Fall Flu, Learning to Dress Like a Grownup, and Iggy Endures!

We had a VERY restful Shabbos and by restful, I mean that most of our family spent it sleeping with a nasty flu that set in toward the end of the week last week.  We would wake to daven and do kiddush and such, then sleep.  At one point, only my husband still had his voice and had to bench for all of us.  It was that kind of Shabbos and even though the Shabbat RV is rolling again, electrical issues solved, we opted to stay home and warm and dry.

On the very bright side, Iggy the cat must have more of his 9 lives left because he seems to have made a miraculous recovery!  He’s even well enough to be very grumpy when we have to give him antibiotics and is back to his old self, glaring at Sam the dog and getting into things.  We’re happy not to have to worry about the end of his life just yet, but it is a good reminder to discuss how to handle that with our Rabbi.  Things like euthanasia and sterilization of pets are sticky halakhic topics that often require creative solutions so that we don’t violate Jewish laws.

We’re still recovering from the flu, but I needed to be back at work today.  Often, when I’m not feeling well, I actually dress up more for work.  I find that feeling more pulled together as far as what I’m wearing can sometimes help me feel more pulled together in other ways, too.  To that end, lately, I’m also working on polishing up my wardrobe a bit.  Living in Alaska can tend to push a person more towards ultra-casual or even some strange outfits.  People regularly wear the same clothes they’d wear fishing around town and it’s not unusual to see people just wear their snow boots in shul.  (Ok, I’ve done it, too!)  With all our more stylish visitors from the lower 48 this summer, I was realizing that it probably would be a good idea for me to learn how to dress myself a little bit better, while still fitting tznius (modesty) standards.  It’s really easy to settle into a kind of tznius way of dressing that’s pretty frumpy, particularly when you’re on the short and stocky side like me.

So, I joined a capsule wardrobe group on Facebook.  The idea of a capsule wardrobe is that you have a much smaller number of total wardrobe pieces, but that they all mix and match well so you can make a wide variety of outfits.  For my capsule wardrobe, I’m going to use one of the guides found on the Classy Yet Trendy website, but substitute in the appropriate length skirts for the pants and add in layering shells as needed.

In most Orthodox Jewish communities, skirts need to be below the knees so that when you sit, your knees are not showing.  However, some communities don’t really wear really long skirts, either.  Often, you can tell what community a woman is from by how she dresses, similar to how you can sometimes tell what community a man is from by his kippah (yarmulke) or other dress.  For me, skirts below the knees, opaque tights, shirts below the elbows, collarbones covered, and shoes that cover my toes are all kind of a given.  In some communities, some colors or all bright colors are avoided, too.  As a conversion candidate, the more you blend in with everyone else around you, the easier it is to feel comfortable.

In Alaska, we have the challenge that what is considered appropriate for converts or those in the process of conversion is a lot different than what the general community considers appropriate.  In other communities I’ve been in, I’ve seen less of a gap between the two, but up here, with as casual as life is, there is a much larger gap, so sometimes dressing to please your Rabbi in some communities may leave you feeling frumpy or the odd one out.  It could be an extra incentive to move to a larger, more observant community!

For a woman looking to dress modestly, there are actually a lot of wonderful resources out there now.  There are whole online stores with modest fashions and Facebook groups you can join that even post sale items that are modest or can easily be made modest.  For me, the challenge has been more finding a personal style within the confines of what’s considered modest that still feels like “me” and fits my personality and lifestyle.  It’s easy to throw on a long skirt and a baggy shirt and layering shell and call it a day, but a little harder to look pulled together and cute, but also my age and in style, all with those constraints.  There are some women, though, that make it all look so effortless and manage to be stylish, attractive, and modest all at the same time!

So, as I focus on the goals I want to accomplish in this coming New Year, I’m also looking to polish up my wardrobe so I can better fit in with a bigger, less fishing-oriented community as well as polishing up my mitzvos.

Tznius, Unicorns, and Being Different

She was in tears and camp pickup was the usual chaos of any school or camp pickup.  Her big blue eyes were clouded and her face was red.  Mr. Safek, ever the protective papa bear, was already trying to find out who had made her cry.  Having been a girl that age myself a few years ago, I instinctively knew it wasn’t going to be that simple.  NOTHING is ever simple in the social lives of tween and teen girls!

“I’m so tired of being different.  I feel like a freak.”

