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!

How a Trip to the Ends of the Earth Helped Me Make Peace with Christmas as a Jew

Last week, I traveled to the north slope of Alaska, about as far north as anyone can go, and I spent almost a week in an oil camp.  This was probably the most unlikely place for an Orthodox conversion candidate.  As part of my work there, I had to walk through every dorm room unless someone was asleep and every office and workspace, so I got to know the camp in a way that few probably do.

It was probably about the most Christian place I’ve ever been to.  The dining halls played Christmas music 24/7 since the camp operates 24/7.  They play it all December and it sometimes becomes a bit much even for them.  In particular, “Merry Christmas Ya’all from Texas” gets stuck in your head in the worst way.  There were Christmas decorations everywhere and I was wished a Merry Christmas by kind and well-meaning people everywhere I went.  I guess it was almost like being at the North Pole!  In their dorm rooms, there were symbols of Christianity, bibles, even magazines for bible study.  The announcement board had various Christian bible studies and even services advertised for Saturday night.  To say I felt a bit out of my element is an understatement.

As I ate my reheated kosher meal with Christmas music playing and everyone around me enjoying fresh non-kosher food, I began to rethink my attitudes toward Christmas and Christianity in general.  Why did I feel such revulsion?  Why was I so defensive, so grumpy?  Was it that I felt like I had to openly reject this in order to protect my Jewishness?  Sure, maybe it was presumptuous for people years ago to ask my kids what Santa was bringing them for Christmas, but I’m sure they meant well.  These were people living their faith just as I try to.  They were earnest in their beliefs and the warmth with which they gave their holiday greetings was sincere.  In such a cold place, I didn’t really stick out as being anything different.  My choice of skirts over pants might have been unusual, but just being female there was already unusual, so it was natural they would assume I was Christian like them.

Just because their beliefs never fit me doesn’t mean I need to have such high walls up against them.  In fact, the fact that I was raised Catholic and never found anything there for me should be enough to tell me that I have nothing to fear from Christmas carols.  If I’m truly happy in Judaism, then why not wish the same for them in their faith?

Inside, I felt some tension ease and I could look at all those old symbols with fresh eyes, realizing that they meant me no harm.  I could smile and wish someone a Merry Christmas, even while letting them know my family and I celebrate Chanukah.  I began to see their confusion for what it was, rather than judgement.  I also found myself looking forward to Chanukah more, where before I’d simply been thinking about all the work for the shul’s annual Chanukah party that was coming up and trying to figure out when I’d find time to make latkes.  It was as if my grinchy attitudes towards my neighbors celebrations had been bleeding over to my own.

It took flying up into the far arctic to melt my heart some to where I no longer felt under attack by Christmas carols and lights, but instead could focus on the joy of my own holiday season and genuinely wish my coworkers, friends, and my non-Jewish family happy holidays of their own.  I stepped off the plane home on Motzei Shabbos with a lighter heart, ready for Chanukah!

In the Darkness of a Blizzard

At the northern edge of humanity
hidden in a polar embrace
forbidden candles flicker and dance
outside wind howls
in the hallway, workers trudge day and night

Inside, there is an island, tiny and fragile
my lips whisper blessings
my cup holds only water, not wine
my table only matzah, not challah
my family far away

I welcome the Shabbos queen
wondering if she’s visited here before
has she seen the unending night?
has she watched out for polar bears?
does she travel this far north?

I say more blessings and curl up in my bed
a small bit of comfort in a small room
a book for company
forbidden candles dying down
prayers for a safe return home on my lips

The Sabbath and I huddle together
strangers in this place
I picture my family, safe and warm
the brighter glow of welcome candles
the Sabbath and I drift off to sleep

To the Edge of the World

Tomorrow I board my flight to Kuparuk, to spend a week in one of the most remote, most extreme parts of the world.  I will most likely be the furthest north person celebrating Shabbos in the world this week, in a land where the sun will not rise for months.  I’ve consulted my Rav about the various laws for lighting there and he’s instructed me to follow lighting times for Fairbanks, the closest location that still has a sunrise and sunset.

The only way to work my way out of the darkness is to travel deeper into it.

