The Simchas Torah that Stole Our Simchas

It’s often when everything seems to be going along just fine with everything coming together when the unexpected happens.  This time, the kids and I were in our truck, waiting for Mr. Safek and Sam the dog to arrive at the Synagogue with the Shabbat RV 2.0.  All our meals were carefully packed up, our clothes, and the kids were very much looking forward to all the festivities of the three day Yom Tov.

And then, as we parked to wait, I looked down at my phone and saw I had a text message from Mr. Safek that made my heart stop just a moment.

“I’m ok, but please call as soon as you’re safe.”

That’s never a good sign.

Our driveway, in what is probably the only real downside of our house, slopes down into our garage.  The RV had been parked facing down this incline, towards the house and Mr. Safek had been packing it up to the road to then join us at the Synagogue.  Unfortunately, as he let up on the brake and stepped on the gas, the RV simply rolled forward instead of the engine engaging to pull the beast backwards.  It rolled in slow motion down the incline…and into the house, shattering the front windshield of the RV.  With not much time left before candle lighting, Mr. Safek had to quickly survey the damage and make a decision.

We were not going to be able to stay in the RV for the 3 day Yom Tov.

So, we had to change plans quickly, rushing to the store to gather some last minute supplies and then home to move everything out of the RV and back into the house as well as prepare to spend the holiday in the house.  The kids were crushed, knowing they would miss out on all the fun planned.  Mr. Safek was upset, feeling like he’d let the family down and worried about the damage to the house and the RV.  I was worried about us having enough food.  I’d planned on us spending at least one meal a day at the Synagogue.  B”H, everyone was ok, but suddenly, things were kind of chaotic.  No dancing, no sushi under the stars, no time spent with our community.

Life just happens sometimes.  As they say, “Man plans, G-d laughs.”

The three day Yom Tov was long, but we did get in a lot of good rest.  Books were read, games played and while a couple of our meals might have been a bit unconventional, no one starved.  We survived and talked about what a funny story this would one day be to tell.  After Shabbos, Mr. Safek discovered that the damage to the house was only a gutter and that our insurance should cover the windshield of the RV, so we’re very fortunate.  Right now, our sukkah is down in pieces, waiting for its new owner to pick it up and I’m busy putting cloves into our esrog and I’m enjoying the post-holiday quiet, a chance to catch my breath before we dive back into work, school, and everything else that was on hold a bit for the holidays.

The esrog smells amazing, mixed with the pungent spice of the cloves and the smell always reminds me of Sukkos all year long, even if our Sukkos this year was a little less joyful than some past.

Holidays aren’t always what we expect them to be and perhaps, in that, too, there’s a lesson.

Trust, Sukkos, and Snow

It’s there, lurking in the forecast for this week and the weekend with cute little gradeschool snowflakes to denote the days it might happen.  Those innocent looking little snowflakes belie the fact that we don’t yet have studded tires on the truck and that we’ll be spending 3 days this week in the Shabbat RV 2.0 with only a few inches of scant insulation between us and the winter weather outside.

And yet, this all makes sense when I look at our Sukkah outside.

Hashem asks us to build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that must be open to the elements, after Yom Kippur.  We’ve just opened ourselves up and begged Him to forgive us and grant us a shiny new clean slate and He tells us, almost in response, build a sukkah.  Nothing in the Torah or timing of the holidays is a coincidence, so it’s obvious that Yom Kippur and all that atonement has something to do with now building a hut in the yard and dwelling in it.  We’re taught to leave our homes with their thick, sturdy walls and comforts and instead move closer to Hashem, showing our trust in Him by instead eating in a small hut where we can see the stars.

Our sukkah this year is definitely a modest dwelling.  Mr. Safek built it on the smaller of our two decks, just off the dining room.  While it does fit the halakhic requirements of a sukkah, it is small and we have to kind of cram into it.  Instead of the lush palm fronts we used to use in Florida, we have dry bamboo and some pine boughs.  The cold winds that we’ve been having coming down the mountains mean that my husband has already had to re-arrange the roof a few times and there is a decent pile of leaves accumulating in the bottom.

Ours is not the picturesque, beautifully decorated Sukkah I see on pinterest or on my Facebook feed, but we’re grateful to have a sukkah of our own at all.  We also have a esrog all the way from Israel and the arba minum, the collection of branches that my son and husband hold and shake each day even if they’re feeling a bit blue from the chill.  When our newer neighbors ask us what it’s all about, we just reply, “We’re Jewish.”  Over the years, they’ve grown accustomed to that being the explanation for a lot of things that are different about our family and they just take it in stride.

