Like the Marranos whose descendants lit candles on Friday night without knowing why, it was our family tradition to leave the focused, pristine world of secular suburbia and return home to our cave, our secret dwelling, silently partaking in an ancient custom in the midst of symbolic silence as if we were the last Jews left on Earth.
In synchronized unison we would do the same thing every week; the candles, the greetings, the stillness. Falling onto couches and pillow cushions, we would all sigh in contentment, then haphazardly make our way to the table for the traditional defrosted minestrone soup, the doughy challah, the sparkling grape juice,the Tofutti Cuties. Sometimes we wore nicer clothes, but most often they were at best newly washed. The dinner was a meal for comfort and connection, and on that, we feasted.
It was a mitzvah we had taken on since I was eight. The two and half mile walk to shul. The turning off of electronics. Severing off from the rest of the world was delicious, nurturing me to satiation.
Hours were spent styling absurd outfits in the mirror, contemplating my next fashion move, or sifting through old photo books and papers and wondering about where I had come from and where I was going. I sensed the holiness of the day without trying. Stopping was enough.
School life and Shabbos life were two different realities; the characters didn’t cross paths. School friends never joined me at my Shabbos table or hung out with me during kiddush at shul. I knew no one around my age other than my siblings who kept Shabbat, and it never crossed my mind to seduce anyone into trying.
It was not that I was embarrassed or ashamed of my Shabbos observance. It was simply my underground life that was meant to be kept under wraps; my inner life that needed no one to share it. It was a disappearance from the pressures of society as I entered the inner womb of an internal world that hid from the other.
We were the others. Despite most of the town inhabitants being members of the Tribe, we walked to shul and they drove to soccer practice. We wore skirts and they skillfully maneuvered their car wheels, slowing down to glance at us plodding clumsily along. In sizzling summer temperatures or temperatures below zero, we were there, plodding.
Until the big city enveloped me and suddenly, Shabbos was an outside story that knew no inner heartbeat. It was loudly public and the walk to shul was short and without scenery.
I was no longer an anomaly and I couldn’t feel the contrast.
I couldn’t hear the way the world shifted anymore, the way everything blew quiet and different once the candles were lit. It was like I had no secret left; a new type of loneliness.
There was no central oasis, no unifying structure that we, the Sabbath observers, would collectively submerge in, celebrating merrily under no one’s watch, underground in our private shul.
Now in the city, surrounded but without a secret to share, there were no more whispered stories. No more adventures unbeknownst to anyone else. Shabbos was mundane and everyone was doing it and the stillness had left the big city world and seemed to refuse to ever return. It was so much … effort. Where was the satiation and the inner sanctuary?
I left my home one Shabbos city afternoon, threatened by the melancholy thoughts that swam through my brain, refusing to dissipate.
I needed to walk away from it all. To leave the schuna and to be lost amidst the crowd of the other, the nonJewish, where Shabbos ceased to be etched into the walls of reality of their world.
I sat near the subway on a bench, the closest I could to the apex of the other world, and watched the woman talking on her cell phone, observing her long coat, tall boots, runway-style clothing. I saw children holding hands with their mother as they exited the subway, people rushing forth and going places, while I sat in the center of their chaos; me, hair wrapped, skirt-long, phoneless, bagless, inward , watching.
I sat there for a long time until I could feel the silence enter me, the peace seep into all of my insides, and my spirits lift.
I had become, once again, the Other, and as I sat there surrounded by those rushing by me, I felt it once more enter my bones and fill my inner face with a beam of warm light.
Shabbos had returned at last, and had accepted me with open arms.
I had entered my secret glorious village once more.