It was my second time meeting with Chana with the hopes of renting her Jerusalem apartment. I was in Israel on a research grant and following an ulpan (intensive Hebrew immersion course) in Jerusalem, had moved to Tel Aviv to be closer to my university. After just a few weeks of living by the water, I felt pulled back to Jerusalem.
Chana went through a checklist of the idiosyncrasies of the apartment. It would be furnished and I would not need to, nor would I be permitted to, bring my own bed. The school across the street could be loud at lunchtime. There was no dishwasher, of course, but I was welcome to use the laundry machine provided. And then almost as an afterthought she added, “Shabbat. Of course you keep Shabbat.”
“Well,” I started. And that was the beginning of the end. “I may turn on the lights here and there.”
“No. No turning on and off the lights. You must keep Shabbat.”
“No. No. I cannot. My friend rented to someone like you and first she had a car accident. Then…” her voice trailed off. “No. I cannot take the risk.”
When she instructed me to say a prayer as I touched a cookie to my lips, I knew our meeting was over. I had lost the apartment. I was Jewish, of course. But that wasn’t enough.
I did end up moving to Jerusalem, but to an unfurnished apartment. Unburdened by the requirement to keep Shabbat and feeling a sense of belonging in my new community, I started to keep Shabbat, to the disdain of my brother, who got lost on the way from Ben Gurion airport since he arrived on a Saturday and I wouldn’t pick him up. We spent one absurd Shabbat afternoon, him in the bathroom, having mistakenly turned the switch on the outside of the door off before he entered, beseeching me to turn it back on. “Come on! This is ridiculous.” Unable to convince me with logic, he even tried to outdo me, suggesting, “If I touch the door and you do at the same time as you flip the switch, it’s as if you’re not even really using your own energy.”
The thing was, I knew it was absurd. At least a part of me did. I wasn’t sure if God really cared about such things. I struggled (very Jewishly) with teasing out my rationale for doing things.
Since moving from Israel back to California and starting a family, I’ve tried to find a balance. I don’t work on Shabbat. I don’t use the computer. I try not to use the phone. I rarely take the car. I find a weekly unplugged day to be refreshing. I’m not listening for my phone to buzz for messages. I’m not working on an endless to-do list. I don’t feel guilty if I do nothing all morning. In fact, “nothing better to do” has become my Shabbat motto.
The only problem is, being not religious enough for the Orthodox, and too observant for other Jewish families, we are usually doing nothing alone. With out-of-reach home prices in West Los Angeles, we bought a house two years ago in a Jewish neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. The first time my husband (who like most French Jews, will only go to Orthodox synagogue) met the neighbors, he had driven over from our old apartment to meet the cable guy on a Saturday. This was not a good start. The one friend we do have in the neighborhood won’t eat at our house because she has seen us take the car on Shabbat. I know that I can’t fault her. According to her worldview, the way we practice is significant.
At the Conservative synagogue where our older son goes to preschool, we are one of the few, if only, family who has weekly Shabbat lunches. And these days, we spend them mostly alone, surrounded by an Orthodox community celebrating Shabbat in a way we don’t. I know we could start to become more observant and may be welcomed in, but just like I couldn’t start keeping Shabbat “by the book” in Jerusalem to get an apartment, I can’t do it here to be accepted into the fold.
I’ve struggled with feeling a need to justify my way of doing things to those around me, rather than do what I think is right. And that process of self-determination may lead me to either eventually observe Shabbat more halachically, or to give up some strictures.
For now, Shabbat is about doing what is right for my family and me, whether or not I turn the lights on.