While I always expected to raise my two sons Jewish, it’s hard to know how children will take to certain traditions. After all, being Jewish is a part of my life that brings me great joy, but how can I guarantee that Judaism will have the same effect on a couple of young boys? Sometimes, though, their interests can surprise me.
I’m divorced, and every other weekend, the boys are with me. Their first question, when they find out that it’s our weekend together, is never, “Are we going to the zoo?” (that is usually the second question) or “Can we stay up late?”
No, the question is always, “Can we do havdalah?”
When I say yes, they jump up and down with glee.
They shout, “Yay! Hooray! Havdalah!” with huge smiles on their faces as they high-five each other.
No, I am not kidding.
And no, havdalah comes with no attendant cash bonus, Wii paraphernalia, or awesome desserts. Okay, fine, there are sometimes awesome desserts.
But the ceremony of havdalah (literally, separation or distinction in Hebrew), which is done at the end of Shabbat each week, seems to resonate with my children to an extent I didn’t expect.
The more I thought about it, though, the more it made sense. After all, these are kids who, thanks to my divorce, are well-acquainted with the concept of separation.
Every other Friday evening, I give them hugs on my front doorstep and send them off, down the path to their father’s car. I see the conflicting emotions on their faces as they say goodbye. But I am determined not to show them my own sadness when they leave.
I have put a lot on their small emotional plates by getting divorced when they were so young, and perhaps because of that, I feel that it’s incumbent upon me to give them the highly-portable gift of confidence. I want them to walk away from my door with independence and the security of knowing they will come back, that I will still be here, and that I will always be there for them.
As I close the door behind me and take in the sudden silence of the house, I close my eyes against a pinprick of sadness. At that moment, every other week, it hits me–I miss them already. I then reach into the repository of the same gift I try to give them. I breathe in the knowledge that they will come back to me, that they will not forget me, that we love each other even when we are not with one another.
We go through our separate weekends. I go out on dates with my husband, and out with friends. Often, I spend most of the weekend in New York. I notice in passing that I do not have to wipe anyone’s nose, or send anyone to their room. I laugh and try new wines in restaurants where there is nary a child in sight. Sometimes, I sleep in, and notice when I wake up absurdly late that no one has come in to pry my eyelids open at 5:38 a.m. (“Mommy, I know you said I can only wake you up when the clock says six-three-zero, but I think my clock is broken!”)
On Monday morning, our separate lives end–they come back, running up the front path and up the steps into my arms. We laugh and kiss each other. I envelop them in hugs that one day, far too soon, they may outgrow. I wonder how I manage to live without these kids for even a second. Then they run off to play. One starts with a high-pitched whine. The other one whacks his brother with a toy dragon. The rose-colored glasses fall off and shatter on the floor (leaving guess who to clean up the metaphorical mess?). We sit down and color together. Peace is restored.
In those moments of transition at my front door, worlds shift. My heart breaks, but grows back (I continue to maintain that that organ is a resilient little sucker). In the moment of transition at my kitchen table as we do the havdalah ceremony, worlds also shift, but in deliberately choreographed beauty.
Havdalah separates Shabbat from the rest of the week, but also builds a bridge between the two. If the boundaries between Shabbat and the rest of the week were blurred or nonexistent, that which is holy would be less so–after all, it would be indistinguishable from the ordinary. Separation, then, defines and redefines the relationship. So too with my small family: when we are apart and reunited, we rekindle the joy of being together. In a way that we might not have without the separation, we suddenly understand what we are missing.
We smell the spices in the small castle-shaped silver spice container. I see the boys’ expressions shift from surprise at the smell to recollection–yes, this is the smell I smelled last time we did this. They smile and touch the turrets of the castle spicebox with a gentleness I don’t usually get to see. I’ve read that the tradition of smelling spices is to remind us that there is an extra soul present at Shabbat. Suddenly, I sense it. I take in a deep breath of the sweetness of being together.
As we hold our hands up to the candle flame that bravely fights the darkness, we carve out a space of appreciation. It is intangible as the light, but just as present.
Shabbat inevitably folds over into the rest of the week, and the days on their carefully-mapped-out custodial calendar march on. As with all things, this moment, too, shall pass.
We hold up our hands to the flame, and run our hands over the coarse grain of the liminal moment. We sing. We smile. I savor the play of the candlelight over their beautiful faces.
No wonder they love it: every other week, havdalah gives us a moment of joy in which we can be together, even in separation. And in that moment, we can see that the act of separation, surprisingly, can connect us.