Further Adventures In the Shabbat RV 2.0

So…the new Shabbat RV, version 2.0 is…BIG.

We’re talking, airhorns and air brakes big.  The thing is probably larger than many Israeli apartments.  Mr. Safek hunted down our new Shabbos abode in between the Pesach Yom Tovim and then purchased it the day after Passover, just in time for Shabbos.

In retrospect, this may not have been the best timing, not due to weather or the calendar, but due to yet another upper respiratory infection on my part.  However, I was determined not to be the reason we couldn’t get another Shabbat in at the shul before our trip to Florida this week to visit family.  So, we all worked hard on erev Shabbos and pulled everything or at least WE THOUGHT everything, into the Shabbat RV 2.0.

With a bigger “rig” (we’re learning the RV’ing lingo…apparently RV’s are “rigs”), there are also more complications to figure out.  There are multiple tanks with different types of water you have to learn to keep track of and the differences between them.  There are multiple different power sources for things with interesting names like “shoreline power.”  There’s a generator, a battery bank, and a propane tank…all on our little mobile apartment.  There is even a leveling system that must be engaged and then pieces that “slide out,” making some areas bigger.  All of this…on a vehicle that rolled off the line late last century, the year before I graduated from college.

Mr. Safek poured over a binder bigger than I think we have for our entire house (as in house that doesn’t change locations) full of appliances, studying and trying to be prepared for every eventuality.  Alas, over time, modifications are often made to the original design by owners long since past and we were about to hit a learning curve.

Life is like that.  You don’t know what you don’t know and, just when you THINK you know, something comes up to teach you a little humility.

But, for now, spirits were high and we began, slowly, rolling down the road, seeing eye to eye with the drivers of Semi trucks and feeling very high up in the world indeed.  We parked the “rig” in the shul parking lot in time to see the younger Rabbi rushing home and were very proud of ourselves as we leveled, slid out, and prepared for candle lighting.  I even managed this time to find an out of the way place for our Shabbat candles so that we didn’t have move around them all Shabbat!

Kiddush, hamotzei, dessert, and bentching all went well and then it was time to prepare for bed, my sickly body definitely ready for rest.

Both Mr. Safek and I had been very careful to both check to make sure that both little safeks had remembered everything on their respective lists.  Shul clothes, pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, games, books, all were packed.  This, of course meant that both Mr. Safek and I forgot important things of our own.  Namely…blankets and pillows.

Well, how bad could it be?  We had heat this time, riiiiight?

Well, maybe not.  Through a few critical mistakes that we made figuring out what would run off of which power source, we actually wound up running out of heat and battery power, meaning that suddenly we were caught in the night in cold temperatures hovering around the mid 30’s (just above freezing) without blankets and using bathroom towels and a couch cushion as pillows.  Our CPAP machines also could no longer work.

To our credit, no one got too terribly grumpy.  Maybe my sickened condition helped?  I found I was full of patience, particularly when Mr. Safek and our son went to Shul and my daughter and I took both kids’ blankets and pillows and made ourselves a nest.  Rather than get anyone sick, I kept myself in bed all Shabbos and let my daughter go to Shul without me.

Still spirits were high when everyone returned from Shul to find Sam the dog and I curled up in a cuddly bundle.  We spent the Sabbath playing games, reading books, and walking the dog and everything was pretty nice.  Finally, havdalah came late and we packed up to head home.

Everything was stowed and all was well and we all buckled up and Mr. Safek turned the key.

And nothing happened.

Due to a “aftermarket modification” we’d not only drained the battery bank that served the “coach,” but also the battery used to start the engine.  Even worse, there was not enough power left to start the generator.  We were stuck.

A phone call to a friend and some swallowed pride and we hitched a ride home and Mr. Safek went to work diagnosing the issues and the rest of us went to bed.

Still, overall, we found this experience better than our last.  Everyone stayed dry and it looks like all these issues can easily be addressed and many were just us not knowing how things really worked.  Sure, we may have frozen whitefish salad in the fridge into something more resembling smoked whitefish ice cream, but come June we may be wishing for fish ice cream again.

Over all, I’m once again impressed with the adventurous attitude of the kids, who were more focused on being happy that we were now essentially Shomer Shabbos (we still have to intentionally do some melachot for now) than they were on being cold or eating frozen food from the fridge or having to hitchhike home.  To them, it’s all just an adventure, which helps us keep the same attitude.

