The Simchas Torah that Stole Our Simchas

It’s often when everything seems to be going along just fine with everything coming together when the unexpected happens.  This time, the kids and I were in our truck, waiting for Mr. Safek and Sam the dog to arrive at the Synagogue with the Shabbat RV 2.0.  All our meals were carefully packed up, our clothes, and the kids were very much looking forward to all the festivities of the three day Yom Tov.

And then, as we parked to wait, I looked down at my phone and saw I had a text message from Mr. Safek that made my heart stop just a moment.

“I’m ok, but please call as soon as you’re safe.”

That’s never a good sign.

Our driveway, in what is probably the only real downside of our house, slopes down into our garage.  The RV had been parked facing down this incline, towards the house and Mr. Safek had been packing it up to the road to then join us at the Synagogue.  Unfortunately, as he let up on the brake and stepped on the gas, the RV simply rolled forward instead of the engine engaging to pull the beast backwards.  It rolled in slow motion down the incline…and into the house, shattering the front windshield of the RV.  With not much time left before candle lighting, Mr. Safek had to quickly survey the damage and make a decision.

We were not going to be able to stay in the RV for the 3 day Yom Tov.

So, we had to change plans quickly, rushing to the store to gather some last minute supplies and then home to move everything out of the RV and back into the house as well as prepare to spend the holiday in the house.  The kids were crushed, knowing they would miss out on all the fun planned.  Mr. Safek was upset, feeling like he’d let the family down and worried about the damage to the house and the RV.  I was worried about us having enough food.  I’d planned on us spending at least one meal a day at the Synagogue.  B”H, everyone was ok, but suddenly, things were kind of chaotic.  No dancing, no sushi under the stars, no time spent with our community.

Life just happens sometimes.  As they say, “Man plans, G-d laughs.”

The three day Yom Tov was long, but we did get in a lot of good rest.  Books were read, games played and while a couple of our meals might have been a bit unconventional, no one starved.  We survived and talked about what a funny story this would one day be to tell.  After Shabbos, Mr. Safek discovered that the damage to the house was only a gutter and that our insurance should cover the windshield of the RV, so we’re very fortunate.  Right now, our sukkah is down in pieces, waiting for its new owner to pick it up and I’m busy putting cloves into our esrog and I’m enjoying the post-holiday quiet, a chance to catch my breath before we dive back into work, school, and everything else that was on hold a bit for the holidays.

The esrog smells amazing, mixed with the pungent spice of the cloves and the smell always reminds me of Sukkos all year long, even if our Sukkos this year was a little less joyful than some past.

Holidays aren’t always what we expect them to be and perhaps, in that, too, there’s a lesson.

Simchas Torah From My Side of the Mechitza

I’m about to log off, finish my cooking, and prepare for another 3 day Yom Tov, this time including the holiday of Simchas Torah.  Simcha means joy and this holiday is all about the joy that Jews feel when it comes to the Torah.  Other religions certainly have their holy books, but I’ve never seen quite the affection for them that Jews have for the Torah.  Physically, they treat each Torah scroll as something precious and fragile, clothed in soft, rich velvet and crowned with silver and bells.  They reach out to touch it, kissing their fingers or reach out a prayer book to touch it, considering it too holy for human fingers.  If a Torah scroll is ever dropped, the entire community is commanded to fast.

The Torah is one of the gifts that the Jews believe was uniquely given to us, along with the Sabbath and a few others.  It’s also called a “eitz chaim,” with eitz meaning tree in Hebrew and chaim meaning life.  It’s a tree of life, something to cling to in the stormy lives we live, something solid to live by.  Love of the Torah is encouraged from an early age with even tiny children being brought to kiss the Torah and their first learning of it accompanied by sweets.  When disaster has struck Jewish communities, men have risked their lives to save Torah scrolls, smuggling them out under risk of death.

It’s safe to say that the Torah occupies a unique place in Judaism of joy, love, and reverence.

