Spring and the Sabbath Always Come

It’s sunny and warming up here in the frozen north.  Everywhere I look, the snow is melting and we’re seeing patches of green grass underneath, a glimpse of the world that will be ours in just a week or two if things continue.  The world is waking up here after the long winter and birds like the Siberian Swans are returning from their warmer winter homes.  It won’t be long before the Aspen trees bud and leaves start bursting forth.

Springtime in Alaska is like a Sabbath afternoon, it passes by in an instant and it’s good to pause and enjoy it.

With the longer hours of sunlight, it’s like everything in the natural world around us begins to go in fast-forward.  It’s hard for us humans also not to get caught up in it.  The warm months here are short, essentially ending by the end of July, so we all try to pack as much as possible into them.  There are fish to catch to fill the freezers for winter, veggies to grow while the ground is warm enough, berries to pick, rhubarb to cut, and all those wonderful outdoor activities we enjoy so much.  Hiking and camping become a priority.  There are mountains waiting to be climbed and glaciers waiting to be explored!

For the small community of Orthodox Jews here, though, long hours of summer sun also mean a VERY long Sabbath each week, as if G-d knows we need the longer pause in the midst of all this hectic activity.  We’re forced to slow down and begin the Sabbath sometime before bed Friday night and often we will sleep through the brief break in the sunshine Saturday night, making havdalah before breakfast in the morning.

For our family, this also means we’re looking forward to the Shabbat RV version 2.0.  This time, we’re opting to sell a couple of things and put a down payment down on a loan and buy a RV that will be more comfortable and safer than the first one.  G-d willing, this is also the RV we will take next summer through the Canadian Rockies, across the plains of Canada and down to the lower 48 to our new, bigger Orthodox community in an epic adventure that might have made Moshe Rabbeinu proud.

For now, though, it’s the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Pesach, a time to slow down in the midst of the flurry of Passover cooking and rest and reflect.  This Passover has been one of the most joyful I can remember for our family…and oddly enough, one of the easiest.  Usually I struggle through craving all different kinds of pasta and bread, but this year, even though we’ve been eating non-gebrokts foods…it FEELS easier.  I am not consumed with what I can’t eat, but rather enjoying trying new recipes and enjoying simpler tastes.

I hope everyone has a restful and meaningful Shabbat.  Here, we will begin the days of Shabbat not starting until after our usual bedtime and also not ending until after and I think this may be the last week we can greet the Shabbos Queen on time rather than early and be awake for her on-time departure rather than wishing her goodbye in the morning.

Our First Seders as Guests!

I hope everyone had a wonderful and meaningful Passover.  We had our first Seders as guests.  For years, we’ve hosted our own Seders with a mix of guests, usually non-Jews, or even just our family and we’ve enjoyed all of them.  For the songs my husband couldn’t remember the tunes for or couldn’t communicate those tunes to us, we just made them up.  We had haggadahs and followed them and I cooked traditional foods and it worked.

This, however, was a singularly wonderful experience and like a taste of the world to come.  We were hosted by a lovely frum family and the house was full of their kids, our kids, and the kids of other guests.  The guests were a mix of observance, but all at least somewhat frum and the songs and wine flowed freely.  The host was a Rabbi and able to bring in bits of learning in with the Seder.  Due to the late sunsets here this time of year, we couldn’t start until 10:30 or 11, but I didn’t find it hard to stay awake.  Not knowing when we’ll get another opportunity like this, I didn’t want to miss anything.

There were times when I could sit there…and our halakhic status would fade away.  We were just Jews at the Seder table with other Jews…at least for a moment.

Happy Passover!

The sun becomes more and more stubborn here in Alaska and begins to pay less and less attention to the clock.  At this time of year, it begins to become a little disoriented because, besides rising much earlier and setting much later, the light also tends to look like the sunlight of mid afternoon right up until twilight begins.  As a result, it’s easy to forget when we should eat or do other things.  For Seders, this means we can’t begin a Seder until at least 10:20, but we also need to eat our matzah before midnight.  Some people work around this by flipping the order of their Seder and eating the meal that is usually after the Seder first, then doing the Seder part.  This year, we’re going to have a snack for dinner, then do the whole Seder beginning at the appropriate time and we’re lucky enough to have invitations to another family’s Seder to do this.

