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!

Shabbos, Cold and Dark

Last Shabbos, I was curled up in my arctic sleeping bag.  Granted, that particular sleeping bag was a little overkill for the night we were having.  The temperature in the RV was only in the 40’s, not below zero.  Still, it was a taste of things to come as we each did what we needed to do to stay warm.  The kids were curled in blankets and jackets and our crockpot dinner was welcome warmth.  Shabbos began early, although not as early as it will.  It was the last Shabbos for a while that the kids were able to do a full day of school.

Cold, like hunger, gnaws at the spirit, with patience wearing thin and small discomforts magnified and yet, there was a pride we all felt and a connection to previous generations of Jews who braved all kinds of discomforts or even danger to keep the Sabbath.  We’re far more fortunate in that there are no dangers for us and even our discomforts are mitigated by modern technology.  There is camping gear here in Alaska that allows people to camp even in the most extreme conditions and we even had a shelter and the ability to have warm food.

I’m preparing for an even darker Shabbos.

In a few weeks, as soon as some equipment arrives, I will need to travel to Kuparuk, an oil drilling camp.  It lies just inland from the arctic ocean, far north of the arctic circle and not far from the northernmost point of Alaska.  Yesterday, I attended a training that is mandatory for anyone going to these kinds of camps where I learned just how extreme an environment it is and about all the dangers and what to do to avoid those dangers.  Each module, essentially, was all about another way to die there.  Polar bears that never hibernate and see humans as food make grizzly bears seem cuddly by comparison.  Cold that can kill in a short period of time if you aren’t prepared for it.  Contagious disease that spreads quickly in confined quarters.  Poisonous gases released from far below the frozen permafrost.  Cold so bitter that machinery stops functioning.  Darkness that lasts months.

I will only be up there for a week or two and the company that has contracted us is providing me kosher food.  I’m working with my local Orthodox Rabbi to work out candle lighting times and I’m taking a coworker with me who I will train to do this work and it’s likely that he’ll handle any future trips like this.  It feels almost like preparing for a week or two on a moon colony.  I will spend a Shabbos or two there, among the oil workers, in a long night that takes months until the first dawn, far from home and family.

Yet, even there, there could be opportunities for connection, for warmth and for Judaism.  Who knows if one of the workers might see my sheitel and casually mention that his mother was Jewish?  Who knows what inspiration might come from spending this time in a place so foreign, so extreme?  At the very least, I am sure I will have some time for uninterrupted reading and davening.  The questions I have are interesting ones that make me wonder about future Jews.  How will space traveling Orthodox Jews handle Shabbos and candle lighting in the constant night of space?

Where there is a will, there is almost always a way.

Conversion Advice – You’ve Gotta Love BOTH

I had one reader have a very negative reaction to a writing I did yesterday about the current state of conversion.  Basically, by writing about my experiences and some of the other issues I have known about, this person was discouraged from attempting an Orthodox Jewish conversion herself and her image of the Jewish people was changed.  The words were strong and it made me question if I’d done the right thing writing what I did.  I’m including an excerpt here:

Your article sickened me, I had to stop reading it – I was so horrified by what I read. I have admired your culture and religion for most of my life. I have considered converting, more than once. You have saved me, by writing this, from making a terrible, terrible mistake. I thank you for that. But, I have no tolerance, whatsoever, for “human error” harming good people, who are so very sincere.
Something has, obviously, gone terribly wrong. Or, perhaps, I was wrong all along.
Good luck to you, but this information has left me heartbroken. Not for me, but for you.

There is a concept in Judaism of a “chillul Hashem,” basically, this is the idea that if you as a Jewish person commit an act or speak in a way that brings shame to the Jewish people, it can be serious enough to be an offense against G-d, desecrating His name.  The idea is most often used in reference to causing scandals or spreading gossip, but I began to wonder if I had myself committed a chillul Hashem by being so open about issues with the current process of Orthodox Jewish Conversion.  That was not my intention and I’m still not completely sure.  Sometimes it is important to talk about problems so that we can raise awareness of them and work together to improve them, but maybe a public blog isn’t always the best forum.  I’ll need to think on that one a while and I may or may not remove some posts based on it.

However, another thread in this comment stood out for me and it’s one that I do find often repeated among conversion candidates and is worth talking about.

I often will speak with conversion candidates who are head over heels in love with Judaism the religion, but struggle with the Jewish people and I also meet conversion candidates that really love the Jewish people and living among Jews, but struggle with Judaism as a religion.

One of the complicated things about Orthodox Jewish conversion that I think makes it different from a lot of other religious initiations is that by converting to Judaism, you’re really signing on to both the religion and the people.  There is no way to accept one while rejecting the other and still be successful as a convert.

