Archive for November, 2010

Early Birds

The Shulchan Aruch begins with the words, “Strengthen yourself like a lion to arise in the morning to serve your Creator; he should wake up the dawn…” (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim a).

I don’t know about the “serve your Creator” part, but people in rural Maine certainly do “wake up the dawn.”

I was playing phone tag with our excavating contractor.  The last time, he left a message saying, “The best time to reach me is between 4 and 4:30.”  But when I called at that time, he didn’t answer.

After several days of this back-and-forth, we made contact.  When I chided him that I had called at the time he had specified and he wasn’t there, he said, “I meant between 4 and 4:30 A.M.!”

He wasn’t kidding.  People in Maine start their day very early.  Since most people here have jobs that keep them outdoors (excavators, loggers, builders, etc), they want to make the most of their day, especially since the days are so short in fall and winter months.  In the spring, the swarms of biting, stinging blackflies, deerflies, mosquitoes, and no-see-ums are ferocious, but less so in the early hours.  Finishing one’s workday by 3 p.m. also leaves plenty of time for fishing and hunting.  Most stores around here are open from 6 or 7 a.m. until 4 p.m.  The only stores in the larger towns besides supermarkets that are open until 9 pm are the outlet centers – but those are geared for tourists.

It’s extremely bad etiquette to call people in rural Maine after 8 p.m.  Because they rise so early, people are often in bed by 8:30 or 9 p.m.

It is worth staying up late at night, however. There are simply no words to convey the wonders of the heavens after dark.  Because we are so far from city lights, the darkness of Rosh Chodesh (new moon) is truly pitch black.  The Milky Way looms above us, and the constellations, planets, and satellites are vivid.  On many occasions I’ve seen shooting stars from my windows, without even having to step outdoors.  On those nights when there is a full moon, the light is so luminous one doesn’t need a flashlight when walking outdoors.  Moonshadows are distinct, and paths are bright.

This morning  the planet Venus shone brightly from my bedroom window.  For all you sleepyheads who might otherwise miss the breaking of dawn, I’ve posted these photos.

6:02 a.m. click on photo to see Venus in upper right corner

6:06 a.m. Trees barely visible at bottom of photo; Venus in upper right corner (click to enlarge)

6:12 a.m. (click to enlarge to see Venus, upper right corner)

6:17 am. (click to enlarge to see Venus)

6:26 a.m. Even thought it's getting light now, Venus still shines brightly (click to enlarge)

Advertisements

Albany Mountain

My spouse on the trail (click to enlarge)

After this week’s snowfall we realized our opportunities for  “normal” hiking will soon come to an end; the next time outdoors will probably involve snowshoes.  So we decided to make the most of it and went to Albany Mountain, located in Albany, Maine.

Getting there was almost as fun as the hike itself.  Besides slipping and sliding  on unplowed snowy forest roads, right before we got to the base of Albany Mountain  a huge Eastern Coyote suddenly jumped out from the forest directly in front of our vehicle,  narrowly avoiding a collision.

I grew up in California, and coyotes are not uncommon in the hills there.  But this looked nothing like those coyotes, which tend to have a scroungy, lean look.  The Eastern Coyote is twice the size of his western cousin, and looks much more wolf-like, with a huge head, very thick fur, a plush, bushy tail, and a solid, muscular body.  Many people in Maine blame the decrease in the deer population on Maine coyotes, and by all appearances, this coyote had certainly been eating well.

A typical cairn trail marker (click to enlarge)

Because of the snow covering the ground, it was challenging to locate the trail.  The usual yellow blazes painted onto the trees were faded or non-existent, but other hikers before us had left cairn markers to indicate the path.   A cairn is a pile of stacked rocks.  These were helpful only as long as they weren’t covered by snow.  It was certainly not difficult to retrace our steps if we walked the wrong way, since our footprints were visible in the snow, and there were no other human tracks to confuse us, since we were the only ones on the mountain that day.