I’ve never been to a Seder I didn’t cook and help put on.  We’ve had guests and managed to put on Seders every year, but I’ve never experienced someone else’s Seder and I’m really excited to do so.  The kids went once to a community Seder, but were a little disappointed.  It was a kiruv Seder and they felt that they missed out going there instead of staying home.  I’m sure it was a good Seder, though, just not what they were used to.  We do the best we can with my husband leading with his memories of all the Seders he’s been to, but with his lack of singing ability, we’re kind of left on our own for the tunes to songs and filling in some of the blanks.

The story of Exodus is different for us, I think.  My family very much feels like we’re somewhere between bondage and freedom, but not quite there yet.  “Next year in Jerusalem!” doesn’t form on our lips in the same way, since if next year really is in Jerusalem with Moshiach having arrived, our family might be left behind.  There is a joy in feeling like maybe, just maybe, this Nissan (first month of the Jewish calendar) might just be the beginning of when our own wandering will end in the mikvah, but it’s mixed with the feeling that we’re still strangers at this Seder.  I wonder at the mixed multitude that left Egypt with the Jews.  Did they look back at what they were leaving behind?  What was it like as they worked to integrate themselves with the Hebrews?  What tribes absorbed them or were they kind of camped on the outskirts, part of the community, but not really completely connected?  They often only seem mentioned when they make a mistake, kind of like how a person’s conversion status only seems to come up when they’re gone off the derech (lapsed in observance) or make a headline for something done wrong.

I go back and forth between feeling a connection in the story to the fleeing Hebrews, my spiritual ancestors, and the mixed multitude that made the brave decision to throw their lot in with the fleeing Jews.  I wonder at what caused them to make their decision.  Was it that they saw the plagues and miracles and realized that the Hebrews were G-d’s chosen people and wanted to join them or was it that life in Egypt had become so difficult for them that they decided to take their chances on change?  Did they leave behind family members who would have been confused at this choice?  Did they already have connections with the Hebrews, like Moses’s adoptive mother, or were they complete strangers, now trying to fit in and make friends?  Did they leave a comfortable life behind in Egypt for the uncertainty of this new one or were they themselves also slaves?  Did they cleave to the others who came along or did they work to integrate into the Jewish people?  Did their children have problems marrying or were they welcomed?

Sadly, we don’t know much of their story and what is told in Midrash, isn’t always pleasant.  They were blamed quite a bit for the sin of the golden calf and are often mentioned whenever idolatry becomes a problem for the Jews.  Was it hard for them to leave their old ways behind and so tempting to go back to those whenever they were afraid or had a crisis of faith?

If it’s true that every successful convert was present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, was I a Hebrew then or one of the mixed multitude?

I like to think that most of the mixed multitude were grateful for their place in the camp of the Jews and did their best to integrate into one of the tribes.  I’m sure it probably wasn’t always easy and they had their challenges, but I like to think that the reason we don’t know much about them from the golden calf on is because they became virtually indistinguishable from their Jewish-born brethren, living lives that really weren’t different enough from other Jews to be noteworthy.

For me, I’m grateful for a place at the Seder table.  I’m grateful to celebrate freedom with G-d’s chosen people even as I work toward that chosenness myself.  I look forward to the day when “Next year in Jerusalem!” will slip joyfully and easily off my tongue.  Until then, I work to be worthy of that freedom and that place among the camp.

May you all have a kosher and happy Passover!

The Ups and Downs of “Practicing” Pesach

To boil or not to boil?  Which customs shall we use?  How stringent do we want to be this year?  These are all relevant questions we face as we clean out cabinets and work to gobble up all the chametz (leavened foods) in our house prior to Passover.  We’re often on our own to try to find answers since Passover is quite likely the busiest time of the year for Rabbi’s and the answers are complicated in our case, even more than for most conversion candidates.

