Finding Kosher Food in the Wilderness

One of the first questions people will ask me when they find out we live in Alaska is, “Is there kosher food there?!”  The answer is…yes and no.

Eating in Alaska is challenging whether you’re kosher or not because, aside from fishing or hunting, most of our food is flown in from somewhere else and is expensive with limited options.  However, I’m a firm believer that there really is kosher food everywhere, if you’re willing to rough it.  No matter where I’ve traveled, there have been fresh fruit and vegetables that don’t need kosher supervision.  Here in Alaska, we have those, but in winter it is really hard to get GOOD fresh fruits and vegetables and you just never know what the grocery store is going to have from one day to the next.  You get used to substituting for things, but fresh produce is really the easiest way to begin to begin to find kosher food anywhere.

In Alaska, we also have many of the same processed products that are available in the lower 48, with the same kosher certifications.  There are some odd things that are hard to find, like, for some reason, hamburger and hotdog buns.  I also often have to go to several different stores before I can find exactly what I need, so when I see a hard to find kosher item in stock, I grab it, often squealing with delight.  I think people in the natural foods store thought I was nuts when I began jumping up and down when my son and I found pareve kosher chocolate chips, but I’d been looking for them for months!

Meat and cheese are another story altogether and probably the biggest challenge.  We have one store that carries frozen cut up empire chicken, frozen ground turkey, frozen stew beef, and some frozen turkey lunch meat along with a few other items.  There is some cheese, but the types are very limited.  Basically, you have parmesan in a jar, cheddar, mozzarella, and maybe a couple of other choices.

Fish, however, is plentiful and may families who keep kosher go fishing themselves to stock their freezers with wild salmon and halibut.  Our shul even accepts donations of salmon.  For this reason, it was a big deal this year when my daughter started showing a sensitivity to salmon.  Before then, it formed a large part of our weekly diet.

Cost is also a huge factor.  Anchorage prices are about the lowest in Alaska and has the most to choose from.  You probably simply will not find kosher meat or cheese outside of Anchorage.  Even here, a bag of frozen cut up empire chicken will cost us about $23 dollars and last 2 meals.  Produce can be expensive as well.  I once spent $25 on a bag of 5 apples.  The further you roam from Anchorage, the higher prices generally are and the harder it is to find anything with kosher supervision.  I have heard that in some villages, a gallon of milk will cost $12.

SO…how do kosher keeping Jews survive up here?

I know some families that go together to have meat and other rare items shipped up by air through one of the airlines from Seattle.  For us, we mainly forego meat for most of the week and eat dairy sparingly.  For most of the week, I simply cook vegan meals, with the kids drinking milk to supplement.  We eat meat on Shabbos and it really is a great treat that we look forward to all week.  In some ways, our diets probably more closely resemble the shtetl dwellers in Fiddler on the Roof than our modern counterparts in bigger cities, but they also survived.

Kosher visitors to Alaska probably have it harder than the locals during their short visits because they don’t have a freezer full of wild salmon or a kitchen to defrost and cook chicken in.  We often see them when they come to our Chabad house for Shabbos and the shul works hard to put out a very nice kiddush for everyone.  For those who are concerned about being able to find food, taking a cruise might be a better option than a more conventional visit because many of the cruise ship lines do have kosher options for dining.

And this would be why when people ask me how I could move to an “out of town” (not in the tri-state area) community with JUST 1 or 2 kosher grocery stores and ONLY 1 or 2 kosher restaurants, I can’t help but smile.  To me, that will be absolute luxury, let alone the fact I can probably count on the regular grocery stores always having staples…like onions.

Alaska teaches to you cherish and be grateful for what you have, whether it is sunlight or pareve chocolate chips.  I hope I can hold onto that when there are so many more resources right at hand and not take it for granted.


Journaling for the Newly Observant or Conversion Candidate

My Rabbi asked me to do something I’d never previously been asked to do which is to journal each day, writing down anything pertaining to my Jewish observance.  I jumped at this chance because I love to write and because it was something tangible that I could be doing to help our process.  I’m quickly discovering that it’s more powerful than that, as journaling often is.

It’s really easy when you’re adding on mitzvah observance to be focused on where you are lacking, what you AREN’T doing that you wish you were or what you’re not doing perfectly.  Becoming an observant Jew is a very big lifestyle change and it can quickly become overwhelming when you realize your day has gotten away from you and you missed the time for this prayer or that or you remember too late that you forgot to say a bracha or clipped your fingernails in order.  There are just so many details to keep track of!

