House Showings and Passover Cooking

I had just put a huge brisket for Passover in the oven, the kind that you have to cut just to fit in the pans.  Two glorious full sheet pans where covered and ready to go and the oven was heated.  My cell phone announced a text.  It was from our realtor.

“Can you do a showing at 2pm?”

I looked around my kitchen, the counters covered for Passover, potato starch seemingly everywhere and a pile of dirty dishes in the sink.  We had only hours to prepare for a showing and this was just the kitchen.

“Of course,” I texted back.  Because, this is what you do when you really want to sell a house in a tough market.

My husband, who works from home, pitched in and together we put the house back to show-ready condition from top to bottom.  Carpets were vacuumed, produce put away, counters uncovered that would just be covered again after the showing.  The one thing that I couldn’t do, though, was hide the brisket.  It would have to just keep cooking.  Soon, the entire house was clean and ready…and smelling completely of brisket and onions!

We packed up Sam the beastdog and left, the brisket in progress.  I hoped that the buyers weren’t vegetarians or vegans.

These are just the kinds of decisions that anyone taking on observance has to make, Jewish or conversion candidate.  There are times we have had to go on a walk on Shabbos while our house was shown, hoping that they didn’t turn off or on too many lights.  Others have spent a Shabbos in an airport when their flight was delayed.  Still others have had to use the ocean as a mikvah in remote areas.  Observance challenges us all in different ways, but sometimes it’s those stories that are the best ones to remember when things seem difficult or too much to handle.

I have a few Jewish friends who are down this week.  It’s a tough week for everyone, with all the cleaning and cooking and preparations.  I’m reminded just how fortunate I am that I have supportive family around me.  My kids are helping me when they can and are enthusiastic about our upcoming Seders.  How much harder would this be if they were sullen and sarcastic?  My husband is brushing up on all the laws to lead the Seder and is handling all the preparations for the Seder plate even as he works this week.  How much harder would this all be if he wasn’t engaged and looking forward to it?  My dear Mother in Law in Arizona even overnighted me 3 containers of potato starch when we couldn’t find it locally.  That’s a lot of love from a woman who is busy with her own Seder prep!

Yes, I may have periodic interruptions this year, but I also have so much love and support that it seems silly to complain about them.  I’m sure they’ll make for great stories in the years to come, too.

And the brisket turned out amazing, even if the people looking at our house didn’t make an offer.  At least they didn’t take the brisket!

May everyone have the freedom to see their blessings this Passover!

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 Power of Speech

I just completed a JLI class at my Synagogue all about communication and the power of speech.  This morning, I had a perfect example of exactly what we’d been studying happen right in front of me in the grocery store line.

A coworker and I were standing in line to pay for some small purchases when a fight nearly broke out in front of us.  I didn’t clearly see the beginnings, but my coworker did and, being a former marine, he quickly stood between a very angry younger man and an older woman, diffusing what had become a pretty ugly situation.  The younger man was inches from the woman’s face, clearly upset and much larger than her.  With my coworker’s quick intervention along with another man, the man who was angry quickly left the store.  I spoke to the woman, asking her if she was all right.

In all fairness, she probably was rude to the man and both of their actions had a lot more to do with where they were before the checkout line.  As the young man left, he angrily related that his wife had just had surgery for cancer.  After he left, the woman admitted that she usually never speaks up for herself, but had “had enough” when she felt he’d cut in line in front of her.  Their words had so quickly escalated a situation.

As I spoke to her, making sure she was ok and calming down, I happened to say, “You know, maybe this is your bad luck for the day and the rest of your day will go really well.”  She suddenly smiled, her entire demeanor changing and replied, “Thank you, that really is a great way to look at it.”  She went on her way much more relaxed and, hopefully, she won’t have any more negative interactions today.

I’m not relating this story because I’m proud of myself.  I am really happy that I found the right words at the right time to help her, but I also wish that someone had found words that could have comforted the man, whose out of proportion anger was likely more about his pain and worries about his wife.  He may have been almost as surprised as everyone else by his sudden reaction.  The fact that he left quickly before anyone could really speak to him seems to me to say that he realized he wasn’t himself.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This was just such a perfect example.  Everyone came into that checkout line carrying with them the weight of their past, if even just that morning.  My coworker and I were discussing a project he’s stressed about this afternoon when he became distracted by the growing altercation.  I was still mulling over my own stressful situation at work, an ongoing conflict with a customer’s engineer that I’m still trying to resolve.  The man had his wife’s health issues and recent surgery heavy on his mind.  The woman had years of feeling like she was too small to stand up for herself, resentment building.

For a fleeting moment, our lives intersected in a grocery store line and we had our words as our tools.

In Judaism we’re taught that words are so powerful that there are words we should never say, other words we should only say at certain times or during prayers, and yet other words that we should be incredibly careful to say.  There is an acknowledgement that words have power inherent in them and that we need to practice being intentional with our words.  There is also an understanding that once a word is spoken, it can’t be taken back, like an oath made in vain.  The entirety of creation was made with ten simple utterances from Hashem and so much can also be destroyed with simple misspoken words.

