Becoming Whole…with a Chanukah Cactus

So much change is happening, that it’s hard to keep you updated on it all.  We have an offer on our house and our flights to our new home.  We’re selling furniture and packing boxes, making difficult choices on what to bring and what to leave.  Our conversion timeline may be  moving up as well.  Suffice it to say…there’s a lot going on.

In the midst of this, though, something else began stirring, something very much connected to conversion, the move, where I came from…and where I am going.

If you’ve read along with my earlier posts, you already know that I grew up a midwestern farm girl.  My family, on both sides, have been farmers for generations, tracing back to England, Ireland, and Alsatia  (which is either France or Germany, depending on the time period).  The first parts of my family to immigrate to the US came when it was just a small colony, among the first settlers.  The last came during the potato famine in Ireland.  All, with very few exceptions, were farmers.  They came and settled in the midwest where the land was flat and the soil rich and there they continued to farm, generation after generation, with land that has been in my family for generations.

Into all this I was born and at first, I was very comfortable where I found myself planted.  I rode in tractors and combines and had coveralls that matched my father’s and I would follow him around as he did his work on the farm.  I was less interested in what my mother was doing, but I also helped out with cooking and housework.  My days were filled with fresh air and my hands in the warm soil.  It was only as I grew older that I began to feel as if I didn’t fit there.  I began to dream of making my own life in “the city,” of doing big things and making a mark and getting away from nosy neighbors and small town life.  As a teenager, that urge to escape only grew and as soon as I graduated high school…I was gone.  I went off to college and only came home for holidays and then, I moved to Florida and I didn’t come home for years at a time.  I’m ashamed to say I often went long periods without even calling or writing.

The strain only increased when I met Mr. Safek and began the process of conversion.

My family weren’t religious, but it was yet another way I was rejecting them, separating myself from them.  Finally, after an argument before our wedding, my mother threatened to disown me and we didn’t speak again for 6 long months, which happened to include our family moving to Alaska.

Alaska tends to attract people who want to run from their past.  It’s a place so remote that you can go there and feel a world away.  You can lose yourself in the mountains and forget.  I think, while a job offer was the catalyst for our move, a big part of it was this spirit of escape, too.  Our little family was wounded, both from estrangement from my own family and tension in Mr. Safek’s and also from the conversion process itself.  In Alaska, we found distance from the pain and a place to heal, but also more distance from family.

Oddly enough, I had to come to the arctic to begin to thaw my relationship with my family and my past.

All my life, there has been a tiny ember inside me that does connect to the land, to growing things and as much as I’ve tried to ignore it and stifle it, it’s always come out in small ways.  I’ve grown small gardens everywhere I’ve lived and I’ve found myself bringing home sad little plants from stores like skinny stray puppies to care for them.  Inevitably, I wind up calling my mother to ask her how to care for this plant or that and this has reconnected us over the years.  It was no different even when we moved here to Alaska.  I began finding ways to plant things even here where growing can be difficult.  Over the years we’ve lived here, I’ve also found myself understanding my family more and feeling more connected to them, partially through my Judaism itself.  They’re my parents and it’s a mitzvah to honor them and by having to learn how to honor them, I had to learn how to forgive and accept them, even where they are different from me or have made mistakes.

Judaism, the very thing that was the last straw in my relationship with them…became the very thing that would begin to heal that relationship.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best community for all our needs wound up being in the midwest, a day’s drive from my family’s farm.  It feels like coming full circle and healing.

This winter, by chance and on a day when I was very down, I came upon a store display of cacti.  They were all very sad looking, which makes sense because they were in a grocery store far from any warm desert and near a door that opened regularly to let in cold Alaskan winter winds.  It was also the darkest part of the year, the worst time for a lonely little desert plant to find itself in the arctic.  I looked at them and felt sympathy and decided to try to save one.  I chose a sad little aloe and bought him, tucking the plant into my jacket as I went out into the snow.  I named the aloe Timmy and Timmy sat on my desk next to my SAD light (Seasonal Affective Disorder…most Alaskans try to spend time in front of a full spectrum light in winter to help with the dark).  Eventually, I brought Timmy home in my jacket to a sunny spot in my kitchen.

And an idea began to itch at me, the kind that starts small, but becomes more and more insistent the more you try to ignore it.