I kept gently digging, trying to find the roots of this weed of a problem, instead of just pulling at the leaves.  Happily, no one had said anything mean or hurtful to her.  She was just feeling that self-consciousness that is so acute at that age.  I asked her if she would be more comfortable if she was dressed more like the other kids and she replied no, she wanted to be dressed modestly.  She loved her pretty skirts and shirts and with boys around, she didn’t think she’d be comfortable running around in a swimsuit or just leggings.  She just wanted to not be the only one her age.

6th grade is definitely a time when you don’t really want to stick out, at least not all the time and even though we’d been up here a while and I thought we were mostly used to the casual nature of Alaska, in my daughter’s mind, a Synagogue or Jewish event equals long skirts and elbows covered.  We live in a place, though, where you barely need to remove your hip waders to enter even the fanciest restaurants, a place where function reigns over form and people are dressed for practicality in their busy, active outdoor lives.

I admire the way our daughter has adapted her skirts to almost anything she wants to do.  She’s skied in them, snowshoed in them, ridden horses, ziplined…you name it and she has found a way to do it in a skirt.  Even before we ever began conversion, she was my girly girl, always preferring dresses and skirts to jeans.

Now, though, it was different.  She longed for a group that she could feel at home in and I had to admit that I’ve often shared that longing.  I could relate.

We had a good long talk about tznius in general about how it’s about so much more than what a person wears and how a person can be tznius in their actions or speech even without dressing modestly or how a modestly dressed person might not be tznius at all beyond their hemlines.  We talked about being kind to others instead of always needing the spotlight for ourselves, about being humble in our speech as well as modest in our dress.  We talked about instead of focusing on external differences, maybe looking for what she had in common within.  Perhaps she could find more common ground there to bridge that gap and make some friends?

And yet…and yet…she longs for other girls her age who are observant.  She longs for that connection and that feeling of belonging.

Mr. Safek is more a fixer than a sympathetic ear, as many men are.  His focus turned from protecting his “little miss” from some mean bully as he realized there was no bully here to instead looking at ways we might just be able to move a little sooner.  I relaxed a bit and suggested she wear her favorite unicorn pajamas to pajama day, even though they are a one piece suit with legs.  Happily, she is still excited to wear her new modest bathing suit for the water activities.

Sometimes I bet even a unicorn wishes all horses also had horns.

A little girl’s tears can be powerful motivation and I’ve heard it said that a woman’s tears bring blessings from Hashem.  This summer, we seem to have had both and so it is time to begin sorting and packing in the hopes that we’ll be flying to a new home a few months earlier than planned.

Reframing Double Standards and Painting Cabinets

Without a doubt, one of the most difficult things about conversion that I’ve had to work on and help my children with is the reality of double standards.  It’s one of those things that I think every Orthodox conversion candidate has to come to a place of acceptance with because it’s not something we can change.

A perfect example was this weekend on Shabbat.  We were camping in our RV and we’re still working out some of the issues there.  As a result, we again had a bit of cold and food in the fridge froze again.  Our spirits were low as we all dressed and headed into shul, but there was the promise of hot coffee, heat, and davening ahead of us.  We knew there was a bar mitzvah this week, so there might even be a bigger kiddush than usual and more kids for our children to spend time with.  The Shabbos day ahead was bright!

And it was for a while.  I feel into the familiar pace of davening and felt that familiar connection.  Until…the seats began filling up with unfamiliar faces.  I was an outsider again among these women, unconstrained by rules of tznius and unfamiliar with the Siddur.  I always try to remind myself when an unknown family comes to our shul for a bar or bat mitzvah that maybe this could be the event that helps bring them to greater observance.  Usually, though, after their simcha, we never see them again.  Still, the Rabbi and Rebbetzin try to make everyone feel welcome and make the event special.

As the speeches wore on, I fell into negative thoughts.  I mourned the fact that my 13 year old doesn’t get to study with a Rabbi as this boy did and that he has no bar mitzvah date ahead of him despite all his hard work studying and learning.  I mourned that I don’t know if my daughter will have a bat mitzvah.  I mourned that the very things that I must do in order to hopefully one day be accepted as a Jew are also the things that separate me from these visiting Jews.

By the time Kiddush rolled around, I was feeling pretty down and not really looking forward to fighting my way through a crowd to wash for hamotzei.  We let the kids stay and went out to the RV to do kiddush ourselves, with frozen tuna salad sandwiches, but it felt better than being so much an outsider there.  A few of the regular attendees echoed our feelings as they left early, too, to do kiddush at home.

