BIG NEWS!!!

No, it’s not THAT big news, but it is BIG!

A cousin of mine has a son with a genetic illness.  As part of working through his treatment, she and her parents recently had to have genetic testing.  She knew that her mother is part Ashkenazi, but the surprising news…is that her father is too.  Her father is my grandfather’s nephew.  So…what this all means is that there is a good chance that I’m at least part Ashkenazi as well!

Ever since we began conversion, I have met people that seemed determined to find some kind of Jewish ancestry for me.  I think it fits in well with the idea that converts might be the descendants of lost Jews and everyone loves stories of people who come back to Judaism after generations of their family being lost.  I’ve always had to smile and say, “No, I’m pretty sure there isn’t any Jewish ancestor in my family tree.”  Or is there?  My mother has done our genealogy pretty thoroughly and the percentage that the genetic test came up with was small, so it could be that somewhere, back in time, a Jewish person joined our family.  Who knows…it could be that tiny spark that skipped generations to land within me.

I’m still kind of processing this information that she very casually gave me.

I know it doesn’t change our halakhic status or our process from a practical standpoint, but it does bring a new dimension into how I see myself as a (G-d willing) soon to be Jew.  It’s another connection to the traditions, religion, and culture I love.

I wonder who they were and why they left their own culture to join my family.  Would they be proud that I’m converting or would they shake their head?  Were they madly in love?  How did their family handle it and how did my family welcome them?  Did they regret it or did they live a long, happy life with us?

Perhaps one day, in the world to come, I’ll get to ask them all about it.

Becoming Whole…with a Chanukah Cactus

So much change is happening, that it’s hard to keep you updated on it all.  We have an offer on our house and our flights to our new home.  We’re selling furniture and packing boxes, making difficult choices on what to bring and what to leave.  Our conversion timeline may be  moving up as well.  Suffice it to say…there’s a lot going on.

In the midst of this, though, something else began stirring, something very much connected to conversion, the move, where I came from…and where I am going.

If you’ve read along with my earlier posts, you already know that I grew up a midwestern farm girl.  My family, on both sides, have been farmers for generations, tracing back to England, Ireland, and Alsatia  (which is either France or Germany, depending on the time period).  The first parts of my family to immigrate to the US came when it was just a small colony, among the first settlers.  The last came during the potato famine in Ireland.  All, with very few exceptions, were farmers.  They came and settled in the midwest where the land was flat and the soil rich and there they continued to farm, generation after generation, with land that has been in my family for generations.

Into all this I was born and at first, I was very comfortable where I found myself planted.  I rode in tractors and combines and had coveralls that matched my father’s and I would follow him around as he did his work on the farm.  I was less interested in what my mother was doing, but I also helped out with cooking and housework.  My days were filled with fresh air and my hands in the warm soil.  It was only as I grew older that I began to feel as if I didn’t fit there.  I began to dream of making my own life in “the city,” of doing big things and making a mark and getting away from nosy neighbors and small town life.  As a teenager, that urge to escape only grew and as soon as I graduated high school…I was gone.  I went off to college and only came home for holidays and then, I moved to Florida and I didn’t come home for years at a time.  I’m ashamed to say I often went long periods without even calling or writing.

The strain only increased when I met Mr. Safek and began the process of conversion.

My family weren’t religious, but it was yet another way I was rejecting them, separating myself from them.  Finally, after an argument before our wedding, my mother threatened to disown me and we didn’t speak again for 6 long months, which happened to include our family moving to Alaska.

Alaska tends to attract people who want to run from their past.  It’s a place so remote that you can go there and feel a world away.  You can lose yourself in the mountains and forget.  I think, while a job offer was the catalyst for our move, a big part of it was this spirit of escape, too.  Our little family was wounded, both from estrangement from my own family and tension in Mr. Safek’s and also from the conversion process itself.  In Alaska, we found distance from the pain and a place to heal, but also more distance from family.

Oddly enough, I had to come to the arctic to begin to thaw my relationship with my family and my past.

All my life, there has been a tiny ember inside me that does connect to the land, to growing things and as much as I’ve tried to ignore it and stifle it, it’s always come out in small ways.  I’ve grown small gardens everywhere I’ve lived and I’ve found myself bringing home sad little plants from stores like skinny stray puppies to care for them.  Inevitably, I wind up calling my mother to ask her how to care for this plant or that and this has reconnected us over the years.  It was no different even when we moved here to Alaska.  I began finding ways to plant things even here where growing can be difficult.  Over the years we’ve lived here, I’ve also found myself understanding my family more and feeling more connected to them, partially through my Judaism itself.  They’re my parents and it’s a mitzvah to honor them and by having to learn how to honor them, I had to learn how to forgive and accept them, even where they are different from me or have made mistakes.