Simchas Torah is the end of the High Holiday season.  It’s the day we both finish reading the Torah, the 5 books of Moses that are in a Torah scroll and begin right again.  The entire holiday is essentially like a wedding reception, the community celebrating their union with Hashem and the Torah and, like any good wedding reception, there is singing and dancing, with the Torah scrolls brought out of their ark and danced around the Synagogue or, in some places, even out into the street.  It’s a joyful day…except for many women who stare longingly at these celebrations, wishing they, too could join the men and dance with the Torah scroll.

While I’m sympathetic to these women, I’m not among them.

One thing that my long time in conversion has taught me is that we all have different parts to play.  Even after conversion, converts, at least converts today, have a very different set of expectations than born Jews.  I was discussing this with a newer conversion candidate some weeks ago, who was chafing at the inequality she saw.  She realized that while a born Jew can vary in their observance and even simply choose not to observe some mitzvos, that option is not as open to converts.  In our community, the majority of people who attend the Orthodox Chabad Synagogue drive on Shabbos to get there.  Few married women cover their hair.  Most men don’t wear a kippah outside of shul.  Most families eat non-kosher food regularly.  Yet, for a conversion candidate to do any of these would mean they wouldn’t be converted and, after conversion, if a convert decided to make these choices they might have their conversion questioned or they might cause those who were involved in their conversion to be tougher on future conversion candidates.  It’s simply the way things are and I found that being upset about the double standard didn’t help me or my family at all.

Orthodox Judaism is not egalitarian, which is in stark contrast to modern sensibilities.  In the Western world, we’re raised to believe that equality is our birthright and that everyone should be treated exactly the same regardless of their gender or family name.  Orthodox Judaism is more nuanced.  A man may be born a Kohen or Levite and have certain privileges that other Jewish men aren’t born to as well as other restrictions on his life that other Jewish men aren’t constrained by.  Men have different privileges and responsibilities than women.  There is the underlying idea that every human life is equally important and precious, but there is also the idea that what that looks like isn’t always the same.

Among the laws that impact the differences between men and women are the laws that a woman above bat mitzvah age may not sing or dance in front of men, besides very close male relatives.  How strictly that is observed depends a lot on the community.  In actual Orthodox weddings, there is often a separate area for women to dance together, cordoned off with a temporary barrier from the men and I have seen some Synagogues that do something similar for Simchas Torah as well.  To me, having grown used to the idea that some things are not for me as a non-Jew, some things are not for me even after conversion as a convert, the idea that some things are not for me because I am a woman…really isn’t revolutionary.  I am able to watch and enjoy my son and husband dance with the men without envy or jealousy in the same way I can watch my husband wear a tallis without envying him.

I do not need to dance to have joy or to express my joy, but I understand how it can sting to feel excluded from something, particularly when you are coming from a majority culture where exclusion is always seen as a negative thing.

So, as my online world as I scour for last minute recipes becomes filled with women lamenting the inequality of this holiday, I can pause and relate to how they are feeling, but I also realize that I’m not one of them.  I live my life already in a tangle of restrictions and exceptions and I have learned to find joy and fulfillment within that framework.  If I had felt similarly and remained in that place, I probably would not have lasted this long in the conversion process.  Every week, my family, in ways large and small, are excluded and if I dwelled on just that, I would soon be overwhelmed with sadness and frustration.  The same way I choose instead to focus on the joy that still is there in my life even now, I choose to focus on the joy of Simchas Torah, which goes so much further beyond dancing.  There is the joy that of all the nations, the Jews were the ones to accept the Torah and to be given it as a gift.  There is the joy that yet again, we have finished a year long journey through it, reading and studying it and that Jews have been doing this very same thing for thousands of years.  There is the joy of watching new generations encounter the Torah, wrestling with it, and making it their own.

