Rosh Hashanah Surprises!

I will not be online until after Saturday night, but I hope everyone has a wonderful Rosh Hashanah and is inscribed for a good new year.  Shanah Tova!

Our family will be coming home to a surprise.  Our home is about halfway painted on the outside and won’t be finished until Thursday or Friday, meaning we won’t see how it really looks until Sunday.  If that doesn’t kind of represent faith and believing that each change our way comes for the good, I’m not sure what does!  I’m excited to see how it all turns out!

The 9 Days and the Month of Av

It’s Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av.  Every beginning of each Jewish month is celebrated as Rosh Chodesh (literally the head of the month), a mini-holiday that is particularly tied to women.  Many women take the day off from all housework and relax a bit or say tehillim (psalms).  This month, though, it’s also the beginning of the 9 Days, an intensified period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

It’s particularly poignant this year as greater tensions have broken out after Israel placed metal detectors on the Temple Mount following armed terrorist attacks that killed 2 policemen.  The terrorists brought their weapons from the Temple Mount.  I guess I always assumed that the Temple Mount already had metal detectors, like the Kotel and most major public sites do these days.  Now there has been another terrorist attack, killing three in a family who was just sitting down to their Shabbos meal and celebrating the birth of a grandson and protests keep breaking out in Jerusalem and in Jordan, where an embassy guard was stabbed with a screwdriver and then managed to fight off and kill his attackers.

Just as thousands of years ago, Jews feel under siege.

My Rabbi had a very profound thought about all of this chaos.  He reminded us that the month of Av is named after the Hebrew word Av, meaning father.  It also means a close relationship, like a Daddy, rather than a stern, disapproving father.  The month in which we reach our highest mourning and all the world seems against the Jews, is also the month in which Hashem comes close to us, to comfort us as a Father holding his children in his arms.

Several fathers have died in this round of terror, from one of the policemen in the first attack who had a newborn to the father of 5 in the stabbing attack whose wife saved their children by barricading herself in another room and calling the police to the grandfather of that same family.  It’s my sincere hope that their families are drawn close to Hashem and comforted now, along with all those who mourn this month.  May all the tears be turned to joy and the coming of Moshiach.

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

Healing My Relationship With Wigs

Two weeks ago, I got a package in the mail that I had been anxiously awaiting.  I took a deep breath before unwrapping it, nervous, hopeful.  It was like I was carefully measuring hope, not wanting to get TOO hopeful and be disappointed, but still really hoping.

That package was a wig and I have had a complicated relationship with wigs.

When I first took on the mitzvah of hair covering, I actually told my husband, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wear a wig.”  I had good reasons.  In my family, riddled with cancer, a woman wearing a wig meant one thing…death.  I can remember as a very young child walking in my grandfather’s house to my great Aunt Ruth’s room.  There were these little squares of blue and aqua trapped in the linoleum, like a fake version of tiny mosaic tile.  I tried to stomp on them with my hard-soled shoes, the shoes that were supposed to be better for walking and I tugged at my tights and my scratchy Sunday dress.  I loved my Great Aunt Ruth, but then everyone did.  She was a woman who could set anyone at ease and she loved me especially, the only little girl in a family that had once been filled with women.

Those women had been dying off, one after another, each of cancer.  I was too young to know.

When I reached her room, I went to her bed where a white nubby bedspread beckoned.  It felt good to run my hands over those little nubs in their pattern.  There was a sunny window and I moved closer to it, there, on top of a round table was something that frightened me.  A blank face stared back at me, without eyes or color and on top…was my Aunt Ruth’s auburn hair!  I screamed and cried and my mother came to find me and quiet me.

My Great Aunt Ruth died not long after.

During my childhood, I learned to be an expert at how to behave at funerals and it began to seem normal that my Great Aunts and Uncles died.  They seemed so old to me, but now I realize they were my age now or a bit older.  A part of that dying process was the wigs.  They were like a shadow that settled on the dying woman.  I looked at the sheitels Orthodox Jewish women wore and shuddered.

