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 Chabad.org’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!

 

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.