For most conversion candidates, there is a lot of choice when it comes to Passover traditions as well as what level to observe prior to conversion and your best guidance will come from your sponsoring Rabbi.  This can be complicated by the fact that Rabbis are so very busy this time of the year, but you can’t really go too far wrong trying to follow the customs of your community when it comes to cleaning and such.  A non-Jew’s dishes and such are already not really kosher, so any kashering you do is mainly for practice and to learn what you’ll want to do when it’s for real.  There are varying opinions as to whether or not a conversion candidate should do something like attend a Jew’s seder or eat the afikomen, but generally a local Rav can sort those out for you.

And then there’s us.

 

My husband’s murky status often means we’re not quite sure exactly to what level we MUST observe and what we should and should not do.  Early on, the assumption of most people around us seemed to be that we needed to observe as closely as possible to what we might observe after conversion.  So, instead of perhaps trying a Sephardic Pesach to experience what sorting through rice multiple times could be like or slowly easing into the chaos that can be Pesach cleaning, we jumped in with both feet.  We also have never really quite gotten an answer when it comes to customs.  Unlike a lot of conversion candidates, my husband was raised with some and it seems like we could choose to inherit those of his Mother and Stepfather, who have been spiritual parents to us both as well as actual parents to him.  But, when we ask the question of “Should we?” That becomes more complicated.

There’s a lot that conversion candidates practice without being able to fully do.  Married conversion candidates practice Taharas Hamispacha without going to the mikvah.  We practice kosher, even though nothing a non-Jew can cook by themselves can be kosher and our dishes are inherently un-kosher, not able to be toiveled.  It’s not really a state that most Sages expected anyone to be in for long, but in modern times, it’s not unusual to take several years to convert.  When we first began, because of my husband’s upbringing in Orthodox day schools and his unusual halakhic status, friends and family assumed our process would have to proceed quickly and advised us accordingly, hoping we’d work to prepare to be fully observant soon.

Our first Passover, this meant dishes and such in storage, bought bit by bit whenever sales came up for that day that seemed like it would happen at any moment.  Like most conversion candidates, we knew most of our kitchen stuff would not be able to be saved and would need to be donated or given away after conversion, since it couldn’t be kashered or toiveled.  We would often hold off buying anything new.  We’d practice kashering our non-kosher utensils just for practice.  I’d cook food according to kosher laws that couldn’t be kosher because I’d turned on the oven.  For Passover, we followed the Ashkenazic customs of the local community to help simplify things some, but I did practice some non-gebrokts recipes in case we’d take on Chabad customs one day.

Over the years, I relaxed some of this and practiced other parts more thoroughly.  As it became more clear that this journey was going to be a long one, I started to think it might be more important to delve more deeply into a specific aspect of observance of holidays than try to do everything “right” but only on a surface level.  After all, if we weren’t obligated, then now was the time to make mistakes and learn, not to just try to fake our way through things.  As we unpacked the stuff we’d stored away and finally put it to use, I began to settle into living in this space between Jew and non-Jew rather than trying to rush past it.  One Passover, this meant really digging into the details of the Seder, preparing for it, looking more at the “why’s” behind the “what’s” and maybe spending less time obsessing over aluminum foil.  Another year, this meant really getting into the bedikas chametz even if it meant less time cleaning right before.  One Passover, it meant turning the kitchen over completely early and experiencing that.  Was that easier or did it make things harder?  That year we really got into kashering, nearly killing an oven with a blowtorch in the process.  The meals that came out of that kitchen were much simpler to compensate for all that in-depth effort.

This year, I’m finally circling back to those questions of customs and I’m trying out (bli neder) the customs of my in-laws.  This means a lot of peeling, not many spices, no gebrokts until the last day, and a whole lot of making things from scratch.  I’m looking to see what’s here for us, as I have any time we’ve practiced an aspect of Pesach or observance in general.  Does this bring deeper meaning?  Is there something hidden in doing this?  Does this make the week of Passover more separate, more holy?  Is this something I could handle next year or years beyond or something that’s too much for now?  As a result of this focus and the fact we got invites for the Seders, I’m turning over the kitchen late this year, on Sunday.  That has me a little anxious and I feel that pressure to turn it over a little early (I’m the type that is always worried about time, always afraid of being late or behind).  I’m asking questions of that anxiety.  What am I afraid of?  Do I not trust that whatever needs to be done will get done?  Where am I not having faith or not asking my family for help here?