An all-too-rare trail sign (click to enlarge)

We were dressed warmly, since temperatures were in the high 20s and low 30s, before windchill, and the distance of the trail  (4.6 miles roundtrip) and elevation (1,200′ climb  from the base) ensured we never felt the cold. My husband carried a topo GPS which not only identified the trail and surrounding area, but marked our path as we made our way.   You can click on this link to follow our journey:  AlbanyMtnTrail

One thing nice about hiking in snow is that you can see the presence of wildlife, even if you don’t see the actual animals themselves.  We were amazed by the 7″ size of the tracks of a snowshoe hare!

Track of a Snowshoe Hare: the round part at the top of the picture is the size of a balled fist (click to enlarge)

By the end of the hike I was feeling my age (sigh) but overall, it had been a great day!

View from atop Albany Mountain (click to enlarge)

Because of a Mezuzah . . .

I realize regular  readers of this blog may be tired of my repeating that we live in a remote area of the White Mountains, with no conveniences, few neighbors and no Jews nearby, but keep that fact in mind when you read what follows:

This was probably the most surreal Shabbos of my life!  What follows is a story of incredible Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence).

On Shabbos morning, right after davening and before lunch, my husband and I decided to take a short walk along the side of the road at the bottom of our driveway.  Snow was still on the ground, and everything was so quiet, clean and beautiful; the pond  had started to freeze over and the many tones of grey gave it an almost unearthly quality.

Less than five minutes into our walk, we saw a man approaching from the other direction, and we exchanged greetings.  He had a thick British accent and was clearly not a “local.”  As he introduced himself, he asked if we lived up the road.  When we pointed out the location of our house, he seemed very pleased.

“You see, I am staying at my father-in-law’s newly built cabin – the one that is adjacent to your property, where I came for Thanksgiving weekend with my wife and two friends.  We had never been there before, so as we arrived, we drove up your driveway by mistake.  We noticed a mezuzah on the door, and we thought that it was kind of  interesting that a Jew would live so far out in the middle of nowhere.  But then we saw yet another mezuzah  – – on the garage – – and we thought:  ‘these are our kind of people!’”

I was puzzled, because I know our neighbor is not Jewish.  But it turns out his daughter has undergone conversion, and married an English Jew. They live on the Upper West Side in New York, and brought their good friends – – a young married Israeli couple – to the father’s rustic cabin for what they hoped would be a relaxing holiday weekend in the Maine woods.

Even though I had planned our Shabbos meal for just my husband and myself, we quickly invited them for lunch.  Much to our delight, they tramped through the snowy woods from the hill next door and joined us.  The men arrived wearing kippot!  The Israeli couple lives in NY where the husband had just become a staff member of a hospital there.  His American parents  made aliyah before he was born.  He served 5 years in the Israeli army, then attended med school in Tel Aviv; more recently he completed a residency and fellowship in neurology in Massachusetts and New York.  The wife had come to Israel as a small girl from South Africa and her parents lived in the religious neighborhood of Har Nof, in Jerusalem.

The other couple was equally interesting.  The Englishman had been greatly influenced by Shlomo Carlebach’s music.  He attended a prestigious American university before going to Israel to study.  Back in the US he leads a national Jewish organization.  He met and married his wife (the non-Jewish neighbor’s daughter) while she was undergoing the conversion process.   She is an independent filmmaker, writer and actress.  Both couples are very involved in the vibrant, young Jewish community that is part of the Upper West Side.

It was a joyous meal, filled with singing, divrei Torah, excellent kosher wine, a few l’chaims, and lots of good-natured life stories.  In the middle of the meal a fierce snowstorm brewed, filling the skies with white.  Twenty minutes later the snowflakes glistened like jewels as the sun shone from a clear blue sky.

I only had a small amount of chicken to offer, but it turned out that 3 of the guests were vegetarians and my plentiful cholent happened to be parve this week, so even that turned out to be providential!  I had also made several types of salad, so no one walked away hungry.

The only question was who thought the whole affair more surreal:  our guests meeting up with an unlikely older Orthodox Jewish couple in the remote Maine woods for a Shabbos meal, or vice versa!

White Mountain Chanukah Supermarket Specials

Much to my surprise, my two local (local being relative; they are 40 minutes away) supermarkets’ flyers this week included a “Happy Chanukah” section.