By journaling what I AM doing, though, I’ve had to shift my focus.  I suddenly see all the things that our family does that have simply become…normal.  Our days are already full of different observances that we barely notice because they have become natural to us and it’s easy to take that for granted and instead only focus on the negative and feel like we have mountains to climb.  Journaling has really shifted my perception and I realize how very far we’ve come in the years we’ve been working on this!

It’s also been a great tool for helping me keep focused on my observance.  By needing to write each day what I’ve managed to fit in, it encourages me to be more consistent.  It also helps me see small opportunities in our days, little things we could change without much effort to be just a little bit more observant here or there.  I can also see how, moving forward, I could look back on my journal entries to help motivate myself, seeing the growth from them.

If you’re becoming more observant, why not give journaling a try?  If you have used journaling in your journey becoming more observant or converting, I’d love to hear more about your experiences in the comments.

The Rebbe and Me

I never met the Rebbe.  Characteristically, I came late to the party.  My first introductions to Judaism were through Chabad, both a local Chabad house and through family, so I knew of the Rebbe very early on, but I wasn’t sure what it had to do with me, personally.  The Rebbe always seemed to belong to those who already were Lubavitch and was a distant figure, in grainy video or pictures on walls.

For a conversion candidate, many choices are made based on what will be most likely accepted by a Rabbinical court.  A lot of advice is given to stay away from any controversial topics and also to appear to be as “middle of the road” Orthodox as possible.  Chabad also has a tradition of not involving itself in conversion, so it can often be difficult to convert in a Chabad community.

And so, because we really wanted to be Jews, it seemed we couldn’t be Lubavitch, so we moved to a Ashkenazic shul, putting away our blue siddurs and taking out black ones, we traded Amein for Baruch hu.  It was a good community and a wonderful shul, but we never quite felt like we fit in.  I felt guilty “sneaking” away to Chabad classes or holiday functions, but I found that keeping that connection helped me keep a connection to the warmth that had originally drew me to Judaism.  I didn’t know why, but I just felt more uplifted by that particular flavor.

And yet, I still struggled with the Rebbe.  I listened to the stories of those who followed him and I also listened to the criticisms.  I read books.  It felt presumptuous, though, for me to claim any connection to him, even though I have family who are Lubavitch.  I’m not Jewish, not yet, and I never met the man.  I’ve never been to Crown Heights.

And yet.

Finally, this summer, a few events had me feeling like I couldn’t keep up with the punches.  I was davening and doing my best to trust in Hashem, but I felt so alone.  I wished I had a Rebbe to talk to, someone with that ability to see through a situation and tell me exactly what I should do, like in the stories I’d heard.  It was the week of the parsh of the spies, where we talk about Calev going to pray at the tomb of the Patriarchs and I found myself wondering if it might be ok if I asked someone with a voice more powerful than mine to join my prayers, to add to my own voice.

And so, feeling a little out of place, I wrote my letter.

I poured out my heart onto the page.  I re-wrote it several times.  It felt presumptuous to ask the Rebbe to pray for a non-Jew, but I did it anyway.  Just the act of writing it all out was a comfort, like journaling.  I felt relief as I sent it, but I wasn’t sure if anything would change.  I kept my part, praying and doing what I could.

I can’t say for certain if it was writing the Rebbe that changed things for us, but I do know that about a week or so later, the situations I’d been facing all eased and my prayers for clarity and a clearer path forward seemed to be answered.  I like to think the Rebbe somehow did read my note and prayed for me.  He was known for his kindness toward non-Jews as well.

As the Rebbe’s yahrzeit approaches, I still don’t know for certain where we fit in and…I think that’s actually a good thing.  I know I enjoy davening with Chabad more than anyone else and I really love the warmth which they bring to Torah study.  I know I hope to have my children in Chabad schools and to keep on learning and growing in a Chabad community.

And that will just have to be enough for now.  Perhaps one day I’ll be able to call myself one of the Rebbe’s Chossids, but for now that seems to big of a jump, too presumptuous.  I’d be happy to work on being Jewish first and leave the rest in Hashem’s hands.

Forward Progress and How Faith Makes Me a Better Engineer

First of all, for those who follow my blog, I have a tiny seed of hope I’ve begun carefully nurturing that our long conversion journey may have a end in sight.  Not now, not soon, but that there is a clearer path forward for us.  I go between being very excited about it and not wanting to be too happy, in case it’s a false start, but we’ve had some very positive news recently that may have us studying much harder soon!

In the meantime, after getting such good news over Shabbos, I had to get up really early to go to work.  With the summer solstice, it was hard to sleep all night in the Shabbat RV 2.0.  The air was stifling, at least for Alaska, and nothing was moving and the sky never seemed to darken all night.  I tossed and turned and didn’t find much rest, then I needed to get up in time to be at work by 6am while the rest of the family slept in a bit.  Happily, my work is actually really close to our Chabad house.  I rubbed my eyes and headed in.

