Posts Tagged ‘Shabbat’

Family traditions, my traditions?

December 7, 2012

What happens to family traditions when your family goes away?

Well, “family goes away” might be stating things a bit too strongly. But this is our first winter with our daughter away in college, and holidays feel different when there is no child in the house.

Even if for the past couple of years that “child” was a big, independent, less-than-optimally-communicative teenager.

Take Chanukah, which arrives this weekend with its usual single-candle blaze of glory. Normally we would make a Big Deal of the first night of Chanukah — festive dinner with relatives or friends, lots of presents, latkes, chocolate gelt, dreidels. Most years we would end up making latkes on two or three different evenings for different configurations of friends and guests. And we always made sure to buy at least eight gifts, and we had big gift-opening hoopla every night.

This year? I do not want to cook a single latke. I will be completely fine if I don’t eat a single latke. Okay, I’ll eat some when we get together with our chavurah in late December, but other than that…. meh.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I don’t want to open gifts every night either. I’d like to open gifts on the last night, when Daughter will be home for her winter vacation. But other than that, I don’t really care.

What I do want is to light the candles and say the blessings. Just a nice straightforward little candle-lighting at dinnertime with Sam. (Followed by watching some Jon Stewart re-runs?)

In one sense, this is completely reasonable. Chanukah is a minor holiday in Jewish tradition, which mushroomed out of its historic proportions in the past 50 years as American Jews tried to come up with a counterbalance to the glitter of Christmas. Lighting candles with a minimum of fuss is probably closer to the traditional Chanukah than what we’ve been doing in our household for the past 18 years.

But there are other times when the issue is murkier. Take Shabbat. When Daughter was home, we lit candles and said blessings on most Friday nights where we were all home together. This fall, when Sam and I have been home on a Friday, it’s felt slightly weird lighting candles with just the two of us.

Part of me felt, “Why are we going through the motions? It’s just the two of us.”

Which raised the question… were we just lighting candles to educate our child? or were we doing it for us also?

That question is more nuanced for me than it might be for some people because I was not raised with much Judaism at all. My family had a Passover seder and lit a menorah, but we never celebrated Shabbat or belonged to a synagogue. So the Jewish traditions I carry out are ones that I’ve consciously chosen as an adult, rather than ones I inhaled with my childhood air.

But back to that Shabbat moment of to-light-or-not-to-light….

I lit.

I skipped the white table cloth. But I lit the candles, even without Daughter.

And there are really two reasons for that. One is that as adults, we need to take care of ourselves — regardless of whether we have kids around or not. I don’t want to be someone who lives on TV Dinners because there are no children to cook for. I don’t want to be that old lady who lets the house go uncleaned and unrepaired because she’s the only one living there. We need to nourish ourselves as well as our children.

Shabbat is a kind of nourishment, like a home-cooked meal, an occasional massage,  a bouquet of flowers from the farmer’s market. And that brings me to the second reason — I do want to keep Shabbat as a part of my life. I care about it and believe in it. So I lit.

But clearly that’s not true for every Jewish tradition. Some are falling by the wayside.

Building a Sukkah? We did it for about ten years when Daughter was little. Now? Forget it!

Latkes? Can live without the oil, the mess and the calories.

Shabbat? Big Passover Seder? Chanukah candle-lighting? Those are keepers.

What about you? Any changes in your family rituals or traditions if you’ve had children leave home? And what does that say about your values and priorities? 

The Bar Mitzvah-Industrial Complex

February 13, 2011

I ushered at Shabbat  services this morning, where a 13-year-old boy was becoming a Bar Mitzvah.  This is one of the little routines at our temple — the family of an upcoming  Bar or Bat Mitzvah is responsible for ushering at the service of a Bar or Bat  preceding theirs.

There are good reasons for this. It takes one little task off the to-do list of the harried Bar Mitzvah family, and it helps foster a sense of community — a sense that the Shabbat morning service belongs to everyone, not just the Bar Mitzvah family.

But in reality, it often doesn’t.

Many times, a Shabbat service that includes a Bar Mitzvah feels like a private event. Friends and family of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah outnumber regular congregants. The sanctuary is filled with visitors who don’t know the songs and prayers, or with teens who sit in a pack and giggle and whisper. The Bar Mitzvah’s parents give speeches about their child that may be very moving, but that don’t have anything to do with Judaism. And as impressive as the d’vrei Torah of many 13-year-olds can be, they rarely match the insight of a sermon by a rabbi or other adult speaker.

