This past week, my challenge was to really do Shabbat, the day of rest and reflection, the day to turn off work and electronics and distractions, the most important Jewish holiday even though it happens every week — and the one that was early on my favorite and has now proven hardest.
I am dreading shutting off the faucet of news out of DC come tomorrow night, even as I know I need to do just that.
There’s a good way to think about Shabbat and generally Judaism v. Christianity: If Christians build Cathedrals to inspire awe (I think of the rounded gold-plated cupolas of my childhood), Jews build monuments in time. Shabbat is about carving out and adorning a day.
It drew me into Judaism with its simplicity and routine, and with how it answered questions I’d been asking as I got older — How do I make time to think about things beyond the daily obligations? How do I build a life away from my work? How do I calm my racing heart? It’s easier to tell my editors (and myself) that I need to log off for religion than because it seems sort of like a good idea.
Shabbat was going well at the start of this conversion two years ago. We’d go to shul most Friday nights. At the Kitchen in San Francisco, shul turns into a dinner party. In New York after Romemu, we’d have friends over after. Logging off all Saturday felt like a relief.
Then came Covid.
I’ve never stared at screens more in my life. I wake up and look at my phone to read the news. I walk a few feet to my desk, to the screen where the day’s energy goes. Dinner. Then, most nights, we watch a TV show or a movie. In bed before falling asleep, we read the news. I get frustrated with Bar for being on her phone when I’m talking, and then I do the same. Hours blend into each other. Days blend into each other. And this addiction — my twitchy eyes needing a feed — began to bleed into Shabbat. Without friends and shul, it was hard to make the day feel special. It certainly didn’t feel holy. Saturday rolled around, and I looked at my phone all the time.
And so it was that I came to Shabbat this past week with a new determination and the helpful shaming device of knowing I would need to write about it.
Going 25 hours without touching electronics during lockdown was, let’s say, humbling. Miserable at points. Depressing in its clarity about how atrophied my self control had become.
A note here: Shabbat is not supposed to be about deprivation. It’s a gift, a day to live as if in heaven, with no earthly worries. But in converting, the deprivation is what hits you first, and it’s what I still often still feel. No working (even working in your thoughts), no driving, no electronics, no conflict, no planning or plotting, no laundry even if it’s sitting right there in front of you. A day of carefully planned paradise. (There is a spectrum of observance for Shabbat as with everything else, so those for me are the rules I’m aspiring to follow, as a non-Orthodox converter. For an Orthodox Jew, there would also be rules against turning on lights and the stove etc.)
How my mind spun without its screens. I’m convinced our new shelter dog is kind of fat maybe, and I wanted to read about low fat dog food pros and cons. I could not, and I craved googling it (wet vs. dry dog food healthy weight small dog). We stayed at my uncle’s house since he was out of town over New Years Eve, and he has a bidet, which I thought was amazing (the seat is warm), and I desperately needed to read about these. I could not. We went for a walk with a friend and there was a minute when I was waiting for everyone outside a grocery store with nothing to do. What the hell was I supposed to do with my hands? When he came out, I made him tell me news headlines.
Slowly the day beat me into submission. We walked. I finished a paper book. I sous-chef-ed while Bar made chicken Milanese.
Havdalah is a wonderful moment. You wait until it’s dark and there are three stars in the sky. You light a big multi-wicked candle. And you smell spices to awaken the senses and restart the workday. Basil was our spice. Shabbat was over. I have trouble with the Havdalah songs still, so I make Bar sing them to me when I can’t find a bencher (a little book with all the Jewish prayers transliterated, super common to use it, not just for converts). I don’t know why but the prayer this week made me almost cry.
I’ve been having trouble with 2020 being over. I know it was a hard year and everyone wants to be like, ‘good riddance!’ but for me it feels like a year was stolen from me. I have so few at the very most. The year was a non-year. The adventures I’d planned did not happen. I can’t get excited about phone-call reporting. Early glimpses of 2021 look like a trash fire, and still I’m stuck indoors.
In converting, I had some resistance to the timing of Shabbat. Why does it have to be Friday night to Saturday night? I get the point of resting, so can’t I adjust it a bit for when works for my sked? When I talked about this with my rabbi, Noa Kushner, she explained that part of it is just submission to the tradition. It’s Friday nights because it’s Friday nights.
When I commit to Shabbat, yes I’m doing a tech detox a la Goop, and it is the best of the detoxes, but that’s only seeing it through the lens of a 32-year-old working woman with a phone problem, religion as self-help. Doing Shabbat is continuing a project started long before me, for reasons I only partly understand.
I spent 2020 furious about having to sit still, furious at my work and limitations the world was placing on me. Judaism teaches that I can spend 25 hours sitting in one place and make a freaking cathedral in my mind, with my family, that a period of carefully held and respected time can be made holy. I was trying to bend it when I needed to submit.
So if the country is taken over by militants in animal skins tomorrow night, there will be a solid few hours when I have no idea, and that’s just fine.
TORAH OF THE WEEK
It’ll have to be an excerpt from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. This is the book every Jewish 101 class makes its students read and for good reason. It is the little book that helped me understand Judaism better than anything or anyone else.
Shabbat comes with its own holiness; we enter not simply a day, but an atmosphere. My father cites the Zohar: the Sabbath is the name of God. We are within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. For my father, the question is how to perceive that holiness: not how much to observe, but how to observe. Strict adherence to the laws regulating Sabbath observance doesn’t suffice; the goal is creating the Sabbath as a foretaste of paradise. The Sabbath is a metaphor for paradise and a testimony to God’s presence; in our prayers, we anticipate a messianic era that will be a Sabbath, and each Shabbat prepares us for that experience: “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath … one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.” It was on the seventh day that God gave the world a soul, and “[the world’s] survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.” The task, he writes, becomes how to convert time into eternity, how to fill our time with spirit: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”
Same as last time: If you like this journey and want to contribute some tzedakah, please give to the Joint Distribution Commitee, the leading Jewish humanitarian organization.
QUESTION FOR READERS
What activities, experiences, books, and movies do you feel are key for a convert that might not be in a standard Jewish 101? What topics would you love to see explored here?