Hashem has just given us a gift on Yom Kippur, a gift we probably didn’t do much to deserve.  He has given us His trust, allowing us to try another year in this world, to see if we can do better at bringing His holiness into the world.  He’s trusted us with His creation and trusted us to be His ambassadors to this world.  He’s wiped our slates clean, all our debts forgiven.  So, when He asks us to build a sukkah, even in Alaska, it seems a small thing to do in return.  We do it with joy, most people decorating their sukkahs and here in Alaska, even Orthodox Jews who do not keep kosher fully or who drive to shul on Shabbos will still build a sukkah.  I actually find this mitzvah more universally kept among Jews here than many other places we’ve lived.  Perhaps Jews in Alaska grasp the idea of trusting Hashem to shelter us in the wilderness on a deeper level?

Wednesday, we will move our now winterized Shabbat RV 2.0 to our Synagogue for the winter.  There will be no more running water and we are limited in what electricity we will have as well.  Each week, I will have to choose between what will get plugged into the extra extension cord for Shabbos.  Will it be the hot water urn, a crockpot, or the small extra heater?  We’ll have one bigger heater for the main compartment, but beyond that, I’ll have to choose whether we need hot drinks, hot food, or hot bodies more.  Right now, we plan to spend one Shabbos per month at home to rest and recuperate, but the rest we hope to spend at the Synagogue, as we did all summer.

It’s a lot about trust, just trusting that our short, dark Shabbos will pass by easily and that we’ll be sheltered and protected by Hashem there just as in our Sukkah.  Perhaps He’ll reward us with some nice views of the aurora borealis or a visit from some moose, which are more numerous in town in the winter as they come down from the mountains to forage for food.

For me, this theme of trust began last year when we came back to our conversion path after our break.  When we came back, I decided that I was ready to do whatever was asked of us rather than trying to resist and push our lives the way I thought they should go.  I was ready to trust and just surrender to this process even if it meant leaving Alaska.  I’d accepted that we were in the wilderness and that we’d have to wander a while, just trusting that Hashem would guide and protect us and lead us to our destination.

Now, as the sun is out less and less and the snowflakes appear in the weather forecast, I’m preparing to trust a little deeper and let go a little more, trusting that we’ll find ways to stay safe and warm for Shabbos just as we find ways to eat in our Sukkah.


3 Day Yom Tovs!

I’m not sure, but I think my first year observing Jewish holidays was one that had several 3 day Yom Tovs in it.  If not, then it was at least when I was still very shaky in observing them.  This oddity happens when a 2 day Yom Tov (holiday) falls either right before or right after Shabbos, which makes it kind of like you have 3 days in which you are restricted in what you can do and how you can do it.  In particular, this often plays out in how you cook because you can’t technically cook on Shabbos and you can’t cook food on a Yom Tov that isn’t meant to be eaten on Shabbos.  The rest of the rules around cooking on Yom Tovs are easier than those on Shabbos, but it all boils (or in this case…maybe it doesn’t!) down to having to plan ahead for three days worth of meals unless you’re lucky enough to be invited out.

Our family rarely is so fortunate, due to a few different issues around conversion candidates and holidays, but this year we are fortunate enough that our Synagogue is hosting several meals, so most of what I need to be concerned with is keeping everyone full for breakfast and dinner, with lunch taken care of.

Oh…and did I mention that this must be done in the Shabbat RV 2.0 and that we still do not have a 50 amp circuit installed, so I’m running off an extension cord that runs across the parking lot into the RV?  Life is full of adventures!

What this comes down to is that I will have 1 crockpot available for all my warming needs.  I’m planning a few meaty meals of chicken in the crockpot, both of which I will prep in crockpot bags tonight or tomorrow night and then swap in and out of the crockpot as needed.  I can just leave the crock pot on over the Yom Tovs and swap the liner in and out.  Beyond that?  Fruits so that we can say the shehechyanu blessing for something new, some salads that contain many of the traditional fruits and vegetables of the holiday, and of course, apple cake, apples, challah, and honey!  In fact, as I look at that list…maybe I don’t even need so much?

If there is one thing that spending so much time in the Shabbat RV 2.0 has taught me, it’s that we really don’t always need all the things we think we need.  All summer long, we did fine with cold salads and simple food.  We slept just fine without our big comfy beds.  We actually enjoyed time spent in the park or walking Sam or just playing games.  Now that winter is almost upon us, we’re finding the RV cozier than we had thought it would be and a simple crockpot of warm food and snuggly blankets really make things comfortable.  While it’s nice to have more space and comforts, it really is amazing how little we really need.