I shook off my negativity as the day wore on, reminding myself that these are Jews and it’s wonderful that the bar mitzvah boy worked so hard and that you never know…maybe this experience will stick with him and he’ll come to great observance one day because he and his family and many visitors were welcomed warmly and treated so well.  I should be happy for them because every Jew counts and is important and every little step towards mitzvos is a good thing!

The next day, we went to pick up our daughter from Hebrew school and my heart sank again.  We were waiting with other parents and I was the only woman in a skirt with her hair covered.  Soon, the conversation drifted to the latest and greatest  non-kosher restaurants as the mothers and daughters in yoga pants chatted happily.  I felt again…an outsider and when I saw my daughter, dressed in a very pretty dress with tights and a long sleeved shell, come rushing out to me, I remembered conversations, trying to explain to her why we had to follow one set of rules while others have another and consoling her when Jewish kids had picked on her for her tznius outfits.

As I sat there, my internal dialogue was one reminding me not to compare myself.  The path of a born Jew has never been my path and will never be my path.  Their options aren’t options that are open to me and all I can do is live the path I’ve been given the best way I know how.  Often, this means I’m not invited to social engagements because born Jews feel alienated from me or they know I won’t eat non-kosher food.  Other times, this means I’m excluded because I am not, in fact, Jewish.

The path of the convert is a unique one and requires a lot.  During the conversion process, I think it’s particularly hard because the conversion candidate is often held to a higher standard of observance than the born Jew and yet…we don’t count.  We aren’t celebrated in the same way and often exist on the outskirts of Jewish community.  After conversion, at least there is the halakhic acceptance, but many converts struggle for social acceptance, particularly when they need to hold to a certain level of observance in order to make sure their conversions are never questioned.

And all of this are reminders of why we really do need to move to a bigger Jewish community with more resources for observance.  It’s far easier to fit in when more people are keeping kosher, covering their hair, and dressing tznius.  The level of observance we must adhere to becomes less of an obstacle to connection when it’s more common and it becomes easier for our children to feel accepted as well.

I sometimes wonder what it might be like if we were all born Jewish.  Would I take my heritage for granted, breezing into shul for a simcha, but never really digging deeper into it?  How would I feel about observant Jews?  Would I have found the beauty and richness in Torah that I have as a conversion candidate?  I believe everything happens for a reason and perhaps the reason I wasn’t born Jewish is because I would have given into the temptations of the regular world if it had seemed like an option.  Whatever the reason…this is the path I was chosen to walk and all I can do is walk it in the best way I can.

Having a husband who was raised Orthodox also really helps at times like these.  He can help me better understand some of the complex feelings that born Jews have toward Orthodox Judaism and why things are the way they are for many of them.  I’m sure I’d probably have a very different perspective if I had been born a Jew and I should always judge favorably.

In the meantime, I’ve started painting some of the dark brown cabinets in the Shabbat RV to help brighten at least that corner of my world.  It’s amazing how doing one small thing to make the world a little better can help shift your perspective to a brighter one!

It All Begins In Darkness

A non-Jewish coworker once asked me why Shabbat and our holidays all begin at sundown.  My first response was that in the Jewish calendar, days begin at sundown, but after he happily accepted that easy answer, I thought about it a bit and realized his question was actually a pretty profound one.

In the Western calendar and world, days begin with sunrise and end at sunset and night is somehow this dark, disconnected time.  It’s a realm belonging not really to one day, but also not really to the next.  It’s always difficult to tell within the night where the demarcation actually happens between calendar days, but functionally, it’s a no-man’s land in time.  Everything important happens during the day, for the most part.  Night is for staying in and sleeping or going out and causing trouble and there is this idea that light is always preferable to darkness.  Night is the time of nightmares, monsters, and death.

In Judaism, this is flipped on its head.

Day begins with the setting of the sun and the darkness that comes with night and that darkness is embraced as an essential part, not of the day that just passed, but of the one to come.  There must be darkness before there is light, it is the womb in which potential is incubated until it is ready to see the world.  The halakhic basis of this is in the very beginning of the Torah.  G-d says, “Let there be light!”  This has to mean that there was not light before those words were spoken on the very first day, which the Torah then says is completed when the sun sets.  The night is that space before light, before creation in which the Creator paused, pondered, made a decision, and then created.

This all fits very neatly with the Jewish idea that not everything important can be easily seen in the light of day.  Some things, particularly very holy things, are separated and set aside, kept hidden.  It’s in dark hidden places that the potency of the sacred is concentrated and intensified, whether it’s the sacredness of physical intimacy or the rules around when a Torah scroll can be brought forth from the ark.  Judaism is a religion of holding back things from the mundane, like withholding time from the work week, setting it aside for a sacred day of rest or separating a bit of dough to take Challah.

