The Life and Adventures of Iggy the Cat

In addition to a ridiculously huge dog, our family also has a cat named Iggy.  Other cats have come and gone from our lives, but Iggy has been with me longer than my husband, my kids, or really anyone who isn’t a blood relative.  Unfortunately, at 15 years old, Iggy has become very sick and we’re not sure if he’s going to make it much longer.

I first met Iggy in a part of my life that is so different it’s almost like another life.  I had recently graduated college and was working and in my own place.  By coincidence, my apartment allowed me up to 2 cats.  My first cat was Grendel, a female orange tabby cat with delicate little paws and a round belly.  She had tiger stripes and a leopard spotted belly and had traveled 3 hours from my brother’s farm to my apartment, with much annoyance.  The next year, I met Iggy.  He was part of a fall litter on my brother’s farm, which meant that he and his siblings were not likely to live through the winter in Illinois.  When I picked him up, mostly feral, and tried to pet him, I saw that he also had a leopard spotted belly…with that, my two cat quota was met and he came home with me.

According to my brother, Iggy was weaned, but he didn’t seem to remember this.  He needed to be bottle fed kitten milk from the vet and he slept on my chest, just as my future children would.  In his long life, Iggy has lived in Illinois, Florida, and Alaska.  He has traveled about as far as anyone can on an airplane, meowing regularly from under the seat in front of me.  He has patiently endured the loving attentions of both my children.  When I left my ex with just the kids and what I could fit in my truck, Iggy and Grendel were among the things in that truck and I knew Mr. Safek’s commitment to me was absolutely serious when, while I was at work one day, he moved both cats to his apartment so that I wouldn’t miss them anymore when I visited him.

Iggy never shared us well with any other cats besides Grendel.  He’s tolerated Sam the dog well and they both have an interesting sibling rivalry kind of relationship.  Every time we’ve had to take Iggy to the vet, though, Sam has whined to see his buddy packed up in the pet carrier and been excited each time he’s returned home.

It’s becoming clear that soon, he won’t make the return trip.

Iggy is the cat who would patiently endure being dressed up in doll clothes and pushed around in a stroller and would still come and cuddle with the kids as they napped.  He is the cat that napped on my pregnant belly and gave me dirty looks when that belly kicked him.  He’s the cat that comforted me after my divorce and who wore a tiara with only a bit of grumpiness.  He accompanied me on my flight to Alaksa, almost 5 years ago and he kept me company for the long month I was here all alone, cuddling with me for warmth at night and making faces at the snow.  He reminds me of any number of tom cats I befriended on the farm as a child, cats that would tolerate my over-enthusiastic affection and accompany me on adventures in our big yard, cats that would nap with me under the pine trees on sunny days.

Everyone should have at least one cat like Iggy in a lifetime and I’ve been fortunate enough to have several, but cats only live so long and Iggy’s kidneys are wearing out, along with his cataract dimmed eyes.  It just doesn’t seem like he is meant to make another big trip with me.

Thank you, Hashem, for giving me such a good friend for that chapter of my life and may his last days be blessed with warm sunny spots to nap in, ear scratches galore, and lots of love and comfort.

40 Years as a Stubborn Optimist

Today is my 40th birthday.  40 years ago, as family legend goes, my father was busy putting up a windmill on our farm with a few other men helping him.  My mother, rather pregnant, but not near her due date, came out to bring them some ice tea on that hot July day and casually mentioned that she’d gone into labor and the men comically scattered.  My father rushed her to the nearest hospital and I was born soon after, premature and tiny.  I was quickly rushed to a helicopter with my father trailing along behind, to be transported to a larger hospital with a NICU.  My mother had sent him while they cared for her.  She wound up requiring a hysterectomy.

