The Kindness of Strangers and Our First Shabbat in the RV

My heart is full today.  Yes, it is snowing again and the roads are a mess and the Spring that seemed so close by last weekend now feels like it has fled south to the lower 48, but…this weekend is our first weekend in our Shabbat RV and we have invitations to both Seders from a wonderful family for Pesach!

If you can’t tell from my words, every time I think of both of these things, I nearly scrunch up my face in glee, like my daughter when she gets a new stuffed animal.  It’s that kind of joy.

The RV was our Rabbi’s idea, the practical answer to a halakhic issue, but in true Alaskan style.  Since our house is too far from the shul to walk on Shabbat, we will camp out in the shul parking lot in our tiny 22 foot RV.  Mr. Safek has carefully combed over every manual for the RV, figuring out what can and can’t be done to make sure the RV itself is shomer Shabbat (following all the laws of Shabbat).  I’ve cleaned it almost as much as the rest of the house this month, adding to the already long list for Passover preparations.  The kids have tested it out and figured out which sleeping spot is theirs.  Now, tonight, it’s really going to be put to the test.

Candle lighting times (the time when Shabbat begins) edge later and later now and we don’t light tonight until up to 8:26, so the plan is for an early dinner, then drive to shul, park and prepare, and then light candles and make the blessings over wine and bread there, with dessert as a treat before the blessings after bread and tumbling into bed.  Similarly, the days are long here and we won’t be doing havadalah (the blessings that end Shabbat) until 10:15 Saturday night.  Soon, we’ll probably just go to sleep in the RV Saturday night, waking to do havdalah.  It’s always better to add more time to Shabbat than take any away and it won’t be long before havdalah is in the middle of the night for us.

But for now, I’m just happy knowing we’re getting back to being (mostly) shomer Shabbos again.  We’ll still need to intentionally do some melachah before havdalah if we haven’t made any mistakes because non-Jews are forbidden to fully keep Shabbat, but this helps us prepare for the day when we can, G-d willing.

Conversion candidates are often at the mercy of the kindness of others, but one of the good things about that is that we’re often surprised by just how kind others can be.  Being in a position of needing help means that you sometimes get to see the very best of someone and you also give them an opportunity to help.

So it is with our Passover Seder invitations.

In the 7 years we’ve had Passover Seders, we’ve had plenty of guests, usually a rowdy bunch of non-Jewish friends who didn’t quite get what we were doing, but really enjoyed the food and novelty.  However, the kids and I have never sat at someone else’s Seder table.  We’ve sung songs my husband couldn’t teach us the tunes to, making up our own tunes.  Even if he where he remembers them, music, singing, and carrying tunes is not among Mr. Safek’s many talents, so we’re on our own.  For a few years, I made an amazing Yemenite Charoset…not realizing it was kitniyos (a food that Ashkenazic Jews won’t eat on Passover).  I learned to cook for Seders from recipe books and we collected haggadahs (books that have the text for the Seder and sometimes commentaries) to liven our Seders up.

But, I’ve always longed to be at someone else’s Seder, to experience a “real” Seder among Jews.  I’ve always wanted to hear the tunes to the songs, the “real” tunes.

This year…we have that chance!

There was some nervousness when we were invited after the initial, “YES!!  What gift can we give them for hosting?!”  My heart sunk as I realized they might have invited us without knowing our halakhic status.  I didn’t want to tell the kids in case they got their hopes up.  Mr. Safek discretely spoke with the head of the family, just to be sure he understood our unique situation and to let him know we would not be offended if they couldn’t host us.  Different communities have different customs when it comes to having non-Jews at Yom Tov meals, let alone Seders.  In one community, we were allowed at lunch meals on Yom Tovs (festivals), but not dinner.

Happily, Mr. Safek was told that the family already knew and that we were definitely still welcome.

To me, that a Jewish family would be so generous to host a family of four in our circumstances is not a small thing at all.  For one, kosher food is not cheap in Alaska and that is four more mouths to feed.  For another, often there are tricky halakhic issues to deal with when hosting non-Jews.  It helps that the husband of the family is a Rabbi himself, but it’s still an additional burden on a night when there’s a lot to keep track of.

My heart is full of gratitude and I feel like our little family is very blessed as we prepare for Passover.  May it be a taste of the freedom we also will one day enjoy after our long wanderings in the wilderness!

Unanswered Questions

When you’re a safek or part of a family with one, life is full of unanswered questions.  I often talk with Jews who casually mention calling their Rav’s for a question or that their Rabbi came by to show them how to do something and I have to remind myself that, one day, that may be our reality.