They say practice makes perfect, but I think that the mitzvos are an area where demanding perfection probably misses the point.  I think it’s more that perfection is a goal we can never fully reach, yet we become better people by the effort.  I think reaching for unattainable goals can teach us a lot about humility and having compassion for others’ shortcomings.

But…I’m still practicing.

The Kindness of Strangers and Our First Shabbat in the RV

My heart is full today.  Yes, it is snowing again and the roads are a mess and the Spring that seemed so close by last weekend now feels like it has fled south to the lower 48, but…this weekend is our first weekend in our Shabbat RV and we have invitations to both Seders from a wonderful family for Pesach!

If you can’t tell from my words, every time I think of both of these things, I nearly scrunch up my face in glee, like my daughter when she gets a new stuffed animal.  It’s that kind of joy.

The RV was our Rabbi’s idea, the practical answer to a halakhic issue, but in true Alaskan style.  Since our house is too far from the shul to walk on Shabbat, we will camp out in the shul parking lot in our tiny 22 foot RV.  Mr. Safek has carefully combed over every manual for the RV, figuring out what can and can’t be done to make sure the RV itself is shomer Shabbat (following all the laws of Shabbat).  I’ve cleaned it almost as much as the rest of the house this month, adding to the already long list for Passover preparations.  The kids have tested it out and figured out which sleeping spot is theirs.  Now, tonight, it’s really going to be put to the test.

Candle lighting times (the time when Shabbat begins) edge later and later now and we don’t light tonight until up to 8:26, so the plan is for an early dinner, then drive to shul, park and prepare, and then light candles and make the blessings over wine and bread there, with dessert as a treat before the blessings after bread and tumbling into bed.  Similarly, the days are long here and we won’t be doing havadalah (the blessings that end Shabbat) until 10:15 Saturday night.  Soon, we’ll probably just go to sleep in the RV Saturday night, waking to do havdalah.  It’s always better to add more time to Shabbat than take any away and it won’t be long before havdalah is in the middle of the night for us.

But for now, I’m just happy knowing we’re getting back to being (mostly) shomer Shabbos again.  We’ll still need to intentionally do some melachah before havdalah if we haven’t made any mistakes because non-Jews are forbidden to fully keep Shabbat, but this helps us prepare for the day when we can, G-d willing.

Conversion candidates are often at the mercy of the kindness of others, but one of the good things about that is that we’re often surprised by just how kind others can be.  Being in a position of needing help means that you sometimes get to see the very best of someone and you also give them an opportunity to help.

So it is with our Passover Seder invitations.

In the 7 years we’ve had Passover Seders, we’ve had plenty of guests, usually a rowdy bunch of non-Jewish friends who didn’t quite get what we were doing, but really enjoyed the food and novelty.  However, the kids and I have never sat at someone else’s Seder table.  We’ve sung songs my husband couldn’t teach us the tunes to, making up our own tunes.  Even if he where he remembers them, music, singing, and carrying tunes is not among Mr. Safek’s many talents, so we’re on our own.  For a few years, I made an amazing Yemenite Charoset…not realizing it was kitniyos (a food that Ashkenazic Jews won’t eat on Passover).  I learned to cook for Seders from recipe books and we collected haggadahs (books that have the text for the Seder and sometimes commentaries) to liven our Seders up.

But, I’ve always longed to be at someone else’s Seder, to experience a “real” Seder among Jews.  I’ve always wanted to hear the tunes to the songs, the “real” tunes.

This year…we have that chance!

There was some nervousness when we were invited after the initial, “YES!!  What gift can we give them for hosting?!”  My heart sunk as I realized they might have invited us without knowing our halakhic status.  I didn’t want to tell the kids in case they got their hopes up.  Mr. Safek discretely spoke with the head of the family, just to be sure he understood our unique situation and to let him know we would not be offended if they couldn’t host us.  Different communities have different customs when it comes to having non-Jews at Yom Tov meals, let alone Seders.  In one community, we were allowed at lunch meals on Yom Tovs (festivals), but not dinner.

Happily, Mr. Safek was told that the family already knew and that we were definitely still welcome.

