Growing up, we were secular Jews. I briefly attended Hebrew day school, but I didn’t fit in there at all. It made me sad, and sick, and my parents transferred me to the local public elementary. But as the only Jewish child in my second grade class, I didn’t really fit in there either.
At home, my parents tried to solidify our Jewish identities. My sister and brothers and I knew our history, and we loved Jewish food. We observed major holidays. Yet Friday nights were for homework or friends or simply falling asleep on the couch. It never occurred to me that it could be different.
College was a revelation. Jewish students were suddenly everywhere, and the school even offered a kosher kitchen. I started fasting on Yom Kippur and kept Passover. I went to Hillel’s Shabbat services a few times, but I felt out of place because the rituals were so unfamiliar. The Modern Orthodox boy I dated briefly told me I wasn’t Jewish enough.
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Time passed, and I met the man who would become my husband. He loved to tell stories about NFTY and the lifelong friends he made there. I learned that Jewish camp was actually a thing. We debated the proper ratio of eggs to matzah in matzah brie. We got engaged, and on our registry was a set of crystal candlesticks and a Lenox challah plate. I displayed them in our home. Yet for seven years, they were merely decorative.
Then my daughters were born, and it hit me: We had created a new generation of American Jews. That responsibility sat heavily on me. I wanted to teach my girls about who they were, but wasn’t quite sure where to start. “Do what they’ll understand,” my mother advised, so my initial efforts were through music and food. Now, at almost 5 and 3, they are finally at ages where I thought they’d appreciate other kinds of lessons.
I mentioned to my husband that we needed to do more. Our daughters were growing fast, and their Jewish identities weren’t just going to form on their own. And after two months of living in our new house, it still didn’t feel like our home. I wanted to do something that would pull this all together. He agreed, and suggested that we start observing Shabbos. “We’ll light candles,” he promised. “We’ll sing. It will be fun.”
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I was excited and worried. Would this new family tradition make them too Jewish to blend into our diverse neighborhood? Or, since we’ll probably never make it to the pre-ripped toilet paper level of Shabbat observance, would someone someday tell them that they weren’t Jewish enough?
I pushed my concerns aside, and tried to make our first Shabbat fun. I planned a simple dinner that my daughters would (hopefully) eat: roast chicken, garden vegetables, and a challah. I made fruit ice pops for dessert as a special treat. I found purple tapers for my beautiful candlesticks–their favorite color.
I started cooking early, and my oldest stayed with me. In minutes, she coated herself, and most of the kitchen, in a thin layer of flour. “I didn’t want the dough to stick to me,” she said with a shrug. I laughed a little. We stood together as the stand-mixer whirled. I let her pour some ingredients in the bowl. Her dark eyes sparkled with the excitement of being given an adult responsibility. We set it aside to rise, and I rinsed her off in the shower.
My 2-year-old helped me punch the dough, and then we let it rise again. I prepped chicken and we picked tomatoes and cucumbers right off their vines in the yard. I braided and baked the bread and popped the chicken into the oven. Homey dinner smells filled the air.
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It was time to light the candles. My active daughters sat still for once, mesmerized by the flames. We taught them the blessing for bread and the one for wine. And my 4-year-old added a blessing she learned in school: “We love our bread. We love our butter. And most of all, we love each other.”
My husband took out his guitar and played songs he remembered from camp. We sang, and I know they liked that best. He was right; it was fun—so much fun that we’ve done it every Friday since. We’ve invited friends and family to come celebrate with us, and some nights we’re on our own. Each week this summer has been busy. It’s been a blur of day trips and swim classes and improvements on the house. But Shabbat forces us to slow down. It gives us all a chance to relax and enjoy each other.
We all go back to school in September, and life’s pace will speed up even more. Our school year Shabbats will be different. We will all be tired and will probably light candles over take-out. Challah will be store bought. But I’ll still make it when I can. Both girls like to help, and even though it’s messy, I prefer it that way. My daughters may cover themselves in buckets of flour, but I hope this tradition sticks.