Attending a Shabbat service when you don’t know the Bar Mitzvah family can feel like walking in on someone else’s wedding or baby shower.

And in a large congregation like ours — nearly 1,000 families — the chances are pretty good that on any given Saturday, you won’t know the Bar Mitzvah family.

“I feel like a third wheel when I go to a Bar Mitzvah service,” one longtime congregant told me at lunch.

As wonderful as it is, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a doubled-edge institution. On the one hand, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are a pillar of modern Judaism and synagogue life. They boost religious school enrollment and temple membership. They create goodwill and play a major role in shaping the next generation of committed Jews. They’re an invaluable coming-of-age experience for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah him or herself.

On the other hand, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies in many big  congregations have escalated to the point of dwarfing regular Shabbat services — becoming a kind of Bar Mitzvah-Industrial Complex.  (And I’m not even talking about the parties!)

How do you create Shabbat services that will speak to the needs of adult congregants while also honoring 13-year-olds in a manner that meets their family’s expectations?

This particular weekend, it happened that my congregation was holding two simultaneous Shabbat services. So when I finished ushering at the Bar Mitzvah service in our large sanctuary, I dashed around the building to an alternative lay-led service in our new, smaller chapel.

Temple Sinai holds these lay-led alternative services once a month. They’re filled with music — guitar, violin, drums, tambourines — and feel very participatory. Many attendees are “regulars,” everyone seems to know the prayers and melodies, and everyone also seems to know each other.

Today’s alternative minyan felt simultaneously more modern and more traditional than a classic Reform service. More modern: The guitars and folk melodies gave it a Jewish-renewal feeling. More traditional: There were more people wearing tallitot, and bowing or covering their eyes during prayer, than in one of our regular Shabbat services. Afterward, there was a potluck lunch,  a homey contrast to the catered luncheons put on by many Bar Mitzvah families.

So that’s one answer — different services for different needs. One service for the Bar Mitzvah family and friends, one for congregants who want something more intimate and communal.

But that’s a lot to organize. It feels like a bit of a jerry-rigged solution to me. Wouldn’t it be preferable to  integrate a Bar Mitzvah into a regular, adult service — so the 13-year-old chanting Torah would be  just one small part in a service that involved and spoke to the entire congregation?  But I’m not sure that’s an achievable or realistic goal.

What do you think? Any better ideas?

Vayakhel — part 2, on a sugar high

October 31, 2010

Several weeks ago, Rabbi Chester gave me a bulging manila folder with photocopied commentaries on Vayakhel by various Reform rabbis over the past few years. (I presume he has a similar folder for every other weekly Torah portion too…. I dare not imagine what his garage looks like.) 

This D'var Torah, powered by Whoppers

Reading through all of it gave me a sense of what other people have focused on when talking about Vayakhel. Now — powered by the sugar rush of many small bags of Halloween candy — I’ll run down some of the more interesting points:

Shabbat. Before Moses tells the Israelites to bring their personal treasures to build the mishkan (tabernacle), he tells them they must not work on Shabbat. A number of writers highlighted the significance of this – that observing the Sabbath is more important even than building God’s own abode. And: 

  • The Chatam Sofer’s observation that we may not profane the Sabbath for God, but we may do so to save a human life.
  • Abraham Heschel’s comment that “The Sabbath itself is a sanctuary which we build, a sanctuary in time.” 

What is work? The Torah forbids work on Shabbat while never explicitly defining work. But the rabbis who compiled the Mishnah identified 39 acts (plowing, sowing, weaving, writing, kindling fire etc.) that were prohibited on Shabbat. Why these 39 acts in particular? One explanation goes back to Vayakhel and says the 39 acts cover all the kinds of “work” involved in building the mishkan.  

Golden calf versus building the mishkan. In Vayakhel, the people of Israel generously bring their jewelry, mirrors, beautiful fabric and other treasures to build the mishkan. In the previous week’s Torah portion, they melted their jewelry and gold to make the golden calf.