This weekend, we’ll be spending Shabbos in sunny South Florida.  Next Shabbat, though…we’ll be back at it again, perfecting this art they call “boondocking” in our shul parking lot.

We’re on this adventure together and this is all practice for our bigger journey next summer…thousands of miles to an eruv we can call home.

Yom HaShoah

“G-d is in the rain.”

It’s a line from one of my favorite movies, which came out several years ago, but I found it poignant for reasons that had little to do with its use in the film.  Rain has always been a comfort to me, the child of a farmer who would worry over his crops if it didn’t rain regularly.  The sound of rain was a sound of calm, a sign that everything would be all right.

It feels so fitting that today is the first day we’ve had rain here in Alaska, rather than some mix of snow and freezing rain, and that it comes on the day we remember the Holocaust.  It is as if G-d himself weeps.

Many years ago, it was also a rainy day when I confronted the horrors of the holocaust.  I couldn’t quite explain to people why I felt it necessary to travel from France, where I was staying as an exchange student, to Poland.  Most of my other classmates were headed to sunny Greece.  I’d only ever met one Jewish person in my life, my bacon-loving friend Phill, who couldn’t explain Chanukah to me.  Still, it seemed like something I should make the effort to do if I was within a couple of train rides of the place.  I felt like all people need to remember what happened there and really feel the weight of it, Jewish or not.

So, with a couple of friends, we traveled first to Berlin and then, after some sightseeing there, boarded a rickety, old overnight train to Krakow.  The train really looked like it might have been from World War 2, with rough green wool blankets on the sleeper coach bunks and heavy leather harnesses to keep you from rolling out of bed.  In the night, we crossed the border between Germany and Poland and were awakened by shouts in Polish, which I can’t even remotely understand.  There were men in military uniforms with automatic rifles, yelling and shining flashlights in our faces.  All we could do was hold out our passports and hope they’d be returned.  We were relieved but uneasy when they were stamped and thrown back at us.

Thus, Poland welcomes visitors.

It was cold and rainy the entire time we were in Poland, the kind of damp cold that gets into your bones and doesn’t leave no matter how much coffee you drink or how strong it is.  We went to Auschwitz the next day in a slow drizzle of rain, never a downpour, but just enough to soak us.  We walked and each step felt like our feet were heavier.  We toured the grounds, read the facts, but the thing that tore at my heart the most was the roses.  People had wound red roses into the barbed wire of the fence around the camp.  I never saw anyone put the roses there.  I didn’t know if it was someone who had lost a family member or loved one there that had left them or just someone moved by the tragedy of the place.  Either way, the only picture I took that day was of a rose, threaded through the barbed wire, the day gray and rainy and the red of the rose the only real color.

For me, Poland was land of muted shades, dark, dreary, the color of life drained from it.

After that day, my friends and I sat together, numb.  The human mind and heart can only process so much sadness, so much horror and then it’s like everything shuts down.  There was a hot meal in front of us and I’m sure the food was delicious, but we couldn’t taste it.  We just lifted our forks and spoons and ate a few bites without looking at it.  Our eyes stared straight ahead like zombies.

As hard as it was, I’m still very glad I went and I’d be glad even if I had never learned anything more about Judaism.  I think it’s important for all people to honor the memory of those who perished.

Now, the Holocaust is much nearer to me than it was then.  I’ve met survivors and most of the Jews I know have lost family.  When I watch a documentary, the faces could be friends or family or even me and my children, unlike when I saw those same documentaries growing up, when the Holocaust was something that happened to other people, no one I knew.  The world has also changed since I made that trip to Poland.  When I traveled from Berlin, the fall of communism was a more recent phenomenon and the future seemed so optimistic.  It was the mid-90’s and anti-semitism was at a lull and everyone was certain that the millennium to come would only bring more peace, more prosperity, and even greater enlightenment.  There was talk everywhere of the coming European Union, something unthinkable in my grandparent’s generation where Europe was torn apart by wars.

Going to Auschwitz then was very much a history lesson, a visit to horrors locked in the past.  Now?  It feels like those old ghosts are stirring again and that the world has forgotten the inevitable conclusion to hate.