In my family, there are 2 plants of particular significance.  Both are “Christmas” Cacti, that is a kind of cactus that is supposed to bloom in the middle of winter.  At this point in my life, I am not inclined to own or have anything that involves “Christmas,” but nonetheless, the thought that was itching in my mind was that I should ask my mother for a start of one of them.  Each is over 100 years old.  One was a wedding gift to my father’s great-grandparents and the other belonged to my mother’s great-grandmother.  I’d never paid them much attention, but I knew their age and how they’d been passed down in my family and now that I’d been able to take Timmy from near death to thriving, I felt like I might be up for the challenge of caring for a part of one of them, renaming it a Chanukah cactus.

Finally, yesterday, I summoned up enough courage to text my mother about it, although not enough courage to call.  I felt silly about how sheepish I felt about it, but I did, as if I was a teenager again, asking permission for some privilege I knew she wouldn’t think I was ready for.  I even promised to care for the start and said, “I think I might be responsible and mature enough now.”

My mother surprised me by saying, “You can have the whole darn thing!  Which one do you want?”

My first thought was, “Oh no…what if I kill one?  I’m not ready.  I’m no farmer!  I’d feel SO guilty!”

I called my mother and we talked about cactus care and I began to feel like this was right, this was meant to be.  I would be the keeper of at least one of the family heirloom plants.  It felt like accepting my place in my family line, at least in some way, in my own way.  I could tell it also really made my mother feel good.  With so much of what I’d grown up with left behind, this was something I was willing to carry on from them.

As I mulled over which one to choose and where I would keep it and all the other logistics it occurred to me that this is very much a part of my conversion process and likely a part of many other people’s as well.  As I heal the relationship with my family, it’s important to connect with them in what ways I can, the ways that don’t go against being an Orthodox Jew and that honor the family and culture that I was raised in.  My parents can’t pass on to me religious traditions or customs, but I wouldn’t be the person I am without what they did pass on to me and my unique upbringing influences my Judaism, as it should.

Hashem planted me on the farm for a reason, on purpose and if G-d willing, I am allowed to join the Jewish people, that also is for a reason.  I’m meant to bring something with me, some extra flavor that could only be brought by me that I wouldn’t have if I’d been born Jewish.  Turning my back entirely on the culture of my childhood would be a disservice to the culture I am trying to join.

There is something ultimately very healing about that idea, that being born a non-Jew was not a mistake that needs to be corrected, but rather an important part of my purpose here, a part of a plan I can’t quite see all the threads of.

One thing I have noticed, living in Alaska is that at some point, even those who come here looking for escape or to erase their past have to heal otherwise they never really find peace here.  Most, over time, build families and lives here, connecting with others and finding their place within a community, much as they might have anywhere else.  They spend their time in the wilderness healing and return to it whenever they need to relax and find release, but they also heal to the point that they aren’t hermits.  The few that don’t find themselves moving further and further out, disappearing into the woods and loneliness and sadness.

In some ways, Orthodox Jewish conversion isn’t all that different than moving to Alaska.  Both draw people who have a sense of adventure and are willing to put in hard work to reach their destination.  Both often attract people who feel like they need to get away from their past in some way and make a new start in a new world.  Both, though, I think, require a process of reconciliation and healing to come out the other side whole and healthy.  I have heard plenty of stories of converts who never really were able to integrate into their Jewish communities and I wonder if a part of that is because they never fully integrated who they were with who they wanted to become.  Unable to connect the non-Jewish person they were before with the Jew they became, they just kept wandering and eventually that led them from observance and into the wilderness.

And that’s a lonely and sad place indeed.


One thought on “Becoming Whole…with a Chanukah Cactus

  1. I liked this a lot. It makes me think a bit of what I feel being a ba’al teshuva, that my background (which was actually fairly traditional, not like some BTs’, but still unlike many FFBs’ in many ways) offers something to my religious life that would be lacking otherwise. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find people who I feel comfortable showing that side of my life to. This has been a particular problem with dating, finding someone who can accept the whole of my personality and not just the frum parts or just the geeky parts.

    I don’t have a cactus that impressively old, but when I was about eight years old, my Mum bought me a little cactus as a reward for patiently enduring a trip to the garden centre. It grew and lasted through various repottings for about twenty or twenty-five years until a couple of house moves finished it off.


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