Judaism, the very thing that was the last straw in my relationship with them…became the very thing that would begin to heal that relationship.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best community for all our needs wound up being in the midwest, a day’s drive from my family’s farm.  It feels like coming full circle and healing.

This winter, by chance and on a day when I was very down, I came upon a store display of cacti.  They were all very sad looking, which makes sense because they were in a grocery store far from any warm desert and near a door that opened regularly to let in cold Alaskan winter winds.  It was also the darkest part of the year, the worst time for a lonely little desert plant to find itself in the arctic.  I looked at them and felt sympathy and decided to try to save one.  I chose a sad little aloe and bought him, tucking the plant into my jacket as I went out into the snow.  I named the aloe Timmy and Timmy sat on my desk next to my SAD light (Seasonal Affective Disorder…most Alaskans try to spend time in front of a full spectrum light in winter to help with the dark).  Eventually, I brought Timmy home in my jacket to a sunny spot in my kitchen.

And an idea began to itch at me, the kind that starts small, but becomes more and more insistent the more you try to ignore it.

In my family, there are 2 plants of particular significance.  Both are “Christmas” Cacti, that is a kind of cactus that is supposed to bloom in the middle of winter.  At this point in my life, I am not inclined to own or have anything that involves “Christmas,” but nonetheless, the thought that was itching in my mind was that I should ask my mother for a start of one of them.  Each is over 100 years old.  One was a wedding gift to my father’s great-grandparents and the other belonged to my mother’s great-grandmother.  I’d never paid them much attention, but I knew their age and how they’d been passed down in my family and now that I’d been able to take Timmy from near death to thriving, I felt like I might be up for the challenge of caring for a part of one of them, renaming it a Chanukah cactus.

Finally, yesterday, I summoned up enough courage to text my mother about it, although not enough courage to call.  I felt silly about how sheepish I felt about it, but I did, as if I was a teenager again, asking permission for some privilege I knew she wouldn’t think I was ready for.  I even promised to care for the start and said, “I think I might be responsible and mature enough now.”

My mother surprised me by saying, “You can have the whole darn thing!  Which one do you want?”

My first thought was, “Oh no…what if I kill one?  I’m not ready.  I’m no farmer!  I’d feel SO guilty!”

I called my mother and we talked about cactus care and I began to feel like this was right, this was meant to be.  I would be the keeper of at least one of the family heirloom plants.  It felt like accepting my place in my family line, at least in some way, in my own way.  I could tell it also really made my mother feel good.  With so much of what I’d grown up with left behind, this was something I was willing to carry on from them.

As I mulled over which one to choose and where I would keep it and all the other logistics it occurred to me that this is very much a part of my conversion process and likely a part of many other people’s as well.  As I heal the relationship with my family, it’s important to connect with them in what ways I can, the ways that don’t go against being an Orthodox Jew and that honor the family and culture that I was raised in.  My parents can’t pass on to me religious traditions or customs, but I wouldn’t be the person I am without what they did pass on to me and my unique upbringing influences my Judaism, as it should.

Hashem planted me on the farm for a reason, on purpose and if G-d willing, I am allowed to join the Jewish people, that also is for a reason.  I’m meant to bring something with me, some extra flavor that could only be brought by me that I wouldn’t have if I’d been born Jewish.  Turning my back entirely on the culture of my childhood would be a disservice to the culture I am trying to join.

There is something ultimately very healing about that idea, that being born a non-Jew was not a mistake that needs to be corrected, but rather an important part of my purpose here, a part of a plan I can’t quite see all the threads of.

One thing I have noticed, living in Alaska is that at some point, even those who come here looking for escape or to erase their past have to heal otherwise they never really find peace here.  Most, over time, build families and lives here, connecting with others and finding their place within a community, much as they might have anywhere else.  They spend their time in the wilderness healing and return to it whenever they need to relax and find release, but they also heal to the point that they aren’t hermits.  The few that don’t find themselves moving further and further out, disappearing into the woods and loneliness and sadness.

In some ways, Orthodox Jewish conversion isn’t all that different than moving to Alaska.  Both draw people who have a sense of adventure and are willing to put in hard work to reach their destination.  Both often attract people who feel like they need to get away from their past in some way and make a new start in a new world.  Both, though, I think, require a process of reconciliation and healing to come out the other side whole and healthy.  I have heard plenty of stories of converts who never really were able to integrate into their Jewish communities and I wonder if a part of that is because they never fully integrated who they were with who they wanted to become.  Unable to connect the non-Jewish person they were before with the Jew they became, they just kept wandering and eventually that led them from observance and into the wilderness.

And that’s a lonely and sad place indeed.