Occasionally we daydream about living someplace where you can count on kosher hamburger being available one week to the next or where kosher hot dog buns are a possibility, but for now, we simply work around whatever challenges we find and we still are able to find the joy in simple things, like a sunny Shabbos afternoon and walk with the smell of wood fires on the wind.  I hope we can hang on to that spirit of adventure and gratitude even when we live someplace where “doing frum” is a bit easier.

Until then, we’re really looking forward to celebrating Rosh Hashanah in our own unique way.

And yeah, the picture for this post is one of my favorite crock pot chicken recipes, chicken and 40 cloves of garlic.  I’ll be making it again for the holidays!  Just be sure to sub in your favorite pareve margarine where needed.

When Darkness Comes, Light a Candle

If there is one thing I have learned from our long, dark nights up here it is that it does no good to dwell on the darkness.  The more you focus on how short the sun is up here in winter and the more you restrict yourself in what you do while it is dark, the longer and harder the winter will be.  The best way to deal with the darkness is to not hide from it or curse it, but to simply put on some lights.  Alaskans decorate trees with lights all winter long and those who handle the winters best go out and are active outdoors whether the sun is out or not.  We bundle up and bring some light to the long night.

It’s definitely a good life lesson.

Whenever you find yourself in darkness, whether it’s a lack of spiritual inspiration or a sadness brought about by the world around you, rather than dwell on the darkness, I find that focusing on how I can create more light is a quicker way to feel better.  With this in mind, yesterday and today, I sat and thought about what I could do in my own community to create a little more light for myself and my fellow (hopefully soon to be!) Jews.

One of my great passions is reading.  I love everything about books, from the feel of the paper in my fingertips to the smell of an older book that’s been on the shelf a while.  This is another area in which I found Judaism a perfect fit without any adjustment since Jews highly value books, to the point where there are customs on how you treat holy books with particular care and reverence.  The first time I saw Mr. Safek gently kiss his Siddur after praying and carefully put it back on a shelf, I knew that there was something about this people that was already a part of me.  In our family, we have more books than really anything else and receiving new books is always an event.

Our small Synagogue also has a library, mostly of books that people have donated over the years.  Unfortunately, most of those books go unread because there is no good system for checking them in and out and when they were lent out, they would sometimes not find their way back to the shelves.  After the Rabbis commented on the state of the library a couple of times in passing, I wondered if this was something I could help with.  Yesterday, I began researching systems to organize the library and lend the books out.

A quick search revealed that most of the software available was for much bigger libraries and far too expensive for the budget of a small Chabad house on the outskirts of civilization.  So, I brought my ideas to my coworkers, who are creative and also love solving problems.  Together, we found a solution that would be free, easy to put together, and virtually maintenance free!  I sent my email with links to the test application I’d set up to the Rabbis and as I clicked send, I realized that I already felt better, even if they preferred to use something else.  I had lit at least a small candle in my world.

How wonderful it would be to help other people find the books they need to learn more about Judaism, as I have, to help them find a book that inspires or comforts them just a little.  To me, that’s my best response to the rise of anti-semitism I see…to help light more candles where I can and help other Jews to light their candles as well.

Darkness is not stronger than light and the winter always gives way to spring, but winter does come and it’s important to prepare for it and find ways to make some light and warmth in the cold.  May we all find our candles before it becomes any darker and help each other to light!

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!

Shabbat RV Time

The hours stretch and it seems we’ve always been there.  A two day Yom Tov, but it seems like that’s just what has always been, that there is no other life or world beyond.  We go to shul, we eat, we go to the park, and I read to the kids because they asked.  That the sun stays the same the entire time and that we had to set alarms on the Shabbos clock to get up to light Yom Tov candles again doesn’t help to add any sense of time.

Friday morning comes and I emerge, blinking, back into the world, driving to work.

Which is the “real” world, the world of the RV where everything is somehow condensed and time stands still?  Or is it this world, where everything moves so fast and I can never seem to catch up to it all?

I rub my eyes and try to read through my email, trying to make the words make sense again.  I push myself into my work and try not to think about how, in a few hours, I’ll be rushing to prepare for Shabbos, rushing to be ready to return again to RV time.

Life is simpler when you only concentrate on what is right in front of you.

Life is simpler when you let time mind itself.