Part of this is due to the communal nature of Orthodox Jewish observance, which I have written about previously.  At some point, in order to convert, a conversion candidate has to move to a community and live among Jews.  Men need to pray with a minyan 3 times daily and even for women, life kind of revolves around the Jewish community.  Being an Orthodox Jew means spending most of your free time with other Orthodox Jews doing Orthodox Jewish things.  Not feeling love or acceptance either for or towards your fellow Jews can make those hours very long and painful.

While there is a lot of diversity between communities and cultures, there are some generalizations, at least here in the US.  Most Jewish people here have a culture that at times can seem like a loud, boisterous family.  Every Synagogue has its characters, from the gossipy yenta to the guy who sings obnoxiously over the chazzan (prayer leader) to a whole wide variety of people you might not otherwise choose to socialize with.  Now, though, as a convert or conversion candidate, these people are family and you can’t exactly just avoid them.  For people unfamiliar with the culture, I like to use the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” as an imperfect example.  People talk over each other, elbow their way to the kiddush line, and can be very blunt.  At the same time, there is tremendous warmth and I’ve seen Orthodox Jews come together to support a family, with some of the people most generous with their time or resources being those you thought couldn’t stand each other.

Conversion is like dating an entire people with all their strengths and weaknesses, flaws and potential.  You have to get to know them and learn if you can accept them as they are and if they can accept you.  After so many thousands of years, they’re not going to change to please you any more than your spouse could suddenly get rid of every trait that annoys you about them.  For me, that did take some time.  Since my first crush with Judaism was with the religion, it took me a while to reconcile the fact that Jews, as a whole, are not a perfect reflection of the religion they follow.  I had to learn to accept that as humans, they would not always live up to their own ideals, let alone the pedestal I’d set up for them.  Just like I had to learn to love Mr. Safek for who he is instead of expecting him to always be a superhero, even though he might himself want to be a superhero.

And I do deeply love the Jewish people as a nation.  I love the life and warmth and genuine caring I so often see.  I love the stubborn determination, the lively disagreements, and I love Israeli directness.  The more I “date” the Jewish people, the more I begin to see their “negative” traits more as loveable quirks and also as the flip side of the traits I so admire about them.  I’m also just as defensive about them to others as I might be if someone outside the family poked fun at one of my husband’s quirks.  Some jokes are only funny when you’re around all family, you know.

I have also met conversion candidates who already loved the Jewish people, sometimes having grown up among Jews and just really fallen in love with the culture.

Sometimes, though, these conversion candidates struggle with learning to love the religious aspects of Judaism.  Often, they admit that they’d rather not take on observance fully and really just want to be part of the people, but they also want to be fully recognized as part of the Jewish people, with the ability to go to almost any Synagogue and be welcomed as a Jew or go to Israel and register as a Jew.  They may seek out an Orthodox conversion not because they want to live an Orthodox lifestyle after conversion but more because they want the best stamp of approval of their Jewishness they think they can get.

Some eventually do fall in love with Orthodox Judaism, after lots of questions and wrestling and those converts seem to blend seamlessly into the Jewish community while I’m still eyeing the kiddush line with some trepidation.  The ones that do not, though, very often wind up giving up observance not long after conversion, if they make it to conversion and they can cause real issues for others in the process as well as a lot of regret for the Rabbis that helped them.

It’s easy for a potential convert who is drawn to the religion of Judaism to become frustrated with the lapses of actual Jews and it’s easy for a conversion candidate who is drawn to the Jewish nation to be frustrated with the strictness of Orthodox observance or the basic tenets of Jewish faith.  Still, in order to find fulfillment and happiness as an Orthodox Jewish convert, it’s important to learn to love both.

If there’s one thing that history has taught the world, it’s that Jews and Judaism are stubbornly inseparable.  It’s important that a convert feel that’s a good thing.

Discouraging the Convert

My very good friend over at Jewish Thoughts wrote a great blog post today about Orthodox Jewish converts, questioning how the Orthodox community treats them.  After detailing some of the painful things that she has seen with the converts that she knows, she asks some very good questions.

So what exactly should we do?

I’m not asking for us to start encouraging people to convert. That would be forbidden. But I am asking us to look critically at the conversion process and ask ourselves, and our dayanim, if it is really necessary to make it so gruelling and drawn out, and so filled with discouragement and difficulty. Is this really what G-d would want us to do, when the potential convert already has a Jewish neshomo?

As someone who’s been the conversion process for almost 7 years now and who has traveled between different communities as part of that process, this is definitely something I’ve wrestled with.  Conversion wasn’t always the beast it is today.  As little as 20 years ago or less, conversion was a local affair.  Congregational Rabbis were entrusted with teaching converts, ascertaining their readiness for conversion, and then assembling a Beit Din to witness the conversion.  Conversions were rarely questioned after the fact and while converts did encounter stigma and judgment, they did not often have to fear their conversions somehow being revoked after the fact.

