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.

Purim and Living Between Worlds

This week is one of my favorite Jewish holidays.  One of the very best things about Orthodox Judaism is that there are so many holidays and they’re all so different in their observances and traditions.  Purim is a particularly fun holiday for children, with costumes and candy galore.

This year, though, as we read the Purim story and prepare our treats for friends, I’m already quite a bit down.  Last week was a really rough week for our family and Adar is supposed to be a month in which we are commanded to “increase our joy.”  We did have some very good news last week as well.  We have secured a rental in our new hometown that’s close to shul.  My husband was able to see a good endocrinologist and should be getting a working pump soon, which is something he’d been fighting up here for since last June.  Still, we had some bombshell bad news on our conversion progress and then we’re still struggling to sell our house in a buyer’s market.

It’s hard to feel the kind of increase in joy I feel like I’m supposed to feel this Purim.

Re-reading the story of Purim, this year, I feel more connected to Queen Esther.  She’s the heroine of the tale, the girl who becomes Queen and uses her influence to save the Jewish people.  Yet, even as the story ends, she remains locked in the palace, married to a non-Jew and unable to join her people in their celebrations.  She saves her people, but cannot save herself.  She is trapped, living between two worlds.

Right now, my family and I are very much living between two very different worlds.  On the one side, we have Alaska.  Just yesterday afternoon, we were up in Hatcher Pass spending a bright, sunny afternoon high in the mountains watching snowboarders bravely make their way down snowy peaks.  All around us is a non-Jewish world.  We munched on potato chips because it was about all I could find in the gas station with a kosher symbol.  In the meantime, my husband makes periodic trips down to our new home to work out the logistics of our move.  There he can attend daily minyan and stand next to our childrens’ teachers.  Kosher food is plentiful and less expensive.  There are no mountains and life is far less wild and untamed.

It doesn’t help that we’re feeling less connected to our Jewish community up here.  Now that our Rabbis know that we’ll be starting over again in our new home, they’re no longer meeting with us or teaching us.  There are simply too many other pressing demands on their time.  Our children, now both past the age of bnei mitzvah, likewise are now on their own as well.  To be clear, I’m not blaming our Rabbis for using their time where it will do the most good.  There really just isn’t much we need right now or that they can help us with.  Still, it’s hard not to feel adrift through no one’s fault.

“It’s supposed to snow tomorrow,” my husband says.
“Where?” I ask in response, unsure which place he’s looking at the weather for anymore.

Did Queen Esther look out her window at her people celebrating and yearn to be with them?  Did she have a window that faced them or was her view focused inward on palace courtyards?  Did she live in two places at once or did she ever fully feel at home in the palace?

I know this Adar, I must work harder to increase my joy.  In just about 12 weeks, which isn’t long, I will be flying to a new home and starting a new journey and I’d rather not waste my last weeks here in the mountains in sadness.

May you all have a very Happy Purim and see all the hidden joys in your own lives!

Chanukah Sameach from Alaska!

It is fitting that the celebration of Chanukah comes so close to the winter solstice, the darkest part of the long dark winter of Alaska.  Chanukah reminds us that we can always add light and the story of Chanukah is one of Jews bravely sticking to their traditions and refusing to assimilate, even when the pressure is high.

My daughter was particularly excited when I came home from work yesterday, bouncing up and down with anticipation and saying, “It’s Chanukah, It’s Chanukah, oh my gosh, it’s Chanukah!!!”  Her face was beaming.  For her and her brother, Chanukah is a welcome break from everything they are deluged with this time of year, being in public school.  This year wasn’t too bad.  There was the Christmas themed field trip my daughter skipped, opting instead to spend the morning at home.  There were a few projects we had to insist that the kids be allowed to make alternate projects for.  There were Christmas themed movie nights and and school parties the kids skipped.  Then there are the Orchestra concerts where they’ll play mostly Christmas music, along with maybe a Chanukah song.

All these are just reminders of why we’re working so hard to move somewhere where there are Jewish schools.

In the midst of all these challenges comes a light, first one candle lit, that grows.  It reminds us that we’re almost through the darkest days of winter and the sun will be returning.  It reminds us of traditions and a link to a people who have certainly clung to their faith in much tougher circumstances.  It also reminds us that Hashem is with those who stubbornly follow Him, even to the point of creating miracles

My latke recipe is out and we have the “Spinagogue” (a kind of dreidel stadium that just came out on kickstarter this year) all set up for play.

May everyone find their little corner of bliss this holiday season!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wandering Jew-ish? Traveling Kosher!

I’ve got some trips coming up down to the lower 48 and while I’ve written before about the logistics of backcountry camping kosher, I thought it might be good to write about traveling while observant, for those who might be new to it.

Kosher travel really begins when we begin planning our trip, specifically the times and dates of flights or travel times for a roadtrip.  Shabbos and holidays always need to be planned around and it’s important to make sure there is some padding of time just to be sure.  I’ve read so many “horror” stories of Orthodox Jews needing to spend the Sabbath in airports or getting stuck in one way or another.  Be sure to check with your own friendly Orthodox Rabbi, but for most, this means making sure that you will not need to be traveling at all near candle lighting time and that any flight after the Sabbath departs well after the end of the Sabbath, havdalah.  Whenever possible, I like to arrive a day or two before Shabbos so I have time to settle in, get my bearings, and find kosher food.  It’s often good to take into account potential flight delays or, if it’s a roadtrip, any driving delays due to traffic, weather, or car issues.

