Archive for December 25th, 2011

The Dilemma

When we were looking to buy property in rural Maine, we were concerned about anti-Semitism.  We were pretty sure that people in small, homogeneous Maine hamlets had never met a Jew in their lives.  I had been told that people in Maine could be wary of people “from away” but everyone we met seemed welcoming and friendly.  Then again, they didn’t know we were Jewish.  So when we went to the Town Office to let the Town Clerk know that we had bought property and would need to record the Deed, we were somewhat apprehensive, to say the least.

Imagine my surprise when after presenting our request, the Town Clerk looked us up and down, put down her paperwork, stood up, and came over to embrace me.  “MAZEL TOV!” she cried.

My jaw dropped to my chest, I was so flabbergasted.

The Town Clerk told us she grew up in a rough Irish neighborhood in Boston, but many of her neighbors were Jewish and she always admired and loved them.  She was happy that we would be moving to the area.  I only hoped that the other villagers would share her sentiments.  I certainly planned on laying low in the meantime.

Meanwhile the Town Clerk “adopted” us.  She was extremely helpful in referring us to various workers and services that we required.  She told us of great hiking and biking spots, gave us the names of a good veterinarian and doctors, and the location of the best bargain shopping venues.  Besides her job as Town Clerk, she was also the Town Tax Collector.  There was nothing she didn’t know, personally and professionally, about each and every resident in the town.

We were happy to be on her good side, until the day I got this email:

“I am inviting you to the Town Holiday Party!  I really hope I can count on you to be there.  I am asking you as a special favor because I want you to come and tell the village children all about Chanuka.”

It seems that the Town Clerk had mastered the art of Jewish guilt.

The last thing I wanted to do was speak about Chanuka at a “holiday party.”  Who are we kidding – – it wasn’t a “holiday party,” it was a Christmas Party, where we simply don’t belong.  I don’t have any problems with a Christmas party – –  if it’s for Christians.  My fear is that the townspeople, who until now have celebrated Town “Christmas Parties”, would suddenly be faced with a new phenomena  under the guise of political correctness called a “Holiday Party.” And I would be held responsible for that change, a change I did not seek and did not want.

I know that gentiles are very resentful that Christmas has been taken away from them:  they must now wish everyone “Happy Holidays” lest  Jews, Muslims, atheists and the ACLU be offended.  Some public schools are no longer able to put on their annual Christmas pageant nor sing carols or have a decorated tree, all in the name of separation of religion and State.  Personally, I say let them have their holiday.  I don’t feel like Chanuka has to “compete” with Christmas nor do I think that the presence of Christmas (decorations, songs on the radio, and excessive gifting) threatens my Jewish identity.

Nor do I think my concerns were unwarranted vis a vis my little Town.  The next town over has a billboard sign that reads, “It’s okay to wish someone Merry Christmas!”  So the last thing I wanted to do was impinge Chanuka on the townspeople, who couldn’t care less about the significance of Jewish holidays, especially one that is smack in the middle of their own merry-making.

But our Town Clerk would not take “no” for an answer, so I decided to address my concerns to her in person.

Filled with trepidation, I came to her office to give my little speech.  I told her how much we appreciated her helpfulness and how nice it was to be welcomed in such a friendly manner.  But that we simply felt uncomfortable about attending the party and hoped that she would forgive us if we declined.

Our Town Clerk is a friendly, giving person, but trust me, you don’t want to be on her bad side.  That’s when her rough-and-tough upbringing comes to the fore.  She is a small, tomboyish woman with very short hair and a large presence.  She looks and acts tough, and can out-swear any sailor.  So imagine my surprise when, immediately following my little speech, she burst into tears.

“Let me tell you something,” she said between sniffles.  “I would never, never put you in a vulnerable position or in danger.  By your refusing, you are telling me that you don’t trust me!  That really hurts me!” and she continued to cry.