The Painting Cabinets and Hisbodedut

Painting cabinets takes patience.  I know this because this is my first week trying it.  First, there’s the preparation, which I probably should have paid more attention to.  I didn’t sand, but instead went all in with gripper primer.  Quickly, the cabinets that I’d chosen to start with in the Shabbat RV 2.0 began to look “rustic” with bright white brush strokes.  Now, I’m in the midst of a process of applying a coat of paint, then letting them sit 24 hours, then applying another.  I don’t know when it will be enough coats or when it will seem finished.

Painting cabinets might as well be a metaphor for life, really.

Just like painting anything else, I can plan all I want and still things will happen I couldn’t have foreseen.  I’m not completely in control of the process and somewhat at the mercy of the whims of the weather and humidity levels as well as the wind and whatever it might decide to blow onto the fresh paint on the cabinet doors as they dry in the garage.  Then, there’s that bit of fear that comes with the first brush stroke.  What if my plan isn’t really a good one?  I could be making things worse, ruining these cabinets instead of making them better.  What if I chose the wrong paint?  What if I’m really not up for the challenge of this project?

Still, once that first brush stroke carves its way across a cabinet, I’m committed.  I have to see this through to whatever conclusion comes.  Maybe I’ll need to switch to a different color, but for now, I just need to keep applying coats to see how it will turn out.  It will likely take longer than I’d planned.  At a certain point, like with any creative endeavor, I surrender and just let the process carry me along and then, suddenly, painting cabinets becomes relaxing…even meditative.

There is a Jewish tradition of meditation, particularly in Chassidic Judaism, known as Hisbodedut/Hisbodedus.  I’m sure most Rabbis would probably cringe at me comparing this to painting cabinets, but a few of the basic concepts are similar.  The word itself actually refers to seclusion, the act of going off by oneself to think deeply or to clear the mind.

As I painted my cabinets, I began to realize it isn’t often these days that I spend much time alone.  I’m almost always in the company of my family or coworkers or at the very least my dog, Sam.  I don’t even sleep alone, with his furry body nestled against mine.  In the RV with an open can of paint, though, it’s rather a necessity to work alone.  I fell into an unhurried state because hurrying is not exactly productive when dealing with wet paint.  I began to ponder my life and I began, a bit self-consciously at first, to talk to G-d.  I realized I’ve fallen into the habit of reserving prayer only for more formalized blessings and prayers and fallen out of the habit of informal prayer unless I’m kneading challah dough.  I used to be more open, but then, I also used to have a drive to work that I did alone.  It’s tougher to feel like you’re still sane if you’re talking to G-d in the car with other people.

And so, we talked and I painted.

My conversations with G-d have taken many forms during my life.  They were often angry and defiant as a teenager.  When I was particularly angry with Him, like the first time my brother was diagnosed with cancer, I would even talk to Him and angrily tell Him I didn’t believe in Him.  Somehow the irony that I would choose to argue with something and then in the same breath deny its existence was lost on my hurting teenaged brain.  As I grew older, my conversations were more confused than angry.  Now, I still argue at times, but I’ve learned to do so with a bit more respect, at least I hope.  I have more gratitude than complaints most days, but I still take my complaints there, too, but they more become pleas and requests.  I long ago realized that G-d isn’t intimidated by me and mostly what I ask for is the strength and faith to be able to handle whatever it is that I’m going through or I ask to be shown what it is I’m supposed to learn.

Yesterday, I mostly talked about how I really, really want to do what the “right” thing is, but it’s so often hard to see what that “right” thing is.  How do I know for certain that there’s not some reason I was born a non-Jew, something important that G-d needs me to accomplish that I wouldn’t be able to do as Jew?  It could also just as easily be that there was a purpose for which I was born a non-Jew, but was always meant to complete conversion.  And what of my children?  I see their joy in Judaism and I take that as some kind of sign that we’re on the right path, but I accept that I can never really “know.”

It’s a thing of faith.

I believe we’ve picked out the right primer and paint and we’re a few coats in to this process, but I can’t really know in this life if I shouldn’t have chosen something else.  I just have to surrender to the process and trust that if I keep doing my best to apply each coat that anything that needs to change along the way will become apparent in the process.  For now, though, it’s enough to just hold the brush correctly and slowly apply each coat, not knowing if or when the cabinets will be done or if I’ve improved them or damaged them with my painting.

I just ask G-d to keep my hand steady, to give me patience and endurance, and to be with me while I paint.

And yes, there will be before and after pictures…as soon as there is an After!