Parshas Vayishlach – Wrestling with Angels and New Names

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov famously wrestles with Esav’s angel, gaining an injury and the name Israel.  In the Torah, every nation has its own angel watching over it and we’ve already learned that Esav is destined to be a mighty nation in his own right.  The struggle is dramatic and costs Yaakov, injuring his hip from which Jews derive the commandment not to eat the sciatic nerve of animals.

I sometimes wonder what nation I was born to and if I wrestle with the angel of that nation.

Unfortunately, the Torah doesn’t tell us which of the people that it speaks of wandered through Europe later.  It doesn’t say if Esav’s distant descendants later decided to move to England, Ireland, and Alsace, where my ancestors sprang from.  There are some commentaries that seek to explain which modern day people are at least spiritual descendants of which people in the Torah, but beyond Jews and Muslims, it can be tough to trace even one’s spiritual lineage back to the Torah.  There are some interesting ideas that the ten lost tribes of Israel spread out throughout the nations and that those who successfully convert are descended from these, but most Rabbis seem to think that converts are neshamas that were present at Mount Sinai, but for varying reasons, were born into non-Jewish bodies.  The generations before have little meaning beyond creating that vessel.

In many ways, I could picture Esav as the ancestor of the people of my birth.  My ancestors were pretty tough people, surviving conditions in Western Europe and then being bold enough to cross the Atlantic in the hunt for a better life.  There are certainly plenty of hunters and warriors in my family line and I can say that there was little concern with spiritual matters, at least in the generations I’m aware of.  The people I come from are very practical, stoic people who value hard work and independence.  Giving up some of that independence to be part of a religious community is seen more as weakness than admirable and admitting to feeling moved by anything that isn’t concretely visible in this world is far too sentimental for their taste.

They’re a good people in their way and people like those I was born to are the bedrock that helped build this nation.  From them, I learned how to go out into this world and work hard, hunting for what I need.  I doubt any of them would have guessed that I would one day turn those skills to hunting for something more, something intangible.

Like any conversion candidate, there are times I question what I’m doing.  There are moments when I ask myself why I am choosing to make my life harder and why I am working so hard to join a people…that very often doesn’t seem to want me.  It helps that I never quite felt at home among the people I was born to.  I always had too many questions about things that seemed unimportant to them.  I always had my head in the clouds and a yearning that no one else seemed to understand.  Still, I look at the world around me and I can’t help but admit that there are other places I’d probably be more easily accepted, other lives that I could slide into with relative ease compared to this one, where I am constantly called on to prove I should be here.

It’s at those times that I wonder if I’m myself wrestling with the angel of my forebear and I often wonder which of us will ultimately win.  Hashem knows we’re both stubborn.

When Yaakov won the battle with Esav’s angel, he was given a new name that his children would carry through time…Israel.  The Sages say this marked a great spiritual transition for him.  He had attained a higher spiritual level following the struggle, a level which would be necessary for the Jews to survive everything that would come later, from bondage in Egypt to years wandering the desert, to conquering their own land, to the exile.  The struggle with Esav’s angel revealed the inner strength of Yaakov.  He didn’t become a different person, but rather it revealed who he really was.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that in exile, Jews must be Yaakov and the nature of Yaakov is to have to hide parts of who we are for survival, but in the time of Moshiach, all Jews will be fully Israel, that is, Jews will be able to reveal fully who they are.

Converts gain a new name at the time of conversion, their Hebrew name.

It’s an interesting task to have to choose a name for yourself.  I remember that my children’s names, both English at their birth and Hebrew as we began this process, came very easily and naturally to me.  Some say that mothers are given divine inspiration when it comes to naming their children and last week’s parsha spoke of Leah and Rachel naming their children.  For me, it was as if once I said their names, those names had always been theirs.  They fit them.  I struggled, though, when it came to my own name.  Should I choose a name that fit who I see myself as or who I wish to become more like?  What should my name sound like?  Converts are urged to choose common Jewish names, names that won’t really stand out much in their community or set them apart.  Being a convert alone sets one apart enough.  Every name I tried, though, just didn’t seem to fit the way my children’s names fit them, but then again, I’d often felt like my English name that I’d had since birth never quite fit.

Over the years, I settled on one that I use and it fits in the way that a shirt that isn’t quite right, but you’ll still wear out fits.  I wonder, though, if I do succeed in wrestling the angel of my ancestors and gain Avraham and Sarah as my spiritual ancestors if that name will come to fit me better and feel more like it is simply who I always was, revealed?

