April

“April,” he promised
again and again
his words became a mantra
a lifeline in dark places
we clung to April as our life raft

Life spun us around in riptides
April became the rope tied to the shore
we saw the shore grow closer
the other side of the water became clearer
our eyes full of hope

As April grew closer, his voice grew quieter
the shore no longer was clear
fog had rolled in
we strained to hear and see
“April?” we called, the rope felt slack

With a few words, April disappeared
the rope broke
the indistinct shore drifted back to the distance
we looked at each other, eyes wide with fear
orphans lost at sea

We held each other and wept
the loss of April a sharp pain
we found our oars again and began paddling
alone in the darkness
exhausted and empty

We saw the rope of April
frayed and torn
floating on the water
disconnected, useless
we lowered our faces and kept paddling

on

no one singing or speaking
the word April now forgotten

Plot Twist!

This morning, I saw a particularly timely cartoon come across my Facebook feed.

When something goes wrong in your life, just yell, “PLOT TWIST,” and move on!

My life has been full of plot twists.  Interestingly, I’ve always, in the moment, reflected on the fact that bad news, or a major life change, never seems to come in the form I think it will.  Every time I’ve been given news that changed my life’s direction, it’s been on a sunny day.  In the movies, bad news has weather to fit it.  It’s generally raining or gray.  When my mother reached across the table to take my hand and tell me my brother had been diagnosed with cancer the first time, I distinctly remember the sunshine streaming through the windows.  It was like a note out of key.  Here she was, talking about radiation therapy and my brother’s odds and it was a bright sunny Saturday morning.  Similarly, the morning my father called me to tell me my brother had passed from his second battle with cancer, it was a bright morning.  Plot twists in real life aren’t nearly as well scripted as they are in the movies.

Each time I’ve had a major plot twist as well, I’ve never had music come in to warn me or some foreshadowing to let me know how this story would play out.  When I was younger, I didn’t really have a faith to fall back on.  Every big, life changing change hit me with full force and it was hard to trust that any good could come of it.  I was fortunate that my brother passed when I had already begun exploring Judaism.  I had a framework in which to process my grief that most of the rest of my family didn’t have.  I had a hope that in some way, he was in a better place and had completed his work here and that his life and death had an ultimate purpose even if I couldn’t see it with my own eyes.  I found comfort in prayer and in looking for the good he had done in his life.  Most of my family were left without that same comfort and it seemed to me like their grief process was more difficult for it.

Most of the plot twists that have come in my life have been far less serious than losing my brother.  Some have even been comical.  I have noticed, though, that since I began studying Judaism years ago, I have come to handle the plot twists of my life better and better.  I’m sure ageing has some part in it as well, but a big part of it is that I no longer react so much to change, but instead, I wait, knowing that everything will work out for the good in some way if I’m patient enough.  If it hasn’t yet…then we’re not to the end of that plotline yet.  Knowing that there is an author writing the story of my life that cares deeply about each character in it rather than a room full of monkeys typing randomly on typewriters brings me comfort when suddenly there comes a huge shift in the story.

I trust in the Author, that He knows better than I how this story needs to play out.  I just need to play my part the best way I can.

This message was timely for me because we’ve run into a bit of chaos when it comes to our conversion process recently.  There is a lot that we thought was certain that isn’t now and we’re not sure how the story is going to play out.  At worst, we may have to begin our process over again after our move, adding on 1-2 more years in process before we can complete.  For my husband and I, 1-2 more years is little to worry about, but for our children, 1-2 years is a much bigger issue, particularly when it comes to their Jewish education as well as their hopes.

Years ago, such a plot twist this late in the story would have sent me reeling and reacting.  I consider it a sign of great growth that I simply shrugged and said, “It will all work out some way or other, for the best,” and then went back to the work of living each day, davening, volunteering, raising and educating the kids, and preparing for our move.  There is little time to worry about it before Purim, which inevitably leads to the rush of Pesach preparations.  Homework from both the kids’ secular studies and their Orthodox Online Day School studies must still be overseen and done.  Food has to get bought and cooked.  Cleaning has to happen.  Davening, mitzvahs, and tzedekah all still are a higher priority than worrying over things I simply can’t control.  At some point, living as an Orthodox Jew became even more important than the process of becoming one, which I firmly believe will follow if we stay focused on living this life.

So, we check in with our Rabbis periodically to see how things are going and if anything more is needed from us to help the process, but beyond that?  I leave it to above my pay grade except when I’m davening.  I channel all my tears and pleading there, to the only One who ultimately has control of any of it and leave it there.

The rest of the time, I focus on playing my part in this story the very best way I know how and wait for this latest plot twist to work itself out for the good, even if that isn’t the way I would have written the story.

I trust the Author with my life because it’s His life to write.  I’ve just been given the honor and responsibility of living it.

