Happy Tu B’Shevat and Bli Ayin Hara

First off, happy Tu B’Shevat!  It’s the New Year for trees and we’re celebrating as best we can.  I went to the store to find fruit and, being winter in Alaska, the pickings were slim and poor, but I did find some different fruits to make a seder.  I also spent $20 on 3 pieces of fruit, but it will be fun to celebrate.

And we have much to celebrate!

In Jewish culture, particularly Orthodox Jewish culture, there is a saying “bli ayin hara,” which loosely translates to trying not to invite the “evil eye.”  You could also compare it to “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” or “don’t count your blessings.”  It’s the reason you don’t say “Mazel tov” to new parents before the child is actually born healthy and why often other big blessings are kept quiet until they have, for sure arrived.

I’m having my own “bli ayin hara” moment and I have been having it for about a week, so suffice it to say, I’m really hoping and anticipating that we will have good news in a few months.

In the meantime, we’re busy selling our house.

There’s been a mixture of feelings as I’ve cleaned and decluttered and really polished up our home.  It’s a really great house and sometimes I’ve forgotten how much I love this house and how hard we worked to get it.  We actually had to outbid another buyer and we just bought it a couple of years ago.  At the time, we anticipated living there at least until our children were grown since our dreams of conversion seemed to have ended.  It’s unlikely I’ll ever have such a bright, spacious kitchen to cook in again, particularly as we move to where we’ll be more in a city.  I know I won’t be able to see mountaintops out my windows or moose wandering through our yard.

As I cleaned, though, I also thought of the family that might move in after us.  I pictured them making happy memories here and focused on getting the home ready for them.  I hope that the house will sell well and fast, but I also hope that they’ll be as happy here as we have been and love the house as much as we have.  I hope their kids will be little enough to appreciate the treehouse in the backyard more than ours did.  I hope that they’re better at gardening in Alaska than I was and get good use of the raised vegetable bed we built and the rhubarb patch that we inherited from the last owners.  I hope they’ll enjoy the neighborhood and the schools as we have.

Chances are, we’ll need to move twice in the next few months.  The first move will be into a temporary rental for a few months so that the children can finish out their school year.  Then, we’ll begin the move that will take us across the continent.  My husband will be driving our belongings across Canada through the mountains and the children and I will be flying ahead of him with our dog to set up a place to live and buy a car.  For the most part, we’ll be selling almost everything we have or donating it and starting over.  It doesn’t make sense to move much when you’re moving that far.

We have little idea of what our lives will be like even as far out as this summer, but we do feel like we’re moving in the right direction.  When you get down to it, though…no one ever knows what the next few months can bring or how their lives will change and we’re all just moving forward in the best way we know how.

For some reason, though, now that it’s really happening and there is a photographer at my house as we speak taking pictures of it for sale…I’m filled with a peace and a deep belief that everything is going to work out as it should, even if I can’t picture what that is or how it will all come together…it just will.

Bli ayin hara, of course.

The Days of Iggy the Cat

When I was just out of college and in one of my first apartments, I yearned for pets.  I’d grown up with cats and dogs and my time as a college student had left me missing furry companionship.  By chance, my apartment lease allowed me 2 cats.  First came Grendel, a temperamental female cat that was an orange tabby.  I’m told it’s very rare for an orange tabby to be female, but apparently no one had told Grendel.  She came from my parents’ farm in a cardboard box.  About a year later, Iggy came along, a tiny gray tabby cat that my brother had said was weaned.  After unsuccessfully trying to get him to eat cat food, I gave up and bought kitten milk and hand fed him until he was able to eat on his own.  He slept on my chest to keep him warm, in the same spot that would later be claimed by each of my babies.

Iggy passed away last week at the ripe old age of 16 years old.