So it’s not that material goods in themselves are bad; it’s what we do with them. “All the things we have – money, cars, homes, clothes, time and emotions – are the modern equivalent of the Israelites’ gold and silver, which we can use to build either idols or sanctuaries,” wrote Rabbi Elliott Kleinman. “How are we to decide which we will build?” 

Another commentator made a similar point about art, such as the craftsmanship that went into creating both the golden calf and the mishkan: “Each human being must first make an existential choice: By what values do we live?” wrote Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. “Art will express the choice we have made, but it cannot substitute for the choice itself.” 

Mishkan as creation, humans as creators. Building the mishkan is a mirror of God’s creation of the world – both God and the Israelites rested on the seventh day. We each share God’s responsibility for making a better world.

“The implication of Creation – that we have the power to be God’s partner in this world – is now made manifest in the Mishkan’s construction,” wrote Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz. “The lengthy description of each item implies that even the most insignificant part matters. The Mishkan is complete only when all those separate parts are united.” 

Transitional structure for a transitional people. The mishkan is halfway between a tent and a house – it has hanging fabric and pegs, but also heavy gold beams.

“The mishkan as a transitional structure mirrors the Israelites as a people in transition… nomads turning into a settled agrarian people,” said Rachel Adler, a professor at Hebrew Union College. “For post-exilic Jews,  the transportable mishkan represents a transportable Judaism. It reminds us that wherever we go, we carry with us the power to create sacred space…. Judaisms are not static. As with the mishkan, we are continually taking them apart and putting them back together.”

Giving. The Israelites bring so many treasures for the mishkan that Moses has to tell them to stop. Several rabbis made the natural comparison to temple building campaigns, and wished they had been so lucky.  

Moses initially instructed the Israelites to donate “kol n’div libo” – “each one according to his or her heart.” Some writers suggested that it was their hearts that were the actual gift, more than any specific piece of gold or jewelry.


So there you have it. That’s enough material for about a half dozen d’vrei Torah in one blog post. And those are just some recent writers who happened to be in Rabbi Chester’s manila folder! I’d like to track down what the historic commentators have said over the centuries, just to be thorough. No stone unturned. No drash unread. No child left behind. No metaphor unmolested….

Enough already! Would someone throw out the Halloween candy, please?

Shabbat, unplugged

March 19, 2010

A few weeks ago my dear hubby Sam wrote a guest post about how he tries to observe Shabbat — no email, no meetings, and no work-related  reading, but lots of biking, napping, and socializing.

This weekend a new national group is encouraging everyone — Jews and non-Jews — to celebrate Shabbat with a National Day of Unplugging.  The idea is to “slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world.”

Sabbath Manifesto, a project of a group called Reboot, has suggested that from sundown on Friday March 19 to sundown on Saturday March 20, we:

Artist Jessica Tully designed this cell phone "sleeping bag" to tuck away your electronics on Shabbat.

  1. Avoid technology. (Yep, including this blog!)
  2. Connect with loved ones.
  3. Nurture your health.
  4. Get outside
  5. Avoid commerce
  6. Light candles.
  7. Drink wine.
  8. Eat bread.
  9. Find silence.
  10. Give back.

Here’s a little insider’s tidbit: The person responsible for publicizing Sabbath Manifesto (including getting a write-up in the New York Times!) is my friend Tanya Schevitz, another emigrant from the land of the downsized Chronicle. This was her first big foray into the world of public relations. Way to go, Tanya! More proof that there is life after newspaper journalism.

Meanwhile — and totally independently, I believe — my synagogue is organizing a cool 25 Hours of Shabbat celebration this weekend.

Temple Sinai is asking members to get out of their work/shopping/household-chore routines, and offering a slew of Shabbat activities — from family nature walks and bike rides, to a challah baking lesson, to programs about Ladino music or the influence of Yiddish culture on Tin Pan Alley.  And of course a variety of Shabbat services and community meals! You can find more information about it here.

Which activities will we be doing? Ironically, none — although I love the idea.

We have an opportunity to use our new beach house — which we bought with two other families — every third week. And this is “our” weekend there.

So we’ll be at Stinson Beach — Sam biking for some 40 miles or so, me walking on the beach for a much shorter distance, and Becca (most likely, being a teenager)  sleeping late.

It sounds very unplugged, and very Shabbat.