My parents never spoke much about just how early I was or how long I really spent in the hospital.  They do talk about how my heart stopped twice on that helicopter ride, how I was given last rites on the way, and how they waited a month before letting my grandparents see me…even then they immediately began mourning, certain I would die.  I had already fought off death twice.  I did survive, coming home in doll clothes because there were no premie clothes then, with a scar on my head from where tubes had been inserted that I have to this day.  I was even part of a study the state sponsored to see what the long term outcome would be for babies as premature as I was, to determine if we would have the potential for normal lives after such a traumatic beginning…if it was ethical to save our lives or if it simply prolonged suffering.

This is how I came into the world, stubbornly clinging to life when my body really wasn’t developed enough to survive.

I did grow up and I’m about as tall as my family tree could hope for me to be.  I lagged behind on physical milestones, but I was always ahead on mental development milestones.  I was always a bit uncoordinated and not athletic and my immune system has often seemed wimpy, but it’s tough to know if any of that is the result of being born too early or just the luck of the draw.

Over the years, I’ve wondered at the deeper implications of my beginning.  At first, I wondered if I’d been meant to die.  Maybe I wasn’t meant for this world and I’d been snatched from my destiny?  When I learned about the idea of converts being born with Jewish souls from the beginning, I wondered if, perhaps, during one of those times when my heart stopped and I could have been dead…did my non-Jewish soul leave my body and a new one become placed there, a Jewish soul?  These are questions I’ll have to wait to ask one day, G-d willing, many years from now.

For now, it’s enough to know that I have had an amazing 40 years of life.  I’ve searched and wandered and had so many adventures.  I still can stare, wide-eyed in wonder at something new I’ve seen or learned.  I still approach life with curiosity and I love finding new corners to explore.  I’m still stubborn and while it can be frustrating at times, it’s definitely served me well when it comes to commitments.  I don’t give up on the people or things that are important to me.

I like to think that those very early experiences taught me that it does no good to dwell on what “should” be, but instead to simply choose to believe in what “could” be.  By all rights, I should have died.  The odds were definitely stacked high against my survival.  Happily, I was far too young to realize this and I was surrounded by people I’ll never know who were determined to help me fight those odds.  I lived because I had no way of knowing that I shouldn’t and I had optimistic medical professionals around me who were on my side.  As I grew up, I’d apply for scholarships for summer programs and anything else without even really considering if I was capable of winning them.  I didn’t stop to think of the odds against it, but filled out those applications, wrote those essays and sent them off…and I’ve done the same with job applications.  After all, if I don’t try, I’ll absolutely never win.

My mother once remarked that she was always amazed that I’ve never been afraid of heading off into the unknown.  I’ve packed my bags and flown off to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language or know anyone…multiple times.  Each time, it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a wonderful adventure or that I wouldn’t be able to figure out what I needed to in order to survive.  Each time, I’ve found what I needed and any hardships?  Those were just a part of the great adventure.  I would say it’s faith in Hashem, except perhaps it’s not always been a conscious faith.  I had this faith that things always work out as they should even before I could put a name to it, a faith that there is some kind of goodness in the world that means that things do work out as long as I do my part to help it.

Just as it doesn’t occur to me to be afraid or to let the odds against something slow me down, it also most often doesn’t occur to me that this kind of perspective is unusual.  I’m genuinely surprised when I encounter someone who doesn’t have this kind of faith.  I’ve often felt foreign even among friends because I do have such a different view of the world, but I can’t imagine wanting to live a life full of doubt, particularly if that doubt held me back from my next big adventure.  I’d rather simply leap, not knowing what waits, than be stuck questioning and doubting, paralyzed by fear.

40 years has taken me to places as far flung as Japan, Europe, Israel, and across the US.  I’ve seen some of the most beautiful things in nature and that man has created.  I’ve met so many interesting and intriguing people.  I’ve been privileged to partner in creation, bringing two new lives into this world and I’ve had the honor of helping them begin their adventures in this world.  I’ve loved intensely and fiercely, hurt deeply, and learned so much.

