Shabbat Shalom (Hey!): A Real-Life Story

22 Feb

shabbat table

When Steve and I were first seeing each other, I helped him break Shabbat.

On cold December Fridays, while he was home on break from college, Steve and I invariably wanted to meet up. I’d make the three-mile drive down Commonwealth Avenue to Steve’s neighborhood, park about a block away from his parent’s house, and shut the car off.  There was once a time that I hadn’t turned off the car (I’d just sat there idling, listening to the radio), and a police car pulled up next to me to ask if everything was OK, so from then on, I sat in a cold parked car. (Have I mentioned that Newton is one of the safest cities in America?)

There, a block away, I’d wait for him. It occurs to me now as I write this that an entire essay could be written on waiting for Steve, but this blog post is not the place. I cannot tell you how it is that we got in touch to coordinate this meet-up (we didn’t have cell phones). Had we IMed on AOL when I was about to leave my house? Had we spoken on the phone?  The details have faded. As I waited, I might turn the car on, blast the heat for a few minutes, and then turn the car off again a few times over before Steve appeared and got in.

Steve’s family observes Shabbat and we organized this block-away meet-up so that Steve’s parents wouldn’t know he was riding in my car and going to the movies on a Friday night. He’d tell his parents he was walking to the home of a Jewish friend nearby. (I could also tell you about the string of lies I let my own parents believe so that I could hang out with Steve–a much older guy at the time–but those are stories for another day).

As with most things in life, there are ways around the rules if you want to find them.

Maybe Steve’s parents suspected all along that he was being dishonest and breaking Shabbat, or maybe Steve did in fact dupe them, but it should nevertheless come as something of a surprise when I say that two weeks ago, during the weekend snowstorm, Steve and I observed Shabbat.

We decided to do this for a few reasons. First, I’d never observed the Sabbath before. For as long as I can remember I’ve always done something on a Saturday. Most Americans have.  As a secular American child, Saturdays were full of Saturday-morning cartoons, sporting events, driving to see family or friends, running errands with my parents, shopping, chores, going to parties, and sometimes homework. Secondly, we’d just read about the Sabbath (from the Tanakh and various other required books) for our “Exploring Judaism” class and I was curious to try the Sabbath on for size. Like the classic “fake it till you make it” motto, most authoritative sources on the topic say that the best way to feel Jewish is to behave Jewishly over and over and over again. I may have spent the better part of four years faking Jewish, but I’d never, in fact, observed Shabbat.

What is Shabbat?  To begin with, it is important to know that unlike Christianity and secular society, Judaism operates on the lunar, and not the solar calendar. As such, a day does not begin in the morning and end when the sun goes down.  Rather, days are counted from sundown to sundown. Shabbat, which literally means “to cease” or “to rest,” occurs each week on the seventh day (Friday night to Saturday night).  That Judaism uses a lunar calendar is also the reason why the dates of Jewish holidays change each year.

Shabbat is a “sanctuary in time,” to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Six days a week we toil in the fields, fight traffic, slave away at the office, count minutes, make money, and spend money. On Shabbat, we are free. We are free from the work and worries of daily life.  We cease working and we rest. With the lighting of the Shabbat candles on Friday night, we bring in Shabbat and symbolically wall ourselves off from the rest of the week. For about 25 hours we live in an enjoyable and peaceful space suspended in time.

Some say that Shabbat is a time for us to imitate God—since God rested on the seventh day—or to memorialize and celebrate the works of God’s creation. Some also say that on Shabbat we remember the Jew’s freedom from Egypt and everyone’s entitlement to freedom. Contact me if you’d like to see my reading list on the topic of Shabbat.

***

As I’ve mentioned before, Steve grew up (roughly) modern-Orthodox Jewish. He and his family observed the Sabbath each week by going to services on Saturday mornings, followed by lunch at the home of a fellow congregant, and an afternoon of napping and reading at home.  While I hope Steve will write a guest blog post here one day about his own thoughts and experiences on being Jewish, I will share with you a few tidbits I have heard from him.

Above all, Steve remembers eating cupcakes (or New Paris Bakery eclairs) for breakfast on Saturdays as a kid. A special time in the week, Shabbat is ripe for indulging in sweets. On our Shabbat, we did not have cake for breakfast and I think that was a mistake (in Steve’s eyes).

One particularly memorable Shabbat for Steve took place during “Bar Mitzvah season.”  That is, sometime between the ages of 12 and 13 when any and every kid he knew was becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah on a given weekend. On this weekend, a childhood friend of Steve’s slept over.  (In order to attend a Bar Mitzvah service the following day, since the friend’s parents didn’t drive on Shabbat, the friend stayed at Steve’s house so that the two could walk to the synagogue together). As Steve describes it, the friend was a bit of a nogoodnik (by private Jewish school standards) and coerced Steve into turning on the TV to watch the X-Men animated series that Saturday morning. When Steve’s dad came upstairs to tell the boys they had better get ready for the Bar Mitzvah, he caught them–zombies in front of the tube. That he was not amused is an understatement.

