Chag Notebook: Rachael Okerlund

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Chag Notebook: Rachael Okerlund

Rachael is a desert-dwelling dog momma and a non-discriminatory lover of words; whether she’s writing poetry or crafting blogs for her clients with Odella Studio, she uses language as her vehicle of connection to the world around her.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in Prescott, a small town in Northern Arizona and left for ten years after high school with absolutely no intention of ever returning. And then last year I fell in love with my husband, which meant a move back, and as it turns out, a newly found love for Prescott, too. It’s funny how a little bit of life experience can flip something on its head.

I work as a writer focusing primarily on content marketing, as a partner in Odella Studio, where we help our clients develop and communicate their brand identity with content to match. In addition to work, I try to fit in a little bit of yoga, time in the woods with my husband and our dogs, and reading (currently: Here I am by Jonathan Safran Foer) into each day.

How do you connect to Judaism?
As the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, Judaism has always been an important part of my heritage, but coming from a small town with so few Jewish people (when we joined, our synagogue had somewhere around 30 members), it was hard growing up.

My family kept up traditions in our “own way,” attended synagogue on holidays, and I even had a Bat Mitzvah (which literally none of my friends had ever been to), but it was the Jewish summer camp I attended for 8 years of my childhood that is really where I found my own relationship with Judaism. There has been little as powerful in my life as singing prayers at the moon under a circle of trees with my favorite friends.

Now as an adult, though I don’t consider myself “religious,” I have a deep respect and appreciation for the tradition and the roots of the religion itself. So many core values resonate with me on a human level: a commitment to ethics for people, animals, AND the Earth (like seriously, how cool is it that we celebrate trees on Tu B’shvat?!), the concept that the world (and us) is a work in progress, and the continual search for truth.

My husband and I practice Shabbat together each week – the most important part for us is “unplugging.” He was not raised Jewish, the practice has invigorated in me a desire to share my culture with him. I’m happy to have a partner who supports our growth as a couple this way.

When I went on Taglit a few years ago, after visiting a Mikveh in Tsfat, I became fascinated with learning about the more mystical elements of Judaism, which informs my spiritual connection today.

Chag Notebook: Rachael Okerlund // jewishfoodhero.com

How do you prepare to host people for a holiday meal or celebration?
I look forward to when my husband and I have a kitchen and dining room big enough to host holiday meals and celebrations (right now we live in an old barn we are renovating!). I usually help my mom plan our menu a couple of days before, assigning her a few dishes to make, with me spearheading the rest.

My twin sister, Amelia, was diagnosed with MS last year and switched to a plant-based, gluten-free diet, so we try to include a variety of things that accommodate her needs and that we will all enjoy (which is actually not too difficult in our family because we eat quite healthily anyway). Amelia makes THE BEST gluten-free, plant-based desserts, so she is always in charge of that part.

How does the ideal holiday celebration look and feel to you?
Relaxed, beautiful, and special. I think it’s important to differentiate the holiday from every day by decorating with small touches like a pretty garland or fresh flowers, and using the china that belonged to my great-grandparents and survived the Holocaust (a true miracle!). I love inviting others, especially those who aren’t Jewish, in to our celebration, which I think helps create a relaxed vibe and signals to our guests and ourselves that what matters about these rituals is how they matter to each of us as individuals. To me, making meaning is very personal.

I love inviting others, especially those who aren’t Jewish, in to our celebration, which I think helps create a relaxed vibe and signals to our guests and ourselves that what matters about these rituals is how they matter to each of us as individuals. To me, making meaning is very personal.

Leading up to, during, and after the holidays, how do you reconnect with yourself?
I have a gratitude practice where every morning before I open my eyes, I name three things I am grateful for. This, in addition to frequent journaling and yoga, helps me stay connected to myself not just before, during, and after holidays, but all year long.

What is one of your most memorable holiday experiences?
I was studying yoga in Rishikesh, India in 2011. My friend from yoga school, Rachel, was the only other Jewish person I had met, so we decided to celebrate Shabbat at the local Chabad House. The meal they had prepared was beautiful and there were Jews there traveling from all over the world.

Dinner conversation was lovely and the Rabbi’s son was goofing off in a super cute way, making faces across from the table at me…I’d never been to a Chabad and didn’t realize how strictly Shabbat rules were followed, so TOTALLY inappropriately I pulled out my HUGE camera to snap a picture of the boy.

Before I knew it, there was an eruption in Hebrew coming from every corner of the table. Everyone was yelling and pointing at me when my friend whispered, “Rach, put your camera down. It’s not allowed.” I was mortified and so apologetic and it turned out not to matter that I didn’t get the picture I wanted because the image of that night is burned in my mind the way all of our most embarrassing moments are.

I’ve celebrated Shabbat at several Chabad Houses during travels since, and am always super aware of respecting the traditions.

What’s your absolute favorite holiday dish?
About a year and a half ago, I switched to a 20/80 plant to animal diet (all or nothing has never worked for me), but I have always been a cheese and dairy hound so when Shavuot comes around, I allow myself to indulge.

My mom used to make cheese blintzes with blueberries when I was a kid, and those are still a favorite of mine.

Do you have any nontraditional holiday rituals or habits?
I feel like in my family, we adapted almost all of the rituals to make them most meaningful to us. One of the funniest adaptations was my mom’s creation of “The Chanukah Moose,” which is like our Santa Claus.

Because the addition of gifts is relatively new to the holiday (and I think maybe created to help Jewish kids feel less left out when other kids get Christmas presents), my mom felt some need to create this arbitrary holiday character just for us.

What was something that your mother (or another influential figure) shared with you about the holidays that has stuck with you?
My Oma has always reinforced the idea that Jewish holidays are about remembering where we came from as a people. I think realizing that helps me feel especially connected to rituals and traditions.

What’s your number one tip or trick you’ve discovered that makes the holidays smoother, more positive and meaningful for you?
I think this goes back to the question about how I want my ideal holidays to look and feel; including others in our holidays gives us an opportunity to teach and share, which results in deeper reflection and a more meaningful experience for me.

Your turn:  What will you remember from Rachael’s interview?

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