For now, though, we have Rabbi’s we can ask, but it’s never been a sure thing that they will answer.  There are many reasons and I don’t blame the Rabbis for it.  Sometimes, the lack of answer is because they don’t want to make a ruling on something that really could be either way.  With my husband in particular, it’s hard for anyone to know what he really should and should not be observing.  Jewish law is tricky and often what is an obligation for a Jewish man is forbidden for a non-Jewish man.  This means that when a Rabbi can’t really be sure what a man is, any ruling could be wrong either way.

Another reason is simply time.  Most Rabbis lead amazingly hectic and rushed lives.  They do their best to balance the needs of their congregations with their large families and their own Torah study.  With limited time, they often have to kind of triage issues.  Issues affecting a known Jew necessarily take priority over the issues of someone who might be Jewish and whose family is verifiably not.  It’s not personal, but Rabbis only have so many hours in a day.  It also doesn’t help that conversion candidates often come and go.

It used to drive me crazy.  There are so many areas in Jewish law and practice where you’re told to “ask your Rabbi” so you can know how to apply this to your life.  We’re told we need to learn how to do these things for when we are converted.  Yet, very often when we bump up into a “ask your Rabbi” situation…there isn’t a Rabbi to ask or the answer we’re given might is evasive.  We eventually began joking that the next question we asked we’d probably receive an interpretive dance as a response.  More often, though, the answer comes in the form of…no response.  It’s as if the question never existed.  At first, I assumed this was by mistake and I’d ask the question again, but over time I learned that this only annoyed Rabbis, whose good will we depend on.

I keep asking, though, and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by a speedy answer.  I’m not surprised, though, when questions are left unanswered.  Other times, I’m given a vague answer without any further clarity because the Rabbi I’m asking doesn’t want to make a ruling.  I do my best to shake it off and not take it personally and then I go and try to figure out an answer, digging through what resources I have.  Even if it’s not the “right” answer, I try to find something that will at least work until the day there are answers.

They say you should never posken (make halakhic rulings based on Jewish law) for yourself, but I’m hoping it’s a habit we’ll be able to break one day.  Until then, we just do what we must as best we can and look forward to that day when answers are easier to find.

Joy of Small Communities

We pack, box after box of costumes and props, a veritable panorama of Egypt into our RV and I marvel at the irony of us carrying with us the imagery of Mitzrayim in our own veritable mobile Sukkah.  The Rabbi and his family were tired, up late the night before to prepare this experience for the children and families of the community, a kind of interactive Passover pageant of sorts.  It had been a big hit, but there were a lot of things that needed to be moved from the Chabad house back to the Rabbi’s house and their vehicles were filled up and there weren’t many strong arms to carry anything heavy.  We were moved to help.

Much as the Hebrews were moved to help in last week’s Parsha to build the Mishkan.  They donated their valuables and treasures until Moses had to tell them to stop.  Then, they all came together to do the work of building the Mishkan, the women spinning and weaving and the men hauling and carrying.  They were eager to participate, perhaps due to the sin of the golden calf previous, but maybe just because it feels good to give.  It feels good to be involved.  This really is the stuff that builds a community.

In small communities, which are the Jewish communities I’m most familiar with, every person counts.  A single man can make the difference between a Shabbat service with a minyan or without.  A single family coming or going can make a big difference.  And, anything the community puts on or does is a major group effort, even in Chabad communities, where most of the decisions are made by the Shluchim.  They still need the support and help of many people to help them achieve their vision.

It’s important for conversion candidates to show a commitment to the community, to pitching in and helping out, supporting their Jewish community both financially and with their time.  I think this is important because it shows that we realize that we’re in this together and that joining the Jewish faith also means throwing your lot in with the Jewish people.  It shows that it’s important to us to be contributing members of the community and it also helps bond newcomers to that community.

In small communities, there is a lot of communal effort.  We work together to figure out which store has which kosher product for the best price.  We work together to try to network and find people jobs who need them or services at a fair price.  We bring meals to those who need them and involve ourselves in the happiest and saddest times of community member’s lives.  On Shabbat, there was a bar mitzvah and the community welcomed guests unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism or maybe even any Judaism.  We sat, sprinkled among them, davening and trying to seem friendly and welcoming.  On Sunday, it was a time to lift and carry and move and clean to help out.  Today, my husband tries to help someone else with a dead car battery in between his work and errands.