The Dark Side of the Moon

I remember vividly watching Apollo 13 for the first time, particularly the nervous part where the endangered astronauts pass to the dark side of the moon.  Because the moon is between them and earth, there is radio silence.  They’re unable to communicate with the world outside and are left in an anxious state of separation, not really knowing if they’ll make it around to the other side.

Sometimes, winter here is like that.

It’s hard to reach out into the darkness and the world outside Alaska feels more remote.  Mail takes longer to get here as the barges that bring it up from the lower 48 often have to break through ice to reach us.  The store shelves often go barren in spots when shipments don’t arrive as expected.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are not as good of quality and sometimes harder to find.  Everyone seems moody, withdrawn a bit, as they sink into the darkest part of the year.  Holiday lights help some, but the darkness seems to devour even their cheerful light.

It is against this backdrop and my looming trip to the north slope that disappointing news came our way yesterday and it came on several fronts.

For reasons I’ll spare you, dear reader, we must move our Shabbat RV 2.0.  This will make attending shul on Shabbos much more expensive and difficult.  There are hotels near shul, but their rates are high enough we will probably only be able to attend shul once a month.  The RV, although cold, allowed us to attend almost every Shabbos.  This comes at a time when we all badly felt the need to feel some connection.

The other news is that there may be more complications with us finding a Beit Din to convert us.  When we met with our local sponsoring Rabbi before the high holidays, he was hopeful and had some plans, but the fall has been very busy and nothing has moved forward.  It is looking more and more like nothing will move forward until after we have moved and that we may have to begin again with a new sponsoring Rabbi in our new community.  This could potentially add 1-2 more years to our conversion process and essentially mean our time spent working here in Alaska doesn’t really count as far as conversion goes.

As our minds worked through all this after our meeting with our Rabbi, I looked at Mr. Safek across the table from me.  In the years we’ve been in this process, his beard has grayed and our children have grown from little ones to a teenager and tween.  I could tell he was crushed, thinking of all that lay ahead for us when he thought we were nearing a happy ending of our story.

“Well, we’ve put in this many years…what is one or two more in the grand scheme of things?”  I did my best to smile, to lighten the mood, “and that’s the worst case.  Perhaps another door will open in the meantime.”

Sometimes the only way out of something difficult is through it.  It’s true of difficult projects at work, a tough hike through the mountains, and it’s definitely true of winter.  The only way back from the dark side of the moon is to just keep going, keep waiting for the light and the signal to return.  It’s hard accepting that we have so little control or power over our own lives…but we don’t.

It’s all in Hashem’s hands and it always has been.

But we sure could use some sunshine or some connection now.

Thanksgiving Kosher

Thanksgiving couldn’t be more timely for our family this year.  We’ve gotten so bogged down with so many things and it’s easy to lose sight of being grateful for what we have.  Thanksgiving in Alaska comes during the deepening darkness leading up to the winter solstice, a time that can seem particularly dark even as our neighbors begin to hang their holiday lights.

Our family has a weekly Shabbos table tradition of each of us saying 3 things that we are grateful for from the week we just finished.  Bonus points are given if the person who just answered manages to ask the next person just as they begin to eat a bite of food and sometimes it’s easy to come up with three things and other times it’s a little more challenging.  It always helps us begin our Shabbos meal in the right spirit, though.  In some ways, I feel like Thanksgiving is a great holiday to break up the beginning of winter and remind us of how much we have to be thankful for.

I’ve been particularly in need of a reminder to look more at the positive.  Work has been challenging, the kids have needed a lot of help with school work, I’ve been stressed about getting the house whipped into shape for sale, and I’ve just been kind of down overall, only seeing the challenges and negatives.  As I contemplate sides that go with turkey, I’m also thinking about how I can focus more on all the places we have been so fortunate and deepen my trust that everything is going to work out for the best.

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday for Orthodox Jews.  Some choose not to celebrate it, seeing it as being more of a Christian or non-Jewish tradition.  Some kosher keeping Jews also don’t eat turkey since there is no tradition of Jews eating the bird in the past and kosher laws can be a little tricky with birds.  Our family still eats turkey and we still celebrate Thanksgiving, albeit with kosher recipes.  When it comes to the meal, the turkey is the star of the show and for us that means a fleishig meal, meaning a meal that has meat in it and therefore no dairy.

In Alaska, that means ordering a kosher turkey (or two) ahead of time at a pretty steep cost and then rejoicing when you’re able to find them.  Our two birds each cost about $60 a piece and weigh in around 12-15 lbs, but they’re all ours and we’re grateful to have them at all.  The rest of the year, the only turkey available to us is frozen ground turkey.