“You see, I came to this town 14 years ago, and I wanted to be sure people accepted me for who I am, a gay woman.  I suffered a lot, growing up as I did.  You know why I love Jews?  Wherever I’ve lived, it was always the Jews that treated me right and were nice to me, regardless of who I was or what I stood for.  I know a lot of the people here in town are set in their ways.  But I wanted to teach them, to open their eyes, to rid them of their prejudices.  Because I am a fighter.  And I won’t allow injustice – I simply won’t allow it, and I’m not going to allow small-mindedness in our Town.  So I want to expose people to different cultures and religions, and let them know that there is a wider world out there, even if it’s outside their comfort zone, and that they had better be accepting of anyone and everyone!  You can’t live in fear!  I want people in our Town to know who you are, and be ready to defend you because we are all together in this.  Do you understand what I am saying?  My G-d!  Please don’t be a wimp!”

What would you have done?

I admit, she intimidated me into coming to the party.  My husband spoke for 5 minutes about Chanuka while I passed out dreidels and Chanuka gelt to the children.  I still felt uncomfortable, and couldn’t wait to leave.  If our neighbors thought we were somehow “different” before, now it’s because we’re Jewish, instead of just being “from away.”  We’re marked.

The good news is that such a reality check forces us to examine our true role here as Jews.  It’s an incredible responsibility to be an “ohr l’goyim”  (a Light unto the Nations).  We have to be super conscious of our every move, that we always speak and act in a modest, friendly, polite and responsible manner, that we are exceptionally honest in business dealings, and that we do not live in an ostentatious or unseemly manner.  We have to make a Kiddush HaShem on an ongoing basis.

There was one guest at the party who was also new to the Town.  She and her husband moved here this past summer.  And, as it turns out, they are also Jewish!   So now our town has the distinction of being the fastest growing Jewish community in the entire United States:  we doubled our Jewish population in six months!  From two people to four (in a town of 234 souls).  Watch out . . . soon we’ll be taking over . . .

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Oy. And a mini-miracle.

It’s erev Shabbos. We are having a Shabbos guest, who should be arriving any minute.  He “found” us on shabbat.com, an international website where guests who want to come for Shabbos and hosts who want to have them, make a “shidduch.”  (If you haven’t checked out shabbat.com, I highly recommend it.)

Not that he could drive up our steep, icy driveway.  The previous night and that morning we had sleet and snow, making the driveway impossible to navigate unless one has 4WD.  It was truly treacherous, and our snowplow guy was nowhere to be seen.  We had left instructions earlier in the day for our guest to stop at the bottom of the driveway and honk several times.  Our guest drove his car a mile up the road to the Inn, where he parked, and my husband shuttled him back to our house and up the driveway in our SUV.

Aaron is a 22-year-old Satmar chasid from Williamsburg who is apprenticing to an Israeli auto mechanic in Boro Park in Brooklyn, NY.  He didn’t wish to divulge much about his personal life, but he loves to travel, and doesn’t much like the hustle and bustle and noise of Brooklyn.  He’s been all over the world, and certainly has an adventurous spirit.  When he travelled to Israel, he also made his way to Egypt and Jordan – twice.  (He wore a disguise so he wouldn’t look Jewish.  I guess an Arab kaffiyah is good for covering up peyos, but his heavy Yiddish accent would have fooled no one.)

He once spent a Shabbos with a shomer mitzvos rancher in North Dakota.  This fellow raised prize-winning goats who were renowned for the quality of their  milk and cheese.  He showed our guest many pictures of his kids on horseback, working the ranch, lassos in hand.  The rancher was a ger (convert to Judaism).  He home schooled his children, teaching them Torah.  When they got older, they wished to study in yeshivos in Israel.  Lacking tuition money, the rancher sold all his ranchland except for where his house stood, so his kids could have a yeshiva education.  Talk about mesiros nefesh (sacrifice)!

Aaron has been to the White Mountains on several occasions and loves anything to do with nature.  So when he saw us listed on shabbat.com under “Maine” he knew he had to check us out (he had hoped to bring two other bochrim, but they chickened out – I guess they couldn’t believe anyone could be truly shomer kashrus and shomer Shabbos in the middle of nowhere).  Fortunately we had just come back from our home town, so I had a healthy supply of chalav yisrael dairy products, although I did ask him to bring me a 1/2 gallon of chalav yisrael milk on his way up from New York.