Soon, My Children Will Not Be Mine

Orthodox Jewish conversion has a lot of fascinating quirks that a lot of people aren’t aware of unless they’ve dealt with the process directly.  One of them, which I mentioned in relation to my husband yesterday, is the fact that once you emerge from the Mikvah as an entirely new, Jewish person in the eyes of Jewish law, you also emerge with a new set of parents, Avraham and Sarah.  An interesting twist in this happens when a child converts in that, when it comes to Jewish law and ritual matters…they’re technically no longer their parents’ child anymore, but a child of Avraham and Sarah.  When an entire family converts, this means that, from a halakhic perspective, technically, the parents and the children all suddenly have the same spiritual parents and are also spiritual siblings.

This can lead your mind down some uncomfortable, very West Virginian paths if you let it and it is important to have a Rav that can advise you on things like laws of yichud and such if you have older children and are in this situation, but I think those details are best left to Rabbis who specialize in this particular and peculiar area of Jewish law.  This also applies to non-Jewish children who are adopted by Jewish couples and converted as infants or children, too.

The aspect that I struggled with early on in the conversion process was the idea that my children wouldn’t be prayed for with my name, but Sarah’s.  For some reason, that ached in my heart, that if my children were sick or hurt and needed prayers, they wouldn’t be prayed for as MY children, like any other Jew.  My son wouldn’t be called to Torah as the son of my husband, but as someone else’s son.  I have heard, in passing, that there is such a thing as “halakhic adoption” after conversion, but I also had to face the prospect of this being yet another thing I would have to work through letting go of in order to become a Jew and so…I set to thinking very deeply about it.

Like my husband’s journey to letting go of his attachment to his names, it took years and I can say that it’s only this winter that I’ve finally come to a place where this feels good, not just something that I’ll grit my teeth and make it through, but something I see as a positive good.

Part of it is the growing up my children have done since we began the conversion process.  7 years ago, when we first approached a Rabbi, my daughter was just 5 years old and my son 7.  They were still very much attached to me and needed a lot of care.  Over those 7 years, they’ve grown more and more independent.  My son, in particular, is now a 14-year-old, an adult in Jewish law and more and more, he craves his independence as he becomes his own man.  He needs space from me and our relationship shifts and changes as he grows into being more and more my peer than my child.  My daughter turns 12 next week, which is the age she would have become a bat mitzvah.  There are moments where she is still my baby and then the next, I see glimpses of a beautiful, bright young woman, strong and capable in her own right.

It’s already becoming the time of stepping back and letting go of my children so that they can be the people they were meant to be.

That process is so bittersweet.  I worry over them.  I’m intensely proud of them.  I’m annoyed by them.  I long to just pull them back into my lap and cuddle them.  I even ask them for help, particularly my son with jars I just can’t open.  I love them just as fiercely, but often, it’s appropriate to hold back some so I don’t embarrass them or cross the boundaries they’re beginning to make in their own lives.  They change so quickly and most of the time, I’m clumsily trying to keep up with it all.

A big shift happened this winter when we went to visit a Yeshiva and a boy’s High School with my son.  For years, I’d been resistant to the idea of sending him off to Yeshiva.  It felt like I was abandoning him to others to finish raising.  However, visiting these schools and watching the boys there interact with their Rebbes and seeing my son interact as well, I suddenly realized that this could be something really healthy.  Perhaps boys need to go off into a world of men that aren’t so close to them to be stifling and have more influences than just my husband and I.  I realized that my son could not just survive, but really thrive in this environment.  I also saw that he’d have even more support and guidance than we alone would be able to give him.  I suddenly felt like it was time to open up, let others into his life in a much deeper way, and take steps back of my own.

Up until now, my husband and I have been his coach, calling the plays in his life.  Now, it looks more and more like we need to be on the sidelines, just cheering and supporting him from more of a distance, but still his biggest fans.  He needs new coaches to take him to the next level.

I can think of no better spiritual parents to entrust my precious children to than Avraham and Sarah, the very people who helped to guide so many people of their time to the revolutionary concept of monotheism itself.  I also realize that as a spiritual newborn myself, I’ll need to depend on others now to give my children what I can’t, what I’m still in need of myself.

In my own life, I’ve struggled with the transition with my own parents from child to a sovereign adult.  I can now see more clearly from the other side of the equation just how difficult that transition must have been for them, too.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked spiritually to make that transition with my own children in a very literal way at the same time that they’re at the age of adulthood in Jewish law and I really feel blessed by all the lessons there are for me in this.

Sometimes the very things we feel the most initial resistance to are the things we most need, the bitter medicine that is our cure and, it’s absolutely fitting in a Jewish sense that this cure comes before I have to let go of my children in other aspects of our lives together and accept them as the adults they are growing into.