There were downsides to this.  Some unscrupulous Rabbis used this system to abuse converts, either extorting them for money or even sexually harassing them.  There were some pretty big public chillul Hashems and scandals.  There were more mundane problems as well in that what a convert needed to know and be committed to doing prior to conversion varied widely.  My mother-in-law, unfortunately, found herself in the position that many converts later did, having thought that she’d had a “kosher” conversion only to find it questioned many years later, after she’d had children, and having to undergo a second conversion and watch her children also suffer.  Without some kind of uniform standards, it was hard for a convert to know if their conversion would be accepted in other places or in years to come.

I’d say that most born Jews who haven’t been privy to the details of a convert’s process lately probably aren’t aware that the system has changed a lot from how it was previously and I think that is a big part of the problem.  Many assume that conversion is simpler or easier than it is or don’t realize the beast it has become.

For this as well as some political reasons that I don’t feel qualified to discuss, there was a narrowing of the conversion process, moving it to more centralized control.  Now, a local congregational Rabbi can sponsor a conversion candidate and a few isolated Rabbis can still handle their own conversions, but by in large it is some form of regional Beit Din that handles most of the conversion process and standards are both more stringent and uniform, although different Beit Dins can still vary on some details.  Even being a sponsoring Rabbi, though, has become more risky in the eyes of Rabbis.  No one wants to help convert insincere converts, who later leave observance for whatever reason.

It’s said that converts should be discouraged and turned away 3 times.  This is taken from the story of Ruth where her mother in law, Naomi, attempts to send her back to her people three times before finally giving in and bringing her with her to Israel.  What this has become in modern times, though, is something else entirely.  In some cases, “discouragement” means that scheduled meetings are missed by the Rabbi or repeatedly rescheduled.  Paperwork is frequently “lost” and has to be filled out multiple times.  It’s not uncommon to have to switch from one Beit Din to another for any number of reasons.  I like to file most of this under “bureaucratic discouragement.”  It’s often hard to be able to tell if this is just inefficiency in a system or if it’s intentional unless you hear of someone else whose meetings are kept and paperwork isn’t lost.  Those who mentor converts tell them to expect it.  Keep multiple copies of paperwork and keep confirming and rescheduling appointments.

Other times it’s more overt.  We were part of one community where the local Rav instructed families not to invite converts in process over for any Yom Tov meals.  This Rabbi also would avoid shaking a male’s hand if he was in the process of conversion, shaking the hand of the man next to him and on the other side of him.  It was his belief that a conversion candidate essentially should be socially shunned until the process was complete, even if that process took years.  B”H, that’s not a majority opinion and we are no longer in that community, but similar social isolation often does happen to converts, even after conversion.  In other communities, the level of stringency of observance required of conversion candidates or converts can actually separate them from their community, where a majority do not hold to the same.  There’s also more mundane social discouragement, like being left out of some Synagogue activities or the intrusive questions at kiddush.

And then there are the mind games that some Rabbis and Beit Dins do play.  I have heard of married couples, questioned separately and told that their spouse has decided not to convert, just to see if they are so committed to conversion that they’ll agree to leave their spouse in order to complete their conversion.  I’ve left a Rabbi’s office in tears myself after a dose of “discouragement,” although he was also very eager to make sure I knew about a fundraiser they were doing as I wiped my tears on the way out.  There are vague answers that leave converts in knots trying to figure out what the “right” thing to do in a halakhic situation is.  There are unclear procedures that leave a conversion candidate never quite sure how to plan.  Do you buy kitchen things you need now, knowing you might have to throw them out at any time because you’re suddenly approved to convert?  On the other hand, it could be years from now, so is it wise to wait?  Do you have another child?  Will you be able to marry in time to have children?  What do you do if a good job in another city comes up?  Moving would mean starting your conversion process all over again.

Even worse, there are many people in this process who were “born Jewish,” but whose halakhic status was later called into question.  My husband is going on his second conversion process now to resolve questions of his halakhic status.  He had a bris, a bar mitzvah, and went to an Orthodox Jewish day school.  For years, he hasn’t been able to have an aliyah, carry a Torah, or be counted in a minyan.  He’s lived for years not knowing if the next time he is again called to the Torah if he’ll be called as his father’s son…or as Avraham’s, his father’s line cut off because of a paperwork error in his mother’s conversion before he was born and another paperwork error in his gerus l’chumrah before his bar mitzvah.

No, I don’t think this is what Torah tells us about converts at all.