And it feels good.  It feels like belonging, being needed.  In smaller communities, even if you can’t donate thousands of dollars to help, you can still contribute in ways that are important and vital.  Sadly, it also means that when anyone leaves, they leave a void that is difficult to fill.  A family we have grown close to and looked up to is leaving the community for job reasons and the entire community mourns.  Losing the father of the family means losing one of the few men who can easily step in as Gabbai at a moment’s notice and a consistently attending member of the minyan.  Losing the mother means losing one of the few observant women who isn’t a Chabad Rebbetzin, a source of inspiration for many.  Losing the children means 5 fewer children in the Hebrew school program, which in a small community…is a big loss.

Every Jew is essential, but I think it’s easier to really feel that in a small community.  Our joy at a bar mitzvah or other simcha is magnified, but so also is our sadness at losing community members through their passing or moving.

In the meantime, though, we unpacked the river nile and the wild beasts from our RV and into the Rabbi’s garage and rode home content and looking forward to next Shabbat, our first Shabbat in the RV and all the adventures ahead.

The Power of Wonder

Shifting colors, mostly green.  First, they look like clouds, then, they take form, shifting in the night sky.  It’s so cold, just shy of the arctic circle.  Still, I’ll never forget the first time I saw the northern lights.  We were north of Fairbanks, out in the woods, and it was the kind of cold winter night where the sky is so clear and it hurts to breathe in deeply.  I don’t know what the temperature was as the world waited a pause between October and November.  I looked up and noticed the strange, greenish ‘clouds” that seemed to be moving.

Like a lot of experiences in life, pictures never really capture the aurora borealis.

It moves and is mesmerizing, a river of light flowing through the sky.  You never quite know when it will begin or end, so it’s important to stop…notice…be still and watch while you can.

And remember to breathe once in a while.

I tend to hold my breath at moments like this, or when encountering a moose, or suddenly seeing an amazing view.  It’s like I’m subconsciously afraid that if I even make the tiny sound of breath that I will scare off that perfect moment and I just want to stay there, frozen in time, frozen in awe and wonder.  I can only imagine that this must be how Moses felt, hidden in the cleft of rock as G-d passed by, giving him a glimpse of His glory.

Nowhere have I had more glimpses than in Alaska.

Standing, in the cave of an ancient glacier, running a hand along the brilliant turquoise surface, tasting the melted water on my fingertips.  Seeing Denali rise up over the tundra in magnificence.  Watching salmon run back to where they spawned to do the same…and die.

All of these moments have a power to them to make me pause and to remind me of just how small I am compared to G-d’s creation, but also how precious that in the midst of all this, we were chosen as His favorite creations, the ones He gave the gift of looking back at him, seeking him freely, free will granted.  We were given the freedom to explore and adventure and climb and conquer as well as to stand still and draw inward.

That freedom and living someplace so endowed with wonder…is not something easy to give up in our winding journey to be Jews.  I have good, logical reasons why it’s the best decision for our family even if it wasn’t required by a Rabbinic court.  Our children’s Jewish education foremost among those.

Still, I find myself wanting to capture each of those moments of wonder in time, freeze them there, preserving that feeling for when I need it in the midst of the crushing masses of humanity in the city, and tap back into it.  My Torah has been all around me here and I have climbed it, slept sheltered in it, and adventured through it, but soon there will be a day I will need to seek it not in natural splendor, but within.  I won’t be able to simply wander off into my mountains to freshen up a shiur or regain my enthusiasm for a mitzvah.  I will need to look inside for that inspiration.

It’s as if I’ve been blessed to live in a place and time of outward miracles and now I must learn to live in the world most people already live in, one where G-d is more hidden and we must work harder to seek Him.

But tonight?  I’m chasing more auroras to pack away to help me on the journey.

Passover Prep – Alaska Style!

The sun is now up past bedtime.  It peeks through the little edges of the blackout shades, sneaking into the room, tiptoeing to my eyelids.  Granted, bedtime at the Safek household is around 9-9:30pm.  We hit the hay early and get up early.  But still, the sun is coming back, regaining his dominion over life here in the subarctic.

We are also fast entering that season that is unique to Alaska…breakup.  In other places, snow melts in a relatively orderly manner.  Here, it takes a month or so and is a season unto itself.  Everything is melting and then sometimes re-freezing, only to melt again.  Mud is everywhere.  Puddles are deep enough I’m a little nervous driving our all-wheel-drive truck through them.

It is against this dramatic backdrop that we prepare for Passover in Alaska.

For me, it fits.  It makes sense.  We have been buried in snow and cold for months, living in darkness.  The Jews of Exodus had their own winter of slavery.  Their spiritual life was dormant, buried.  They were in darkness and it probably seemed it would never end, that spring would never come.  Alaskans can certainly relate.  And yet, as Moses comes to them and they begin to see and experience the miracles G-d made, it’s much like their world thawed and burst open.  It’s messy and chaotic and beautiful and exciting.  The newly freed Jews are pulled into the light, blinking.