Over the years, I’ve found ways to prepare sides without any dairy or using dairy substitutes.  Mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, even the ubiquitous green bean casserole can all be made pareve.  This year, I’m also trying out a pumpkin challah and a pareve pumpkin pie.  There are so many recipes now with so many people cutting dairy from their diet that it’s not hard to pull together a pretty nice Thanksgiving spread.

In many ways, cooking Shabbos each week makes cooking Thanksgiving a lot less daunting.  You become used to pulling together a formal dinner every week, so what’s one more?  Besides, you can COOK on Thanksgiving!!!!  To me, that makes Thanksgiving positively relaxing after all the Yom Tovim of the High Holiday season.  I love having the kids in the kitchen, helping out with their favorite dishes, music playing, and the familiar smells and tastes of my childhood.  With so many other holiday traditions that needed to get the boot when I chose to convert, it’s wonderful to have one holiday that still translates.

At first, I initially wrestled with whether or not we should keep Thanksgiving, since it isn’t really Jewish.  In my mind, though, the more I thought about it, the more I found it fit.  What’s more Jewish than a meal that brings family together to focus on all that Hashem has given them?  We wash our hands and say brachas rather than grace and we bench after the meal (benching is the blessing for after a meal with bread), but the desire to take time out of our busy lives to thank our creator for a successful harvest and all that we’ve been granted, I think, is a deeply human desire.

I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, if you celebrate.  If not, it’s not that long until another warm Shabbos!  This week, with the temperatures outside dipping into the negative F, we’re planning to spend a warm Shabbos at home, resting up to return to the Shabbat RV and the cold next week!

The Darker Side of Kiruv

I hesitated writing this post.  I never want to speak ill of the Jewish people, even isolated parts because I understand how someone reading my words might take that to be all Orthodox Jews, particularly if they’ve had little to no experiences with other Orthodox Jews.  I also hesitated because I kept wondering if what happened was my fault, just like how my son didn’t tell us when a man at shul just picked him up during the High Holidays, scaring him.  I feared if I said anything about what happened, it would either be dismissed as minor or it would somehow have been my fault.

But that’s exactly why things like this happen.  Not every Jew that comes to a kiruv organization wanting to learn more about their Judaism is a good person, but we are commanded to assume that they are.  In this case, though, I was placed in a situation with someone who was known not to behave appropriately.  I’m fortunate that very little happened to me, but I feel like it’s something that BT’s and conversion candidates need to be aware of and to feel like they can stand up for themselves if they’re in a similar situation.

Kiruv is an overwhelmingly good thing.  It’s the word for the process by which non-observant Jews are brought back to observance and thousands of Jews have increased their observance as a result of outreach efforts by observant Jews.  As a result of so many attacks on Jewish identity, generations were raised with little to no idea of what being Jewish could mean for them.  Kiruv organizations like Aish and Chabad work hard to help bring that message to secular Jews who might not even know what they are missing.

However, there are some downsides and I experienced one of them recently at a Shabbos table.

I was a guest, alone in an unfamiliar city and staying with a Rabbi and his wife.  I was already feeling down and unwelcome for other reasons, but I hoped that dinner would help me connect here and feel the warmth of Shabbos.  They had one other guest who showed up late and by the fact that he drove and his dress it became clear that this man was someone they were hoping to bring to greater observance.  He sat down between me and the Rabbi at the head of the table and initially I welcomed him the same I would anyone else.  That’s when things steadily went downhill.

This guest began to make offhand, inappropriate comments and eventually began touching my arm and shoulder to punctuate these comments.  I felt very uncomfortable and I looked to the Rabbi at the head of the table, hoping he would say something to his guest…he didn’t.  I saw him uncomfortable and trying to steer the conversation elsewhere, but it continued until I finally benched (said the blessing for after eating) and went to bed.  The fact that the guest had mentioned that he’d been told by the Rabbi to “behave himself,” told me that this wasn’t surprising behavior from him.  When I spoke about what had happened after Shabbos to a friend, they asked me why I didn’t stand up for myself.  I really felt at a loss.  The Rabbi and the Rebbetzin were right there and I didn’t feel it was my place to cause any conflict at their table.  I told myself it was nothing, just some words and he’d only touched my arm and shoulder.

The fact is…often kiruv Rabbis are in a tough situation.  The person who is acting inappropriately might be a major donor, someone who helps keep the doors of their shul open so that they can do the work they need to do in their community.  Tolerating bad behavior from one might allow them to serve many.  In other cases, the person acting poorly might be someone they see badly in need of help, a Jew on the edge.  The person might be related to someone who is powerful or wealthy.