Sadly, this seems to be a concept that is lost in this time, when words have even more power than ever.  Words travel at the speed of light now, across national boundaries in an instant.  I can sit and measure the latency of a message in milliseconds, just fractions of seconds.  Anything over 200 milliseconds is now considered “slow.”  We have only to type out our words and hit send and our utterances can reach millions.

Our words have such power for good or ill and I’m inspired to slow down more and more carefully consider my words.  I can never know what has led another person to where they are, what lonely battles they are fighting.  I can, however, try to focus on kindness and using my words to bring just a little bit more light into this world.

I can try to be just a little bit more like the One in whose image I was made.

Slowing Down and Building the Mishkan

In this week’s parsha, we talk about the actual building of the Mishkan, the moveable tabernacle that the Hebrews carried around with them in the desert wanderings.  Up to this point, we’ve talked about why there needed to be a Mishkan and we even had a rather long parsha that explained in great detail all the tapestries and hangings and fasteners.  This parsha, though, talks about the actual building of the Mishkan, from all the donations that the Jews poured out until Moses had to tell them to stop giving, to the actual work that was done by all different kinds of craftsmen and women to build it.  It’s from this list that we get all the prohibitions for different kinds of work that we’re not allowed to do on the Sabbath because we know that all these workers paused from their work on the Sabbath.

There were spinners and weavers of cloth, bakers of bread, metalworkers, and carpenters.  It’s even said that each craftsperson was divinely inspired in their work.

What it doesn’t say is that they met certain metrics or deadlines.  In the parsha, even though the artisans are praised for their handiwork, no mention is made of how quickly they built the Mishkan.  In fact, when Hashem tells Moses to build the Mishkan, He only states a starting date…no deadline at all.

My life revolves around deadlines it seems.  Projects have “benchmarks” that must be met in an orderly fashion to reach an arbitrarily decided endpoint.  Tickets, which really are just electronic and not even written on paper, have SLA’s or “Service Level Agreements” for responses.  I work in a world where an outage of a minute is like a lifetime, where everything happens in an instant and, so too must I move quickly.  At home, I watch over all the deadlines for my children’s homework and also, deadlines for my own work at home.  Meals must be ready before lighting Shabbos candles.  Different projects must be completed before our move.

Time feels like each year it speeds up and I scramble to keep up with it all.

Perhaps that’s why, when I want to relax, I turn to hobbies that are slow.  I spin my own yarn, delighting in the slow process of turning a ball of fluff into something useful, something that can be made into a hat or sock.  I enjoy that this is a process that I can touch and feel and that exists wholly in this world.  Then, I enjoy knitting, which is so much less efficient a way to make a hat than driving to the closest store and buying one.  Still, I enjoy the process almost more than the hat itself.  I can lose track of time in the stitches and feel a sense of comfort in the repetitive nature of the act.  I also love baking homemade bread and feeling the dough in my fingers and the smell of yeast rising in the home.

All of this helps me to escape the frantic pace of life and pretend I live in a simpler time that perhaps never really existed.

I wonder if the people spinning yarn for the weavers to use to weave the tapestries of the Mishkan worried about falling behind.  After all, if they failed to spin quickly enough, the weavers would be left with nothing to weave until they caught up.  Did they feel stressed?  Did they sneak glances at the weaver’s progress or ask for updates?  Did the weavers feel pressured to weave all their tapestries quickly so that the builders could put them up?  Or, did everyone just try to do their job to the very best of their abilities?  Was Moses tapping his foot, urging them to spin faster to meet some date he had hoped to dedicate the Mishkan on or, did he urge them to slow down and do their best work.

Did a spinner stop for a moment, just savoring the fact that he or she was doing this sacred work?  Did they want to make the project last just a little longer, knowing that never again in their lives would they be doing something so momentous?

We only know that when it all was completed, Moses saw that every piece of it had been done exactly to Hashem’s specifications and that Moses blessed the workers.  The text sounds like all the work was inspected at once and all the workers blessed together at the same time, the great project completed.  Was a project plan, a timeframe, part of Hashem’s specifications?  I’m left to wonder.

As I reluctantly turn from my hobbies, where I am content to work through a slow process, and back to my work where all too often, I must simply do “good enough” in order to meet deadlines, I wonder at how I might bring deeper meaning to my work and blessing to me as the worker.

In the meantime, my ticket queue calls…

Purim and Living Between Worlds

This week is one of my favorite Jewish holidays.  One of the very best things about Orthodox Judaism is that there are so many holidays and they’re all so different in their observances and traditions.  Purim is a particularly fun holiday for children, with costumes and candy galore.