 

Here’s what was available at Hannaford’s in ME:

Lieber’s Milk Chocolate Coins (2/$1)

Rokeach Chanukah Candles ($1.49)

22 oz. Kedem Concord Grape Juice ($2.99)

Frozen Empire Kosher Roasting Chicken ($1.99 lb)

 

And here’s what’s available at Shaws in NH:

Elite chocolate coins (4/$1)

Promised Land Chanukah Candles ($.59)

Kineret Frozen Mini or regular Potato Latkes (buy one get one free)

Golden Blintzes ($2.49)

Gedilla Candy Filled Dreidel ($.99)

25.4 oz Kedem Sparkling Juice (2/$5)

Streits Potato Pancake Mix ($.99)

Lipton Kosher Recipe Onion Soup & Dip Mix (2/$3)

Kedem Tea Biscuits (3/$1)

Osem Chocolate or Vanilla Wafers ($.79)

 

and best of all….

Osem Bisli! (2/$1)

 

. . . and that will be about it until Pesach!

White Friday!

(click to enlarge)

I feel positively un-American today, because I didn’t go shopping.

Dutifully I looked at the ads but I came to two conclusions:  there is nothing I want, and there is nothing I need.

I heard that the weather was supposed to be nasty on Friday (“wintry mix” translates into ice pellets, snow and rain) so I made sure to make the most out of Thanksgiving.  In the morning I took the dog for a nice hike along some old Forest Service and logging roads.  At one point I walked around a gate that was closed to vehicles (meaning ATVs and 4x4s, because these “roads” are pretty rough).  I soon saw why it was closed:  it hadn’t been maintained in years and was completely washed out.  Large boulders, sand and gravel made walking difficult, too.  It was a bit nippy (25 degrees) but the sky was clear so I kept walking, the elevation rising gradually.  After about an hour I came to an abandoned farm.  Mind you, there was no barn, no cabin, no farm implements, no fields.  It looked pretty much like the rest of the woods, thick with pine, balsam fir, and hardwood.  The only clue to its past were hundreds of feet of stone boundary walls, typical of Yankee farms from the time of the Revolutionary War.  I’m asssuming the original settlers were rich enough to own horses or oxen to help gather, lug and stack the large stones to make the walls, but it was quite an amazing feat under extraordinarily difficult conditions, far from the nearest neighbor.  We have a few of these stone walls on our own property, as well.

Later in the afternoon my spouse joined me for a short hike up Hawk Mountain in Waterford, ME.  The view at the top was spectacular.  We saw numerous lakes and ponds, and to the west, far out in the distance, was snow-covered Mt. Washington.  This was the first time all Fall that I saw other hikers and deer hunters – everywhere I’ve walked until now has been completely void of other people.  Everyone (including us) had at least one article of clothing that was bright neon orange as a precaution for hunting season.  The hunters were returning empty-handed, other than the rifles they carried.  The hikers were speaking either Norwegian or Swedish, which is not a surprise since there is a large immigrant population here from the 1800s from Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Germany, many of whom still speak their “mama loshen” amongst themselves, generations later.

Signs like this are famous throughout Maine.

(click to enlarge)

These Maine towns were named by the many immigrants who founded them, to remind them from whence they came.  I’m afraid the local versions are not quite as exotic looking as the cities for which they were named!

This morning we woke up to our first snowfall (a week ago there was a light dusting but it didn’t stick for more than an hour).   So while there won’t be a Black Friday for me, it will be a white one.

Our house in snowfall (click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

 

Our steep driveway: it's a loooong way down (click to enlarge)

 

Sweeping snow from the solar panels (click to enlarge)

An Orthodox, Jewish, Feminist Rave

Some of you will take offense at what I’m about to say, but I just gotta get this off my chest.  I also would like to add that I’m not a misandrist, and that I love and respect my husband more than any person I know.