Plus, I can’t imagine that there couldn’t be a blessing from serving as a handmaiden to a woman as righteous and great as Sarah, giving over to her two new Jewish children that, G-d willing, may grow to bring her blessing with their lives.  It’s almost like being a commoner and raising your children to adolescence and the Queen of the realm seeing them and how special they are and how well they were raised and adopting them into her royal family.  It’s bittersweet to let them go, but such pride at seeing them ascend and knowing how much more able they’ll be now to reach their full potential.

So yes, I am letting my children go, but in the end, I realize they were only ever lent to me to care for and always belonged to Hashem.  I was just entrusted with these treasures of His for a time and it has been an honor.  I’m sure I’ll still be needed for many years to come in different ways and I’ll be so happy to step in, but I’m also glad I’m not alone in raising them the rest of the way.

Mother Sarah, I gladly and happily share my children with you and I know that you’ll love and worry over them with me and together we can daven for them.

What greater gift could I ever give them?

What’s in a Name?

When we first began this journey, 7 years ago, a lot of our focus was to hold on to everything we could.  I had originally sought conversion and in the midst of beginning that journey with my children, we suddenly found ourselves dealing with my husband’s unexpected issues with his own halakhic status.

It was as if his Jewishness was a fragile box now holding so much of his memories and identity and the only way to repair that box was for our entire family to undergo Orthodox conversion.  In that fragile box that seemed to be turning to dust in his fingers were things like his bar mitzvah, his memories of day school, every aliyah he’d ever proudly been given, his first tallis, his awareness of his place in the world as a Jewish man.  It’s difficult to put into words the crisis of identity I witnessed him go through in those early months.  It was much like a grieving process, where first he was in denial, looking for some way this could not be true, then angry, then full of dispair, and finally…a kind of acceptance.  It’s taken years, really, to work through all the stages and, like any loss, there are still moments where the pain and struggle becomes fresh again, but those moments become fewer and have less power to disrupt his life.

Among the things we were trying so hard to hold onto…was names.

Jewish men are called to the Torah by their Hebrew name and also by their father’s name.  This ties them to their family and where they have come from.  When a Jewish person is ill or injured, they are prayed for by their Hebrew name and their mother’s Hebrew name.  When we hurt, we all become our mothers’ children again.  In the case of converts, once converted they are adopted by the spiritual parents Avraham and Sarah.  My husband was horrified that he might lose his tie to his biological, Jewish family in this way.  He had a Jewish father already and a beloved Jewish grandfather before him.  His mother’s name, Sarah, made conversion less problematic functionally, but he didn’t want to be called to the Torah as a son of Avraham when his father’s name was Yitzhak.  Converts are also urged to choose common names…and my husband’s Hebrew name was anything but common.  In fact, neither of us have ever met a Jewish man with the same name.  After 40 years of holding these names, it seemed that they were soon to be taken from him…another casualty of the conversion process.

Due to the delays we experienced, he’s had more time to sit with this and more time to dig into why he was named what he was and more time to process what might be to come.  We still don’t know if he’ll be undergoing a full gerus or a gerus l’chumrah, so there’s still a chance he might get to keep his names, but just like so many other things, as he processed his grief, his grip on those names became less and less firm.

Perhaps at some point, he realized that he’s no longer the same boy who stood for his bar mitzvah, afraid he’d be winged in the head with a hard candy as he struggled with his voice, afraid it would crack during his reading.  He also discovered that there was no reason behind his unusual Hebrew name…it had simply been a suggestion from a Rabbi and his father had been disinterested in choosing a name.  He realized his father, now Reform, really hasn’t been a spiritual father to him, unable to pass down his traditions or faith and that most of the Jew he has become is due to his stepfather and mother.

Maybe he realized that being Jewish itself was more important to him than losing this link to generations of Jews that came before him.

Whatever the reason, just this year, after 7 years of struggling with this loss, he finally decided that he is fine with it, that this is an opportunity for a new beginning with a new name and a new father.  His old names didn’t save him from everything he’s gone through and, with new names, it’s believed that there’s a fresh chance at mazel, that shifting idea of luck or fortune that somehow flows through the idea of free will and prayer without contradiction.

I love him and am so proud of him…no matter what his names are.

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!

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 Darker Side of Kiruv

I hesitated writing this post.  I never want to speak ill of the Jewish people, even isolated parts because I understand how someone reading my words might take that to be all Orthodox Jews, particularly if they’ve had little to no experiences with other Orthodox Jews.  I also hesitated because I kept wondering if what happened was my fault, just like how my son didn’t tell us when a man at shul just picked him up during the High Holidays, scaring him.  I feared if I said anything about what happened, it would either be dismissed as minor or it would somehow have been my fault.

