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.

The Sun Returns

Slowly at first, then increasing in speed
the light returns to the arctic
first weakly, it crawls across the mountains
thin rays barely scratching the snow
the ravens unaware

It sneaks up on me, quietly
without fanfare it begins to creep up
earlier it meets my days
later it takes its leave
lingering over sweet moments

In February or March, I can no longer ignore it
suddenly, I notice its advance
the ravens even chatter to each other
the rays grow thicker, stronger
its touch more insistent, clawing at the snow

Soon, the sun will tip the balance
soon it will reclaim its rule of summer
reigning over the long arctic days
banishing darkness entirely by June
the world bathed in light

For now, it is still the plucky underdog
it’s chest thrust out and chin set
forgetting its small size in the sky
arguing with the night
sparring for a fight

The moon patiently rises, amused
not realizing she’ll yet again be banished
she pays the upstart little mind
resplendent as she glows
the queen reflected in the snow

The ravens and I know the pattern
together we thank Hashem
the long winter is far from over
but there is light again in the arctic
and the promise that night will not rule long

Selling a House and Spiritual Housecleaning

We are deep in the midst of selling our home, with our house having been on the market for almost a week.  It’s a tough time to sell a house in Alaska, with a local recession adding to buyer’s worries about interest rates and the economy in general, so we’re having to work extra hard to keep everything looking perfect.

For me, that means a lot of cleaning and picking things up.

At the same time, we’re beginning more intensive conversion studies, as we review everything we’ve learned over the past 7 years in preparation.  Even tiny details of observance become important to learn and remember and it’s also important to let go of any bad habits that could get in the way of being fully observant.

Spiritual cleaning and picking things up.

I find myself tired more than usual and yearning for the sun to be out longer.  The days are becoming longer and brighter, but there is still quite a bit of darkness.  Work has been more demanding than usual as well.  It feels a lot like we’re in the last stages of being born, where labor comes hard and fast with less of a break between contractions.  Our family often feels squeezed tight by all the pressure around us.  It’s difficult to believe that there is light waiting at the end of this, a whole new world beyond.  For now, most of what we experience is in darkness with just the hope of a promise that this isn’t forever.

Mother Sarah is in labor, but we feel her pains for her along with the hope that we’ll feel her joy with her as well.

It is a unique experience to actually have awareness of being born, even in just a spiritual sense.  I find myself drawn inward more and I find I’m talking less and listening more.  I’m sharing less even with the people closest to me.  In most cases, there aren’t the words to capture what I’m feeling, thinking, or experiencing.  In others, I already realize that there’s no context for most of my friends or family to understand these experiences.  A child in the womb, preparing to be born, doesn’t communicate with the outside world.  Even to their mother, they become a mystery as she can no longer feel their movements through the sensations of her labor.  We can’t know what a newborn thought of the process and whether they understood what was happening to them or whether it was all simply pain and fear for them because they don’t yet have the language or understanding to tell us.

I feel like it’s similar for the convert.  For non-Jews, describing conversion might as well be like describing birth to those still in the womb and for Jews, it literally would be like asking an adult to remember their birth.

When I began studying for conversion, years ago, I looked up everything I could find about it online.  I read countless blogs by converts and conversion candidates, seeking to understand this process I was undertaking, as if by knowing more about their experiences I’d feel more confident in my own.  What I found was that, invariably, as in down to every single blog I read, as the conversion candidate neared conversion, their blog posts became less frequent and detailed.  Then, again without an exception, after conversion, the blog very quickly ended or shifted to another topic entirely.  To my frustration, I could not find a single blog that really took me through the experiences leading up to and directly after conversion.  There were beautiful descriptions of what it was like to be in the mikvah as well as a few brief hints at what it was like to be at the Beis Din, but those kind of floated in the blog like isolated events without much around them on either side.

I think I better understand now.  Few people invite friends over to watch them clean their house and those in the midst of birth have less to say as their attention is more fully focused on what is happening right around them and within them.

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