Baked into Judiasm there is the idea that not everything is for everyone and not everything is for all times and places as well as the idea that the secrets the darkness holds aren’t always malicious.  They can be miraculous or even just not quite ready to face the world.

We live in a world addicted to the light to such an extent we have something called “light polution” in our major metropolitan areas.  It’s a necessity for safety for sure, but it says a lot about how far we have yet to perfect ourselves that we still aren’t safe in the dark and that we still try to push away the night into dark corners.  We also live in a society where everything is for everyone, any time they like, living our lives bathed in a narcissistic glow.  We’ve forgotten that to really see stars, we need to get out to where it is really dark, not stare into the glow of a screen.

In Alaska, which is always a land of extremes, we are quickly in the time of year when darkness becomes scarce which has given me a new appreciation for night, real night, where the sun does set before you sleep and doesn’t rise long before you’ve woken.  Without darkness at night, humans struggle to regulate our internal clocks.  It’s easy to forget to eat on time or to go to sleep because your body begins to doubt its feelings.  Many people suffer from sleep deprivation in the endless days.  Everyone feels the need to fill those hours of sunshine, doing as much as possible to make up for the long nights of winter that barely allow an hour of sunshine to weakly peek through.

In a way, our summers are a microcosm of modern life, even as we rush out into our outdoor pursuits.  Everyone is always on the go.  Plants grow really fast because they get more hours of sun.  Time flies by in a flurry of activity and we wonder why we’re so tired until we look at the clock.  And everything is done outside, without the embrace of privacy.  At least we have fewer people up here to watch us rushing around.

Night comes before day and is a powerful reminder of the importance of the darkness.  It came first and it comes first, reminding us that rest is also important, that sharing is good, but privacy also has a place, and that sometimes, it’s good to be hidden because that is where, once your eyes adjust, you can really feel the awe of the size your small precious place in creation.

I hope everyone else has a wonderful Shabbat!  I am hoping to stay awake a bit later and look up more before the sun steals our nights away for summer.

When a Doubt Sneaks In…

Things are going VERY well.  We have secured the Shabbat RV 2.0.  We survived Passover and even enjoyed it.  I’m still sick with some kind of cold/flu, but I’m on the mend.  We’re even preparing for a weekend trip down to sunny WARM Florida to visit family.  I have no reason to feel the way I’m feeling.

And yet, that’s kind of how it works.  Doubt never comes when you’re braced against it, defenses up.  It sneaks in through a crack when your guard is down.  It’s the things you don’t expect and can’t really prepare for, small things that happen in passing, but stick into your mind like a tiny sliver, a splinter that embeds itself.  Then, the mind, doing what it does best, picks at the splinter, making it sorer and more swollen.

This time, it was two unrelated things that came together yesterday to kind of knock me a little off balance.  One, is selling my motorcycle.  I haven’t ridden it since last summer, but it is a beautiful bike, with paint a blue that depending on the light, can look more blue or green.  It’s sure-footed and fast and when I would ride it, I would feel something like a superhero.  When you ride a motorcycle, it’s more like riding a horse than driving.  You become one with the machine and it’s just you and the wind.  I would play with the wind as it tried to pry me off my steel steed, the highway falling away beneath me, just me and the mountains and the smell of fresh rain in the trees.  That motorcycle is wild, untamed freedom.

Last summer, I tried to find ways to justify keeping it, ways maybe I could make it tznius?  Maybe I could squeeze that bike into a kosher life?  Surely G-d wouldn’t give me such a gift of that experience of joy and freedom and then mean for me to turn away from it.  I also have always fought physical issues with riding.  I’m a smaller woman and my iron horse is a heavy one.  I’m also short and it’s a stretch to ride any motorcycle.  I spent all of last summer riding less and less and feeling more and more like I shouldn’t be, that it wasn’t worth the risks.  Motorcycles, like horses, need to be ridden and it’s clearly time to let her go to someone who will take her on new adventures.  My path lies down another trail.