The bigger question is what can or should we do about it?  Unfortunately, most of us have very little power to make any change in this system.  Most of us don’t have any influence on how young Rabbis are taught as far as how to handle conversion candidates and I think that it is likely that Rabbis have to learn so much and such a wide breadth of information that little time is spent teaching them how to handle conversion candidates with sensitivity.  There is also the problem that some conversion candidates make it harder for all the other conversion candidates that come after them.  I don’t think I know a single Rabbi that sponsors conversion candidates that doesn’t have some pretty awful horror stories of converts that were far from sincere, who went completely off the derech (gave up observance) quickly after conversion or disappeared from any Jewish community entirely.  There are plenty of good, sincere Rabbis who deeply believe that the sins those converts commit are also on the heads of the Rabbis who helped them convert and they also fear that if they have too many of those “conversion failures” under their name that it will eventually harm the sincere converts that they have helped.

Over the years, I’ve dug at the mess myself and talked with Rabbis who work mentoring converts, Rabbis who work with organizations that help converts in Israel gain recognition of their Jewish status there, and even spoken with a Rabbi who has chosen to do conversions that aren’t accepted by the Israeli Rabbinate because he so objects to the current state of the system.  The conclusion I’ve come to after all this, everything our family has been through, and the years I’ve spent in this is that the problem is just so much bigger than most of us have any power to impact.  It’s one of those world problems that I think only Moshiach might resolve…and that resolution is that there will come a time when converts can no longer be accepted at all and the process will close.

In the meantime, what I think we all can do is do our part to be kind to converts and conversion candidates.  If you have some at your Synagogue, sit next to them.  Talk to them.  Ask if there’s anything you could do to help with their process, like being a chavrusa (study partner) in their learning or helping them find good books for whatever subject they’re working on.  Invite them to your home when you can and include them in Jewish activities.  If you see that they’re being excluded from some Synagogue activities, ask your Rabbi about it.  Sometimes, it’s just a simple oversight and bringing some awareness to it might help them remember to include them.  Speak up if you see the local yenta (gossip) cornering a convert or conversion candidate, asking intrusive questions.

Mostly, whenever you can, just treat them like the fellow Jew that they so very much want to be.

The advice I give to conversion candidates who are grappling with all this is that they have to find a place of acceptance of it all if they’re going to ever find peace and joy in a Jewish life.  There are double standards for converts, even after the mikvah.  There will always be some Jews that won’t accept your conversion, for whatever reason.  There will also be born Jews (mostly secular or really liberal) who simply “don’t believe in conversion” for whom Jewishness is more about race than religion.  There will always be people that look down on converts or exclude them.  The question the conversion candidate needs to answer is…even with that, can they still love Judaism and the Jewish people and find joy and fulfillment living as a convert?  That question wasn’t easy for me to answer for several years, with so much hurt and anger, but eventually, I had to let go of the hurt and anger and find the answer for myself.  My answer was “Yes, yes I can still find the joy and yes I can still love this imperfect, nosey, stubborn, and even sometimes rude people as my own.”  Like I learned to love my husband’s imperfections because they make him uniquely him, I had to come to a similar place with the humanity of my fellow Jews, even where it moved them to be hurtful towards me.  Still, I can definitely understand and empathize with those who made another choice and moved on.

The conversion process and the life that comes after it are not for everyone.  It’s not an easy life, a “fair” life.  It is, however, a life that is really full of amazing opportunities for spiritual growth if you look for them.  I’ve learned more about humility, inner strength, emuna (faith), trust, and any number of things from my conversion process.  I’ve learned to let go and trust Hashem in ways I never thought I could.  I’ve been broken down to the point I was sobbing and wondering if I’d made the biggest mistake of my life, but I’ve also been built back up.  I’ve seen the best and worst sides of Orthodox Judaism, but I’ve also seen the amazing potential of the Jewish people.  In many ways, I think having to go through this has made me more passionate about Judaism than I ever could have been if it simply was my birthright.

It’s definitely not a path for everyone and those who choose to leave conversion are not weak.  In fact, they’re probably just rational, logical people who are making the best choice for themselves in a rough situation.  Perhaps those of us who stay are simply the most stiff-necked among them, the ones who would have fit right in with the unruly group Moshe was guiding through the desert.  Perhaps it now takes an unreasonable process to shape people into a kind of unreasonable faith, to help uncover that Jewish neshama that was unreasonable enough to say that they would accept the Torah even before they read it?

All I know is that it’s my path for as much as I’ve tried to leave it, I’ve always come back.  In that way, it is a lot like the kind of love that makes two people stubbornly stick together against all odds, for a lifetime…or leave their homeland and comfort to be a beggar in a foreign land with their mother in law, like Ruth.  Being a convert means being stubbornly committed to the Jewish people even when they seem least deserving of your love and loyalty, just like a spouse that’s showing you their worst side.

I just often wish that the Jewish people worked harder to also show converts their best side, too.

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.

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.

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.