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?

“Turning Over” My Kitchen…and Turning Over my Pre-Passover Anxiety

The same thing happens EVERY year without fail.  I always plan to “turn over” my kitchen (that is, clean and kosher it for Passover), as close to Passover as possible so that my family doesn’t have to either eat kosher for Passover food longer than necessary or eat their floury, chametz-leaden food in the garage.  I plan and think I have everything down and scheduled.

Inevitably, I always wind up beginning my cleaning and then just turning over the kitchen a few days earlier than I’d planned.  Every.  Single. Year.

I’m not even sure why, but at some point, it seems less stressful to just get it done.  Maybe it’s that I hear of other women turning their kitchens over earlier and I begin to worry I won’t have time to cook?  Or, perhaps it’s just that the cleaning begins to take on its own momentum?  I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with a discomfort with living “in between.”

At a certain point, you begin to have some areas cleaned and some things kashered and some things not and in that state, it gets harder and harder to keep things separate and not make any mistakes.  I feel a sense of relief when the kitchen is all turned over and set for Passover, even if my family is huddled around the toaster oven in the garage or eating potato kugel for an extra week.  I’m fine before I begin turning things over, but once it’s started, I really feel this need to get it all finished as quickly as possible so that the wrong spoon doesn’t wander out or someone cooks in the wrong pot.

I think that probably says a lot about me in general.

There is a discomfort that comes with living in any half-completed state.  I think we feel this in the last weeks of school before a graduation or those rushed weeks before a wedding.  A big life transition is taking place, but, at least for a short while, there is a space where you’re between and there is a mental and emotional discomfort that accompanies that state.  It’s a feeling you’d think our family would be accustomed to by now!

I find comfort in the idea that there is a purpose to such states, though.  Hashem certainly could have simply brought the Jews out of Egypt and directly to Israel.  It would have been simple given all the other miracles He performed.  Alternately, He could have just led them on the most direct route right to Israel.  Instead, the Jews had to wander for 40 years in the desert.  They needed to dwell in the discomfort of being free from slavery, but not yet having their own land.  As uncomfortable as that state was, it was necessary for so many reasons for them to become the nation they were meant to be.  Similarly, when we individually make big life transitions, sometimes, as painful and awkward as it can feel, we need to live in a state between one thing…and another.

I have a friend currently experiencing this in a very personal, visceral way.  Her marriage has ended, but both her civil divorce and the process of getting her get have stalled (to be clear, she is not an agunah and it looks like everything will work out…it’s just going to take more time than she ever imagined).  She has to live in an awkward place between being married…and being single and not really being either.  A chapter in her life has ended, but she can’t yet begin the next chapter and she’s stuck at the turning of the page.

Life just simply isn’t as orderly as the numbered pages of a book.  My rush to turn over my kitchen is my small way of trying to make it more like that, to make the world simpler for me to understand, where the change between one state to another is so much easier to see and so much neater and cleaner.  That anxiety I feel where things are halfway turned over and my kitchen is not quite kosher for Passover but also already contains things that need to remain kosher for Passover is such a mirror of the powerlessness I often feel when I feel like I’m stuck at the turning of a page.  In my kitchen, I have the freedom to rush through and my family is patient enough with me to allow it.  In fact, they know by now that when I say I’m going to turn the kitchen over on X day…they might as well subtract three days from that.  They just smile knowingly.

In life, we rarely have the ability to control the big transitions of our lives in this way.  I’m sure it’s for the better than we can’t because who would willingly choose to live in-between for any longer than they had to?  Still, within that tension of not quite being what we were and yet not being able to step fully into who we are becoming is where we find some of our deepest growth.  We’re off balance between steps, essentially falling forward until our foot catches us, but that’s how we move forward in this life.

As I finish turning over my kitchen tonight, I will pray that I become more graceful when it comes to these in-between spaces and try to resist the urge to rush through them so much.  Who knows what I might miss along the way?

My Son and His Passover Sacrifice

One of the things my son was looking forward to most about 8th grade was the Advanced Orchestra trip to Hawaii that the 8th graders in his school take every year.  He had been thrilled when he’d first heard of it during his Junior High orientation and he’d fundraised last year to help send the previous class.  It’s one of the pivotal events of Junior High in his school, something that inspires a lot of kids to stick with Orchestra even as their elective options increase.  For Ian, it was a dream as he’d never been to Hawaii, unlike most Alaskan kids.

This fall, we discovered that the trip had been scheduled over Passover.

His face fell when we got the news of the dates.  Before, we were willing to figure out how to work kosher food, how to adjust travel times around Shabbos, anything so that he could be involved.  With one email confirming the dates were set, his dream was gone.  He smiled bravely to us, but I knew he was heartbroken.  The year went on and he still fundraised so that his classmates could go.  He still practiced the songs they would be playing there along with the orchestra.  He still loved his viola.  I couldn’t have been prouder of him.

This week, his fellow orchestra students are excitedly packing their bags and finalizing their trip plans.  He is helping me clean for Passover.  His classmates are packing sunscreen and talking about swimming with sea turtles.  He is helping me plan Seder menus.