My host and hostess didn’t speak to me about what had happened afterwards.  They avoided me the rest of my stay there.  I wonder if it’s because they felt awkward about it all or if they somehow blamed me.  I can’t know.  I try to judge them favorably, assuming they were probably in one of those difficult situations or unsure how to handle what was happening.  They were younger and perhaps this was something new to them.  I also thought a lot about how I could handle things differently.  I could have spoken up for myself.  I could have asked him to stop touching me or to stop talking about lewd topics.  Instead, I laughed nervously, trying to find the best time to politely get out of there.  I felt unsafe, jetlagged, and alone.  I couldn’t blame the experience on my halakhic status or lack thereof since it had never come up.

Kiruv is hard and difficult work and I admire the people who engage in it.  They also must often tolerate so much directed at themselves and their families to do what they do.  It may have been that what I went through was minor compared to what they’ve endured.

My husband and I also talked about how we would handle a similar situation at our Shabbos table.  What would we do to keep any female guests feeling safe and comfortable if there was a male guest who crossed the line?  Would that change any if it was a Rabbi or someone important?  (It won’t.)  Are we willing to deal with the fallout if we made someone feel unwelcome for their behavior?  Where are our lines in the sand and where can we compromise?

I feel like this experience, as difficult as it was that weekend, was important to have.  I walked that Shabbos day, my guests having left me on my own after services, and cried, but I also thought a lot about what had happened and what I could learn from it.  I knew I didn’t want any woman traveling alone or whose husband was away to feel that way in my own home.  I also looked at all the complicated layers to the situation, acknowledging that I couldn’t know all the details, either.

To me, it’s here, in the murky place between being a good host to a Jew who obviously badly needs Torah and allowing that which I cannot stomach that the rubber meets the road.  Can I love my fellow Jew while still keeping my home a safe and welcoming place?  Is there a point at which my fellow Jew has separated himself so much from what is good that I can no longer attempt to bring him close?  I would guess that everyone has different lines.  I needed this experience to show me where mine are.  I left the home before my guests had returned after Shabbos, relieved to drive away.  I left my thank you card and hostess gift just the same, still questioning whether I had done something wrong for them to leave me with the lockbox code and avoid me.  I needed this experience to clearly show me what I don’t want in my home and what I don’t want people to feel in my home.

And that particular gentleman, in our home, would have been politely shown the door if a kind warning hadn’t put a stop to his behavior.  He wouldn’t have been invited at all if his behavior was known, Jewish or not, wealthy and powerful or not.

I found my line.

 

The Deepest, Darkest Winter

All things must live in darkness before they are born.  Seeds sprout underground, hidden in the dirt and animals live either in their mother’s wombs or in eggs until they are ready for the world.  Today, the sun doesn’t rise until 9:12am and it will set at 4:16.  Candle lighting time is earlier than that, so we will have to pick the kids up from school halfway through their day so that we can prepare for another Shabbos cuddled up for warmth in the RV.

Spiritually also, we are in winter.  Our sponsoring Rabbi, due to a lot of different commitments, has been unable to meet with us since before the high holidays.  Last weekend, what I had hoped would be a Shabbos of warmth and inspiration was instead an experience of being unwelcome.  Our move looms large in our minds and there are days…I’m just not sure how it’s all going to work out.

There is nothing left but to trust that spring will come in its time and that we will make it through this winter to brighter days.

We take our vitamin D and try to get outside when there is light.  We bundle up and lean on each other.  And we daven.  Only Hashem can bring the light back and only He can prepare us for our new lives.

Welcoming Strangers?

I’ve been fortunate to travel to different Jewish communities during my years as a conversion candidate and it’s always interesting how different different Orthodox communities can be.  Every single one has its own personality and subtle differences and it’s neat to see all the different directions people in different places take their Judaism.

The downside is that sometimes…I find myself visiting a community that may not be so open to visitors.

This past weekend, unfortunately, I landed in such a community when I was traveling.  I spent Shabbos far from home and mostly alone.  I was hosted by a family, but they actually left their home to visit family after kiddush on Shabbos and didn’t return until some time after Shabbos had ended and I had left.  The day before, there were also some issues that helped me to feel very unwelcome.  At the shul, I tried to smile my best smile and be friendly, but the congregation itself also seemed to have a very closed off feel to it.  I managed to find another woman who seemed to feel a bit outside of it and sit with her for kiddush and we had a lovely chat, but beyond that?  I felt alone in a crowd.