It still rains, though and I still do believe that G-d is in the rain, weeping with us, remembering with us, and also hoping with us.  As long as there are roses in the barbed wire, then perhaps we can stop these patterns before they repeat.

Never again…not for anyone.

It All Begins In Darkness

A non-Jewish coworker once asked me why Shabbat and our holidays all begin at sundown.  My first response was that in the Jewish calendar, days begin at sundown, but after he happily accepted that easy answer, I thought about it a bit and realized his question was actually a pretty profound one.

In the Western calendar and world, days begin with sunrise and end at sunset and night is somehow this dark, disconnected time.  It’s a realm belonging not really to one day, but also not really to the next.  It’s always difficult to tell within the night where the demarcation actually happens between calendar days, but functionally, it’s a no-man’s land in time.  Everything important happens during the day, for the most part.  Night is for staying in and sleeping or going out and causing trouble and there is this idea that light is always preferable to darkness.  Night is the time of nightmares, monsters, and death.

In Judaism, this is flipped on its head.

Day begins with the setting of the sun and the darkness that comes with night and that darkness is embraced as an essential part, not of the day that just passed, but of the one to come.  There must be darkness before there is light, it is the womb in which potential is incubated until it is ready to see the world.  The halakhic basis of this is in the very beginning of the Torah.  G-d says, “Let there be light!”  This has to mean that there was not light before those words were spoken on the very first day, which the Torah then says is completed when the sun sets.  The night is that space before light, before creation in which the Creator paused, pondered, made a decision, and then created.

This all fits very neatly with the Jewish idea that not everything important can be easily seen in the light of day.  Some things, particularly very holy things, are separated and set aside, kept hidden.  It’s in dark hidden places that the potency of the sacred is concentrated and intensified, whether it’s the sacredness of physical intimacy or the rules around when a Torah scroll can be brought forth from the ark.  Judaism is a religion of holding back things from the mundane, like withholding time from the work week, setting it aside for a sacred day of rest or separating a bit of dough to take Challah.

Baked into Judiasm there is the idea that not everything is for everyone and not everything is for all times and places as well as the idea that the secrets the darkness holds aren’t always malicious.  They can be miraculous or even just not quite ready to face the world.

We live in a world addicted to the light to such an extent we have something called “light polution” in our major metropolitan areas.  It’s a necessity for safety for sure, but it says a lot about how far we have yet to perfect ourselves that we still aren’t safe in the dark and that we still try to push away the night into dark corners.  We also live in a society where everything is for everyone, any time they like, living our lives bathed in a narcissistic glow.  We’ve forgotten that to really see stars, we need to get out to where it is really dark, not stare into the glow of a screen.

In Alaska, which is always a land of extremes, we are quickly in the time of year when darkness becomes scarce which has given me a new appreciation for night, real night, where the sun does set before you sleep and doesn’t rise long before you’ve woken.  Without darkness at night, humans struggle to regulate our internal clocks.  It’s easy to forget to eat on time or to go to sleep because your body begins to doubt its feelings.  Many people suffer from sleep deprivation in the endless days.  Everyone feels the need to fill those hours of sunshine, doing as much as possible to make up for the long nights of winter that barely allow an hour of sunshine to weakly peek through.

In a way, our summers are a microcosm of modern life, even as we rush out into our outdoor pursuits.  Everyone is always on the go.  Plants grow really fast because they get more hours of sun.  Time flies by in a flurry of activity and we wonder why we’re so tired until we look at the clock.  And everything is done outside, without the embrace of privacy.  At least we have fewer people up here to watch us rushing around.

Night comes before day and is a powerful reminder of the importance of the darkness.  It came first and it comes first, reminding us that rest is also important, that sharing is good, but privacy also has a place, and that sometimes, it’s good to be hidden because that is where, once your eyes adjust, you can really feel the awe of the size your small precious place in creation.

I hope everyone else has a wonderful Shabbat!  I am hoping to stay awake a bit later and look up more before the sun steals our nights away for summer.