And yet, he remains upbeat, proud, his kippah still on his head at school.

This…this is what it means to be an observant family far from an observant community.  It means living by what you believe even when it’s really hard and my son has really integrated that into himself.  He never once pleaded or bargained with us to make the trip once he found out it was during Passover.  He didn’t complain to his teacher or demand we protest to the school.  Instead, he used it as an opportunity to be a light to his fellow students, to show them that he would stand by his beliefs even when it was hard and that he would still support them even though it might sting.

One fundraiser, he waited tables for a meal he couldn’t eat to raise money for a trip he would never go on.  Later, the parents that sat at his tables came to me to tell me what an amazing young man he is.

I just smiled and said, “I know…we’re very blessed.”

We have promised him, after we settle in our new community, a trip to Israel with us to celebrate all that he has accomplished.  I think it’s time to buy him a travel guide for Israel that he can read over Passover so that he has a picture in his mind of the promised land after all this time in our own desert.

I’m certain that Hashem is also very proud of him.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

I used to be a big U2 fan.  I’ll freely admit that as a child of the 80’s, I was listening to U2 well into the 90’s.  One of their songs that always stuck with me was the song, “Walk On,” particularly the lyrics about “all that you can’t leave behind” and the idea of packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been.  Being a band of Irish Catholics, I have to assume the journey they were talking about, where they were packing for a “place that has to be believed to be seen,” was their version of the afterlife.  That being the case, the song still resonates for me in a different way, particularly this time of year and this year in particular.

We all have places we’re trying to get to, either metaphorically or physically and we all have stuff that holds us back from those journeys.  It may be the marathon we’ve always dreamed of running but never can seem to carve out the time to train for.  It may be the song we’ve always wanted to sing, but are afraid of making a fool of ourselves.  It could be a career move we’re afraid of making, a business we keep putting off starting, a relationship we can’t seem to commit to.  It could even literally be a big move, like making aliyah to Israel or even just moving out of our parents’ house.  It could be finally admitting to those we love who we really are.

All of us have stood at a crossroads and gazed longingly down that road less traveled and far too many of us have then looked at all we’re carrying, all that’s holding us back from that road and then turned back to the well-tread path.

There are always good, comfortable reasons not to take big risks.

Passover is a season of celebrating the courage of casting off all that holds us back and leaving the familiar for the extraordinary.  The Jews left the certainty of the lives they’d known for an uncertain future in the desert, trusting in Hashem and that there was something better for them out there.  They had to let go of everything they’d known before and all the adaptations that had helped them survive slavery.  They could only take what they could carry and they could only move forward once they were prepared to leave everything behind.

It really does us little good to rid our homes of chametz if we’re still allowing ourselves to be held back from being the people we were meant to be by a car payment we shouldn’t have taken on, a fear of failure, or worries about what others think we should do or be.

Last night, I had a crisis of faith over the silliest thing.  I was sitting, taking a break from Passover cleaning when it struck me that we didn’t get the kids to see the northern lights.  Living in Anchorage where there is so much light pollution, it’s tough to see them and this winter one of our goals was to get outside of Anchorage and make sure the kids saw them before we left Alaska.  Doubt came tumbling down on my head like fully packed suitcases stuffed up into a closet will fall down on the first person who opens the door.

Were we making a huge mistake moving?  Would the kids hate us for taking us away from Alaska?

I think the cleaning products might have gotten to my head because this morning, these fears seem silly, but last night, they were pressing.  What if the kids never see the Aurora Borealis?!  What kind of mother am I if I didn’t make sure they saw that?!  My kids also never went out on a sailboat when we were in Florida, never went fishing for marlin, never went snorkeling, etc, but for some reason, I felt this heavy guilt descend on me over the northern lights, nevermind that I myself have only seen them once or twice.  Nevermind that the kids could conceivably go on a trip just to see the northern lights one day if they’re so inclined.

It would be easier to stay in Alaska.  We wouldn’t have to sell our home, which is proving tougher than our realtor imagined.  We wouldn’t have to start over someplace new.  I wouldn’t have to manage working remote.  We could keep all our stuff and the kids could stay with the friends they know.  Still, staying here would mean that we wouldn’t be able to complete our conversions and observance would remain a difficult uphill battle every year.  The well trodden path that direction goes uphill, both ways, through the snow.  The path out is a huge leap off a cliff, but there’s a nice flat plateau down there once we land.

Some journeys require that we leave everything behind except that which we can’t.

This journey is one of those.  As we sift through our stuff another time, it becomes more, “What can we absolutely not do without or replace?”  Only that makes the cut.  Similarly, though, we still have to keep sifting through our own hearts and minds, too.  To become the people we’re meant to be means leaving behind fears, grudges, bad habits, limiting mindsets.  It’s a process of constantly decluttering what I carry around in my head and my heart.  It means facing my own fears of whether or not we’ll fit in where we land, whether or not the kids will do well in Day School, whether or not we’ll be happy in a landscape a little more ordinary.