I can’t say I could wish for much more, but I was so happy to say Modeh Ani this morning because I really am curious about what the next chapter in my life will be.

The one thing I do know is that I’m here for some reason, because I can’t really explain why I was able to escape death so close and sure otherwise even as I tried to take my first breaths.  Where I once wondered if my life was a mistake, I now see that it’s anything but a mistake.  Whatever I’m here to do, it must be so important that I was allowed to beat those odds and it must be that I’m not yet finished because I’m still here and still breathing.

Baruch Hashem…what a privilege it is.

A Shabbos Wedding Anniversary…and Sad Memories

This past Shabbos was our 5th wedding anniversary.  I made my husband his favorite pie and, before Shabbos, his mother and stepfather called and sang us a “happy anniversary” song.  Beyond that, that was all that marked the occasion.  I found myself sadly transported back to 5 years ago in my heart and mind, again reliving the circumstances under which our marriage began.

We’d already been a family for a few years, but we’d been waiting to marry, hoping that the conversion process would catch up with us so that we could do it “right.”  To clarify, we weren’t converting for the sake of marriage, but our wedding was one of those things indefinitely on hold until the process completed.  Two years in, the last of the recession began to really make us nervous about our jobs and my ex was no longer covering the children under his insurance.  We worried about what could happen if I did lose my job.  Every logical sign pointed to the idea that it was time for us to at least be married civilly.

We went to our sponsoring Rabbi, who approved of the idea.  He and others who were advising us also hoped that maybe this would help show the Beit Din that we weren’t just converting for the sake of marriage, something that is strictly forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.  We were advised on what we could include, but more importantly what we absolutely must leave out of any ceremony so that we would not be violating halakhah, Jewish law.  I began planning the wedding.

It was one of the hardest times of my life, but I think that most brides could probably say that.  Weddings are just stressful things and in this case, it was my second wedding and his first and we were having to let go of a lot of things to make it happen.  His heart was all over the place and he couldn’t really be present during it all.  My family kept putting me off as I tried to pin down when they’d be coming for the wedding.  Finally, my mother broke the news to me.

My father did not see the point in coming to my wedding.  He expected it to have Hebrew in it and since he doesn’t know Hebrew, he didn’t want to be there.  Plus, since this was my second wedding, they really didn’t see the point of coming.  Grudgingly, my mother offered for her and my brother to come down to Florida for it.  I thought about it and finally, I said, “No thank you.”  To me, it seemed worse to have them there if they really did not want to be included.  In response, my mother told me that they really weren’t happy with me marrying a Jew anyway and that I was disowned and disinherited.

There were so many tears those months leading up to our wedding, but I just kept going.

I realized I was making a choice, perhaps just as weighty as conversion itself.  By turning my back on my family, our farm that my family had owned for generations, and everything else to marry my husband, I was in effect choosing his people over my own.  I understood how this was probably painful for my family and likely was what was at the root of bringing out the very worst in them.  I drew on what I had been learning in my conversion studies to help me through that time and to continue to honor my parents, even when they were showing so much hatred and ugliness.  I needed to see the pain beneath it and respond to that.  I didn’t lash out at them, but I did tell them that I was still here when they were ready to talk about it and I continued my wedding plans.

The children were a bright spot in all that sadness.  They both eagerly embraced the idea of our wedding, even calling it, “Our wedding.”  They saw it as something that belonged to them as much as us, a family ceremony that would help recognise what had already happened years ago…that we were very much a family as much as any other, no matter how we’d begun.  I chose a wedding dress to match the flower girl dress my daughter loved and we planned on how to do our hair to match each other.  A wonderful Jewish woman we were friends with agreed to serve as our officiant.  We worked in as much Torah as we could into our ceremony, including affirmations we would say to each other.  There was no chuppah, no blessings, but there was a lot of love.