Some Jewish communities are more insular than others and it can be difficult to tell from brief phone calls or emails what you’re getting into when you go to visit.  Some communities are rather happy as they are and don’t really see the need for new people to enter or perhaps they’ve developed a kind of culture amongst themselves where friendliness isn’t encouraged.  I’ve run across this in a few communities and I’ve also run across communities that are warm and welcoming, but it is definitely why I recommend for people to go and visit a community before deciding to move somewhere.

I had a lot of time to myself this past Shabbos to think and the weather was so much nicer than in Alaska, so I took a long walk and thought about what I want in a Jewish community as well as what I’d like to avoid.  It turns out that this experience was a good one because it reminded me that while a community like the one I was visiting might be perfect for someone else, it wouldn’t be a good fit for me or my family.  It helped me crystalize more of what I’m looking for.  It also made me think about my own community back in Alaska and appreciate its warmth and openness more.

I also began to wonder if anyone visiting my community had felt the way I felt here?  Had I ever neglected to welcome a visitor, to show an interest in them?  Had I ever led a visitor to feel excluded or left out?  Were there ways I could be better at welcoming strangers, at helping them feel at home and included in my own shul?  I know I’ll be looking for visitors more closely now and I’ll try harder to make sure that they feel welcome.

One day, G-d willing, Mr. Safek and I will be able to host guests for Shabbos and when that happens, I hope that we will be able to help make their visit something wonderful that brings them closer to yiddishkeit and welcome in our community.  Perhaps it took an experience of feeling unwelcome and alone to help me think more about what we need to do to prepare for that day.

I am grateful to the people who hosted me.  I don’t think they intended for me to feel hurt or unwelcome and I think there were circumstances around my visit that had little to do with me as a person that led to what happened.  They still opened their home to me and I sense that it may have been difficult for them to do so at this time and that they just weren’t in a place where they could do much more, but also genuinely didn’t want me left without nowhere to be at all.  My experiences were just a snapshot of a moment in their lives and I think they did the best that they could do in the situation.

And, I’m grateful for a difficult experience and all the lessons it can bring.  Sometimes, that’s where I learn the most.

 

Parshas Chayei Sarah – Big Shoes To Fill

In this week’s parsha, Sarah, the spiritual mother of all Jews and particularly of converts, dies and is the first person to be buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the only piece of the land promised to Abraham that he would actually own in his lifetime, but a promise for more.  Rivka is brought to Yitzhak to be his wife and sees him in the field and in what is one of the most romantic passages of Torah, they experience a Hollywood-like moment of “love at first sight.”

There is a Midrash that tells of Yitzhak bringing Rivka into his mother Sarah’s tent, to show her the example of Jewish womanhood that she needs to follow.  We aren’t told much about Rivkah’s upbringing directly in the written Torah, but midrash tells us that her father was a wicked man, even attempting to poison Eliezar.  She wasn’t raised to be what she became, but somehow, she grows to be a young woman thoughtful and kind, bringing not only water for Eliezar, but also his animals.  It seems like Rivka might often have felt out of place in her own family, as if she never quite belonged and longing to be with people she felt more at ease among.  Rivka leaves her own people to travel to meet Yitzhak, leaving her old life behind.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to stand in Sarah’s tent after her recent passing, realizing that you now have to continue what this great woman began.  Sarah was uniquely gifted in prophecy, even more so than Avraham, and was renowned for her beauty.  Even Hashem himself counselled Avraham to listen to his wife.  She bore great influence with him and undoubtedly began to shape the women who looked up to her and follow her example.  Now, though, all those who had come to monotheism through Avraham’s hospitality found Sarah’s tent empty.  It was Rivka’s task to continue to light Shabbos candles and pass on what Sarah had begun to the next generation.

In a way, we’re all Rivka, standing in Sarah’s tent and wondering if we’ll ever measure up to her example.

As a conversion candidate, I definitely have that feeling of joining a people, but without a flesh and blood mother to guide me, slowly raising me and teaching me.  Like Rivka, I’ve had to learn on the job, so to speak, studying the stories of great Jewish women and looking around me for role models.  I have had to find my place in a family that has a long and rich history of tradition as someone brought from outside by a desire to become a part of that tradition.  I stand in Sarah’s tent, hoping that I can do her memory proud, that I can be a suitable descendant of hers in my own home, raising my own children to carry on those traditions and caring for my own family.

I wonder if Rivka ever got nervous hearing of the greatness of her mother in law.  Did she worry that she wouldn’t be worthy of bringing the next generation or did she already have a quiet confidence within her?  Did she simply accept this mission as what she was born to do, without fear she’d fail?