To me, that a Jewish family would be so generous to host a family of four in our circumstances is not a small thing at all.  For one, kosher food is not cheap in Alaska and that is four more mouths to feed.  For another, often there are tricky halakhic issues to deal with when hosting non-Jews.  It helps that the husband of the family is a Rabbi himself, but it’s still an additional burden on a night when there’s a lot to keep track of.

My heart is full of gratitude and I feel like our little family is very blessed as we prepare for Passover.  May it be a taste of the freedom we also will one day enjoy after our long wanderings in the wilderness!

Passover Prep – Alaska Style!

The sun is now up past bedtime.  It peeks through the little edges of the blackout shades, sneaking into the room, tiptoeing to my eyelids.  Granted, bedtime at the Safek household is around 9-9:30pm.  We hit the hay early and get up early.  But still, the sun is coming back, regaining his dominion over life here in the subarctic.

We are also fast entering that season that is unique to Alaska…breakup.  In other places, snow melts in a relatively orderly manner.  Here, it takes a month or so and is a season unto itself.  Everything is melting and then sometimes re-freezing, only to melt again.  Mud is everywhere.  Puddles are deep enough I’m a little nervous driving our all-wheel-drive truck through them.

It is against this dramatic backdrop that we prepare for Passover in Alaska.

For me, it fits.  It makes sense.  We have been buried in snow and cold for months, living in darkness.  The Jews of Exodus had their own winter of slavery.  Their spiritual life was dormant, buried.  They were in darkness and it probably seemed it would never end, that spring would never come.  Alaskans can certainly relate.  And yet, as Moses comes to them and they begin to see and experience the miracles G-d made, it’s much like their world thawed and burst open.  It’s messy and chaotic and beautiful and exciting.  The newly freed Jews are pulled into the light, blinking.

On a practical level, it means we generally do our Seders early, so that no one has to try to stay up for sundown and THEN an entire Seder.  Our Seders at least begin with sunshine that looks like mid-afternoon streaming through windows.  It’s hard for Eliyahu to sneak up to our house.  We try to drag things out past sundown to get a little darkness to help him out.

Passover in Alaska also means ordering…almost everything.  We have meat and basics shipped north from Seattle and place orders through our local Chabad house.  When the shipment comes in, everyone picks up their groceries on the same day.  We can’t count on much being available in the local stores.  They’ll often try to sell things that aren’t kosher for passover in the tiny display they do have, which isn’t labeled.  It’s a quiet endcap on a random aisle.  The fact we’re not doing gebrokts until the last day this year helps.  Our needs become smaller to fit what’s there and trying out this custom means we need fewer specialty Passover products.

And then, as always, there’s the conversion dimension.  Passover is one of the BIG holidays and it’s one that has special laws as to what a Jew can do and what a non-Jew can do.  Conversion candidates live in some space in-between the two.  A safek?  Even more so.  A regular conversion candidate is encouraged to keep as many of the Passover laws as they can, to practice for the day when they will be obligated.  They are encouraged to learn about kashering their kitchen for Passover and practice what they feel comfortable with, to clean out chametz and use it up or sell it, and to observe the Yom Tovim.  However, what they are able to participate in varies widely from community to community.  In some communities, they are not allowed to be invited to a Jew’s home for a Yom Tov meal.  In others, they can be invited for a Yom Tov meal, but not a Seder.  In others, they can be invited to a Seder, but they can’t eat any of the Afikomen.  In others, they can participate fully.  It generally depends on where they are in the process as well as what the local Rav holds.

For a safek, all bets are off and often, we can ask a question and the Rabbi’s just won’t answer because there is no way to know.  We get used to unanswered shailas and doing the best we can.  I like to believe that G-d understands we’re trying and is forgiving.

Generally, we host our own holiday meals and we gather up others who don’t fit elsewhere for guests.  Other conversion candidates are welcomed to our Seder table as are patrilineal Jews.  Our Seders are usually full of joy…even if they aren’t full of Jews and most of us don’t know the tunes to the songs.

We aren’t quite free yet, even as we celebrate and sing and say, “Next year in Jerusalem!”  The exodus still remains a promise for us, set in a future where obligations will be clearer.

The snow is melting, though.  It’s coming.