On a practical level, it means we generally do our Seders early, so that no one has to try to stay up for sundown and THEN an entire Seder.  Our Seders at least begin with sunshine that looks like mid-afternoon streaming through windows.  It’s hard for Eliyahu to sneak up to our house.  We try to drag things out past sundown to get a little darkness to help him out.

Passover in Alaska also means ordering…almost everything.  We have meat and basics shipped north from Seattle and place orders through our local Chabad house.  When the shipment comes in, everyone picks up their groceries on the same day.  We can’t count on much being available in the local stores.  They’ll often try to sell things that aren’t kosher for passover in the tiny display they do have, which isn’t labeled.  It’s a quiet endcap on a random aisle.  The fact we’re not doing gebrokts until the last day this year helps.  Our needs become smaller to fit what’s there and trying out this custom means we need fewer specialty Passover products.

And then, as always, there’s the conversion dimension.  Passover is one of the BIG holidays and it’s one that has special laws as to what a Jew can do and what a non-Jew can do.  Conversion candidates live in some space in-between the two.  A safek?  Even more so.  A regular conversion candidate is encouraged to keep as many of the Passover laws as they can, to practice for the day when they will be obligated.  They are encouraged to learn about kashering their kitchen for Passover and practice what they feel comfortable with, to clean out chametz and use it up or sell it, and to observe the Yom Tovim.  However, what they are able to participate in varies widely from community to community.  In some communities, they are not allowed to be invited to a Jew’s home for a Yom Tov meal.  In others, they can be invited for a Yom Tov meal, but not a Seder.  In others, they can be invited to a Seder, but they can’t eat any of the Afikomen.  In others, they can participate fully.  It generally depends on where they are in the process as well as what the local Rav holds.

For a safek, all bets are off and often, we can ask a question and the Rabbi’s just won’t answer because there is no way to know.  We get used to unanswered shailas and doing the best we can.  I like to believe that G-d understands we’re trying and is forgiving.

Generally, we host our own holiday meals and we gather up others who don’t fit elsewhere for guests.  Other conversion candidates are welcomed to our Seder table as are patrilineal Jews.  Our Seders are usually full of joy…even if they aren’t full of Jews and most of us don’t know the tunes to the songs.

We aren’t quite free yet, even as we celebrate and sing and say, “Next year in Jerusalem!”  The exodus still remains a promise for us, set in a future where obligations will be clearer.

The snow is melting, though.  It’s coming.

What’s In a Name?

We walked, silently, around and around the fortress-like building in which we both worked.  He wasn’t yet anything more to me than a stranger, a slightly unusual guy who sat a cube row over.  We were only walking because he’d overheard my conversation on the phone and my sobs after.  Unlike all the other men I worked with or around, he didn’t pretend he couldn’t hear them.  Unsure how to offer comfort, they’d tried to keep me focused on work.  Somehow, he knew I needed something else.

I needed to walk, in silence, in circles until I could breathe.

My brother was dying.  The cancer was spread all over.  My family were so far away and I was useless to help them.  I was so alone, a divorced mother of two adrift in the world and just trying to keep my head above the surface of the recession so many were drowning in.  I didn’t know him, but I learned his sister had died, just a few years before.  She’d been younger than him and cancer had claimed her, too.  He’d gently heaped dirt onto her coffin.  He still had his torn shirt in his closet.  His pain was also still raw and raw enough that when he heard it echoed a cube row away in my disbelieving words and sobs, he’d felt compelled to ask me to walk with him.

This was before I knew he was Jewish.  He already knew I wasn’t.  This was before he learned he wasn’t “really” Jewish, but somewhere between, lost in a paperwork mistake.  This was before we were anything to each other beyond a morning greeting if we happened to be walking inside at the same time.  After we walked a while, staccatto conversations sharing tiny bits of pain from our sibling’s death or impending death, he finally asked me my name.

“My name is Karen,” I replied.

He stopped walking, looking a little lost and maybe embarassed.  I’m guessing he wasn’t sure how to handle this coincidence or if I’d believe him.  Finally, he began walking again, having caught his breath.

“My sister’s name was Karen.”

And there it was.  A Karen who died before I met him, who’d grown up with him and now a Karen walking beside him and that dreaded, cursed disease winding connections around us all.  The summer heat began to fade to fall and there were more phone calls from home that needed walks to make sense enough to get back to work.  Over time, those walks became something more, but neither of us were quite ready or sure what to call it.  He didn’t speak of it, but he worried what his mother would say, she who worked so hard to convert to Judaism.  He, the only son and the last surviving child.

