Is Our Untraditional Shabbat Giving My Daughter Enough Judaism?

Friday afternoon. I think about Shabbat. But you don’t think about Shabbat. You do Shabbat. How? 

Start with sundown. Darkness falls, save for heaven’s stars. Doesn’t creation start with words: let there be light. Start with fire. We put white candles in silver candlesticks passed down from mother to daughter, shining yet durable reminders of the divine in daily life. We say a blessing. We light a candle. We put a hand on our daughter’s head. We say another blessing; we praise her; we bring in the future. From generation to generation, we say. V’dor la v’dor. We wash hands. We bless and drink wine as sour and sweet as life. We bless and taste the sweetness of challah, as happy as we can be, or at least mildly intoxicated by it all. We sing, of course. We savor a roasted chicken and a sweet potato and raisin tzimmes, and twenty-four hours of rest, prayer, family. For that’s what Shabbat is: a day of rest to celebrate the days of creation. Isn’t it? 

This is what really happens: It’s summer, and we walk up the hill to the local Farmer’s Market. I buy a braided sesame challah from a baker’s booth and corral a table between the little kids’ playground and the musicians playing in front of the Free Little Library. I pull Trader Joe’s lemonade and grape juice packs out of my backpack. I wait for a critical mass of families to arrive, all inter-married, all carrying chicken tikka masala or artichoke pesto pizza or vegan burritos, all fallen away from the spirit and rituals of our parents and grandparents and great- grandparents. Am I passing on a tradition? Or am I wrecking it beyond all recognition? 

We start at twilight or sometimes earlier, which is wrong, but we’ll only be together until the Farmer’s Market closes. There are no candles, for obvious reasons. I say the prayers, but we all speak praise for our children, or try to before they run off for the slides or the laurel trees meant for climbing; we stab straws through juice packs and sip; we break the challah and share it until there’s little left but crumbs for the waiting sparrows. The local high school band is playing “The Girl from Ipanema.” I look at Andy and Charlotte, both ten, whose parents are inter- married, as I am, but unlike me aren’t sending their child to Jewish summer camp, or twice weekly religious school, or laying the foundation for a bat or bar mitzvah (I can only hope), the Jewish coming of age ceremony that initiates a child into being a member of the community. Is this the only consistent, Jewish experience Andy and Charlotte have?

I don’t wonder long because six-year old Abby shows up wanting challah and a juice pack, as she does every week, and I tell Abby’s mother that Abby’s welcome (which she is), and there’s no proselytizing (which there isn’t) and does she want to see the prayers from Living a Jewish Life (which has pages dangling along the crease, but I don’t trust myself to remember the right words in the right order), which she doesn’t because Abby, challah clenched in her small fist, has raced off to the face painting booth, and her mother follows after her. 

I tell Andy and Charlotte’s Jewish fathers that I know this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. There should be fine food on a clean white tablecloth, children with good manners, songs sung in perfect harmony. “No,” they say in one voice, “This is better.”

What’s important, the object or the ritual? The ritual, or the intention behind the action taken? That’s easy: results matter, not hopes and dreams. But life is a long, mysterious time, and who am I to say what the real impact will be of this Shabbat without candles, without protocol, without the manners and songs of attentive children? Is it the action, or the emotion it evokes? If Andy and Charlotte and my daughter and even Abby forget this Shabbat and all the others like it except for one Shabbat they unexpectedly remember when they are adults with children of their own, well, is that enough? 

Knowing so little about Shabbat, I of course turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel, who writes in The Sabbath that “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time” and “…it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”

I say if Shabbat is a taste of ha o’lam, the eternity that we enter after our deaths, then could it be that the world to come is filled with music and organic marionberry ice cream on a warm June night, and children laughing, and adults talking, and Hmong immigrants arranging starburst lilies and red poppies and white carnations into bouquets wrapped in butcher block paper, and farm stands offering free range eggs and grass-fed beef, and Pink Lady and Braeburn apples, and glass jars filled with that sweet, sticky gift of honey from local bees foraging lavender, iris, rosemary, all the lovely flowers. 

Then it’s winter. The sky darkens; the rains fall; the Farmers’ Market closes until the next summer. Shabbat comes indoors. We light candles, nibble challah, sip wine; we praise our daughter and make love once she’s asleep. We don’t wash hands. We didn’t do it in my family when I was a child, so I don’t know to do it now. So much of Shabbat feels foreign and familiar, alien and intimately known. Why make it harder and do something I’ve never seen done and can’t call up in some dim memory?

What I do remember of those Trenton Avenue gatherings is my older sister and I silent as we stood around our kitchen table with its yellow and white Formica top. My mother stood stiff-backed, impatient for this old country thing my father did to end. I remember my father wrapped in a tallis too big for his stoop shoulders. His thin hands were not yet trembling from Parkinson’s disease.