The 2nd Set of Tablets

Moses threw down the first set of stone tablets, shattering them to the ground.  These were the tablets made by G-d himself, a gift to the Jewish people.  The second set?  They were made by Moses, still holy, but maybe not quite as lofty.  In some of the commentaries, we learn that the Jewish people just couldn’t handle the first set.  The first set were too holy, to separate from where they were for them to keep them.  They needed a set more grounded in the everyday, more reachable.

My mind wandered, hearing this, as I stared out the window at snow-capped mountains.  I recalled my own life and its wanderings and, in particular, our first start at conversion, years ago.

We were so idealistic and so passionate, like newlyweds to the Torah.  We took on mitzvahs quickly and pushed ourselves hard.  Before you knew it, we were part of an Orthodox community, we continued to work hard.  Finally, we had our first Beis Din meeting.  The Rabbis were kind and warm.  Nothing went “wrong.”  Our children were in day school.

And yet…despite all this, something was wrong.

We would have argued that we were ready, that things were fine, but looking back, we weren’t happy.  We were stressed and frazzled and struggling.  We were trying to reach up to grasp that first set of tablets…and it just wasn’t meant to be.  We needed to descend, to come down, and come back into the world a bit.  We weren’t ready to convert and it’s wise that we weren’t converted then.  I think we would have faced the same struggles, but with the obligations of Jews if we had.

And so, as I stood in the kitchen peeling beets for Pesach, crying tears, I began my descent.  If it had JUST been the miscommunication about Seders that left me having to prepare for an additional Seder at the last minute, that wouldn’t have been such a huge thing, but that miscommunication happened on top of a lot of other, smaller knicks and cuts that had already left me weakened.  I pulled the Seder together and we observed Passover as usual, but, somehow, my heart had deadened.  The tablets inside were shattered after almost 3 years of so much struggle and so much discouragement.

I no longer believed I was worthy of conversion.  Otherwise, wouldn’t we have made it by then?  It just seemed like the harder we worked and tried, the further it went from us.  I worried our family would never really be accepted, even after conversion, if that ever happened.  I worried I was harming my children by continuing.

And so, as that Passover faded, so did we.  My husband’s calls to meet with the Rabbi, to ask for help…went unanswered.

We both wondered if that in itself was an answer.  We stopped going to the Synagogue.  We slowly left mitzvos behind.  We got a puppy.  We went hiking and camping.  We went out into the woods and the mountains and we healed and wandered and thought a lot.  We dabbled in Reform Judaism enough to realize we didn’t fit there, either, even though we were openly accepted in ways we’d never been.

Finally, we came back.  It was almost a fluke that we did.  His mother and stepfather came to visit and, as Orthodox Jews, they needed to observe Shabbat.  We observed it with them out of a desire to spend more time with them.

Suddenly, it was almost like we’d never left.  Every feeling that had brought us to this conversion path was still there and there was an ache again, a longing.  Even the children felt it, my daughter coming up to me at shul saying, “We’re coming back next week, right?”

And so we did and we have been.

There is a difference now, though.  Just as that second set of tablets was more down to earth and easier for the Jews to connect with, so too is this second time around in conversion for us.  We feel less of that pressure, that push.  We also know more what to expect and not to let it bother us so much.  It’s a less intense, but more mature relationship.  We have been adding back mitzvos more slowly than we originally took them on.  I’m not trying to do Passover exactly perfect and instead focusing on learning at a pace that still feels good rather than a strain.

This time around may not be the heady leap the first one was, but the first one also wasn’t sustainable.  G-d knew better.  He knew my heart needed to be shattered and I needed to wander and experience different communities to know where I DIDN’T fit so that I could come back with eyes more open, more committed.  I needed a Judaism that would be more grounded and stable than that initial chaotic fire.

And so, I slowly do my Passover cleaning and hold back from stringencies that I would have held to before.  Instead, I read more about the meaning behind what I’m doing.  I savor more the experiences of what I’m doing.  I’m not rushing to an imaginary finish line.  I have my own pace and I’m not looking at anyone else.

I’m sure the first set of tablets were beautiful in their own way, but G-d knew that the Jews needed something closer to them.  They needed something that reminded them that it’s ok to be imperfect, that even the greatest mistakes can be forgiven, and that imperfection is no reason to stop trying for improvement.

So did we.