By: Chaya Nesya Glogauer
On the 12th of Elul, my husband and I celebrated 33 years of marriage. What an incredible ride it’s been!
I am grateful for this opportunity to write about my perspective on life as a Canadian military spouse. At times, I have found it difficult, mostly because I am one of the only observant Jewish military spouses in the country. My virtual military wives group, which encompasses spouses in America, supported me while my husband was deployed in 2021 from August through December, including all the High Holidays. He left shortly after he had returned home after being away since 2018. He was first stationed in Winnipeg, then in Halifax while we, his family, remained here at home in Toronto. Two years ago, he was on a ship, the HMCS Winnipeg, which deployed to the Indo-Pacific South China Sea.
My husband’s deployment was life-changing for our family, mostly because we didn’t know what to expect. He created a WhatsApp group for family and friends called “In the Navy.” He is the first Jewish chaplain to be deployed in the Canadian Navy. He used the chat to educate and update our loved ones about what life is like for him.
My metamorphosis began back in 2020, when the pandemic hit and I called a friend to vent. I told her that all my daughter wanted for her 12th grade graduation was for her family to be together. I felt incredibly sad that we wouldn’t be able to do this for her. My friend empathized with me. Somehow, our conversation sparked an idea: No matter what, I would figure out what to do in every challenging situation we found ourselves in while my husband was away. As a telemarketer recently told me: “What you think about, you bring about!” I was determined to make the best of my situation, create memories, and make it FUN!
This idea helped us get through the High Holidays during my husband’s deployment two years ago. At the same time that my husband was away, my daughter’s best friend’s father went to Uman, a town in Ukraine which hosts the tomb of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. For him, it was a type of “spiritual deployment.” After hearing that their family wasn’t spending the holidays together either, we invited them to join us for Rosh Hashanah dinner. To make it even more comfortable for them, we incorporated their customs into the meal, uniting their family’s traditions with ours, making our Rosh Hashanah a new and invigorating experience. They happily contributed by bringing all the simanim (symbolic and traditional foods eaten during the Jewish New Year). It was amazing because as a Chabad family, we don’t typically use the same simanim. But we found their gummy fish heads (yes, the candy!), leeks, carrot muffins, date squares, and more an incredibly moving experience.
(Parenthetically, we also createdour own unique tradition: Every year, we bake a special caramel apple cake for Rosh Hashanah. In 2020, before my husband’s deployment, for various reasons, my husband and I found ourselves driving back from Halifax literally on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. When we arrived early in the morning, we were greeted by a wonderful scene: Our daughter had set the table, and our two youngest children had prepared all the food we would need for the holiday. I was so proud of them. The caramel apple cake became a standing joke because that year, the cake became our son’s “military mission.” Apparently, it had taken him 24 hours to make! He made a mistake with the caramel icing and it got too hard and crumbly. That “mistake” has now become a permanent part of the recipe as a heavenly crumble on top of the icing. We have learned from my husband’s vocation in the Armed Forces to see the silver lining in everything—and a crumb topping is certainly part of that.)
That Rosh Hashanah, while my husband was away, my children and I decided to go big—at home. My husband’s sister lives near us and has 16 kids. With a family that size, they don’t often get invited out for holiday meals. Shortly before the holiday started, we invited their family to join us for a meal. With some of their oldest children grown and out of the house, we ended up “only” hosting 11 people for lunch on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: my sister-in-law, brother in-law, and nine of their children. I wasn’t sure how we would manage to feed such a big crowd, yet we pulled it off beautifully, and even made it to shul in time for services. Everyone had plenty to eat, and we also had some leftovers. I felt it was a good test run of our culinary and organizational skills while my husband was away. Last year, during my husband’s first Rosh Hashanah home, we hosted their family again on Rosh Hashanah, and it has become a fun family tradition, thanks to my husband’s deployment.
Just before Yom Kippur two years ago, our holiday brightened even more when our married children, Esti, Chaim, and their precious son, Avromie, arrived to spend the rest of the holidays through Simchat Torah. That Yom Kippur was incredibly special for my children, knowing their father was somewhere out on the ocean. Reading about the biblical figure Jonah getting swallowed by a fish lent new meaning to our family when we read the haftorah portion!
