In the SoCal Reform Jewish household of my youth, we lit candles and drank wine and grape juice on Friday nights, but Shabbat was not much more than that. Not much changed in my relationship to Shabbat as I grew into my adulthood.
But things began to shift when our children entered public school. Perhaps it was having to explain to public school teacher after public school teacher why using Christmas-specific language during the winter holiday season was not going to work for our family. Or the time I had a conversation with the elementary school music teacher whether I was OK with our daughters singing Christmas songs at the “winter” concert.
“What kind of Christmas songs?”
“Ones with Santa?”
“I guess that would be all right.”
“Ones with Jesus?”
“That would definitely not be all right.”
Her way around my answer was to have another class sing the “Baby Jesus” song, not knowing that the boy holding the plastic baby doll was the adopted son of two Jewish lesbians, one of whom had to be physically restrained during the concert.
During this time, we began observing Shabbat every Friday night. It began with lighting the candles, saying the blessings, and making a special dessert. This was easy enough when the kids were little–before iPhones and iPads, Facetime and Instagram. Before our two parent full-time working house turned into a two parent non-stop working house. Before my mother moved to Colorado.
Don’t get me wrong. My mother moving to Colorado has been one of the true blessings of my life, as is sharing Shabbat with her. When it goes well, the feeling of three generations of women reciting the blessings together at our table brings me a sense of peace and fulfillment that is out of this world. The issue is with the “when” of when it all goes well.
How does the modern Jewish family, hungry for the ancient rituals that connect us all, create a sane Shabbat, after a week of work, after school activities, homework, and housework?
Here’s how our week normally goes: We wake up Monday morning between 5:30 and 6:15 a.m., and we don’t stop until 4:15 p.m. on Friday afternoons. We come home and clean like crazy people, or more likely, I clean like a crazy person while the kids stare at me like the crazy person I am, and my husband frantically shops trying to figure out what we will all agree to eat. By the time he gets back to the house, my head is usually ready to pop off my body, and the girls have retreated to their rooms. Not the most conducive Shabbat environment.
But the cholent really hit the fan two weeks ago.
I wish I was one of those people who didn’t care about the state of my house, but truth is, I find it hard to relax and unwind, or to sink into the non-busy state of Shabbat, without the house being relatively clean. I’m not talking a white glove test, just getting rid of the oversized dust bunnies that seem to take over the house during the week, not to mention unfolded laundry, and a bathroom counter that resembles Black Friday at Ulta–you get the picture. Add to this scenario that my mother comes from that generation of Jewish mothers who made housecleaning into an art, and in my mother’s case, a martial art. I have never, in all my years, ever seen any part of her home be anything but immaculate.
That fateful erev Shabbat was like so many others–defiance, anger, doors slamming. But in this case, when my husband arrived back home, I’d been pushed too far by three teenagers who simply refused to participate in the crazy-making pre-Shabbat rush. I ranted about finding my own apartment on my way out the door with the two dogs. I called my mom and told her that Shabbat was not happening in our house that night. She understood and comforted me.
I didn’t go look for another apartment, but ended up at a lake near the house where I let the dogs pull me around for a bit, until I sat down on a bench and took in an extraordinary early fall sunset. Pinks, purples, swirling clouds, geese and blue herons all glided along the silvery water.
After the sunset, I headed back home with the dogs. The girls were in their rooms. The two younger ones had fallen asleep after the exhaustion of the anger-fest. The older one had music blaring from beneath the door jamb. My husband was smartly avoiding me. I made myself an omelet, and headed into my room. As I munched on the omelet, I closed my eyes and tried to recreate in my mind the sunset I’d been fortunate enough to witness. As I pictured it, I understood that we needed, I needed, to re-imagine Shabbat. What our family, led by me, was doing, was anti-Shabbat.
The next Shabbat, I went to New Mexico to celebrate a friend’s book launch. I soaked in the Taos sunset and piñon smells, while my family did their own thing back in Colorado.
This past week, I called my mom and told her that we were taking a break from Friday night Shabbat dinners. Again, she understood.
And then something extraordinary happened. We eased into Shabbat in our own, quirky way. My husband and I sipped wine and cooked dinner, laughing and connecting, while making a meal worthy of a first placed win on “Chopped.” The kids had time to shift from school and friend time, to home time, including naps and baths. I lit the candles and recited the prayer with the closest feeling of divinity I’ve felt in a very long time. We sat down and actually enjoyed a meal together without the weekly tension that had become our Shabbat norm.
After dinner, we snuggled and watched “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix. Not shomer Shabbas, but Trank-Greene Shabbas, and that is what really matters.
Sometimes it really does takes the cholent hitting the fan to understand that finding one’s personal Shabbat is what God wants us to do. I want our children to love Shabbat, whether they are out with friends on a Friday night, or sitting around the table with us. I want my husband and I to experience a shared connection and deepening of our love on Shabbat together, as partners. I want my mother to experience our home, whenever she joins us, to be filled with the welcoming chaos and love that it is.
Most of all, I want to love Shabbat again. I want to let that spark I feel when I light the candles and circle my hands onto my face, grow and grow. That spark of the quiet space God holds for me all the time, but that opens up just a little bit more, for that brief period of time we call Shabbat.