In contrast, in just a couple of weeks after this trip to the extreme north, my family and I will be traveling south to scout out what we hope will be our new community, down in the “lower 48,” as Alaskans call the rest of the United States.  My trip flight north will only be a couple of hours shorter than our flight south, but to me, it’s a journey to two extremes.  One is a world set so far apart from Jewish community, where everyone around me will be working 12 hour shifts for 2 weeks straight before they fly out for 2 weeks off work.  There, not only is there no sunlight to mark Shabbos by, but no Sabbath for the regular workers there.

In my Tanya class each week, our teacher uses light as a metaphor for how G-dliness filters through the different worlds to our own.  It’s a very powerful metaphor for me, living where I do.  Winter light in Anchorage is weak in its strength.  In color, it is whiter than light elsewhere or at other times.  It is thin light, beautifully clear for photographs, but not warming. Further north, the light decreases further until there is barely any glow of twilight in the sky and no sunrise or sunset.  The light simply cannot reach those places, hidden by the curve of the earth from its reach.

I think we all sometimes must travel through those dark places, where it is so hard to see Hashem or feel His warmth.  The only difference here is that this distance seems so visual and literal.

By contrast, further south, the light thickens like syrup.  When I visited the south of the US a few weeks ago, the sunlight flowed from the sky like warm honey, thick with warmth.  Plants and animals charge themselves in that glow and it allows things to grow.  That kind of light nourishes everything it touches where the winter light up here simply can’t do much.

There is beauty and meaning in the darkness, though.  There is a value to walking through it and a lot that a person can learn about themselves.  If a person can even find Hashem when that glow is at its faintest, then how can they lose Hashem when it is so much brighter?

As I pack and prepare to fly north, I plan to seek Hashem, even alone in the darkness of a Shabbos spent so far from family or any semblance of Jewishness.  If I can squint my eyes and find the light in that darkness, I will be confident I can find it when we’re moved where there is so much more support for the search.

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.

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.

Shabbos, Cold and Dark

Last Shabbos, I was curled up in my arctic sleeping bag.  Granted, that particular sleeping bag was a little overkill for the night we were having.  The temperature in the RV was only in the 40’s, not below zero.  Still, it was a taste of things to come as we each did what we needed to do to stay warm.  The kids were curled in blankets and jackets and our crockpot dinner was welcome warmth.  Shabbos began early, although not as early as it will.  It was the last Shabbos for a while that the kids were able to do a full day of school.

Cold, like hunger, gnaws at the spirit, with patience wearing thin and small discomforts magnified and yet, there was a pride we all felt and a connection to previous generations of Jews who braved all kinds of discomforts or even danger to keep the Sabbath.  We’re far more fortunate in that there are no dangers for us and even our discomforts are mitigated by modern technology.  There is camping gear here in Alaska that allows people to camp even in the most extreme conditions and we even had a shelter and the ability to have warm food.

I’m preparing for an even darker Shabbos.

In a few weeks, as soon as some equipment arrives, I will need to travel to Kuparuk, an oil drilling camp.  It lies just inland from the arctic ocean, far north of the arctic circle and not far from the northernmost point of Alaska.  Yesterday, I attended a training that is mandatory for anyone going to these kinds of camps where I learned just how extreme an environment it is and about all the dangers and what to do to avoid those dangers.  Each module, essentially, was all about another way to die there.  Polar bears that never hibernate and see humans as food make grizzly bears seem cuddly by comparison.  Cold that can kill in a short period of time if you aren’t prepared for it.  Contagious disease that spreads quickly in confined quarters.  Poisonous gases released from far below the frozen permafrost.  Cold so bitter that machinery stops functioning.  Darkness that lasts months.

I will only be up there for a week or two and the company that has contracted us is providing me kosher food.  I’m working with my local Orthodox Rabbi to work out candle lighting times and I’m taking a coworker with me who I will train to do this work and it’s likely that he’ll handle any future trips like this.  It feels almost like preparing for a week or two on a moon colony.  I will spend a Shabbos or two there, among the oil workers, in a long night that takes months until the first dawn, far from home and family.

Yet, even there, there could be opportunities for connection, for warmth and for Judaism.  Who knows if one of the workers might see my sheitel and casually mention that his mother was Jewish?  Who knows what inspiration might come from spending this time in a place so foreign, so extreme?  At the very least, I am sure I will have some time for uninterrupted reading and davening.  The questions I have are interesting ones that make me wonder about future Jews.  How will space traveling Orthodox Jews handle Shabbos and candle lighting in the constant night of space?

Where there is a will, there is almost always a way.