When I think of everything that the Torah represents to Jews throughout the world and generations, as well as to my family, in some ways, I feel more comfortable with just a reverent kiss than with dancing.  There is a joy that is more intimate and personal for me that doesn’t need an audience to be real, that isn’t improved or made greater by any more movement than the movement of my siddur to the Torah and to my lips, as if everything I might have expressed in wild dancing is now concentrated and distilled down into this small act.

And in that act, I am perfectly content and envious of no one.

Trust, Sukkos, and Snow

It’s there, lurking in the forecast for this week and the weekend with cute little gradeschool snowflakes to denote the days it might happen.  Those innocent looking little snowflakes belie the fact that we don’t yet have studded tires on the truck and that we’ll be spending 3 days this week in the Shabbat RV 2.0 with only a few inches of scant insulation between us and the winter weather outside.

And yet, this all makes sense when I look at our Sukkah outside.

Hashem asks us to build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that must be open to the elements, after Yom Kippur.  We’ve just opened ourselves up and begged Him to forgive us and grant us a shiny new clean slate and He tells us, almost in response, build a sukkah.  Nothing in the Torah or timing of the holidays is a coincidence, so it’s obvious that Yom Kippur and all that atonement has something to do with now building a hut in the yard and dwelling in it.  We’re taught to leave our homes with their thick, sturdy walls and comforts and instead move closer to Hashem, showing our trust in Him by instead eating in a small hut where we can see the stars.

Our sukkah this year is definitely a modest dwelling.  Mr. Safek built it on the smaller of our two decks, just off the dining room.  While it does fit the halakhic requirements of a sukkah, it is small and we have to kind of cram into it.  Instead of the lush palm fronts we used to use in Florida, we have dry bamboo and some pine boughs.  The cold winds that we’ve been having coming down the mountains mean that my husband has already had to re-arrange the roof a few times and there is a decent pile of leaves accumulating in the bottom.

Ours is not the picturesque, beautifully decorated Sukkah I see on pinterest or on my Facebook feed, but we’re grateful to have a sukkah of our own at all.  We also have a esrog all the way from Israel and the arba minum, the collection of branches that my son and husband hold and shake each day even if they’re feeling a bit blue from the chill.  When our newer neighbors ask us what it’s all about, we just reply, “We’re Jewish.”  Over the years, they’ve grown accustomed to that being the explanation for a lot of things that are different about our family and they just take it in stride.

Hashem has just given us a gift on Yom Kippur, a gift we probably didn’t do much to deserve.  He has given us His trust, allowing us to try another year in this world, to see if we can do better at bringing His holiness into the world.  He’s trusted us with His creation and trusted us to be His ambassadors to this world.  He’s wiped our slates clean, all our debts forgiven.  So, when He asks us to build a sukkah, even in Alaska, it seems a small thing to do in return.  We do it with joy, most people decorating their sukkahs and here in Alaska, even Orthodox Jews who do not keep kosher fully or who drive to shul on Shabbos will still build a sukkah.  I actually find this mitzvah more universally kept among Jews here than many other places we’ve lived.  Perhaps Jews in Alaska grasp the idea of trusting Hashem to shelter us in the wilderness on a deeper level?

Wednesday, we will move our now winterized Shabbat RV 2.0 to our Synagogue for the winter.  There will be no more running water and we are limited in what electricity we will have as well.  Each week, I will have to choose between what will get plugged into the extra extension cord for Shabbos.  Will it be the hot water urn, a crockpot, or the small extra heater?  We’ll have one bigger heater for the main compartment, but beyond that, I’ll have to choose whether we need hot drinks, hot food, or hot bodies more.  Right now, we plan to spend one Shabbos per month at home to rest and recuperate, but the rest we hope to spend at the Synagogue, as we did all summer.