I remember feeling that my Yom Kippur was very unique that year. I always go to shul on Yom Kippur. I find that it’s easier to fast when I am at shul and with people. On this special Tishrei, I offered to watch my grandson on Yom Kippur day. We sang, played, and created some of our best memories. My family and I really lived the feeling of bittersweet, as we all missed my husband desperately, but we couldn’t help but have fun, especially with little Avromie.
We sang a lot of songs, and I remembered snippets of songs I hadn’t sung for 15 or so years. Since it was just Avromie and me, there was no one to remind me which words I didn’t know! It was a lesson in being kind to myself when I knew the tune but could not remember the words, because with patience, finally all the words came back!
That Sukkot, for every blessing we said in the sukkah we thought about how my husband was by himself at sea, with no opportunity to say the traditional blessing over a meal in the sukkah. So we said as many blessings as we could on his behalf.
Shortly before the holiday started, Chaim, along with our son, Yossi, and Poppa, my husband’s father and a joker par excellence, went to purchase their lulav and etrog sets for Sukkot, and they soon returned home with beautiful sets of the Four Kinds. Meanwhile, my husband was still waiting for his lulav overseas. Unfortunately, the Canadian military was not able to make it happen for him, so we felt very fortunate when Rabbi Elie Estrin and Rabbi Mendy Katz of the Aleph Institute ordered a lulav and etrog for my husband. It had a long journey: First it went from Israel to the US, then to Japan, then to Sout Korea, and finally arrived on his ship during chol hamoed, in the middle of the holiday. But better late than never!
Our spiritual intentions when we recited the blessings over our lulav and etrog were extra powerful the first two days because we knew my husband didn’t have his lulav yet. I reminded my kids that the smell of the etrog is reminiscent of the smell of Gan Eden. Reciting that blessing and smelling the etrog comforted me when I really missed my husband.
On Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah at night, we did hakafot (symbolic rotations) around our dining room table and in the street. On Simchat Torah morning, we ventured to shul to continue the celebrations with our community. However, since we were living in Canada mid-pandemic, there were serious precautions still in place long after the US had eased up on their restrictions. After spending so much time away from people, I felt so much joy seeing Avromie on his uncle’s and father’s shoulders, dancing with the Torah in our shul parking lot on that sunny September morning.
The inner strength I found and character growth that deployment created within me sometimes feels bittersweet. Just as we search for G-dliness and spirituality in our experiences and lives, I longed for connection with my husband post-deployment, even when he was present. It was there, I know it was, but it felt different because both he and I are different. Just as I cannot completely understand what he went through during those months at sea, neither can he fully understand my experiences and the effect it had on me. It was quieter, more introspective; it was about nurturing healthy children during the pandemic while their beloved father was away. That was my role, and it was very clear to me. And the sheer nachat (joy) of them greeting their father upon his return was indescribable.
Still, post-deployment has been about as challenging as the deployment itself. During deployment, my husband had been ON constantly. Finally when he returned home, placed in a new posting for the first time in the same geographical location as our family, he had to adjust to a new and different rhythm. This adjustment took a long time because he was still in “ship mode,” and it wasn’t easy to switch gears until more recently.
I thank G-d he is home. Starting last year, we were together for the High Holidays and the rest of the year. I do not take that for granted. During the Hebrew month of Elul, the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, there is a Jewish custom to blow the shofar every day to prepare ourselves for the Jewish New Year, when we reanoint G-d as our king. For the first time in five years, I got to hear my husband blow shofar, not just once, but every day of the month. This was a big deal for me.
When thinking back on that time, I get teary-eyed because I haven’t really had the opportunity to fully articulate exactly what August to December 2021 was for me. Who could have known that my husband would be one of two Jews on a ship in the South China Sea during the high holidays of 5781? And at the height of Covid, no less.
I hope that some of my experiences inspire and strengthen others as they go through their own military journey, and navigate the unique challenges it entails. As the Baal Shem Tov says, “Learn from everyone and everything.” I urge my fellow military spouses to take each moment as it comes and find the light of G-d within it, especially the gratitude.
Wishing you all a k’tiva v’chatima tova, l’shana tova u’metuka! May you be in scribed and sealed for a happy and sweet new year!
Originally published in the Tishrei 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.