***

Ever since moving to New York City, our Saturdays have been harried. Steve and I joke that we are hands-down the most popular couple in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. (Who are we kidding, we don’t have that many friends). In truth, it feels like someone is always inviting us to do something, or we’re always making plans ourselves to explore the city, try a restaurant or go to a concert.

I’ve learned that it’s a telltale sign you are new to a city when you spend every free moment living as though you are going back home in three days. That we are in fact home, has not fully hit us yet. It’s exhausting.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to say “yes” more.  This resolution was not meant to combat my feeling of being harried, but rather to embrace my new life in New York, outside of work.  Want to go shoe shopping in Midtown and grab lunch? Yes. Want to go to a freaky circus burlesque show and grab dinner on the Lower East Side? Yes. Can we meet up at a bar later and stay out until 4 am? Yes. Will you come to an obscure corner of Brooklyn for brunch? Yes.

Not this particular Friday night and Saturday.  This particular Friday night and Saturday we shut down completely. It was a time of “no.”

No iPhones. No texting. No email. No TV. No laptops. No Netflix. No internet. No iPads. No music. No NPR. No work. No talk of work. No thinking about work. No use of transportation other than our own two feet. No cleaning. No shopping. No cooking. No work.

We used electricity sparingly.  We ripped toilet paper. We took a few photos (only for the benefit of this blog).

***

Our required class reading on the topic of the Sabbath places the following activities on the “no” list: work at your job, drive your car, deal with money, write, clean your house, shop.

It’s a mitzvah, however, to participate in these activities: attend synagogue services, go for a walk, take a nap, make love with spouse, visit friends, spend time with family members.

Steve and I had originally planned to attend services at our synagogue on Friday evening and then walk home, but on account of the oncoming snowstorm, we pulled the “California transplants” card, and stayed home where it was warm. (Seriously, what’s with this winter we’re having?)

Fortunately, our synagogue live-streams their Shabbat services and we tuned in online (before turning off the computer for 25 hours). Hello, 21st century!

I sometimes affectionately refer to Steve (to his face) as my “house husband.” Steve is brilliant in many ways but he is also a productive procrastinator to the Nth degree. When I come home to a spotlessly clean kitchen, my first thought is not “wow, Steve loves me” (the dishes are one of my chores—Steve does the laundry and takes out the trash), but rather, “wow, I wonder what work Steve was trying to avoid today.” Then I tell him what a good “house husband” he is.

Of course this is all in jest, but since Steve works from home on Fridays, he did the mitzvah of preparing for Shabbat. Instead of grading and writing new lectures, he tidied our tiny apartment, bought two challahs, and prepped the food for dinner.

After I spoke to my mom on the phone (another mitzvah), Steve and I cooked and watched the Shabbat services. I did the candlelighting blessing and we recited kiddush and hamotzi (blessings over the wine and challah).

After we ate our meal (a whole roasted chicken with lemon and garlic, roasted red and yellow potatoes with rosemary, sautéed brussel sprouts and shallots, and long grain and wild rice) we talked, and soon our end-of-the-work-week-tiredness caught up to us.

Without TV, internet or an outing with friends to keep us up, we went to bed before 11 pm and woke up around 8:30 on Saturday without an alarm.

On Saturday, Steve read all of Gone Girl.

steve shabbat

I started two different books and read Runner’s World Magazine.

me reading

We made a lunch of leftovers from the fridge.

lunch shabbat

We napped.

Over the summer, our 2-year-old niece learned the “Shabbat Shalom, Hey!” song and taught it to me. Throughout the day, Steve and I alternately started singing the song to one another. I’d sing, “Shabbat Shalom!” and Steve would reply “Hey!” and so on and so forth. Maybe we were bored, or maybe we really got into the spirit of Shabbat.

Perhaps no one got into the spirit of Shabbat more than Myles the cat.

myles shabbat

Before observing Shabbat, I don’t think I ever fully realized how many hours of daylight we have in this world (even in the winter). The day seemed to last forever, in a good way. Since there was a snowstorm, the streets outside were unusually quiet, and so for a large part of the day I couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad might have happened (in our families, our city, the world) and we were willfully ignorant of it.

Then, just like that, Shabbat was over and we resumed our harried New York City existence. That Sunday we ran five miles in Central Park and then frantically ran errands and cleaned the apartment and did all the other things one normally tries to cram into a weekend.

The verdict? Shabbat was awesome. While I may have considered the fact that my apartment floors needed vacuuming more than I considered the existence of a God, it was an incredibly peaceful day. I wish I could observe Shabbat more often.

During the week following Shabbat, I consistently felt awake and alert at work in a way I haven’t in a long time. I was productive. I was efficient. I was on my game. Was it Shabbat and 25 hours of complete shutdown? I’m convinced that, yes, this had something to do with it.

This past weekend some friends who were visiting from out of town and other commitments made observing Shabbat in a classic sense impossible. The thing is, though, I missed it. I, who has never before been religious in my life, craved the feeling of Shabbat.

