My Son and His Passover Sacrifice

One of the things my son was looking forward to most about 8th grade was the Advanced Orchestra trip to Hawaii that the 8th graders in his school take every year.  He had been thrilled when he’d first heard of it during his Junior High orientation and he’d fundraised last year to help send the previous class.  It’s one of the pivotal events of Junior High in his school, something that inspires a lot of kids to stick with Orchestra even as their elective options increase.  For Ian, it was a dream as he’d never been to Hawaii, unlike most Alaskan kids.

This fall, we discovered that the trip had been scheduled over Passover.

His face fell when we got the news of the dates.  Before, we were willing to figure out how to work kosher food, how to adjust travel times around Shabbos, anything so that he could be involved.  With one email confirming the dates were set, his dream was gone.  He smiled bravely to us, but I knew he was heartbroken.  The year went on and he still fundraised so that his classmates could go.  He still practiced the songs they would be playing there along with the orchestra.  He still loved his viola.  I couldn’t have been prouder of him.

This week, his fellow orchestra students are excitedly packing their bags and finalizing their trip plans.  He is helping me clean for Passover.  His classmates are packing sunscreen and talking about swimming with sea turtles.  He is helping me plan Seder menus.

And yet, he remains upbeat, proud, his kippah still on his head at school.

This…this is what it means to be an observant family far from an observant community.  It means living by what you believe even when it’s really hard and my son has really integrated that into himself.  He never once pleaded or bargained with us to make the trip once he found out it was during Passover.  He didn’t complain to his teacher or demand we protest to the school.  Instead, he used it as an opportunity to be a light to his fellow students, to show them that he would stand by his beliefs even when it was hard and that he would still support them even though it might sting.

One fundraiser, he waited tables for a meal he couldn’t eat to raise money for a trip he would never go on.  Later, the parents that sat at his tables came to me to tell me what an amazing young man he is.

I just smiled and said, “I know…we’re very blessed.”

We have promised him, after we settle in our new community, a trip to Israel with us to celebrate all that he has accomplished.  I think it’s time to buy him a travel guide for Israel that he can read over Passover so that he has a picture in his mind of the promised land after all this time in our own desert.

I’m certain that Hashem is also very proud of him.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

I used to be a big U2 fan.  I’ll freely admit that as a child of the 80’s, I was listening to U2 well into the 90’s.  One of their songs that always stuck with me was the song, “Walk On,” particularly the lyrics about “all that you can’t leave behind” and the idea of packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been.  Being a band of Irish Catholics, I have to assume the journey they were talking about, where they were packing for a “place that has to be believed to be seen,” was their version of the afterlife.  That being the case, the song still resonates for me in a different way, particularly this time of year and this year in particular.

We all have places we’re trying to get to, either metaphorically or physically and we all have stuff that holds us back from those journeys.  It may be the marathon we’ve always dreamed of running but never can seem to carve out the time to train for.  It may be the song we’ve always wanted to sing, but are afraid of making a fool of ourselves.  It could be a career move we’re afraid of making, a business we keep putting off starting, a relationship we can’t seem to commit to.  It could even literally be a big move, like making aliyah to Israel or even just moving out of our parents’ house.  It could be finally admitting to those we love who we really are.

All of us have stood at a crossroads and gazed longingly down that road less traveled and far too many of us have then looked at all we’re carrying, all that’s holding us back from that road and then turned back to the well-tread path.

There are always good, comfortable reasons not to take big risks.

Passover is a season of celebrating the courage of casting off all that holds us back and leaving the familiar for the extraordinary.  The Jews left the certainty of the lives they’d known for an uncertain future in the desert, trusting in Hashem and that there was something better for them out there.  They had to let go of everything they’d known before and all the adaptations that had helped them survive slavery.  They could only take what they could carry and they could only move forward once they were prepared to leave everything behind.

It really does us little good to rid our homes of chametz if we’re still allowing ourselves to be held back from being the people we were meant to be by a car payment we shouldn’t have taken on, a fear of failure, or worries about what others think we should do or be.

Last night, I had a crisis of faith over the silliest thing.  I was sitting, taking a break from Passover cleaning when it struck me that we didn’t get the kids to see the northern lights.  Living in Anchorage where there is so much light pollution, it’s tough to see them and this winter one of our goals was to get outside of Anchorage and make sure the kids saw them before we left Alaska.  Doubt came tumbling down on my head like fully packed suitcases stuffed up into a closet will fall down on the first person who opens the door.

Were we making a huge mistake moving?  Would the kids hate us for taking us away from Alaska?

I think the cleaning products might have gotten to my head because this morning, these fears seem silly, but last night, they were pressing.  What if the kids never see the Aurora Borealis?!  What kind of mother am I if I didn’t make sure they saw that?!  My kids also never went out on a sailboat when we were in Florida, never went fishing for marlin, never went snorkeling, etc, but for some reason, I felt this heavy guilt descend on me over the northern lights, nevermind that I myself have only seen them once or twice.  Nevermind that the kids could conceivably go on a trip just to see the northern lights one day if they’re so inclined.

It would be easier to stay in Alaska.  We wouldn’t have to sell our home, which is proving tougher than our realtor imagined.  We wouldn’t have to start over someplace new.  I wouldn’t have to manage working remote.  We could keep all our stuff and the kids could stay with the friends they know.  Still, staying here would mean that we wouldn’t be able to complete our conversions and observance would remain a difficult uphill battle every year.  The well trodden path that direction goes uphill, both ways, through the snow.  The path out is a huge leap off a cliff, but there’s a nice flat plateau down there once we land.