Faith vs. Trust, Thinking About the Difference between Emunah and Bitachon

Our house…isn’t selling.  We had two couples THIS close to making offers this week.  One couple couldn’t get financing enough and the other chose another house because we have a dog.  The realtors did reassure them that we would be taking our dog with us, but the fact a dog had lived here was enough to drive them off.  We’ve had a lot of feedback and fixed anything we possibly could, but much of the feedback are things we simply can’t change…like the number of floors in our home.  We’ve cut our price twice and our realtor has cut her commission twice and now we’re at the lowest selling price we can do and still break even.  Any further and we’ll have to bring money to the closing.

There are other stressors, too.  We’re back to not knowing if we will convert this month or next year and back needing to make a trip out East to convert there in addition to the trip to move.  Our Rabbis are working with other Rabbis and doing their best to get this all straightened out to convert us, but for now, we just don’t know if it will be next week or next year…which makes it hard to know what to pack since we may or may not need new dishes soon…or for a year or more, among other things.

It’s against this backdrop that a non-Jewish friend asked me, “Can you tell me what Judaism says about faith?”  She’s trying to learn different perspectives on faith and wanted me to provide the extent of what Judaism has to say.  I was surprised by her question and while I had some ideas of my own, I didn’t want to just give her what I think Judaism has to say about it, but rather go back and do some digging.  Perhaps there was something there I may not have fully digested when I first began learning or some deeper level to explore?

I already knew that a lot of things that may seem simpler in other religious paths are a bit more complex in Judaism, at least once you begin to dig down into all the layers of thought.  In my weekly Tanya class, we’ve been spending an entire year studying just one concept…the fear of G-d.  In that class, we’ve delved into different types and levels of fear, what fear really means, how to cultivate the different levels, etc, etc.  If you had asked me before that class what fear of Hashem meant…I probably would have given you a one sentence answer, but now?  I’m not sure I’d know exactly where to begin and would first try to narrow down what aspect of that fear you wanted to know about.  The more I learn, the more I defer to teachers a lot more learned than me, but in this case, I was the closest thing she had, so I looked for some kind of answer for her.

The first level that I already thought I knew about was that “faith” doesn’t really translate the same way in Hebrew as we think of it in English.  For one, even just the word, “faith” in English is already colored by mostly Christian ideas of what faith is.  The closest word in Hebrew is probably emunah, but really, that’s a bit more limited in scope than the English word even if the depth might be deeper.  The other related word that comes to mind most readily is bitachon, but that to me means more “trust.”  Then there are swirls of other concepts like menucha hanefesh, hishtadlus, and histapkus, but for simplicity’s sake, I decided to focus just on emunah and bitachon and how they compare and differ to make something of an approximation of what is commonly referred to in English as “faith.”

Emunah is defined as simply the belief in our Creator and acknowledgment of His power over all creation.  The Rebbe says that this kind of faith is constant, a given in the person’s life and is easier for most people than bitachon.  Bitachon is taking that belief a step further and surrendering ultimate responsibility for one’s needs to Hashem, trusting that everything will be fulfilled as is meant to be.  A person with perfect bitachon still does their part, but they don’t stress about the outcome, trusting that everything will work out according to Divine will  in a way that is for our highest and best good.

I feel like I have had emunah most of my life, if not all of it.  Even when I would call myself an “agnostic,” what I really meant was that I didn’t understand Hashem.  I was angry at things that had happened in my life and loved ones I’d lost and in my anger, the best way to rebel against who I saw as responsible…was to try to deny His very existence.  To me, it was less painful to say I doubted He existed than to admit that I disagreed deeply with what He seemed to think was just or fair in His world.  Even in my rebellion, though, that anger was only there because I still believed that there was someone to be angry at and that I believed that He did indeed have control over things as complex as who in my family would die young of cancer.

I believed in His sovereignty before I had a framework to even attempt to understand His mercy or kindness.  I believed in His great power even while I certainly didn’t trust Him.  I was like a hurt child after surgery, crying out in pain and turning away from the parent who had sent me in to surgery, not understanding and feeling betrayed, pretending I had no parent.

Bitachon is always something I have struggled with.  It’s one thing to believe, but a much bigger step to trust.  It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve really felt like I’m gaining ground in really feeling that kind of trust that the Rebbe describes, where I no longer “look to the mountains, where does my help come from?” simply because I already assume that the help will come whether I am looking for it or not, that it will be freely and generously given when needed, in the form it is most useful.  I began to approach projects at work without the usual stress looking at timelines.  Somehow, it would all come together in the proper time…as it always did.  Even in this move and the conversion chaos, except for a few rough days, I feel like I’ve manage to mainly stay grounded, simply believing that somehow, everything would come together as it needed to.