When a conversion candidate prepares for the mikvah, it’s important to remove every barrier from the water.  You scrub under your fingernails and trim them short, detangle all your hair, remove your contacts, even brush and floss your teeth very carefully.  The idea is that there should be as little as possible separating you from the waters and, in fact, an immersion can be rendered invalid if there was too much of a barrier.  In a similar way, I feel like this process of moving is one of stripping off the layers of what has built up between us and Hashem, both materially and spiritually.

Bare and naked of our possessions, left with only that which we can’t leave behind, we’ll take our first steps into a new life, unsure of what awaits, but trusting and hopeful that when we emerge, it will be to a world that is warm and welcoming and that embraces us.

The Season of Letting Go

Passover must always fall in the spring.  It’s a rule of the Jewish calendar and a whole leap month will be added to the calendar to make sure this happens.  For Orthodox Jews, this also means that Passover cleaning is a form of spring cleaning, with cabinets cleared out and all manner of pasta, flour, and baked goods being used up in preparation of the holiday.  It’s all about letting go of what’s holding us back from reaching the next level, from really being free.

In Alaska, spring comes slowly and then there is one week, usually at the end of April, were everything springs to life.  For now, we’re in the part of the year where the sun is rapidly winning time from the night and things are melting during the long daylight hours, only to freeze again at night.  It’s a constant back and forth as more snow comes some nights and then more ice and snow melts again in the day as winter and spring fight against each other each day.  Alaskans typically call this strange season before spring “breakup” and it lasts much longer than the quick burst of Spring we get for about a week when all trees and plants suddenly burst into leaf and bloom all at once with almost no night to slow them down.

It’s against this backdrop along with our own season of letting go of most of our possessions in preparation for our big move that Passover comes this year.

Moving the distance that we are moving really requires you to look critically at what you own and make some tough decisions.  Often, it’s cheaper overall to buy things after you move rather than haul them across the continent.  Since we decided to move, we’ve slowly been paring down our belongings.  Each pass, we carve off more of what we’ve held onto, only to revisit it again.  How many pairs of shoes does each person really need?  Will I ever find an occasion for that shirt?  How many books can I let go of?

I imagine that the Hebrews had less to go through as they prepared to leave Egypt.  Being slaves, they didn’t have a big house full of cross country skis and winter gear to sort through.  Still, they had to travel light as they left.  Even deeper, they had to be willing to let go of everything that held them back from freedom, the attitudes and habits that tied them to slavery in Egypt.  Our journeys are so far apart in time and geography, but I think my family is feeling something similar.  If our Rabbi is correct, this is our last Passover as non-Jews and there is a lot to go through to decide what to take with us…and what to leave behind.

The logistics ahead are daunting, but nothing like a whole nation walking out of Egypt into the unknown.  We have flights for most of the family and we’ll have bags aplenty.  Then, my husband will undertake the long, lonely trip from Alaska, through Canada, in a Uhaul with the small pile of what we think we shouldn’t leave behind.  We estimate, with construction and Shabbos observance included, the trip will take 2 weeks.  He’ll cross two international borders, travel through remote mountain ranges and empty plains, and much of it will be outside of cell phone coverage.  He’s looking forward to the trip, though, seeing it as a chance to clear his head and regroup before joining us in our new community.  In the meantime, I’ll be settling the kids and I into our new home.

In many ways, this process takes us full circle back to the beginning of our Alaskan adventure.

When we moved up here, I came up a month in advance and found us a place to live.  I brought very little with me and among the things I’d brought was our cat, Iggy.  Iggy and I essentially camped in the new home with an air mattress and only a few basics.  A month later, my husband joined me and then a week later, I flew back to the east coast, picked up the kids, spent a very tiring night watching over them in an airport, and then flew all the way back to Alaska…and promptly went back to work the next day.  It’s never easy moving an entire family of four across a continent.  Still, I’ll never forget their amazement when they first looked out the plane window and saw the snowy mountains below.

Our truck and other belongings arrived a couple of months later, so we essentially spend 4 months camping in our house on air mattresses without chairs.  It was so exciting when the moving truck with our stuff showed up!

This move will be somewhat smaller since we are doing it ourselves.  There is no company paying to move us.  There are no movers coming to lift our boxes into a truck.  It’s just us and a lot of faith.  We have faith that everything will work out and that we’ll all be reunited safely in our new home.  We have faith that our house here in Alaska will sell.  We have faith that we’re not making a big mistake by leaving Alaska…a place so wild and beautiful that it’s hard to find anything like it anywhere else.

We have just 2 short months left here in the mountains as we turn our faces south.  As we prepare for this Passover, there are so many mixed feelings and so many ways we connect with the story of the Exodus.  I wish there was a way to be more certain of the path, but we have no Moses to guide and reassure us, no clouds of glory, no pillar of fire.  We simply have our faith and hope and a lot of maps.

In the season of letting go, sometimes the most important thing to let go of is fear and doubt.