Being in Maine, far away from any sort of Jewish community is, I suppose, pas nisht (Yiddish for unbecoming, improper).  And the truth is, it’s a conundrum for me because this lifestyle goes against everything that defines living one’s life as an Orthodox Jew:  being  a symbiotic part of a community to facilitate observance of mitzvos.  Being Orthodox in the United States means that one is limited to an urban lifestyle, because that is where the community is:  a Jewish education for one’s chiildren;  peers that share your values, customs, and observance; a synagogue where one can daven with a minyan and turn to a rabbi for guidance; and a supply of kosher food and other sundry items of Judaica necessary for daily living and ritual.  The fact that one doesn’t travel on Shabbos means that one is “forced” to live within walking distance to one’s shul; ergo have other Jews as one’s immediate neighbors.

But what if you believe that living in an urban environment is primordially unhealthy?

There were Jews living in isolated rural areas of Europe before WWII but even if they were religious, they were looked down upon by the mainstream Orthodox community  as ignorant country bumpkins, because by virtue of their isolation they could not practically be a part of a community nor be especially meticulous about their practices nor attain excellence in learning.  In recent times, the few rural areas in the US that Orthodox Jews called home either built themselves up into small towns or suburban sprawls (i.e. Lakewood or Monsey); or they’re hopelessly fighting to stay afloat; or they’ve since died out altogether.

I can rationalize and say that Rav Nachman of Breslev used to go into isolated areas for extended stretches of time, to find himself and to better commune with HaShem.  And it was an acceptable practice for yeshiva students and their rebbis and teachers who were followers of the Mussar movement (a rigorous course of self-improvement) to go into the woods alone and cry out to G-d.  But at the end of the day, they came home to their community, to their shuls, to their yeshivos.  They never thought of their temporary sojourn away from it all as anything but temporary.

One thing I could never understand is why some women get upset with or feel threatened by the blessing in morning prayers thanking HaShem for making us according to His will.  If HaShem is a Master Designer incapable of error, and women are singled out as having particular attention and care in HaShem’s design and creation, what’s there to be upset about?  Do men get the same flattering mention?  No!  They get nothing, so instead they’re stuck with thanking G-d for “not making me a woman.”   Ask a rabbi and he will tell you that this is because men are supposed to feel privileged that they have the opportunity to perform certain mitzvos that women are not required to perform, so men are happy they score some “extra credit.”  It sounds good, but I don’t think it’s the only reason.  I don’t have the wisdom of a rabbi but my simple take on it is that men have grandiose egos and they cannot handle feelings of insecurity.  So they say their bracha because it empowers them, while reminding  (chiding?) them that they have to submit to someone (HaShem) higher than themselves – they have to relinquish control so they don’t lose control – of themselves!

Kind of pitiful, isn’t it?

By not making women responsible for observing certain time-related mitzvos, HaShem is telling women that they have something else that is even more important to do with our time and energy!  So important,  that we are not held responsible for doing a mitzva that, if a man were to avoid it, he’d be held accountable!    And you can’t say it’s exclusively about raising children, because after one’s children are grown and gone, and women then have more time for performance of mitzvos without distraction, women are still not required to perform those “man only” mitzvos.  Understanding the male psyche and ego and the potential for depravity, HaShem creates positive “busy work” for men in the form of mitzvos, to keep with the Program, so that a man may elevate his own soul. A woman’s neshama (soul) is already on a higher plane; she doesn’t need this extra reinforcement.

So when I’m up here in Maine, and I’m not going to shul, I might be missing out on a powerful prayer experience of davening with a quorum, but I’m not sinning by not doing so.  A man is not so easily excused.  So if I feel any guilt about our time away, it’s that I’m aiding and abetting and even instigating my husband’s inability to fulfill certain mitzvos, precisely because living in a rural location, we are not part of Jewish community life.

That is not to say that we cannot keep Shabbos or keep kosher or learn Torah – we do.  We also have an opportunity to make a kiddush HaShem because in a place where many people have never met a Jew, and have a negative stereotype of what a Jew is made of, we can act with kindness, integrity, honesty, and pleasantness.  We can demonstrate a commitment to living an ethical, moral and religious life, and contribute intellectually and professionally in such a way that we will be an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, especially if we conduct ourselves with humility and without pretension.  We have more of an opportunity to do this here, surrounded by gentiles, than we do in our home town, surrounded by landsman.