So, I first began covering with scarves.  Colorful tichels seemed to speak so much more of life, of vibrancy.  However, as I moved into an Ashkenazic community, I wanted more and more to fit in…and fitting in meant a sheitel of my own.

My first sheitel was cute, but scratchy and it always seemed to be trying to escape my head.  At a gala, where we were all dressed up, an Israeli woman came up to me and, in characteristically blunt fashion, very pointedly said, “You MUST cut your hair!”  I agreed, partly so she would move on.  (She was a very nice and kind woman and it was good advice, but at times I felt intimidated by her directness!)  My husband, though, didn’t want my thick hair cut short.  I hoped my next sheital would be better, but again, it was a scratchy, head-ache inducing mess.  I covered my hair for 7 years, with a break in the midst of that.  I snuck in my scarves any time I could!

So, I looked down at the box and hoped.  I’d ordered this wig specifically because it had a “large” sized cap.  Would it be large enough?  Would it still fit right?  I’d even compromised on the color and style in order to get this “large” cap.  I took it out, eyeing it skeptically.  Finally, I went and put my hair up.  It’s a process to get it all pinned up properly under a wig.  I usually make two low ponytails, one on either side of my head, near the nape of my neck and just behind my ears, then twist each one, wrapping it up onto my head where I pin it.  Next, I put on a wig cap, which keeps any stray hairs contained, then, finally the wig.

And the wig.

Suddenly, it wasn’t as itchy!  I didn’t feel like I needed to tug it back into place when no one was looking!  It might not be the most stylish look, but it’s so much more comfortable than I thought it would be!

I have worn my new sheitel now for 2 weeks straight, with a brief break to wash it.  I’ve actually chosen it over my scarves.  It’s short and easy and matches anything.  Plus, it fits better with the community our family are part of.  I also like that I blend in more with everyone else and get fewer stares.

I feel like, in some ways, I have finally made peace with that frightened little girl, confronting a wig of death.  Letting go of that association has been part of letting go of so many others and being more open to the possibilities life offers.

A Shabbos to Bottle Up Time

The best laid plans can all be upended by a single plaintive cry from someone smaller than myself.  Her eyes had that glazed over look and her cheeks were flushed in that way every mother is familiar with and I knew, in an instant, down to my gut that despite all the carefully packed Shabbos salads…we weren’t going anywhere.

Happily, Mr. Safek can turn on a dime in times like these and quickly the Shabbat RV 2.0 was unpacked and we were able to settle in to Shabbos at home for the first time in quite a while.  It felt strange having lights, running water, and so much quiet compared to the usual noise of the busier streets near shul.  The time seemed even more leisurely and our meal spread out over a table that was the size of an entire room in the RV.

It was an expansive weekend of rest and recuperation and exactly what her little body needed before the week of camp ahead and precisely what our spirits needed.  We studied and read, played games, and went for walks.  The weather was sunny, hot even, at least by Alaskan standards.  Trees were blooming everywhere.

I started to feel a bit sad about leaving Alaska next summer.  I know it needs to happen for us to move forward spiritually, but there is so much about this beautiful place that I’m going to miss once I’m comfortably tucked in to an urban setting.  I wish there was a way to finish conversion here and more of a community to support observance or that there was an affordable, vibrant Orthodox community with mountains.  I’m thankful, though, that we have been able to enjoy Alaska for as long as we have and that there is a place for us to move to.

As I walked through our neighborhood, watching the birds flit around and enjoying the breezes off the Chugach mountains, I also had to work to keep my mind from worrying over the logistics of our move a year from now.  It wasn’t easy moving our little family from Florida to Alaska, but we also had some help from my company.  Now…it’s going to be even more challenging selling our house in time to make the drive down from Alaska.  Everything is going to have to happen at just the right time and then there’s the challenge of buying a house and settling in before school begins.

Not to mention whether or not any of the Orthodox schools will accept our children in their current state.

For now, though, we have the summer, with camping trips planned to enjoy the most of Alaska possible.  I hope to catch another salmon, visit the yak farm, and hopefully also climb a mountain this summer.  I want to keep the woods and mountains inside me for later, wrapped up in my heart with the Torah, a reminder of all that Hashem has made and given to us in this amazing world.