Which brings us to the other two big challenges, kosher food and lodging within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue.

There seems to be a great fear among some Jews born Orthodox that there is nothing to eat in a city if that city has no kosher pizza place.  I’m happy to say that most major cities have a lot to offer.  Doing a quick search on’s website for local Chabad organizations can often get you in touch with what is kosher locally.  They will sometimes have a separate webpage on the local Chabad house’s website with local kosher resources or sometimes you can email or call them.  In smaller cities, they may also be the only Orthodox Synagogue for Shabbos as well and often can help you find accommodations nearby.  In larger cities, you can often search for a local Va’ad or Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) and they may have links to kosher websites and some large cities even have their own kosher certification programs.  In addition, doing a web search for “Orthodox Jewish Synagogues in (city name)” can often help you find their Synagogue’s website, which will often have visitor information.

It’s important to reach out to whatever community that you will be visiting for Shabbos early.  They may be able to recommend hotels in or near the eruv or Synagogue and sometimes they can set up hosting for you for either meals or a place to stay as well.  Be prepared to give them some kind of references, usually your local Orthodox Rabbi.  After all, you’d want to check up on a complete stranger before inviting them into your home, wouldn’t you?  Also, keep in mind that Orthodox Jews are a tight-knit community.  Be on your best behavior as a guest and if you are not yet halakhically Jewish, be careful not to do anything that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in your home Synagogue, like accepting an aliyah.  If you are set up with hosts for meals or a place to stay, be sure to bring a hostess gift and thank you card so that you’ll be welcomed back!

If you’re on your own for accommodations, don’t fret.  Recently, our family has had really good luck finding airbnb’s in areas where there are no hotels in or near an eruv.  This can be a particularly good option for families.  Just last year we ended up staying in a very charming Airbnb in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood.  The couple that hosted us were non-observant Jews who already knew all the ins and outs of Sabbath observance and were familiar with many of the people who hosted us for meals.  They were SO nice and we felt at home and were just a short walk from the Synagogue.  This winter, we’re renting a whole house near a Synagogue we’re visiting.  Of course, you generally cannot expect a kosher kitchen in these, so plan accordingly.

Which brings us to kosher food!

Some larger cities have kosher restaurants and you can often find what their kosher certifications are online as well as if they are cholov yisroel, if that’s a concern for you.  Local Synagogue and Beit Din websites may also list the best grocery stores to go to locally for kosher food or if there are completely kosher grocery stores.  In a pinch, whole foods market, costco, and trader joe’s are generally great for finding a lot of kosher items and even in the smallest supermarkets, you can generally find snacks that are OU certified, although meat and cheese may be a challenge.  I’ve found having a sense of adventure and some flexibility often helps.

If you’re traveling with a family or are completely on your own for Shabbos meals, it can be really helpful to pack some of your own food and utensils.  My mother in law always travels with a hot plate that she can use to cook with, a small frying pan, a small pot, and a few utensils, including a paring knife in her checked luggage.  I know other people who like to travel with an instant pot, which allows them to saute, steam, slow cook, or pressure cook foods.  Bringing your own kosher appliance with you means not having to rely on as much kosher food being available because you can easily cook fresh vegetables.  It’s always a good idea to have a box of matzah or bring your own challah if you don’t have anyone to host you for meals.

Besides just planning travel and seeing if hosting is available, the Sabbath also has other specific special concerns for travelers.  It’s good to bring tea lights for candle lighting and to find kosher grape juice or wine for kiddush and havdalah.  In addition, it’s important to know if there is an eruv (if you hold by them) and if it is up before carrying as well as to know if your hotel has electronic locks you’ll need to work around.  Some people tape the locks so that they don’t engage and just trust that their belongings will be safe while others work it out with the hotel staff to let them in their room so that they don’t need to use the keycard.  Be sure to check for local candle lighting times, which may be very different from your own.  Hebcal and Chabad are good resources as is the local Orthodox Synagogue.

If you’re new to traveling Orthodox, this might all sound a bit overwhelming, but I’ve found that traveling this way is often a lot more of a “real” experience of a place than when I traveled before.  Sabbath observance and keeping kosher often nudge me to interact more with the local community than I might otherwise.  Sharing the Sabbath with local families helps me really get more of a feel for a place than I would if I just stuck with the tourist sights.  Over time, I begin to feel more like I’m part of the bigger Jewish family and sometimes, I even have names I can now bring up in “Jewish geography” conversations.  I’ve met some of the most wonderful people and I’ve been grateful for what I’ve learned from them and from their communities.

It’s more than worth a few extra logistics.

Now, traveling to the North Slope for work?  That’s turning out to be a whole other adventure, but I plan on posting about that separately since most people don’t need to stress about candle lighting times when the sun never comes up!