***

Days before our Shabbat, I told a colleague my plans. I explained to her that I was a little worried about how it was all going to go (weekends are a precious time.  Would we be bored and feel like we were wasting a perfectly good Saturday?) She was intrigued by my self-imposed challenge to observe Shabbat and after asking me what one was permitted and not permitted to do, she resolved to observed the Sabbath herself, only she did it a week after I did.

An Ethiopian woman in her early 30s, this colleague goes to church and even taught children’s Sunday school classes for a time. Still, she is the type of person who is open to new experiences and likes mini challenges (she fasted over Ramadan last year and she did a five-day juice cleanse a few months ago).

Back at work this week, we compared notes. She, too, had loved the experience of Shabbat. She went to bed early and got up early. She went for a three-and-a-half mile walk. She had tea with her neighbor, read three magazines, read the bible, and prayed.

She told me she’d mentioned to her mother beforehand that she was observing Shabbat and that her mom was slightly put-off.  “Are you converting?” her mother had exclaimed. My colleague told me she started to explain to her mother the benefits of shutting off technology and completely resting for one day, when she stopped herself. “Mom,” my colleague had said, “When was the last time you gave an entire day to God?” Her mom was silent for a time. “You’re right,” she said.

***

Whether you’re observing Shabbat (or not), for God (or not), an early Shabbat Shalom to all! How do you observe the Sabbath? How often?

{image credit: all photos were taken by Kate and Steve at Convert Confidential}

14 Responses to “Shabbat Shalom (Hey!): A Real-Life Story”

  1. Vanessa February 22, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Yes! This makes complete sense to me. The way things are normally, even sleeping is this super-aggressive thing, when you get in bed and know you need to fall asleep right NOW to get the required number of hours to be able to get up at the crack of dawn the next day and be productive. And all day at work and home, you’re constantly tapped into this sort of hive-mind of Facebook and email and TV and everything – there’s rarely time to just have your own thoughts without other people’s seeping in constantly. It must have been great to check out of all that, even if only for 25 hours.

    • Convert Confidential February 24, 2013 at 10:52 am #

      Vanessa, so true, so true. It’s nice to take a complete break from it all–whether for religious purposes or not. Clearly, I highly recommend it! Your last sentence made me think–not only is it nice to check out of the endless cycle of being in touch with everyone and everything, it’s nice to check into the “real stuff” in life, to sleep if/when you’re tired, to read for pleasure, to be with your thoughts. In a way it’s weird that that is seen now as being outside of the “real” world and one’s “real” life, if that makes sense.

      • Vanessa February 24, 2013 at 11:40 am #

        Yeah – like your “real” life is completely outside of yourself. Weird! I’m getting a lot out of your blog even as a non-religious person. It’s giving me a new perspective on the social functions a lot of these traditions serve, which is helping me to understand that there are a lot of different reasons people choose to be part of an organized religion, not just a straightforward belief in a particular god. And a lot of those social ties/reminders about what’s important are missing from the way many people live today, and religion is one way to maintain some of it. Interesting stuff.

  2. Sam February 24, 2013 at 3:49 am #

    “I wish I could observe Shabbat more often.”
    Aim for once a week.
    [a Catholic I worked with asked if the restrictions were penance. Interesting how taking a break, not working, spending time with family, etc. is seen as a punishment]

    • Convert Confidential February 24, 2013 at 10:43 am #

      Sam, thanks for your comment and for reading Convert Confidential. Your colleague’s question and assumptions about Shabbat are interesting. Shabbat is really such a treat, I feel! I will certainly aim to observe Shabbat more often. I suppose that once it’s a habit and becomes a mainstay in one’s life, there’s no question of carving out the time for it.

      • Sam February 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

        Like many things, it’s a matter of how you look at it. Some critics have said that Shabbat “is an endless series of “no’s.””
        Yes, you can look at the restrictions, at the “no’s,” and see a constricted, archaic, legalistic, system totally out of sync with modern life.
        You can also see a profound insight into the human condition and the need to build-in a DMZ (de-modernized zone) without work, agendas, pagers/blackberries/iphones, and rat-race.
        Bodies need rest, minds need rest, families need rest…and some warm challah and hot soup certainly help!

  3. Sue K March 1, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    Kate, I relish reading all of your posts. Love the honesty, self reflection and humor in each.
    I can relate to the enjoyment of sequestering oneself during Shabbat ; when I was a kid I loved Sundays because of the Ma “Blue Laws.” Stores were all closed. We read the paper and rested at home. Tho’ I didn’t believe in the mandatory nature if the blue laws restrictions we enjoyed the results. Ray and I also still try to set aside 1/2 day each weekend to relax and minimize contact with the world at large. It’s so great that you are experiencing the full effects if what Shabbat means and thanks for sharing all your impressions! We love being part of your journey.

    • Convert Confidential March 3, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

      Sue, thank you for kind and thoughtful comment. I’m so glad you and Ray are reading the blog and are finding something in it. It is interesting that the old MA “Blue Laws” sort of forced everyone into a day of rest. There is something to be said for what was lost in lifting those restrictions…though it’s nice to be able to buy beer on game-day…

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