It’s a lot about trust, just trusting that our short, dark Shabbos will pass by easily and that we’ll be sheltered and protected by Hashem there just as in our Sukkah.  Perhaps He’ll reward us with some nice views of the aurora borealis or a visit from some moose, which are more numerous in town in the winter as they come down from the mountains to forage for food.

For me, this theme of trust began last year when we came back to our conversion path after our break.  When we came back, I decided that I was ready to do whatever was asked of us rather than trying to resist and push our lives the way I thought they should go.  I was ready to trust and just surrender to this process even if it meant leaving Alaska.  I’d accepted that we were in the wilderness and that we’d have to wander a while, just trusting that Hashem would guide and protect us and lead us to our destination.

Now, as the sun is out less and less and the snowflakes appear in the weather forecast, I’m preparing to trust a little deeper and let go a little more, trusting that we’ll find ways to stay safe and warm for Shabbos just as we find ways to eat in our Sukkah.

 

An Alaskan Kind of Sukkos

We opted to stay home for the 3 day Yom Tov and celebrate the beginning of Sukkos in our own Sukkah.  Sukkos is a quirky holiday and one of my favorites.  We built huts in our yards to remind us of our past as wanderers, wandering the desert with Hashem’s protection.  Men are obligated to eat in the Sukkah and in warmer climates, they even sleep in it.  Here, we had unusually good weather for the beginning of Sukkos, which is to say that it hasn’t snowed yet.  We huddled in the Sukkah, able to see up to the sky, as my husband said kiddush, the blessing over wine.  Although out sukkah this year is smaller than usual, even Sam the dog smooshed in.

We went for a Shabbos walk as usual and I was surprised to see the mountains just outside of Anchorage capped with snow above the tree line, a sure sign that it won’t be long before we also have snow here, down in the valley.  It’s time to say goodbye to running water in the Shabbat RV 2.0 and prepare for winter.  We also thumbed through the zmanim (times for services and candle lighting) for the next few months and began making plans for how early we’ll need to begin taking the children out of school on Fridays for Shabbos.  We already have 1 unexcused absence recorded for our son for last week’s Yom Tovs that we’ll need to dispute.  Somehow, no matter how many notes I send or phone calls to the office to explain, every year we still must fight for our holidays to be counted as excused absences by the public schools.  My husband and I mused that while we may have more worries about the cost of tuition next year, at least we won’t have these holiday worries anymore with the kids in Jewish day schools.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit worn out by all the 3 day Yom Tovs this year.  It’s hard enough doing them at home, but doing them in the RV has been particularly challenging.  I’m looking forward to that much more reason to celebrate on Simchas Torah!  I love our holidays, I really do, but sometimes, in years like this, I also love having made it past them, with the pace of life slowing a bit as winter comes on.  It’s then that I can nod sympathetically at my non-Jewish friends as they complain about the rush of their winter holidays.

In the meantime, Judaic studies continues and life never really fully slows down and we daydream about what our lives might be like after our move and, G-d willing, after conversion.

Until then, we prepare for snow.

The Last to Close the Gates of Heaven

A little known fact I learned this Yom Kippur, during Neileh services.  Anchorage, Alaska, is, in fact, the final Orthodox Jewish community to say Neileh, sounding the shofar later than any other community in the world.  As we davened, I couldn’t help but feel a weighty responsibility, as if we were the last to leave a sacred place, entrusted with closing the gate as we left.  We davened as the sun left the mountains, lighting up the aspens, their leaves turned bright yellow with fall and we continued davening into the darkness until it was the proper halakhic time, the last community of Jews on earth to sound the shofar ending Yom Kippur.  In the coming months as our time of sun grows shorter and shorter, Hawaii will take over this honor, becoming the last candle lighting and havdalah of the world, but for Yom Kippur, it was still us.

Alaska is a remarkable place to be an Orthodox Jew and I’m reminded of it again this week.

