BIG NEWS!!!

No, it’s not THAT big news, but it is BIG!

A cousin of mine has a son with a genetic illness.  As part of working through his treatment, she and her parents recently had to have genetic testing.  She knew that her mother is part Ashkenazi, but the surprising news…is that her father is too.  Her father is my grandfather’s nephew.  So…what this all means is that there is a good chance that I’m at least part Ashkenazi as well!

Ever since we began conversion, I have met people that seemed determined to find some kind of Jewish ancestry for me.  I think it fits in well with the idea that converts might be the descendants of lost Jews and everyone loves stories of people who come back to Judaism after generations of their family being lost.  I’ve always had to smile and say, “No, I’m pretty sure there isn’t any Jewish ancestor in my family tree.”  Or is there?  My mother has done our genealogy pretty thoroughly and the percentage that the genetic test came up with was small, so it could be that somewhere, back in time, a Jewish person joined our family.  Who knows…it could be that tiny spark that skipped generations to land within me.

I’m still kind of processing this information that she very casually gave me.

I know it doesn’t change our halakhic status or our process from a practical standpoint, but it does bring a new dimension into how I see myself as a (G-d willing) soon to be Jew.  It’s another connection to the traditions, religion, and culture I love.

I wonder who they were and why they left their own culture to join my family.  Would they be proud that I’m converting or would they shake their head?  Were they madly in love?  How did their family handle it and how did my family welcome them?  Did they regret it or did they live a long, happy life with us?

Perhaps one day, in the world to come, I’ll get to ask them all about it.

Eating Matzah as the Bears Awaken

There is one great comfort in the long, dark Alaskan winter and that is that the odds of being eaten by a bear go down considerably.  Bears hiberate during the winter, only occasionally stirring if there’s a warm snap, but generally sleeping through the dark cold months in their dens beneath the snow.  About the only dangerous thing to watch out for on a winter hike with snowshoes or skis are the moose and avalanches, but one of the great fears of enjoying the outdoors is happily absent.

This week, almost on cue, the bears experienced their own freedom from bondage and began sleepily and hungrily emerging from their dens with black bears popping up around Anchorage and more ominous brown bear tracks being seen again in the snow.

It’s against this springtime backdrop that my family munches matzah again this year, along with candle lighting times edging closer and closer to 10 o’clock and two day Yom Tovs that feel like 3 days.  The snow is melting and I can even now see patches of brown grass here and there, just waiting to wake up.

Our last breakup in Alaska.

Breakup is a season unique to the frozen north, which pretty much stays frozen under feet of snow once the snow begins to stick.  It’s a season of melting, of the land slowly freeing itself from all that weight.  It’s not uncommon to find lost things besides just the layers of dog poop that accumulate.  Gloves, hats, boots, and even whole vehicles appear out of the snow as it retreats and the trees begin to prepare the buds that will be leaves in the growing sunny hours.  It won’t be long before breakup gives way to our brief Spring, which usually comes for about a week between the end of April and beginning of May.  It’s a glorious week, though, in which mountainsides become covered in lupines and snowdrops, beautiful and delicate little wildflowers.  The air loses the scent of melting dog poo and instead smells like lilacs and other spring flowers and the aspens suddenly turn a bright light green across the treeline.  We’re invaded by migrating birds, particularly beautiful Siberian Swans on their way to their summer homes, sometimes covering entire lakes.

Alaska comes alive not long after the bears do, not long after Jews celebrate their freedom.

We munch our matzah as we are a bit more alert on our walks, enjoying our last two months here, wondering what next Spring will bring.

The Non-Gebrokts Non-Jews

Passover is an interesting holiday.  It’s one where traditions and customs really seem to come to the forefront in a way they don’t always the rest of the year.  From how stringent each family is about their cleaning and prep to what they will and won’t eat on the holiday, there is so much variation, even among Orthodox Jews.

My husband comes from a Lubavitch family, which, for us, means that we try to follow Lubavitch minhagim, or customs, particularly on major holidays.  So, that means that our Passover preparations and menus are even stricter than many other Orthodox Jews.  For years, I cooked according to more mainstream Ashkenazic customs for Passover.  Our Rabbis didn’t really mind and encouraged us to make the holiday easy for ourselves since his obligation was questionable and the rest of the family’s obligation was non-existent.  While this did mean that I had to still do a lot of cooking, it wasn’t so difficult because there is actually a lot you can do with matzah and there are a ton of recipes out there.

Last year, though, we decided to take the step of no longer eating gebrokts, which is really anything that involves soaking matzah to kind of simulate bread or pasta.  We do eat it on the last day of Passover, but the rest of the holiday, we do not.  We also peel most vegetables and don’t use many spices.

We’re probably crazy for taking it on before we have to, but I wanted to have some practice with it and some good recipes up my sleeve for the day when it’s all for real, so there we are.

What I found last year was that almond chocolate chip passover cookies really are the bomb and that limiting my ingredients this much really made me appreciate even more how much I normally have to work with, even in Alaska.  We still ate well and healthy and you can pretty much do anything for a week.  That final day I don’t think I’ve had anything as wonderful as the matzah lasagna we could finally have and it was nice to ease back into eating all our usual foods that way.