Our wedding day came rainy, but the rain broke as we stood on the beach and faced each other, our children with us.  His mother and stepfather and father and stepmother all came.  They knew what we had been going through and they supported us taking this step and that meant so much to me.  We had friends and family with us and afterwards, we had a small reception at home with food and l’chaims.

Two days later, I did lose my job.  My contract was canceled by a heartless employer who’d decided I was overqualified and who had known my wedding was that weekend.  I hadn’t even taken time off for the wedding, working the Friday before and the Monday after.  Because we’d wed legally, though, my children and I were safely on my new husband’s insurance.  I was proud to change my last name to my husband’s.

I do not for a moment regret marrying my husband.  I often regret the circumstances under which it happened, but I also am thankful that Hashem led us to marry just in time, right before it was needed.  I’m grateful for that and for all the people who were able to be there and support us, both on that day and all the difficult, painful days leading up to it.  5 years ago, I stood on a beach and professed my love for my husband and became part of his family.  In that moment, I also made a decision that went directly against my own family, but I made that decision with my eyes fully open, knowing that there would be consequences now, whether I ever made it to the end of conversion or not.

My relationship with my family remains strained, although they have backed away from fully disowning me.  The more observant we are, the more strained that relationship is.  My father, in the “joking” way he tries to control, just on Friday joked about feeding my son bacon and cutting his peyos if ever he grew them.  I politely changed the subject, making a mental note not to leave my children alone with them ever.  I walk the tightrope between honoring my father and mother and following Torah and protecting my children.

My relationship with the people I have been working so many years to join also remains strained as I wait for acceptance.

My relationship with Hashem, though?  Has never been stronger.  It is when I am most alone that I often feel the most closeness there.  This Shabbos, with memories of a wedding that was so bittersweet so near to me, I was gifted with that closeness as a comfort.

This is my path, with its own unique obstacles, and I know He has given me everything I need to walk it.  I just need to trust in Him.

Animals, Sacrifices, and a Farmer’s Daughter

Bunny FuFu was the meanest creature I’d ever yet encountered in my very young world.  Those memories are fuzzy now because I was so very young, but I still remember how huge that white rabbit seemed, with red eyes and sharp teeth.  I’d feed him carrots through the mesh of his rabbit hutch, trying not to let him bite my fingers, but Bunny FuFu’s favorite food was hotdogs.  He was a herbivore gone mad and turned carnivore and the stuff of preschool nightmares, but, oddly enough, he was also a gift by a well-meaning neighbor.

I mean, what little girl doesn’t love a fluffy bunny?

After a few memories of the terror Bunny FuFu induced, I also remember him leaving, going to another neighbor who ate Bunny FuFu.  I don’t remember being sad about that, but more relieved that I no longer had to fear his teeth.  To a farmer’s daughter, this was the way of life.  I was used to petting adorable baby animals that we’d one day have on our table and I felt no conflict between the two.  I could pet a calf and feed it a bottle on a cousin’s dairy farm and then have a hamburger for lunch.  It all was just part of a circle of life that was simply apparent.

So it is with that background that I sat, trying to understand, over 30 years later and a few thousand miles distant, why someone who enjoyed eating meat couldn’t understand the animal sacrifices in the Mishkan.  (Traveling tabernacle that the Jews carried with them before entering Israel.)  It surprised me that a Jew would have trouble reading passages describing how the animal sacrifices would be offered, which to me sounded far more humane than most non-kosher slaughterhouses or hunting trips.

It was a reminder that most Jews are urban dwellers, people far removed from where their food comes from even if they are well versed in the laws which must be followed to make it kosher.