That’s very nice, but it still doesn’t solve the practical problem of  why Jews can’t be rural if that’s where they are most fulfilled.  Which is why it gets difficult for me.  I love it here. I am so happy here.  I am growing here.  And despite a loving family and adorable grandchildren whom I miss, I think I could settle here long-term very happily if circumstances would allow.  Even if I were to live here permanently, I’m not kidding myself – I will always be an outsider and not a part of Maine culture.  I am living a strange existence, not really feeling at home in any one place – a wandering Jew, if you will – involved and part of two communities but for divurgent reasons, not really whole in either of them.

Perhaps I need the equivalent of a shtetl?  How can our experience in Maine be “pas nisht” if I’m growing in a positive way?  Is my happiness selfish, hedonistic, and narcissistic?  And what if I need more time here – maybe months or even years – to continue to grow?

Yesterday I received an email from an Orthodox rabbi from my home town.  He was less than enthusiastic about my adventure when I informed him of our plans (unlike another Orthodox rabbi in my home town who gave us his blessing and was truly happy for us) .  He asked me  how I was doing, and if “Maine is treating you well.”  Here is what I answered, with complete sincerity:

I absolutely love it up here in Maine – what’s there not to like?!  It’s so beautiful here.  HaShem’s glory is reflected in everything you see, and in every bit of pure air you breathe and in every drop of sparkling mountain water that you drink.  I am internalizing it with such kavana (with meaning, concentration, sense of direction, and intensity) and relishing each and every precious moment.  It has been a wonderful 2 months of healing – spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically.  I only hope that I can retain all that I have gained when I return to my home town. This life I am now living is such an amazing experience and privilege and so restorative.  I am so grateful for this opportunity!  While it’s true there are few Jews here, and most gentiles have never in their lives met a Jew, there are therefore many opportunities for making a kiddush HaShem (acting in a way that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism) and being an ohr l’goyim (light unto the nations) with one’s behavior – living consciously and conscientiously – concentrating on sever panim yafos (having a pleasant countenance), etc.

Hodu LaShem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo (Give thanks to HaShem because He is good; His kindness is everlasting)!”

RANSACKED!

We’ve been in Maine for 2 months now.  My husband left last night for our home town, because it’s his father’s yarzheit and he wanted to daven and say kaddish with a minyan.  After mincha/maariv, he came to our home, had dinner and went to bed, rising early to go to shul Monday morning.  He found that the heating system in our house was not working!  So he called a repairman, and told the fellow to call when he’s on his way, because meanwhile my husband was working from our son’s house, a mile away.

 

The burglar tore and threw out our bedroom curtain, which was originally sewn by my mother-in-law a'h (click to enlarge)

When my husband got to our house to meet the heating repairman, he had quite a surprise: sometime in the past 3 hours someone had broken in, ransacked and burglarized our house.

Point of entry: basement bedroom window. Broken glass is everywhere, inside and out. (click to enlarge)

They actually entered via our basement bedroom window, breaking the glass, and then they tore the window frame off the wall as well!

every drawer emptied (click to enlarge)

They proceeded to methodically go through every room in the house, emptying every single drawer, cabinet, cupboard and closet.  Every mattress was upended.

The wood cornice top of the antique bookcase, thrown to the floor (click to enlarge)

it feels really icky when someone paws through your underclothing (click to enlarge)

The burglar even took apart the top of our bookcase in the dining room.  It was a horrendous mess!

He stripped the sheets to look for loot (click to enlarge)

At this point the cleanup is so involved, we are not really sure what is missing – we won’t know until we can start putting things away.  Someone is coming late today to board up the window until a new one can be ordered and replaced.

Needless to say, this is quite traumatic.  We are VERY blessed that my husband wasn’t home because a confrontation could have been fatal.  Right now I am very unhappy about the prospect of returning to my home town. I am also very sorry that it is my husband who has to deal with the mess, the clean-up, and the trauma and violation of it all, alone. The plan was that I would remain in Maine until just before Chanuka.

The police found only gloved fingerprints, which are useless for tracing purposes, although they were able to see that it was the same glove so it was a one-man job.

A spare bedroom with mattress upended (click to enlarge)

 

 

May this be a giant kapora for us, and may the evil person who perpetrated this crime rot in hell!