Eruv Shabbos, the World Inhales

It’s so still outside that it’s worth the insomnia that kept me up to see it and, more importantly hear it.  Underneath the stillness, there are birds calling to each other, first just the dark blue jays, so much bigger than the jays I grew up with and missing the white.  They’re as large as crows were growing up with black heads and deep blue bodies and there among the few birds that stay with us all winter.  Joining them are the magpies, always well-dressed in black and white and a little bigger.  I do not hear the iconic speech of ravens, who here are even larger than elsewhere and have distinctive regional dialects.  Smaller birds begin to wake up as the sun slowly rises over snowy mountaintops to the east, jagged dark rock peeking out from behind the frosting.  I can hear a little bit of highway noise in the distance, the only reminder besides my neighbors that I really am still in a city.

For me, there’s always an interesting contradiction in the day before Shabbos evening.  There’s the rushing around, but it’s also as if creation pauses between breaths, inhaling but not yet exhaling until the candles light.

Try it.  When you inhale and hold your breath, you can push yourself to get that last bit of cooking done, to rush through getting the lights turned on or off, your last minute chores checked off, but there’s also so much anticipation to exhale.  Inhaling isn’t nearly as relaxing as that long, slow breath out, the air taking with it everything you’ve held in all week.  For me, Friday day is that held inhale, breathlessly waiting, and Friday night is the long awaited exhalation.


Today, I have slightly less chaos to tame since I’ll be working from home, banished from my office by coworkers who’d rather I not share whatever virus I picked up from my daughter and have kept all week.  Tonight, we have the excitement of our first Shabbos in the new and improved Shabbat RV version 2.0, which is a hulking behemoth.  For now, though, I just sit, listening to the birds and watching the sun paint the sky over the northeastern mountains.

After, candle lighting now isn’t until 9:20pm tonight.  I have time.

When a Doubt Sneaks In…

Things are going VERY well.  We have secured the Shabbat RV 2.0.  We survived Passover and even enjoyed it.  I’m still sick with some kind of cold/flu, but I’m on the mend.  We’re even preparing for a weekend trip down to sunny WARM Florida to visit family.  I have no reason to feel the way I’m feeling.

And yet, that’s kind of how it works.  Doubt never comes when you’re braced against it, defenses up.  It sneaks in through a crack when your guard is down.  It’s the things you don’t expect and can’t really prepare for, small things that happen in passing, but stick into your mind like a tiny sliver, a splinter that embeds itself.  Then, the mind, doing what it does best, picks at the splinter, making it sorer and more swollen.

This time, it was two unrelated things that came together yesterday to kind of knock me a little off balance.  One, is selling my motorcycle.  I haven’t ridden it since last summer, but it is a beautiful bike, with paint a blue that depending on the light, can look more blue or green.  It’s sure-footed and fast and when I would ride it, I would feel something like a superhero.  When you ride a motorcycle, it’s more like riding a horse than driving.  You become one with the machine and it’s just you and the wind.  I would play with the wind as it tried to pry me off my steel steed, the highway falling away beneath me, just me and the mountains and the smell of fresh rain in the trees.  That motorcycle is wild, untamed freedom.

Last summer, I tried to find ways to justify keeping it, ways maybe I could make it tznius?  Maybe I could squeeze that bike into a kosher life?  Surely G-d wouldn’t give me such a gift of that experience of joy and freedom and then mean for me to turn away from it.  I also have always fought physical issues with riding.  I’m a smaller woman and my iron horse is a heavy one.  I’m also short and it’s a stretch to ride any motorcycle.  I spent all of last summer riding less and less and feeling more and more like I shouldn’t be, that it wasn’t worth the risks.  Motorcycles, like horses, need to be ridden and it’s clearly time to let her go to someone who will take her on new adventures.  My path lies down another trail.

Against this backdrop of me wrestling with creating the ad for my motorcycle, a friend who also rides occasionally, who in fact I taught how to ride, stopped by to visit with her son.  As I greeted her at the door, she made an offhand comment at how I was dressed.  I know her well enough that she didn’t mean anything mean about it, but afterwards, I looked at myself in the mirror, hair covered, my tattoos from my youth covered, and it’s as if I saw myself the way my family back on the farm might or how someone who never knew me religious might.  Was I making a fool of myself?  Would people ever finally accept me as a frum Jew?  As a biker, I’d found acceptance, but never really peace except when I was riding.  I had felt like I’d needed to edit parts of myself out, the parts that really felt Jewish and religious.  I couldn’t exactly compare an amazing ride to Torah and expect anyone to understand.  As a religious Jew, or at least someone who really wants to be a religious Jew, I’d always found peace but not acceptance.