The phone call came in the morning.  It was early spring, still gray and cold back on the farm.  My brother had died.  The last time I’d seen him had been across a room, months earlier, unable to hug him lest I make him sick.  We’d waved to each other.  He was gone.  I sat, numb.  He asked me what was wrong.  I explained.

“When do we leave?”

I stared at him.  It seemed just as implausible that he would drive me across the country to my family’s farm as it had that he, a stranger, would have gotten up from his work to see if I needed to take a walk.  But, just as I’d gratefully accepted his offer of a walk without thinking of objections, it seemed just as natural to pack a bag and set it next to his in the truck.  I called ahead, telling my parents he was coming, trying to figure out what in the world we could feed a kosher keeping Jew…and how I would explain whatever this was.  Did I know what this was?  His presence was a comfort to me and for my family, a welcome something else to think about.

This was before they’d refuse to come to the wedding and threaten to disown me.  Apparently, I didn’t know it was one thing to date a Jew and quite another to marry one.  It’s always interesting that non-Jews don’t really seem to place much importance on halakhic status.  I took on his last name and felt the awkwardness of stepping into the space held by his sister’s shadow.  A google search turned up my life and her death, her life being so brief it left few marks.

Converts can choose a Hebrew name.

Over the years, I’ve collected stories of how different converts chose their names, what drew them to one name over another.  For some, it was spontaneous, just a name they blurted out or that sounded good.  For others, their name was given to them by someone who taught them or guided them.  Still others chose a name from the Tenach, a hero or heroine of scripture that they wanted to emulate or whose name they hoped would bring them strength.  And others, chose the name of a virtue or character quality they either already had or wanted.

Karen was a name chosen for me.  It was meant to be Catherine, after my paternal Grandmother, a devout Catholic who had died rather than have an abortion.  She became a martyr to her faith when my father was only 2 years old.  I grew up wondering if she’d made a selfish choice, given my father’s life hadn’t been easy after that.  I’d been born very small, premature, and such a long name didn’t seem to fit, so, on the spur of the moment, Karen it was.

And it could still be.

I could keep Karen or re-spell it Keren for the Hebrew word for crown.  It’s used in the Torah to describe the way Moses’ face glowed as he descended Mount Sinai with the stone tablets.  It’s a good name and would require little effort on my part.

And yet, it’s a name that already seems to have had more than enough of a story of its own.  Two Karen’s, one living, one passed on, both brought together by a deadly disease and a brother.

Maybe it’s time for a new name to begin a new chapter?

My husband and I often joke (in that morbid way that those whose lives have been brushed by as cancer moved past us do) that our siblings were our shadchanim, that, perhaps they are somewhere, smiling that at least some joy was found from the pain of their loss.

Perhaps it’s time to let the shadchan have her name back.

Where G-d Has the Will, We Find a Way

We don’t live within walking distance of our shul.  We want to be within walking distance of our shul on Shabbat.  We weren’t willing to pack up and move across town because it seemed wiser to wait and save up for a bigger move out to a bigger Jewish community.


The Shabbosmobile.

It actually was the inspired idea of our Rabbi, who has had people stay in RV’s near the Chabad house previously, although generally in summer.  After a little bit of searching, we found the perfect candidate for our Shabbat home away from home, a small 22 foot RV that just barely has enough room to sleep all four of us.  The table, such as it is, really more seats two…and is also going to be our son’s bed.  (It flips down and some cushions move.)

There are some bugs to be worked out.  For one, we’re combing through instruction manuals to try to find out what triggers different systems in the RV. For example, running the faucet in the kitchenette will start a water pump, so that will have to be taped off so no one accidentally uses it.  The stove uses propane and requires lighting with a match each use, so that will not be used either.  Crockpots and a plata (like a hot plate that stays warm over Shabbat) along with timers will be our friends, along with jugs of water.

Overall, it will be a lot like camping, which, thankfully, Alaskans are fond of and well experienced with.  We’ve spent many summer trips in tents and at least this mobile Sukkah should be less difficult in the rain.

A bigger challenge is how to spend the endless hours that Shabbat in Alaska soon will be.  Already, havdalah inches later and later, closer to bedtime.  Soon, it will be in the night, meaning that we’ll need to keep both kids occupied with Shabbat activities within that 22 foot space for most of the day and evening.  Friday night, we can bring in Shabbat later as the sun goes down much later, doing kiddush and a light meal with hamotzei just before bedtime.

For the moment, though, these challenges can wait.  We’re just happy to have a way we can once again walk to shul.

Although I really am hoping not to do Passover Seders at a 2 person table!