Iggy was the kind of cat that was perfect to raise children with.  He was patient with almost every kind of affection they offered and he enjoyed sleeping next to my daughter.  He was a faithful companion to all of us, making the trip first from Illinois to Florida and then, 5 years ago, from Florida to Alaska.  Whenever someone in the family was sick, Iggy felt it was his duty to sleep on them and purr and I think that the feeling of a sleeping cat purring on you is about the most comforting feeling there is.

Iggy’s passing was hard on all of us, even if we knew it was coming.

It began with him hemorrhaging blood out his backside and he became weaker and weaker.  Toward the end, when I woke in the morning and rejoined his side, he was pretty much gone, his pupils fixed and dilated and his body just gasping for air every so often.  It was painful to witness and our family took turns petting him to the very end.

“It’s ok, Iggy,” I whispered to him, “you can let go.  You’ve been a good kitty and your work here is done.”

My daughter was hit especially hard by his passing since it’s the first pet she’s ever been close to that died.  As we sat with Iggy, offering what comfort we could to him, we talked about how everything comes from Hashem and everything eventually returns to Hashem.  Iggy was being freed from this life to return to his source.  She asked the tough questions that have no easy answers, like why death has to be a part of life.  I did my best to answer and also to admit that I don’t always know myself.

Then, Iggy took his last breath and was still.

We wrapped him in one of my daughter’s baby blankets she’d kept for her stuffed animals and the children stayed home as my husband drove us to the vet.  I sobbed openly as I held his body, remembering how much heavier a body is when the life has left it.  I thanked Iggy for being with me through everything, from being a newlywed, then mother, then divorced single mother, then remarried.  Through hard times and good times, Iggy had just always been there…until now.

I guess Iggy just couldn’t face another cross-country move at his age.

Iggy was a cat that taught us all about love and death and life.  He was a creature of Hashem’s and to Hashem he has finally returned.

 

When You Treat Me Like You

When you ask me where to find candles
just assuming I must know
my heart expands, relaxing
my eyes well with tears
simply because you counted me among your own

When you tell me “Good Shabbos”
casually as you walk by
just assuming I celebrate it
not asking me if I can break it for you
my smile widens

When you try to pass the wine bottle to me
even though its awkward and I demurr
I smile inwardly because you forgot
I blended into your world so well
it never occurred to you to ask

When I can sit, unnoticed and accepted
there is a quiet kind of peace
no justifications needed, no explanations asked
I finally feel like me
the Jewess I’ve been inside

I hold my breath as you approach
afraid you’ll ask me where I grew up or who I’m related to
not because I’m ashamed or trying to hide
because I don’t want the clock to strike midnight just yet
or this magical moment to be broken

I want to linger here just a bit longer
before the questions come and I become unusual
I want to breathe in this space just a little more
where who I was no longer matters
and who I am is all I need to be

Back in Alaska and Life on Fast Forward!

Yesterday, we returned from our trip to scout out a new community for our family.  It was a whirlwind trip and had a lot of layers and highs and lows, but we definitely found a connection to one of the particular communities we visited on the trip.  It is small, but has everything we need, including good day schools for both kids and more learning for us and more kosher food.  My husband and son enjoyed going to minyan every day and my daughter even made a friend.

Our first trip to a grocery store with a large kosher selection must have been amusing for everyone else shopping.  My daughter actually jumped up and down in joy and I just kind of stood there, my jaw dropped, trying to figure out what to buy.  I’m so used to going to the store, finding what is available, and then cobbling together a meal from that and having so many choices was just overwhelming to me!  If I’d had my kitchen nearby, I could have made my family anything at all they wanted to eat!  I also felt self-conscious, worrying a bit that we all stuck out, but a woman inadvertently did me a great kindness, similar to the boy who came up to me my first time in an Orthodox shul to ask me if I was related to someone else he knew.

This woman was looking for havdalah candles, the candles that Jews light at the end of Shabbos.  There were quite a few to choose from, but she was looking for a specific candle and she asked me if I knew where it was.  In the midst of all these Jews who seemed so frum and put together, she asked me, the wide-eyed Alaskan.  I explained that we were visiting from Alaska and that I didn’t know where those particular candles were among the havdalah candle display, but I felt more at ease after that.