I won’t bore you with the details of what I needed to do or why I had to do it at 6am on a Sunday morning, but it was important work that needed done.  Half of it went just as planned, smoothly.  Then…the other half happened.

Have you ever had just one of those days, a day where everything seems to go sideways?  Well, that was work for me today.  As a result, it’s now 4pm and I’m still at work.  The techs I’m working with at the company that manufactures the equipment that went sideways are changing shifts, but I am still here and will be until there’s some progress.  This situation can be very stressful.  What is broken is important and I’m the only one to fix it and in the meantime, things that should be working are not.

In the midst of it all, though, my mind and my words turn to Hashem.  He created the minds that created the equipment, He created my mind, and He even has the power to make this equipment work right…or not.  I’m going to do my part by trying everything I can think of to fix it and I’m going to bring in everyone I can think of to help me, but, ultimately, if it’s better for this equipment to stay down…it will.  There is a comfort in that, actually, knowing that all I need to worry about is my small piece here.  I’ve actually done my daily prayers while the techs have had me on hold.  I’ve uttered prayers to Hashem while driving back and forth from the datacenter.

One thing I haven’t done is let this take away my peace and that actually is not a small thing when you’re working on complicated problems and equipment.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned from doing what I do for a living is that nothing is fixed by stressing out and hurrying.  Rushing through anything only leads to more problems.  It’s sometimes frustrating for my non-technical managers, but the bigger and more critical a problem is, the more important it is for me to calm down and move slowly, clearing my mind so that I can think through all the consequences of whatever it is I’m doing and clearly sort through the problem.  A good engineer is one that becomes more focused when there is an emergency, not the one that is frantic.

Faith helps a lot.

Believing that I’m not on my own and that there is more to each situation in my life than I can see helps me let go of needing to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.  I can just focus on the small piece in front of me and my part in it.  For now, that part is sorting through configurations, looking for some small needle in this haystack that has this equipment misbehaving.  It’s telling that even the experts I turn to can’t seem to find it, either.  So…as painful as it might be tomorrow morning when things aren’t working and people need them, there is some peace in believing that if that’s the case, then it must be for some reason I can’t see that this must be.

In the meantime, I’m going to eat some food, then dive right back into doing my part to try to fix the world, trusting that if it’s Hashem’s will that this little piece of His world be fixed, I’ll find the problem and solve it and, if not, somehow that will be ok, too.

Without faith, I’d definitely be a much more stressed engineer!

Losing My “Whiteness?”

Race is a complicated, emotional issue, particularly right now in the US.  For me, though, my focus lately is much more on something much closer to me than the headlines, but I didn’t realize it until I was discussing recent headlines with a friend who happens to be a person of color.

She said something that suddenly touched a nerve in me.  I was suddenly defensive, angry even.  It’s really irrelevant what she said because, as we talked further, I realized that how I was feeling had very little to do with what she had said and everything to do with me.

I felt the need to defend “whiteness” and that need came from…feeling as if my own “whiteness” was now in question.

I grew up in a very rural community with just 0.5% minorities in our school.  Her name was Lily and she was half Vietnamese and looking back, I can’t imagine what growing up there was like for her.  Suffice it to say, the town was REALLY white.  I grew up hearing stories of how, just a generation or two ago, people would be judged on what part of Europe their families had come from or what religion they practiced.  The KKK had burned crosses in the front yards of Catholics, lacking anyone else to torment.  Humans will often try to find ways to divide themselves, even if everyone has the same color skin.

In that world, I liked to think my family was rather enlightened.  They didn’t care that I was friends with Lily and we’d have sleepovers at each other’s houses.  Kids didn’t pick on kids for going to the wrong church at recess.  Still, my father would occasionally utter a racial slur or a racist joke, but at least my mother would admonish him.  We were “good” white people, right?  Ok, so my father told me that if I ever brought home a black boyfriend, I’d be dead to him, but…weren’t we at least ok?

Similarly, I had friends who others would probably call “good ol’ boys” or “rednecks.”  These are the kinds of guys who wear camouflage even if they’re not hunting and drive pickup trucks.  They accepted me, even if they sometimes made fun of me.  I was part of their people.  I was a white woman, someone to be protected by them.  Maybe even something that belonged to them.

Until I wasn’t.

