Hashem make my fifth siyum in Daf Yomi. In addition to the usual page of daf yomi, I stay on track by studying three additional amudim a day. I am also a maggid shiur one day per week at two local shuls. With whatever free time I have left after my long work day, I’m completing an app that can be found on www.22lookup.net that will help people who are learning Gemara. It’s fair to say that Talmud saturates most of my day.
It’s been a long journey from when I first saw the tzuras hadaf twenty five years ago. Oftentimes it’s a struggle, but it’s always rewarding. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as I prepare to finish the Shas for the fifth time, it’s that even when one cycle of learning ends, the pages don’t turn themselves.