Some journeys require that we leave everything behind except that which we can’t.

This journey is one of those.  As we sift through our stuff another time, it becomes more, “What can we absolutely not do without or replace?”  Only that makes the cut.  Similarly, though, we still have to keep sifting through our own hearts and minds, too.  To become the people we’re meant to be means leaving behind fears, grudges, bad habits, limiting mindsets.  It’s a process of constantly decluttering what I carry around in my head and my heart.  It means facing my own fears of whether or not we’ll fit in where we land, whether or not the kids will do well in Day School, whether or not we’ll be happy in a landscape a little more ordinary.

When a conversion candidate prepares for the mikvah, it’s important to remove every barrier from the water.  You scrub under your fingernails and trim them short, detangle all your hair, remove your contacts, even brush and floss your teeth very carefully.  The idea is that there should be as little as possible separating you from the waters and, in fact, an immersion can be rendered invalid if there was too much of a barrier.  In a similar way, I feel like this process of moving is one of stripping off the layers of what has built up between us and Hashem, both materially and spiritually.

Bare and naked of our possessions, left with only that which we can’t leave behind, we’ll take our first steps into a new life, unsure of what awaits, but trusting and hopeful that when we emerge, it will be to a world that is warm and welcoming and that embraces us.

The 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!

The Season of Letting Go

Passover must always fall in the spring.  It’s a rule of the Jewish calendar and a whole leap month will be added to the calendar to make sure this happens.  For Orthodox Jews, this also means that Passover cleaning is a form of spring cleaning, with cabinets cleared out and all manner of pasta, flour, and baked goods being used up in preparation of the holiday.  It’s all about letting go of what’s holding us back from reaching the next level, from really being free.

In Alaska, spring comes slowly and then there is one week, usually at the end of April, were everything springs to life.  For now, we’re in the part of the year where the sun is rapidly winning time from the night and things are melting during the long daylight hours, only to freeze again at night.  It’s a constant back and forth as more snow comes some nights and then more ice and snow melts again in the day as winter and spring fight against each other each day.  Alaskans typically call this strange season before spring “breakup” and it lasts much longer than the quick burst of Spring we get for about a week when all trees and plants suddenly burst into leaf and bloom all at once with almost no night to slow them down.

It’s against this backdrop along with our own season of letting go of most of our possessions in preparation for our big move that Passover comes this year.

Moving the distance that we are moving really requires you to look critically at what you own and make some tough decisions.  Often, it’s cheaper overall to buy things after you move rather than haul them across the continent.  Since we decided to move, we’ve slowly been paring down our belongings.  Each pass, we carve off more of what we’ve held onto, only to revisit it again.  How many pairs of shoes does each person really need?  Will I ever find an occasion for that shirt?  How many books can I let go of?

I imagine that the Hebrews had less to go through as they prepared to leave Egypt.  Being slaves, they didn’t have a big house full of cross country skis and winter gear to sort through.  Still, they had to travel light as they left.  Even deeper, they had to be willing to let go of everything that held them back from freedom, the attitudes and habits that tied them to slavery in Egypt.  Our journeys are so far apart in time and geography, but I think my family is feeling something similar.  If our Rabbi is correct, this is our last Passover as non-Jews and there is a lot to go through to decide what to take with us…and what to leave behind.

The logistics ahead are daunting, but nothing like a whole nation walking out of Egypt into the unknown.  We have flights for most of the family and we’ll have bags aplenty.  Then, my husband will undertake the long, lonely trip from Alaska, through Canada, in a Uhaul with the small pile of what we think we shouldn’t leave behind.  We estimate, with construction and Shabbos observance included, the trip will take 2 weeks.  He’ll cross two international borders, travel through remote mountain ranges and empty plains, and much of it will be outside of cell phone coverage.  He’s looking forward to the trip, though, seeing it as a chance to clear his head and regroup before joining us in our new community.  In the meantime, I’ll be settling the kids and I into our new home.

In many ways, this process takes us full circle back to the beginning of our Alaskan adventure.

When we moved up here, I came up a month in advance and found us a place to live.  I brought very little with me and among the things I’d brought was our cat, Iggy.  Iggy and I essentially camped in the new home with an air mattress and only a few basics.  A month later, my husband joined me and then a week later, I flew back to the east coast, picked up the kids, spent a very tiring night watching over them in an airport, and then flew all the way back to Alaska…and promptly went back to work the next day.  It’s never easy moving an entire family of four across a continent.  Still, I’ll never forget their amazement when they first looked out the plane window and saw the snowy mountains below.

Our truck and other belongings arrived a couple of months later, so we essentially spend 4 months camping in our house on air mattresses without chairs.  It was so exciting when the moving truck with our stuff showed up!

This move will be somewhat smaller since we are doing it ourselves.  There is no company paying to move us.  There are no movers coming to lift our boxes into a truck.  It’s just us and a lot of faith.  We have faith that everything will work out and that we’ll all be reunited safely in our new home.  We have faith that our house here in Alaska will sell.  We have faith that we’re not making a big mistake by leaving Alaska…a place so wild and beautiful that it’s hard to find anything like it anywhere else.

We have just 2 short months left here in the mountains as we turn our faces south.  As we prepare for this Passover, there are so many mixed feelings and so many ways we connect with the story of the Exodus.  I wish there was a way to be more certain of the path, but we have no Moses to guide and reassure us, no clouds of glory, no pillar of fire.  We simply have our faith and hope and a lot of maps.

In the season of letting go, sometimes the most important thing to let go of is fear and doubt.

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!