That is…until this week, the very week my friend asked me about faith as my own was being put through an earthquake, testing its foundations and causing me to look for cracks.

I’m still a work in progress even as I’m a Jew in progress and this week felt like so much coming from so many directions.  One day, I got the word that I would not be able to keep working for the company I work for directly, but that we’re going to have to work out some kind of contractor arrangement and there are no details yet on how that might all work out.  The next day, I hear that our conversion plans are changing again and the timeline might be moving up a lot, which is good news, but also means that we may need to scramble to adapt our plans and find money and time off for a sudden big trip.  And the next?  News that we must again drop the price of our house.

Maybe I should focus on being proud that it took this many things so close together to finally shake me and help me realize I still have some room to grow?  Even a couple of years ago, this kind of a week would have had me on my knees, on the ropes, an emotional mess.  Now, this week?  I stood, took a long, deep breath, and then reassured myself that it would all somehow work out…and went back to cleaning for another open house, focusing on what I can do and leaving the rest to Hashem.

I think maybe it takes some humility to have faith, particularly bitachon.  It takes recognizing that there is so much that is simply outside my ability to even influence, let alone control.  All I can do is pray and ask and look for those small ways I can do my part to help make room for the blessings I’m begging the King for, but I don’t have the power to make them happen myself and I just have to trust that He’s a good King and doing what’s best for the whole Kingdom, so if my request is never fulfilled, it’s for a very good reason…all while simply trusting that it either will be or that some other solution will come.

As I tried to wrap bitachon and emunah up into words and hand them to my friend I began to realize just how much has no translation without immersion in the culture that birthed it.  I’ve only spent 7 years among Jews and of that, most of it has been in tiny outposts of communities, so I’m sure I have so much more to grasp myself, so much that I don’t yet have the context of living within a larger Orthodox community to grasp and yet, even with my limited experience, I felt like words failed me to pass on what I had learned, even at a superficial level.  I did the best I could, but I could tell that my answer probably didn’t really reveal much deeper truth, not the kind that I could feel tangibly in that moment between hearing the last piece of earth shaking news and that long, cleansing breath that let me release it to Hashem to manage, judging it above my pay grade.

When “bad” news comes these days, I no longer feel the stirrings of rebellion because I’ve learned to recognize that my perspective really doesn’t even let me see the real difference between “good” and “bad.”  Sometimes things make more sense years later, but definitely in the moment, my perspective is just too close to really see the full picture.

My family and I are on an epic adventure, a journey of faith.  I’m sure there will be more twists and turns and our path may suddenly veer in directions we never could have imagined now, but I firmly believe that as long as we just keep following, we will be led to where we are meant to be.

Maybe that is faith?

Eating Matzah as the Bears Awaken

There is one great comfort in the long, dark Alaskan winter and that is that the odds of being eaten by a bear go down considerably.  Bears hiberate during the winter, only occasionally stirring if there’s a warm snap, but generally sleeping through the dark cold months in their dens beneath the snow.  About the only dangerous thing to watch out for on a winter hike with snowshoes or skis are the moose and avalanches, but one of the great fears of enjoying the outdoors is happily absent.

This week, almost on cue, the bears experienced their own freedom from bondage and began sleepily and hungrily emerging from their dens with black bears popping up around Anchorage and more ominous brown bear tracks being seen again in the snow.

It’s against this springtime backdrop that my family munches matzah again this year, along with candle lighting times edging closer and closer to 10 o’clock and two day Yom Tovs that feel like 3 days.  The snow is melting and I can even now see patches of brown grass here and there, just waiting to wake up.

Our last breakup in Alaska.

Breakup is a season unique to the frozen north, which pretty much stays frozen under feet of snow once the snow begins to stick.  It’s a season of melting, of the land slowly freeing itself from all that weight.  It’s not uncommon to find lost things besides just the layers of dog poop that accumulate.  Gloves, hats, boots, and even whole vehicles appear out of the snow as it retreats and the trees begin to prepare the buds that will be leaves in the growing sunny hours.  It won’t be long before breakup gives way to our brief Spring, which usually comes for about a week between the end of April and beginning of May.  It’s a glorious week, though, in which mountainsides become covered in lupines and snowdrops, beautiful and delicate little wildflowers.  The air loses the scent of melting dog poo and instead smells like lilacs and other spring flowers and the aspens suddenly turn a bright light green across the treeline.  We’re invaded by migrating birds, particularly beautiful Siberian Swans on their way to their summer homes, sometimes covering entire lakes.

Alaska comes alive not long after the bears do, not long after Jews celebrate their freedom.

We munch our matzah as we are a bit more alert on our walks, enjoying our last two months here, wondering what next Spring will bring.