Individually, I’d been accepted by my last community.  I’d been in the women’s knitting group and the Shabbos afternoon bananagrams game.  We’d been invited to Shabbos meals.  We were so close.  And yet, we’d be left out of other things because of our halakhic status, never knowing if or when we’d finally be accepted or even what we needed to do to progress on that path to acceptance.

Am I merely setting myself up for more heartache, to sit just outside looking in?  Even worse, will my children again spend year after year sitting on the outside looking in?

When we had thought last time around that all hope had been lost, we had returned to the waiting arms of the motorcycle community.  United by a common love of riding, there really isn’t much else that you need to do to qualify for membership.  If you can ride and enjoy it, you’re welcome.  However, there’s also a lack of depth there.  It’s freedom without the support of the structure that Torah provides.  It’s acceptance, but acceptance to a community of people who mostly feel that they can’t fit in anywhere else.  Riding becomes something to fill the emptiness or to distract from whatever you’re really longing for.

For me, that longing was still to be fully Jewish and no matter how fast or far I rode, even all the way into the wilds of Alaska, where I thought nothing would remind me of Judaism, I couldn’t escape it.  G-d’s creation surrounded me, reminding me.

That doubt, though, also remains.  What if I’m not good enough?  What if the Rabbis look at me and decide…I’m too far gone in this life, too damaged?  What makes me think they could think I’m worthy of being part of their tribe?

I know I’m a good rider.  I can pop the clutch on that bike and it will obey me and I can outride most men.  The real trick is that you can’t be afraid of getting hurt.  If you ride with fear, you’ll never relax and relaxing into the bike is the most important thing to do to be safe.  You have to trust yourself and the bike that it will do what you tell it to and let go of watching the pavement.  Rule #1 of riding a motorcycle…whatever you are focused on is exactly where the bike will go.  If you’re focused on the guard rail, an oncoming car, or even just the pavement you will run right into whatever you’re looking to avoid.

Today, G-d, I’m so afraid of getting hurt again or of those I love getting hurt again that it’s hard to ride down this path you’ve set for us.  But, just like I used to do when I was tired and sore from riding all day in the rain, I’m going to just hunker down here and keep my eyes ahead of me and trust that you’ll take us safely down the road.

Why Begin Again…Up Here?

In the brief break between the Shabbos and last two Yom Tovs of Pesach…I was cooking up a storm.  My husband’s mind, however, was elsewhere.  He’d found IT.  The Shabbat RV 2.0 that he’d been looking for.  And, he needed to wrap things up as much as possible before the Yom Tov began…on what was a major holiday for everyone else around us, Easter Sunday.

To say he was a little stressed is an understatement.

He felt the full weight of his family’s trust on his shoulders as he worked through paperwork and phone calls.  Finally, he called his father for a little financial advice.  This is almost more stressful than everything else combined.  My husband hasn’t always had the warmest relationship with his father and stepmother, but it’s gotten better since I met him.  His father loves him and has a hard time connecting with him since they are both so different.  However, he loves it when my husband asks his advice and he has good experience to draw on when it comes to financial matters, so my husband called him.

Me?  I was juggling 3 things cooking at once and my 11-year-old daughter who was starting to come down with something.  I didn’t have a spare brain cell to process much.

When he hung up the phone and came back to talk to me, I could tell it had been an interesting conversation.  He went through the financial aspects and his plan, which all sounded logical, then he took a deep breath.

“And he wanted to know why we’re doing all this, up here, when there’s no chance of us finishing it up here.”

He didn’t need to explain what “this” was.  You see, Mr. Safek’s father is a happy secular Jew.  He occasionally will attend Synagogue services on major holidays at a Reform Synagogue, but part of the reason he and Mr. Safek’s mother didn’t work out was due to differences in observance.  She always wanted to be more observant and he always wanted to be less.  He’s never quite understood why his son should care what Orthodox Rabbis think of his halakhic status or why we’ve gone through what we’ve gone through trying to change that.