But that’s exactly why things like this happen.  Not every Jew that comes to a kiruv organization wanting to learn more about their Judaism is a good person, but we are commanded to assume that they are.  In this case, though, I was placed in a situation with someone who was known not to behave appropriately.  I’m fortunate that very little happened to me, but I feel like it’s something that BT’s and conversion candidates need to be aware of and to feel like they can stand up for themselves if they’re in a similar situation.

Kiruv is an overwhelmingly good thing.  It’s the word for the process by which non-observant Jews are brought back to observance and thousands of Jews have increased their observance as a result of outreach efforts by observant Jews.  As a result of so many attacks on Jewish identity, generations were raised with little to no idea of what being Jewish could mean for them.  Kiruv organizations like Aish and Chabad work hard to help bring that message to secular Jews who might not even know what they are missing.

However, there are some downsides and I experienced one of them recently at a Shabbos table.

I was a guest, alone in an unfamiliar city and staying with a Rabbi and his wife.  I was already feeling down and unwelcome for other reasons, but I hoped that dinner would help me connect here and feel the warmth of Shabbos.  They had one other guest who showed up late and by the fact that he drove and his dress it became clear that this man was someone they were hoping to bring to greater observance.  He sat down between me and the Rabbi at the head of the table and initially I welcomed him the same I would anyone else.  That’s when things steadily went downhill.

This guest began to make offhand, inappropriate comments and eventually began touching my arm and shoulder to punctuate these comments.  I felt very uncomfortable and I looked to the Rabbi at the head of the table, hoping he would say something to his guest…he didn’t.  I saw him uncomfortable and trying to steer the conversation elsewhere, but it continued until I finally benched (said the blessing for after eating) and went to bed.  The fact that the guest had mentioned that he’d been told by the Rabbi to “behave himself,” told me that this wasn’t surprising behavior from him.  When I spoke about what had happened after Shabbos to a friend, they asked me why I didn’t stand up for myself.  I really felt at a loss.  The Rabbi and the Rebbetzin were right there and I didn’t feel it was my place to cause any conflict at their table.  I told myself it was nothing, just some words and he’d only touched my arm and shoulder.

The fact is…often kiruv Rabbis are in a tough situation.  The person who is acting inappropriately might be a major donor, someone who helps keep the doors of their shul open so that they can do the work they need to do in their community.  Tolerating bad behavior from one might allow them to serve many.  In other cases, the person acting poorly might be someone they see badly in need of help, a Jew on the edge.  The person might be related to someone who is powerful or wealthy.

My host and hostess didn’t speak to me about what had happened afterwards.  They avoided me the rest of my stay there.  I wonder if it’s because they felt awkward about it all or if they somehow blamed me.  I can’t know.  I try to judge them favorably, assuming they were probably in one of those difficult situations or unsure how to handle what was happening.  They were younger and perhaps this was something new to them.  I also thought a lot about how I could handle things differently.  I could have spoken up for myself.  I could have asked him to stop touching me or to stop talking about lewd topics.  Instead, I laughed nervously, trying to find the best time to politely get out of there.  I felt unsafe, jetlagged, and alone.  I couldn’t blame the experience on my halakhic status or lack thereof since it had never come up.

Kiruv is hard and difficult work and I admire the people who engage in it.  They also must often tolerate so much directed at themselves and their families to do what they do.  It may have been that what I went through was minor compared to what they’ve endured.

My husband and I also talked about how we would handle a similar situation at our Shabbos table.  What would we do to keep any female guests feeling safe and comfortable if there was a male guest who crossed the line?  Would that change any if it was a Rabbi or someone important?  (It won’t.)  Are we willing to deal with the fallout if we made someone feel unwelcome for their behavior?  Where are our lines in the sand and where can we compromise?

I feel like this experience, as difficult as it was that weekend, was important to have.  I walked that Shabbos day, my guests having left me on my own after services, and cried, but I also thought a lot about what had happened and what I could learn from it.  I knew I didn’t want any woman traveling alone or whose husband was away to feel that way in my own home.  I also looked at all the complicated layers to the situation, acknowledging that I couldn’t know all the details, either.

To me, it’s here, in the murky place between being a good host to a Jew who obviously badly needs Torah and allowing that which I cannot stomach that the rubber meets the road.  Can I love my fellow Jew while still keeping my home a safe and welcoming place?  Is there a point at which my fellow Jew has separated himself so much from what is good that I can no longer attempt to bring him close?  I would guess that everyone has different lines.  I needed this experience to show me where mine are.  I left the home before my guests had returned after Shabbos, relieved to drive away.  I left my thank you card and hostess gift just the same, still questioning whether I had done something wrong for them to leave me with the lockbox code and avoid me.  I needed this experience to clearly show me what I don’t want in my home and what I don’t want people to feel in my home.

And that particular gentleman, in our home, would have been politely shown the door if a kind warning hadn’t put a stop to his behavior.  He wouldn’t have been invited at all if his behavior was known, Jewish or not, wealthy and powerful or not.

I found my line.