Jewish law was far ahead of its time when it comes to animal rights.  There are multiple passages in Torah dealing with how you must treat your animals and impressing upon the Jew the responsibility that comes from owning animals.  Kosher slaughter, too, is a very restrictive way in which animals can be killed that is meant to minimize their suffering.  To a farmer’s daughter, this all seemed very civilized and good.  It reminded me of the affection my grandfather had for his milk cows.  He knew them each by name and they would always line up in order to be milked.  They knew which cow went first and which one went last.  He’d give them a friendly pat or scratch behind the ears as he milked them and talk to them.  He was also with them when it was time for them to be slaughtered, their milking days done.  Nothing was wasted and he allowed himself to be sad, but showed the same care in bringing them death as he did for them in life.

Nowadays, milk comes from a factory farm.  The cows have no names and they have no pasture to walk in from in their order.

To me, the passages in the Torah that speak of the animal sacrifices have no conflict with those that speak of being kind to your animals.  The person bringing the sacrifice must inspect the animal.  This forces them to be familiar with the animal.  It can’t just be an object since they must go over every part of the animal several times, looking for a blemish.  Only then can they bring the animal to the courtyard for slaughter.  Then, in a part that really is touching to me, the person bringing the sacrifice must lay their hands on the head of the animal and say blessings.  It’s no coincidence this conjures the image of my husband’s hands on the Challah we eat for Shabbat as he blesses it and also my grandfather’s hands on his milk cows.  A Jew has to touch this animal to bless it, he has to feel the warmth of its fur or feathers and face the reality of the life within it, knowing what he will have to do next.  This isn’t supposed to be an easy act, but one that brings him into the moment and reminds him of the weight of what he is doing.

And then, the slaughter itself, done according to kosher law, quickly, with as little pain to the animal as humanly possible.

Unlike most Jews, I have killed an animal to eat it.  It was chickens and fish, but there is still the same grainy reality to that moment.  You spill blood and it is hot and not unlike your own.  No matter how swiftly I cut, death takes a moment or two and that moment seems like forever and I feel in that moment, connected to that animal.  I suffer, too, waiting for the movement to cease and the eye to glaze over, hoping I’ve used my knife well and death comes quickly.  I can only imagine that moment for a larger animal.  I know I’ve contemplated mortality in those moments with smaller animals, understanding that death comes to us all and it’s how we live our lives that’s really important, not trying to avoid the inevitable end.  I can only imagine how visceral that feeling would be for Jew bringing a sin offering to the Mishkan, realizing this animal whose blood is on his hands and whose eye he now watches the life leave…has taken his place.  I think it’s supposed to be a difficult, emotional moment.

The difference, though, is that I can imagine it, my mindset closer to the ancient one than someone who has lived separate from their food.

In most cases, most of the animal sacrifice is eaten, either by the Priests or both the Priests and the person who brought it.  For most of the sacrifices, only a portion was burned on the altar.  To me, this is little different than taking Challah.  The portions burned are generally the portions Jews aren’t allowed to eat anyway, so it’s better to a farmer’s daughter’s mind that they be raised up in a sacrifice than wasted.  Other sacrifices were completely burned on the altar, hide and all, but again, it’s giving a portion of the animals we already would have eaten to G-d.

It’s a reminder of my own foreignness to this people I hope to join, that even after the Mikvah, I will come to the Torah with a unique perspective, with different life experiences than other Jews.  When I’ve told stories of my childhood on a farm at the Shabbat table before, it’s always been a novelty, people reminded of stories from the Ba’al Shem Tov or long lost great grandparents on a European shtetl.  Growing up on a farm isn’t really common among non-Jews anymore, either, but it’s even more unusual to religious Jews, most of whom need to grow up in urban places where a Synagogue is within walking distance.  Add to that my travels and experiences including years lived in Alaska and, well…I’m never going to be able to just blend in.

I like to think that’s all part of G-d’s plan.  I like to think that some Jews he decides should be born as non-Jews so that they can have those unique experiences and perspectives and bring them back to their people, that we are sparks that were scattered out among the nations for a purpose, maybe even chosen because we’d be resilient enough to find our way home.

As we celebrate the Exodus and Passover, I do feel like our family is drawing closer to that day, bit by bit.