Besides preparing for our Shabbos guest, I was busy cooking and baking for our upcoming Chanuka party this coming Sunday.  I made challah from 15 lbs. of flour – that’s dozens and dozens of rolls.

It was when the rolls were rising that the oven broke.

Our Premier-brand range has been the bane of my existence.  We bought this particular brand because, due to our limited solar panel-fed electricity supply,  it doesn’t use a “glow bar” to light the oven, which is a huge surge of electricity that we couldn’t spare.  Instead it uses an electronic ignition spark to light a pilot, which then lights the stove, which is a system that is “old fashioned” and hard to find today.  The stove, however, is a lemon.   It is under warranty, but each time something goes wrong, the store I bought it from – some 65 miles away – won’t warranty repairs, so they tell me to bring the stove back and then they give me a brand new one.  Sounds good, but I then have to pay the local gas company to install it and convert it for propane use, so it’s not the bargain it sounds like when you also figure in time, trouble and travel gas and other expenses. And each subsequent replacement stove has been a lemon, too.

Lately the oven has been working on some days, and other days, not.  A call to the manufacturer diagnosed the problem, and since it is under warranty, a new part was mailed to us.  That was several months ago, but then the stove suddenly started working again, so I thought it was foolish to call and pay a repairman to come and install the new part.

Alas, the oven decided to rebel on erev Shabbos, and it was erev Xmas to boot.  Which meant that getting a repairman would take a Chanuka miracle.

My husband said he’d try to replace the part himself.  Let me just say that this was really, really not a good idea.  He is not mechanically inclined.  Many past attempts at fixing things over the years have resulted in the additional expense of not only calling a repairman to fix the original problem, but also to undo the so-called fix attempt which further exacerbated the original problem. (Sorry, Honey, if I’ve embarrassed you publicly)

As he worked on the oven with a hex wrench, a pliers, and a drill, I was frantically calling repairmen across the state of Maine, as well as looking up manuals on the Web.   Of course most repairmen couldn’t come, or knew nothing about my particular brand of stove.  Finally I found someone about 100 miles away, who was actually familiar with my range.

He guided my husband by phone, but even with the new part installed, it wasn’t working properly. Now the stove turned on, but the oven ignited with a whoosh and flames shot high into the air.

While this was going on, I was frantically trying to bake my challah rolls.  I put a batch into my woodstove, but it was way too hot, and the bottoms burned black and the middles were still raw.  Our woodstove was designed as a home heater, not a cook stove.

The woodstove was too hot for the challah rolls! What's a balabusta to do? Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Oy! Charred on the bottom, raw in the middle.

Then I tried inverting a black cast iron frying pan along the bottom of the fire, and placing the rolls on a tray above the pan.  This would have worked but the stove was still too hot, so the bottoms of the challahs still burned, but at least the middles were baked through.  The clock was ticking – – Shabbos was in 90 minutes.

Next I tried inverting a cast iron frying pan onto the glowing coals, which provided a bit of distance from the intense heat

The bottoms were still burnt, but at least the middle baked through and they were definitely edible. Fortunately our oven was fixed by the time the final batches were ready to be baked

Meanwhile the repairman suggested we turn a certain valve clockwise with a wrench, and keep turning until the flames lowered.  Sure enough, that did the trick!  My husband fixed the stove!  The repairman was a saint!  (He spent 45 minutes guiding us on the phone without compensation, saying how sorry he felt that this happened to us at such an inopportune time and he “just couldn’t let (us) have a miserable Christmas.”)

Quickly I put the rest of the challahs and Shabbos food in the oven, and just as everything was done, it was time to light our menorahs.  I would venture to say it was the first time in the history of our 177-year-old Maine town that Chanuka candles have been lit!

My husband and our guest about to light their menorahs on the porch that faces the road