For work, I need to go and do some work up on the North Slope of Alaska.  I will be traveling to some of the most remote, rugged terrain known to mankind, a place where cowboys from Texas drill oil from the wilderness and where your safety preparations include classes on polar bears.  In the 5 years I’ve worked here, I’ve never had a reason to go there, but now, suddenly I do.  Being Orthodox complicates things somewhat.  I will need to figure out candle lighting times…and when I’m up there…there may not be any sun at all to figure them by.  I will also need to bring my food with me.  Although the cafeterias there apparently have really good food and everything is provided, none of it will be kosher.  I will also need to keep yichud laws in mind as I will be a vast minority there among the men that work there full time for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It’s times like these that having a local Orthodox Rabbi familiar with Alaska is a very handy thing indeed.

While most people would probably groan at the idea of visiting above the arctic circle in November, I’m actually really excited about it.  I’ve never been there and it’s a place that few actually really go.  The reason I am going is to improve the wireless networks there that help the hardy people that live there to work and to pass their off-hours.  When storms hit, these people are often stranded without work to do for days at a time, far from family and friends and cooped up in dormitories.  These networks provide them the ability to Skype with family, to get email with the latest news, and to feel connected to the rest of the world even when there are whiteout conditions and they can’t see past their window.

I’m excited to be able to have another Alaska adventure and also to help more people while I’m here.  I’ll also be training a teammate so that my knowledge of this particular technology will be passed on.

Yom Kippur

Like Tisha B’Av, Yom Kippur is sometimes a difficult holiday to explain to my non-Jewish friends, family, and coworkers.  For most other people, holidays in general are associated with only happy events, but Jewish holidays really are holy days…and not all holy days are fun or easy.  There is also the problem that the idea of atonement or repentance has become very different for most non-Jews.  I find Catholics seem to be able to relate easier, but for most others, the idea of fasting and praying for forgiveness and the process of teshuva, which is most closely translated as repentance, but not quite the same meaning, are very foreign indeed.

The best way I can relate it is that Hashem understood that we as humans were going to make mistakes.  We were created imperfect on purpose so that we could have free will.  Angels lack free will and therefore never make mistakes or do anything wrong, but it also means that when they do good…it isn’t a choice.  Hashem wanted a relationship with a creature that would choose to have a relationship with Him and He wanted that creature to be able to learn and grow from their mistakes and be able to choose to do better.  Our imperfections are a feature, not a bug.

The question, though, becomes what should we do when we make mistakes?  Hashem wanted us to have a way to make things right and to mend our relationship with Him.  He didn’t want us to simply turn away because we’d made mistakes and couldn’t fix them.  Perhaps He also wanted to teach us about forgiveness so that we could forgive each other from His example and mend our relationships with each other.  Much of the difficult work leading up to Yom Kippur is apologizing to other human beings that we’ve made mistakes with and forgiving those who’ve made mistakes in their relationship with us.

Hashem also didn’t want us carrying the weight of a year’s worth of mistakes into a new year.  Just as we were given ways to purify those things which had become impure, He wanted us to have a way of letting go of our guilt, our disappointment in ourselves, and everything else that might get in the way of us returning to Him and making a fresh, better start each year.

This is why Yom Kippur is a good day, truly a “yom tov.”  Even though we fast and spend a lot of time sadly contemplating all that we’ve done wrong, there is the promise that if we’re truly committed to repentance that we will be forgiven and that we’ll be given more chances to make better choices.  We come to Hashem as our King, but also as a Father who loves us and wants us back, no matter how much we’ve messed up and not lived up to how the child of a King should behave.  He is there and ready to hear our prayers, open to our pleas.

When the last shofar sounds, there is no need to punish ourselves any longer for the year past.  It is done and we have a clean, fresh new year ahead of us, full of potential and opportunity.  We walk into that new year with our relationship with each other and Hashem repaired, close again.

It’s a gift worth fasting and davening for.