I know that these kind of conversations are difficult for my husband.  No one can make you doubt yourself like a well-meaning parent.  His father knows the pain we’ve gone through, the years of work without a light at the end, and doesn’t want to see us suffer more.  His intentions are kind.  To him, it didn’t make sense to try to observe Shabbat somewhere it is so difficult to do so, particularly when the odds of it resulting in us converting here are low and we’ll probably just have to start over again with a new Rabbi when we move.  However, doubt is a luxury we can’t afford these days, with the price of hope so high.

I tell my husband all the good reasons we have and that we cannot know how this all will play out.  Maybe we can’t convert until we move, as we suspect.  At least by doing things this way, we’ll be more prepared when we do move.  Then, there’s the question…is observance really about conversion?  If we’re only observing mitzvos with some end goal in mind, is that really the point of it all?  Shouldn’t we observe Shabbat…as an example…simply to observe Shabbat?

It’s true, we have no control over the timeline or outcome.  We can’t push or pull this along in any way.  We are at the mercy of the whims of Rabbis and Rabbinical courts.  But…we also have to trust that G-d is in charge above it all and that He will guide us to where we need to be when the time is right.  There is only a tiny fraction of a part of all this that we have any control over…and that’s ourselves.  We can continue to learn and grow in observance and teach our family.  And that’s it.  We can’t know anything beyond that.

Our daughter, sickly as she was getting, had the best response to the news about the Shabbat RV 2.0.  She simply said, “Yay!  No more breaking Shabbos!”

Yes.  And that is why we’re doing this up here, whether it has any chance of bringing a tangible result or not.  It’s because we want to be as close to Shomer Shabbos as we can be in this state and observe as many mitzvos as we can.  The truth is…there is no finish line and this is something we’ll need to work on beyond conversion for the rest of our lives, continuing to grow and learn and do better at observing mitzvos.  There is no time to waste catching up and, one day, somewhere, our halakhic status will also catch up.

Spring and the Sabbath Always Come

It’s sunny and warming up here in the frozen north.  Everywhere I look, the snow is melting and we’re seeing patches of green grass underneath, a glimpse of the world that will be ours in just a week or two if things continue.  The world is waking up here after the long winter and birds like the Siberian Swans are returning from their warmer winter homes.  It won’t be long before the Aspen trees bud and leaves start bursting forth.

Springtime in Alaska is like a Sabbath afternoon, it passes by in an instant and it’s good to pause and enjoy it.

With the longer hours of sunlight, it’s like everything in the natural world around us begins to go in fast-forward.  It’s hard for us humans also not to get caught up in it.  The warm months here are short, essentially ending by the end of July, so we all try to pack as much as possible into them.  There are fish to catch to fill the freezers for winter, veggies to grow while the ground is warm enough, berries to pick, rhubarb to cut, and all those wonderful outdoor activities we enjoy so much.  Hiking and camping become a priority.  There are mountains waiting to be climbed and glaciers waiting to be explored!

For the small community of Orthodox Jews here, though, long hours of summer sun also mean a VERY long Sabbath each week, as if G-d knows we need the longer pause in the midst of all this hectic activity.  We’re forced to slow down and begin the Sabbath sometime before bed Friday night and often we will sleep through the brief break in the sunshine Saturday night, making havdalah before breakfast in the morning.

For our family, this also means we’re looking forward to the Shabbat RV version 2.0.  This time, we’re opting to sell a couple of things and put a down payment down on a loan and buy a RV that will be more comfortable and safer than the first one.  G-d willing, this is also the RV we will take next summer through the Canadian Rockies, across the plains of Canada and down to the lower 48 to our new, bigger Orthodox community in an epic adventure that might have made Moshe Rabbeinu proud.

For now, though, it’s the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Pesach, a time to slow down in the midst of the flurry of Passover cooking and rest and reflect.  This Passover has been one of the most joyful I can remember for our family…and oddly enough, one of the easiest.  Usually I struggle through craving all different kinds of pasta and bread, but this year, even though we’ve been eating non-gebrokts foods…it FEELS easier.  I am not consumed with what I can’t eat, but rather enjoying trying new recipes and enjoying simpler tastes.

I hope everyone has a restful and meaningful Shabbat.  Here, we will begin the days of Shabbat not starting until after our usual bedtime and also not ending until after and I think this may be the last week we can greet the Shabbos Queen on time rather than early and be awake for her on-time departure rather than wishing her goodbye in the morning.