Even before conversion, when I met and fell in love with my husband, I discovered what a strange and fickle thing race can be.  Suddenly, even though nothing else about me had changed, I wasn’t as white as I’d been.  In fact, to some, I was even worse than being completely “not white.”  I had chosen to break unwritten rules and I’d thrown my lot in with a foreign group.  It was so strange to me that my parents could really like Mr. Safek, but at the same time not want their friends and neighbors to know about him.  This simmered a little while he and I dated, but when we planned our wedding, it all came to a very ugly head.

I expected that my immediate family would want to come to our little, low-key civil wedding.  I expected that they would be happy that we were no longer just living together, but would be legally wed, solidifying our family.  Instead, they were ashamed.  Now, everyone would know their daughter was marrying a Jew.  Even worse, by then I wanted to convert.  Their own daughter and grandchildren…would also be Jews.  Far worse, though, was that everyone would know this.  What would the neighbors think?

It was like a part of my “whiteness” had just evaporated into the air.

I wasn’t yet accepted as a Jew, but I was also disowned by my family and rejected by the tribe I had been born into.  Since then, I’ve faced anti semitism head on, from the people closest to me, the people who loved me and raised me.  It ebbs and flows in my life like a diseased tide of algae bloom.  They eventually backed away from completely disowning me, but there are “jokes” about feeding my children bacon or cutting off my son’s peyos, should he ever try to grow them.  My family has settled on more, “Just don’t be visibly Jewish, you know, in the way it shows to others.”  I still struggle with honoring them without straying from Torah and protecting my children.

It’s into this background that the current discussions of race come into my life.  Is Gal Gadot white?  Should white people fear their culture disappearing?  Are white people evil toward people of color?  Are Jews white?  All of it streams across my consciousness even as I struggle with a principle question.

Am I still white myself?  If I’m not a Jew, but I’m not what I was raised as…what am I?  And, perhaps more importantly, what does whatever answer there is mean for me and for my children in this world where everyone seems to fear the other?

My friend was kind enough to be patient with me.  She’s had a lot more experience wrestling with questions of race than I have.  I’m sure I seemed a little like a child, but I’ve been privileged to never really need to ask these kinds of questions.  Now, as I feel conversion may finally be within reach and the tide of anti semitism seems to be on the rise, I face them.

I know, regardless of the high price of anti semitism, I would be honored to be counted among the Jewish people.  I know also that my ancestry is a smattering of English, Irish, and a little French/German thrown in.  I know my skin is pale and burns easily.  What all that means combined, though…I’m not quite sure.

And I’m not sure anyone else is, either.

Summer Solstice

The sun, in his vanity rules the skies
today is his day
his highest achievement
his conquest of the night
the moon hides herself
the sky is full of his light

It also is the beginning of his downfall
Tomorrow and every day after
the night wins back precious time
escaping from her exile deep in hours of sleep
she rises
She raids time from day, bit by bit

I wish I could stay awake
I want to see the sliver of her left
but life is too busy
the hour is hidden behind my eyelids
She slips away so quickly in the night
a thief ready to steal back the day

For others, solstice means little
a slightly longer day in a calendar of long days
For us, it means one ruler has reached his apex
the height of his power
And another shall soon rise up to challenge him
we are the occupants of their battle

They say Hashem diminished the moon
punishment for her envy of the sun
today the sun seems to have won
But Hashem took pity on the moon
His kindness was aroused
And the moon always returns

In the long darkness to come there is solace
the moon again rules the sky
and the sky celebrates
painting itself in auroras
shifting colors her robes flowing
making the sun only appear arrogant

In the cold dark, we dream more
dreams of the future and past
We pray intensely through short days
We read by fires over long nights
One more long night to dream
One more winter to prepare

I Was There

When the Voice shook the earth
and miracles happened
I was there, unseen and unknown
I wandered through centuries
I lived lives wild and untamable
my ancestors were fierce
brave and foolhardy
they worshipped the creation
and shook their swords at the creator

When a nation was formed
I was among its multitudes
I spoke out in one voice
I accepted
I believed
And then I was scattered
My face became strange
as I was born among strangers
my lips forgot holy speech
I formed new words
I wondered why I felt lost
even among my own people

When we built the sanctuary
I contributed too
My hands touched the looms
My treasures were given
I saw the clouds
tasted manna
and learned holy laws
But I was dispersed
My soul cried
I didn’t understand why
Its language wasn’t my own

And then, after many lifetimes
I heard strange words
My mind couldn’t translate
My heart remembered
My soul cried out
Was I home?
I couldn’t remember
and I couldn’t stay away
Relearning how to speak
A child again
My eyes full of fear and wonder
Behind new wrinkles

But I was there
When the voice shook the earth
and miracles happened
I know I was there.