Against this backdrop of me wrestling with creating the ad for my motorcycle, a friend who also rides occasionally, who in fact I taught how to ride, stopped by to visit with her son.  As I greeted her at the door, she made an offhand comment at how I was dressed.  I know her well enough that she didn’t mean anything mean about it, but afterwards, I looked at myself in the mirror, hair covered, my tattoos from my youth covered, and it’s as if I saw myself the way my family back on the farm might or how someone who never knew me religious might.  Was I making a fool of myself?  Would people ever finally accept me as a frum Jew?  As a biker, I’d found acceptance, but never really peace except when I was riding.  I had felt like I’d needed to edit parts of myself out, the parts that really felt Jewish and religious.  I couldn’t exactly compare an amazing ride to Torah and expect anyone to understand.  As a religious Jew, or at least someone who really wants to be a religious Jew, I’d always found peace but not acceptance.

Individually, I’d been accepted by my last community.  I’d been in the women’s knitting group and the Shabbos afternoon bananagrams game.  We’d been invited to Shabbos meals.  We were so close.  And yet, we’d be left out of other things because of our halakhic status, never knowing if or when we’d finally be accepted or even what we needed to do to progress on that path to acceptance.

Am I merely setting myself up for more heartache, to sit just outside looking in?  Even worse, will my children again spend year after year sitting on the outside looking in?

When we had thought last time around that all hope had been lost, we had returned to the waiting arms of the motorcycle community.  United by a common love of riding, there really isn’t much else that you need to do to qualify for membership.  If you can ride and enjoy it, you’re welcome.  However, there’s also a lack of depth there.  It’s freedom without the support of the structure that Torah provides.  It’s acceptance, but acceptance to a community of people who mostly feel that they can’t fit in anywhere else.  Riding becomes something to fill the emptiness or to distract from whatever you’re really longing for.

For me, that longing was still to be fully Jewish and no matter how fast or far I rode, even all the way into the wilds of Alaska, where I thought nothing would remind me of Judaism, I couldn’t escape it.  G-d’s creation surrounded me, reminding me.

That doubt, though, also remains.  What if I’m not good enough?  What if the Rabbis look at me and decide…I’m too far gone in this life, too damaged?  What makes me think they could think I’m worthy of being part of their tribe?

I know I’m a good rider.  I can pop the clutch on that bike and it will obey me and I can outride most men.  The real trick is that you can’t be afraid of getting hurt.  If you ride with fear, you’ll never relax and relaxing into the bike is the most important thing to do to be safe.  You have to trust yourself and the bike that it will do what you tell it to and let go of watching the pavement.  Rule #1 of riding a motorcycle…whatever you are focused on is exactly where the bike will go.  If you’re focused on the guard rail, an oncoming car, or even just the pavement you will run right into whatever you’re looking to avoid.

Today, G-d, I’m so afraid of getting hurt again or of those I love getting hurt again that it’s hard to ride down this path you’ve set for us.  But, just like I used to do when I was tired and sore from riding all day in the rain, I’m going to just hunker down here and keep my eyes ahead of me and trust that you’ll take us safely down the road.

Religiously Religious?

Sometimes, the strangest questions come to me at the oddest times.  It’s a gift really.  In this case, the thought popped into my head as I was preparing to do a sinus rinse.  If you’ve never done one, they’re not the most fun thing to do.  You essentially put saltwater up your nose and it comes back out.  Since I was diagnosed with my dust mite allergy, vocal chord dysfunction, and sleep apnea (which all apparently are linked), I have to do them twice a day, along with nasal allergy sprays, daily vacuuming to catch the dust mites, breathing exercises to retrain my vocal chords, and now a CPAP.  My life kind of revolves around these routines of making my world a place I can breathe, with Passover cleaning added in for extra fun and 40 hours of work a week…and kids…and a husband and dog in there somewhere.

But, at that moment, I was contemplating just the idea of these daily sinus rinses and how they’d become just part of the normal routine and the idea that this what people would refer to as something I do “religiously” and how odd it is that we most often use that figure of speech in English for things that aren’t really religious at all.

“He wears his seatbelt religiously.”
“She runs religiously.”

In English, this isn’t taken to mean that he worships his seatbelt or she worships her daily runs, but that it’s something that the person always does.  It’s a routine or ritual for them that is constant, even when life tries to interfere.  He wears his seatbelt even if he’s just driving to the corner store.  She goes for her run even when her life is chaotic.

And yet, how many English speakers actually practice their religionreligiously?

At least in modern times, I’d speculate that the number is very few.  Growing up, we did go to mass usually once a week, but if there was something big or we were on vacation, or life was chaotic…we’d skip it.  Holidays didn’t require much thought or preparation and were really more about family and food.  Each holiday was pretty much the same except different decorations or food.  The things that happened weren’t as different as say the difference between Rosh Hashanah versus Passover.  My husband’s Father and Stepmother practice their Judaism similarly.  I think they might go to a Reform Synagogue for High Holidays…sometimes…maybe.  Their religious observance, though, isn’t a daily routine.