Observing Shabbat: a guest blog

February 11, 2010

I am so, so delighted to introduce my first guest blogger!

Partly because having a guest blogger makes me feel like I am a Real Established Professional Blogger. (Although, hmm,  aren’t those words — “professional” and “blogger” — oxymoronic?)

But mostly because this is a fabulous blog post by my husband Sam Schuchat! Who is turning 50 in just about a week. Check out his post. And wish him a happy birthday. Just don’t expect him to respond to email birthday wishes on Shabbat.


I don’t work on Saturdays.

Okay, it would be more honest to say that I try not to work on Saturdays.  From sundown on Friday night until sundown Saturday I don’t do e-mail, participate in meetings, or  read anything that isn’t fun. I try very hard not to shop, although like any reasonably skilled Jew I am good at making fine distinctions.  For instance, shopping for dental floss is not appropriate on the Sabbath.  Sales at REI on the other hand clearly fall under the category of “recreation”. Generally speaking, I try not to do anything that in any way resembles what I do for a living, engaging instead in activities that are enjoyable and relaxing.  Napping is high on this list, as well as bicycling.

Birdwatching - a form of Shabbat non-work at which Sam (left) excels

I started down this road several years ago for no particular reason other than to see if I could do it. Maybe because I wasn’t raised an Orthodox Jew, it’s much harder than I thought. It’s not just because we live in a work obsessed culture, or  that we have the tools to work all the time, anywhere. It would certainly be easier to observe the Sabbath in an all-Jewish community.  Several years ago I happened to be on a kibbutz in the Negev on a Saturday.  Just for the heck of it, I went to the Saturday morning service in their chapel.  Afterwards, I was quite surprised to see that the lunch included an elaborate and complete display of hard liquors.  It’s not too hard to refrain from labor when you spend the morning in the synagogue and then have a few shots of whiskey at lunch!

Napping, another Shabbat activity at which Sam excels

Observing the Sabbath is way, way high up on the list of things Jews are supposed to do.  The Sabbath is considered the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar, even though it happens every week. (Maybe if we rebranded from “the Chosen People” to “the Folks Who Invented the Weekend” we’d have more converts?)  Jews don’t get married (or buried) on Shabbat; Ilana and I were married after sundown on a Saturday in October, and then only after the short Havdalah ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath was concluded. It is commandment number four out of ten, coming ahead of adultery, murder, and theft, and the seemingly simple commandment “you shall not do any work” (Ex 20:10) has spawned an enormous literature of commentary and custom dwelling on what, exactly, one is and is not allowed to do.

In orthodox neighborhoods in Israel and Brooklyn, for example, the elevators are programmed to run up and down all day, stopping at all the floors, so no one has to do the “work” of pushing the button and summoning it.  Likewise one can, and a non-Jewish friend of mine just did, buy a “Sabbath ready” refrigerator whose light stays on all day on Saturdays so opening the door doesn’t turn it on.

Generally speaking, “work” is considered to be anything that uses, creates, or transforms energy. So no cooking, driving, flying, lighting fires, and so on. Sex, on the other hand, is encouraged. “Marital relations, ” as it is delicately referred to in Jewish legal commentary, is a positive duty on the Sabbath.  It’s good to have something to do outside of the synagogue!

The longer I have persisted in trying to observe the Sabbath, the more I’ve realized the wisdom and utility of the practice, regardless of why we do it. It’s really about stopping and looking around at everything that is wonderful around us, and reconnecting with what we each, individually, are, rather than what we do. When you meet someone new, what do you ask sooner or later? “What do you do?” Are we only what we do for a living? Are we not more? Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

Although I am more likely to understand the creation of the world through science than through God,  the hummingbird and the redwood tree are no less miraculous and beautiful.   I can’t appreciate them, or my family, or my friends, or my community, or much else until I put down my tools, take a deep breath, and relax.

Give it a try. You don’t have to be Jewish, and it doesn’t have to be Saturday. Pick one day a week (furlough Friday for us state workers?) and don’t work, whatever that means for you. Spend the day with your beloved, take a hike, do some yoga, build a sand castle, go fishing. Do whatever it takes to take your mind away from your to-do list and towards a deeper appreciation of the world around you and your place in it.

If that doesn’t work, you can always go shopping. The REI midwinter sale starts this Friday!