This year, though, as we read the Purim story and prepare our treats for friends, I’m already quite a bit down.  Last week was a really rough week for our family and Adar is supposed to be a month in which we are commanded to “increase our joy.”  We did have some very good news last week as well.  We have secured a rental in our new hometown that’s close to shul.  My husband was able to see a good endocrinologist and should be getting a working pump soon, which is something he’d been fighting up here for since last June.  Still, we had some bombshell bad news on our conversion progress and then we’re still struggling to sell our house in a buyer’s market.

It’s hard to feel the kind of increase in joy I feel like I’m supposed to feel this Purim.

Re-reading the story of Purim, this year, I feel more connected to Queen Esther.  She’s the heroine of the tale, the girl who becomes Queen and uses her influence to save the Jewish people.  Yet, even as the story ends, she remains locked in the palace, married to a non-Jew and unable to join her people in their celebrations.  She saves her people, but cannot save herself.  She is trapped, living between two worlds.

Right now, my family and I are very much living between two very different worlds.  On the one side, we have Alaska.  Just yesterday afternoon, we were up in Hatcher Pass spending a bright, sunny afternoon high in the mountains watching snowboarders bravely make their way down snowy peaks.  All around us is a non-Jewish world.  We munched on potato chips because it was about all I could find in the gas station with a kosher symbol.  In the meantime, my husband makes periodic trips down to our new home to work out the logistics of our move.  There he can attend daily minyan and stand next to our childrens’ teachers.  Kosher food is plentiful and less expensive.  There are no mountains and life is far less wild and untamed.

It doesn’t help that we’re feeling less connected to our Jewish community up here.  Now that our Rabbis know that we’ll be starting over again in our new home, they’re no longer meeting with us or teaching us.  There are simply too many other pressing demands on their time.  Our children, now both past the age of bnei mitzvah, likewise are now on their own as well.  To be clear, I’m not blaming our Rabbis for using their time where it will do the most good.  There really just isn’t much we need right now or that they can help us with.  Still, it’s hard not to feel adrift through no one’s fault.

“It’s supposed to snow tomorrow,” my husband says.
“Where?” I ask in response, unsure which place he’s looking at the weather for anymore.

Did Queen Esther look out her window at her people celebrating and yearn to be with them?  Did she have a window that faced them or was her view focused inward on palace courtyards?  Did she live in two places at once or did she ever fully feel at home in the palace?

I know this Adar, I must work harder to increase my joy.  In just about 12 weeks, which isn’t long, I will be flying to a new home and starting a new journey and I’d rather not waste my last weeks here in the mountains in sadness.

May you all have a very Happy Purim and see all the hidden joys in your own lives!

To the Edge of the World

Tomorrow I board my flight to Kuparuk, to spend a week in one of the most remote, most extreme parts of the world.  I will most likely be the furthest north person celebrating Shabbos in the world this week, in a land where the sun will not rise for months.  I’ve consulted my Rav about the various laws for lighting there and he’s instructed me to follow lighting times for Fairbanks, the closest location that still has a sunrise and sunset.

The only way to work my way out of the darkness is to travel deeper into it.

In contrast, in just a couple of weeks after this trip to the extreme north, my family and I will be traveling south to scout out what we hope will be our new community, down in the “lower 48,” as Alaskans call the rest of the United States.  My trip flight north will only be a couple of hours shorter than our flight south, but to me, it’s a journey to two extremes.  One is a world set so far apart from Jewish community, where everyone around me will be working 12 hour shifts for 2 weeks straight before they fly out for 2 weeks off work.  There, not only is there no sunlight to mark Shabbos by, but no Sabbath for the regular workers there.

In my Tanya class each week, our teacher uses light as a metaphor for how G-dliness filters through the different worlds to our own.  It’s a very powerful metaphor for me, living where I do.  Winter light in Anchorage is weak in its strength.  In color, it is whiter than light elsewhere or at other times.  It is thin light, beautifully clear for photographs, but not warming. Further north, the light decreases further until there is barely any glow of twilight in the sky and no sunrise or sunset.  The light simply cannot reach those places, hidden by the curve of the earth from its reach.

I think we all sometimes must travel through those dark places, where it is so hard to see Hashem or feel His warmth.  The only difference here is that this distance seems so visual and literal.

By contrast, further south, the light thickens like syrup.  When I visited the south of the US a few weeks ago, the sunlight flowed from the sky like warm honey, thick with warmth.  Plants and animals charge themselves in that glow and it allows things to grow.  That kind of light nourishes everything it touches where the winter light up here simply can’t do much.

There is beauty and meaning in the darkness, though.  There is a value to walking through it and a lot that a person can learn about themselves.  If a person can even find Hashem when that glow is at its faintest, then how can they lose Hashem when it is so much brighter?

As I pack and prepare to fly north, I plan to seek Hashem, even alone in the darkness of a Shabbos spent so far from family or any semblance of Jewishness.  If I can squint my eyes and find the light in that darkness, I will be confident I can find it when we’re moved where there is so much more support for the search.

Parshas Vayishlach – Wrestling with Angels and New Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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