Jonah – Running from G-d

Every Yom Kippur, we read the story of the prophet Jonah, who was ordered to go to a non-Jewish city called Nineveh to tell them to repent.  The Jews at the time were a mess and Jonah knew that the non-Jews he was going to would indeed repent.  He didn’t want to go, which is why he tried to flee in the opposite direction and wound up swallowed by a big fish until he came around.

I was swallowed by the beautiful wilderness of Alaska, a much more pleasant place to spend my time being stubborn.

It was 2014 and, for a variety of reasons, it seemed like our conversion path had finally hit a dead end.  We consoled ourselves, buying a puppy, which brought some joy back into our home and definitely some liveliness.  The kids needed the distraction and we all needed the love that Sam brought into our lives.  We fled into the mountains whenever we weren’t working, hiking, riding motorcycles, and really exploring.  We drank in the natural beauty around us as an alcoholic does liquor to numb themselves.  I felt cut off from my connection with the Creator, so I sought comfort in the creation.

Alaska, for it’s part, did not disappoint.  It served up regular seasons full of majesty and beauty and experiences beyond the imagination.  I walked on glaciers and climbed mountains.  I interacted with wildlife, holding my breath when an orphaned moose calf had me backed up against our garage.  I was in awe of this place we lived and I set myself to being a proper Alaskan, fishing license and all.

Yet, there was always an ache underneath it all, a tugging.

 

No matter how far off the grid I went, I could not escape Hashem.  No matter how beautiful the creation was, it always silently pointed back to the Creator.  I knew I had unfinished business there and that there was only so long I could drown my sorrows in hiking and watching the northern lights.  It became more and more apparent to my husband and I that eventually, we were going to have to finish what we’d begun and that in the meantime, our children’s Jewish education was suffering and we were making it more and more difficult for them.  We needed to choose…assimilate and disappear completely or give up this fleeing and do whatever needed to be done to finish this process.

I would expect that most callings of any kind are like that or at least they are for me.  Early on, when I was dating Mr. Safek, I often thought it was the wrong thing to do, particularly the more I learned about Judaism and the harm being with a non-Jew could do, dubious halakhic status or not.  Every time I tried to leave, though, I found I couldn’t.  The feeling of not being able to make sense of my life without him was very similar to this.  Our lives just no longer made sense without Judaism in them.  When we finally gave in and came back to the Synagogue, it was less effort than it had been to stay away.  We slid back into an Orthodox life like a tired person finally no longer fighting sleep slips into crisp cotton sheets, the ache easing.  Life early on with Mr. Safek had always been like this, so much easier when I stopped fighting us being together and simply enjoyed our lives together.

The children, too, were happier once we were back.  For all the fun outdoor adventures we’d had, they too had felt the emptiness underneath it all.  Living Orthodox, they admitted how much they had missed all the Shabbat traditions and all the uninterrupted time with us.  They were happy to be learning more again, even if it meant a lot of catching up to do.  My son was eager to wear his kippah to school and soon I again was used to seeing tzitzit strings.

Now that we were determined to do whatever necessary to finish conversion, including moving, the way became easier, the obstacles simply turned to dust.

In retrospect, we needed that time away to heal some of the wounds from when we’d been working on conversion in Florida and to solidify our reasons behind wanting to convert.  We needed to go off and experience life away to really appreciate the choice we were facing.  I suspect that Jonah also needed his time in the fish.  There are times when Hashem has a plan for us that we can’t hide from, but we need a little time to adjust to the idea.  For me, the most comforting thing about Jonah’s story is that when he does come back to his mission, Hashem is there with him.  Hashem rebukes him, but he doesn’t abandon him just because he’s had doubts and tried to avoid his duty.  There is still a close relationship there.  Jonah still matters to Hashem even when Hashem could have just as easily chosen to make another prophet to obey Him.  In fact, Jonah matters so much that Hashem opts instead to instruct him.

On Yom Kippur, may we all find the courage to turn away from our own stubbornness and be welcomed back.