There is a wildflower that is iconic to Alaska called the fireweed.  Fireweed grows everywhere in the summer, tall and eventually covered in lovely purple flowers.  You can even make a sweet syrup from it used to flavor ice cream and it is said to have medicinal properties, too.  Its main function for Alaskan’s though is as a timer.  The fireweed goes to seed and earns its name by looking like the tops have caught on fire and turned to ash.  Rapidly, the purple flowers give way to this ashen look, as if the plant caught fire.  By the time all the flowers are gone, so also is the short Alaskan summer.  Alaskans watch the fireweed in the short summer months much like others watch the calendar or a timer.

For now, the fireweed has not yet begun to bloom.

Finding the Holiness…Right Where You Are.

I’m listening to a fantastic shiur, the kind of deep learning that makes my mind ache a little, like a muscle that’s been well-used.  I know when I’m learning something that feeds me when it changes how I look at the world around me.

Have you ever gone on a long trip away from home and returned and found that home looked a little different?  It’s a little like that when I find a class that really gets into me.

In this class, the Rabbi is talking about mindfulness and living in the present moment, but he also talks about finding holiness in 3 places.

  • Holiness of Place – Think of the weighty feeling of Israel or even more, Jerusalem.
  • Holiness of Time – Think of how separate Shabbos feels from the rest of the week.
  • Holiness within the Soul (Nefesh) – This is an inner holiness, when you feel most connected to G-d.

In each of these, the temptation is to believe that we have to be someplace else to really feel connected to G-d, to really sink into our spiritual practices, to really find our purpose and live.  It’s easy to keep putting off fulfilling our purpose in life to a later time.  A person could say, “When I can make aliyah and live in Israel, well THEN, I’ll really be able to study Torah.  Until then?  What can I do?  I’m stuck here.”  Or, “When I get past these trying times, when my children are older or when I’m retired, or when work slows down, THEN I’ll be able to really do the big thing that I feel is my purpose in life, that volunteer work I’ve been called to do.  Until then?  I’ll just have to wait.”  Or, even, “When I finally feel that connection to G-d, when I’m no longer struggling, THEN I’ll be able to take on more mitzvos.  Until then?  I’m just not feeling ready.”

It’s easy to put off our lives until there is no more life left.

In my own life, I have some challenges right now.  I’m working 4 ten hour days so I can have Fridays off.  The kids are busy.  We live in Alaska, where observance can be tough.  We have only a small Jewish community and limited resources.  It’s really tempting to put off things until we’ve moved to a bigger community.  We’re also still in that awkward space between Jewish and not Jewish.  It would be very easy to put off other things until we’ve converted and everything is more clear cut.  There are also times I’m discouraged or having trouble finding hope.

One thing this class has helped with is that I’m looking for the holiness now, right here, where I am.  Alaska may not be Israel, but G-d is everywhere and can be found anywhere.  My challenge is to find holiness here, now, while I am here and to fully live here until it is our time to go.  Similarly, we’re in this space between Jew and non-Jew for a reason and it’s my challenge to find the holiness there.  What lessons can I learn in this space that I won’t be able to learn any other way?  And, even in discouragement or when hope seems fragile, what is there that I am missing?  What holiness is there to be gained?

The point is that no part of my life is a waiting room for my “real” life.  Each moment and place I am is for a purpose and is important and requires my attention and focus.  I can’t daydream my life away thinking that I will get to this business of being the person I was meant to be when I’m in an easier place or an easier time or I feel it more.  There is nothing but this moment.

Unfortunately, recently, we don’t have to look very far for sad reminders that another day isn’t guaranteed for any of us and each moment we have is precious.

As Shavous quickly approaches, I’m immersing myself in this world and this time to prepare for the giving of the Torah in the hopes that my soul was there at Mt. Sinai and soon may it merit to return to the Jewish people.  Until then, though, I need to focus on what I am here for in this moment and live it the best I can.

Eruv Shabbos, the World Inhales

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

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

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

Ahhhhhhhhhhh…

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

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