When did we stop doing Shabbat? When he could no longer hold the wine glass without spilling it? When he could no longer hold the prayer book without dropping it? When spirit was no longer a respite from his stiffening body? When he didn’t have the strength to argue with my mother any longer about observance and ritual and being a Jew? I don’t remember challah, but surely the sweet bread of life was there. I don’t remember my mother lighting candles, but surely there was illumination and not just the flame of her anger. I don’t remember my father praising my mother as an eishet chayil, a woman of valor, nor of their giving a blessing to their daughters. Surely there was more than I remember. But all I have is what I’ve forgotten, a loss of history. 

And so, at my house now, my non-Jewish husband and our daughter beside me, I read transliterated prayers not trusting my grasp of Hebrew. I know I’m supposed to do some special female thing like have the candlelight glint in my nails, or in the darkness wave the candlelight toward me, or somehow step forward in a role that I am supposed to know, that of a proud Jewish woman. And the stillness, that abundant and fertile quiet that is Shabbat, I’m supposed to feel that as well. All I feel is over two thousand years of history slipping through my weak grasp. 

My husband is impatient to eat; my daughter is impatient to return to her iPad. I do Shabbat for the same reason I watched Star Trek: I want to believe there will be a future that’s worth living in, and that my descendants will live in that future even if I don’t. But it’s not just the future that calls to me. I light the Shabbat candles as best I can, and break open the soft, chewy challah, and sip the bittersweet wine, and read the short, simple version of prayers that have more depth than I’d first realized.

Deep under my skin I feel a Jewish soul stirring, or maybe Jewish RNA, or maybe some other unknowable certainty that tells me yes, this is what I should be doing, that tugs me to past and future both, that trusts there is something important that I must pass on to my daughter and her children and her grandchildren. If my daughter feels that same stirring, she’s yet to give any sign of it. So, it rests on me to give her some connection to this past and this future, but I can’t give her a yearning for either. I can give her rituals, and I can give her stories, and I can give her actions based on values, and I can hope that will be enough. But truth be told, I know little about being Jewish, at least in the day-to-day living of it. The rabbi at our Reform temple says that Shabbat is the most important thing you can do. I start here. I try to trust that in the doing of Shabbat will come the living of Shabbat. 

We have our rituals. We read from the family journal kept on the dining room table, its pages an archive of family accomplishments, notes of gratitude, recollections of good times. I remind my husband and daughter to write in it. Sometimes they do. I shut off my computer when twilight darkens to night. I won’t turn it back on until sundown Saturday night. (Says Heschel, “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath.”) 

Shabbat is a celebration of time, and Judaism is a religion expressed in family and community life. I want Shabbat to anchor me to that sacred, reflexive time, I want us to come together as a family in that time, as one small part of a community, but time is how we live it. The big bang and evolution are the indisputable mechanisms, but Shabbat returns every seven days of creation,awe, rest, creation, awe, and rest yet again. 

Rest? Be grateful and give thanks by resting in this unending creation, this grandeur of the world and beauty of life? Rest? It’s un-American. It’s not what a hard-working, self- actualized, flow-infused person does. It may be Shabbat, but it’s also the weekend. Sleeping in after the Friday night contra dance. Driving to playdates and sleepovers and gymnastic classes. Shopping at Costco and Trader Joe’s and Goodwill. Fitting in museum trips, and children’s art shows, and Parents Night Out. Rest? If only I could rest from this incessant worry of whether I am doing Shabbat right or wrong, that would be enough. Rest? 

Sometimes, it’s different. Sometimes my daughter, nearly ten, says the prayers and lights the candles. I know better than to trust this. She is a small, stubborn presence in our lives. Usually she hates doing Shabbat. Finally, I gave her the choice: do Shabbat with us or not, it’s up to you. Most Shabbats, she refuses to join in. One Shabbat, though, it was just the two of us. I put out the braided sesame challah and covered it with a cover she’d made years ago when enrolled in our temple’s kindergarten. She took out the tzedakah box. We put candles in the dough candlestick holders she’d also made in kindergarten and painted with yellow flowers and green leaves. We turn off the lights. I light one candle. She lights the other. 

There is darkness. In the darkness is a glow. In that glow is my daughter’s sweet, shining face. 

“I think I can read the Hebrew,” she says. 

She does. Better than I can. With more confidence. As if it’s becoming a native tongue. (I can only hope.) I read the English. I bless my child. I drink the hideous grape juice. We eat the challah that’s atop our everyday plates. She eats mac and cheese with peas. I eat brown rice and chicken with mushrooms. We talk of this and that, of Daddy, of school, of summer camps to come. Outside is wind, rain, cold. Inside is darkness around us, a full table before us, two candles that illuminate the night. This place, this moment, this space is quiet, yet humming. Past and present come together for a heartbeat’s time, or longer; a tiny moment in my small life, yet a flow of light from the candles pours into something enormous that began long before me and will continue long after. This moment of rest is where life gathers, pauses, waits, and then bursts in.