We attended classes, visited schools, ate kosher sushi, and really just enjoyed being part of a community.  There were little moments that meant so much, like when the non-Jewish hotel owner knew to tell us “Good Shabbos!” as we left on Friday to go to where we stayed for Shabbos or the greetings from Jewish families in the grocery store.

The message was…”You don’t have to be alone anymore.”

Now, we return to the whirlwind of school applications, home sale preparations, packing, and helping our son study like crazy, but we can see where we’re headed.

And it’s warm and bright despite the cold windchill.

Peeking Through the Door

I’m still thinking about what I would like to do with this blog and how it might be useful, but setting that aside for a moment, I do feel like it’s important to give my friends here some updates on where our family is at as far as the conversion process and the big move.  I know I never like big cliffhangers that are never resolved.

Next week, our family is traveling to what we hope will be our new home community, thousands of miles away in the lower 48.  We’ll be staying by a family for Shabbos within the community and visiting several different schools as well as speaking with a realtor while we’re there.  I’m excited and nervous, as if our whole family were going on a first date and hoping to make our best impression as well as hoping that this will be “the one.”  At the same time, there’s the feeling that we need to keep our eyes open even as we listen to our hearts.

From my years talking with converts both in person and online, I know that it’s critical to find a community that is a good fit.  When I’ve talked to converts who have gone OTD (Off the Derech, that is, leaving observance) one of the most repeated explanations was that they never felt accepted and never fully integrated into an Orthodox Jewish community.  Every Jewish community has its own personality and what might be a great fit for one convert could be the worst for another.

We’re looking for a community where people are growing in their Yiddishkeit, where learning is a priority for adults as well as children, and where there is warmth.  Finding a diversity of backgrounds among the community is a definite plus since that tends to make it more likely that we’ll integrate well.  We’re looking for schools that feel like they’ll be a good fit for our children and a welcoming atmosphere and we’re also looking for a place where the average level of observance is close to what is expected of Orthodox converts.  It can be tough to fit in with a community when the level of observance you’re expected to keep is a lot different from what most families are holding by.

It’s a lot like dating again and again, I have to trust that Hashem has a perfect fit for us, somewhere, a community we’ll feel lucky to be a part of and that will feel glad that we’ve joined them as well.  We’re hoping to get off on the right foot by already making introductions with the Rabbis and Principals of the schools we’re visiting and talking with them prior to our visit, letting them know our situation.

And of course, a lot of davening, because ultimately, Hashem is the one making this match, if there will be one.

In the meantime, our sponsoring Rabbi has been working with our Beis Din and that part of our process is moving forward, even without the Shabbat RV as a part of it.  This means some more lonely Shabboses at home and it might possibly mean we move sooner than we’d planned.  Our house is almost ready to go on the market and we’re going through our belongings, deciding what will stay and what we will let go of.  In general, we will be moving as little stuff as possible since it most cases the cost of moving anything this far is more than the object is worth.  Only what has strong sentimental value or would be difficult to replace will come with us.

Wherever we wind up, we will wind up with only the basics…a fresh start in a new home, Hashem willing, as new people.

It definitely is a leap of faith of sorts, selling pretty much everything we own and moving so far, but our family are working together to make this happen in a way that inspires me.  I know our family is special when I see how dedicated our children are to this even though it means leaving friends and Alaska behind.  I know we’ll miss the wilderness, the mountains, the glaciers, but we also all get excited looking at neighborhoods and schools online and imagining all the opportunities this new life might open up for us.  Our children dream of visiting Israel and of reaching the point that they’re teaching us from what they are learning.  I dream of growing in my own learning and deepening my observance of mitzvos.  My husband is just excited to have daily minyans to daven with, rather than being all alone except for Shabbos.  I look forward to a community where I can help out, too, something that helps me feel more connected and useful…needed as I am up here.