This year, I have a few more recipes to try, but I like that doing Passover this way is such a big change from how we eat the rest of the year.  We really get to eat simply, with very basic recipes and ingredients and it is a time to step back a bit and think about all the deeper themes of Passover.  I love how Jewish holidays are an immersive experience and how the food of our holidays connects us to every other aspect.

Now if only I could find the same inspiration in cleaning out my cupboards!

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!

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?

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!

Parshas Vayishlach – Wrestling with Angels and New Names

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov famously wrestles with Esav’s angel, gaining an injury and the name Israel.  In the Torah, every nation has its own angel watching over it and we’ve already learned that Esav is destined to be a mighty nation in his own right.  The struggle is dramatic and costs Yaakov, injuring his hip from which Jews derive the commandment not to eat the sciatic nerve of animals.

I sometimes wonder what nation I was born to and if I wrestle with the angel of that nation.

Unfortunately, the Torah doesn’t tell us which of the people that it speaks of wandered through Europe later.  It doesn’t say if Esav’s distant descendants later decided to move to England, Ireland, and Alsace, where my ancestors sprang from.  There are some commentaries that seek to explain which modern day people are at least spiritual descendants of which people in the Torah, but beyond Jews and Muslims, it can be tough to trace even one’s spiritual lineage back to the Torah.  There are some interesting ideas that the ten lost tribes of Israel spread out throughout the nations and that those who successfully convert are descended from these, but most Rabbis seem to think that converts are neshamas that were present at Mount Sinai, but for varying reasons, were born into non-Jewish bodies.  The generations before have little meaning beyond creating that vessel.

In many ways, I could picture Esav as the ancestor of the people of my birth.  My ancestors were pretty tough people, surviving conditions in Western Europe and then being bold enough to cross the Atlantic in the hunt for a better life.  There are certainly plenty of hunters and warriors in my family line and I can say that there was little concern with spiritual matters, at least in the generations I’m aware of.  The people I come from are very practical, stoic people who value hard work and independence.  Giving up some of that independence to be part of a religious community is seen more as weakness than admirable and admitting to feeling moved by anything that isn’t concretely visible in this world is far too sentimental for their taste.

They’re a good people in their way and people like those I was born to are the bedrock that helped build this nation.  From them, I learned how to go out into this world and work hard, hunting for what I need.  I doubt any of them would have guessed that I would one day turn those skills to hunting for something more, something intangible.

Like any conversion candidate, there are times I question what I’m doing.  There are moments when I ask myself why I am choosing to make my life harder and why I am working so hard to join a people…that very often doesn’t seem to want me.  It helps that I never quite felt at home among the people I was born to.  I always had too many questions about things that seemed unimportant to them.  I always had my head in the clouds and a yearning that no one else seemed to understand.  Still, I look at the world around me and I can’t help but admit that there are other places I’d probably be more easily accepted, other lives that I could slide into with relative ease compared to this one, where I am constantly called on to prove I should be here.

It’s at those times that I wonder if I’m myself wrestling with the angel of my forebear and I often wonder which of us will ultimately win.  Hashem knows we’re both stubborn.

When Yaakov won the battle with Esav’s angel, he was given a new name that his children would carry through time…Israel.  The Sages say this marked a great spiritual transition for him.  He had attained a higher spiritual level following the struggle, a level which would be necessary for the Jews to survive everything that would come later, from bondage in Egypt to years wandering the desert, to conquering their own land, to the exile.  The struggle with Esav’s angel revealed the inner strength of Yaakov.  He didn’t become a different person, but rather it revealed who he really was.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that in exile, Jews must be Yaakov and the nature of Yaakov is to have to hide parts of who we are for survival, but in the time of Moshiach, all Jews will be fully Israel, that is, Jews will be able to reveal fully who they are.

Converts gain a new name at the time of conversion, their Hebrew name.

It’s an interesting task to have to choose a name for yourself.  I remember that my children’s names, both English at their birth and Hebrew as we began this process, came very easily and naturally to me.  Some say that mothers are given divine inspiration when it comes to naming their children and last week’s parsha spoke of Leah and Rachel naming their children.  For me, it was as if once I said their names, those names had always been theirs.  They fit them.  I struggled, though, when it came to my own name.  Should I choose a name that fit who I see myself as or who I wish to become more like?  What should my name sound like?  Converts are urged to choose common Jewish names, names that won’t really stand out much in their community or set them apart.  Being a convert alone sets one apart enough.  Every name I tried, though, just didn’t seem to fit the way my children’s names fit them, but then again, I’d often felt like my English name that I’d had since birth never quite fit.

Over the years, I settled on one that I use and it fits in the way that a shirt that isn’t quite right, but you’ll still wear out fits.  I wonder, though, if I do succeed in wrestling the angel of my ancestors and gain Avraham and Sarah as my spiritual ancestors if that name will come to fit me better and feel more like it is simply who I always was, revealed?