I work full-time. Well, more than full-time really. I’m the primary wage earner in our house and, often, my weeks end in a blazing fury of activity so that I can make it out of my office in time to meet the school bus on Friday afternoons. The kids rollick in the door and, depending on the weather and their mood, I prepare Shabbat dinner to a soundtrack of slamming doors as they come in and out, giggling and playing or, on a bad week, waging sibling battles that descend into a vortex of screaming accusations.
Peaceful it is not.
I have this image of what Shabbat should be like. The children–clean, well dressed, happy, stand on either side as we light the candles. They sing the blessings, they hold their cups of grape juice and they wait to drink until Kiddush is over, they sing hamotzi without complaint, enjoying the way our voices blend together, uniting in this ritual that brings us together after a week of going in different directions.
Then there’s the reality. My son doesn’t want to wear a kippah. My daughter wants to wear one: his. He, of course, then decides that kippah-wearing is extremely important to his religious identity and therefore no other kippah will do. They fight over that particular kippah ignoring the 30 other kippot in the basket. When round one concludes (usually because my husband gives our daughter his kippah), we move on to fighting about who gets to light which candle and in what order. Then, as soon as the grape juice is poured, they grab a gulp or four (“sorry, mommy, I was really thirsty”). Hamotzi is interrupted by cries of “Mommy, she didn’t wash her hands and she’s touching the challah!” We finally get some bread into them and dinner can begin.
I’m no longer surprised when things unfold this way. The kids are as tired as I am, after all, and not as practiced at self-regulating through the end-of-week exhaustion. They wear their fatigue on their sleeves and the unspoken pressure to live up to my fantasy Shabbat probably doesn’t help matters. They get that I have expectations and they feel the weight of them. My teacher-self knows that my fantasy is unrealistic and that it probably only exists in the pages of books, a Jewish version of a Bobsey Twins–style1950s family.
Still, it persists. A part of me continues to long for a quiet Shabbat, one in which I can recapture the early days of my Jewish practice, before kids, when I could wave my hands over the candles, cover my eyes, and emerge refreshed.
So, I have a little secret. Sometimes, on weeks when I feel especially broken, when I need Shabbat more than usual, I light the candles alone. I don’t call the kids in from outside or up from the basement. I don’t tell my husband that dinner is ready. I put the candles in the holders, put on my own kippah (any darn one I want) and I light the candles by myself. I take those moments to reconnect with myself, with my faith, and with the ritual itself. When I uncover my eyes, I feel renewed and ready to take on whatever kind of grape juice life may throw at me next.