For balance, we’re also making sure that some of the things we love are still where we are going.  We’re only looking at communities that have snow and hiking trails within a short drive and where our quirky outdoorsy-ness won’t be too unusual.

Next week, we’ll be peeking at communities and paths we could take next before we take that great leap.  I know we won’t be able to know everything we might want to before we make our decision, but I’m glad we’re taking this trip together to get a taste of what might be our next home…and next big adventure.

Reconsidering The Blog

It’s almost been a year now since I began this blog.  At the time, I began it because I didn’t see a lot of conversion stories being told, at least not being told in detail with all the complexity involved.  I also didn’t see a lot of resources for prospective Orthodox Jewish converts out there beyond what to study and read.  There were so many things we’ve learned over the years in our own process that I wish we’d known years earlier that I thought a blog might be helpful to others starting this path.

I also just needed a place to be able to put words to what we had experienced and are still experiencing, both the highs and the lows.  It’s easy to feel like neither your Jewish nor non-Jewish friends really understand what you’re going through.

I’m beginning to think, though, that my family and I are just such outliers when it comes to conversion that our experiences and any advice we might share…might just be irrelevant to most people.  I do participate in a couple of online groups for Orthodox conversion candidates and there isn’t a ton of discussion there, either, but I do answer questions when they’re asked.

On the whole, for most people, conversion is a much shorter part of their lives, a year or two.  It also seems to be a process which causes them to draw inward rather than reach out.  Maybe they have great support networks and Rabbis that guide them more closely.  Maybe they start the process and decide quickly that it’s not for them or else start it and finish it in a rather linear way.

In any case, I’m finding few people needing to hear what I have to say and I feel mostly like I’m talking to myself.  I suppose that has its own value, but I could always just begin a private journal instead.

With the pace of preparing for our move picking up…I’m considering closing down this blog and simply concentrating on what’s right in front of me with my family and our own conversion process.  I don’t feel like I have any great truths to share or unique insights.

I thank those of you who have been reading for traveling along with me.  I’m still unsure of the final destination, but I have faith that we will finish our conversion process and find the right Jewish community to settle down in.  I have that faith because we’re committed to continuing on, no matter how many times we have to start over and how many twists and turns happen along the way.  We’ll move wherever we need to and just keep moving forward.

I hope everyone has a bright and inspiring Chanukah season!

Chanukah Sameach from Alaska!

It is fitting that the celebration of Chanukah comes so close to the winter solstice, the darkest part of the long dark winter of Alaska.  Chanukah reminds us that we can always add light and the story of Chanukah is one of Jews bravely sticking to their traditions and refusing to assimilate, even when the pressure is high.

My daughter was particularly excited when I came home from work yesterday, bouncing up and down with anticipation and saying, “It’s Chanukah, It’s Chanukah, oh my gosh, it’s Chanukah!!!”  Her face was beaming.  For her and her brother, Chanukah is a welcome break from everything they are deluged with this time of year, being in public school.  This year wasn’t too bad.  There was the Christmas themed field trip my daughter skipped, opting instead to spend the morning at home.  There were a few projects we had to insist that the kids be allowed to make alternate projects for.  There were Christmas themed movie nights and and school parties the kids skipped.  Then there are the Orchestra concerts where they’ll play mostly Christmas music, along with maybe a Chanukah song.

All these are just reminders of why we’re working so hard to move somewhere where there are Jewish schools.

In the midst of all these challenges comes a light, first one candle lit, that grows.  It reminds us that we’re almost through the darkest days of winter and the sun will be returning.  It reminds us of traditions and a link to a people who have certainly clung to their faith in much tougher circumstances.  It also reminds us that Hashem is with those who stubbornly follow Him, even to the point of creating miracles

My latke recipe is out and we have the “Spinagogue” (a kind of dreidel stadium that just came out on kickstarter this year) all set up for play.

May everyone find their little corner of bliss this holiday season!