And that’s probably the case for the majority of English speakers who use the term “religiously,” as much of a contradiction as that might be.  This isn’t to say there aren’t other things in their lives they do religiously, just that religion itself really isn’t one of them.

I remember the first time someone, after a conversation about why I dressed the way I did and Shabbat observance said, “Wow…you’re really religious!”  I found myself kind of flustered, and trying to explain how, no, really, I wasn’t.  They’d meant it in an admiring way, but I turned the term over and over in my head, trying to figure out why I didn’t feel it fit.  When I think of a “religious” person, I think more of someone like a Rabbi or Rebbetzin, someone who has given their entire life over to their faith and spends all day every day engaged in it.  I think of someone who knows more than me, does more than me, a real tzaddik!  (Righteous person.)  I think of ancient Sages and I think of mothers with kids swirling around them, stair steps in height who have children in the faith that G-d will provide for their family.  When I think of religious, I think of something lofty, unattainable for me.  Plus…I’m not even technically a member of the faith I practice yet!

As I pondered this, years ago, I did kind of turn around and look at my life with an outsider’s eyes.  Would most people change so much for their religion?  Would they give up dressing like everyone else for it?  Would they do things like cover their hair that make them stand out for it?  Would they sprinkle religious ritual throughout their day, limit what they could eat and where, and even limit what career they could have for it?  And…would they do all this religiously?  To me, the changes I’d made and observances I’d taken on seemed small in comparison to where I was trying to go and the people I looked up to, but maybe to an outsider’s eyes, I was already further up the path than I realized myself?

I still struggled with the word religious though.  Ok, so maybe I had a lot of religious practices that I did religiously, but to me, religious also implies a level of both knowledge and faith that I really feel fits more with those who are further along or else gifted with a stronger foundation.  I’m still learning and definitely was then and I do wrestle sometimes with faith.  Sometimes, I do my religious practices out of commitment, not joy or real feeling.  Often, I find that actually helps rekindle that joy and feeling.  Religious, to me, is the Chazan at our Synagogue back in Florida who would be moved to tears during High Holiday services as he begged G-d that he be worthy of bringing our prayers to Him.  Religious could also be the happy Na-Nachs dancing for hours or even a very hippy new-age person who never gets angry.  To be fair, I’ve met people I’d consider religious who weren’t all that observant in their faith, but had that calm sureness in it or fervor.

Me?  I’m human.  I do get frustrated and angry, giving in to the power of my red hair.  I question and falter and stumble and wrestle like Judah with angels and with devils.  I don’t just thank G-d and bless and pray, but I have ongoing discussions with G-d that sometimes are even arguments where I ask Him why things have to be the way they are, why babies have to suffer in wars a world away, why bad things happen and people do dumb things and why can’t he make it all better?  I’m often more like a child, stomping my foot and pouting and arguing my point to a parent that obviously knows so much better how things should be than I do.  There have even been times I’ve been more like a teenager, particularly in my younger years, where I rebelled and even denied He was there, refusing to speak to Him much like a teenager who storms into their room and slams the door.

That just doesn’t seem very religious to me.

And yet, if I were to adjust my expectation of what a religious person does to simply be that they acknowledge G-d’s existence and sovereignty, even my youthful rebellions had that at the heart of them.  You can’t really rebel against something if you truly don’t believe it exists and you can’t really rebel against anything that has no power over you.  It would be as absurd as someone having a revolution…against a government they don’t live under, like me in the US staging a revolution in my hometown…against the government of New Zealand.  No, at the heart of a rebellion is the acknowledgement that we’re angry at something that is very real and has very real power over us.  As I grew older and less fiery, my rebellion eased into arguing, but both come from the same desire…a desire for comfort from G-d.  I rebelled and I argued and I was angry because when I see things I don’t understand and are upsetting…I’m hurt and frightened and I want G-d to either fix it, explain it, or at least comfort me, but like a toddler, I still am learning the right way to go about asking for that and all too often anger is easier and feels stronger.

So, I still religiously wrestle with the question of whether or not I’m religious, even when I’m engaged in a sinus rinse.  I work imperfectly to squeeze in all the blessings, learning, and cleaning I need to do into the chaos of life and I’m thankful that I do have the breathing space in my life to even ponder such things in a world where so many have problems bigger than mine that consume their time and attention.

All things…are a gift.



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.